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Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy

Online Edition:
December 2013 - January 2014
Vol. XIX, No. 9

The Council of Trent and the Sacred Liturgy

by James Hitchcock

The 450th anniversary of the closing of the Council of Trent was observed on December 4, 2013. First convened on December 13, 1545, and closed on December 4, 1563, the Council of Trent consisted of three separate periods and 25 sessions under three popes: Paul III (1545 -1549), Julius III (1550-55), and Pius IV (1559-65). The Council’s purpose was to address problems caused by the Protestant Reformation, and to correct, clarify, and reaffirm Church doctrine and practice. It would be the last ecumenical council for more than 300 years, until Vatican I was convened in 1870.  — Editor

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In the broadest sense liturgy was at the heart of the Reformation, since the crucial issue for Martin Luther was the sacrificial nature of the Mass.

Catholic doctrine held that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross accomplished the redemption of the human race but that in the Mass the fruits of that redemption were made available through time — the continuation of the sacrifice of Calvary.

For Luther this undermined the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice and made the Eucharist into a “good work.” If the Mass was not a sacrifice, it followed that the clergy were “ministers” only, not priests, and all verbal or symbolic implications of sacrifice (priestly vestments, marble altars) were to be suppressed.

Such things provoked violent passions, and iconoclasm was often accompanied by gang attacks, including murders, perpetrated by one religious group against another. In this as in other things Luther proved to be the most conservative of the Reformers, retaining vestments, candles, altar crosses, paintings, instrumental music, even incense and Latin for a time.

The German Emperor Charles V (without papal authorization) at one point offered the Lutherans communion in both kinds, something that was understood by everyone to be a disciplinary matter that could be changed. (Saint John Fisher said the chalice was withheld from the laity only to prevent accidental spills.) But knowledgeable people on both sides realized that the issues went much deeper, and Lutherans rejected Charles’s offer as too little.

There were formidable obstacles to holding an ecumenical council, and not until 1545 — more than a quarter of a century after the beginning of Lutheranism —could Paul III summon the Council of Trent. Altogether there were three sessions:  1545-7, 1555, and 1561-3, the final session by far the most productive of the three.

There were sometimes sharp differences between those who gave priority to reform, in the sense of correcting the abuses that Protestants attacked, and those who favored an all-out offensive against heresy. Liturgical matters fit in both categories — the rekindling of authentic piety and defining the sacramental life of the Church in distinction to Protestantism.

The Council reaffirmed key elements of the Liturgy: 1) the Mass as sacrifice, beneficial to both the living and the dead; 2) seven sacraments, which actually confer grace and which have their effect “ex opere operato” (by objective divine power, not the subjective state of the priest or the recipient); 3) the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; 4) Transubstantiation.

Christ was declared to be present “whole and entire” under both eucharistic species, so that it was not necessary to receive communion under both kinds and laymen were not permitted to do so. As part of the renewed eucharistic piety, Trent also encouraged more frequent communion, although weekly communion was considered sufficient even for those in training for the priesthood and monthly communion was sufficient for nuns. The reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and its adoration was encouraged.

The Council’s statement on the celebration of Mass in the vernacular was somewhat ambiguous, seemingly allowing it as a possibility: “it has … not been deemed advisable by the Fathers that it should be celebrated everywhere in the vernacular tongue,” so that the Council condemned the claim that “Mass ought to be celebrated in the vernacular tongue only.” Recognizing that the people were often ignorant of the meaning of the sacred rites, the Council enjoined priests to instruct them during the celebration of the Mass itself.

Trent decreed almost complete uniformity of liturgy throughout the Church, something that was perhaps made possible for the first time by the printing press, which allowed the approved Roman Missal (Mass book) to be used everywhere. The ceremonies of the Mass — candles, incense, music, processions, etc. — were affirmed as appropriate to its divine character. Concelebration had not been practiced in centuries, and the Council explicitly affirmed the legitimacy of Mass celebrated by a priest alone, acting for all the people.

The term “Tridentine Mass” is inaccurate, in that Trent did not decree a new liturgy but mandated the reform and standardization of existing liturgies. Slight deviations followed by certain religious orders (Dominicans) and a few localized rites (the Ambrosian of Milan) were permitted.

It was primarily Pope Saint Pius V (1566-72) who implemented the decrees of Trent, including publishing a new Missal and a Breviary (a “short” Divine Office) authorized by the Council. A new Congregation of Rites was given responsibility to oversee the liturgy, and for the next 400 years there would be almost no liturgical change.

Catholic churches, as places where the divine and the human come together sacramentally, had for centuries themselves been great works of art. Trent had little to say explicitly about art and music, and the initial spirit of the Catholic Reformation was one of sobriety and restraint, which was thought appropriate to the spirit of reform. The extravagant use of musical instruments was forbidden, and choirs were to sing in such a way that the congregation could understand the words.

But the Catholic Reformation soon inspired great new artistic creations, by sculptors like Gian Lorenzo Bernini and composers like Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina. These dazzling new expressions were called the Baroque (a term of uncertain origin). Preeminently the art of the Catholic Reformation, the Baroque united doctrinal orthodoxy with dramatically new stylistic forms.

Since the universal harmony of Christendom had been shattered, the Baroque expressed dynamism rather than settled order and a restless rather than an untroubled spirit. Peace of soul was attainable only through intense and unceasing struggle. The path to heaven was a strenuous one, but glorious rewards were visible to those who dared look up as they struggled, to where the visible and the invisible, the finite and the infinite, the natural and the supernatural, dramatically and gloriously united.

A favorite theme was the entry of a saint into heaven, as on the tombs of Philip Neri and Ignatius Loyola in their respective Roman churches.

The renewed emphasis on eucharistic piety had effects on architecture. The altar was made the focus of the worshipper’s attention, often under a magnificent canopy (baldachin), and the tabernacle was set on the high altar as a visible affirmation of the Real Presence. Churches were built as large open spaces, without rood screens separating them from the congregation and with as few pillars as possible, in order not to interfere with the worshippers’ view of the altar and the monstrance.

The theme of the triumph of the soul over the heaviness of earth — its flight to the heavenly realms — blended almost imperceptibly into the celebration of the triumph of the Church over its enemies, both merging into a single event in which the victory of truth over falsehood made possible the soul’s victory over evil. |

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James Hitchcock, author of History of the Catholic Church, among many other books and countless articles, was professor of history at St. Louis University for more than 45 years, and is presently adjunct professor of history at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis.

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