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Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, S.T.D. | From Chapter 1 of The History and the Future of the Roman Liturgy

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Since the Second Vatican Council, the liturgy has become the source of conflicting opinions. This situation has given rise to disputes that continue to divide those who practice their faith. But what has created this state of affairs? Author Denis Crouan shows how the decisions made by Vatican II that aimed at restoring the Roman rite were presented poorly, applied incorrectly, and often not applied at all. In many places the Mass has been turned into a permanent work-in-progress, in which the objectivity of the liturgy yields to the subjectivity of those who take part in it. Where does the current unwillingness to apply the liturgical rules come from? Why have the directives of the last council been ignored or circumvented? This book offers answers to the questions asked by Catholics who want to understand their liturgy better, so as to put an end to deviant practices that threaten Church unity.

What is a liturgical rite?

On October 17, 1985, speaking to the members of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Pope John Paul II said,
The liturgy! Everybody speaks about it, writes about it, and discusses the subject. It has been commented on, it has been praised, and it has been criticized. But who really knows the principles and norms by which it is to be put into practice?

The Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium referred to the liturgy as the "source" and the "summit" of the Church's life (no. 10); what is being done to make this sublime definition a reality?
Today everyone is interested in the liturgy: the number of studies that appear each day is proof of that. But if so many works are being published on the subject, is that not also a sign indicating that the present state of the liturgy poses serious problems?

Recently Cardinal Ratzinger ventured to speak of a "collapse of the liturgy": indeed, we can say that the liturgy is in ruins or, if you prefer, in an advanced state of dilapidation. It is enough to look at how, forty years after Vatican II, the liturgy is celebrated in certain churches to admit that something is not working: whereas the Church demands adherence to the official liturgical books that were published following the Council, which logically should lead to unity in the manner of celebrating the Eucharist, one discovers that there are as many ways of carrying out the liturgical rites as there are churches or celebrants. And it is enough to ask Catholics, "What is the liturgy? What is a rite?" to see that the answers are multifarious, sometimes incomplete, often contradictory.

We must therefore clarify things and reestablish true definitions for the elements that make up the liturgy. Let us begin, then, by asking the question, what is a rite?

A liturgical rite is a complex thing that is difficult to define in a few words. Let us say that a rite is normally a compulsory form of official worship rendered to God; this form is composed of elements that are harmoniously interrelated, having arisen from customs that are at first accepted by a specific community and then approved by the legitimate ecclesiastical authority

Let us examine this definition in detail:

A rite is a compulsory form of worship
. By these words we should understand that the form of the worship is obligatory for all believers, whatever their office in the Church may be. All baptized persons must respect the form of worship handed down by tradition and accepted by the Church-the Pope, the bishops, the priests, the deacons, and the I ay faithful,

A rite is composed of elements that are harmoniously interrelated.
The different parts of the rite are not added one to the other in an arbitrary fashion that is subjective or, perhaps, heterogeneous; they are grouped according to a logic that is determined by a theology that is fully guaranteed to be Catholic.

A rite is the product of customs that are accepted by a community.
This clearly indicates that a rite is not composed of elements that are invented or imposed by one person or by a group of persons; rather, it arises from customs that have gradually and automatically prevailed in a community, the members of which are bound by the same Creed and therefore express their identity in these practices.

A rite must be approved by the ecclesiastical authority.
It is the prerogative of the legitimate authority (the Holy See) to say whether the use of a particular rite involves any danger, either for the faith of each of the individuals who make up the community, or for the unity of the group itself. The authority, therefore, is responsible for determining whether a particular liturgical practice tends to lead to an ill-regulated religiosity

The legitimate authority, therefore, can play the role of a moderator, without prejudice to the rite, to the extent that the authority itself is subject to it; the authority has the prerogative of saying whether a particular rite manifests certain shortcomings or whether some ritual practice may not be in danger of leading the faithful toward a spirituality that is not sound. If such is the case, it win be necessary to modify the rite or to suppress the element within it that could cause the faithful to deviate toward a too sentimental or too subjective belief, which, by that very fact, is detached from the common Creed.

The four components of the Eucharistic liturgy

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council teaches that every liturgical act is composed of two sorts of elements.
For the liturgy is made up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted and of elements subject to change. These latter not only may be changed but ought to be changed with the passage of time, if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become less suitable (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 21; hereafter this document is abbreviated SC).
This excerpt from the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium shows that the liturgy has never been something that is hermetically sealed and immune to all deviation; over the centuries it has in fact been possible to introduce into it some elements that were ill suited to the intimate nature of the Church's official worship.

