Things I Like About Eastern Christianity (Part 2)

There has been a development in Western Christianity that Easterners has never adopted. This development is about the correlation between the number of priests and the number of Eucharistic celebrations.

In the late first millennium, the following practice got well established in the West: every priest celebrates “his” Mass at least once a day; no matter if there is a community celebrating with him or not.

This development had several consequences that we can still see in our days: Catholic parishioners require different opportunities to attend Mass on Sundays and even on Weekdays. They expect the priests to say Mass as often as possible (at least twice on Sundays, at least once on Weekdays). They want different options for their personal Sunday or Weekday schedule.

Another consequence was that we Westerners got used to Masses celebrated in a very short time and in a reduced esthetic design (apart from High Masses on popular holidays of course). The Liturgy of the Hours almost totally disappeared from the parishes. The current Canon Law permits every priest to celebrate his personal Mass every day, even when there is a community that he could join for concelebration on the same day (can. 902 CIC). The Canon Law also requires religious orders to celebrate Mass every day (can. 663 §2 CIC), even orders like the Benedictines whose founding generation consisted of laymen and did not know regular Masses, not even on Sundays.

Even after the Second Vatican Council and all the great things it said about the Eucharist in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Catholic Church still defines the practice of Eucharistic celebration more with regard to the priests than with regard to the communities.

You will find almost none of these aspects in Eastern Christianity. Admittedly, Orthodox monasteries tend to celebrate Eucharist every morning, and Eastern Catholic parishes sometimes do the same. You can find Orthodox communities of different languages that celebrate Eucharist on the same day in the same church. In some Eastern churches, Eucharist is celebrated more than once a day in case that the building is too small for the entire community. But everyone knows that these are exceptions due to certain circumstances. Orthodox parishioners would never require their parish priest to say a second Mass in the afternoon to give them different choices for their personal preference. No Orthodox would expect to abolish Vespers on Saturday evening and celebrate a Vigil Mass instead. No Eastern priest would refuse to concelebrate with others and say a “private Mass.ˮ No one demands that the Mass is celebrated a bit quicker than usual and shortened a bit so that the next Mass can begin in time.

For me, this is a very important aspect that I like about Eastern Christianity. The Eucharist is not an omnipresent “priestly supply of service” for the laity. Instead, it is the one and only highlight in the weekly life of a Christian community. Instead of the principle “any priest says Mass as often as possible, no matter whether there is a community with him or not”, we find the rule “any community celebrates Eucharist once every Sunday/holiday, no matter how many priests concelebrate.” This is one of the Eastern principles that should be adopted by Roman Catholics immediately.

22 comments

  1. “This is one of the Eastern principles that should be adopted by Roman Catholics immediately.”

    That’s quite an imperative to issue, especially when due consideration of its actual implementation and likely effects is lacking. I am not even sure most Easterners would say it’s wise for Romans to embrace it in such a way.

  2. “Another consequence was that we Westerners got used to Masses celebrated in a very short time and in a reduced esthetic design.”

    I am for longer services but not pointlessly longer services. I know that the Eastern Churches typically run 90 minutes but I can’t see how one could extend the Roman services without seriously distorting the rite. Also EPII is still the most common even when the more beautiful and richer EPIII is probably only a minute or two longer.

    “any community celebrates Eucharist once every Sunday/holiday, no matter how many priests concelebrate”

    The ratio of priests to parishioners would make that a logistical nightmare in some areas. And this can’t be blamed on the shortage of priests because in some areas the decline in mass attendance is more than compensating for the priests available.

    But I think the goal of reducing the number of masses is laudable and can be done reasonably.

    1. I would agree that a regular Roman parish Mass cannot be extended to 90 minutes in a fruitful way. The rite itself is short. But it is a typical Western development to consider it normal when a Mass is “read” within 20 minutes or so, without any chant, without any offices apart from the priest himself, with the option to use shorter versions of the Scripture Readings etc., and then the next Mass for the next priest is scheduled. Not only in the Middle Ages, but also after the Second Vatican Council.

      1. Are you refering to a Sunday Mass or weekday Mass or both? What you describe is quite rare for a holy day or Sunday in the U.S.

      2. The shortest Sunday OF Masses tend to be in the 45 minute range. Standard practice in the US is to have a mostly “read” Mass where the people are expected to sing some parts of it (Gloria, Psalm, Sanctus, etc) as well as hymns. Priests almost universally sing the “Mystery of faith” invitation and the “Per ipsum” at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, but anything more than that is uncommon and usually considered very “Reform of the Reform” or traditionalist. Chant is unusual as well, also being considered ROTR or traditionalist.

