This installment takes off in a different direction. We begin with a domestic example, make a technical point, and reach a conclusion of spiritual significance.
Let’s revisit the example of your Thanksgiving Dinner. What time do you eat it? What do you serve, and with what china and linens? Who is there, and what do you do after dinner? Many people can give very definite answers to each of each of these questions. It is part of family lore that there is a football game at 10:00am, dinner is served at 2:00pm, Aunt Mabel brings her famous mincemeat pie, and we always use the centerpiece that Mom found on that trip to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. These customs serve as a point of conversation when you meet that family who eat at noon and serve duck!!! More important, these usages provide constancy in family history. How much it means to come home from college, or the military, or a new marriage, and find them all still in place! How jarring it is when a move, a divorce, or a death changes these simple yet crucial arrangements. Everyone recognizes these matters are not morally significant in themselves: here is no right time for Thanksgiving dinner. But if you summarily invite people for 5:00pm rather than 12:00pm, eyebrows will rise and something may be said. Of course, while change may cause comment, it comes inevitably, and with the gentle editing of memory these are woven into the fabric of the family rite.
There is the word! All of these arrangements make up a family’s rite for Thanksgiving, which stands alongside its rites for Christmas and for the Fourth of July cookout. These provide stable moments to which all kinds of change can be brought, and they are safe spaces for those who are in crisis. They offer still points against which to measure growth.
In the same way the household of the Church carries out the appointed task of liturgy according to a form, or rite. An ecclesiastical rite arranges worship comprehensively. It takes in the text of prayers, readings, and chants as well as their order. It includes the place from which they are said or sung, who sings or says them, and what they wear while doing it. The rite legislates the calendar of celebration and the placement of the altar and pulpit. Like the choice between cranberry sauce and cranberry jelly there is a lot here that looks incidental. Nevertheless, the centuries old pile of communal decisions adding up to a rite generates distinctive theological emphases in the celebration of the Eucharist, the other sacraments, and the Liturgy of the Hours. Some rites reflect vast cultural and historical differences. At this level of distinction we see the two great ritual families of Eastern and Western Christianity. In the East there are two fonts of rite, Egypt, centered on the See of Alexandria, and Syria, centered on the See of Antioch. From these stem a whole rich array of ritual progeny: Byzantine (Greece, Russia, Ukraine, and the Balkans), East Syrian, Maronite (Lebanon), Melkite (Lebanon), Armenian, Malankar (India), Malabar (India), Coptic (Egypt) and Chaldean (Iraq).
Western ritual history features a dialogue between Rome and the Barbarians. The Church of Rome developed a very distinctive ritual pattern. The conquering Goths and Franks imitated the liturgy of the imperial city in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries, then in the following centuries they conquered it again, bringing Germanic exuberance to temper Roman sobriety. After the migrations and invasions subsided and Western Europe began to stabilize after 1050, the continent was left with a patchwork of local rites reflecting this Roman/German fusion to differing degrees. Many Cathedrals had their own liturgical books, as did monasteries and religious orders. The Council of Trent thinned their number and called more people to use the new Roman Missal published in 1570. From this point on most Catholics may be said to follow the Roman Rite. Exceptions were allowed and they are important. For instance, the Dominican Friars kept their own, distinctive liturgical books. Thus St. Vincent Ferrer functioned according a different rite than surrounding parishes down to the Second Vatican Council. At that time the change to the vernacular caused more groups, including the Dominicans, to adopt the Roman Rite.
At this point two local rites remain within the Roman Catholic Church. The Archdiocese of Milan in Italy retains the “Ambrosian Rite,” while the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Toledo in Spain retains the “Mozarabic Rite.” Until recently, everyone else follows the Roman Rite. Now some congregations of Anglicans who come into the Roman Church are retaining their own rite based on the Book of Common Prayer. Some examples of ritual difference may help. In the Church of Milan, there are Six weeks of Advent instead of our four. Lent begins on Sunday not Wednesday. There is no Mass celebrated on the Fridays of Lent. The Creed is said after the bread and wine have been brought forward and placed on the altar.
All of this leads us to a question. We carry out our appointed task of liturgy according to the Roman Rite: why does that matter? To begin with, worship according to a pattern raises a fundamental spiritual issue: what helps people to pray, sameness or innovation? One cannot gainsay the power of spontaneity and invention to hold the mind and the emotions, nor can one deny the capacity of ritual to become rote and so harmless at best. Thousands flock to venues of worship where the liturgical pattern has been eliminated. There, technology and superb motivational skills make for vibrant weekly experiences.
Meanwhile, Mass is the same. “In the name of the Fa……Go in Peace.” Autopilot comes easy for Catholics: how many “to do lists” are reviewed while the familiar verbiage rolls by? This is why the homily is the “make or break” for many as they reflect on their experience of worship. All kinds of people are concerned that the Mass is boring. Some lobby for more “relevance” and snazzier music. More traditional people seek a return to things that seem to make the Mass more lofty and impressive, and less familiar. They hope that Latin, incense and chant will lift people from the ennui of worship. In the end though, Mass needs to be boring. Its sameness has power that outlasts and outstrips any “peak” experience. So next week we take up the spiritual power of sameness and the value of worshipping according to a rite, in our case the Roman Rite.