Rorate Caeli

“The Principle of Tradition in the Liturgical Life of the Church”: Lecture by Bishop Athanasius Schneider

St Clement & St Basil
Lecture given at the Pax Liturgica Meeting at the Augustinianum in Rome, October 27, 2023, by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Mary in Astana. The lecture was given in English; Rorate is grateful to His Excellency for sharing the transcript. The video may be found here.
 - PAK

The Roman Church is the mother and teachers of all other particular churches because of the primacy of St. Peter and his successors, the Roman Pontiffs. From the beginning the Roman church was inherently committed to keep and transmit in all her life, both doctrinal and liturgical, her fidelity to tradition, or to the divine principle of tradition. Famous became the phrase of Pope Stephen I (who reigned from 254 to 257): “Let nothing be innovated which has not been handed down” (nihil innovetur nisi quod traditum est).[1] Eusebius of Caesarea wrote in his Ecclesiastical History that pope Stephen was thinking that one ought not to make any innovation contrary to the tradition that had prevailed from the beginning.[2]

This eminently and truly traditional spirit of the Roman Church is manifested in its very beginning by the Letter of Pope St. Clement I to the Corinthians. Speaking about the hierarchical structure of the Church, namely about the bishops and deacons, St. Clement characterizes them as nothing new, and even already announced by the prophet Isaiah. He says: “Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith (Is. 60:17).” (1 Clem. 42:5).

The principle of tradition is of divine origin and contains as its integral parts order and hierarchy. God commanded himself the way He wants to be publicly honoured in worship, which must be done according to an established order and hierarchy. Pope St. Clement I thus explains it:

These things therefore being manifest to us, and since we look into the depths of the divine knowledge, it behooves us to do all things in [their proper] order, which the Lord has commanded us to perform at stated times. He has enjoined offerings [to be presented] and service to be performed [to Him], and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours. Where and by whom He desires these things to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things, being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable unto Him. Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted, and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen.[3]

Public worship is inherently traditional, that is to say, it must be fulfilled according to the norms already established by divine authority and handed over by the ancestors. The faithful observance of the norms of the worship had such an importance that their careless inobservance or the introduction of arbitrary novelties was threatened by God in the Old Testament with the death penalty, as Pope St. Clement said:

Let every one of you, brethren, give thanks to God in his own order, living in all good conscience, with becoming gravity, and not going beyond the rule of the ministry prescribed to him (kanon tes leitouorgias). Not in every place, brethren, are the daily sacrifices offered, or the peace-offerings, or the sin-offerings and the trespass-offerings, but in Jerusalem only. And even there they are not offered in any place, but only at the altar before the temple, that which is offered being first carefully examined by the high priest and the ministers already mentioned. Those, therefore, who do anything beyond that which is agreeable to His will, are punished with death. You see, brethren, that the greater the knowledge that has been vouchsafed to us, the greater also is the danger to which we are exposed.[4]

With this Pope St. Clement wanted to say, that if the Christians transgress the ecclesiastical and liturgical order handed over to them, they can expect a stricter judgment than the Jews in the Old Covenant.

The liturgical life of the Church in the first centuries was essentially characterized by tradition, by the unwritten tradition of the Apostles and their successors. The Church of the first centuries considered its liturgy as a kind of continuation with the divinely and meticulously ordered liturgy of the Old Testament. The Ancient Church shared with the Old Testament liturgy the same essential ritual features and attitudes, namely the great sense of the awe, of silence, of veiling the mystery of the divine realities through a real veil, through a local distance of the common people from the sanctuary and the holy of holies, through a hierarchically ordered liturgical rite, through the highlighting and valuation of the symbolic meaning of gestures and objects. It is worthwhile to quote a longer passage from St. Basil, where he in his book On the Holy Spirit presents this traditional principle of the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church:

