The Spirit of Reviving Liturgical Rites

The biggest temptation, when proceeding with a practical revival of something like the Use of Sarum, is purism. It is the same aesthetic purism as a recent rebuilding of the famous Cliquot organ in Poitiers Cathedral. Instead of being content with restoring the sound of the pipes, the fine classical case and so forth, they had to restore the console exactly as it was in the eighteenth century. With the French pedalboard, which is very different from the standard modern pedalboard, it is possible to play only one kind of music on that organ – French seventeenth and eighteenth century music. Bach and the other German composers are impossible to play due to the design of the pedalboard. The keyboards are too far forward, and it is difficult to keep a sense of balance – I have never played a less comfortable instrument! That is purism gone too far. The analogy can extend to the liturgy.

It can happen also when Oxbridge undergraduates get together for some “fun” and have a “medieval day”. My impression of what things could be like would have been something like Normandy in the early twentieth century, largely standard European Roman Catholicism, but with some striking differences.

One question to ask ourselves is whether we go back to the Middle-Ages in everything. Such an idea would be absurd. In the rare situations where “local” Catholicism has been left relatively unmolested and “unreformed”, it is possible to detect a kind of “organic” growth or development over the centuries – for example an ornate baroque choir screen that continued the medieval tradition. Other question is pastoral practice – infrequent Communion was just as much a feature of country parish life as in the fourteenth century. It was the twentieth century and the liturgical movement that brought in frequent communion.

I sometimes have the impression that history is at an end, and all we can do to avoid discarding our culture is to put it all into museums. Great pieces of church music are now only sung at concerts – with raucous applause after each piece and bowing performers. But there is a problem – one of sufficient relevance to relate to people of our times. That is also the problem of any religious expression, however culturally relevant it thinks it is.

In the way I have come to think, liturgy is relevant only when the rest of life is organised around it. This was the case of nineteenth-century Norman villages and monasteries. For people whose religion and spirituality is just an hour a week, liturgy has very little to offer – not even entertainment.

Why Sarum? The medieval English Church has fascinated me since my adolescent years. I visited country churches in England and looked at squints, choir screens, piscinas and all the other things that didn’t seem to have any purpose with our Prayer Book services. My own approach to the Use of Sarum is more practical than academic. An old and esteemed member on my e-mail list, Fr Aidan Keller who is an Orthodox priest, has done a lot more systematic study than I have.

Those of us who aspire to “nordic” or “northern” forms of Catholicism should not be discouraged by lack of growth. There are many things that can be done to draw crowds, charismatic preachers and the celebrity style. In other places, people are drawn to attend Mass and Office in monasteries. That is less talked about, but where the real conversions happen. All we can do is to carry on as we are, to wait and pray.

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12 Responses to The Spirit of Reviving Liturgical Rites

  1. F.G.S.A. says:

    Hallo Father,

    I hope you’re in better shape.

    Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that its pointless to revive a rite if there is no community whose spirituality, that is life in the Spirit, is or has been made to flow from the rite. As for the Monastic ‘colonies’ of the 6-8th centuries in Europe, liturgy is integrated in community building and development. For me, the future of the Church (not in jurisdictional sense) will be dependent precisely on this: the building, maintenance and development of a stable community of a handful of families and individuals. Without community to live by it, rite is dead. Here in this island, we are beginning something of this kind, wrt Tridentine Rite. But it is still at project and planning phase, fund-raising has not even begun. Everything in God’s Hands.

    Are there still Italo-albanians by the way? Have their kept their customs and rites?

    • Many thanks for the good wishes. I already have less pain and I seem to tolerate the antibiotic I was given – so I just follow doctor’s orders, and I may be able to go sailing in a couple of months time.

      I can understand what you say, which means that the entire liturgical life of the Church following a traditional rite is dead. You may be right. However, attempts at making “monastic inspired” communities of lay people are rarely successful.

      This is why I tend to think in terms of reviving rites – the Tridentine rite itself was revived even though the time scale of obsolescence was shorter. The alternative is going over to Orthodoxy or Eastern Rite Catholicism, which is rarely something western Christians can relate to. While there is still life there is hope, but perhaps it is “game over” for western Catholicism, and the institution just transforms itself into a kind of liberal Anglicanism.

      Novus Ordo? There just seem to be too many holes in it. I agree that building small “survival” communities is the only coherent way, for those who are sufficiently altruistic for it or prepared to knuckle up under an absolute authority (which in the case of someone like Jim Jones or other psychopaths tells everyone to commit suicide).

      Do you know of any such communities in existence that actually work and are stable?

      • F.G.S.A. says:

        In fact, our vision is not strictly monastic: we only seek to incorporate the Ora et Labora of Holy Benedict in our daily lives. Our association is made up of a group of families and individuals: we’ve realised that it was not enough to merely build a chapel and staff it with a priest and have Mass(most Low) regularly. The aim is twofold: sustain families and individuals through a common and voluntary bond, and apostolate to society at large: school, hospice-mutual aid, etc. Engage in an agro-industrial activity that would make the association financially independent. The line between strictly family/individual matters and association matters is already clearly drawn and enforced. Privacy and self-determination are essential. Opening to society through various activities is also essential. We’re not Amish! No sharing of private property, but voluntary contribution.

        The Gospel teaches us that Divine Service is inextricably linked to Human Service- the one must lead to the other and sustain it. A continuity. In fact, human service is an important facet of Benedict’s labora.

        Well, there are basic principles. They may seem idealistic.

