I have been nerding out since I discovered that archive.org has digitized the 1912 edition of the Decreta Authentica Sacræ Congregationis Rituum, which contains all 4,284 decrees the dicastery had issued since its establishment by Pope Sixtus V in 1588 up to that time, answering countless practical questions about the proper celebration of Mass, the Sacraments, and the Office according to the Roman Rite. It is a very timeless book, if you think about it, a volume added to, but never completed, by successive generations of cardinals, filled with very old statements that held immediate and practical relevance for parish priests and sacristans around the world for nearly 500 years.
Fascinating reading for anyone remotely interested in liturgy (and with a passable knowledge of Latin), and across the centuries you can see the Congregation responding practically to very contemporary concerns. Perhaps my favorite decree is SRC 3859, dated June 4, 1895, in which the question of electric lights is addressed. The Congregation determined that they may be employed to “dispel the darkness and more brightly light the churches,” but that they may not be used to “increase the exterior splendor of the rites,” and that every precaution must be taken “lest their use appear theatrical.”
In our day and age, of course, in which one cannot write an article about why the sanctuary is a meaningful liturgical symbol without being accused of “sheer undisguised spiritual pride that rolls off their tongues without a hint of self-awareness,” the mindset that gave rise to decrees of this kind, in such great volume, about such seemingly minute and trivial details, is certainly counter-intuitive, probably unfamiliar, and likely unintelligible to most. Our mindset is more like that of a priest who, as I was preparing the music for Mass once and realized that I had inadvertently violated the rubrics, remarked nonchalantly that God didn’t really care what text I used for the Gospel acclamation.
I feel as if, in denouncing “rubricism,” we have perhaps inculcated in many of the faithful what amounts to a hatred of rubrics. I find this especially odd at this historical moment, when we are nearly obsessive about the subjective, rather than objective, aspects of liturgy.
It puzzles me that, on both sides of the liturgy debate, people behave as if what is aimed at by the rubrics is some objective state-of-affairs that, once realized, will bring tranquility and order to the Church. The progressives dream of a kind of liturgical ressourcement in which an appreciation for the origins of all the ceremonies of the Mass will show clearly their unnecessary character, and that, in consequence, an age of nearly absolute freedom in all but the most essential symbols will reign in the Church. I believe it was Dom Chupungco who even spoke of inculturation to the extent of replacing the Gloria with a completely vernacular composition of a similar character, among other things. This mindset, which may seem on the face like hypersubjectivism, is spun as the only appropriate response to a realization of the culturally-conditioned character of the Roman Rite, and hence proposals that could have been taken as subjectivist dispensations for certain cultural and pastoral circumstances (for example the dispensation for a vernacular and metrical Gloria in preconciliar Germany), but that also recognized the subjective value of unified prayer and the intercultural enrichment the Roman Rite could provide under ordinary circumstances (think of all the cultural notes that Gregorian Chant, a medieval monodic music, or Latin liturgy, still holds in even the most popular expressions of American culture, for example in Hollywood—who doesn’t “get” the baptism scene from The Godfather?), become instead an objectivist mandate to alter a perfectly sound on-the-ground state-of-affairs for esoteric reasons.
For a deeper discussion of this perspective, see Fr. Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered, in which he advances the thesis that the failure of modern missionary activity lies with the mixing of what is essentially a Roman tribal recension of Christianity with the simple and undiluted seed of the Gospel, and that preaching the “core” of the Gospel in a highly inculturated way (he went so far as to alter even the parables, rather than to teach the Masai the significance the characters in the parables would have had for Jews at the time) and allowing the culture itself to supply the rites for the celebration of the Mass and Sacraments, would yield more abundant and lasting fruit.
On the converse, I get the sense from many traditionalists that their pastoral theology is taken from Field of Dreams, and that a pure, streamlined, rubrically and musically full and precise iteration of the Tridentine Mass will simply exert a mystical attraction on the faithful, who will be drawn magnetically into the fold, and that it ought, if possible, immediately and definitively supplant any and all other expressions at least of the Roman Rite, if not of Mass itself, given its objective superiority.