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay — no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more.
       For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learned the lesson that the awe-inspiring dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents.
       What was the meaning of the mighty Moses in not making all the parts of the tabernacle open to every one? The profane he stationed without the sacred barriers; the first courts he conceded to the purer; the Levites alone he judged worthy of being servants of the Deity; sacrifices and burnt offerings and the rest of the priestly functions he allotted to the priests; one chosen out of all he admitted to the shrine, and even this one not always but on only one day in the year, and of this one day a time was fixed for his entry so that he might gaze on the Holy of Holies amazed at the strangeness and novelty of the sight. Moses was wise enough to know that contempt stretches to the trite and to the obvious, while a keen interest is naturally associated with the unusual and the unfamiliar.
       In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awe-inspiring dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad randomly among the common folk is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity.
       Dogma (the deeper meaning of the faith) and Kerygma are two distinct things; the former is observed in silence; the latter is proclaimed to all the world. One form of this silence is the obscurity employed in Scripture, which makes the meaning of dogmas difficult to be understood for the very advantage of the reader: Thus we all look to the East at our prayers, but few of us know that we are seeking our own old country, Paradise, which God planted in Eden in the East (Gen. 2:8). We pray standing, on the first day of the week, but we do not all know the reason. On the day of the resurrection (or standing again: Grk. ἀνάστασις) we remind ourselves of the grace given to us by standing at prayer, not only because we rose with Christ, and are bound to seek those things which are above, (Col. 3:1) but because the day seems to us to be in some sense an image of the age which we expect, wherefore, though it is the beginning of days, it is not called by Moses first, but one. For he says “There was evening, and there was morning, one day,” as though the same day often recurred. Now one and eighth are the same, in itself distinctly indicating that really one and eighth of which the Psalmist makes mention in certain titles of the Psalms, the state which follows after this present time, the day which knows no waning or eventide, and no successor, that age which ends not or grows old. Of necessity, then, the church teaches her own foster children to offer their prayers on that day standing, to the end that through continual reminder of the endless life we may not neglect to make provision for our removal there.
       Moreover all Pentecost is a reminder of the resurrection expected in the age to come. For that one and first day, if seven times multiplied by seven, completes the seven weeks of the holy Pentecost; for, beginning at the first, Pentecost ends with the same, making fifty revolutions through the like intervening days. And so it is a likeness of eternity, beginning as it does and ending, as in a circling course, at the same point. On this day the rules of the church have educated us to prefer the upright attitude of prayer, for by their plain reminder they, as it were, make our mind to dwell no longer in the present but in the future. Moreover every time we fall upon our knees and rise from off them we show by the very deed that by our sin we fell down to earth, and by the loving kindness of our Creator were called back to heaven.”[5]

St. Basil formulated this fundamental truth, that the tradition of the Apostles is being handed over by means of the form of the liturgical rites, “en mysterio”. The Ancient Church understood the liturgy as an eminent witness of the sacred tradition.

St Irenaeus & St Augustine

Refuting the anti-traditional revolutionary stance of the Christian Gnostics, St. Irenaeus of Lyons said that the Catholic doctrine “is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes the doctrine”[6] of the Church. The faith of the Church manifests itself in the liturgy all the more securely and reliably, the clearer the apostolic origin, the more widespread, the more central the position of the liturgical rites are.[7]

The high value of the liturgy, first for the mediation of divine grace, then also for the knowledge of faith, made it a duty of the Magisterium of the Church to care for the purity of the liturgy. Since not a few heretics changed the liturgy with innovations to adapt it to their own views, the Church felt compelled to protect and to formulate more carefully the truths of the faith as it found it in the liturgical texts and rites.[8] St. Augustine for instance, conscientiously checked the liturgical prayers for the purity of faith and made this liturgical monitoring obligatory for other bishops as well.[9]

St. Vincent of Lerins formulated the following assertions when he related the dispute about the re-baptism, an issue touching also the laws of divine worship:

True piety admits no other rule than that whatsoever things have been faithfully received from our fathers the same are to be faithfully consigned to our children; and that it is our duty, not to lead religion whither we would, but rather to follow religion whither it leads; and that it is the part of Christian modesty and gravity not to hand down our own beliefs or observances to those who come after us, but to preserve and keep what we have received from those who went before us (a maioribus accepta servare). … Antiquity was retained, novelty was rejected (retenta antiquitas, expulsa novitas).[10]

Dom Prosper Gueranger said: “The liturgy is the tradition in its most powerful and solemn form” (Institutions liturgiques, I, Paris 1878, p. 3). Pope Pius XI made this memorable assertion:

People are instructed in the truths of faith and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year - in fact, forever. The church’s teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man’s nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God’s teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life.[11]

The same Pope declared in a private audience to Dom Bernard Capelle, a learned Benedictine liturgist: “The liturgy is the main organ of the ordinary magisterium of the Church. The liturgy is not the instructional explanation of this or that person, but the instruction of the church.”[12] When asked by a Vatican commission to share his opinion about liturgical reform, Dom Capelle wrote in 1949:

It seems to me that in the reform of a thing so sacred, it is a thousand times better to keep to the minimum than to risk going beyond it. … Nothing is to be changed unless it is a case of indispensable necessity. This rule is most wise, for the Liturgy is truly a sacred testament and monument—not so much written but living—of Tradition, to be reckoned with as a locus of theology and a most pure font of piety and of the Christian spirit. Therefore: 1. That which serves [well] at the present time is sufficient unless it is gravely deficient. 2. Only new things that are necessary are to be introduced, and in a way that is consonant with Tradition. 3. Nothing is to be changed unless there is comparatively great gain to be had. 4. Practices that have fallen into disuse are to be restored if their reintroduction would truly render the rites more pure and more intelligible to the minds of the faithful.[13]

The principle of tradition in the liturgy manifests and protects the Catholic faith in all its variety and fulness. The tradition of the Church, which was carefully kept and organically grown, that is to say without any ruptures, in the liturgy of the Church helps to shine forth the beauty and fulness of the Catholic faith. The Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, whom Pope Pius XII called a “A Doctor of the Church of the 20th century” left us the following apt observations:

How wrong it is thus to consider the beauty of the Church and of the Liturgy as something that might distract us and draw us away from the real theme of the liturgical mysteries to something superficial! Those who clamor that the Church is no museum and that the really pious man is indifferent to these accidentals only show their blindness to the great role played by adequate (and beautiful) expression. Ultimately, this is a blindness to man’s nature. Although they claim to be “existential,” these persons remain very abstract. They forget that authentic beauty contains a specific message of God which lifts up our souls. As Plato said: “At the sight of beauty, wings grow on our souls.” Moreover, the sacred beauty connected with the Liturgy never claims to be thematic, as in a work of art; rather, as expression, it has a serving function. Far from obscuring or replacing the religious theme of the Liturgy, it helps it to shine forth.”[14]

Some 20th century liturgical scholars invented arbitrarily a theory with a haughty and discriminating feature, the so-called “decadence or corruption theory”, by which they basically gave a deathblow to the bimillennial principle of the tradition in liturgy, introducing conceptually the heretical principle of rupture, with which they justified the creation of new liturgical rites by academics, as it were by armchair decisions. A wise liturgical scholar questioned this new theory already in 1956 by putting this question: “Why should cutting down in the twentieth century be a ‘true liturgical revival’ and ‘decadence’ seven hundred years ago? Unless we [moderns] possess the monopoly of truth?”[15]

Dom Prosper Guéranger characterized with perspicacity the anti-liturgical heresy as a rupture with the liturgical tradition of the Church:

The first characteristic of the anti-liturgical heresy is hatred of tradition as found in the formulas used in divine worship.  One cannot fail to note this special characteristic in all heretics, from Vigilantus to Calvin, and the reason for it is easy to explain. Every sectarian who wishes to introduce a new doctrine finds himself, unfailingly, face to face with the Liturgy, which is Tradition at its strongest and best, and he cannot rest until he has silenced this voice, until he has torn up these pages which recall the faith of past centuries.”[16]

Louis Bouyer wrote the following remarkable explanation about the essential principle of the tradition in liturgy:

Tradition cannot be maintained either by unprecedented innovations or by artificial archaisms. All healthy progress, as well as all true reformations, can only be effected by an organic process. One can neither add wholly foreign elements to the liturgy from the outside, nor make it regress to some idealized vision of the past. One can, and sometimes should, either prune or enrich the liturgy, but he should always keep in touch with the living organism which has been transmitted to us by our forefathers, and he should always respect the laws of its structure and of its growth. No innovation, therefore, can be accepted simply for the purpose of doing something new, and no restoration can be the product of a yen for romantic escape into a dead past. The continuity, the homogeneity of tradition in this case must be retained by authority as the sine qua non condition for the perpetuated life of a reality which is not merely immensely sacred but even the very life of the mystical body.[17]

Johannes Wagner, a German liturgist, and member of the Liturgical Commission of the II Vatican Council made this memorable affirmation:

History has proved a thousand times that there is nothing more dangerous for a religion, nothing is more likely to result in discontent, incertitude, division and apostasy than interference with the Liturgy and consequently with religious sensibility.[18]

The first in the Church who is bound to preserve and defend the principle of the tradition in the liturgy, that is to say, its constant and strictly organic quality, is the Pope. Louis Bouyer refuted the following strange claim that “the supreme authority of the Church is not bound by anything and could freely give us an entirely new Liturgy, answering today’s needs, without any further concern for the past, and that there could be no question of the Church’s fabricating a new Liturgy.”[19]

