A recent article of mine generated quite a bit of controversy. Many of the most vocal critics seem to have missed the point of the article altogether, and as a result accused me of advocating for individual creativity in the liturgy. In this essay, I want to respond to some of the more relevant comments that I received.

Which Came First, the Community or the Liturgy?

In my article, I explained that the liturgy flows from the life of the Christian community and from particular local cultures. In response, some readers argued that I had the causality wrong because, in their view, it is the liturgy that shapes Christian communities and cultures.

This perspective isn’t altogether wrong, because these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. The liturgy does shape us, both as individuals and as social groups. Historically speaking, however, it is obvious that the liturgy came after the community. Christ spent the three years of his public ministry building a small community of followers, the nucleus of the Church. On the night before he died, he gave them his Body and Blood in the Eucharist, incorporating them into the Mystical Body, and told them to repeat his actions in memory of him. The sacrifice of the Mass as given to the early Church was more or less devoid of liturgical ritual. As the Church grew and spread, a diversity of liturgies developed around the central miracle of the Eucharist. This development was shaped by the experience of the Christian community and by the various cultures these communities inhabited. In The Mass of the Western Rites, Dom Fernand Cabrol describes the liturgy of the first four centuries as follows:

It must be laid down from the beginning of this chapter that during this first period the Mass has what we may call a universal character. No regional distinctions appear; and our own divisions into Oriental and Occidental, or Greek and Latin liturgies, had no reality in those days. . . .

The word “unity,” however, must not be taken too literally. It is true that so far there was no division into liturgical families, but there was great variety of usages and rites. The law was “great liberty,” and it may be said that there is more difference between the liturgy of the Didache, that of Hippolytus, and that of Serapion than there was, later, between the liturgies of Byzantium, of Rome, and the Mozarabic and Gallican liturgies. The differences are rather those between church and church; the old churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Carthage were great liturgical centers.

But the differences existing between the different churches did not prevent peace and unity from reigning amongst them. In the second century Polycratus, Bishop of Ephesus, tells us that Pope Anicetus invited St. Polycarp to celebrate the Mass. And a little later Firmilianus, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, the correspondent of St. Cyprian, remarks in his turn that the varieties of ritual then existing (in the middle of the third century) made not the least difference to unity. (From Chapter 1; Emphasis added)

All the subsequent liturgical traditions developed from this unified but diverse liturgy of the Early Church. This local diversity persisted into the Middle Ages. In Cities of God, Augustine Thompson describes the local liturgies of Northern Italy around the year 1200. Even in an area so close to Rome, these local liturgies differed from the Roman Rite.

As the liturgy grew, it certainly influenced local cultures, and it continues to play a major role in forming the spirituality of Christian communities. The community and the community’s shared life, however, remain primary. The liturgical rituals are “the people’s work,” our response to “God’s work” in the Eucharist.

Two deeper problems underlie the idea that the liturgy is primary: an overemphasis on ritual fostered by the ambiguous nature of the word “liturgy,” and an erroneous impression that the liturgy is “God-given.”

The Liturgy, or the Eucharist?

As a traditionalist, I remember being shocked whenever I heard about a Catholic who was not interested in the liturgy. How could somebody not care passionately about the central aspect of the Faith? Traditionalists express this mindset in sayings such as “Save the Liturgy, Save the World.”

This misunderstanding stems from the ambiguous nature of the word “liturgy.” Those “uninterested” Catholics were uninterested in the collection of liturgical rituals that have grown up around the Eucharist. It is, after all, the Eucharistic sacrifice itself, not the rituals of the liturgy, that is the source and summit of the Christian life.[1] One can be totally devoted to participating in the Sacrifice of the Mass, listening to the readings, praying the prayers, and receiving the Eucharist, without being particularly interested in such details as the significance of the maniple or the number of times the celebrant makes the sign of the cross. In fact, ignoring such details may even be spiritually beneficial. As a traditionalist, I found that I tended to become a critic or a historian of the liturgy rather than a participant.

God-given Liturgy?

Such an overemphasis of ritual detail flows in part from another mistake: the idea that the liturgy is or should be “God-given.” In particular, the Tridentine liturgy is sometimes presented as if it fell from heaven. It is promoted with slogans such as “The Mass of all the Ages” or “The Mass of the Saints,” ignoring the many Eastern Rites and the long, messy, diverse history presented by authors such as Thompson and Cabrol.

