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from issue no. 02/03 - 2010

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“Nothing is contained in it that does not raise up to God the minds of those who offer the holy sacrifice”

Thus said the Council of Trent in the dogmatic Decree De sanctissimo sacrificio missae on the Roman Canon

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

From the dogmatic Decree of the Council of Trent on the most holy sacrifice of the mass

“And, given that it is well that holy things be administered in holy fashion and this sacrifice is the holiest thing of all, so that it might be offered and received worthily and with reverence, the Catholic Church has for many centuries established the sacred Canon, so immune from any error that nothing is contained in it that is not fragrant with great holiness and piety and that does not raise up to God the minds of those who offer the sacrifice. Indeed, it is composed in part of the very words of the Lord, in part of what has been handed down by the apostles, and also of what has been piously established by saintly pontiffs”

The beginning of the Roman Canon, Roman Missal of 1502, Treasure of Sant’Orso, Aosta, North Italy

The beginning of the Roman Canon, Roman Missal of 1502, Treasure of Sant’Orso, Aosta, North Italy

The first act of the XXII Session held on 17 September 1562 in Trent, North Italy, approving the doctrine and norms on the sacrifice of the Mass, was an ecumenical act apparently extraneous to the question at hand: the reading of the declaration of obedience by Ebed Iesu, Patriarch of Mosul. To have his election confirmed by Pope Paul IV, he had come to Rome at the end of the previous year from what is now southern Iraq. He was simply a distant precursor of Raphaël Bidawid, the present Patriarch of the Chaldeans [who died in 2003; the present Patriarch is Emmanuel Delly, ed]. He was no plaster saint, yet it was him who officially united Baghdad and Rome from that moment on. He stated - according to Cardinal Da Mula who was appointed to welcome him - that his see embraced more than 200,000 Christians, that they, the Chaldeans, had received the faith from the apostles Thomas and Thaddeus, and from Mari their disciple, that they possessed all the books of the Old and New Testaments, and translations of many Greek and Latin Fathers besides, and other writings unknown to the Latins that went back to the apostolic age. He said that auricular confession was practised among them, that they had almost the same Sacraments as the Roman Church (iisdem fere quibus nos), that they venerated the images of saints and prayed for the dead as was done in Rome. And, as for the Canon, they used almost the same Canon as used in Rome (Canone iisdem fere verbis in celebranda missa).
When his declaration was read out, moreover Ebed Iesu, furn-ished with rich gifts (amplis muneribus), had already returned to his country, because his presence there was essential, he said. Historians say that “the real reason why he was not seen in Trent was because he did not understand any western language” (Hubert Jedin). He would have understood nothing of what was said at that session on the sacrifice of the Mass and on the Canon. Anyway, the Chaldeans did not question it. Indeed, Cardinal Da Mula concluded the letter of introduction mentioned as follows: “The vain arguments of the heretics are rejected also for the fact that the dignity of the Church and the doctrine of salvation impugned by people near to us have remained the same for 1,500 years among people so distant from us, in the midst of so many changes, changes of kings and of kingdoms, under the grievous and constant persecution of the infidels through injustices and extortion, in the midst of barbarity”. Such a description could hardly be more relevant if one thinks not only of Iraq, but also of China.
The Protestants did in effect reject that Mass and, above all, the Canon, that Ebed Iesu had recognized as so familiar. And they made a rallying cry out of their rejection. They had their reasons, too. In general terms, wrote the Benedictine Gregory Dix in a book published during World War II and which has remained a classic contribution to the history of the liturgy, “the Body of Christ had taken on the appearance of a vast human machine for salvation by sacraments, operated by very human men for very human motives, in the name and by the mechanism of an absentee Christ. And the machine had grown so complicated... Its whole power and energy were absorbed in keeping itself going... The machine has taken charge of the Church’s life, and is still turning, but that is all there is to be said”. The immediate consequence was the spread of abuses of all kinds to the extent that the Council established a special commission which saw to the collection of about 100 abuses of the celebration of the Mass: gossip with the faithful before the celebration and priests taking delight in theatrical gestures, the faithful taking up position facing the celebrant, and so on. But it was one thing to highlight the abuses, and another to abolish the Preface, replace the Our Father with a moralistic paraphrase and, above all, to abolish the Canon on the alleged grounds that it imported pagan worship into the Church. Luther compared the Roman Canon with the altar Ahaz set up in place of the altar of bronze in the Temple of Solomon (cf II Kings 16, 7-18): “The impious Ahaz removed the altar of bronze and replaced it with another brought from Damascus. I speak of the tattered and abominable Canon, a gathering of omissions and filth: there the Mass has started to become a sacrifice, there were added the offertory and mercenary prayers, there in the middle of the Sanctus and the Gloria in excelsis were inserted sequences and phrases... And not even today has the making of additions to this Canon ceased”. The other reformers were even more vehement.

The Defence of the Canon
The Council of Trent took up the defence of the Canon.
In that troubled yet fecund period - a matter of months between 1547 and 1548 - in Bologna where, because of a typhus epidemic in Trent where it had opened in December 1545, the Council, or rather part of it, established itself, the theologians dedicated themselves to defending the Mass as it had formed in history through time. They took as their guideline - one that has never been abandoned, fortunately, ever since - what another great liturgist, Burkhard Neunheuser, summarized in the following way: “To reform, but without losing contact with the preceding period, that is continuing the medieval tradition”. A principle that did not become just a declaration of principle. Indeed, as Dix says, “the implications of the actual text of the liturgy might be ignored in current teaching and practice, but it still enshrined not the mediaeval teaching but those old and simple truths about the eucharist which Gregory had preserved and Alcuin had faithfully handed on”. It was an act of humility and wisdom, not least because - though there was no realization of it until much later - many of the Patristic texts, on which both sides based themselves, were corrupt and many, like “the very important Syriac fathers, were then all but unknown” (Dix). Ebed Iesu, however, might have been familiar with them.
Certainly, the Roman Canon contains passages which are a little difficult (obscuriora loca), as the draft decree that came out of those first debates declared, and need an explanation. But the Council, which had returned to Trent in 1551, was again interrupted in April 1552. It was thought the delay would last two years but ten years passed before the Council reopened, and that draft never went further.
It was during the summer of 1562, when Ebed Iesu had already returned among the Chaldeans, that work intensified. According to Jedin: “In Trent it was realized that the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass, then on the agenda, was not inferior in terms of religious meaning and ecclesiastical importance to the doctrine of justification that the Council had defined 15 years earlier, and perhaps even went beyond it. It was a matter of understanding the central mystery of the faith, in which the union of the Church with its head is constantly realized”. Beginning on 20 July, the tense debate led to an initial “August draft”. It was judged too long, however. Some canonists even claimed that it was superfluous to set out the doctrine on the sacrifice of the Mass: stating the Catholic doctrine on sacrifice would suffice to defend the Canon of the Mass. But it was decided to keep the structure of the “August draft” which, similarly to the De iustificatione decree, was to have a series of doctrinal clauses followed by canons. Thus between September 4 and 5, the Fathers received a new draft, the “September draft”, which was to be officially approved during the September 17 session, the session quoted at the beginning of this article, the one that ended “very late. And all worn out”, as the chronicles tell us, the Fathers returned to their lodgings. The work had not been futile. The true and timely cry with which the bishop of Ventimiglia, North Italy, had concluded his sermon during the session’s opening Mass had been heard: “Save us, Lord, we perish!”.

<I>The closing session of the Council of Trent in 1563</I>, in a painting by N. Dorigati (1692-1748)

The closing session of the Council of Trent in 1563, in a painting by N. Dorigati (1692-1748)

A Not Superfluous Addition
Between September 5 and 17, in any event, additions were made, one of which was essential to chapter IV, and was a result of the insistence and prayers to the Holy Spirit of some Fathers and theologians. Chapter IV, present still in the last draft, spoke of the Canon as an ecclesiastical institution, without reference to its antiquity or the Tradition from which it came. Now, instead, in the definitive text, without going into the specifics of date and composition though attributing it to the Church (Ecclesia catholica sacrum Canonem instituit), the Council says that the Canon was established “many centuries ago” and formed “from the very words of the Lord”, from “what has been handed down from the apostles” and “from what has been piously established by the saintly pontiffs”. It is for this reason (the Latin text reads enim), that is, because it gathers up the deposit of the Tradition, that it is immune from any error. And for that reason alone, in the corresponding canon 6, can those who demand its abrogation be condemned. Not containing errors (“in fact it is composed in part of the very words of the Lord, in part of what has been handed down from the apostles, and also of what has been piously established by the saintly pontiffs”), for this reason alone (ideoque) it must not be abrogated.
Of the obscure parts of the Canon and of the need for explanation mentioned in the draft of 1552, there is no word in the final text. One needs to understand why. “For reasons of brevity”, says Jerome P. Theisen in a post-Vatican II but already dated article on the Roman Canon, apparently implying the word “unfortunately!”. Theisen complains that the Council of Trent, particularly in regard to the Canon, had a purely defensive reaction, not creative and expansive, as is pleasing today. I invite reflection on the following passage from Dix - pre-Vatican II, but only by date: “The advantage of the Counter-Reformation was that it conserved the text of a liturgy which dated in substance from long before the medieval development. With this it preserved those primitive statements which indicated the true solution of the medieval difficulty, even though it was a long while before the post-Tridentine Church made much use of them for the purpose. The protestants, on the contrary, discarded the whole text of the liturgy, and especially those elements in it which were a genuine monument of that church they professed to restore. They introduced in its place forms which derived from and expressed the medieval tradition from which their own movement sprang”. Cross purposes.

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