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Cabrol F. Chapter II. The mass in the fourth and fifth centuries, and its division into liturgical families


By the Right Reverend Dom Fernand Cabrol



Divisions into liturgical families. — Analogies between the Oriental and Latin Liturgies. — Divergencies between the different Western Liturgies.

The proposition developed in the previous chapter that in the three first centuries, and even until the end of the fourth, hardly any distinction can be made between the liturgies of different countries, may be taken for granted. But from this moment certain customs which made it possible easily to distinguish between the liturgies of these different lands were established; on one hand between East and West; on the other, between the different provinces of these two great halves of the Roman Empire. As Mgr. Duchesne has justly remarked, the liturgical provinces fall into line with the great ecclesiastical provinces — in the East, Antioch and Jerusalem, closely united from their origin, as contrasted with Alexandria, in the West, Rome, round which were grouped Italy, Africa Gaul, Spain, and, very soon, England and Germany.

If we apply that principle, the first division necessary is that between East and West.

The day on which Constantine in 325 founded Constantinople, and transported to the city of Byzantium the seat of empire with all its functionaries, that division was accentuated. Habits, standards of cultivation social, political, and even religious tendencies present changed characteristics. Each of the two parts of the Empire had its own language; Greek for the East, Latin for the West; and this difference made itself felt in the liturgy. The Roman liturgy had been Greek until towards the middle of the third century; but the place of Greek was taken by Latin, and the traces of the older language were gradually effaced. The Kyrie Eleison and other similar words still to be found in this liturgy are not, as was formerly wrongly believed, relics of the primitive language, but expressions of universal usage, like Eucharist, acolyte, exorcist, etc., or else, terms which have been introduced in later years.

Greek and, for some parts of the East, Syriac, were henceforth the languages of the liturgies born in those countries. The liturgy of Rome was in Latin, as that of Africa then was, and as those of Gaul, Spain, and Milan soon would be. Few can refuse to see in this difference of language, without mentioning political, administrative, or social differences, the establishment of a profound separation between East and West on the one hand, and, on the other, a certain relationship between the provinces of the West.

Thus, in our opinion, the first division to establish between the various liturgies is that between East and West.

In the East, as already noted, another division existed. The two churches of Antioch and Jerusalem, neighbors, and closely allied as they were, had a liturgy which spread over a part of the East, in Syria, Asia Minor (Cappadocia, Pontus, Bithynia, and Caesarea), and later to Constantinople, Mesopotamia, and Persia. It is represented by the liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions (fourth century), the Greek liturgy of St. James (sixth century, and perhaps earlier), the Nestorian liturgies of Mesopotamia and Persia (liturgy of Addeus and Maris), the Byzantine, or liturgy of Constantinople (St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom), and the Armenian liturgy.

The church of Alexandria followed a use which differed in several ways from the preceding, as may be established by the anaphora of Serapion, and by that of Balizeh, of which we have given a summary in the previous chapter. In this chapter, too, may also be seen the plan and sequence of the prayers in the Apostolic Constitutions and in other liturgies of this class.

In the Latin West various liturgical divergencies took shape at Rome, in Africa, Milan, Gaul, Spain, and the Celtic countries. These correspond with that rupture of political unity which was the consequence of the barbarian invasions of the fifth century; of the breaking up of the Roman Empire in 476, and of the separatist tendencies which were the result of these events.

We arrive, then, at the following division:

Antioch-Jerusalem (Syrian type), Alexandria (Egyptian type)

Rome, Africa, Milan, Gaul, Spain, Celtic countries

To this division we will return in Chapter V.; but it may be said at once that as far as the West is concerned, some part of it is based on mere conjecture, and that liturgiologists are by no means all agreed upon particular points. There is, however, a distinct tendency to gather all Latin liturgies into one and the same group.[1]

But henceforward it must be noted that liturgical unity is not broken by these divisions. The East and West had characteristics in common. The various Latin liturgies, including the Roman, borrowed largely from the Oriental, notably from that of Constantinople. Rome exercised considerable influence over all the Latin churches, and fresh analogies are continually visible between all these different liturgies, either as the result of borrowing, or of their original unity.

It must not be forgotten that travel and other relations between East and West were much more frequent than is sometimes imagined. There were many Greek or Eastern Popes of Rome during the first three centuries. At Milan, seven of the ten predecessors of St. Ambrose have Greek names. St. Ambrose himself by his literary training was more Greek than Latin. One striking example in the history of the liturgy is found in Etheria, who in the fourth century came from the heart of Spain to Jerusalem, and while there described with great precision all the Feasts of the year. She does not fail to note that such and such functions are not carried out in her own country in exactly the same manner as at Jerusalem; while others are similar to those of her own liturgy. Upon her traces followed pilgrims in increasing numbers, eager to visit the Holy Places. Numerous Bishops were attracted to the East by the Councils, or else driven there by the fate of exile, like St. Hilarius. All of which goes to explain the liturgical exchanges. Mgr. Mercati has very truly remarked that connections were established between the Arians of East and West, and that this also contributed to the system of exchanges. It has, moreover, become possible to discern this reciprocal influence of East and West through the study of the most ancient calendars and creeds.

