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Cabrol F. Chapter III. The Mass in Africa


By the Right Reverend Dom Fernand Cabrol



Origin of the African Liturgy. — The African Mass.

Of all the Latin liturgies the African is the only one of which no liturgical document, properly so called, remains to us. All its books have perished; there are neither Sacramentaries nor Lectionaries; no "Ordo" or "libellus" of any kind existing. Yet it is the most ancient of the Latin liturgies; it might indeed be said to have been almost the only one known during the first three centuries, since, until the middle of the third century the Roman liturgy was said in Greek. This fact is of supreme importance.

Yet though this absence of all liturgical documents is to be deplored, we find, on the other hand, in African writers up to the fifth century a very large number of allusions to the liturgy, and even several formulas of prayer. In this latter item the African liturgy is the richest of all; but it is none the less true that the lack of authentic liturgical documents makes any study of this rite more or less deceptive, and necessarily hypothetical. We will, however, do our best to supplement this want.

THE ORIGIN OF THE AFRICAN LITURGY. — The first question which arises is: what is the origin of this liturgy? The greater number of liturgiologists will reply: Roman. We, however, may well wait for the close of this study before drawing the same conclusion; the question touches that of the origin of the African Church, and both must be resolved simultaneously. Was this Church founded by the Church of Rome? If so, it would be difficult to put aside the contention that Rome, in founding the African Church, did also introduce her liturgy there, since it is hardly possible that Roman missionaries should not have brought their own liturgy with them, or that at a given moment the Africans should have changed it. In any case there is no text to be found in favor of such a conclusion. Unfortunately, the question of the origins of Christianity is here obscure, as it is in most other countries. Many historians hold to the Roman origin, it is true, and it may well be the most probable opinion; but it cannot be proved by direct and decisive arguments. Relations between Africa, Alexandria, and the East were frequent, and it may be that the earliest missionaries came thence to Africa. Some have wished to support this theory, as we shall see, by certain analogies between the African and Alexandrine liturgies; but neither would this be a very solid proof, for the resemblances between Africa and Rome from the liturgical standpoint are very much more striking.

Let us for the moment be content to state that the question of the origin of Christianity in Africa cannot enlighten us as to that of its liturgy. Keeping simply to the texts, we must remember, as was said at the beginning, that this liturgy is Latin. Although Greek was freely spoken in this province, and though Tertullian wrote some of his treatises in Greek, the African liturgy is Latin, and to prove this it would be enough to cite the formulas found in the writings of the same Tertullian, of St. Cyprian and other writers, or even in the inscriptions of Roman Africa.

THE AFRICAN MASS. — In Tertullian and St. Cyprian we find numerous allusions to the Eucharist and the Mass. By these we know that the synaxis or meeting took place before the dawn; that the Sacrifice, or actual Mass, was preceded by readings, prayers, chants, and by the dismissal of the catechumens. Tertullian blames the heretics who allow these last to be present at the Sacrifice. We also know that the bread and wine were consecrated by the words which Our Lord pronounced at the Last Supper. St. Cyprian sharply rebukes other heretics (Aquarians) who, by a misplaced scruple, left out the wine and declared that they offered the Sacrifice with bread and water; reminding them that the water used at the Mass must be mixed with wine. These two writers also allude to the litanic prayers, to the dialogue which precedes the Preface, to the "Pater," and to some other rites, such as the dismissal of the faithful at the end of Mass.

St. Augustine completes this information. We may accept his description given by Mgr. Batiffol (p. 100) of the Pre-Mass. The Bishop, he says, awaits in the "secretarium" (a place close to the Basilica) the moment of entrance. He enters solemnly, but St. Augustine does not speak of the chant which should accompany his entry, and which corresponds with the Roman Introit. He salutes the people, probably with the "Pax vobis," but it does not appear that this greeting was followed by the prayer or collect customary at Rome. The readings, as in Spain, Gaul, and elsewhere, were three in number — the first taken from the Prophets (and called Prophecy, or prophetical reading), the second from the Acts of the Apostles or their Epistles (the Apostolic reading), while the third was from the Gospel. This was followed by the homily of the prelate, who commented on one or another of these lessons; for usually the events of the day, anniversaries, or the Feast itself had determined both the course of reading and the Bishop's sermon.

Sometimes the text of the Old Testament or the New was read without choice or interruption; this was the "lectio continua," of which traces may be found in our existing missal (see, for example, the chants for Communion in Lent, the readings for Holy Week, or in Paschal Time, etc.).

