Saturday, November 23, 2013

What is the Roman Liturgy? Who Owns It?

Very organic liturgy with Fr Quintin Montgomery-Wright
source: Jean Erik Pasquier's Daily Life series, 1986
A question has circulated in my minds for several years and I would like to put it to the readers. What exactly is the Roman liturgy? Who possesses it? Who has authority over it?
My personal opinion is that the Roman liturgy does not exist in a particular year or edition of Mass and Office books, but in certain distinct elements that became apparent after the liturgy's shape coagulated after the fluid years that followed the emergence from the house churches. I would venture to say that the three main features of the Roman liturgy are:
  1. The Roman Canon: the Eucharistic prayer which is central to the Latin rite's observance of Our Lord's command and which is found at the heart of the Roman Mass and its local uses from the time of St. Gregory the Great onward.
  2. The Roman Psalter: the distribution of the psalms marked the hours and the days, forming the Roman Church's celebration of feasts and its weekly prayers.
  3. The Roman kalendar system: this dictated how feasts and ferial days would be observed and set the cycles of the liturgical year.
None of these elements was without change or some evolution over time. Advent, my favorite time of year, was relatively late in entering the Roman rite. The psalter is clearly ancient (as it existed before the Pian reforms), but it was not the central point of the proto-Office, the lucernarium; the focus of that service was readings, which survived in the Holy Saturday rites (making the other Pian reforms all the more difficult).
Another thing to realize with these elements is that they are elements and not a strict unit. In some sense the local rites used in religious orders and throughout Northern Europe were usages and variations of the Roman rite rather than distinct liturgies. Far from undermining their value, this means that the Roman rite consists in a multiplicity of practices united by basic liturgical principles.
Which brings us to our next question: who owns the Roman liturgy? One might be tempted to say the Roman Patriarch, the Pope. There are two problems with this simple answer in my view. The first is that, after the missionary expansion under Gregory the Great, the Roman liturgy, under my broad definition, was no longer limited to the Church of Rome, but rather became invested in all the Christian lands of Europe and beyond (Asia, North and South America, and now Africa). Many of these places, particularly in Europe, developed their own local expressions under monastic, parochial, episcopal, and devotion rule, not under the direction of a far off office in Rome. Which brings us to the second issue, that the liturgy, arguably, ought to belong to those who pray it. Right?
If both of these are true, particularly the second, then we might find ourselves in a little bit of a dilemma. Lay liturgical formation in the Roman Catholic Church is horrendous in most places, aside from the sort of parishes which promote lay knowledge of the liturgy (and not liturgy lite). Among those with liturgical knowledge there is often a fear of violating the legal norms established in the books. And yet, if everyone "said the black and did the red" would we not all be gathering at 7PM on  a Saturday night at a dinner table, listen to a few Bible fragments, listen to the priest consecrate, eat and drink, and then go home? The communal and dynamic nature of the liturgy is why the Mass and Office took their shape, first in Rome and then in other dioceses. In a recent day spent in discussion with some liturgically capable men at a Catholic college I realized just how interested people are these days in the "organic" nature of the liturgy and yet how timid some are to depart at all from the rubrics. One fellow wanted to know if it would be legal to use the full Orbis factor Kyrie, with the litany-like vocative exclamations of the Middle Ages' farced settings; did those who wrote that setting follow the rubrics or did they have a different understanding? Which brings us back to the original question: what is the Roman rite and who owns it?
As a point of interest, there was, many years ago, a highly eccentric convert from Anglicanism, a Fr. Quintin Montgomery-Wright, who finding England unfriendly to non-cradle Catholics, packed up for Normandy and acted as pastor of a parish there from 1956 until his death in a car crash in 1996. Fr. Q initially said Mass in French and versus populum in the 1950s but, finding the reforms of the 1960s bothersome, pushed his altar back against the wall and switched back to Latin. He ignored the Pauline liturgy's introduction between 1968 and 1970, but did not do the "EF" liturgy either. He "tweaked" the liturgy with some French variations, as Anthony Chadwick tells us:
"Fr. Montgomery was an amazing fellow. He had stacks and stacks of vestments, and did the liturgy the old Norman way, like Sarum. There were little blue dalmatics for altar boys, and I often sang as a coped Ruler at Sunday Mass at Le Chamblac. He vested on the Lady chapel altar (the church's south transept). The Judica me psalm was said at the Lady altar and in procession. He likewise said the Prologue of St John on the way from the high altar back to the Lady chapel. At the time, I though he was just being odd, but this was the medieval and pre-Tridentine way of celebrating."
The 1568 and 1570 books that came out of Roman during the Papacy of St. Pius V and the creation of the Congregation for Rites in 1588 under Sixtus V (if I am ever elected Pope I will be Sixtus VI) did not freeze the Roman rite, but those events did slow any sort of development and eased off any communal interest or local variations. The Pauline books, and the "EF" books, were both issued by offices. How do we form the laity in the liturgy? The answer is simple, although difficult: pray it. Pray it all the time.
Hopefully interest in this subject will increase in the coming years. I believe it to be on the upswing.
Your thoughts?


  1. A most stimulating, interesting, and provocative, Post, The Rad Trad. Very grateful thanks.

    Riveting reading, and I look forward to any follow up (plus Comments from your Readers).

    Love the Orbis Factor Kyrie by Ensemble Organum (I have it at home and play it regularly) and I concur with your answer to: "How do we form the Laity in the Liturgy ?"

    "Pray it. Pray it all the time".

  2. The monks at Silverstream do not celebrate the EF in the "do the red, say the balc" style, but have taken liberty of some concessions given by the PCED.

    Also, while I am a bit concerned about sticking to the rubrics, as you know, we did take some liberties at our daughter's baptism ;-)

  3. In principle, your point is well taken, but I don't see how we could decentralize the Liturgy after 500 years of codified rubrics. Is it even possible to go back to the saner forms of local development of Roman usages considering those happened before the printing press? I'm afraid we live an age where it is nearly impossible to decentralize authority without running the risk of such a strong anti-authoritarian chaos. Are you saying that there should be no rubrics but let immemorial custom dictate the words and gestures? Would the variation stop with the local bishop or even devolve down to the parochial level? I'm thinking that a given diocese (leaving aside particular religious orders within) should be the most micro level wherein local variation could or should exist; there would have to be some standardization of liturgical books in a post-Guttenberg world.

    On a personal/moral level, while we should absolutely be praying the Liturgy so as to live it, I would also be concerned about certain forms of pride and "worship of liturgical forms for its own sake" if we drift too much from some set norms, especially as laymen. The paradox is that the majority of those interested in restoring liturgical life nowadays are laymen.

    Just some random thoughts. Always appreciate your keen insights about these matters.

    1. There would of course have been some degree of centralization regardless, but it did not have to become so madly stringent as it did. I acknowledged the problem of decentralization nowadays: people of all levels have such impoverished liturgical formation that any loosening would be taken the wrong way. The solution is better formation, but doing that will take generations. There is no other way.