In the following article, Kurt Poterack, choir director and adjunct professor at Christendom College, shares his thoughts about what would have been observed in early Christian churches. The Cardinal Newman Society sponsored Dr. Poterack's attendance at Sacra Liturgia 2013 in Rome, where he joined hundreds of other participants in the conference aiming to study, promote and renew appreciation for the liturgy. The Newman Society hopes to help spur on this liturgical renewal in Catholic higher education.
On Friday (June 28), Fr. Paul Gunter, a professor at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of San Anselmo, Rome, gave a talk entitled “Academic Formation in the Sacred Liturgy.” He spoke about his work at the Institute and the historical development of the discipline of liturgical studies in the 20th century. He mentioned that at the Institute “primacy is given to the study of the liturgical texts, especially of the Ordinary Form but, increasingly, the Extraordinary Form as well.” Echoing the sentiment of many, he noted that “we have implemented (liturgical) change, but have not reflected upon it. Things will be clearer in 100 years.” Certainly, this was the desire of many at the conference.
The day before, however, an even more interesting talk was given in German by Monsignor Stefan Heid on “The Early Christian Altar.” Unfortunately, the simultaneous English translation, as with some of the other talks, was not very good. Therefore, I look forward to the English translation of all of the talks that Ignatius Press will publish in a year’s time. Nonetheless, enough of the translation came through on this important and vexatious topic of what the early Christian altar was like. Monsignor Heid discussed in great detail the incorrect historical assumption that the Mass was celebrated facing the people in the early church.
What was interesting was the extent to which a number of (in his opinion) false restorations were conducted in the early twentieth century – long before Vatican II. He mentioned St. Sabina in Rome and the pilgrimage church of Tabgha near Genesseret. These would have been highly influential in the formation of men who were key liturgical reformers after Vatican II. I thought that Monsignor Heid said that, in regard to the latter of the two, there were remnants of steps that ascended in the direction of the apse. Thus the priest would have stood at the top of the steps, in front of the missing altar, facing the apse. He seemed to say that this archaeological evidence was ignored by the restorers who assumed that a versus populum altar must have been what was originally there – and which they, indeed, placed there as part of the “restoration.”
Another interesting point that Monsignor Heid made is that in the pagan world of antiquity there were altars –and there were sacred tables attached to them often. These were separate, but connected items. These sacred tables were, perhaps, more equivalent to modern day “credence tables” in that they held the sacred offerings just before they were sacrificed, except that they were usually attached to the altar. Thus, he seemed to say that when the term “the Lord’s Table” is used in Scripture, it was not a reference to a “dinner table” but to what was, in essence, a part of the sacral cult. To further reinforce his point, he said that actual dinner tables of that era were rather low – because people didn’t sit, but reclined, at them – and such tables didn’t have a cloth. The earliest Christian altars are high enough to require standing and had cloths that, in that era, signified sacrality and authority.
Finally, Dom Alcuin Reid, in his talk “Sacrosanctum Concilium and Liturgical Formation,” said that the enduring value of Vatican II’s liturgy constitution is in a “reform of the spirit of worship rather than external gestures and rubrics.” His suggestions to his listeners were to read publications of the classical liturgical movement and to live the liturgical life as fully as possible.
While I think that the experience of a beautifully celebrated liturgy is important on a college campus, I derived something more from these particular speeches. Namely, that Catholic colleges should have and, ideally, require courses in the study of the liturgy as part of a student’s theological requirements. Often what happens is that the traditional division of theology into dogmatic and moral is kept, and the closest thing to the study of the liturgy is a class in “Sacraments.” Admittedly, the discipline of liturgical studies is relatively new, but I think it is high time for Catholic colleges and universities to create such courses where they do not exist.
In summary, I thought that the Sacra Liturgia 2013 conference was excellent and a much-needed event in the Church’s on-going reflection upon liturgical reform. I eagerly await Ignatius Press’ publication of all of the addresses in English and fervently hope for more such conferences.
Read Dr. Poterack’s earlier article How Liturgical Abuse Impacted the Family.
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