But rubrics, on the whole (and certainly not the detailed ones) aren’t about imposing what is objectively superior or academically accepted. Rather, rubrics are aimed precisely at safeguarding subjective expressions of the faith, and at enabling the faithful to live stable and fruitful spiritual lives in which they are at home. The idea that rubrics are even supposed to aim at something that is “objectively best” is dispelled by the merest glance at the old Rituale Romanum’s rules for distributing communion. Unless compelled by necessity, priests of the Oriental Rite are forbidden from distributing communion under the species of unleavened bread. Unless compelled by necessity, priests of the Latin Rite are commanded to. The rubrics aren’t attempting to adjudicate whether leavened or unleavened bread is more fitting for the Sacrifice; both are acceptable. The sensibilities of the faithful, and the stability of their prayer lives, are so valuable, that Church law prevents ritual intermingling and attempts to preserve the integrity of each rite. Klaus Gamber speaks of the sense of “home” the faithful should be able to have in the celebration of Mass, no matter where it is celebrated. St. Pius X echoes this principle in his Motu Proprio on Sacred Music, in which he commands that, although inculturated music is to be encouraged, it should be of such a character as to strike any Catholic from any part of the world as sacred. This principle he calls the “universality” of sacred music.
I’m not a pastor, of course, but I do have years of experience in pastoral music, and I can’t help but observe that the breakdown in concern for seemingly trivial details and the radical localization of liturgy has all but destroyed this universality, this at-homeness any Catholic should feel in any celebration of his rite. And this isn’t a question of scholars in the pews judging those in the sanctuary on some esoteric principles of organic development or quality of presiding. Rather, these are the gut reactions of the ordinary Catholic with no especial theological training, to which I have been privy in abundance over the course of my career in church music. This is the lady who puzzles to the deacon, “Why is he singing all that stuff in Latin before Mass?” (she was hard of hearing; I was singing in English, but she should be able to feel comfortable with Latin in the Latin Rite, and not be struck with it as something from outer space). This is the man who can’t believe that we still think the same things about the Eucharist we used to, since when he was an altar boy he wasn’t even allowed to touch the ciborium, but now is all but expected to touch the Host itself. These are very practical concerns from very down-to-earth people, concerns that are voiced on both sides of the issue by people who often don’t know what to expect from Sunday to Sunday in their own parishes. Nothing is given anymore, and they are not at home anywhere, unless they are blessed enough to have a very rigorous theological training, and to be able to see the underlying unity of such widely disparate external ceremonies, and to have the presence of mind to completely spiritualize their experience of Mass to an extraordinary extent, ignoring the externals that annoy them or strike them as unfitting, that jar them and disorient them, and focusing completely on the latent spiritual reality.
But Trent reminds us that the ceremonies of the Mass are aids to our entering into the mystery, not difficulties to be overcome in trying to contemplate it. We may argue and implement ad experimentum ad nauseam, trying desparately to find the golden, pristine liturgical Nirvana that most beautifully encapsulates the Gospel, but in the end all this does is breed confusion in the Church, and discord among the faithful.
Like the dog staring at the other steak reflected in the stream, instead of being satisfied with the steak in his mouth, we, seeing the unnecessary and changeable character of so much of our liturgy, have in so many ways been overcome with lust for what could be that we have abandoned the good things we once had.
So what of the Decreta Authentica? They are a remarkable artifact, perhaps quaint to such a cavalier bunch as us, of an age in which pastors were deeply solicitous to iterate the liturgy faithfully and accurately for their flocks (this is not to ignore the many and varied liturgical abuses that prevailed at the time!), to preserve the unity of the Roman Rite, and, in deferring to the judgment of a higher authority on minor matters, to ensure that there was no occasion to offend the sensibilities of the faithful or to arouse discord among them. And that, we may perhaps see by reflection, is no paltry sum, and is certainly not an undesirable state of affairs.
I’ll leave you with a thought from the preface to the Liber Usualis, the book of chants that prevailed before the ritual reform:
“Holy Mother the Church has received from God the charge of training the souls of the faithful in all holiness, and for this noble end has ever made a happy use of the help of the sacred liturgy. Wherein — in order that men’s minds may not be sundered by differences, but that, on the contrary, the unity which gives vigour and beauty to the mystical body of Christ might flourish unimpaired — She has been zealous to keep the traditions of our forefathers, ever trying diligently to discover and boldly to restore any which might have been forgotten in the course of ages.”
I think this is a true account of the “why” of rubrics and of the importance of tradition with a little “t.”