A Mass of Contradictions…..

Yet another new order of the mass in English…..

Pope Benedict XVI has promulgated a new order of the Mass in English. It’s the fifth such formulation of my brief life…which when you consider that between 1570 and my birth in 1954 there had only been only one such formulation… that is itself worthy of comment…

The changes, post Vatican II, have generated the sort of confusions, controversies and fierce partisanship that last rocked Christianity in the sixteenth century. Therefore, for a historian to directly experience the mechanisms by which such changes were brought about and their impact upon faith groups provides a key to understanding the upheavals brought about by those earlier epoch-making convulsions in worship and belief that history calls the Reformation and Counter Reformation.

A further context is provided by my own views on the Mass I had committed to paper when I was about twenty – my mum had kept a couple of letters I’d written on the subject and that were published in the 1970s – one to the Guardian and another to the Sunday Times. Written in the shadow of rear-guard resistance in Downham Market of all places – where a local priest and his congregation refused the new rite and celebrated the old Latin Mass in a local hotel – my views then were trenchantly traditionalist in matters liturgical and progressive on the Church’s social teaching….

I lamented in particular the lack of the sacred or special in the translations then recently approved by the bishops of the English speaking countries. Once the old rite went I only went to Mass in the Brompton Oratory and in churches where Mass was celebrated in Latin….

So, to find myself recently at Mass and using a formulation of words not dissimilar to that which obtained in 1963-65 during the first phase of the vernacular liturgy was oddly pleasing and pleasingly odd. And strangely it also has lent my youthful critique of the dreadful ICEL liturgy a prophetic quality that it did not and could not possess.

Over the same period there has been a similar battle in the Church of England over the language of Common Prayer Book rite of 1662 and the Series I and Series II liturgies that closely replicated the language of Pope Paul VI’s new rite.

From its earliest existence The Mass has been the central act of worship of the Christian Church. Its central prayer…perhaps one of the oldest ritual prayers of Christianity is called the Roman Canon.It is during that prayer with all its ritual elements – blessings, genuflections and elevations and also including the words of institution…the words Christ used at the Last Supper…that for Roman Catholics Christ’s real presence is manifested. Th e nature of that presence is defined doctrinally as Transubstantiation.

It is known that this Canon was used in the Church in Rome from earliest times and its broad outline exists in formularies no later than the late second and early third centuries. Parts of this prayer are unquestionably of an earlier date….

The term Mass comes from the prayers said at the end of the service…the dismissal….which the celebrant closes in Latin with the phrase: ‘ite Missa est’.

That term was probably borrowed from the dismissal proceedings used both in the Imperial Court and those of the Emperor’s prefects at the close of a public session. Prefects closed business in their basilicas by saying, ‘missa est’, after which the prefect left in a grand procession. This form was itself a diminutive of that used by the Emperor at the end of a public audience.

It was natural that that form of solemn procession used a by the Emperor and his deputies when they presided over public ceremonials should have been adopted into the last part of the Eucharistic service….over which Christ himself had presided….and so by the time of Pope Gregory the Great the term Mass is used to cover all the ceremonial, the prayers, readings from scripture and the Eucharist itself that take place in this central weekly act of communal Christian worship.

By Pope Gregory’s pontificate in the early seventh century the Mass already has its characteristic structure that included placing the the Roman Canon after the Sanctus ( Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord) and before the Pater Noster (Our Father). Th e Roman Canon remained in that place, at the cornerstone of Christian Worship, for over a thousand years. It was used with small grace notes in all the Western Rites…including the Celtic Rite of Lorrha and the Sarum and Chester rites used in England, as well as those of Rome and Milan.

In England in 1549 it was replaced entirely by Thomas Cranmer’s idiosyncratic liturgical formulation….the Book of Common Prayer…and in his Calvin-ised second prayer book of 1552 the old Roman Canon completely disappears. It’s this latter work of Cranmer’s that remains the doctrinal inspiration of the liturgical worship of the Anglican Communion.

In Rome, in 1570 the Roman Canon was incorporated in its final formulation into the Roman Missal of Pius V, known as the Tridentine rite after the Council of Trent upon whose constitutions it was based. That formulation lasted with few significant changes until the Roman Missal of Pope Paul VI promulgated in 1969. Then that Tridentine rite was itself forbidden…as its Sarum predecessor had been forbidden by the Tudors…until Pope Benedict XVI restored it to common parish use by special indult earlier in this twenty first century.

In my single lifetime the same struggle about the content of the Mass fought out between the confessional sides between 1517 and 1570 has once again been replayed…and as before it has resulted in the restoration of the Roman Canon to religious primacy.

I don’t pretend the cycles are exactly the same…but there are sufficient symmetries between these events to be worthy of our notice. And we need no more puzzle as to how the Book of Common Prayer was successfully imposed in 1549 since in 1969 a pope did exactly the same thing…and nor should we wonder at the power of the reaction that created the Counter Reformation since the latter part of the papacy of John Paul II and this current pontificate replicate that very process.

But maybe the beatification and impending canonisation of John Paul II disguises the fact that it was Cardinal Josef Ratzinger who initiated these restitutions in the last years of John Paul II’s reign when the pope’s health was already seriously impaired. So, perhaps history should place the laurels on his brow…rather as it awards them to Cardinals Contarini, Morone and Pole as the true inspiration of constitutions of the Council of Trent.

Special words have been used in the West from earliest times to memorialise Christ’s actions in the form of the Eucharist…the sacrament of bread and wine instituted at the Last Supper. So the Mass is very much a service that’s always been about significant actions, significant words and their significant meanings.

As words are important to us…we invest all our words with specialness… and which of us isn’t miffed when we’re misquoted by friend or foe…’I did not say that’…

Therefore, it is inevitable that we are most cautious with those words that are most special to us….it is true of the language of law, the language of poetry and literature – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth…and most obviously the language of sacredness which is the language of religion. Whether or not one believes in God we all of us have a duty to uphold the specialness of words and their uses. For things of great beauty are wrought from our words as much as by our hands. Great art flourishes where the precise meaning of what we do is disproportionately important.

And words give meaning to everything we do and we should treasure and guard them all the days of our lives.

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