In other passages St. Augustine speaks of only two lessons, the Epistle and the Gospel, but between the two a Psalm was sung (our Gradual), which the Saint considered as a lesson, and on which he sometimes commented. After the homily the catechumens were dismissed — "catechumeni discedite," says St. Augustine. The Mass of the Faithful was thus composed:

Prayer of the faithful;
Reading of the Diptychs;
Offertory, with chanting of a Psalm and a prayer over the offerings, which corresponds to our Secret, or the "Oratio post nomina;"
The "anaphora" or Eucharistic prayer, which is interrupted by the "Sanctus;"
The recital of the institution, which is the center of the Mass;
Fraction (before the "Pater," as at Rome until the seventh century);
Kiss of Peace;
Communion, with the singing of a Psalm;

Let us consider some of these different points enumerated. The "Prayer of the Faithful," "preces," "precatio," "deprecatio," consists in the indication by the Bishop of the object of the prayer, of an invitation by the deacon, and of a final prayer by the Bishop. This devotion may be compared to the solemn prayers at Rome on Good Friday, which also contain the indication of the object for which the prayer is offered, "Oremus;" the deacon's order, "Flectamus genua" (here, an instant of recollection or silent prayer); followed by "Levate" and the prayer of the Bishop. The design is the same. We may also compare the "preces fidelium" of the Mozarabic rite, to which an allusion has been found in the works of St. Fructuosus, which at once takes us back to the third century. For Africa, St. Cyprian also makes an allusion to a prayer of this kind.[1]

The "Prayer of the Faithful" is described at length by St. Augustine, who tells us that it is the deacon who announces the prayer, but the Bishop who reads it. He exhorts the people to pray for infidels, for catechumens, and for the faithful.[2] In Africa, as at Rome, the faithful offered the bread and wine, and the Bishop asked God to accept them. While the offering was being made, a Psalm was sung (the offertory). In St. Augustine's day this custom was not ancient, for he was obliged to write a book (now lost) against a certain Hilarius, who condemned it.

The mixing of wine and water in the chalice is one of those universal traits which we have mentioned as a proof of the unity of the primitive liturgy. St. Cyprian explains this act by saying that the water is the symbol of all Christian people, thus mingled in the chalice with the Blood of Christ (Ep. lxiii.). St. Cyprian, too, is the most ancient witness we possess as to the dialogue before the Preface, "Sursum corda," "Habemus ad Dominum" ("De dom. orat.," 31). St. Augustine, after him, explains the meaning of these words, and completes them, quoting the beginning: "Dignum et justum est." This prayer, which we call the Preface, comes after the "Prayer of the Faithful," and continues till the final "Amen," at the close of the last doxology. It is during the course of this prayer that by the might of the Divine Word the bread is changed into the Body of Christ, and the wine into His Blood (Sermo CCXXVII).

After this prayer, which is that of the consecration of the elements, St. Augustine mentions the "Pater."

In the article on "l'Afrique (Liturgie post-niceenne de l'Afrique)" I have quoted other texts of St. Augustine, of Optatus, and of St. Fulgentius, which allude to the canon, especially to the "anamnesis." The Kiss of Peace was given after the "Pater," as at Rome. St. Augustine also frequently refers to the Communion, defining it in the terms: "accedere ad mensam," "ad altare," "nostis fideles ad quam mensam." It was given under both kinds, and he seems to give even the formula for Communion: "accipite et edite Corpus Christi et potate Sanguinem Christi," to which the faithful answered "Amen." The Communion chant was Psalm xxxiii., as was the custom generally at this time. There seems to have been a blessing before the Communion, as there was in Gaul and Spain.

All these features are fairly general, and in themselves not sufficient to determine precisely to which class this liturgy belongs. However, Mgr. Duchesne and other liturgiologists with him declare without hesitation that, excepting for insignificant details, the African liturgy is identical with that of Rome. Le Blant has pointed out numerous analogies in the inscriptions of these two places.

I have also mentioned that the African resembles in a few points the Mozarabic liturgy. W. C. Bishop presses this point in the article cited, and Fr. Thibaut supports him. But let us remember that these resemblances may be explained by the relations between the two provinces, and also by the fact on which we have throughout insisted: the original unity of all liturgies.


1. Because of this "Prayer of the Faithful," W. C. Bishop thinks that the relations between the Mozarabic liturgy and that of Africa were closer than those between Africa and the Roman liturgy.

2. Mgr. Batiffol quotes these different texts (p. 141); they will also be found, and in greater number, in our article on the "Liturgie de l'Afrique, etc." (DACL).


Cf. our article in DACL, "Afrique (Liturgie de l'Afrique ante-niceenne" and "Liturgie de l'Afrique post-niceenne" and the Bibliography at the end of the article).

W. C. Bishop, "The African Rite," in the "Journal of Theological Studies," Vol. XIII, 1912, pp. 250-277.

Dom W. ROETZER, "Der heil.-Augustinus Schriften als Liturgie-geschichtl. Quelle" (Munich, 1930).

Cf. also Dom H. LECLERCQ "l'Afrique chretienne, 2 vols. (Paris, 1904).

P. MONCEAUX, "Hist. litteraire de l'Afrique chretienne" (Paris, 1901).

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