Monday, October 11, 2021

From Extemporaneity to Fixity of Form: The Grace of Liturgical Stability

Catholics who love the traditional liturgical rites of the Church maintain that a fixity and stability of sacred formulas is essential both to the nature of liturgy as such and to the fruitful participation of the laity. But some liturgical scholars might object: Wasn't liturgy in the earliest centuries of the church extemporaneous and improvised? The answer is: yes — and no. Few things are as important as understanding how and why we moved from liturgy-in-flux to fixed and stable liturgy.

For starters, in their gatherings for worship, ancient Christians do not seem to have practiced “casual” or “informal” prayer in the way in which the relaxed Christians of today might practice it. All the records we have indicate set prayer forms not only among the Jews whose Scriptures are full of formulaic prayers but also among the earliest Christians, several of whose hymns are preserved in the New Testament and in Patristic literature. Gregory Dix, Adrian Fortescue, Paul Bradshaw, and other scholars note that the prayers of the Christians, offered up by their leaders in a spontaneous but tradition-informed manner, acquired consistent formulaic patterns over time and settled into repeatable rites and ceremonies. After a few centuries of ever-solidifying praxis, improvisation ceased to be a feature of the liturgy — and this, for obvious reasons.

Christianity is a religion with deeply conservative instincts: we are holding on to what has been given to us once for all in the revelation of Jesus Christ, the depositum fidei. A devout bishop who celebrated the Eucharist would arrive at satisfactory ways of speaking to which the people became habituated [1], and his successor, drawn from within his own clergy, would naturally wish to follow in his footsteps and model his liturgical prayer after that of his father in Christ. As Michael Davies observes, when a community had a holy bishop who was accustomed to praying in certain ways, his successor would have had every reason to imitate him, and the people every right to expect that continuity. Otherwise, how would the ancient sacramentaries, with their carefully-formulated orations, have ever developed?

The eloquent and polished prayers we find in the oldest extant liturgical books did not suddenly drop down from heaven; they are the faithful reflection of the actual practice of Catholic communities gathered around their God-fearing bishops. In this way it was normal, one could say inevitable, that fixed anaphoras, readings, collects, antiphons, etc., would develop and stabilize over time. Thus, it should come as no surprise to find, no later than the seventh century and possibly as early as the fifth, a complete cycle of propers for the Roman Rite. Gennadius of Massilia (5th cent.) says of St. Paulinus of Nola, “Fecit et sacramentarium et hymnarium – he made both a sacramentary and a hymnal” (De viris illustribus, XLVIII). There is an account in Gregory of Tours of a bishop who had everything memorized, and when the book was removed (maliciously) he was able to do everything by memory.

In short, improvisation has not been a characteristic of the liturgy for 1,500 years. The evidence we have points to the relatively rapid development of fixed forms.

It is, moreover, absurd to think that the Holy Spirit did not intend this state of affairs as a positive good, or that the Church erred in remaining a jealous guardian of the spelled-out content of liturgical books. It would be no less ridiculous to assert that the same Spirit, after having willed such a state of affairs for 1,500 years, would suddenly will its dissolution, dilution, or replacement. So much for improvisation—or optionitis, which might be called a soft version of improvisation. [2] 

A key principle in liturgy is “the principle of stability.” The early Church was in a divinely-willed state of formation, and had wider and freer powers precisely because she was in an embryonic condition, growing rapidly and establishing her institutions under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. [3] The same Spirit guides her gently and gradually into set forms, which are the fairest flowers of those early developments. He prunes what is less worthy and nourishes what is more worthy. We should therefore expect, as time goes on, that the liturgy will become more and more solid, definite, fixed, and perfected. It will be handed down increasingly as a family inheritance, an approved profession of the Church’s one faith.

We see the same kind of development in the dogmatic debates of the early councils, with their ever more precise creeds that cut off all heretical depravity. We do not have the “freedom” to go back to the looseness and ambiguity of the early centuries, although modernists seem to wish they could do so. [4] Catholics have the immense blessing and privilege of carrying more refined and more precise formulas on our lips. Those who live after an Ecumenical Council — any of the councils except the last one, that is — are at a decisive advantage compared with those who lived before it, since they can now profess their faith in the Lord and confess His holy Name using a more perfect expression of the truth, and with less danger of lapsing into error about the highest, best, and most difficult things.

The development of the liturgy in this respect is much like the development of languages. Yes, a language such as French or German or English is ever developing, but it is much more the same than different from decade to decade and even, as time goes on, century to century. English as we write it today is much the same as that which was written 300 years ago; any literate person can pick up Samuel Johnson and read him without much difficulty (perhaps looking up a word here or there).

Yet a notable difference obtains between “hieratic” languages — those that, having attained a certain richness or fullness of development, were then taken over into religious practice as sacral tongues — and vernacular languages. The hieratic languages — e.g., Hebrew, ancient Greek, ecclesiastical Latin, Church Slavonic — are, as regards their use in divine worship, unchanging and unchangeable. They do not need to develop any more, since they are perfect at expressing what their respective liturgies need them to express. Only if revelation were to change would the language conveying it need to change. A hieratic language becomes an external sign of the internal stability, consistency, and timelessness of the religious truths conveyed through it. It does not deviate to the left or to the right in its unerring delivery of the message. Its linguistic completeness not only participates in divine attributes but helps bring about our participation in these attributes. In this way, a sacred language has a sacramental function.

A vernacular language, on the other hand, is intended to be the medium of daily discourse, the supple tool of life in the world, which is rife with change. The vernacular will never be done changing, reflecting the hustle and bustle of the people who use it. It is just this mutability and instability that explain why the religious instincts of all peoples have enshrined their highest forms of worship and doctrine in hieratic or classical languages. The vernacular is for this world of change, of Heracleitian flux; the hieratic is for the eternal world that always abides, like Parmenidean Being, and penetrates through the veil of this world in the form of dogma and doxology.

