January 2014 Print

Roman Liturgy in the Light of the East

by Gabriel S. Sanchez

Reflecting on his Parisian childhood in the 1930s, the late Russian Orthodox émigré theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann recalled how, on the way to class, he would slip into the Roman Catholic Church of St. Charles of Monceau “for two or three minutes, and always in this huge dark church at one of the altars a silent Mass was being said.” For Schmemann “this never-changing Mass” is “the presence in this world of something absolutely and totally Other” which “illumines everything in one way or another, everything is related to it.” Decades later, upon returning from his trip as an official observer at the Second Vatican Council, Father Schmemann confessed to the New York Times that the event provided him the opportunity “to thank God [he] was Orthodox.” Though Schmemann could not have foreseen in November 1963 what was to happen to “the never-changing Mass” in the wake of Vatican II, these were his thoughts upon watching Pope John Paul II serve Mass at Yankee Stadium in New York in 1979:

Presence of the Eternal

“In 1965, I watched the service performed by Pope Paul VI in the same Yankee Stadium, and despite everything it was the presence, the appearance on earth of the eternal, the super-earthly, whereas yesterday I had the feeling that the main thing was the message. And the message is again and again: peace and justice, human family, social work. An opportunity was given, a fantastic chance to tell millions of millions people about God, to reveal to them that more than anything else they need God, but here, on the contrary, the whole goal it seemed consisted in proving that the Church can also speak the jargon of the United Nations.”

Schmemann, despite his lifelong fidelity to the Orthodox Church, was no anti-Catholic bigot looking for cheap opportunities to engage in polemical triumphalism against the “Latin West.” As an outsider looking in who also possessed a deep love for liturgy, he saw, just as many still see, a disturbing degradation of contemporary Roman worship which, at the experiential level at least, leaves Catholicism unpalatable to many Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Orthodox Church, perhaps more than any other extant Christian confession, places a premium on not just the ancientness of liturgical rites, but their beauty and transcendent expressiveness as well. It should come as no surprise that Alexei II, the late Patriarch of Moscow, publicly welcomed Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum in 2007 while, more recently, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a leading prelate of the Russian Orthodox Church and accomplished scholar, called on Catholics and Orthodox to examine the common roots of their respective liturgical traditions, particularly with respect to ancient Christian chant. Without trying to downplay the serious doctrinal differences between Catholics and Orthodox, let me suggest that the project of restoring the traditional Roman liturgy—a project which will no doubt bear great spiritual fruit for the Catholic faithful—represents an important step forward in reuniting Christendom. And while this restoration should proceed on the principles of austerity, elegance, and moderation which once made the Roman liturgy great, there is much that traditional Catholics can learn from Orthodoxy’s liturgical ethos to inspire them in this noble cause.

Reduced Liturgical Life

Outside of a handful of parishes, the liturgical experience of most traditional Catholics is exclusively centered on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with the possibility of Benediction once a month. Eucharistic adoration, the Rosary, and perhaps a public novena represent the remaining elements of public worship. Though certainly laudable and spiritually beneficial, these acts of devotion are detached from the liturgical cycle; they neither directly enhance nor reaffirm the meaning of a given Sunday or feast day. Now compare this situation with what can commonly be found in many Orthodox parishes which follow Russo-Slavic liturgical praxis. On Saturday evenings, and the eves of great feasts, the office known as Great Vespers is served in which the faithful are immersed in psalms, hymns, and Scriptural readings that direct their minds toward the Divine Liturgy—the Eastern name for the Mass—which will be served the next morning. In larger parishes it is not uncommon for Vespers to be the first part of what is known as the All-Night Vigil, a highly ornate service that also includes Matins and First Hour (Prime) and can last up to three hours. Prior to the next day’s Divine Liturgy, the Third (Terce) and Sixth (Sext) hours are recited and, immediately following, a small service of prayers in thanksgiving for Holy Communion is offered. Since there is no official order for “low Divine Liturgy” in the Orthodox tradition, the entire service is intoned and sung. The result of these efforts, which sometimes places great demands on clergy, choir, and laity alike, is the sanctification of time for the greater glory of God.