        I don’t think having short spoken Masses on weekdays is a bad development. I also don’t dislike short Low Mass in the old rite, as the quiet of it creates a contemplative atmosphere quite different from the “read” version of the OF (which is very lecture-like).

      3. I have very little experience with Sunday Masses in the US, but the shortest weekday Masses I have ever experienced were about 15 minutes in Ireland. Even a feast day (on a weekday) in a Canadian cathedral took only 25 minutes, and the only sung element was a hymn to the Mother of God after the final blessing (and it was neither Saturday nor a Feast of St. Mary).
        In Germany and Austria regular Sunday Masses take about 35-50 minutes, 60 minutes or more are quite seldom (only in big parishes with choirs singing classical music, or in monasteries where everything tends to be done a bit more slowly). This also has to do with the fact that since the Council it has always been permitted (and widely done) to omit one of the readings and the psalm. Many parishioners do not even know that there are two regular readings and a psalm before the gospel reading.

      4. “This also has to do with the fact that since the Council it has always been permitted (and widely done) to omit one of the readings and the psalm. ”

        That has not been permitted as a standing matter in the USA (though I am aware and have seen that it is done illicitly in some places by priests who take a broad view of their effective power (rather than actual authority) to arrange the Mass).

      5. KLS:

        Omitting the psalm is not necessarily illicit. See GIRM 63 regarding weekday Masses:

        When there is only one reading before the Gospel:
        a) during a time of year when the Alleluia is prescribed, either an Alleluia Psalm or the Responsorial Psalm followed by the Alleluia with its verse may be used;
        b) during a time of year when the Alleluia is not foreseen, either the Psalm and the Verse before the Gospel or the Psalm alone may be used;
        c) the Alleluia or the Verse before the Gospel, if not sung, may be omitted.

      6. Paul: Thanks, but my comment was within the context of the conversation about Sunday Masses.

  3. I think that this is a bit naive. In Eastern Catholicism, Eucharistic (read: Orthodox) ideal and Eucharistic actual practice are still quite different. Since it’s introduction into territories outside it’s native lands, Eastern Catholicism has been consistently forced to prove it’s Catholicity by self adopting or being forced to adopt latinizations (practices of the Roman Church that replace authentic Eastern Catholic practices). Post VII, calls to drop decades of latinizations have slowly taken root (ie. dropping Stations of the Cross in Lent and celebrating the Pre-sanctified Divine Liturgy again), only to be replaced by some new ones (ie. Saturday “vigil” liturgies, so as not to lose parishioners to Roman parishes). “Low” daily liturgies with less ceremonial and no incense are still common, even in Lent when the Divine Liturgy is not supposed to be celebrated on weekdays. Saturday evening Vespers are still mostly unknown in the majority of parishes. Multiple Liturgies are still celebrated on a Saturday/Sunday even though they are really not needed by attendance numbers but for the convenience of the faithful, rather than one Liturgy on one altar each Sunday as is authentic Eastern praxis. Again, so as to not lose parishioners to Roman parishes, because they have been taught in the good ole days: Catholic is Catholic.
    Demographics are already demanding that Roman parishes adopt Mr Lumma’s Eastern Eucharistic ideal, not by choice but by the closing or combining of parishes and declining number of priests and faithful.

    1. Thank you for your remarks! I know Eastern Catholics only as a tiny minority here, so maybe my experience is not as developed as yours – but none of your points surprises me, and I know some of them from my own experience. In my post, I did not want to refer to Latinization among Eastern Catholics: Of course it exists, but I do not consider it original Eastern heritage that could be inspiring for Romans, and that is what the post should be focused on. So I hope I am not too naive, but maybe I simplified and idealized more than I should have…

      1. Thanks Liborius. Unfortunately latinization has to be the starting point in this discussion. I agree, the Eastern Churches still need to fully reclaim their heritages, however, the Roman Church too, should look to it’s own past and reclaim it’s own heritage, and not look for solutions in another Church. Praxis between the Latin Church and the Eastern Churches, if and when authentically restored will make them much further apart liturgically, rather than closer together, which is obviously already the case. But that’s a good thing, that’s the real Catholicity in the Catholic Church.

    2. One Roman practice that has made headway into the Orthodox Church (at least in the Antiochian and OCA branches found in North America) is the anticipated Divine Liturgy that combines vespers and Eucharist the evening before a non-Sunday feast day, for example Ss. Peter and Paul coming up. A local OCA pastor does not like the innovation but still does so on occassion because it allows his flock to attend services they would otherwise have missed.

