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A Masterful Survey of the Roman Mass

The Roman Mass
From Early Christian Origins to Tridentine Reform

By Uwe Michael Lang
Cambridge, 456 pages, $120

While sequestered during the COVID pandemic, Uwe Michael Lang, a priest of the oratory of St. Philip Neri in London, found himself with the time he needed to finally compose a one-volume history of the Roman Mass. This is no small feat, but Lang has given us what will become the standard one-volume study, and he has done so with remarkable lucidity and eloquence.

Given that the Roman Mass is almost certainly the most-prayed eucharistic rite in the history of Christendom, it is remarkable how few other serious volumes are its contenders. One of the reasons for this paucity is the sort of giddy excitement at the groundswell of patristic evidence that was uncovered in the 20th century’s liturgical movement. As a result, a bias developed in favor of Eastern sources (assumed to be both older and better) and against the unusually structured Latin eucharistic prayer.

But as the great liturgical scholar of Byzantine liturgy, Robert Taft, SJ, notes, the Latin eucharistic prayer was “obviously formulated before the impact of the late fourth-century pneumatological resolution at Constantinople 1 (381 A.D.), [and] reflects a primitive euchologic theology much older than almost any extant eastern anaphora except Addai and Mari.” The Roman Canon stands as clear evidence against “the common myth that everything eastern is automatically older.” (See Taft, “‘Eastern Presuppositions’ and Western Liturgical Renewal,” Antiphon 5, no. 1 [2000].)

The greatest of 20th-century histories is without doubt the towering two-volume work by the Jesuit scholar Josef A. Jungmann (1889-1975), The Mass of the Roman Rite. Originally published in German in 1949, it went through four more revisions but it is most known to English readers through the 1951 translation that is still in print. While more than 70 years old, it nonetheless stands as a testament of the extent to which a work of historical scholarship can remain the gold standard long after most such histories become dated and fade away.

Jungmann is completely conversant with all of the extant scholarship on its history, as well as the vast manuscript data, and a glance at a few pages makes this abundantly clear as footnotes often take up as much space as the main body. Jungmann’s approach was both chronological and textual: the first 170 pages are a traditional, sequential history, while the rest of the book works through the Roman Mass and provides a detailed history of each section’s historical development, as well as its ceremonial expression. But except for the most serious scholar, it remains the sort of book that one consults rather than sits to read.

Another single volume with which many Anglicans are more likely to be acquainted is from that most English of Roman Catholics, Adrian Fortescue (1874-1923), a direct descendent of a Roman Catholic martyr of the same name who was beheaded at the Tower of London for his opposition to the politics of Henry VIII. While his father was originally an Anglican clergyman and figure in the bourgeoning Anglo-Catholic movement in England, he was received in the Catholic Church in 1872 and lived as a layman and teacher for the rest of his life.

The latter Fortescue is perhaps even better-known to Anglo-Catholics as the author of The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, whose Anglican sister volume, Ritual Notes, is the gnostic text that opened the secrets of Catholic ritual for countless young sacristy rats. The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (1926) is remarkable not only for its erudition but for Fortescue’s being the closest liturgical scholar whose writing might be mentioned in the same breath as Dom Gregory Dix (1901-52).

Dix was an Anglican Benedictine who penned maybe the most influential liturgical monograph of the 20th century, The Shape of the Liturgy (1945), which is written with such panache that is sometimes reads more like a swashbuckling adventure book than a liturgical history. The much more reserved English scholar Geoffrey Willis produced two seminal books (Essays on Early Roman Liturgy [1964] and Further Essays on Early Roman Liturgy [1968]), which, while not comprehensive, stand as an ensign of the sort of clear, rigorous, historical scholarship that will continue to serve as the cornerstone for future study for generations to come.

All of these early treatments relied on assumptions to one extent or another that have now been set aside, however, and no volume feels more dated than A Short History of the Western Mass (1969) by the prolific German scholar Theodore Klauser, which remains in print from Oxford University Press. He assumes, for example, that the basic structure of the Liturgy of the Word was “taken over from the sabbath morning service at the synagogue” and that the so-called Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus is an earlier stage of the Roman Canon. These and many other assumptions have basically been abandoned as the evidence has directed scholars elsewhere. Given how short his treatment is and how much of the scholarship has moved on, his volume is probably the least useful to contemporary readers, even though it may be the most accessible.

Into this space steps Lang and his magisterial new monograph. Scholarly and thoroughly conversant with the history of scholarship, he has nonetheless produced a volume that is extremely readable, clear, and moves in detail from scriptural origins all the way to the Council of Trent (1545-63). His decision to stop at Trent is quite wise. The amount of ink that has been spilled on the developments (or rupture, depending on your perspective) after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is so vast that it would have been impossible to keep the book to a reasonable length had he pushed all the way to today.

Lang would fall into the camp of those who have reservations about certain ways that Sacrosanctum Concilium was implemented in the Missal of Paul VI (the current Missale Romanum, now in its third typical edition), and some of that bias can be discerned on occasion. For example, in his discussion of the orientation of the priest and people during Mass in the first millennium, he undertakes a survey of scholarly opinions but fails to mention a key recent challenge to his position by Thomas O’Loughlin. But such examples are rare. Both scholars and more casual readers who pick up this volume will find themselves at the feet of a fair and patient magister who is a trustworthy guide and deftly stewards his readers through 1,600 years of history in just 366 pages. The result is a clear picture of the Western response to the command never before so obeyed.

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