Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
A church with many liturgical faces
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Oct. 2, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
We probably find it hard to imagine what life would be like without the forms of communication we take for granted. Imagine for a moment that there were no telephones, no computers with their fax, email and word processing capabilities, no radios or televisions, and no printing presses.
Yet it was under precisely these conditions that our liturgical rites originated. It is no wonder, then, that in the first centuries of the Church there were no liturgical books as we know them, no standardization of prayers or liturgical texts. Thus there were literally as many liturgical rites as there were individual Christian communities. People in one town were not certain about how the Christian Eucharist was celebrated in the neighboring town. One thing was certain: the celebration of the Eucharist would always include readings, preaching, the taking of bread and wine and the blessing of these items, and their distribution to the participants. Everything surrounding these few simple actions depended on local habits and customs.
Given the almost absolute freedom and necessity to improvise most of the liturgy, it is no wonder that there evolved at least eight distinct rites, or liturgical families. We are most familiar with what has become the most familiar of these rites – the Roman rite, to which most of us belong. There is also today the Armenian rite, with about 150,000 members; the Byzantine, with about 9 million; the Coptic, with about 153,000; the Ethiopian, about 119,000; the Maronite, around 2.2 million; the East Syrian, including Chaldean, with about 470,000; Syro-Malabar, with about 3 million; the West Syrian, including Syro-Antiochene, with about 100,000; and the Syro-Syro-Malankara, with about 290,000.
These rites, excluding our familiar Roman rite, are notable because oft their length, their lavish use of incense, the fact that they are for the most part sung in their original languages, and that parts of the liturgy are celebrated out of view of the assembly. Thus these rites remain a testimony to the rich history and to the universality of the Church. They are also a testimony to the way liturgical rites grow organically, incorporating customs and practices of various communities and cultures, and expressing, down through the ages, the developing theologies and pieties of various peoples.
The history of the eight liturgical families or rites also helps us appreciate our Roman rite. Clearly, the earliest rites would be those that developed in and around those places where Jesus preached. The Roman rite developed only later, after Christian missionaries like Paul established faith communities in what is now Italy. It was not until the eighth and ninth centuries that the liturgical practices associated with Rome would come to predominate throughout Europe.
The Roman rite is still today considered the most sober and simple of the rites, but like all the others, the Roman rite is not purely “Roman”; rather, it is a composite or amalgamation of a number of influences collected, over the centuries, from the liturgical customs and habits and pieties of various cultures and peoples.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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