Liturgical Rites

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Throughout the ages, the liturgical celebration of the mystery of salvation has received many different ritual expressions, bound historically to various areas of ecclesiastical influence. This article treats the differentiation of rites and the ritual families.


The starting point in the evolution of Christian liturgical families was necessarily the paschal meal that Christ ate with His Apostles. Despite the simplicity of that scene, the depth and richness of the mystery inaugurated at the Last Supper ultimately accounts for the variety that subsequently adorned its celebration. It is true that up to the fourth century there were no rites in the strict sense of clearly fixed patterns followed by well-defined groups; the extant evidence suggests that extemporization within set patterns was the usual practice (see Bouley, From Freedom to Formula ).

The task of tracing the exact path of evolution in the first three centuries is greatly hampered by incomplete sources, but it is more and more agreed that the fourth century was a time of great importance in the development of the liturgy. The increase of Christians after Constantine's rule necessitated further organization, encouraging a trend toward uniformity. The threat of Arianism and other heresies were further causes for standardizing orthodox forms of worship. These factors were intimately intertwined with another fourth-century phenomenon: the emergence of preponderant centers of authority in matters of Church discipline. These great metropolitan or patriarchal sees became centers of more or less particular liturgical rites, and this in turn intensified the trend toward writing down and gathering together the texts used. Liturgical books were thus created. The saying of improvised prayers gave way to the reading of set formulas, so that the borrowing of texts from one church by another was greatly facilitated; and a mother church could easily impose a fixed order of worship on daughter churches. Liturgical books can thus be seen as instrumental in establishing both uniformity and diversity in the history of the liturgy: uniformity among the churches of a province that came to use the same books, and diversity by that very fact among groups of churches that embraced different collections of texts.

Classification. In this evolution of liturgical families it should be noted that the root principle of diversification was not language or doctrine or nationality, although all of these were influences, but geopolitics. Already at the time of St. Paul, the concentration of Christianity was in the chief cities of the Empire, and these became the great centers already spoken of; in general, rite followed patriarchate.

There are different ways of attempting to classify liturgical families, a fact that can create confusion. It is artificial and misleading to select elements other than their historical origins as the basis, but even when this is agreed upon, the outcome can be different, depending on whether one's chief interest is with the pastwhat rites have existedor the presentwhat rites have survived. In the former approach, for example, the Byzantine liturgical rite appears merely as one of several developments of the Antiochene tradition, while in the latter it is set apart in a class by itself as the greatest, most extensive, and most influential of all the modern Eastern rites.


The chief division of liturgical families is the same as the chief geopolitical division of the ancient world: East and West.

Eastern Liturgical Rites. Since Christ lived in the East, the oldest practice of the Christian liturgy is also from the East. With the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., Christianity in the East centered in Antioch and Alexandria.

Antiochene. The Syrian type of liturgy had two traditions in apostolic times. The more Jewish strain kept the traditional language and, as seems quite likely, ultimately centered in Edessa. This is known as the East Syrian (Mesopotamian, Persian) branch, because its members were outside the Roman and within the Persian Empire. This Edessene liturgy retained many of the Semitic traits and was little influenced by Hellenism. The East Syrian liturgy is used by three churches of the Christian East: the ancient Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, and the Syro-Malabar Church.

The West Syrian branch has been the more influential; it blended a fair amount of Greek influences with other elements borrowed from other liturgical families. The splendor of processions, vigils, and singing that characterizes it gives it a markedly different atmosphere than the more Semitic East Syrian branch.

The fifth century, however, brought a division within the West Syrian branch that had a curious and unfortunate outcome. With the condemnation of Monophysitism at Chalcedon in 451, national instincts and political dislikes for Byzantium contributed to the rejection of the Council by many. These Syrian Monophysites, known as Jacobites, soon adopted Syriac as the liturgical language, and a great period of development followed with the borrowing and creating of numerous compositions. The liturgical rite, called syrian, thus acquired a richness and variety unparalleled elsewhere, boasting more than 70 Anaphoras. However, the group that accepted the orthodoxy of Chalcedon formed themselves into the melkite church. This group retained the Greek language and came more and more under the influence of Constantinople, until in the 12th century it finally lost its particular West Syrian liturgy and adopted the Byzantine as its own liturgical rite.

