Traditional Latin Mass Arlington is not affiliated with the diocese of Arlington.

The Spirituality of the Ancient Liturgy

(From Latin Mass Magazine, Summer 2001)

By Fr. Chad Ripperger, F.S.S.P.

Among liturgists and theologians, it is generally considered true that each form of ritual embodies a kind of spirituality which is proper to that ritual. Thus, for example, the Eastern rites tend to emphasize the mysterious aspects of the spiritual life as well as the role of icons in promoting devotion to Our Lord, Our Lady and the saints. The ancient rite of Mass embodies a spirituality and spiritual lessons that can appeal to every generation and time. By ancient ritual is meant that rite which was codified by St. Gregory the Great and which underwent a very slow organic development over the course of centuries. The last missal promulgated that enjoys that organic growth is that of 1962.

It is the common perception in the Church today that the liturgical development of the medieval period was, in fact, decadent and that we must return to the apostolic and early Church period in order to know what real liturgy is as well as God’s will regarding the liturgy. This is, however, a fundamentally flawed notion. Aside from the fact that modern liturgical experts (and by modern I mean of the last 100 years or so) were not accurate in their understanding of the liturgies of the early Church, the notion that medieval liturgical development was somehow an aberration is really a rejection of what was an authentic development based upon the understanding of the Mass as sacrifice. Moreover, such figures like to harken back to an era when the liturgy was supposedly “pristine,” by which they usually mean that it conformed to their faulty theology of the Mass as a meal.

The point here is not to give a history lesson, but to explain that one of the premises on which this essay is based is that the ancient rite of Mass is actually the product of the hand of God Who used saints throughout history to develop it according to His holy intention. The desire to reject our liturgical patrimony seems to me to be in fact a desire to reject those things which God has done. Insofar as it is the work of God and the saints, the liturgy embodies certain spiritual principles in the very nature of the ritual that are worthy of reflection. Obviously, we cannot exhaust them all, so we shall limit the discussion to four: 1) the awareness of our sinfulness, 2) the need for self-denial, 3) perfection in virtue and 4) certain aspects about prayer. All of these are essential elements of any sound spiritual life.

I. Awareness of Sin

The first is, again, an awareness of our own sinfulness. The ancient rite of Mass starts with the prayers at the foot of the altar, which begins the Mass with the priest orienting himself to the altar – the altar of his youth. The altar is, of course, the place where the sacrifice for our sins takes place, and the priest asks God to judge his cause. Immediately, there is a clear understanding that there are good and bad in this world. Since the Confiteor is required in every Mass, the ancient ritual makes it clear to us that we have sinned and the priest, and later the people, confess their sins not only to God but also to the whole heavenly court – i.e., to specific saints as well as to all the saints in general. The priest himself must confess his sinfulness independently of the people, both as an example for them and a sign that the priest needs to be keenly aware of his own personal sinfulness. The priest asks to be washed and forgiven repeatedly throughout the ritual in order to foster a sense of humility and unworthiness before God to perform the function that belongs to him. No priest who takes the prayers seriously can be overcome with pride. As the priest ascends to the altar, he asks for the sins of the people to be taken away and then as he reverences the altar he asks specifically that all his sins be pardoned.

There is of course the Kyrie, which is an appeal for God’s mercy, and before the Gospel the priest asks again that his heart and lips be cleansed. Aside from the Confiteor, perhaps the most notable recollection for the priest for his sins is contained in the offertory prayer Suscipe, sancte Pater. The priest says during this prayer that he offers the spotless Host to “atone for my innumerable sins, offenses, and negligences.”

It is necessary for the priest to remind himself constantly of his sinfulness and his proclivity to evil so that he will be motivated to root the sin out of his life. It is also necessary for the priest to do this so that he recognizes his unworthiness to offer the sacrifice and the need to strive for purity and holiness in order to offer it worthily. Since the first step toward sanctified perfection is to be aware of and admit to one’s own sinfulness, these prayers are highly important for the spiritual lives of priests. None of us who are aware of the scandals and sins associated with priests over the past forty years should desire that these prayers be taken out of the offertory or Mass. The laity must desire that the priest be sinless, and one of the ways that is facilitated is by recognizing in the prayers at Mass that he is offering this sacrifice not only for the people but also for himself. If a priest has a sensitive conscience and knows that he must remain pure for the sake of offering the sacrifice, then he merits more graces from God for the people. Today people say that as long as the Mass is valid, the state of the priest does not really matter. While it is true that a priest does not have to be in the state of grace to offer the Mass validly, nevertheless, he has an obligation to be as holy as possible in order to merit more for those under his pastoral care.

There are of course two kinds of merit in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The first is Our Lord’s own Sacrifice in which, by the hands of the priest, He is offered to God the Father in expiation for our sins. Here we are referring to the fact that the Mass is the participation in the Sacrifice of Calvary and the merit flowing from this Sacrifice is infinite since That Which is offered is Infinite. But in addition to this essential or primary merit, there is a secondary merit that flows from three things: (1) the holiness of the priest, (2) the holiness of the people who join their own particular sacrifices to the Sacrifice of the priest and (3) the ritual itself. [See The Merits of a Mass] In order for us to gain more fruits from the Mass, we must do everything we can to aid the priest in being holy, e.g., by offering our prayers and mortifications for him so that he will obtain a holiness of life. But this is possible only when the priest is constantly reminded of his ability to fall into sin if he does not rely on the grace of God. It does not help us to ignore this reality and remove it from the ritual. Rather, the awareness of our sinfulness is absolutely necessary for our spiritual advancement, and the ancient ritual is not lacking in this regard.

The word culture comes from the Latin word “cultus.” While our subject does not allow us to go too far into the discussion, we should be aware of the fact that the cult – that is, the liturgy or rituals of the predominant religion – actually determines the culture of the society. We have seen this historically during the Protestant revolts and we have even seen it in our own lifetimes: when the Church changed the ritual of the Mass, the Catholic subculture in this nation collapsed. The point here is that if we want to transform our culture, we must have a ritual that possesses a keen awareness of our sinfulness; if we expect our society to have an awareness of sin, the priest when he approaches the altar must have a sense of his sinfulness. Since all graces come into the world by means of the Catholic Church, if our ritual is deficient, then perhaps we are cheating the world of the graces that the ritual we offer is meant to convey.

(continued in a future post)

No comments: