I have been reading "The New Question Box" by Father John J. Dietzen, who has been answering questions with the Catholic News Service for many years. This book is a compilation of frequently asked questions in the 1990s. Not much has changed since then, and I found a few interesting questions and answers which I want to share with you.
The reason I choose to share this is because some of us Catholics like the "old Mass", but we choose to stop our preference at a particular point in history, rather than to go all the way back to how the Mass was celebrated before that point. So here is a brief history of the Mass and how it came to be what it is today.
The church is not a museum, but the living, breathing body of Christ, and it has changed much. Many of our beliefs and practices developed and changed in varying degrees over the past 2,000 years.
The same is true with the Mass. It has undergone hundreds of changes through the centuries. The form of the Mass most older Catholics grew up with was simply one of the many the church has experienced throughout its life.
Our present ritual is, therefore, only one in a long series of "new Masses" in the church's history, though it has many more similarities to the "old Mass" of the early Christians than any other format the Mass has enjoyed during the last 1,000 years.
During the first 15 centuries of the church's life, the Mass was not the same in all the churches. Especially in the first several centuries, the celebration of the Eucharist was just that - a celebration. Actions, words, music and whole atmosphere of the Mass were different according to who was there, the condition and circumstances of their lives, and so on.
For a variety of reasons, the Mass gradually ceased being an event that the people participated in as members of the Body of the Risen Christ. It became rather a sacred ceremony carried out by the priest that the rest of the people were simply required to watch reverently.
By the time of the Council of Trent in the 1500s, much of the early history of the Mass which we are aware of today had been completely lost. The bishops at that council, however, were faced with numerous attacks against the Mass and the Eucharist from leaders of the new Protestant Reformation. They understandably responded to these attacks by taking one form of the Mass - the form used in Rome at that time - and declaring it the only form of the Mass allowed in the Western Church. Every action an prayer was spelled out in minute detail. No options were offered. No variations were permitted.
Long before the Second Vatican Council, church leaders were aware that this kind of frozen liturgy was blocking the growth of real liturgical prayer and worship and that something had to be done to loosen things up. The purpose wasn't variety for variety's sake. It was to enable people of different ages and times and temperaments and circumstances to make the Mass a genuine, living worship-celebration of their Christian life.
Variations are now specifically allowed and suggested in the official instructions on the Mass. Numerous options for Scripture readings are offered. Several prayers or exhortations are accompanied with the notation that the priest should "use these, or similar words". Wide leeway is given in such things as music and actions. The Sign of Peace, for instance, is to be given "according to local custom".
The Mass will always be the same in its essentials - the renewal of the offering which Jesus made to the Father on Calvary, and the Communion of his body and blood as the sign and source of the one Body of Christ. In other words, it will always be a sacrifice, and a sacred meal.
Apart from these essentials, however, Eucharistic worship will depend on the culture, customs, language and temperaments of the people who offer it.
Certain historical circumstances have caused most of us to think of the Mass as unchanging and "universal" in the wrong sense. Enormous and irreparable damage has been done to the cause of the church because of small-mindedness and short-sightedness in this matter. A few hundred years ago, for example, an imaginative missionary effort that might have brought all of China into Christianity collapsed because officials in Rome insisted on such things as that all Masses be in Latin, that priests must wear Western-style dress and vestments, and so on.
This attitude, long in disrepute, was officially put down by Pope Pius XII. When the church attempts to call a people to a better way of life under the inspiration of the Christian religion, he said in one of his encyclicals, "she does not act like one who recklessly cuts down and uproots a thriving forest. She grafts good stock upon the wood so that it may bear even better fruit." The policy of using anything in local cultures, even religious customs, that can conceivably be meshed with Christian beliefs is now well established.
When you are present for a Mass that is different than you're used to, why not relax, try to get into the spirit of it and share in it as well as you can? A little giving in, and trying to share what others are feeling could be a real act of charity towards those around you as well as to yourself.
- compiled from "The New Question Box - Catholic Life for the Nineties" by John J. Dietzen, Guildhall Publishers