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A Brief History of the Roman Rite


The following guest post was written by Fr. Donald L. Kloster, a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut who has served (for over 6 years) as the pastor of 36,000 faithful in the poorer parish of Maria Inmaculada Eucarisitica in the Archdiocese of Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Father Kloster graduated from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary Philadelphia, PA in 1995, having completed his Master’s Thesis in Moral Theology. He is a native of Texas and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1989. In addition, Fr. Kloster spent two years as a student (and then novice) at the 7th century est. Benedictine Abbey of Disentis, Switzerland.

In the first three centuries of the nascent Church, the liturgical practices grew out of various apostolic models. These Apostolic models were based in the primary cities of important ancient centers of Christian expansion. The models developed into the various rites in order to hand down, via a specified standard of worship, the fullness of faith to succeeding generations.

The First Council of Nicea (325 AD) speaks of three primary sees: Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. Some historians add Jerusalem and Constantinople to that list. The first three all have connections to Petrine traditions. Thus, we may highlight four principle spheres of liturgical traditions. At the beginning, the relations of Rome and Alexandria were comparatively close, while Byzantium and Antioch were nearer to each other. This is the infancy of the two liturgical lungs of the Church; West and East.

Antioch may be considered the epicenter of liturgical traditions. It was there that the Gentiles were assimilated into the infant Church and that the term “Christian” was first used. It was the capital of Syria and thus the ideal setting for the great theological debates about how to correctly define the Messianic faith completed in the revelations of Jesus Christ.

The Syro-Malankar rite, which still flourishes in India, traces its roots to the Apostle St. James. The Maronite rite of Lebanon should be assigned to this family. On the other hand are the Chaldean rites (Assyrian) that are founded in the great schools of Nisibis and Edessa. In the early Middle Ages, there were about 70 million adherents who suffered untold losses due to Mongol and Islamic invasions. The Chaldean liturgical family finds its origin directly proceeding from the Apostle St. Thomas.

Alexandria can claim a great sphere including the Coptic and Ethiopian rites. This is the Liturgy of the Evangelist St. Mark. This liturgical family has a strong Byzantine influence. In a related, but separate category is the Armenian rite connected to the Apostles St. Bartholomew and St. Jude Thaddeus.

We are now able to now fully complete the circle of the two greatest Families of rites: the Byzantine and the Roman. Byzantium takes up the traditions of Antioch and is the Eastern appendage. It branches out from the prominence of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In the West, three ritual groups may be discerned; the Roman, the Gallican, and the Mozarabic. Rome had always been more conservative, archaic, and somber. Spain and Gaul had been more exuberant and poetic due to their Eastern and distinctive influences.

The Roman rite, as well as her Eastern companions, has its origins where Christianity first flourished and the apostles first preached. They are all anchored in the revelation prompted by Divine Providence which has been handed down from generation to generation organically.

It is important for the modern man to understand that the liturgical practices sprung not from whimsical innovation or change for the sake of preferences. The rites developed from an authentic piety that sought to highlight the truths of the faith richly in rubrics, sacred texts, and symbols. These were different, but related expressions of the one faith. The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church was guided by the Holy Ghost in adapting rites that communicated the creed to the initiated members of the ever multiplying throng that were hungry to learn the truths of the Trinitarian worship from all of eternity.

In the Roman rite, three main practices were immediately evident: the mystical element of silence with its precise movements, the use of the sacred language of Latin as well as sacred images, and the Eastward orientation of the Mass.

The silence and movements of the Mass encourage a deeply reflective attitude that is receptive to learning the faith through the Holy Sacrifice. When we are too “busy” or too distracted, we may miss those important things the Holy Trinity wants us to grasp and assimilate. We encounter God best when we allow Him to speak to us in inexpressible groans.

Latin is a dead language and is therefore not subjected to constant fluctuations in meanings. It also reunites the worldwide faithful into a single language that reverses the punishment of the tower of Babel.

The Eastward orientation (the priest does not have his back to the faithful, he is facing God in the tabernacle) is an important aspect of the Mass that awaits the Second Coming of Christ. It also leaves open the circle of worship to include the faithful everywhere (the Church Militant), as well as the Church Suffering in Purgatory, and the Church Triumphant in Heaven.

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass must never be seen as a piece of technical equipment to be constantly updated. No one has the authority to do to the Divine Liturgy what one will without reference to the tradition of faith. Even the Holy Father is at the service of Sacred Tradition. That same Sacred Tradition is the imperative for any man to encounter God on His terms, not according to human innovation. The ancient Roman rite is one of the portals through which anyone can best converse with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in eternity; in it he has obtained heaven on earth.

Photo credit: CC Watershed

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