The Roman Liturgy

Themes: Biblical, Denomination, History, Liturgy, Scholar

The Roman Rite, originally celebrated only in the city of Rome and its environs, was adopted by other Western churches in an effort to introduce a fully organized and standardized liturgy.

The Roman rite was originally confined to the city of Rome and its suburbicarian dioceses. But even within the city itself there were differences in ceremonies, prayers, chants, and melodies for the Mass and office.

     (a) Ordo romanus I prescribes a stational Mass when the pope presides. The stational liturgy was celebrated only on certain days and was intended as the main liturgical celebration of the day or hour. As such, it was attended by “everyone” in the city or at least by the clergy.

     (b) Ordo romanus II prescribes a different order if one of the seven “suburban” (as opposed to nearly 100 “suburbicarian”) bishops, or one of the Roman presbyters as the pope’s representative, presides at the stational liturgy.

     (c) A simpler order was used by the presbyters when they presided in the titulii on stational days (no basilica was large enough for the whole city) or on ordinary Sundays when there were no stational celebrations.

     (d) The presbyters—and later the monks—who had the task of supplying the daily liturgical needs of pilgrims at the cemeterial shrines combined elements of both the stational and titular celebrations.

     The differences in celebration was first recorded in different collections of libelli missarum and ordines that were later shaped into the so-called Gregorian (stational) and Gelasian (presbyterial or titular) sacramentaries and in ordines romani (collections of rubrics for nearly every kind of celebration). In the meantime records were being kept of the cycle of feasts, the readings, and the chants of the stational celebrations that would eventually be compiled into lectionaries and antiphonaries. Once the major basilicas were staffed with their own full-time clergy and monastic communities (fifth–tenth centuries), records were kept of particular customs, chants, and reading lists for Mass and office that differed considerably from one side of the city to the other.

     The loving Christ. In the Middle Ages, Christ was often shown in a loving and tender relationship with his church and its people. Here Christ is leaning forward to receive St. Bernard of Clairvaux. This theme is also expressed in the liturgy, particularly the Eucharist.

     The order of the Mass in all these different circumstances was eventually, if not always, identical to that described in Ordo romanus I:

Entrance of ministers: *Introit with psalm


[Gloria; at first at presbyteral masses on Easter only]



*Gradual (Alleluia in Easter)

*Alleluia (Tractus in Lent)


OFFERTORY PROCESSION; *Offertorium with psalm

Super oblata (Secreta)

Preface Dialogue

Praefatio and *Sanctus

Canon missae

Lord’s Prayer and embolism



Fractio; *Agnus Dei

Communion with both kinds; *Communio with psalm

Ad completa (post communionem)


     This was the Roman liturgy that impressed the Germans and Franks long before the Carolingian era. Beginning in the seventh century, bishops or monks returning from pilgrimage or diplomatic mission to Rome were anxious to adopt Roman customs—especially those of St. Peter’s or the Lateran—in their churches and monasteries. They were the first to bring copies of libelli, sacramentaries, ordines, lectionaries, antiphonals, even relics of the Roman martyrs, and choir directors to teach the cantilena romana so they could truly replicate the “rite of the Apostolic See.”

     The decision by Pepin (d. 768) and Charlemagne (d. 814) to replace the chaos of the Gallican rite with what they perceived to be a fully organized and standardized liturgy from Rome simply continued the process of Romanization. It was only partially successful, however, for two reasons: (1) the reform extended only as far as real authority was able to enforce it; and (b) the papal (stational) texts sent from Rome were incomplete and had to be supplemented with additional material drawn from the local, previously Romanized sources (i.e., the Gallicanized Gelasians of the eighth century). Even where a Roman text was complete, the Frankish copyists tended to insert Gallican elements they simply refused to do without (e.g., the paschal candle and its Exultet). The next two centuries saw the continued creation of a hybrid, Romano-Frankish or Romano-Germanic liturgy that, under the influence of the German emperors (962–1073), became the Roman rite in the city itself.

     The hybridization of the rite did not mean the deletion of Roman material; it meant the addition of new material. Both the hours and the Mass became so overburdened with accretions (such as the votive offices of the dead, of all saints, and of the Blessed Virgin and the numerous apologiae already mentioned) that the public worship of the church became an unbearable burden. “Medieval monastic life suffered from sheer exhaustion, from overnutrition, and consequent spiritual indigestion” (S. J. P. Van Dijk and J. H. Walker, Origins of the Modern Roman Liturgy [Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1960], 16–17). In order to get its work done, the papal court had to prune back the overgrowth and practically abandon the ancient stational system of the city, producing shorter offices and less elaborate ceremonial for celebrations in cappella (in the papal chapel).

     There is an undeniable difference in the theology of the Eucharist, holy orders, and church between late antiquity when the Roman rite developed as a expression of the church of Rome gathered around its bishop and the Middle Ages with its piling up of Masses and its ordaining of priests to “offer the sacrifice for” a multitude of intentions. The liturgical forms and formulae, however, though suffocated by accretions, were maintained throughout the Middle Ages “as a treasured inheritance of the liturgy, guarded as the “tradition of the Apostles from the City of the Apostles” (Cyrille Vogel, Medieval Liturgy: An Introduction to its Sources [Washington, D.C.: Pastoral Press, 1986], 158).

     With so many accretions to choose from, ancient local traditions to preserve, the lack of efficient means for standardization, liturgical uniformity could hardly be attempted if even conceived. For the remainder of the Middle Ages and beyond, there were enough divergences in calendars, texts, chants, and ceremonial from one diocese to the next or from one religious congregation to the next to constitute separate “rites,” though technically there were countless variants or “uses” of the Roman rite; to list a few: the “Uses” of Sarum, York, Hereford, Aberdeen; the “liturgies” of Nidaros, Lyons, Rouen, Braga, Benevento, Hungary, and Jerusalem; and the “rites” of the Cluniacs, Carthusians, Cistercians, Praemonstratensians, Dominicans, and Franciscans. This last usage (Franciscan) is nearly identical to the abbreviated form used regularly in the papal chapel. Carrying this “papal” Mass and office on their journeys across the Alps, the friars couldn’t have realized history was repeating itself. The liturgy in this form was the direct ancestor of the Breviarium Romanum (1568) and the Missale Romanum (1570) “restored by the sacred council of Trent; published by order of the supreme pontiff Pius V,” and for the first time made binding—with some reservations—on the whole Western church.

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