The Holy Sacrifice


Suddenly, the whole chapel lit up with a supernatural light and on the altar appeared a cross of light which reached the ceiling. In a clearer light, on the upper part of the cross, could be seen the face of a man with His body to the waist, on His chest a dove, equally luminous; and nailed to the cross, the body of another man. A little below the waist of Christ on the cross, suspended in the air, could be seen a chalice and a large host, onto which some drops of blood were falling, which flowed from the face of the crucified One and from the wound in His breast. Running down over the host, these drops fell into the chalice.

Under the right arm of the cross was our Lady with her Immaculate Heart in her hand. Under the left arm in large letters, was something like crystalline water which flowed over the altar, forming these words: “Grace and Mercy”

This is the account that Sr Lucia gave of her vision on June 13th, 1929, when she was also told that the time had come to consecrate Russia. I have been wondering why the words ‘grace and mercy’ are traced out on the left side in what appeared to her like water only. It has always struck me as a strange detail. No doubt water can signify purity, and there is also an obvious reference to Jn. 19:34. But since He won grace and mercy for mankind by shedding His blood, and since that grace and mercy is brought into our souls when this same precious blood is mystically offered in the Mass, one might have thought that the words would have been traced out in blood, not in water.

It is rather a bold hypothesis, but I wonder if there could be an allusion here to the new order of Mass that would be brought into the Church by Paul VI exactly 40 years later, in 1969. If it is true that this new order is deficient because it fails to be rooted in apostolic tradition in the way that a Eucharistic liturgy must, then it is not unreasonable to suppose that the offering of this liturgy does not bring down upon the Church the same abundance of grace and mercy as a Eucharistic liturgy which is so rooted; that it brings fewer graces and less mercy. Could one even say, a watery grace and mercy? This hypothesis would, at any rate, explain a great deal about the present state of the world, and the apostasy in Christendom.

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The Benedictine Monks of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar are a monastic family serving the Holy and Undivided Trinity under the sixth-century Rule of Saint Benedict. They are established at Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, Co. Meath, Ireland, in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Meath. They are traditional benedictines led by Prior Dom Mark Daniel Kirby.

It is many years since I have lived in Ireland, therefore I am not aware of all the developments in restoring the faith to this fair land. I was pleased to hear that the priory’s constitution and canonical norms were approved by the Holy See earlier this month.

“Bishop Michael Smith signed a Decree on 25 February “erecting the Benedictine Monks of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar as a monastic Institute of Consecrated Life of diocesan right in the Diocese of Meath”.

This Decree is believed to mark the first formal establishment of a monastic community in the Diocese of Meath since the suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1536.”

Holy mass is offered according to the 1962 missal  daily at 11am and on 10am on Sundays and Holy days.

I was also surprised that the monks of Silverstream came from the diocese of Tulsa Oklahoma, which is home to another traditional benedictine priory – Clear Creek Abbey. This abbey, a daughter of Fontgombault was erected at the invitation of Bishop Dr Edward James Slattery in 1999.

It seems Dr Michael Smith asked for the Bishop of Tulsa to play nice and share some of this water with Ireland.

I must say I was personally very encouraged by the erection of this priory in Co Meath. I don’t really know much about the Bishop of Meath, other than that he was ordained in 1963 and attended the whole of the second vatican council. However I think this bodes well, given my overall impression of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

I hope to get the chance to visit Silverstream in the near future.

P.S I was rather disappointed that on my first blog post in a long time, Fr Z has written on the same topic an hour later – How rude!

Walking recently in a country that was Catholic until the Council, I saw a large, medieval village church and tried to go in. The nave was barred by a locked iron gate, but from the narthex one could see the high altar with its fine marble baldachino. In front of it stood a little altar set up to face the congregation upon which, I suppose, the holy sacrifice is offered on days when the nave is not locked. And I marveled, as I always do, at the silent testimony these things bear to a revolution; and I mused on how many Catholic altars there are throughout the world, once consecrated by a successor of an apostle, now gathering dust.

