The Mass: early centuries to Vatican II

The Mass: early centuries to Vatican II

Br Barry Coldrey

We saw in the previous two articles in this series on the celebration of the Eucharist (Mass) that at the Passover meal before His passion, death and resurrection, Jesus consecrated the bread and wine into His own Body and Blood and gave the Apostles their first communion. He instructed them to do likewise.

As the four evangelists record the event, the whole celebration might have taken just a few minutes. And after His resurrection, Jesus did not prescribe the surrounding ritual and prayers which might be appropriate to enshrine the Eucharist when He said: 'Do this in commemoration of me!' He left these decisions to the Apostles and later leaders of the Church down the centuries, guided by the Holy Spirit.

In fact, within a short time, the developing Eucharistic liturgy was deeply influenced by the Jewish synagogue service and had two parts:

* The proclamation of God's word which comprised prayers, readings from Scripture and a homily and was attended by the baptised and those preparing for baptism.

* The Eucharist, which was attended only by baptised Christians. In the early Church, references to the Eucharist are often veiled since the 'breaking of the bread' was for the initiated only.

In previous articles we saw that the early Christian church faced three centuries of intermittent, often savage persecution. As a result the Christian community organised in discreet 'house churches' or 'burial societies' in the catacombs. They could not build public churches.

However, in the fourth and fifth centuries, following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, the Christian church gradually became the widespread, official religion of the Roman Empire.

However, the Empire was going the way of all things human in its decline and fall, eventually disintegrating in 476. In due course, the Church faced the colossal task of Christianising the barbarian tribes that were flooding into Western Europe.

All these earth-shattering events affected the celebration of the Eucharist with unity under the leadership of the Pope in Rome becoming increasingly necessary and emphasised. Liturgical books were introduced so that the prayers surrounding the Eucharist were no longer improvised by the bishop or priest.

While the whole Christian community celebrated the Mass on Sundays with as much splendour as could be mustered, small groups gathered at other times to ask God for special intentions: for the deceased, for those who were sick, for abundant crops, for success in business. Others requested Masses for special occasions, such as weddings or funerals.

There was still considerable participation by the congregation although over time many churches developed specialist choirs. People generally participated in worship with their acclamations, responses and singing. However, fewer people were receiving communion regularly and in the sixth century the Church first declared a minimum: Christians must receive communion at least three times each year: at Easter, Christmas and Pentecost.

Varied liturgies

In the wake of the barbarian invasions, gradually over the following three centuries the whole of Western Europe, from Ireland and Iceland in the far west to the Russian land mass in the east, were converted to Christianity, often by missionaries from Ireland.

However, Christianity was at times little more than a thin veneer over local customs and cultures. And over this period, nothing moved faster than a horse or a small sailing vessel, so travel and communications across great distances were slow and often dangerous.

In the area of modern France, Christianity had been long and strongly established but there were many variations in the Eucharistic liturgy from one place to another and always a risk that the multiplication and variety of prayers could lead to a drift from the primary focus of the celebration - praise and thanksgiving to God - into an unbalanced concentration on some local saint or hero.

In due course there was reform. By 800AD, the Emperor Charlemagne ('Charles the Great') had unified much of Western Europe into the so- called Frankish or Holy Roman Empire with its capital at Aachen in what is now modern Germany. And after political unity, Charlemagne sought more unity in church worship.

The Frankish bishops supported him and scholars produced a standard liturgy, the Roman-Frankish Mass, for all parts of the empire. Plainsong music or Gregorian chant added dignity to the liturgy and in time the organ was invented for church music.

Vestments similar to those still worn at Mass became the norm, being the fashionable clothes of the period for formal occasions worn by well-to- do men in the Frankish empire. The colours of these vestments were important signs: red vestments signified the Mass of a martyr; purple denoted a time of penance; while white was for major feasts and for saints who were not martyrs.

Meanwhile, in a society in which few people were literate, relics of the saints were placed around the altar and in due course, expensive reliquaries were built causing an overall clutter obscuring the altar's essential sacrificial role.

The first Christian relics were those of the martyrs. Nowadays our Western view of death is sanitised with most people dying in nursing homes and hospitals so the notion of exhibiting body parts in various stages of decomposition offends the sensitive.

The early Church had a different view, especially towards its martyrs. Some early Christian comm- unities grew and flourished around the martyrs' tombs, which were often in underground catacombs managed by Christian burial societies.