      1. There are certain feasts, and they are very few, where the combination of vespers and the Divine Liturgy are celebrated for the Eve of a feast, and not for the feast itself. I would say that using the phrase “making headway” is stretching the reach of this innovation in Orthodoxy. However, as I mentioned else where, Eastern Catholic Churches, aping Rome, regularly celebrate this innovation not only on feast day eves, but on Saturdays as well so as not to lose parishioners to Roman parishes.

  4. If it is right and just for Eastern Catholics to avoid Latinization, why would it be good for Latin Catholics to embrace Orientalization? Are not the liturgical developments in the West just as valid as those in the East?

    1. Exactly my point, Father! As much as I would LOVE the revised Roman rite to include much of the liturgical praxis from the Eastern Churches, it would no longer be the Roman rite, but a hybrid.

      1. Avoiding the priestly “private Mass” or the spoken-not-sung 20-minutes-Mass or celebrating only one Mass per parish per Sunday would make the Roman rite not at all less Roman. Sacrosanctum Concilium 34 defines the “Romanity” of the Roman rite, and this definition has nothing to do with all these aspects. The Council’s teaching in SC 10, 11, 21, 26, 27 et passim shows that certain ways of celebrating liturgy are to be preferred compared to others. And SC 24 explicitely refers to an Eastern tendency that the Roman rite should adopt.

      2. The Tridentine Rite was a mixture of exuberant Gallican elements added on to the ancient sober Roman Liturgy. Indeed aren’t there even earlier Hebrew and Grecian elements in Trent’s rite? Is Bugnini’s liturgy pure Roman?

        Pray tell, how does one avoid a hybrid liturgy?

  5. That’s very nice, but it’s a very long road from here to there; in many areas the different mass times are for different communities within the same parish or grouping. If it were done immediately the result would be many going un-fed, or even more self-segregation and driving past three churches to go to Mass with reasonably well-done liturgy at the fourth. The path dependence of history means we can’t just reverse prior mistakes. Some things, to use a word the Holy Father used, are “irreversible”.

    Along the same lines, 2008 was just about Year 0 for the Extraordinary Form and the old Low Mass could possibly then have been suppressed or phased out. Now that would surely result in disruptions and the kind of hard feelings that challenge the unity of the Church. An opportunity lost!

  6. In practice, reducing Roman Rite mass schedules to a single “parish unity mass” would probably cause more harm than good, mostly because, for better or worse, the expectation of multiple mass times on Sunday has been deeply ingrained into the culture of the Roman Rite for centuries now. That even seems to be the assumption when churches are built or expanded; most are still far too small to fit all of a parish’s Sundaygoers at one mass (even my diocese’ massive cathedral). And I also know from personal experience that the fastest way to reduce total Sunday mass attendance is to cut mass times. The Eastern traditions offer great insights into how our Roman masses work, or even ought to work. But to echo other previous comments, I’m content in accepting that the Western and Eastern rites are based on equally sound albeit sometimes different liturgical principles, and to a certain extent that’s ok.

  7. The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours exhorts us to use it as the prayer of the laity as well as clergy. I know from experience that is is possible to establish fragments of it as regular worship within a parish. For example Sunday 2nd Vespers, which was also common in parishes before VII. And I know of a small parish which had Morning Prayer before the daily Mass, for several years (led by laity not clergy). So it is not alien to the Latin Rite.
    However the structure is over elaborate for the average parish. I do not know whether there was ever a ‘Parish’ Office, I have only read of a ‘Cathedral’ Office and a ‘Monastic’ Office. That there is a gap in the Church’s official liturgies is demonstrated by the popularity in former times of Little Offices, the Rosary, and the Angelus. There still seems to be a market for ‘Celtic daily prayer’, ‘Taize daily prayer’, and similar offerings.

    1. When I was in college decades ago, one lovely practice of the Dominicans in charge of the college parish was to precede the daily late afternoon Mass with vespers. At that time, the church (long since razed, and its replacement is about to be razed and replaced…) was a very modern triangle (as was the altar), and the congregational seating was along two long sides of the triangle – congregants for daily Mass would (mostly) sit along the front rows of seats, and psalms would, if memory serves, be offered antiphonally from side to side. It wasn’t that complicated to get the hang of. If and when I retire and likely move, it would be nice to find a nearby parish or oratory that did that. (At least in the suburbs, daily Mass schedules are structured almost entirely around (i) the needs of retirees and, if there’s a parochial school, the students of that school and (ii) funeral Masses, wakes and committals.

      Parishes erecting artificial hurdles for Mass attendance may mean well, but it’s a situation of be careful what you ask for. People in the employ of such parishes may, for example, find there’s eventually less money to pay them.

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