Another church that uses the West Syrian liturgical rite is the maronite church of Lebanon. Its early history is obscure; never Monophysite, this Church has been in direct contact with Rome since the Crusades, and its liturgy has suffered from heavy latinization, especially since the 18th century, although in the wake of Vatican II, steps have been taken to retrieve its rich ancient liturgical heritage.

Of all the Eastern liturgical families, the Byzantine rite is today the most important by far. This leads many to treat it separately, but historically it belongs to the West Syrian family. Since Constantinople was founded by Constantine in the fourth century, it obviously had no primitive liturgy of its own, but had to borrow or create one. The many ties between Antioch and the imperial city naturally led to the liturgical usages of the former being the principal influence upon the latter, and St. John Chrysostom (native of Antioch, but bishop of Constantinople) had much to do with the process.

The midninth century marked the beginning of a period of unification and regulation of this rite throughout the empire. The two most important developments were (1) its translation into Slavonic by SS. Cyril and Methodius, when it was adopted as the liturgy of the newly converted Slavs, and (2) the Baptism of the prince of Kiev, St. Vladimir, more than a century later, opening to this rite a new province that was to become the huge empire of Russia. Subsequently the Russian missionaries carried it across central Asia as far as Manchuria, China, and Japan. The Byzantine rite thus became the most fully developed liturgy of the East, undergoing an evolution of ten centuries. Drawing into itself elements from many sides in its formation, it subsequently reversed the procedure, pushing out to replace all the rest of the liturgies in the churches within the Empire that remained orthodox after Ephesus and Chalcedon. A further development, one of latinization, took place in those dioceses that recognized papal oversight at the end of the 16th century, resulting in a hybrid liturgy.

Armenian. The distinctive armenian liturgical rite has a complex and by no means fully known history. Since the Middle Ages, however, it has been considerably modified, first by the Byzantine influence, and since the Crusades, by the Latin.

Alexandrian. Ever since the days of Alexander the Great (three centuries before Christ), Alexandria, in Egypt, was the rival of Antioch. This was so in the early centuries of the Christian Era too. The development of the Egyptian liturgy, known as the Liturgy of St. Mark, parallels the West Syrian development. The reaction after Chalcedon was much the same: mass desertion to Monophysitism and adoption of the vernacular, in this case Coptic. Yet as in Syria, there may well have been two kinds of liturgies from the start, one in Greek, the other in Coptic. After the Monophysite crisis, monasticism exercised an even greater influence on the evolution of the Coptic liturgy than on the Byzantine.

The liturgy of Ethiopia is derived from the Coptic, but with Syrian elements. Its ancient history has been the subject of much ongoing study. The Ethiopian liturgy is of special interest today, since it reveals some remarkable elements of adaptation to African cultures.

Western. The diversity of liturgical forms thus seen in the East was also found in the West. Rome was the outstanding center, although other cities, such as Milan and Carthage, vied for attention. In the third and fourth centuries there was a change from Greek to Latin, and in contrast to what happened in the East, Latin soon became the sole liturgical language of the West. The evolution of liturgical families in the West, except for Rome, is not so clearly tied to metropolitan sees as in the East. There are two broad families: Gallican and Roman-African.

Gallican. The precise origin of the gallican rites has long been disputed. Within the heterogeneous group loosely called the Gallican liturgy, the following types are usually enumerated, although they were surely not the only forms of this liturgy that were more or less independent.

The old Spanish, later called (inaccurately) mozarabic rite or sometimes the Visigothic Rite, is exceptional in that it was built according to clearly stated principles. Its sources are obscure, but it was already fully developed by the sixth century. It shows the influence of the battle against the Arian Visigothic invaders of the fifth century. Suppressed by Pope Gregory VII after the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Muslims, the dying liturgical rite was resuscitated by the decision of of Cardinal F. ximenez de cisneros (d. 1517) to preserve this ancient liturgy for use in a chapel of the Toledo.

The celtic rite, the historical liturgical rite used in the British Isles in Ireland and Scotland and propagated by their monks, seems to have had little original about it except its ability to weave together all manner of local and foreign elements. Missionaries and papal legates bearing the Roman Rite dealt a deathblow to this ancient rite, as churches and monasteries were either persuaded or compelled to switch to the Roman Rite.

The gallican rites, called so because it was used in the Frankish realm, was probably of greater variety than is often supposed. Because of suppression under Charlemagne in favor of the Roman rite, only limited witnesses survive.