      • This sounds very encouraging. Could you give us some facts about numbers of persons involved, social origins, the type of business (cooperative I imagine) established to support the community? Are all members Catholics, all agreed about the type of liturgy and devotional practices on offer?

        I have read a certain amount about Belloc’s ideas about Distributism, and discussion on that subject usually end up fairly negative. What is it about about your community that makes it succeed? Also what distinguishes it from the phenomenon of the “sect”?

        Would you like to write a full article?

    • The Italo-Albanians are still around…they have their own rite and an Eparchy. I read a few years ago there was (is??) even a Mass in New York City somewhere for the Arberesh emigrants.

      Drawing Father’s thought out a bit…supposing the Bugninists succeeded in suppressing the Latin Mass for another century or so. Suppose there was no SSPX. Would we Catholics want to box ourselves in and say we couldn’t revive it because it was no longer a “living” liturgy?

      I don’t see any problem with reviving defunct liturgies, provided it is done right. Of course it won’t be the same as it was originally, but then again, nothing ever is.

  2. Yohannes - Priest says:

    Revered and dear Father:
    Enjoyed the article; very insightful and pithy.

  3. F.G.SA. says:


    sure- i’m writing something at the moment. once done, i’ll send it to you by mail and you’ll judge whether to publish it or not.

  4. Chris McAvoy says:

    “The alternative is going over to Orthodoxy or Eastern Rite Catholicism, which is rarely something western Christians can relate to. ”

    And yet many christians do relate to this ….I did, I one with 100% latin rite heritage related to it perfectly and precisely immediately, totally and instantly.. What precisely does this mean? You are not the first to state this, I have heard it over and over and over for years.

    What specifically can they not relate to? Are long beards, long melismatic chants, long liturgies and long cooking lenten legume stews deeply disturbing ? One has a right to feel this way, but I would better like to understand the logic behind it. Perhaps there is no logic to explain, perhaps anything “different” than what one knows is suspect for no other reason that that it is different and unknown.

    If some parishes are rude and unwelcoming to those outside their ethnic group , why did I not have this experience. Why did the local greek orthodox priest treat me as his own brother and ask me to help adjust the icons?

    For me the one of the bigger reasons I am not in the byzantine or for that matter syro-malankara churches is because I felt I owed it to my ancestors to sing the same hymn to St Patrick that was sung in 15th c. Dublin “Ecce Fulget Clarrissima/Exsultent filii matris ecclesiae”.

    If I wanted an easy life I could have chosen the eastern churches, whether those in communion or not. Goodness knows most of my best experiences were there, I relate to them as much as my own family. If I am a bizarre exception I don’t know. Perhaps it is the shared meditteranean heritage (some spanish roots). I notice a good number of polish and italian americans are very comfortable in the byzantine churches possibly due to shared cultural resemblences to the other slavs or the the pan-meditteranean resemblence between all countries bordering the meditteranean sea. (Are greek and italian culture actually that different? )

    The reasons I chose not to become western rite orthodox were not particularly important ones, I still very much respect and admire them and consider them the church I would be best fulfilled in should something in the ordinariate of the Roman communion go seriously awry. Their practice of confirming and baptising children simultaneously and without the bishop is a better idea and historic practice of the visigothic rite.
    So for me, they are like an equal comfortable home, despite the official schismatic status, I see them totally as welcoming equals. Apparently the few dozen ex-latin papal catholics ordained as Orthodox priests throughout Pennsylvannia and Maryland also did not find them especially difficult to relate to.

    Someday I hope to understand this issue better, it is important.

  5. Chris McAvoy says:

    Their practice of confirming and baptising children simultaneously and without the bishop is a better idea

    I ment to add a better idea than making them wait until they are almost 18 years old to be confirmed .
    (something every ancient christian recognized was to be done shortly or immediately after baptism, as even in 13th c. europe the practice was common for babies when the bishop stopped by.)

  6. Chris McAvoy says:

    The reason why the Sarum liturgy is desireable is because it was what was used before the reformation.
    Therefore it had the pinnacle of “organic development”/received tradition, without tinkering and arbitary elimations of prayers and propers, which the Council of Trent and counter-reformation tended to do.

    My book on Hymns of the Anglo Saxon Church proves that most of the Sarum use of the 16th century was identical to that of the 9th century. The normans did not come come over and overturn anything, they continued what was already there.

    The tridentine rite was the vatican II of it’s day. It wasnt heretical in anyway sense, and the most important texts of the mass stayed the same, but the propers and many other areas were altered or eliminated. A revival of the sarum is the only way to have everyone be on the same page using the same texts and calendar and feasts. The same concept of God expressed through liturgy, as the ancestors…
    Everything about it is richer I dont know what else to say.. for some beggars cant be choosers, for students of historical liturgy, they want what is most edifying from a time before philosophies that man made himself and not God made man, came to become popular, as they did after the 16th c. when humanism took its toll to lead us to today.

  7. Chris McAvoy says:

    And anyone who says that the Sarum use is dead and therefore irrelevant can examine the Dominican use used up until 1962 and used by a handful of people continuously until the present time, where it is undergoing more widespread popularity again. (New Liturgical Movement featured a reprint of its Gradual recently) The resemblence of the pre-1970 dominican divine officeis so closely identical to the Sarum use that I would be satisfied with simply using the dominican office . So to argue it is a dead tradition is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. It changed names, but it had some shortening but it didnt change much else. If we have to say we are revising the dominican use to make it closely resemble the 1534 sarum use in order to gain acceptance, so be it. That is the kind of liturgical tinkering a man can respect!

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