Rorate Caeli

O Beauty Ever-Ancient, Ever-New

First Mass of Dom Benedict of Silverstream Priory, November 2nd, 2014
Reading St. Thomas’s Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, I noticed that he makes an argument based on the Collect for Easter Sunday. I went to look at my Baronius Missal and found that, indeed, the prayer we use today in the usus antiquior is identical to the one he quoted back in the 1250s.

At times during Mass or when reading the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, I am often powerfully struck by the thought of just how vast a legacy of history, culture, and prayer is embedded and preserved in the traditional Roman liturgy. Our prayers and ceremonies go back in many instances to the first millennium of the Church. The traditional Roman Rite speaks in the same language, breathes the same atmosphere as the Fathers and Doctors and the whole host of saints, and brings us into their presence.

Most of us are under the influence of the misnomer “Tridentine Mass”—a phrase that, as defensible as it is, carries for some people the implication that this liturgical form was somehow invented or massively changed in the era of the Council of Trent. As students of the liturgical history know, however, the reality is quite different: the substance of the Missal of Pius V had already been present for many centuries, and, in fact, if we go back even to the time of St. Gregory the Great (d. 604), we will find the core of the Roman Rite already there (hence the preference some have for calling the usus antiquior the “Gregorian rite”). As Fr. Hunwicke has pointed out, the Roman Canon is so ancient that its theology of consecration predates the controversy over the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and therefore lacks an epiklesis of the sort that the Byzantine liturgy, to combat this heresy, inserted at a later date. The Roman Canon operates on the older belief that whatever the Father approves and ratifies will be accomplished—including the making-present of the sacrifice of His Son under the consecrated bread and wine. The Father wills it, and it is done.

(I think, by the way, that Fr. Hunwicke deserves the nickname “Roman Canonist” for his many fine articles in defense of the antiquity, primacy, purity, and rightness of the Roman Canon for the Western liturgical rites that owe their origin to Rome, and his pointed critiques of the dire innovation of introducing multiple Eucharistic prayers. See here, here, and here.)

Returning to the point of departure: What is the value of simply doing what our forefathers did? What is the value of participating in a Mass that is, in so much of its wording and ceremonies, the same as the one prayed by St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Francis of Assisi, St. Charles Borromeo or St. Thérèse of Lisieux? What is the value of holding in one’s mind and heart, or whispering on one’s lips, or singing with one’s voice, prayers that go back, unchanged, for century after century after century?

While it might be difficult to express this subtle value in words, it is not difficult to see why such prayer, across centuries, across continents, across cultures, depth calling out to depth, age to age and saint to saint, has such an enormous appeal to young people who are discovering or re-discovering their faith. There is strength in knowing that you are holding on to a giant indestructible rope that connects you to countless holy men and women before you, all of whom are now in heavenly glory, for which this very same liturgy prepared them on earth. There is consolation in feeling that, in the midst of a world of constant change, indeed, a modern world of almost neurotic mobility, displacement, and waste, the most important things do not change, indeed will never change. There is immense peace in returning, week after week, to readings, prayers, antiphons, ceremonies, that have survived every war, famine, plague, and persecution, and carry with them the aura of agelessness, the ardor of adoration, the savor of sanctity, the sweetness of psalmody. One comes to Mass, and one finds that it is truly, simply, purely the Mass—as it was, as it should be, as it will be until the end of time. 

Yes, there have been changes, but these changes are like ripples on the surface of a vast sea, tranquil in its depths. The identity and integrity of the liturgy come down even to us, each generation cherishing what was handed on while embellishing it with offerings of their own devotion.

Even when we cannot put it into words, this reality, this sense of immense depth and spaciousness, of the collapsing of time and distance as we enter into communion with an innumerable host of worshipers, is part of the indefinable experience of attending the traditional Latin Mass. Blessed be Jesus Christ, “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” who has embodied His everlasting love in a liturgy that is its unclouded mirror.

 I remembered God, and was delighted, and was exercised, and my spirit swooned away.
 My eyes prevented the watches: I was troubled, and I spoke not.
 I thought upon the days of old: and I had in my mind the eternal years.
 And I meditated in the night with my own heart: and I was exercised and I swept my spirit.
 Will God then cast off for ever? or will he never be more favourable again?
 Or will he cut off his mercy for ever, from generation to generation?
 Or will God forget to shew mercy? or will he in his anger shut up his mercies?
 And I said, Now have I begun: this is the change of the right hand of the most High.
 I remembered the works of the Lord: for I will be mindful of thy wonders from the beginning.
 And I will meditate on all thy works: and will be employed in thy inventions.
 Thy way, O God, is in the holy place: who is the great God like our God?
      (Psalm 76:4-14, Douay-Rheims)