Saturday, September 06, 2014

Concelebration in the Byzantine Rite

Pursuant to Dr Kwasniewski’s recent post on concelebration in the Roman Rite, I would here like to offer some considerations on the way it is done in the Byzantine Rite.

Chesterton once noted, in his inimitable way, that for the student of comparative religion, “Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.” This applies equally well to students of comparative liturgy, who often note that the Roman and Byzantine Rites are very much alike, especially the Byzantine. What I mean by this is that comparisons between the two are rarely made in appreciation of the fullness of what they have in common, (or, for that matter, the fullness of what they do not have in common), but rather to drag them down to their lowest common denominator. And of course, from time to time the denominator sinks lower than the math should properly allow; a friend of mine once heard in a class at a Pontifical university that the Latin Church simply had to abolish the subdiaconate, because the Byzantines don’t have it, much to the surprise of the two Byzantine subdeacons in the room.

Concelebration is a perfect example of this. The mere fact that it is the norm in the Byzantine tradition is often adduced to justify the introduction of the practice into the Roman Rite, with little or no elaboration on how exactly the Byzantines go about their concelebrating. I propose therefore to list some points on which the Byzantine practice differs notably from the modern Roman practice. Let me add that I am not writing this as a way of arguing that concelebration should be abolished, or that it should be reduced to the status which it has in the Extraordinary Form, in which it is done only at priestly and episcopal ordinations. I do believe, as do a great many others, that concelebration should be a lot rarer than it is today. I also think it not only reasonable, but inevitable, that many priests, especially younger ones, have become rather disaffected with the practice, since as currently observed in the Roman Rite, it minimizes the role of the concelebrating priest in a way that is very far indeed from what the Byzantines do.

I also wish to make it clear that I am fully aware of the fact that there is a not an absolute uniformity of liturgical practice among those who use the Byzantine liturgy, whether Catholic and Orthodox. What I write here is based on my experience of serving and attending the Divine Liturgy at the Russian College in Rome. On the other hand, it is very common for visiting priests from the different Eastern Catholic Churches to concelebrate at the Russicum, and I have never yet observed any of them thrown off by the small differences between its customs and what they are familiar with in their home churches.

1. All of the concelebrating priests wear the full complement of priestly vestments. In the Roman Rite, this is supposed to be the case as well, but “for a just cause”, (for example, when there are more concelebrants than vestments), it is permitted for some to wear only an alb and stole. (GIRM parag. 209) The vagueness of this rubric has, perhaps inevitably, lead to a common abuse by which, regardless of the circumstances, only the principal celebrant wears a chasuble, and all of the concelebrants wear only the stole, an abuse now so widespread and of such long standing that it has fallen into the category of “tolerated” abuses.

2. The Proskomide, the preparation of the bread and wine before the Liturgy, is done by one of the concelebrants, who then does a general incensation of the gifts, the altar, the sanctuary, etc. in the same manner as is done by another of the concelebrants at the Epistle, again by the main celebrant before the Great Entrance, and at most Hours of the Divine Office. However, each of the concelebrants cuts a small triangular piece off one of the prosphoras, the small loaves of leavened bread which are used in the Byzantine Rite, and places it on the diskos (the equivalent of the paten.) In the modern Roman practice, the Preparation of the Gifts which has taken the place of the traditional Offertory is done entirely by the main celebrant, and the concelebrants do nothing at all. (GIRM parag. 214)

3. During the Divine Liturgy, all of the priests stand together at the altar; each has his own book by which he follows the rite, and each says all of the silent priestly prayers from his book. The priests take turns singing the conclusions to these prayers out loud after the Litanies, starting with the main celebrant. In the absence of a deacon, the priests take the deacon’s parts, and therefore also sing the Litanies, each in his turn; in this case, the concelebrant who sings a Litany and the main celebrant bow to each other both before and after. In the modern Roman Rite, after kissing the altar and taking their places at the sedilia, the concelebrants do nothing besides listen during the whole Liturgy of the Word, unless there is no one else present to do readings, the responsorial psalm, etc.; one of them may be delegated to deliver the sermon.

A deacon carrying the Gospel book during the Little Entrance. (source)
4. All of the concelebrants participate in the Little Entrance, the procession by which the Gospel book is carried out the side door of the iconostasis and back in through the Royal Doors in the middle. After returning to stand around the altar, they all kiss it together before repairing to the sedilia for the Epistle. While the Epistle is sung, a concelebrant, not the main celebrant, does the general incensation. In the absence of a deacon, the Gospel is sung by the main celebrant. In the modern Roman Rite, the Gospel is read or sung by a concelebrant if there is no deacon present. (The rubric of the Latin version of the GIRM is somewhat vague here, and does not seem to prescribe this absolutely.)

5. At the Great Entrance, the main celebrant carries the diskos and chalice; if another diskos is used for other prosphoras, it is carried by one of the concelebrants. Each other priest carries an instrument from the altar with him at the Great Entrance; facing the people, each priest, starting of course with the main celebrant, sings an intention, and blesses the people with the instrument in his hand. (For example, “May the Lord God remember in his kingdom all Christians throughout the world who suffer persecution, always, now and forever and ever. Amen.”)

