To Offer Themselves as a Living Oblations to God
A Sense of the Sacred: Roman Catholic Worship in the Middle Ages
by James Monti
2012 Ignatius Press, 684 pages
Cognizant that “the ceremonies of medieval liturgy are among the most underappreciated treasures of our Catholic heritage” (xviii), James Monti has written a masterpiece of liturgical history. In accessible prose, he shows how the medieval liturgy mirrors and expresses the Church’s development of doctrine.
After a richly detailed opening chapter on the medieval Mass, he devotes one chapter to each of the seven sacraments, focusing on the rite of the sacrament, with its prayers, actions, and readings. In these chapters, the commentary of Durandus is Monti’s favorite guide to the meanings of the rite. Theological insights that some imagine to have been lost in the medieval period appear in Durandus, as, for example, Durandus’s insistence that all the baptized are kings and priests, called “to offer themselves as a living oblation to God” (121). One thing that will impress many readers is the evidence that piles up for the large degree to which the contemporary rites of the Catholic Church draw from medieval liturgical developments. After baptism, for example, a lit candle is presented to the baptized (or his godparents on his behalf), with an accompanying prayer that is quite close to the one the Church now has. The priest’s making of the sign of the cross while giving absolution to the penitent is a medieval development. In the rite of priestly ordination, the bishop’s imposition of hands takes place in silence. During the rite, the bishop’s prayers for the holiness of the newly ordained and the bishop’s and clergy’s chanting of the Veni Sancte Spiritus, as well as the singing of the tenth-century hymn Sancti Spiritus assit, indicate the medieval Church’s awareness of the centrality of the Holy Spirit’s work. During the sacrament of marriage, the couple exchanges rings as a symbol of the indissolubility of marriage and of marital chastity. The prayer of blessing, accompanied by the sign of the cross, calls upon the Lord to join the married couple’s “hearts together in a perpetual bond of genuine love” (226). The marriage rites described by Monti contrast sharply with any supposedly negative medieval view of marriage. When Monti turns to the rites for extreme unction, the care for the dying is deeply moving, both with regard to the prescribed prayers and with regard to the prescribed actions, including instructions for how the priest should console the dying person and how devout persons should assist at the deathbed.
The second part of Monti’s book focuses on the liturgical year. Much of the Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and Easter liturgies remain the same today, significantly indebted to the medieval liturgy; whereas the chapters on the liturgical processions suggest how much would be gained by reintroducing these processions in their full form.
In a third part, Monti treats the liturgical rites for the election, installation, and coronation of a pope; for canonizations; for consecration of virgins; for funerals; and for blessings. Again, though much from these rites is no longer in use, a large amount remains the same today. In some instances, the disappearance of certain rituals strikes me as a good thing, such as the end of the “custom of laying the sword on the altar for the blessing” (629), which was understood to be “a visual reminder to the candidates [for knighthood] of their obligations to the Church” (629). This custom seems to undermine the symbolism of the Eucharistic altar, which should be separated from instruments of war (just as priests cannot be soldiers). Similarly, the papal installation included a marvelous “tow-burning rite as a reminder of man’s mortality and the transitory nature of earthly glory” (553), but I think the Church is now well advised to do without the medieval crowning of the new pope with a three-tiered crown.
In his conclusion, Monti writes, “Our examination of the medieval liturgical texts has shown them to be pervaded by the words and thoughts of the Sacred Scriptures and filled with prayers drawn from the earliest known liturgical books of the Western tradition. Clearly these medieval rites evince what the Second Vatican Council describes as the organic development of the liturgy” (639). Monti has indeed shown this organic development, and we are deeply in his debt for constructively putting to shame any stereotypes about the medieval liturgy. Monti then applies his findings to the post-conciliar liturgical situation, “when some have deliberately sought to pervade the liturgy with the spirit of the world and treat it as merely a platform for airing heterodox theological opinions and secular causes before a captive audience” (642). Since Monti’s research is so persuasive in its own right, it seems to me that Monti should have retained a calm, irenic tone in his conclusion, so as better to reach the audience whose minds he wishes to change. Fortunately, well aware that “in some recent discussions concerning the sacred liturgy there has arisen an increasingly antipapal rhetoric” (650), he insists upon “filial adherence to the teaching and disciplinary authority of the supreme pontiff, and the recognition that the final decision as to what is to be changed or retained in the sacred liturgy rests solely with the Vicar of Christ” (648). Monti wisely concludes that what is most needed, both in participating in the liturgy and in studying it, is humility.
Matthew Levering, PhD, is the Perry Family Foundation Professor of Theology at Mundelein Seminary. He serves as co-editor of the quarterly journal Nova et Vetera, and has authored and edited numerous books, including Sacrifice and Community: Jewish Offering and Christian Eucharist (Blackwell).