What would Pope Innocent III have said of it? Writing of the mystical meaning of our ceremonies, he says that the altar-stone in which the relics of saints are enclosed represents the Church; the priest kissing it when he begins Mass, is the Bridegroom showing his love for the Bride. How many of our altars never receive this mark of tenderness, but remain unreverenced from year’s end to years end? Some serve as stands for pot-plants, or worse. Some stand naked, as if a decree had gone forth that it should be always Good Friday and never Easter. Others again, if little heeded by the priests, are tended still by some faithful sacristan who waits in silence for a change of days. But alongside each unused altar, a heavenly power stands, untroubled yet unforgetful.

And as I thought of these things, and thought also that he spoke rightly who said one should kindle a light rather than bemoan the darkness, I determined to compose a prayer for the restoration of our altars; and you also, good reader, may recite this prayer if you think like me about these things:-

O God, who hast granted to thy Church to set up altars throughout the world consecrated by holy oil and by apostolic power, and hast commanded thy angels to stand guard beside them until the end of time, grant we beseech thee to thy bishops and priests a new love of these holy altars, that the everlasting sacrifice of thy Son may daily be perpetuated upon them, and that thy girded people may ascend to that sublime altar which is in heaven, Christ thy self-same Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.

And a Latin version, mostly literal:-

Deus, qui dedisti ecclesiae tuae ut potestate apostolica oleoque sanctissimo altaria per orbem terrarum erigat, quique angelis tuis praecepisti ut usque in saeculi finem iuxta eadem adstantes pervigilent, tribue quaesumus episcopos sacerdotesque tuos altaribus ita nova mente delectari ut Filii tui sacrificium crebrius in dies offeratur atque ad sublime altare in coelis populus accinctus tuus ascendat, eundem Iesum Christum Filium tuum Dominum nostrum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.

It is commonly said by scholars that Mass was said only in Greek, not Latin, in Rome in the early centuries. I am inclined to think that this will turn out to be one of those fads that dominate the academy for a while but pass away when the prestige of their initiators has faded from people’s minds.

Fr Uwe Michael Lang, in his useful book ‘The Voice of the Church at Prayer’ summarises the reasons for believing that Greek and not Latin was used for the Mass in those early days.

1. St Paul wrote to the Romans in Greek and the earliest known literary productions of the Roman Church (the Letter of Pope Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the writings of Justin Martyr) are in Greek. Therefore Greek was the ‘prevailing language’ of the Roman Church.

2. In the first two centuries there were several popes with Greek names, and Christian tomb inscriptions were written in Greek.

3. Victorinus, writing in Latin in Rome about 360, quotes some Greek words from a Eucharistic prayer.

4. ‘Ambrosiaster’, who was ‘perhaps a Roman presbyter’ writing about the same time says that some Latin-speakers prefer to chant in Greek, even without understanding the language, and that some Latins prefer the Creed in Greek.

And that seems to be it. It’s pretty weak. Suspiciously so, in fact. Are we not dealing here with an academic fad or fashion supported mainly by an aversion to Romanitas?

To look at the arguments in turn:-

1. All these examples show is that there were Greek speakers in the Church of Rome in the early centuries, but no one doubts that anyway. They hardly show that Greek was the prevailing language; but even if they did, they wouldn’t show that Latin was never used for the Mass. To come to the individual examples, if St Paul wrote to the Romans in Greek, that was perhaps because of the people sufficiently educated to be able to follow his epistle, a large number would have known that language, and because he wanted to quote throughout from the Greek version of the Old Testament, which had a much higher authority than any Latin version, if any Latin one existed. St Justin Martyr was from the Eastern half of the empire and only an immigrant in Rome, so it’s hardly surprising that he wrote in Greek. St Clement’s letter was written to the Corinthians, so naturally it was in Greek. 1st century Greeks were not, I think, in the habit of reading Latin. The origins of the Shepherd of Hermas are mysterious, but whoever wrote it, and whenever it was written, all it proves is that its author knew Greek!

