Pope Paul’s new liturgy recaptures ancient truths

Father John A. Kiley

In his “Milestones,” written as a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI recalled that liturgical change was not a top priority for the council fathers as they gathered for Vatican II.

Our own Bishop Russell J. McVinney concurred with this observation when he famously stated for “America Magazine” that he did not anticipate many changes. He said, “After all, why break up a winning team?”

Yet, liturgical changes did come and are certainly among the most tangible legacies of the Vatican Council era. Discussion still continues after 40 years on the merits of the old Mass and the worth of the new Mass. Yet, both the old Mass and the new Mass reflect an ancient axiom of church life: “Lex orandi, lex credendi” — worship guides belief.

The old Roman Mass promulgated by St. Pius V embodied the dominant beliefs that led up to the Counter-Reformation era. The Catholic Church in Europe was struggling to preserve specific, threatened beliefs: that the Mass was genuinely a sacrifice, that the body and blood of Christ were truly and enduringly present under the appearance of bread and wine, and that the words of the ordained priest uniquely effected the reality of the sacrament. The old Roman Missal of St. Pius V was not overly concerned with the effective proclamation of the Word of God. In those Protestant times, the less said about the Bible the better. Nor was that missal especially concerned about the Mass as a communal banquet. The Protestants already saw Communion as a simple memorial meal. The reformers did not need any encouragement.

Before Vatican II, the scriptural features of the Mass were very muted. Recall that years ago it was not a sin to miss the Service of the Word on Sunday but it was a mortal sin to miss the Service of the Body and Blood. Scripture readings remained in Latin and were very limited in number. Priests often repeated the same readings for the Mass for the Dead every single day — always with back to the people. On Sundays, the Gospel would be secondarily read from the pulpit in the vernacular but clearly detached from the ceremonial flow. A scriptural cycle and daily scriptural homilies were non-existent.

The meal aspect of the Mass was equally obscure. Chalice, paten, corporal, purificator and altar linens were scrupulously maintained because they were the implements that would receive the transubstantiated Christ, not because they symbolized a basic table setting. The paten was even placed under the corporal lest it invoke too clearly the image of a plate off which the faithful might eat. And approaching the table of the Lord by the faithful was not stressed. Communion once a year was not unusual. People rarely received Communion at later morning Masses. The accent was on witnessing the act of transubstantiation rather than on receiving holy Communion.

In no way does the new Mass of Pope Paul VI deny the basic Catholic truths accentuated by the old Roman Missal. The dual elements of “body given” separated from “blood shed” as in death visibly announce that the Mass is clearly a sacrifice. The Eucharistic Prayer remains the paramount moment of the celebration underlining the body and blood of Christ as truly present. The priest still speaks uniquely in “persona Christi”; he is not the mere facilitator of community action. Yet, while preserving the traditions of the Tridentine Church, the post-Vatican II Mass has re-energized some neglected elements of an authentic Catholic liturgy. The Scriptures and a teaching have been integral to the Eucharistic celebration since the apostles. Recall the hearts burning with the Word and the breaking of the revealing bread at Emmaus. The very apostolic phrase “breaking of bread” indicates that the meal aspect of the liturgy was present from the beginning. And do not forget that it all began at a final supper!

By elevating the reading and proclamation of Scripture to a dignified place in the Catholic worship service, the church is asking the faithful to take a closer look at written revelation — so long the province of Protestantism. And by more effectively restoring the symbols of a meal to the liturgy, the church is broadening the meaning of sanctity to include the communal as well as the personal. Yes, as a church prays, so that church will believe. By better integrating the Scriptures and the banquet with the sacrifice, the Real Presence and the priestly action, the modern church is ensuring that all ancient beliefs are accorded respect and will more largely affect the daily life of the Catholic worshipper.