Even in the traditional Catholic milieu the holy hours of the Divine Office remain in a state of neglect. Though this is not the place to plumb the depths of Western ecclesiastical history, it is an undisputed fact that the revolutionary incursions against the Church in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, along with the influence of Jesuit architectural models and active missionary work, brought about the banishment of the Roman Breviary from parish choir and its confinement to silent reading by the priest between hearing confessions. Still, as late as the 1960s it was not uncommon for many Catholic parishes to at least recite Vespers on Sunday evening. Many hand Missals, including the 1962 edition published by Angelus Press, include the necessary Latin and English texts for not only Sunday and festal Vespers, but Compline as well. Regrettably, if the laity have access to these services at all, it is largely by way of private recitation without the musical and active elements which render these offices authentically liturgical. Since the liturgical revolution in the Church, however, Catholics faithful to traditional liturgy have at times had to make great sacrifices just to attend a low Mass according to the vetus ordo; the idea of having “more” was simply not in circulation during the decades-long struggle to survive.

Restore Liturgical Culture

Today, thankfully, the situation is improving for many Catholics who remain steadfastly attached to the Tridentine Mass even if their overall numbers remain small in comparison to the rest of the Church. This should not be a discouragement, however. Outside of certain “Mother Countries” like Greece, Romania, and Russia, the Orthodox Church has only a minority presence with relatively small parishes, and yet it has not abandoned the importance of an opulent liturgical cycle. Restoring the Catholic Church’s liturgical culture, that is, sanctifying the time through the rich heritage of Rome, is not a matter of numbers exclusively; it is a matter of further dedicating our talents to God, and it can be undertaken in increments. Even parish communities without a full-time priest can, through the efforts of its members, hold a simple public recitation of Vespers each Sunday with an eye to steadily incorporating the chants contained in the Liber Usualis. During special parish events, such as a conference or mission, why not set aside time to recite a little hour such as Prime or Sext? The point here is not to dispense with devotional exercises such as the Rosary, but rather to make sure that such acts of pious worship are fit within the larger framework of the public prayer of the Church.

None of these efforts should be undertaken solely to impress the Orthodox, mind you. But as Catholics faithful to the Great Commission, we should not ignore that we are called to witness to our separated brethren of the East (especially if they are living in the West!). Writing as a former Orthodox Christian who was brought up in the Eastern Catholic Byzantine Rite, I can say that the fight for liturgical tradition in the Roman Catholic Church was one of the catalysts which brought me and my family onto the Barque of St. Peter in 2011. We are not alone. The Anglophone Orthodox world contains a significant number of members attached to Western liturgical forms but who, for quite understandable reasons, have long felt alienated from the Roman Church’s liturgical anarchy. Similarly, many Protestants who are debating whether to swim the Tiber or the Bosporus will note their desire for a reverent liturgy as one of decision points they use (often to the Catholic Church’s detriment). Should we, Catholics of the West, lose them to the East out of liturgical neglect? Heaven forbid.

When St. Pius X set out to “restore all things in Christ” during his time on the Papal Throne, he did so with an eye firmly fixed on the liturgy. In addition to reintroducing Gregorian Chant and making necessary reforms to the breviary, Pius X looked east by confirming the establishment of a Russian Catholic Church which was commanded to retain in full Russia’s historical liturgical rites. Liturgy, in the heart and mind of this great pontiff, was not a mere ornament and certainly not an option; it opened men’s hearts and minds to experience of the Kingdom of God, culminating in receiving Holy Communion—“the shortest and safest way to Heaven.” On this I suspect that the Orthodox would agree.

Gabriel Sanchez is an attorney and independent researcher living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife and four children.