Sacra Liturgia Day 3: Highlights 1

The third day of Sacra Liturgia 2016 will probably prove to have been the most gruelling of the conference. Five talks were packed into the day, which began at 9am and finished well after 5pm. The general impression is that business conferences tend to be company-paid holidays surrounding a few talks or seminars. Not so for liturgiophiles: it is very much a full day and value for money. It comes a a little cost for the more delicate ones like me, as a headache saw me on the hot, crowded tube heading home, to decorously collapse, a trip which saw me squeezed between similarly stressed people who were a little taken aback at the sight of a Benedictine habit.

The five talks today covered a disparate range of topics, and some of them stretched the bounds of my learning quite substantially. As a result, the summaries to follow will probably be bettered by others.

First up today was Dr Clare Hornsby, who is Director of the Benedictus Trust, a Catholic liberal arts initiative in London, and whose specialties are music and art. Her talk was entitled The Council of Florence of 1439: Diplomacy, Theology and the Arts in Early Renaissance Italy. It is a difficult talk to summarise as it had multimedia elements which cannot be included here. Her focus was on the Council of Florence-Ferrara, which was the continuation of the Council of Basel, an aggressive council which sought to address the crisis in the Church that had grown out of the plague of antipopes and the “Babylonian captivity” of the papacy in Avignon. It sought to transform the governance of the Church into a primarily conciliar one, attempting to subject even the papacy to the decisions of councils. Contemporary with this crisis in the West was a crisis in the East, as Constantinople was surrounded by the Turks, desperately short of money and fearful of its future. These concurrent crises favoured an attempt at reconciliation between the Eastern and Western branches of the Church, which the Council of Florence actually managed to achieve in a formal sense, though the reconciliation was shortlived. Based as it was on a mounting sense of crisis deriving from regional politics rather than doctrinal consensus, this ecumenical reconciliation was a house built on sand.

Dr Clare Hornsby

Dr Hornsby introduced the principal dramatis personae, including the resourceful Pope Eugenius IV; Cosimo de Medici, the head of the Florentine banking and political dynasty; Nicholas of Cusa, the principled and scholarly cardinal and theologian; Cardinal Bessarion, a Greek who became a Latin and twice declined election to the papacy; and Ambrogio Traversari, a Camaldolese Benedictine monk of great learning and influence. Dr Hornsby described him as one of the few Latins who showed the Greeks due respect, even for the fierce Greek opponent of union, John of Ephesus.

At Florence the council convened in the Dominican convent of Sta Maria Novella. The events of the period were such as to inspire a number of artistic triumphs, both in the fine arts and in music. The duomo of Florence of was consecrated by Eugenius IV, and the artworks produced around the event reveal Florence’s aspiration to be a new Rome and a new Jerusalem, with the duomo as the new Temple. High profile figures such as the Greek Emperor, John VIII, make it into some of these works, the emperor being depicted as Pilate in a scene of the scourging of Christ. Another event designed to promote reunion and marked by the arts was the translation of the relics of the Florentine St Zenobius, who lived before the schism with the East and so could be venerated without awkwardness by both the Latins and the Greeks. And eventually the Bull of Union itself occasioned a great liturgical display captured for us today in surviving artworks and in music.

What is clear from the talk is that the arts could serve as powerful propaganda tools in Church politics. The ultimate failure of the reunion brokered at the Council of Florence was certainly not a failure of the arts, but of the human protagonists.

Next up was Fr Uwe Michael Lang, of the London Oratory, a distinguished liturgical scholar several of whose works have been published over the last few years, and who for some years worked at the Congregation for Worship in Rome. His paper dealt with another important, but more successful, council of the Church a century after Florence: The Tridentine Liturgical Reform in Historical Perspective. He opened with the salutary reminder, still so relevant in our modern Church, that liturgical texts do not develop in a vacuum, but are influenced to varying degrees by their cultural, political and theological contexts.

Fr Michael Lang

Dr Lang noted recent challenges to the received historical judgment that medieval liturgy was corrupt and decadent, highly clericalised and with almost no lay involvement. The received understanding failed to understand that liturgical experience is not adequately conveyed by the text alone, and the medieval liturgy would have conveyed various levels of meaning to the varying levels of society who attended. The context of mid-16th century Europe was noted, including the rise of nation states and the resulting desire of their rulers to exercise more control over the Church within their realms, the rise of the mercantile class, the growth of global exploration and the resulting widening of the boundaries of the Church, and the effect of Renassiance culture with its interest in classical world, matched in the Church with an interest in the Church of the classical period.

Tied in with this revisionist movement in ecclesiastical history is the challenge to the assumption that the Reformation was the inevitable result of the supposed decadence of the medieval Church. One thing is clear enough now: that despite high-level problems in the Church, at the grassroots its pastoral care of the faithful was effective and fruitful.

Dr Lang then turned to the liturgical pre-history of the reforms of the Council of Trent. From the 11th century, particularly with Pope Gregory VII, there was a tendency to centralise and standardise liturgical books. This may never have come to much but for the Franciscans, for whose mobile ministry a uniform and universal missal was a great boon. Their adoption of the papal curial liturgy as their common liturgy brought the Roman usage into a much higher profile throughout Europe. Variety continued, of course, from region to region, diocese to diocese or order to order, especially in calendars, offertory prayers, ritual actions, and votive Masses. Perhaps ironically, the advent of printing did not advance the cause of uniformity to the detriment of variety in liturgical texts, but actually promoted variety.

There were abuses of course. Dr Lang noted in particular the Dry Mass, missa sicca, and the missa bifaciata, or Mass done twice (or more), which were abuses that centred on the amassing of Mass intentions in the one celebration.

When Trent came to discuss liturgy in 1562-3 there was a clear movement for uniformity. The council fathers weighed doctrinal matters (eg the offertory prayers), historical matters (eg apocryphal additions, superstitious votive Masses) and such abuses as noted above. After much debate the council left it to the pope to reform the breviary and missal. Dr Lang dwelt for a while on the desire to return to the practice of the “Fathers”, echoed as it was with Vatican II, noting that the equation of the Fathers with the patristic period is a modern phenomenon, and that at the time of Trent it was a broad period that included St Bernard, the last of the Fathers. Thus the Tridentine reform was not seeking a return to an idealised liturgy of the early Church.

The resulting reforms were modest and did not touch the integral structure of the Mass. Some sequences and votive Masses were removed, slight tinkering with the readings was done, and the calendar was reformed to prefer the temporal cycle over the sanctoral (a reform, as it happens, repeated more drastically in the post-Vatican II reforms).

In retrospect we can see that the Tridentine reform of the Mass was not a reconstruction or refashioning of the Mass, but its consolidation and standardisation as the common liturgy for the vast majority of the Western Church. It occurs to me to say, though Dr Lang did not say it, that the post-Vatican II reforms were far more drastic than the Tridentine reforms, and involved a near total reconstruction of the Mass according to a wholly different set of cultural, political and theological influences. These need to be understood far better if we are to comprehend better the nature and effects of the liturgy of the post-Vatican II reforms.

Part two is here.

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