by Father Michael Gilligan
In the year 1988we celebrated a thousand years of Christianity
in Eastern Europe. It was in 988 that Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, was
baptized. In the wake of his conversion, all Ukraine, Byelorussia,
and Russia itself became Christian. These ethnic groups were baptized
Catholic in the heritage of the Byzantine Rite, the heritage of those
who speak Greek. After the Latin Rite of the Western world, the Byzantine
Rite is the second largest group of Christians on earth. As we celebrate
this millenium of faith, we reflect how these Eastern Christians
have made a special contribution to the universal Church. Whether
Catholic or Orthodox, these people have preserved ancient customs
that go back not only to 988 but also to the time of the early Church.
Some of these traditions are more ancient and more universal than
our own. These traditions are now coming to be appreciated in the
West and have even been restored, more or less, in our own liturgy.
Here are just a few of these important principles that can help all
Christians to pray together.
1) The liturgy belongs to the people.
In the Byzantine Churches of Eastern Europe, the participation of
the people is important; the liturgy has never been primarily the
work of the clergy. For example, the language of the Mass, while
sometimes archaic (such as Old Slavonic), has never been incomprehensible
to the people. Even though some parishes lost their tradition of
strong congregational singing, that tradition is now being restored.
Furthermore, the participation of the people has been supported by
other traditions, summed up in the following principles.
2) The primary role of the deacon is to support participation.
In the Byzantine Rite, the deacon does not remain in the sanctuary.
In the course of the Mass, he often goes down to sing with the people.
Rather than being primarily an assistant to the priest, the deacon
is a minister to the congregation: his main task is to help the people
take part. For example, during the Mass, the deacon gives various
admonitions to the people: “Sing strongly!” (Dynamis!), “Wisdom!” (Premudrost!), and “Let
us listen attentively!” (Vonmiem!). The deacon coordinates
processions, giving directions as needed. Most important of all,
he sings the many litanies that are a significant part of the Mass
in the Byzantine Rite. In the absence of a deacon, the priest may
take over many of the deacon’s parts; but the normative structure
of the Byzantine Mass requires a deacon. He is not a ceremonial extra
but a necessary minister in the order of service.
3) Singing is integral to the Mass.
The Byzantine Mass has always been largely sung. The priest has some
prayers that he says quietly; this practice, as in the West, is of
medieval origin. The people, however, use singing as their primary
means of participation. In many parishes, only the Creed and a short
prayer before Communion would be recited; everything else, the people
The litanies, for example; are never recited. They may be abbreviated;
some may be omitted; but they are always sung. In these litanies,
there are many invocations, not just four or five. The singing of
the responses, over and over again, brings about a spirit of reverence
and piety. The people also join in acclamations, some as short as Amen, some
For the most part, the hymns are sung for their own sake, not primarily
to accompany an action. These songs are not just tacked on at the
beginning and end of Mass; they are a required part of the service.
In the authentic tradition of the Byzantine Rite, there is no such
thing as a “Low Mass,” without singing, or a Mass with
four metrical hymns and nothing else sung. Also, it would not be
typical at a Byzantine Mass to have the people sing just verses one
and two of a four-verse hymn. As a rule, hymns are sung in their
entirety. As with many songs that people love to sing, there is plenty
Singing, in many forms, is intended to be part of the whole experience
of the liturgy; it is integral to the celebration.
4) The people’s responses do not change.
Although there are readings, Psalms, and prayers that change, most of the people’s
parts are the same, Sunday after Sunday, year after year. For example, there
are different responses for different litanies; but those responses never change.
For the opening litany, the response in Greek churches is Kyrie, eleison. That
response never varies. In fact, in every Mass, not only the responses of the
litanies but also the invocations remain the same.
In many Western churches, there are different invocations for the general intercessions
each Sunday. In some parishes, even the response will change from week to week.
Not so in the East. The highest priority is the people’s participation.
To achieve this end, there is a great emphasis on using the same texts, the same
acclamations, the same responses.
The result of such consistency is that the words become familiar to everyone
involved. It’s easy for people to join in the singing, especially when
the songs are known by heart.
This is why the liturgy has been so enduring, so effective in the minds and hearts
of the faithful. Because it is familiar, the liturgy belongs to the people. It
5) The congregation remains standing throughout Sunday Mass.
Because singing is so important, standing is appropriate for Mass.
This is the posture in which we sing best. In the Byzantine Rite,
standing recalls the Resurrection of Christ; it signifies readiness,
action, and life. Standing also means reverence. This is why Christians
stand for the Gospel. Above all, standing is a community posture,
in which the people are united.
