The Organic Development of the Liturgy, by Alcuin Reid OSB

The Organic Development of the Liturgy, by Alcuin Reid OSB

Msgr Peter J. Elliott

by Alcuin Reid OSB

(2004, St Michael's Abbey Press, 333pp, hardback, $54.95. Available from AD Books)

The title sends a subtle message. In his scholarly but accessible study of how the Roman liturgy developed up to Vatican II, Dom Alcuin Reid describes a process of gradual change that soon explodes the myth of an unchanging "Mass of all times". At the same time, with deep respect for tradition, he indicates the limits of change, boundaries set by the sources, principles and texts of the liturgy as it has unfolded in the West.

The author does not propose a biological model for organic development. It is not a process that "just happens". At certain points of history Popes, Councils, Vatican departments and influential liturgists have said "we retain this, but not that", or "now we do this and no longer that".

He describes important moments in a gradual and conservative process, emphasising the checks and balances, and avoiding an evolutionary paradigm. A significant section is his application of Newman's theory of the development of doctrine to the development of the liturgy (pp. 57-58).

In describing organic development and deviations from it, he takes us back before the Liturgical Movement, to some surprising attempts at reforming Catholic worship, such as the Synod of Pistoia (1786). He provides fascinating details of a priest in Paris whose Sunday liturgy in the early 18th Century was remarkably close to a somewhat severe version of the modern rite!

The influence of the Enlightenment on Catholic worship led to early moves for a rational modernisation and simplification of worship, with pedagogical or pastoral goals. Exponents of organic development decry such an approach. But the Enlightenment cannot be written off as all wrong or misguided. Its hubris, etc, was obvious, and lingers still, yet the Enlightenment shaped much of our society. But must liturgy reflect our society? What are the limits of "inculturation"? These questions are also implicit in this historical introduction to a complex process.

Dom Alcuin's account of the medievalism of the 19th century Liturgical Movement leads into a study of a mid-20th century school of thought that sought to go back before the Middle Ages, to restore the Mass to the forms and structure of the patristic era. These liturgists had great influence during and after the Second Vatican Council and the author argues that they went beyond the limits of the principle of organic development. Furthermore they were soon overtaken by more radical schools of thought, varieties of liturgical modernism.

A sequel to this work would inevitably have to confront controversial issues raised by obvious deviations from organic development.

Whether or not one agrees with all of the author's description of organic development, his work shows how important it is that questions about the development of the liturgy should be raised through scholarly studies, rather than ideological slogans.

Nothing is gained by pretending, like the Stalinists of old, that "all the tractors are working well and the fields are full of wheat" when this is not so, as demonstrated by the timely appearance of the recent instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum. The value of this book is the way it lays down a calm scholarly basis for the continuing conversation on the future of the Roman liturgy.

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