James Leachman is a Benedictine monk of St Benedict’s Abbey in Ealing, west London. He has written extensively on the liturgy, on Latin, and on liturgical theology. He currently leads the Liturgy Institute, which supports post-graduate instruction, research and scholarly publication in liturgy, as well as work on church architecture, Latin instruction, and a host of other activities. Dom James has been a professor at KU Leuven and at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy in Rome.
To celebrate its 175th anniversary, The Tablet published a series of essays on how Catholic life in Britain has changed. Dom James wrote one of these, titled “Mass Movements”, describing changes in liturgical life in Britain since 1840. The essay seemed highly relevant to our discussions at Pray Tell, and with the kind permission of the The Tablet (www.thetablet.co.uk) and its publisher, we are reposting it here.
To be sure, modern Catholic Britain has been a special case in liturgical development. The hierarchy was not restored until 1850, and this act provoked a strong anti-Catholic reaction. Leachman describes the typical liturgical life in 1840: “…centred on the Sunday Mass. Celebrated in Latin in a simple chapel, it would have rarely been sung or have more than one male altar server, and often would have no Communion for the people.”
But this was about to change. Leachman describes a range of developments from 1840 to the 1950s: in the Mass itself, in the calendar, the breviary and in the devotional and spiritual practices of the faithful. Many of these were promulgated by otherwise very conservative popes. Pope Pius XII, for example, made substantial changes in the Holy Week liturgies; it was these rather than the reforms of Vatican II that provoked much of Evelyn Waugh’s spleen. Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (1947) emphasised liturgical development:
As circumstances and the needs of Christians warrant, public worship is organised, developed and enriched by new rites, ceremonies and regulations, always with the single end in view, “that we may use these external signs to keep us alert, learn from them what distance we have come along the road, and by them be heartened to go on further with more eager step; for the effect will be more precious the warmer the affection which precedes it.” (§22, quoting St Augustine)
From time immemorial the ecclesiastical hierarchy has exercised this right in matters liturgical. It has organized and regulated divine worship, enriching it constantly with new splendour and beauty, to the glory of God and the spiritual profit of Christians. What is more, it has not been slow – keeping the substance of the Mass and sacraments carefully intact – to modify what it deemed not altogether fitting, and to add what appeared more likely to increase the honour paid to Jesus Christ and the august Trinity, and to instruct and stimulate the Christian people to greater advantage. (§49)
The Church is without question a living organism, and as an organism, in respect of the sacred liturgy also, she grows, matures, develops, adapts and accommodates herself to temporal needs and circumstances, provided only that the integrity of her doctrine be safeguarded. (§59)
I am well aware of the more conservative statements in Mediator Dei – for example, his criticism of what is sometimes termed “archaeologism” in passages such as the following:
… one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive table-form; were he to want black excluded as a colour for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See. (§62)
Conservative or not, Pius XII brought about changes in the Mass, as did his successors. Leachman’s story shows that the liturgy in Britain has developed, maturing, adapting and accommodating itself over time.
And this is true outside of Britain. The liturgy – and the tradition that sings in the liturgy – is alive; in the words of the great historian Jaroslav Pelikan, it is “the living faith of the dead.” Even the Mass preceding the reforms of the Second Vatican Council has continued to adapt, most recently when Pope Benedict XVI modified the Good Friday prayers. There is no such thing as an unchanging “Mass of all time”.
I’ll end as Leachman does, encouraging you to read his article and share your views: “We have come a long way since 1840, but there lies an even more creative road ahead.”