2. Again, all this shows is that Greek was an influence in Rome in the early centuries. Some popes had Greek names because lots of people had Greek names, even in Rome. They didn’t necessarily all speak Greek as their first language, any more than a man with a Polish name born in England today to a second-generation Polish father and an English mother necessarily speaks Polish. Even if they did speak Greek as their first language, they would also have spoken Latin fluently, so what is proved about the liturgical language? Not all epitaphs are in Greek in the catacombs; the two languages are mixed together, sometimes in the same inscription.

3. As Fr Lang points out, Victorinus quotes the same part of the Eucharistic Prayer in Latin as well, elsewhere in the same work. In any case, it corresponds to part of a Syrian rite, not to any rite that is known to have been used in Rome. Yet the argument from Victorinus is often presented as the proof that Greek was the only liturgical language in Rome even into the second half of the 4th century!

4. The fact that Ambrosiaster talks of some people liking to sing Greek only shows that there was Greek in the Roman rite in his day. But so there is in our day: Kyrie eleison, hagios ho theos, hagios ischyros, hagios athanatos.  Why might there not have been a Latin Mass with some Greek used, especially for those parts that were shared by the non-Roman rites?

No doubt plenty of Greek was spoken at dinner-parties in first century Rome. But the language of Rome was, well, Latin. It was the language of the ordinary people, but also that of the Senate. St Peter was not unaware Rome was to be the chief see of the empire of Christ on earth. Why would he and his successors have avoided the use of the Roman and imperial tongue; that language which, no less than Greek and Hebrew, had already proclaimed on the first Good Friday that God was reigning from the wood?

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.

What should we think of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre? Today is the 25th anniversary of his historic action at Econe, when he consecrated four bishops to continue his work after his death: in his own words, ‘to preserve tradition, while waiting for tradition to regain its rights in Rome’. By tradition he meant both divine tradition and the ecclesiastical traditions that are closely bound up with the former. With regard to divine tradition, it was not that he considered that the Roman Church had  defined things contrary to revelation, but rather that a modus agendi had been adopted by the Roman authorities, from the pope downwards, profoundly inimical to certain revealed truths. In particular, he considered that the new ecumenism and new inter-religious dialogue obscured the dogma ‘no salvation outside the Catholic Church’; that the post-conciliar way of addressing civil authorities obscured the right of Christ to reign over all human societies; that the new Mass, both in itself and in its implementation, obscured the Sacrifice; that the new canon law and the approach adopted by the holy see towards bishops’ conferences obscured the right of the pope to rule over the Church. As for ecclesiastical traditions, which are as it were the bark protecting the sap of divine tradition, I have mentioned elsewhere many of those that were imperilled and all but destroyed after Vatican II.

Archbishop Lefebvre’s response to this unprecedented situation was not to deny the authority of the pope or the diocesan bishops. The bishops whom he consecrated were expressly not given jurisdiction, since he asserted that he had no right to give them jurisdiction. His business was to pass on the power of order, so that there would be validly consecrated bishops committed to tradition in its fullness. Jean Madiran, the veteran French commentator on Catholic affairs, was not willing to take up a public position in favour of the archbishop, which caused a painful rupture between them. But that makes his words about the four bishops consecrated all the more significant:-

Ils n’ont pas la carrure de Mgr Lefebvre. Mais ils sont eveques. Ils ont de ce fait, dans l’Eglise, une presence qu’on ne peut meconnaitre. Leurs propos, leurs comportement, parfois ou souvent, peuvent etre juges plus ou moins regrettables. Mais leur presence maintient de facon militante un temoignage episcopal contre la disparition du catechisme romain et contre l’interdiction ou le mepris de la messe tridentine. Sans Mgr Lefebvre et sans ses successeurs, il y aurait quand meme des pretres, des laics, des institutions militants pour la messe et le catechisme traditionnels; il y en a eu, il y en a dehors de la FSSPX: sans eveques, ils seraient loin d’avoir le meme poids (“Histoire de la messe interdite”, fasc. 2, p. 62, 2009 – apologies for the lack of accents).