In contrast, kneeling is relegated to weekdays,.. special days of penance, and
private prayer. Kneeling in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is foreign to
Eastern tradition. Some Byzantine churches in the United States and in the Ukraine
have pews of one kind or another. These pews accommodate the need people have
to sit down during the sermon. If substantial homilies are given weekly, such
seating would be practical. Nevertheless, the ancient tradition of the whole
Church is to have an open space for the congregation, without pews. Along the
wall, there may be seats for the elderly and the sick, but the congregation as
a whole remains standing throughout the Mass. In the West, this tradition is
maintained in the oldest Roman churches, which have no pews. In the East, in
most Byzantine churches, the tradition of standing is very much alive.
6) There is only one Mass a day at any one altar.
Like other customs, this principle is not strictly followed in all
places, especially in churches under Western influence. But the universal,
authentic tradition of the Christian East is that community in worship
is so important that the Church should not be divided in its assembly.
Consider a town hall meeting, a teachers’ gathering, or a school
assembly. We would not schedule such a meeting at two different times,
with the group divided into two parts. The main idea of the gathering
is that we get together; that’s
what an assembly is for. In the same way, the Byzantine Mass is understood as
a celebration of unity.
In this perspective, the local community is worthy of great respect. The parish
is not a place for service, like a restaurant or a gas station; it is the incarnation
of the Church herself. The gathered community is the primary manifestation of
the Church, the primary sign of the reign of God. Perhaps this last principle
is the clearest example of the theology that underlies all these traditions.
Like the early Christians, the Eastern Catholic does not attend Mass as an individual,
to satisfy his or her needs or to meet a personal obligation.
Participation in the liturgy is an act of the Church, an act of
the wider family, an act of the people. What Is important is what
the Church does, not what the individual wants.
There are many ways in which these venerable traditions
are being restored in the West. For the most part, they were once
our own as well.
Deacons are ordained.
Especially since the new Order of Mass was introduced in 1969,
Western Catholics are getting used to seeing other ministers at Sunday Mass,
even deacons. Every year, more and more deacons are ordained for service
in the Latin Rite. These deacons are not seminarians; they intend to remain
deacons permanently. So, the ancient tradition of the diaconate is now coming
to life in the West.
Singing is revived.
Many parishes encourage congregational singing, especially for
more important parts of the Mass, such as the Sanctus. Two new
litanies have been introduced: Penitential Rite III and the General
Intercessions. Both litanies can be sung, and there is no requirement
that the words change each Sunday. Some songs in the Roman Mass
are now sung for their own sake, and they are not normally abbreviated.
For example, many parishes sing the Psalm after the First Reading
on Sundays. At the end of Communion, another Psalm or a hymn of praise may
be sung. At children’s
Masses, a special hymn may be sung after the homily.
Standing is restored.
What about standing during the Mass? The universal norm for the
Latin Rite represents a dramatic reform. The Roman Order of Mass
explicitly permits kneeling during Mass only for the consecration;
even that genuflection may be omitted for a good reason. One of the most
substantial reforms of the Order of Mass is that the people are not to kneel
down after the Lord, I Am Not Worthy but
to remain standing all during Communion, for the rest of the Mass.
This is a change that is not appreciated equally well everywhere.
Like the other reforms, however, it brings us back to the practice of the
In the United States, our Latin Rite bishops have expanded the
genuflection at the consecration to include much of the Eucharistic
Prayer, that is, from the end of the Sanctus to the Great Amen. Some
bishops, however, have questioned whether this adaptation should
be maintained. They propose that the practice in the United States
be made to agree with that of the Latin Rite Catholic Church around
the world. They say that we should kneel just for the consecration,
as Latin Rite Catholics do everywhere else.
Pews will no doubt remain in most of our Latin Rite churches, because
we sit for the Scripture readings, the sermon, and the preparation
of the gifts. The liturgical movement and the Second Vatican Council have
helped us see that the sermon should be a homily, a substantial talk on
the Scripture. If we are to sit for such a talk, we will continue to need
pews. With regard to standing all during Communion, Bishop Ferrario of Honolulu
has asked his priests to cooperate with this requirement of the Order of
Mass. As time goes on, perhaps more bishops and priests will follow his
example. Most Church leaders sincerely want to do what Rome asks; the people,
too, have a deep loyalty to the Church. Many other aspects of the reform
of the Mass have already been widely accepted, and this change will no doubt
be more and more appreciated in years to come.
Needless duplication is curtailed.
Finally, in part because of instruction from Rome, some bishops
have asked that parishes not schedule too many Masses in one day,
to prevent celebrations in which the church would be only half filled. There
are many parishes where this request would have no effect; they have a full
church at every Mass. But there are other parishes, especially in. the Black
community and in rural areas, where the liturgical ideal can be realized:
one Mass and one assembly.
In a wonderful way, all these changes represent a renewal of the
Church of the West. We are returning to traditions that are ancient,
traditions that once were universal, in the first millennium of
Christianity. In a sense, we are beginning to learn what Eastern
Christians have never forgotten.
Back To Top