As the forthcoming new translation of the Roman Missal debunks the myth that liturgical language must be so banal that even the muppets on Sesame Street can understand it, it’s a good time to examine five other untruths that have been wreaking havoc on the Church’s worship in recent decades.
1. Mass facing the people. After studying free-standing altars in early churches, liturgists in the 1930s concluded that priests once celebrated Mass “facing the people,” and that it was only under the influence of decadent medieval clericalism that they “turned their backs” to them. This myth was much in the drinking water at the time of Vatican II (1962-1965). Later, some scholars began to reexamine the evidence and found that it did not support their thesis at all, and that in fact there had been an unbroken tradition — both East and West — of priest and congregation celebrating the Eucharist in the same direction: eastward.
Pope Benedict XVI, who endorsed the most recent book refuting the versus populum error, has been trying to make the facts of the case better known. But in the past generation, millions of dollars have been spent destroying exquisite high altars and replacing them with altar-tables, all in conformity to “the practice of the early Church.” Would that this myth were busted earlier.
2. Communion in the hand and under both kinds. Myths about Holy Communion follow a similar pattern. Fifty years ago, the claim that “Communion in the hand” was the universal practice of the early Church was believed by everyone, even by those who didn’t wish to see the practice resuscitated. Now we’re not so sure. What we can say is that some early Christian communities practiced Communion in the hand, but Communion on the tongue may be just as ancient. And when Communion in the hand was practiced, the communicant received from a priest (and only a priest), most likely by putting It in his mouth without his other hand touching it. And in some places, a woman’s hand had to be covered with a white cloth!
We are more certain that the Roman Church once administered Holy Communion under both species (just as the Eastern churches have always done), but we don’t know exactly how. One interesting practice, which was in use by the seventh century, had the deacon distributing the Precious Blood with the use of a golden straw. Some think he dipped the straw in the chalice (which only he or a priest or bishop could touch), closed one end with his finger, put it over the communicant’s open mouth, and then lifted his finger to release the contents.
In other words, Holy Communion was probably not administered in the fast-food manner we have today, with a “grab-and-go” system of multiple efficient lines that move from one station to the other, and the communicant touching the Host or Precious Cup with his own hands. Our current arrangement may have more in common with the Protestant than the patristic. Significantly, Benedict XVI, a careful student of the Church Fathers, no longer administers Communion in the hand.
3. The vernacular. Another widespread myth is that the early Church had Mass “in the vernacular.” But when Jesus worshipped in the synagogue, the language used was Hebrew, which had already been dead for 300 years. And for the first three centuries in Rome, the Mass was mostly celebrated in Greek, not Latin, which was only understood by a minority of the congregation.
When the Mass was eventually translated into Latin, it retained foreign elements such as the Hebrew amen and alleluia, and even added some, such as the Greek Kyrie eleison. Moreover, the Latin used in translating was deliberately different from what was being spoken at the time: It had curious grammatical usages and was peppered with archaisms. In other words, even when the Mass was celebrated in a language people could understand, it was never celebrated in the “vernacular” — if by that term we mean the common street language of the day.
The reason for this is simple: Every apostolic Church — to say nothing of every major world religion — has always had a sacred or hieratic language, a linguistic toolbox different from daily speech specially designed to communicate the transcendence and distinctiveness of the gospel.
4. Lay ministry. Another perduring myth is the idea that the laity were “more involved” in the Mass than they were in later ages. In our own day, this has spawned a multiplication of liturgical ministries for lay folk, such as lector, etc. The reality is that in the early Church, all of these roles were administered by the clergy. In fact, the early Church had more ordained clerical offices (the former minor orders) than it does today. The Council of Nicea in 325, for instance, talked about fine-tuning the office of “subdeacon.” This tells us one thing: that subdeacons were already a fixture in the landscape before the council was convoked. Lay Eucharistic ministers were not.
5. The pre- vs. post-Constantinian Church. Lurking behind all of these myths is a powerful “meta-myth,” the claim that there was a rupture in the life of the Church after the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century. The Church before Constantine, the meta-myth goes, was simple and pristine, a Church “of the people.” After Constantine, however, the Church became clericalist, hierarchical, and corrupted by the desire for grand buildings and highfalutin’ ceremonies.
The truth is that although the Church did indeed change — in some ways for the better and some for the worse — there was far more continuity than rupture. The Church before Constantine already had firm distinctions between clergy and laity, and she already recognized the importance of beautiful art, architecture, symbolism, and solemnity. After all, the Last Supper took place during the Passover, which was itself highly ritualized, and every Mass is a consummation of the ornate liturgies of synagogue and Temple. Indeed, a Eucharistic liturgy in the second or third century was longer, more hierarchical, and more symbolically brocaded than a Sunday Mass today. And since pews are a Protestant invention to accommodate long sermons, you either stood or knelt on the floor the entire time.
Like a bad virus, the myth of a utopian, pre-Constantinian, kumbaya-singing Church continues to impair. A typical example is the 2001 video A History of the Mass, produced by Liturgy Training Publications, one of the more influential purveyors of information about Catholic worship in the United States. After describing an idyllic, egalitarian community in which bishops gave up their seats for poor widows at the Eucharistic table, the narration shifts with the ominous words: “But then… the Emperor Constantine became a Christian.” You can imagine what follows (see here and here).
Moreover, even if every one of these myths were shown to be true, it would still not justify returning to the patristic era. In 1947, Pope Pius XII prophetically warned against archeologism, an “exaggerated and senseless antiquarianism” which presumes that the older is better than that which has developed organically over time and with the approval of the Church (Mediator Dei 64). The pope was worried about liturgical innovators who would leapfrog over 1,900 years of sacred tradition and divine inspiration. He was right to worry, but not even he foresaw the extent to which that targeted Golden Past would be a reconstruction of dubious accuracy.