More erudite traditionalists[2] are well aware of this history, but still claim that the Tridentine liturgy is God-given. They claim that the Holy Spirit was at work through all the historical processes, whereas the “Novus Ordo” is merely a human project.

This stance is problematic for a number of reasons. While the Holy Spirit guides the Church, that does not guarantee that every pragmatic, disciplinary, or prudential decision has been ideal. In fact, traditionalist criticism of the Vatican II liturgy would be incoherent if they didn’t recognize this fact. Invoking “the guidance of the Spirit” can easily become a cover for “I like this,” both among traditionalists and among progressives. We should remember that God’s ways are not our ways, and that his actions tend to be surprising, even shocking.

Critics of the Vatican II Missal, however, would likely respond that the earlier liturgical development wasn’t a matter of “decisions” at all, but rather of slow cultural processes. This does not prove their point, however. Where is it laid out that God is more likely to direct slow, diffuse, “evolutionary” processes than the conscious decisions of the Church? Cultural drift sometimes leads to decay, which then needs to be corrected by the more conscious process of reform.

This might seem to contradict my last article, in which I condemned activistic tinkering with the liturgy and advocated for organic development. I don’t think the activity of the Church can be condemned as mere tinkering, however. As for the second point, the Concilium and St. Paul VI were not exactly producing a “liturgy.” They were editing a pre-existing Missal. It is certainly true that liturgical development should be organic and grow from the local community. It seems to be within the scope of a committee, however, to revise the Missal, which is the framework for local celebrations of the liturgy.

The history of the Tridentine liturgy itself contains conscious decisions. In particular, as I addressed in my last article, there are the controversial decisions made by St. Pius V and his successors which led to the centralization and standardization of the liturgy.[3] In one sense, the decision made by St. Paul VI is merely the counterpart to those earlier decisions. The Missal of Vatican II is actually a reboot for the sort of slow processes which created the Tridentine liturgy in the first place.

In fact, there seems to have been some type of committee involved in the promulgation of the Tridentine Missal. Quo Primum reads as follows:

We deemed it necessary to give our immediate attention to what still remained to be done, viz, the re-editing of the Missal as soon as possible. Hence, We decided to entrust this work to learned men of our selection. They very carefully collated all their work with the ancient codices in Our Vatican Library and with reliable, preserved or emended codices from elsewhere. Besides this, these men consulted the works of ancient and approved authors concerning the same sacred rites; and thus they have restored the Missal itself to the original form and rite of the holy Fathers.

Quite often, both in the modern era and in the past, local communities receive the “bones” of the liturgy, the basic structure of prayers and readings, from the Church, and then “put flesh on them” through inculturation. By itself, any missal is just a book; it takes reverent, loving celebration and local inculturation to make it a liturgy.

Most fundamentally, this attitude ignores the fact that God’s providence works through all things. Our salvation was accomplished through an ugly historical process involving a treacherous friend, conniving religious leaders, a weak-willed Roman official, a fickle mob, and brutal soldiers who all worked together to kill the Savior of the world. God didn’t have to choose this means for our salvation, but he did choose it. A God capable of bringing our salvation out of the crucifixion seems perfectly capable of working through a bunch of mid-20th century liturgists.

To solve the liturgical crisis I addressed in my previous article, we need a greater focus on the sacrifice of Christ, and less focus on ritual and cultural details. Culture can’t be “built” or “fixed.” In fact, we can’t “do ” anything to a culture, other than destroy it. A Christian culture and a rich liturgy can only arise from the life of a community that sacrifices for one another, and that trusts in God’s creative ability to transform all things, even our mistakes and failures.


[1] “Taking part in the eucharistic sacrifice, the source and summit of the Christian life, they offer the divine victim to God and themselves along with it.” Lumen Gentium 11; ““The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.”” Catechism of the Catholic Church 1324

[2]In general, I use this term to mean those who claim that the Tridentine Liturgy is objectively, not subjectively, superior to the Vatican II Liturgy, and that the Vatican II Liturgy itself, apart from any distortions, is problematic or inferior. I’m not talking about those who have a subjective preference for older or more ornate forms of liturgy.

[3] Critics of my last article pointed out that many local rites and usages survived the promulgation of the Tridentine Liturgy under St. Pius V. This is true, but does not make any difference to the article’s argument. Even though some of the local rites survived, his promulgation of a uniform liturgy was a momentous event which set in motion the standardization of western liturgy. Long before 1962, almost all of the traditional, pre-Tridentine usages had disappeared or had become extremely rare.

Image: Chrism Mass, Catholic Church of England and Wales. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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