Later the body parts of the martyrs were distributed to far-flung Christian communities which therefore shared in their sacrifice. This was a means of building and strengthening the whole Christian community.

Relics united the present with the past, the contemporary Christian community with the church of the saints. All this occurred against the background of a society where the great majority of people were illiterate and had to be reached by physical signs, not the written word. (Printing was not invented until the 1450s in Germany).

On the other hand, there could be abuses in the use of relics and there were. Relics were easy to fabricate and, in some cases, fraudulent 'relics' abounded. However, medieval Christians saw the positive side of their veneration.

Communion reception

Overall, overt lay participation in the Eucharist gradually declined. The language at times expressed the reality: the laity 'attended' or 'heard' Mass; the priest offered Mass for the people. He performed all the prayers, readings and actions. Often, he alone received communion.

Communion was not viewed as food for the Christian pilgrim on the journey of life, but as a reward for a virtuous life. In 1215, the Second Lateran Council set a new minimum: Christians ought at least to receive communion annually, at Easter.

The Mass was a drama, a spectacle. The laity gazed in awe. They were silent participants. In time, altar servers had a role in the liturgy being taught simple Latin, sufficient to answer a limited number of fixed responses. The servers represented the Christian people at Mass.

Meanwhile, Masses offered for private intentions were very popular, but there was a lack of emphasis on the Eucharist as a community-at- worship, the body of Christ.

Latin was the language of the liturgy and the international language of the educated. By this stage, the unified Roman Empire had long collapsed. Latin was no longer a spoken language among ordinary people. French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese developed from Latin and across northern Europe there were local languages galore.

There were three forms of the Eucharist:

* The Pontifical Mass where the bishop was associated with the atmosphere of a papal Mass.

* The High Mass, sung by a priest, assisted by deacons and a choir which sang instead of the people.

* The Low Mass said by a priest alone or with his parish congregation.

All these developments followed from Jesus' offering of Himself in the Eucharist as recorded by the evangelists and St Paul. Luke's account is in the Pauline tradition, and is as follows:

'He sat at table and the apostles were with Him. Jesus took bread and when he had given thanks He broke it and gave it to them saying: 'This is My Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way with the cup, after supper saying: 'This cup is the new covenant in My Blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.'

In obedience to the Lord's command: 'Do this for a commemoration of me' the Church led by the Apostles and later popes - the successors of St Peter - had developed the Christian liturgy.

At first, the Christian communities enshrined the words of consecration in an agape meal. However, while the agape was successful with some Christian house churches, it posed unanticipated problems in bigger, boisterous communities. The agape was discontinued within two or three generations of Jesus' death and resurrection.

In place of the agape, a liturgy developed gradually which was strikingly similar to that which Catholics still attend:

* A service of the Word of God - prayers, Scripture readings and a homily - modelled on the Jewish synagogue service.

* A service of the Eucharist, in which the prayer of offering, thanksgiving and communion, was originally extemporised by the priest, but in due course fixed by the Church.

The Protestant reformations in the 16th century split the Christian community. There had been other schisms - especially the final break of the Greek Orthodox churches from Rome in 1054 - but the Protestant reformations and the ensuing religious wars tore the Christian church apart with unique venom. In due course the Protestant churches produced a great variety of Eucharistic rites.

Catholic reform occurred during and after the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Council Fathers did not remain in session over this whole period as there were long breaks between some meetings. However, in face of the Protestant challenge, unity within the Catholic world was stressed. This was no time for experimentation. There were substantial reforms of the liturgy and in priestly training.


Meanwhile, there was need for reform. As we have seen, relics were extremely popular with medieval Christians, but their veneration had led to many abuses. Fakes abounded and the traffic in relics led to financial scandals. In a similar way, there were liturgical abuses which flowed from irreverence, superstition and a lack of theological education among some priests and ministers.

The three major reforms which addressed these abuses were:

* The Roman missal of 1570 which gave detailed rubrics or regulations for the celebration of the Eucharist (the Tridentine Mass).

* Seminaries were established to train priests for ministry.

* The proliferation of relics was discouraged; there was to be a single relic on the altar embedded in the altar stone.

Latin was the language of the liturgy, highlighting the universal nature of the Church. There was no adaptation to local customs or cultures.

This remained broadly the scene until after World War II and the Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965.

Dr Barry Coldrey is a former secondary school teacher now active in youth ministry. He has been a regular contributor to AD2000.

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