Think of the Eastern Christian liturgies, which are extremely conservative (at least where modern liturgists have not defaced them). The priest might add a personal intention during the litanies, but the fixed prayers are exactly that: fixed, finalized, admitting of no improvement. It would be a species of sacrilege to tamper with these glorious prayers. That, too, was the attitude of the Latin Church towards the pillars of the liturgy: the antiphons, the readings, the offertory, the Canon, the calendar, the use of certain psalms at certain times of the day or in certain seasons. We might augment, extrapolate, enhance, ornament, and even occasionally prune the dense growth, but in no sense did we throw off what earlier generations held to be sacred and great.

Hence, the essential response to the objection with which this essay opens — “Wasn't liturgy in the earliest centuries of the church extemporaneous and improvised?” — is at once simple and profound: we are not in the same position as the early Christians. They had the first contact with Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; they had the guidance of the Apostles and their immediate successors; they had to develop for themselves a liturgy out of Jewish precedents and apostolic oral tradition. It was a unique situation. Tollite vobiscum verba: “take with you words” (Ember Friday of September). The need to design or write a liturgy is, on the one hand, a sign of imperfection, because it belongs to a phase of institutional immaturity.

On the other hand, because of how central the liturgy is and will be for all future generations until the end of time, the writing of liturgy requires a special charism of the Holy Spirit — a profound spiritual maturity, discernment, and inspiration on the part of anyone who would dare to write liturgical texts or chants. It follows that already elaborated liturgical rites possess an inherent sanctity and nobility that will not and cannot be surpassed by later generations. [5] Since, as time went on, such rites had become more stable, refined, explicit, and expressive of their sacred content, Christians received them accordingly with reverence, as gifts handed down from their forebears. This process of development — which is at the same time a process of explicitation and solidification — must be held to be a work of the Holy Spirit, as Pope Pius XII reminded the Church in Mediator Dei[6]

After 1,500 or 2,000 years of development, the situation is not and could never be the same for us as it was for the early Christians in the decades and centuries immediately after Christ. The reformers’ argument from antiquity is invalid from the word “go.” Nor has this argument the wherewithal to be taken seriously. Henry Sire demonstrates in Phoenix from the Ashes that the twentieth-century reformers invoked antiquity as an excuse for their modernist agenda, since as a matter of fact (1) they did not restore much that was ancient; (2) they abolished many things that were known to be ancient; (3) and they invented much that was utterly novel. How such people, whose motley work is clear for all to see, can expect us to credit their affected motives is quite beyond me.

The main argument of the postconciliar reformers, expressed in countless pamphlets and publications, boils down to this: “We are now celebrating the Mass as the early Christians did, and dropping away all the ‘accretions’ that accumulated like soot over time and obscured the original purity of worship.” But there are three devastating flaws to this argument.

1. We don’t really know what the early Christians did, and evidence from cultural history suggests that it was probably quite elaborate, rather than the contrary.

2. Many arguments based on antiquity have subsequently been shown to be false, such as the main argument in favor of Mass facing the people (St. Peter’s basilica).

3. Most importantly, Pius XII taught in Mediator Dei that we must believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit throughout the ages and that the developments that occur are part of God’s plan. So the development of “medieval liturgy” and “Baroque liturgy” are, if not in every detail, at least in the main, providential. To cast them away and try to return to a questionably reconstructed “primitive church model” is not only to exalt mere hypotheticals over real facts, it is an assertion that the Holy Spirit guides the Church less and less as time goes on, and that we must strip away what each age has added in order to return to the purity of the origins. This is liberal Protestantism, this is higher criticism, this is Modernism. All of it is condemned by the Church.


[1] Funnily enough, we see this even today, among well-practiced Protestant preachers when they are offering public prayers, for which they have developed their own vocabulary and formulas. The result is not random but carefully channeled, almost predictable. I have seen the same thing in the Catholic Church. For example, in a certain diocese, almost every “spontaneous” prayer I have heard begins: “Good and gracious God…” I don’t know who originated this alliterative phrase, but it reproduces itself successfully in the wild.

[2] An objection might be raised: Are there not aspects of the old liturgy that are also up to the celebrant’s discretion? And should you not argue against them, as well? The truth is that the realm of choice in the old liturgy is extremely narrow, and is always a choice between fully articulated elements. In some commons, there is a choice between two epistles or Gospels. On a solemn day, a priest may choose to wear gold instead of a different liturgical color. He may choose to sing the most solemn Preface tone rather than the more solemn tone. If his missal has the Gallican prefaces, the rubrics allow him to use them on specified days. But notice how small a range of choice is allowed, and how its components are already fully spelled out — the priest invents nothing. There is no putative right to extemporize; and the most essential elements, such as the Canon, can never be altered. The holiest thing is beyond the realm of choice; it is a given. The Byzantine liturgy is the same: which of the anaphoras is to be used is dictated to the priest by the calendar, not left up to his pastoral discretion.

[3] One may consider what Charles Cardinal Journet said about the difference between the apostolic period and the succeeding ages, and apply it analogously to the early age of worship in contrast with later ages of worship.

[4] Pope Francis, for instance, preaches with such sloppiness that one would think none of the Ecumenical Councils had ever occurred, nor any of the Church Fathers had preached.

[5] John Henry Newman recognized this fact as well.

[6] To question, therefore, the inherited forms in the radical way they were questioned in the 1960s was nothing less than a sin against the Holy Spirit, the sin for which Our Lord says there is no forgiveness.

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