In order to frame the issues properly, we must learn to distinguish between the "unchangeable elements" of the liturgy and the "elements subject to change".

The unchangeable part of the liturgy or the "essential component":

In every liturgy there is an "essential component": without it, the liturgy is no longer possible. For example, in the Mass, the "essential component" consists of
• the offering of bread and wine,
• the Consecration,
• Communion.
If one of these elements is missing, there is no celebration of the Eucharist; there is nothing left but a simulation of the Mass.

The parts subject to change include

The "substantial" components:

Every liturgy includes a "substantial" part, which, in itself, is not necessary for the Eucharistic liturgy but which is found in more or less developed forms in all the Christian liturgies.

This part is made up of psalms (entrance antiphon, gradual or responsorial psalm, Communion antiphon) as well as readings from Sacred Scripture (Old Testament, Letters of the Apostles, Gospel). It also includes the use of incense, the vestments, posture, and gestures of the officiating ministers, the different prayers, and so forth.

The "modal" component:

This comprises the manner in which the "essential" and "substantial" components take place or are supposed to be carried out.

The "modal" component depends to a great extent on the traditions of the local churches. It determines the order of the ceremonies and thus allows us to distinguish between large fan-lilies of rites (the Roman rite, the Ambrosian rite, the rite of Lyons, the Maronite rite, the rite of Saint John Chrysostom, etc.).

The "accessory" components:

Unlike the essential and substantial parts of the liturgy, the "accessory" component is not codified: it does not immediately concern the beliefs of the faithful and can therefore be left to the discretion of those who are responsible for conducting the liturgy.

The "accessory" component is used to enhance the elements of the three other components of the liturgy; it appeals to "good taste" and to "common sense" and thus includes everything that appeals directly to the senses in order to indicate the degree of solemnity of a celebration: candles, altar cloths, flowers, lighting, etc. [1]

It is through the "accessory" component that a liturgy can be adapted to the temperament and circumstances of different peoples, as the Council explains:
Even in the liturgy the Church does not wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community. Rather does she respect and foster the qualities and talents of the various races and nations. Anything in these peoples' way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy, and, if possible, preserves intact. She sometimes even admits such things into the liturgy itself, provided they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit (SC 37).

Still, in order that the "accessory" may be introduced into the liturgy and yield its fruits, care must be taken to fulfill two conditions:

–that the "accessory" does not become something cumbersome or more important than what is "essential", "substantial", or ,'modal", and that it does not become, for example, an opportunity for entertaining the congregations that have gathered in the first place to participate in the Church's liturgy (recall the famous "collage" pastoral letter [of the French bishops], which now clutters our sanctuaries with brightly colored posters and felt banners that are supposed to testify to the so-called participation of children in the liturgy).

–that the "accessory" does not make us lose sight of the "noble simplicity" that the rites should have (cf. SC 34).

Did Jesus "invent" a Christian liturgy?

Christian liturgies, whatever their forms may be, have their origin in the words spoken by Christ on Holy Thursday: "Do this in memory of me." We too often forget that without this commandment, which is disarming in its simplicity, we would never have had a liturgy. Should these words of Jesus be considered unique, original, "revolutionary"? Must we see in them a regulation that obliges believers to depart from the religious framework of the Jewish era in order to invent something entirely new?

Not at all. In the time of Christ, indeed, all of the Jewish laws had become identified with liturgical regulations that Mary, Joseph, and then Jesus himself observed faithfully. [2] Now, in his teaching and in his conduct, Jesus always affirmed the necessity of observing the law "to the letter", without changing a single iota. Christ simply wanted to fulfill, to complete these commandments with a supreme law that summarized them all: the law of love. That was the novelty.

Jesus would have had plenty of reasons and occasions to rail against all the abuses, the exaggerations, and all the liturgical deviations of his day. However he never did so: at no point do the Gospels present him to us in the guise of a proponent of liturgical reform, much less of a new liturgy. To the Apostles who ask him how to pray, he does not reply by inventing a "new" prayer; he is content to take up again the main themes of daily prayers and of the psalms, which he prefaces with the traditional invocation "Our Father, who art in heaven".

Finally, when Jesus institutes what will become the heart of all Christian liturgical prayer, the Eucharist, he makes the institution of his Paschal Mystery coincide with the anniversary of the Passover of Moses, in order to underscore the fact that the sacrament of the New Covenant is the prolongation and fulfillment of the Old Covenant.

