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The Mass of the Apostles

by the Abbot of Syon

The Modernists are always saying that what we call The Mass and what they sneeringly call "the old and superceded rite" is really no very ancient thing, being the creation of Saint Pius the Fifth in the sixteenth century, but they lie; they are sons worthy of their father, who was a liar from the first, a murderer of the truth from the beginning.

Heinrich Heine, the unbeliever, declared that, as he put it, "the ceremonies of the Catholic Mass are so ancient that they are perhaps the only things come down to us from the infancy of our civilization; they lay claim to our piety as memorials of our ancestors." But not the ceremonies alone come down to us from the infancy of the Church; the essential order and language of the Mass are no less ancient.

We have no documentary evidence before the latter part of the fourth century as to the substantial identity of the Mass we offer with that of the Church of the Apostles, doubtless because of the disciplina arcani, that is, the "discipline of the secret," the Church's self-defensive practice in her earliest days, the days of persecution, of concealing her doctrine having to do with the Holy Eucharist from the eyes and ears of pagans and even catechumens.

What we do have is the statement of Saint Clement of Rome, who flourished at the end of the first century, that Our Blessed Lord Himself laid down the order of the Mass; and the statement of Saint Justin Martyr, writing about the year 155, that the Lord Himself after His Resurrection taught the Apostles how to say Mass.

We find this order and this instruction set down in the little book called De Sacramentis which recent scholarship has shown is almost certainly the work of Saint Ambrose, who died in 397. De Sacramentis gives the prayers of the Canon of the Mass as it was celebrated at the end of the fourth century. Those prayers are the prayers we priests of Syon recite every time we offer Holy Mass.

Those same prayers were ancient when Saint Ambrose put them down in De Sacramentis. Pope Vigilius, writing in 538 to Profuturus, the bishop of Braga in Portugal, declares that the Canon of the Roman Mass had never yet been altered; it remained in "the form which by God's mercy we have received from Apostolic tradition."

Saint Gregory the Great, pope from 590 to 604, slightly altered the order of the prayers of the Canon, but "no pope," wrote Benedict XIV in 1748, "has added to or changed it since Saint Gregory."

During the Middle Ages, says Father Adrian Fortescue, the ablest of writers on liturgical matters in our language, "no bishop dared to touch the sacred Eucharistic prayer." But a great many local variations of other parts of the Mass grew up throughout Christendom, and the Council of Trent, alarmed by the anarchical spirit being promoted by the newborn Protestantism, decreed that Mass be everywhere in the Latin Rite celebrated with entire uniformity. It was to accomplish this that Pope Saint Pius Vth in 1570 issued his Missale Romanum, "to be valid in perpetuity." But this great work of St. Pius Vth was not a revision but a restoration; and "the rite restored by Pius Vth," writes Father Fortescue, "is the old one, essentially more archaic and venerable than the medieval developments."

So our Mass is the Mass of the ages. It comes down to us not from the sixteenth century, not from medieval times, not from that era men call the Dark Ages, not from the catacombs, but from the Church of the Apostles, and ultimately, indeed, from Him Who is its principal Priest and its spotless Victim.

2nd Revised Edition, Copyright © 2006. First published in Christendom #117, 1990.

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