What We Owe To Solitary Monks
The beginnings of the reform of the Catholic Sacraments that many of us have experienced in our lifetime dates back to at least a century before Vatican II. In the mid-1800’s one could say that the sacramental rites—most notably the Mass but all seven of the rituals—were written and celebrated correctly but emotionlessly. The Roman Missal of 1570 had been prompted by both a desire for unity and rebuttal of Protestant claims. Although some Catholics speak of the timelessness of the 1570 Latin rite, in fact the Mass I grew up with was a late Renaissance, baroque ritual that remained fixed while culture, knowledge, and general religious life changed with the passing centuries.
Catholics who would have been most attuned to the need for a reexamination of Catholic sacraments were the ones closest to the daily rites, specifically monks, who daily celebrated Mass, followed the official calendar, and prayed the Breviary or the multiple hours of psalm-prayers. The breviary itself (now called “The Liturgy of the Hours”) was the center of clerical and religious prayer life, and for all practical purposes served as an eighth sacrament in vowed life.
Dating as far back as Benedict in the sixth century, a daily portion of a monk’s life was devoted to study. This included the copying of the great books of Church antiquity. [By the way, if you are planning a trip to EPCOT at the Orlando Disneyworld park, you will see an animated exhibit of monks copying texts in the Dark Ages on the Spaceship Earth ride.] Joseph Martos in Doors to the Sacred (see home page) writes that in the nineteenth century monks turned to intensive study of the Eucharist in order to celebrate the sacrament more fruitfully. (p. 116) This trend picked up steam both in monasteries and universities by 1900. Among those at the cutting edge of the movement were historians who traced the development of the 1570 Mass of Pius V. What they discovered were a wide range of both rites and underlying theologies of sacraments dating back to Apostolic times.
Among the greatest names in the modern era of liturgical studies was one such quiet and unassuming monk, Odo Casel (1886-1948). His life, thoughts, and writings on the sacraments are so rich and complex that on tomorrow’s (Sunday’s) post I will link to a remarkable biographical piece by the Catholic Canon Lawyer Dr. Edmund Peters of the Catholic Seminary in Detroit, Sacred Heart. For our purposes today I will borrow lavishly from Father Martos, who explains that Casel’s historical study of the sacraments took him back to the ancient Greek Fathers of the Church. For Greek churchmen, sacraments were referred to as mysteries, rites in which the saving activity of the risen Christ became present to those who participated in them. For Casel, this Eastern tendency placed more emphasis upon the experiential participation in the Christian mysteries rather than a reverent attention to the rituals. (Martos, p. 117) Casel never denied the Western Roman Church discipline of correct observance, but he and others agreed that correctness was the lowest common denominator of sacramental Church unity.
It did not hurt the efforts of liturgical reform that Catholic study of the Scriptures was coming into full bloom. Prior to 1943 Catholic scholars were not permitted to collaborate with Protestant biblical scholars or to employ the tools of the craft that mainstream Protestant scholars had employed as early as the 1800’s. Finally, in 1943 Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, gave Catholic scholars much more latitude in Biblical study. A simple example of a biblical advance will demonstrate how Pius XII’s instruction would benefit the worship pf the Catholic Church down the road.
Three of the four Gospels—St. John is the exception—identify Jesus’ last supper with his disciples as a Passover meal, a memorial of the deliverance of the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt, thus freeing them to proceed toward the revelation of the Law and the possession of the sacred land of Israel. Study of Jewish history and the Hebrew Scriptures allowed modern scholars to understand the full definition of the term “memorial,” which is much more powerful than the traditional English (or Latin) suggests. Biblically speaking, a memorial is making the past come into the present. When Jews celebrate Passover, they are not commemorating the 3000th anniversary of an event long ago. Rather, they are experiencing the first Passover in the present moment—time itself becomes a sacrament of profound experience.
The Church has always spoken of the Mass as a reenactment of Calvary, but the liturgical reform, coupled with scriptural insight, has put new emphasis upon Christ’s command to eat the sacramental meal “in my memory” or “in remembrance of me.” While the Church doctrine of Real Presence remained unchanged, Odo Casel and generations who followed emphasized the need for personal and communal experience of the saving event. A static ritual of sacrament did not do justice to either the words of Scripture themselves or the teachings of the Church Fathers. It was from this generation of reformers that the importance of “participation” in every sense of the word was gradually restored to sacramental celebration. Such changes did not occur overnight, nor did a number of Church leaders agree with this direction in sacramental theology, as our old friend Xavier Rynne reminded us in his reporting of the debates of Vatican II on the subject of liturgy.
I am not unaware that many Catholic observers and bloggers blame the “changes” in the Mass and other sacraments for a dramatic decline in church attendance and decline in vocations. For the moment I have two immediate responses. First, having lived through the firestorm of liturgical change as a seminarian, young priest pastor, and church musician, I would admit that many of us embraced liturgical change without fully understanding the spadework that had gone before. In the seminary, for example, we never read Odo Casel, or the other scholars who would have provided us with a depth and a caution that we rarely practiced.
On the other hand, a return to the Tridentine Mass of Pius V runs the risk of canonizing a time piece, a baroque one at that. Formularies of 1570 or 2016 are both ineffectual without a profound sense of the saving work of Jesus Christ captured in the fullness of our humanity, mind and emotions. Sunday’s post, a biography of Odo Casel, may better flesh out the kind of faith and understanding needed in every age, to a degree much better than I can express today.
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