I think it is time that someone wrote a learned attack on the idea that the sacred liturgy in the early centuries was improvised. Even the great Fortescue accepts this view of things. He writes, for example, ‘in the first period (lasting perhaps till about the fourth century) there were no books except the Bible, from which lessons were read and psalms were sung. Nothing was written, because nothing was fixed’ (article on ‘Liturgical Books’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia). Of course he accepts there was a fixed structure, but apparently supposes that the celebrants felt free to ad lib during what we could call the collects, secret prayers, preface, canon and post-communions. Frequently we hear about a ‘fluid’ rite of the first few centuries, which later ‘crystallised’ into the rites of Rome, Antioch and Alexandria. Yet there are no contemporary witnesses from the first centuries who tell us about improvisation in the liturgy, and I wonder if this idea, arising as it does in the 19th century, is not simply a product of the Darwinian mentality which wants complex things to arise slowly and as it were randomly over a long period of time.
Our direct knowledge of the early liturgy is very limited. Now, it is a good general rule to judge of unknown things by known ones. And whenever we do have clear knowledge about how conscientious Catholic priests have offered the Holy Sacrifice, we find that that they have followed a rite which was fixed before they began their work, which was not of their composition and which they did not feel at liberty to modify. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that this was also the case with a priest preparing to say Mass in Rome in, say, the year 100. He may have had a missal before him or he may have simply relied on his memory; we don’t know. But why should we suppose that he didn’t know what he was going to say, when he approached the altar of God; or again, that he had composed his own Eucharistic prayer in his study the night before? A priest by divine institution is under the authority of his bishop, and he naturally wants to recite the same words as his bishop when he offers up the Sacrifice. But this in turn supposes that the Bishop was not in the habit of improvising when he officiated at the altar, and that the priest had learned from regularly assisting at the Bishop’s throne what he in his turn was to say.
Fortescue says a bit sniffily in his book on the Mass that ‘no one today thinks that the Roman canon came to us directly from St Peter’. Well, obviously it didn’t all come from him; the lists of the saints who died in the first few centuries didn’t. But St Peter certainly said Mass somehow or other, and does anyone seriously think that the bishops and priests who assisted him at the altar didn’t treasure his way of doing so? Pope St Innocent I, who was probably born in the first half of the fourth century didn’t think so. In his letter to Decentius he writes, ‘Who could be ignorant or unaware that what was passed on to the Roman Church by Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and has been guarded until now must be preserved by all? For it is evident that in all Italy, in Gaul, in Spain, in Africa and Sicily and in the islands nearby, none of the churches has instituted anything but what the venerable apostle Peter and the priests who succeeded him have established.’ It is quite reasonable to suppose that the core of the Roman canon, even if it was originally said in Greek, came from St Peter. The more one thinks about the alternative – that St Peter was celebrating the Mysteries for week after week in Rome for many years, and it made no lasting impression upon the liturgy of the Roman Church – the more implausible it seems. In any case, this talk of a ‘fluid early liturgy’ is rather too evocative of Evangelical pastors saying ‘we just want to praise you, Lord, for…’ Much more reasonable to suppose that St Peter instituted a fixed canon, and that subsequent bishops of Rome, out of reverence for the great Fisherman, copied him; that any alterations were made by their authority, not on the spur of the moment, but with the gravity and permanence demanded by the greatness of the Action; and that their priests followed them, having from the bishop of Rome a fixed rule whenever they ascended unto the holy mountain and unto the tabernacles of God.