It is a commonplace that the rites and prayers of the liturgy (“per ritus et preces”, Sacrosanctum concilium 48) are intrinsically rooted in Tradition. This Tradition, in turn, is essentially rooted in Christ, in his words and actions as narrated to us in the Gospel.
In the course of almost twenty centuries, however, diverse liturgical traditions have developed in the various regions and cultures where the christian mission spread. Each tradition grew over the years by the confluence and interweaving of traditions and cultures as the historical situations of the christian faithful changed. Liturgical traditions were and are inevitably influenced by the surrounding social, economie, politica! and generai cultural milieu of the contemporary Church.
In that changing mixture of time and circumstances components of the liturgica! celebrations in a tradition often loose their consistency and clarity. This has unquestionably happened in the Roman rite and various reforms have worked to remedy the contemporary situation, for example the Council of Trent, Popes Urban VIII, Benedict XIV, the ill-fated synods of Pistoia (1786), Florence (1787) and Ems (1786), Popes Pius X, Pius XII, and the second Vatican Council.
The question in these instances was not the evident need for reform but how to remedy the situation. What tradition is to become the model for the simplification, clarification, purification and restoration of the liturgy? The stubborn resistance to reform or the vociferous cali to reform the reform are most often expressions of a strong disagreement with the model of reform chosen by official church authority.
In the case of the Council of Trent, the chaotic state of the liturgy was clear to the council fathers. The model of reform was the medieval form of the Roman-Frankish-Germanic liturgy purged and simplified. The emphasis was to be continuity with the immediate past and the uniformity that was possible with printed books (editiones typicae). On the other hand, there was a decided, though unspoken, rupture with the past: a manuscript Missal of the preceding period was quite different with its extensive private prayers of the priest in the Ordo missae, with its frequent tracts, sequences, tropes, with its local variations in rubrics, prayers, gestures, feasts and extensive votive Masses.
In addition to the printed liturgica! books, the recent series of exhibits in Milan in honor of Carlo and Federico Borromeo show clearly how the interiors of gothic churches of the previous period were radically cleared of their medieval character and thoroughly redone in fixtures and decoration for the postTridentine liturgy and eucharistic theology. The new churches erected by the Catholic reformers were completely different in architecture and interior from the gothic. Church music also underwent a fundamental change One could ask how much continuity the Baroque liturgy really had with it medieval predecessors.
What the Council of Trent explicitly intended and what resulted in the revised books do not entirely correspond. This is as true of the buildings adapted for the liturgy or newly constructed for it, not to speak of the manner of the celebrations themselves. They give evidence of adjustment of the “model” according to the project and will of the persons involved.
Subsequent reforms mentioned above moved even further away from the medieval m o del. Even the reformed post-Tridentine liturgy was less than perfect and in need of periodic improvement. The liturgy was not unchangeable and untouchable for the subsequent generations. The influence of contemporary culture was also felt: Humanism, Enlightenment, Individualism, Romanticism.
Pastoral concerns, as well, entered the picture in the work of Pius X on the Breviary, in his concern for church music, and in his comprehensive, but unrealized, project for the generai reform of the Church’s liturgy. He and his collaborators had a rather clear idea of the true situation of the liturgy.
The papal reform project was taken up again by Pius XII and led in the 1950’s to the restored Paschal Vigil and Holy Week rites. The artide of Carlo Braga in the present issue covers those events. In this instance the model of reform had changed completely - no longer the late medieval period but the early liturgical books of the Roman rite. The “truth” of the time of the services becomes a rule and some modifications in the celebration of Good Friday are introduced. The burden of the rubrica! code of the Missal was eased also for celebrants.
The so-calied “Missal of Pius V” has undergone major changes and periodic reforms before the editio typica of 1962. Can we really say that it stili represents as such the Tridentine liturgy? The commission on the liturgica! document set up by John XXIII for the second Vatican Council was in strict continuity with the previous commission of Pius XII. The final version of the Constitution on the Liturgy devotes two chapters to the cali to reform the Roman rite: 50 and 62.
The first calls for revision and restoration in the celebration of the Mass and the second for adjustment and revision of the rites of the sacraments and sacramentals. The model was to be the “earlier norm of the holy Fathers” (“ad pristinam sanctorum Patrum normam”, Sacrosanctum concilium 50). The second requires “adaptation to the needs of our times” (“ad nostrae aetatis necessitates accomodare”, Sacrosanctum concilium 62).
While there is no mention of the middle ages or of the previous post-Tridentine reforms, the term “holy Fathers” is at best ambiguous. Who are these “Fathers”? The fathers of the patristic era and the compilers of the earliest liturgical books seem to fit best with the reference to “earliest norm”. Perhaps more controversia! is the cali to adapt to the times because it accepts a determinative value for contemporary culture.
Although the council presents a model and a principle of adaptation, the post-Vatican II books seem more inclined to the needs of the times than to the tradition of the early witnesses to the Roman liturgy. The selection of texts from the neo-galiican books as demonstrated by scholars does not seem to correspond to the model suggested. The extensively modified form of the anaphora of the so-called Apostolic Tradition that has become the second Eucharistic Prayer is far from its pristine shape. The other new eucharistic prayers seem to imitate eastem rather than western liturgical traditions.
Yes, the reformed liturgical books are less than perfect! The model of the adjustments seems more eclectic than traditional. They also seem to an extent to be children of the Enlightenment, which has convinced us that concepts and verballanguage are the only instruments worthy of communication. The code words of the Enlightenment were simplify, clarify, know, understand. Do they sound familiar?
Liturgy is thus in danger of becoming an instrument in the service of reason. Signs and symbols, gestures and ali non-verbal symbolic language have received a diminished role in celebration to produce a liturgy that is largely cerebral and verbal. Is it any wonder that some complain about the absence of “mystery” in the modem liturgy? Some have gone so far in this elimination of symbolic elements to put aside vestments, altar, candles, cross, sacred vessels, even officialliturgical books for an informai “group Mass” with ali seated on cushions around an ordinary plate of bread and a glass of wine. The role of music is also minimized.
Modem ritual books are often enough seen simply in the perspective of written texts, so there is a tendency to use a sort of liturgical Ockham’s razor to eliminate “useless” repetitions or duplications that can be so important in oral communication - which the liturgy is! The present liturgy which has emerged in a culture tends to over-verbalization - which needs to be reversed.
Liturgy surpasses our rational capacity and includes the sensorial and the symbolic language of poetry, music, gesture. Thus the present issue includes considerations of the role of music and chant. It also addresses the fundamental issue of the nature of liturgy. We trust it will be of interest to our readers.