Thursday, March 29, 2012

Classical Tradition: Not What Some Might Imagine

I don’t remember how I happened upon it while surfing the Web, but it was a pleasant diversion. It’s an essay, published in 1890, written by Dr J. Wickham Legg, a vice president of the St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society (as in St Paul’s, London).  Though the author and his intended audience were Anglicans, now long deceased, his commentary is not without relevance to Catholic liturgical renewal, past and present.

The variations in the ceremonies practiced in the celebration of the Eucharist make a division into two heads easy: missa solemnis and missa privata.  The missa solemnis is the public, or High Mass, and gives us the rule for the celebration of the Eucharist.  The priest is assisted by a deacon and sub-deacon.... The private, or Low Mass, on the other hand, must be regarded as the exception, and in this the priest is assisted by a server only.  It is the presence of the deacon and sub-deacon which makes the difference between High Mass and Private Mass, and not whether any part of the service be sung.  Now, it cannot be too often repeated that it is only High Mass which gives us the ancient, typical ceremonies of the celebration of the Eucharist, and from which we may learn the true idea of the Eucharistic rites.  Low Mass only gives us the rite in a maimed and imperfect, not to say corrupt and irregular way.  Private, or Low Mass, that is, a celebration of the Eucharist without deacon or sub-deacon, was as little known to the Church at large for the first 800 years, as it is to this day to the Eastern Church.  It seems to have come in when Latin ceased to be understood by the people, who betook themselves, therefore, to their private prayers.  Low Mass robbed the medieval church of the idea of common prayer, which it is the glory of our Prayer Book to have brought back.  The celebration of the Eucharist in private (I am only using the word still used by the Roman Missal) shows but small respect to the Christian mysteries.  It may be borne with in country parishes where there is no one in holy orders but the curate himself, but to see in a church with a large staff the altar served by some boy taken out of the street, who probably does not know his Catechism, and has not been confirmed, while men in holy orders are doing nothing in the stalls of the choir, or only come into church to distribute the Communion, shows that there is little or no zeal for the solemnity of the Eucharist.  It shows a contempt for the practices of antiquity, to which in all questions of ceremonial, as well as in faith and morals, the Church of England appeals....  Even the more learned Roman Catholic authorities dislike the boy server, and tell us that it is the deacon who is the proper minister of the altar.

—“On Some Ancient Liturgical Customs Now Falling Into Disuse,”  in Transactions of the St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society, vol. 2 (London, 1890), 123-24.

I would contest only one point (apart from Anglicanism’s claim to apostolicity and catholicity), based on my reading of Fortescue and Jungmann: the evolution and spread of Low Mass had less to do with Latin than with the fact that more monks were becoming priests and needed to say Mass daily—concelebration not being an option at the time.  Obviously the full complement of liturgical ministers could not be provided for each celebration, so the celebrant himself supplied the parts of the absent ministers, while the people’s parts were divided between the celebrant and server.  Low Mass grew out of those “private” Masses and in time became the most common form of celebration, even when the faithful were present.

The Liturgical Movement dating back to the early 20th-century had as its principal goal the recovery of a corporate sense of worship: the liturgy is the public prayer of the whole Church, hierarchically ordered.  This agenda, as one might expect, involved a renewed emphasis on Solemn Mass—indeed, Mass celebrated by a bishop, with all the orders of clergy and laity present and performing their proper liturgical roles—as the norm of eucharistic celebration.  In the liturgical reform initiated by the Second Vatican Council, elements from the solemn form of Mass, when the celebrant was not restricted to the altar, entered the new rite of Mass authorized by Pope Paul VI in 1969.  That, I am inclined to think, was a good thing—in fact, one among many good things that are easy to lose sight of when rightly denouncing revolution posing as reform.

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