Monday, August 22, 2011

Observations on Sunday Liturgies in Three Rites

For the past three Sundays I have been visiting a couple of churches to experience for myself the different rites of the Catholic Church. Having been exposed to the new order of the Roman Rite for almost all my life being a Filipino, being in the United Kingdom offered me a unique opportunity to witness the diversity of expression of worship in the universal Church and yet express one doctrine.

First Taste of Eastern Liturgy: Maronite Qurbono

The first I attended was the Maronite Qurbono celebrated in the Our Lady of Lebanon Shrine. As this was the first Eastern rite that I attended ever in my life, I expected that the signum crucis would be reverse of what Roman Catholics do, and the form of liturgy would conform to the ancient form wherein everyone faces to the east, and clergy would sport beards (really). I didn't really expect that the Latinization of the Maronite rite has gone real deep that my expectations were the reverse of what truly happened: the sign of the cross is the same, the priest faced the congregation most of the time like the new order of the Roman Mass, the liturgy done in Arabic (though the canon is still done in Aramaic), people knelt during the consecration, and the priests were clean-shaven (except for a monk dressed in a black habit who wore a stole while distributing Communion).

Other than those, it was extensively a sung liturgy that has parallels with the order of the Roman Mass, with the priest and congregation chanting in Aramaic, though the creed and the Pater Noster were recited instead of sung. Despite the total absence of Arabic in my vocabulary, and my Aramaic being as good as rust, I've been able to recognize a lot of the words: Abba (father), Qurbono (sacred offering), Qadisha (holy). Another distinct feature would probably be the kiss of peace after the reception of gifts, and how after the kiss of peace was passed by clasping both hands as in prayer from the priest to the rest of the congregation. There was emphasis on the sacrificial nature of the Qurbono: from the repeated appeals of divine mercy, intercession and usage of Kyrie Eleison, frequent mentions of the word Qurbono and Qadisha, to the total lack of applause and surprisingly solemn behavior of the congregation. 

Familiar yet not so familiar: Tridentine Mass

The following Sunday, I attended a Roman Mass in the extraordinary form in St. James Cathedral, as that Sunday was the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. As this was a low Mass, Latin was the liturgical language, no chanting occurred, and silence ruled throughout the entire course of the liturgy. I can clearly tell I am the odd man as I am used to standing during the Pater Noster, and recite the suscipiat response after the priest's Oratre fratres, while everyone else were eerily silent and kneeling. Seems that the tradition in the UK for low Mass is silence contrasting to a dialogue form as practiced in Manila.

This made me reflect a lot on the state of the traditional Mass - I now actually think that I'm already very lucky that I can attend missa cantata every Sunday, as such is very rare in the United Kingdom. The Latin Mass Society is clearly very active in the UK though, and has subscribed a handful of places across the country that regularly celebrate the old form. Contrast this to the treatment the traditional Latin Mass movement has in the Philippines, wherein bishops actually suppress its expression... I am already blessed I am still able to attend regularly in my lifetime, much more just having it within 5 miles from my house.

So what they were saying about the Byzantine Divine Liturgy was true...

Lastly, I attended the Divine Liturgy of the Ukrainian Catholic Church held at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Exile. Here, my initial assumptions on what happens in the Byzantine Rite were valid (to an extent): the signum crucis is the reverse, the priest and the congregation faced east, though I could say that I didn't expect the kneeling during the consecration and clean-shaven priests. Like the Maronite liturgy, the congregation sang all throughout; and like the traditional Roman liturgy, I never heard the canon spoken loudly like the new Roman Mass.

The liturgy, for the lack of a better term, was incredibly beautiful. The polyphony the priest, deacon and the entire congregation made (while I didn't understand one bit due to my lack of comprehension of Ukrainian, ) for the entire duration of the liturgy, is what I can say superior to the Roman Rite's Gregorian Chant. The iconostasis, the altar, icons, the vessels and vestments used by the clergy, combined with the use of incense, solemn behavior, high language and very good singing, gives the sensation of being able to see, smell, hear and touch a foretaste of things to come. And all these realizations from a guy who wasn't able to understand a single word of what was going on - that is a testament to the beauty of what transpired for just one hour. It just boggles me why there are no Easter Catholic Churches in the Philippines that offer the Divine Liturgy: instead there are Roman Masses that nearly approximate a Protestant song, dance, and preach number. I would gladly attend this liturgy if it were only an option in Manila.


In retrospect, the Divine Liturgy is supposed to be the highest form of worship accorded by a creature to the Creator. As such, this has to edify and uplift towards a higher plane, rather than be downward trodden and upbeat to the world.  The extraordinary form of the Roman Mass, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, and the Maronite Qurbono as properly done satisfies the edification that the liturgy should do. Having experienced some of the Eastern Rite liturgies opened my eyes on the need to do the reform of the reform. Honestly, these traditions (the use of sacred language, good polyphony, silence in the canon, the solemn kiss of peace) are really lacking in practice in the current Roman Mass as practiced in many parts of the world, and a return to these traditions will make celebration of the liturgy more profound and spiritually enriching. 

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