6. During the Creed, which is sung at every Divine Liturgy, they exchange the Kiss of Peace among themselves in such a way the every single priest offers it to every single other one. The celebrant kisses the diskos and chalice, which are both covered by a veil, then the altar, and takes his place standing slightly away from the altar. The second concelebrant kisses the diskos, chalice and altar in the same way, then exchanges the kiss of peace with the main celebrant, on both cheeks, and then by simultaneously kissing each other’s right hands; he then stands next to the first. The third does the same, and after exchanging the Peace with the first and second, takes his place, and so on. In the Roman Rite, it is also mandatory according to the letter of the GIRM for all of the celebrants to exchange the Peace amongst themselves; this is done of course at a different point in the Liturgy, after the Lord’s Prayer and the Libera nos.

His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of Kiev-Halych, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, exchanges the Peace with a fellow bishop. This liturgy was celebrated in Rome at the Church of St Sophia just after he was elected and confirmed in March 2011; the liturgy had to be celebrated outdoors, in front of the church, to accommodate the number of faithful in attendance.
7. The silent parts of the Anaphora are read by all of the concelebrants together, while the sung parts, including the Words of Consecration, are sung aloud by the main celebrant, and in a lower voice by the others. In the modern Roman Rite, the Words of Consecration are said (or, rarely, sung) in the same way, but the rest of it is parceled out among the concelebrants according to the rubrics given in the GIRM, paragraphs 219-236. Each one says his part alone.
8. Byzantine concelebrants all communicate at the same time and in the same manner, at the altar. This may be done in the Roman Rite, but it is also permitted for the main celebrant and one or more of the other concelebrants to distribute Communion to them from the paten as they remain at their seats, and likewise to bring them the Chalice at their seats. The GIRM does not mention any particular circumstance, (for example, a Mass at which a larger-than-usual number of concelebrants are present), in which it is considered more appropriate, or less so, for the concelebrants to partake of Holy Communion without coming to the altar. The priestly prayer before Communion, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God” or “May the receiving of Thy body”, is to be said only by the main celebrant.

9. If, after the distribution of Holy Communion, there is any left over, It is brought to the table of the Proskomide by the main celebrant, but consumed by another. The Prayer of Thanksgiving said at the end of the Divine Liturgy is said by one of the concelebrants, who exits the Royal Doors, descends to the nave, then turns and faces the altar for the prayer, before returning to his place in the sanctuary. After the main celebrant has given the final blessing, another set of prayers of thanksgiving are said by a reader, with a concelebrant singing the conclusions of the prayers out loud. In the modern Roman Rite, after the distribution of Holy Communion, “all is done in the usual manner by the principal celebrant, with the concelebrants remaining at their places”. On leaving the altar, only the main celebrant kisses it; the concelebrants only bow. (GIRM parag. 250-251)

10. Lastly we may note two proper characteristics of the Byzantine Rite which are of the greatest importance for understanding why concelebration remains the norm within it.

The first is that the sung Liturgy also remains the norm within it, and it has rather a lot more to be sung than does the Roman Rite. Concelebration in the Byzantine manner enables each priest to celebrate a fully sung Divine Liturgy with a frequency that has been at best rare in the Roman world for centuries. I dare say that no one would care to argue that the widespread reintroduction of concelebration in the West has accomplished much for the good of our musical patrimony, or been attended by a general upswing in the quality of music in churches of the Roman Rite.

The second is that the Byzantine Rite makes almost no use of what modern liturgists call “progression of solemnity”. There is no such thing as a common feria in the Byzantine Rite, and they do not celebrate ‘the Divine Liturgy of St Michael,’ or ‘of St Elizabeth’ etc., as a Latin priest celebrates ‘the Mass of St Michael’ or ‘the Votive Mass of the Trinity.’ There is the Divine Liturgy, most of which does not change at all from day to day; before the Trisagion (“Holy God, Holy Immortal one...”), the troparia and kontakia of the Saints of the day are sung, and there is at least one Saint (usually many more) on literally every single day of the Calendar. The readings may be those of the day, from the current week of the liturgical year, or those of the feast, according to various customs and traditions. Truly significant variations are confined to a handful of occasions within the year, or used only once a year on a particular feast. (For example, on Holy Saturday and Pentecost, the Trisagion is substituted by a different chant, “All ye that have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ, alleluia!” The traditional Old Church Slavonic version is one of the loveliest pieces of the year; it starts in the video below at 0:52.)


In contrast, when concelebration was reintroduced into the Roman Rite, it was envisioned principally as a way of solemnizing important feast days and other special occasions. Sacrosanctum Concilium mentions it in connection with Holy Thursday, councils, synods, and conventual Masses, although not in such terms as to exclude the possibility of concelebration on other occasions. As the Church’s law stands now, it is of course licit for a group of 50 priests to concelebrate a Mass with no music at all on a green feria. Whether it is a wise, or necessary, or spiritually profitable thing for them to do so is another question altogether.

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