{They do not have the same stature as Archbishop Lefebvre, but at least they are bishops. From this simple fact, they have a presence within the Church which cannot be ignored. We may consider that their words or behaviour are sometimes unfortunate, or often unfortunate; and yet simply by existing, they ensure that a vigorous protest is kept alive among the world’s bishops against the disappearance of the Roman Catechism, and against the prohibition of the Tridentine Mass, or the tendency to despise it. Doubtless, even without Archbishop Lefebvre and his successors there would still be priests, lay-men and organisations fighting for the traditional Mass and the traditional catechism. There have been and still are such outside the SSPX. But without the bishops, all these would be far from having the weight that they do.}

We cannot say ‘the old rite {etc} would have died out without the archbishop’, since we do not know what God would have done had Marcel Lefebvre not acted as he did. Probably there is no such thing as ‘what God would have done’. But we can say that, as a matter of fact, it was he who preserved it. From his decision to ignore as invalid the suspensio a divinis in 1976, and from his later decision to ignore the papal command not to proceed with the consecrations, has flowed, as a matter of fact, the Fraternity of St Pius X, Le Barroux, Quattuor Abhinc Annos, Ecclesia Dei Afflicta, the Fraternity of St Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, Summorum Pontificum, the Latin Mass Society training weeks… I should think there can be few priests in the world today saying the traditional Roman rite who could not trace out a shorter or longer lineage leading to the archbishop. Gesta Dei per Francos?

Of course, there is that matter of disobedience to a papal command, and that disputed question of whether the excommunication was incurred or not. To the latter question, it seems to me that it was not incurred, since canon law recognises the subjective conviction of necessity, even when erroneous and culpable, as excusing from this penalty. Who can confidently deny that the archbishop, whether or not erroneously or even culpably, thought that his action was necessary for the good of the Church? As for the former, St Thomas lays down two cases when it is not necessary to obey the command of a superior. Either his command is contrary to that of a higher superior, or else he is commanding in an area where he has no authority. The latter does not apply here, since the consecration of bishops is certainly within the authority of the pope. What of the former? The archbishop would have said, I believe, that he had, as a bishop, a general duty from God to hand on the episcopal grace to men who would uphold divine and ecclesiastical tradition at a time when these were gravely imperilled, and when there seemed to be no one else (apart from his co-consecrator) willing to act as he did. In other words, he would have argued that the pope’s command was contrary to that of the the pope’s own superior.

I do not think one can say a priori that it is impossible that things should ever become so bad that such a course of action would be justified. Whether things have in given circumstances become that bad is a judgement that a bishop must make before God according to such light as he possesses. Obviously it is about the gravest possible judgement that any man can be called on to make. It is not, I think, for those who were not in Marcel Lefebvre’s unique position to pass judgement upon his action. Light would have been offered him to see his way; whether he took it or not is the secret of God. And yet, for my part, when I think of the man and his life’s work, I cannot but echo those words that Cardinal Oddi is said to have spoken at the archbishop’s tomb in Econe on the 18th September, 1991: “Merci, Monseigneur”.

The Israelites who settle outside the promised Land beyond the Jordan build for themselves an ‘immensely great’ altar with the blessing of the high priest. The altar will have no sacrifice offered on it; it will simply remind them of the one true altar before the tabernacle on which the legitimate sacrifice is offered, and of their union with their brethren within the Land (Joshua 22).

An image for the holy souls in purgatory: they are beyond the Jordan of death, they have no sacrifice to offer, and yet they keep ever before their minds the immensely great thought of the one sacrifice offered by their brethren in the Church on earth, by which they are still united to the  land of the living.

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