A Short History of the 
Roman Mass

 by Michael Davies

Chapter 14
The Antiquity and Beauty of the Roman Missal

The antiquity of the Roman Mass is a point which needs to be stressed. There is what Father Fortescue describes as a "prejudice that imagines that everything Eastern must be old." This is a mistake, and there is no existing Eastern liturgy with a history of continual use stretching back as far as that of the Roman Mass? 27 This is particularly true with regard to the traditional Roman Canon. Dom Cabrol, O.S.B., "Father" of the Modern Liturgical Movement, stresses that: "The Canon of our Roman Rite, which in its main lines was drawn up in the fourth century, is the oldest and most venerable example of all the Eucharistic prayers in use today." 28

   Fr. Louis Bouyer, one of the leaders of the pre-Vatican II Liturgical Movement, also emphasized the fact that the Roman Canon is older than any other ancient Eucharistic prayer:

      The Roman Canon, such as it is today, goes back to St. Gregory the Great. Neither in East nor West is there any Eucharistic prayer remaining in use today that can boast such antiquity. For the Roman Church to throw it overboard would be tantamount, in the eyes not only of the Orthodox, but also of the Anglicans and even Protestants having still to some extent a sense of tradition, to a denial of all claim any more to be the true Catholic Church? 29
   It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the importance of the traditional Roman Missal from any standpoint. Dr. Anton Baumstark [1872-1948], perhaps the greatest liturgical scholar of this century, expressed this well when he wrote that every worshipper taking part in this liturgy "feels himself to be at the point which links those who before him, since the very earliest days of Christianity, have offered prayer and sacrifice with those who in time to come will be offering the same prayer and the same sacrifice, long after the last fragment of his mortal remains have crumbled into dust." 30

   Those who reflect upon the nature of the mystery of the Mass will wonder how men dare to celebrate it, how a priest dares to utter the words of Consecration which renew the sacrifice of Calvary, how even the most saintly layman dares to set foot in the building where it is being offered. Terribilis est locus iste: hic domus Dei est, et porta coeli; et vocabitur aula Dei. ["Awesome is this place: it is the house of God, and the gate of Heaven; and it shall be called the court of God."] 31

   It is natural that the Church, the steward of these holy mysteries, should clothe them with the most solemn and beautiful rites and ceremonies possible. It is equally natural that the book containing these rites should appropriate to itself some of the wonder and veneration evoked by the sacred mysteries themselves. This veneration for the traditional Missal is well expressed by Dom Cabrol:

      The Missal, being concerned directly with the Mass and the Holy Eucharist, which is the chief of the Sacraments, has the most right to our veneration, and with it the Pontifical and the Ritual, because those three in the early Church formed one volume, as we have seen when speaking of the Sacramentary. The Church herself seems to teach us by her actions the reverence in which the Missal should be held. At High Mass it is carried by the deacon in solemn procession to read from it the Gospel of the day. He incenses it as a sign of respect, and  it is kissed by a priest as containing the very word of God Himself.
In the Middle Ages every kind of art was lavished upon it. It was adorned with delicate miniatures, with the most beautifully executed writing and lettering and bound between sheets of ivory, or even silver and gold, and was studded with jewels like a precious reliquary.

      The Missal has come into being gradually through the course of centuries always carefully guarded by the Church lest any error should slip into it. It is a summary of the authentic teaching of the Church, it reveals the true significance of the mystery which is accomplished in the Mass and of the prayers which the Church uses.

   Dom Cabrol also pays tribute to the incomparable beauty of the Missal from the literary and aesthetic point of view. He stresses that this is not a question of "art for art's sake":
      We know that truth cannot exist without beauty . . . The beauty of prayer consists in the true and sincere expression of deep sentiment. The Church has never disdained this beauty of form which follows as a consequence of truth; the great Cathedrals on which in past ages she lavished all the marvels of art stand witness to this.
The historical value of the Missal as a living link with the earliest and formative roots of Christian civilization in Europe is another point to which Dom Cabrol draws attention.
      If these evidences of antiquity were merely a question of archaeology, we could not enlarge upon them here, but they have another immense importance. They prove the perpetuity of the Church and the continuity of her teaching. We have life by our tradition, but the Western Church has never confused fidelity to tradition with antiquarianism; she lives and grows with the time, ever advancing towards her goal; the liturgy of the Missal with its changes and developments throughout the centuries is a proof of this, but it proves also that the Church does not deny her past; she possesses a treasure from which she can draw the new and the old; and this is the secret of her adaptability, which is recognized even by her enemies. Though she adopts certain reforms, she never forgets her past history and guards preciously her relics of antiquity.
Here we have the explanation of the growing respect for the liturgy and of the great liturgical revival which we see in these days. What we may call the "archaisms" of the Missal are the expression of the faith of our fathers, which it is our duty to watch over and hand on to posterity.
   In his book, This Is the Mass, Henri Daniel- Rops writes:
      Therefore was it declared in the Catechism of the Council of Trent that no part of the Missal ought to be considered vain or superfluous; that not even the least of its phrases is to be thought wanting or insignificant. The shortest of its formularies, phrases which take no more than a few seconds to pronounce, form integral parts of a whole wherein are drawn together and set forth God's gift, Christ's sacrifice, and the grace which is dowered upon us. This whole conception has in view a sort of spiritual symphony in which all themes are taken as being expressed, developed, and unified under the guidance of one purpose. 32
The beauty, the worth, the perfection of the Roman liturgy of the Mass, so universally acknowledged and admired, was described by Fr. Faber as "the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven." He continues:
       It came forth out of the grand mind of the Church, and lifted us out of earth and out of self, and wrapped us round in a cloud of mystical sweetness and the sublimities of a more than angelic liturgy, and purified us almost without ourselves, and charmed us with celestial charming, so that our very senses seem to find vision, hearing, fragrance, taste and touch beyond what earth can give. 33