Thus there is nothing astonishing in the fact that Oriental elements can be discovered in the Latin liturgies. It is indeed our own opinion that the cause of the analogies between the two groups is to be found rather in the common origin of all liturgies, whether Eastern or Western, or in the exchanges just mentioned, than in the sudden transportation, by the act of a Bishop or some other personage, of an Eastern liturgy into a Western country.

Here, then, are some of the divergencies which can already be distinguished between the different Western liturgies. Gaul, Spain, and Upper Italy followed the Oriental Use (notably that of the Church of Constantinople) as regarded the place of the diptychs, the Kiss of Peace, and even the "epiclesis;" while Rome stood apart, either because she had on these points changed her primitive custom, or else because she had had a special Use from the beginning. For the rest, such as the variability of the prayers of the canon, the use of the "Qui pridie" for the Consecration, the importance given to the story of the institution of the Mass, the tendency to compose sacramentaries and other liturgical books, all the Latin countries seem to follow the same current, and there is nothing to show that these books presented special characteristics, whether they were composed at Rome, Milan, Capua, in Gaul, or in Africa. Still, all such compositions reveal a liturgical progress which affects only the West, while the East appears to be unaffected by it.[2]

The liturgical vocabulary, the calendar, and certain institutions like Lent, and even the Ember Days, also offer characteristic analogies in the Western liturgies.

During this period (fourth-fifth centuries) two liturgies alone, that of Rome and that of Africa, are directly known to us through documents, or by the texts of the authors. As to all the others — those of Upper Italy, Gaul, Spain, and the Celtic countries — the sources from which we may study them are of a much later age than the fifth century, or even than the sixth. I do not say that there is nothing in them which makes for the earlier date, but such inductions are necessarily based on hypothesis.

From this moment the design and the framework of the Mass appear with sufficient clearness. In Chapter I we saw of what the first part is composed: the Pre-Mass, or aliturgical synaxis is a preparation, with psalms, readings, and a homily. We shall study it more in detail in the developments which it has gained in the sixth and seventh centuries. Its general characteristics have been outlined by St. Justin and other authors quoted in the preceding chapter.

The second part, the Mass properly so called, or Mass of the faithful, was to receive some additions, but henceforth we know that the catechumens and unbaptized were dismissed at this point. The faithful alone remained for the Offering, or Offertory; they had brought the bread and wine which served for the Sacrifice, as well as other gifts which were also blessed at Mass. A special prayer for the Church, or "Prayer of the Faithful," was now said, and the Kiss of Peace was its natural conclusion; doubtless it was only in consequence of the suppression of this prayer, or from other circumstances, that in certain liturgies the Kiss of Peace has been placed immediately before the Communion, where its existence is not less justified.

The Eucharistic prayer, or "anaphora," follows; of this we have had specimens in the "anaphora" of Hippolytus, Serapion, Balizeh, and the "Apostolic Constitutions." The chant of the "Sanctus" took its own place in the fifth century, and has divided the Eucharistic prayer into two portions. The story of the Institution is the center of this prayer, which ends with the doxology and "Amen." Then follow the Fraction and Communion. The latter, like the Offertory, involved the passing up of the people, which occupied some time, and from an early date (probably the fourth century) the singing of a chant was instituted at both these moments. Psalm xxxiii. was usually chosen for the Communion, chiefly on account of the verse, "Gustate et videte quoniam suavis est Dominus," which is here so applicable. Afterwards a prayer of thanksgiving was made; the Pontiff blessed the people for the last time and sent them home.

Such were the general lines of the Mass in the fourth-fifth centuries. In studying the Latin liturgies, especially that of Rome, we shall see how these principal parts are adorned with new rites and more numerous formulas. Other rites perhaps have been suppressed, but in the main, in the East as in the West, according to the different rites, the framework remains the same.

Nothing can be simpler, more logical, and, if we may say so, more rational than this rite which is faithful to primitive tradition. There are certain suppressions which break the general line, or additions which complicate the original design. Certain truths had to be insisted on, certain errors to be fought, new formulas had to be emphasized by the gestures of the priest, or favor shown to recent devotions.

After having studied the Latin, Gallican, Mozarabic, Celtic, Ambrosian, and Roman liturgies, we shall attempt, not to reconstitute the primitive Latin liturgy, since this would be but a premature effort, but to establish some of its general characteristics.


1. Mgr. Duchesne connects the Gallican and Syrian, and the Roman and Alexandrine types of liturgy (fourth edition, p. 55). 2. Cf. "Books of the Latin Liturgy" (Sands, 3s. 6d.).


On the classification of liturgies:

H. LIETZMANN, "Messe u. Herrenmahl" (Bonn, 1926), P. 262.

Mgr. DUCHESNE, "Origines du Culte chretien," p. 64 seq.

SALAVILLE, "Liturgia, pp". 887 and 873.

FORTESCUE: "The Mass" (1914), a table of the liturgies, p. 76.

JANIN, "Les Eglises orientales".

Mgr. DUCHESNE, "Les Eglises separees," I vol. (Paris, 1896).

BRINKTRINE, "Die Heilige Messe," p. 19 seq.

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