The preservation and promotion of the rites

In the last article we looked at the various families of liturgical rites. With regards to Vatican II, we know that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy wanted to suggest some changes to the way Catholic worship. The last sentence of paragraph 3 explains that "the practical norms which follow, however, should be taken as applying only to the Roman rite, except for those which, in the very nature of things, affect other rites as well." But what about all the other rites? What happens with those? Paragraph 4 of the text reads:

Lastly, in faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way. The Council also desires that, where necessary, the rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition, and that they be given new vigor to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times.

One of the most pressing questions facing any community of believers is "How shall we worship?" Worship is a community action, and so some sort of minimal order must be agreed upon. In the Catholic tradition the regulation of divine worship is the responsibility, first and foremost, of the local bishop, who is the "chief priest" of his local church with regards to the worship of God. He presides liturgical worship himself, and he issues directives on how worship is to be conducted if the people cannot attend one of his services. The responsibility to both preside and regulate liturgical worship is at the heart of the ministry of a diocesan bishop, and has been since the very origins of the Church.

Over time, however, local variations did creep in regarding the manner of divine worship, as one local church varied from another. As most people worshipped according to the rite in which they grew up, in the area in which they grew up, these local differences didn't make too much practical difference. On occasion, however, visitors from another local church would come to visit or stay temporarily, and they would notice the differences in practice. This raised questions in their minds, such as when the young St. Augustine asked the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, about the difference between Rome and Milan in the custom of fasting on Saturday. St. Ambrose replied, "When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the Church where you are". This last comment is the origin of the expression "When in Rome, do as the Romans do", which is actually the statement of a liturgical principle.

Such principles worked well when the number of new arrivals was small, or if they were only visiting. History shows us, however, that when larger groups of people immigrate to a new territory, they bring their worship customs with them. Given that these other customs *are* equally legitimate, the new arrivals often resist letting them go in order to "do as the Romans do". It is more than a question of mere habits: the form by which we worship is an expression of our faith, full of meaning, and for many people to abandon a traditional form of worship whose meaning they understand, for a new form of worship whose meaning they don't understand as well, is tantamount to abandoning some or all of their faith. In practice, then, many parts of the world, particularly the more cosmopolitan areas like major cities, would have more than one liturgical tradition existing side-by-side.

It is unfortunate but true, however, that difference often breeds suspicion. We see someone behaving differently from us, in a manner we do not understand, and we assume the worst. I remember once hearing of an Orthodox man who, seeing how Roman Catholics make the sign of the cross, declared it to be an indication of our elevation of Mary and the Pope as a part of the Trinity (making it....what? A "quinity"?). While this may sound crazy, there are many examples in the history of the Church where unity of faith was confused with uniformity of worship. Difference breeds suspicion, and the response is an attempt to force liturgical uniformity. And these attempts almost always turn out badly, because (as I say) for those subject to the penalties, it is subjectively felt as an demand to abandon some part of their faith life. Many times in Church history people have chosen to enter into schism over such demands — because entering into schism, as bad as it is, is not as bad as what was perceived as a demand to enter into deliberate heresy. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Many do not know it, but the Great Schism of 1054 was preceded in 1052 by a command of the Patriarch of Constantinople that all the Latins living in his territory abandon their traditions and worship according to the Byzantine rite. He denounced things like the omission of the 'alleluia' during Lent and use of unleavened bread at Mass. This latter point might seem minor, until we learn that Latin tabernacles were burst open at the command of Chancellor Nicephorus and the hosts trampled on, to condemn the use of supposedly "invalid" bread. Many Byzantine bishops and monks supported these gestures, with Leo of Achridia writing, "Anyone who thus observes the Sabbath and uses unleavened bread is neither Jew nor pagan; he resembles a leopard." The schism started two years later, and is still going on.
  • In the wake of the Protestant Reformation a number of illicit alterations were being made to the liturgy in order to communicate the Protestant ideas. Rome therefore began to impose stricter liturgical laws in order to re-emphasize the Catholic faith. This, however, had the side-effect of stamping out many of the legitimate local liturgical traditions in favour of the newly revised Roman rite. Such efforts were seen as necessary to preserve the faith, but at times were taken too far. This was especially true with regards to Catholic relations with the East, where a practice of "Latinization" took hold. When the Portuguese, for example, arrived in India, they discovered a very ancient Christian culture that dated back to St. Thomas the Apostle. One of the first things they attempted to do, however, was to require these Christians to abandon their Syriac traditions in favour of the Roman rite, through decisions taken at the Synod at Udayamperur in June 1599. Within two generations the native Christians revolted against this Latinization, and the result was a schism which also endures to this day.

Given the history of explosive conflicts over liturgical practice, we see how paragraph 4 of the Constitution is very important, acting as an indicator on how inter-rite relations are to be governed. The key points are as follows:

  1. The declaration of equal rights and dignity among rites The Constitution sets to rest any discussions about one liturgical rite being "better" than another. They are different but fundamentally equal, so mutual suspicion should cease (as well as any liturgical superiority complexes). The Constitution does point out, however, that this declaration of equality only includes "lawfully acknowledged" rites. As I've said before, the liturgy is a mechanism by which a collection of individuals becomes a unit of the Church and manifests the presence of "the Body of Christ" in the world. A privately-determined liturgy, therefore, is an oxymoron: the lawful acknowledgement of the liturgical ritual in question is necessary if we want to be sure the manner in which we are worshipping will not corrupt our faith, and if we want our local worship of God to be in communion with the whole of the Church throughout the world.
  2. Preservation and fostering of rites The statement that "holy Mother Church wishes to preserve [all rites] in the future and to foster them in every way" is, in effect, a declaration of the end of Latinization. The Catholic Church, through paragraph 4, is declaring that its liturgical policy is "unity in diversity". I submit to you, however, that there is more to this statement than simply a change of direction for Church authorities. Liturgical chauvanism, xenophobia and lack of understanding can arise just as easily in the laity and lower clergy as in the higher elements of the hierarchy. It can also arise in members of the other liturgical traditions, as we saw in the attempt at forced "Byzantization" in Constantinople in 1052. If this wish of preserving and fostering the rites is truly to be an expression of the desire of Holy Mother Church, then we as members of the Church need to get involved. Do we honour and respect the other liturgical traditions? Do we even know anything about them? Real "unity in diversity" requires more than simply a mutual benign neglect.
  3. The revision of rites The Council asked that the rites — all of them — be revised "in the light of sound tradition". In the case of the Eastern rites in particular, this has recently meant going back to the traditional practices by removing many of the "latinisms" that either crept in (or were forced in) to their liturgical forms. Far from being intended as an insult to the Latin ways, the Council saw it as a way for preserve fidelity to a rich spiritual heritage. This being said, however, there is also always the danger of an excess devotion to the past, without striving to meet the needs of the present. For this reason the Council also asked that the rites "be given new vigor to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times". This last statement is meant to be more than a platitude: in some ways, it represents the greatest challenge of all. How can each rite become more "vigourous"? There are perhaps many ways, but the most obvious one to me is through the advancing of a genuine liturgically-connected spirituality, so that we may celebrate the liturgy with hearts more open to the fruitful action of the Holy Spirit. And what are the "circumstances and needs of modern times", and how can the rites serve to meet them? We need to pay attention to the "signs of the time", because what is at stake is the Holy Spirit's agenda for the world, and the place of the liturgical traditions — all of them — within the advancing of that agenda.