Universalis

A brief history of the Mass

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

6 comments:

ChrisYeo said...

Kudos! Thank you for sharing this Daniel. I fully agree and it should give a new perspective on the Youth Mass and other Masses

Norman said...

Just some quick random comments. From the article I have this to say,

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.

This is inaccurate. What Trent did was to say that everyone must not be prevented from saying the Roman Rite, but other Rites were allowed to continue. That is why we still have the Ambrosian Rite in Milan, we had the Dominican Rite (recently superceded) and so on.

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.

It wasn't "Frozen Liturgy", but a mishandling of the Liturgy. Instead of having sung Masses, most Masses were recited, and there were priests who competed to see who could say Mass the fastest. In fact, if you've been to the old Mass licitly celebrated today, you can make the responses, hear what is going on, and sing along too.

Apart from these essentials, however, Eucharistic worship will depend on the culture, customs, language and temperaments of the people who offer it.

This does not negate the need to make the Mass look/sound/feel like a sacred event.

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.

I am aware that the old Mass was allowed to be said in various languages, like Slavonic, Hebrew ... for reasons of the need to adapt. So the Church did later realise the need to be flexible.

And from Daniel's comments,

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.

If the reason is "I like it because it is old" then I would reject it straightaway. For example, communion in the hand is a very old practice but communion on the tongue has its intrinsic merits. And so the old Mass has its own merits too, and for this reason many people like the old Mass. Including our Pope, who said that "A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest posession is strictly forbidden and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent." (from Salt of the Earth).

After all, with regards to all the liturgical rites of the church, even those celebrated with Latin and chant, or the Eastern catholic ones, surely we can say this too:

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?

Daniel said...

I cannot comment on whether Norman or Father John J. Dietzen is more accurate with regard to the facts.

All I know is that he specialized in answering questions that dealt with the then still "new" liturgy that had evolved since Vatican II.

If you're interested in finding out more about what he writes, you can still find him answering questions at Catholic News Service. Here you will find a page containing 400+ questions that he's answered:

http://plweb.catholicnews.com/plweb-cgi/fastweb?TemplateName=prehit.tmpl&view=Columns&dbname=Columns&query=%27Question%20Corner%27%3Aslugline&query_rule=%28%24query%29&operator=AND&numresults=25&sorting=none

It is an excellent source of objective information for those who don't have the time to research for answers to questions on the Catholic faith.

There is too a danger of reading church documents on our own, because we tend to pick out what we want to read, to pick out what supports our own viewpoint. I too am guilty of this as well. Hence it is always important to find an objective and well-informed source.

As for my comments, I see nothing constructive to add. It was merely my reason for sharing the content in the above post.

Anonymous said...

Just some very preliminary comments: There are some (in fact very few) valid point that are found in this article.

It is Quo Primum (1570) that preserved all of the Rites that had existed for at least 200 years previous to it. In terms of full-fledged Liturgical Rites there were the Roman, Ambrosian, Mozarabic and Bragan Rites. In terms of variations of the Roman Rites, there were the Carmelite, Dominican, Norbertine, Benedictine, Servite and Carthusian. All these were protected and flourished. The option was to use a different Missal not just to find options within a single Missal. There were variations to the gestures, variations to the Ordinary and variation to the Calendar. That the main Roman Missal is the only one allowed is a very real ignorance of history and a rather dishonest point to make.

Different Missals were allowed to exist and allowed to be used, and the Mass was celebrated in different forms. Following Missale Romanum (1969) only 1 Missal was allowed.

The Rites listed above all underwent gradual development, the Novus Ordo that we have today did not.

Was the liturgy frozen in time? Sacred Music flourished. So many Masses were composed by the great composers like Beethoven, Hayden and Mozart. For the same liturgical text, a huge variety of tunes were composed. Contemporary music used in the Church pales in comparison. Incremental additions were also made to the Missal.

And well the Mass is not just an “offering” it is the Holy Sacrifice that is pleasing to God the Father in reparation for our Sin.

At the end of it all it is not just about a preference of a particular point in history. Rather, it is the desire to have the Catholic Faith fully expressed in all its splendour. The Church is 2,000 years old not 40 years old. In terms of liturgy the idea of “out with the old in with the new” is totally alien to the Church Fathers. As St Paul writes in his Epistle to the Thessalonians “traditions which you have learned”.

The Mass familiar to St John Bosco, St Alphonsus Ligouri, St Faustina, St Maximillian Kolbe, St John Baptist De La Salle, St France de Sales, Pare Pio, St Jose Maria Escriva, St Therese of Lisieux, St Teresa of Avila, St Vincent de Paul, St Teresa Benedicta of he Cross and St Jean Vianney is now alien to us. The Mass that sustained the WW1 and WW2 soldiers is unfamiliar to us.

This is one source that I personally do not find ‘objective and well-informed’. Fr John Zuhlsdorf on WDTPRS is a far better source on Liturgy as is Msgr Peter Elliot and Msgr Klaus Gamber. Even better would be the writings of then Joseph Ratzinger.

Daniel said...

Hi Demerzel and Norman,

You both share with us interesting information about the history of the Mass and the mistakes in my post from John J. Dietzen.

Given your knowledge and interest in the Mass, how about the both of you work together, along with whoever else is interested, to produce a more historically accurate "Brief history of the Mass"?

That would be better that criticising the current post and it will give us all a more complete picture of how the Mass came to be what it is today. It would be objective and informative for all our readers, and would present the history of the Mass briefly for another who has a passing interest in learning more about it.

You would be the best persons on this blog to do this because you already have a special interest in the topic and the knowledge is already there, along with whatever resources are needed.

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

The history of the Mass is really anything but brief, and to condense it , may not do justice to the rich history and Tradition of the Church that has existed for 2,000 years. Personally I wouldn't get ahead of myself, to claim to be able to produce "a brief history of the Mass".

The focus should really be instead on "What is the Mass?" and "Why is [this action] done in the Mass?". The historical aspect would be more supplementary. As for the format...Q&A would be more digestible and effective than a long essay.

Some Liturgical References...
http://www.zenit.org/english/liturgy/
http://www.wdtprs.com/blog/
http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/fessio_massv2_1_jan05.asp
http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/fessio_massv2_2_jan05.asp