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made the following well-known assertion:

After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. Eventually, the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West. In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith, and that also applies to the liturgy. It is not “manufactured” by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity . . . The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition . . . The greatness of the liturgy depends — we shall have to repeat this frequently — on its unspontaneity (Unbeliebigkeit).[20]

The Ecumenical Council of Constance (1414 - 1418) described the Pope as the first person in the Church who is bound not only to scrupulously guard the integrity of the Faith, but also the tradition of the liturgy, stipulating this norm:

Since the Roman Pontiff exercises such great power among mortals, it is right that he be bound all the more by the incontrovertible bonds of the faith and by the rites that are to be observed regarding the church’s sacraments. We therefore decree and ordain, in order that the fullness of the faith may shine in a future Roman pontiff with singular splendor from the earliest moments of his becoming pope, that henceforth whoever is to be elected Roman pontiff shall make the following confession and profession in public.[21]

In the same session, the Council of Constance decreed that every newly elected Pope had to make an oath of faith, proposing the following formula, from which we quote the most crucial passages:

I, N., elected pope, with both heart and mouth confess and profess to almighty God, that I will firmly believe and hold the Catholic Faith according to the traditions of the Apostles, of the General Councils and of other Holy Fathers. I will preserve this faith unchanged to the last dot and will confirm, defend, and preach it to the point of death and the shedding of my blood, and likewise I will follow and observe in every way the rite handed down of the ecclesiastical sacraments of the Catholic Church.

The traditional form of the Roman Rite proves to be a clear and complete testimony to the central truths of the Catholic faith. In the traditional rite no core element of the Depositum fidei is concealed, weakened, or formulated in an ambivalent manner.[22] Preserving the precious treasure of the traditional liturgy is part of preserving the Depositum fidei. The apostle Paul admonished his disciple: “O Timothy, keep the deposit of faith entrusted to you!” (1 Tim 6:20). In a timeless topicality, St Vincent of Lerins also interpreted this instruction of the apostle in a liturgical dimension, saying:

Who is that Timothy today, if not on the one hand the whole Church in general and on the other hand especially the whole state of the church leaders who must have the intact knowledge of the worship of God and share with others?[23]

The traditional Latin Mass is the expression formed over the millennia and the proven guarantor of this intact knowledge of the worship of God.[24] Indeed, “The liturgy is the tradition in its most powerful and solemn form.”[25]

To watch Bp. Schneider give the lecture in English:

[1] Cf. S. Cyprianus, ep. 74.

[2] See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, cf. VII, 3,1.

[3] 1 Clem 40:1-5.

[4] 1 Clem 41:1-4.

[5] De Spiritu Sancto, 66.

[6] Haer. 4, 18,5.

[7] See Michael Fiedrowicz, Theologie der Kirchenväter. Grundlagen frühchristlicher Glaubensreflexion, Freiburg 2010, p. 250.

[8] See ibid., p. 251.

[9] See Ep. 54,6.

[10] Commonitorium, 6, 7.

[11] Encyclical Quas Primas, 21.

[12] Résumé textuel de l´audience accordée le 12 décembre 1935 à Dom B. Capelle: Questions liturgiques et paroissiales 21 (1936) 134.

[13] Memoria sulla reforma liturgica: Supplemento II – Annotazioni alla “Memoria”, no. 76, Vatican 1950, p. 9, cited in Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy. The Principles of Liturgical Reform and their Relation to the Twentieth Century Liturgical Movement Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Farnborough 2004, pp. 149ff.

[14] Trojan Horse in the City of God, Chicago 1967, p. 198.

[15] Stephen J.P. van Dijk, O.F.M., “Liturgical Movement Past and Present,” The Clergy Review 41: 528.

[16] Institutions liturgiques 1840-1851. Extraits établis par Jean Vaquié, Vouillé 1977, 107.

[17] Liturgy Revived: A Doctrinal Commentary of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy, London 1965, 55.

[18] Reformation aus Rom, München 1967, 42.

[19] The Word of God Lives in the Liturgy, in: A. Martimort et all., The Liturgy and the Word of God, Collegeville 1959, 65.

[20] The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco 2000, pp. 165-66

[21] Thirty-ninth session from October 9, 1417, ratified by Pope Martin V.

[22] See Fiedrowicz, op.cit., 289.

[23] Commonitorium 22:2.

[24] Fiedrowicz, op.cit., 292-93.

[25] Dom Prosper Guéranger, Institutions liturgiques, I, Paris 1878, p. 3.