Roman-African liturgical rites. The other great Western family is the Romano-African type. Of the liturgy of Africa, however, no complete documents or liturgical books are preserved. Reconstructions from the writings of Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, and others show that it was closely allied to the Roman.

Ambrosian. The ambrosian rite, although permeated with elements of the Roman liturgy, has succeeded in preserving the essentials of its traditional practices and has thus kept alive one of the oldest forms of Western liturgy. Scholars often classify it as a Roman-type Latin liturgical rite, with good reason, since it sometimes preserves elements of older Roman usage abandoned at Rome. Indeed, St. Ambrose of Milan wrote that he followed the Roman usage (rite); however, he insisted that it is reasonable to adopt some practices from other Churches (De sacramentis, 3.1.5). Other Italian rites, such as that of aquileia and benevento, have also flourished.

Roman Rite proper. The earliest liturgical witnesses in Latin of the Roman Rite that are earlier than the seventh century are the leonine sacramentary (Veronense) and Old gelasian sacramentary (Vat. Reg. Lat.316). Surviving fragments of liturgical texts suggest that the basic text of the Roman Canon was already worked out in the fourth century and the framework of the whole Mass was essentially set by the turn of the fifth. The last major reform, especially of the Mass, was under Gregory the Great. While his name is still connected with the music used in the Roman rite, in reality much of this chant took its origin considerably later in the monasteries of the Rhineland. Whatever the exact nature and scope of his reform, however, this was indeed the golden age of the Roman liturgy, when it was sufficiently evolved to express the manifold aspects of the Christian mystery and was still a rite in which the whole community took conscious active part. It was also the time of its greatest prestige, when it was more and more adopted by other churches. This process of expansion was hastened first by Pepin, then by Charlemagne, who worked energetically to impose it on their whole territory. The pontifical Sacramentary sent by the pope and used as the basis for this unification, the work of supplementing done by Alcuin, the multitude of manuals (Ordines Romani ) produced in the reorganization, all this is more fully explained in the article roman rite. The ancient Roman rite was considerably modified. Curiously enough, a few centuries later history reversed itself when the Germanized Roman Pontifical made its way back to Italy, replacing the older usages by the end of the 11th century.

The liturgical reform undertaken by Innocent III marks a turning point in the history of the Roman liturgy. The period was hampered by a preference for allegory and legalism, under which the original meaning of the actions was lost and yet their smallest details prescribed, so that the appreciation of the liturgy as the communal and hierarchical celebration of the whole Church was more and more replaced by juridical preoccupation with the task to be performed. Under the influence of the Mendicants, the sanctoral cycle grew and theological controversy over the Real Presence abetted new currents of Eucharistic piety that brought new rites such as the Elevation of the Host.

Historically, various religious orders had their own liturgical rites that were derivatives of the Roman Rite with some elements borrowed from the Gallican Rites. (See carmelite rite, carthusian rite, dominican rite and premonstratensian rite.) During the Middle Ages, liturgical usage developed adaptations of the Roman Rite in the British Isles, the most famous of which is the sarum use. Other examples include the york use and hereford use.

The riches of the liturgy remained enshrined in the Roman liturgical sources, awaiting recovery, but the misfortunes of the 16th-century division deterred the Council of Trent's reform from doing much more than solidifying the general status quo. Benedict XIV initiated a more critical reform, but it was interrupted, not to be resumed until the 20th century under Pius X, more extensively under Pius XII, and finally on a wholesale basis by Vatican Council II.

Bibliography: a. a. king, The Rites of Eastern Christendom, 2 v. (London 1950); Liturgies of the Past (Milwaukee 1959). a. king, Liturgies of the Religious Orders (London 1955). j. a. jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite, tr. f. a. brunner, 2 v. (New York 195155); The Early Liturgy to the Time of Gregory the Great, tr. f. a. brunner (Notre Dame, Ind. 1959). d. attwater, The Christian Churches of the East, 2 v. (rev. ed. Milwaukee 196162). b. botte, "Rites et familles liturgiques," L'Église en Priere (Paris 1965). h.a.j. wegman, Christian Worship in East and West: A Study Guide to Liturgical History (New York 1985). c. vogel, Medieval Liturgy: An Introduction to the Sources (Washington, DC 1986).

[j. j. megivern/

t. richstatter/eds.]

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Liturgical Rites

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