The Apostles are faithful to the liturgical heritage

The Apostles, too, following the example of Jesus, did not create a new liturgy; in the Acts of the Apostles, we see them "day by day attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes" (Acts 2:46).

This conjunction of two loyalties–fidelity to the Jewish liturgy on the one hand, and fidelity to Jesus' commandment ("Do this in memory of me") on the other–illustrates perfectly how compliance with a commandment just received is registered within the continuity of a liturgical prayer that is already venerable.

Over the course of the centuries this apostolic fidelity will find its expansion and its fulfillment in all the Christian liturgies, always proceeding by way of evolution and not by revolution.

The organization of the Christian liturgy and the progressive establishment of rites

Judeo-Christian in its origin, the newborn liturgical prayer of the Church will espouse cultural and therefore cultic forms of a more universal character as it gains non-Jewish neophytes, without thereby denying its Semitic and Old Testament origins.

At Jerusalem and then in Antioch, in Alexandria, in Rome, and later on in Byzantium, the same evangelical teaching, the same apostolic succession [filiation], and the same liturgical prayer unite all the Christian communities of the Empire, both in the eastern part and in the western part.

Although circumstances require that it be celebrated, during three centuries of persecution, in private dwellings or subterranean cemeteries, the unfolding of the principal liturgical act (the "breaking of the bread") is appreciably the same everywhere.

To the Eucharistic anaphora, which constitutes the "essential component" of the liturgy (the offertory, narrative of the Last Supper, Consecration, and Communion), other elements are gradually added: readings from the Letters of the Apostles, excerpts from the Gospel, prayers of intercession, processions, recitation of the Apostles' Creed and of the "Jesus prayer", and prayers of thanksgiving, etc., which will form the "substantial component" of the [particular] rite.

Liturgy and orthodoxy

In the fourth century, the end of the persecutions means for all of Christianity a new springtime and a flourishing, which is both theological and liturgical.

But the five mother churches (the apostolic Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome and, later, Constantinople) must now fight together against the first great heresies in order to preserve the true faith, or "orthodoxy". Reverence for the liturgy that has been handed down is what will guarantee fidelity to the true faith.

Thus, during the entire first millennium, unity of faith will be maintained along with unity of liturgical prayer.

Yet, even if the liturgical unity remains quite evident, it does not exclude legitimate differences, principally in the exterior forms and expressions of worship.

Indeed, the different cultures in which these churches take root and develop bring forth various cultic forms. So it is that in every liturgy the "accessory components", which are closely bound up with the local cultural contexts and associated with the "substantial components" of the worship as an expression of Christian prayer, give rise to different rites.

It is very important to recall here, in connection with the rest of our study, that the diversity of rites in the Church has never been the product of division among Christians, nor of any sort of anarchy, nor of a refusal to allow tradition to evolve; rather, it is the product of an "inculturation" willed by Christ himself, so that his Church might be at the same time "orthodox", faithful to her true beliefs and the true praise of God, [3] and also "catholic", faithful to her universal mission. [4]


[1] Although we will place Gregorian chant in the modal part, since it is characteristic of the Roman rite and makes it possible to unify the essential and substantial parts of the liturgy, we will include the Latin language, considered in itself, in the accessory part of the liturgy, basing this decision on the teaching contained in the Preamble of the Roman Missal (section 12): "The Second Vatican Council, like that of Trent, examined in depth the didactic and pastoral nature of the liturgy. And since there is no Catholic who would deny that the rite carried out in the Latin language is legitimate and efficacious, it was able to concede . . . . that the use of the living [vernacular] language can often be very useful for the people, and it permitted its usage."

[2] Furthermore, it was in the area of liturgical observances, rather than that of his teaching, that the enemies of Christ sought at first to find fault with him.

[3] Cf. John Paul II, Letter Orientale Lumen ["Light of the East", May 2, 1995].

[4] The present chapter is to a great extent inspired by a conference given by Bishop Bernard Dupire at the Pro Liturgia Association, 79, rue du Général De Gaulle, 67560 Rosheim, France.

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The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley

Denis Crouan holds a doctorate in theology. He is an organist, a choirmaster, a specialist in Gregorian Chant and a professor of literature and history. He is also the president of Pro Liturgia, an association dedicated to promoting the true reform of the liturgy as intended by Vatican II. He is the author of The Liturgy Betrayed and The Liturgy after Vatican II.

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