A summary of Theodor Klauser: A Short History of the Western Liturgy [1965]

Ch 4: The Tridentine Liturgy (from 1545)

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Pages for Klauser:    Intro |  Ch 1 |  Ch 2 |  Ch 3 |  Ch 4

Sections:    Overview |  The basis of the Tridentine reforms |  The Congregation of Rites |  The cult of the Blessed Sacrament |  Liturgy and church design |  Notes


In the face on the one hand of the attack on the mass by the Protestants, Luther (1483-1546) and Zwingli (1484-1531), and on the other hand of the ‘chaotic state of liturgical practice’ [p 117], the Council of Trent (1545-1563) determined on reform of the Missal and the Breviary. On account of opposition in defence of episcopal prerogatives regarding the liturgy, this task was not completed and had to be left in the hands of the Pope.

This meant that the Papal Curia, which had long claimed jurisdiction over the liturgy, had been given it. Thus was lost episcopal freedom in relation to the liturgy, dating back to the Early Church. Pope Pius IV (1559-1565) set up commissions to create the two new liturgical books.

The new Roman Breviary, containing the daily hours of prayer for the clergy, was published in 1568 and the new Roman Missal in 1570. These were made compulsory, except where dioceses had had their own liturgy for over 200 years.

The Congregation of Rites was created in order to interpret the new books and ensure compliance. With this, rubricism, liturgical law, came to the fore.

In 1596, the Pontificale Romanum was published and, in 1614, the Rituale Romanum. Between them, they regulated all remaining liturgical matters: the conduct of sacraments other than the Eucharist and of other rituals. The former related to those rituals performed only by bishops and the latter to the rest.

Some bishoprics in France had retained their old liturgical tradition under the 200 year rule. And from the 1730s, the idea of ‘Gallican freedom’ brought opposition to the standardised Tridentine liturgy. By the time of the 1789 Revolution, 80 of 130 French dioceses had reverted to prior French liturgical practice. A similar tendency in Tuscany was suppressed.

Previous non-participation of the laity in the liturgy of the mass was in no way affected by the reforms of the Counter Reformation. The existence of (late medieval) vernacular mass books and vernacular works explaining the mass has recently been pointed to, but we should not exaggerate their importance.

While the priest celebrating mass had his back to them, the pious got on with their mostly unrelated private devotions, such as the Rosary. For popular devotion focussed on the Sacrament in the tabernacle, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, on His Passion and in a variety of ways on Our Lady: these things were far more meaningful to the faithful. Hymns were sung in the vernacular, but these too would have had little connection with the liturgy.

Only when summoned by the server’s bell for the offertory, consecration and communion did the faithful pay attention to the sacred celebration. But even here participation was usually minimal; communion was rarely received.

The relation of the communion to the Eucharist was obscured, because it was received before mass or afterwards, or independently of mass. Again, it was deemed necessary to precede communion with confession. Even when people received communion they might ‘offer’ it for some ‘intention’.

It must be said that Jansenism, Gallicanism and Enlightenment thinking, mostly condemned by the Church like Protestantism before them, saw weaknesses in the liturgy and suggested it should be simplified and clarified; they worked for greater participation by the laity. These pressures influenced what came next.

Romanticism nudged many priests and layfolk into an interest in the liturgy. This interest was particularly strong in certain monasteries in the second half of the c19th. A desire for liturgical revival emerged. As a result, at the start of the c20th, Pope Pius X promoted first communion at an early age and frequent communion.

Between the two world wars, certain monasteries in Belgium, Germany and France promoted liturgical scholarship and greater lay awareness of the liturgy. After World War II, Pope Pius XII praised this movement, by now world-wide, in an encyclical, but warned against excessive zeal for change. In the 1950s, the Easter Vigil was returned from Holy Saturday morning to its rightful time in the evening and, for the benefit of workers, evening mass was allowed. A liturgical congress at Assisi in 1956 and a conference at Nijmegen in 1959 pointed to the need for radical change.

When the Second Vatican Council met, one of the first results of its deliberations was the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy (1963), a promising start to a new liturgical era.

The Basis of the Tridentine Reforms

Klauser tells us that 25 years previously, he and his seminar group at Bonn University had tried to gain some insight into the basis for the Tridentine Missal and Breviary, in the absence of any information on the workings of the two Commissions in this area. The approach adopted was to compare the liturgical calendar for these books with the calendar’s previous history.

It emerged that around 40 new feasts had been added in the period 800 AD – 1100 AD, around 50 more in 1100 – 1200, around 200 more 1200 – 1568. There had never been any attempt at weeding out. Consequently, almost every day of the year had one or more feasts.

But the new liturgical calendar saw to it that 157 days had no feast at all, with March and April, the months in which Lent occurred, being particularly targeted. Clearly, the Commissions had been concerned about there being too many feasts.

85% of the saints whose feasts survived were from the period to 400 AD and 50% of the overall total were martyrs. In addition, there were the apostles, 10%, some popes, a significant 18%. Again significantly, the feasts of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin were retained: bar one, which was put back later, after pious pressure, no doubt.

Nearly 40% of the saints were from Rome, with another 12% from the rest of Italy. Only 2 saints each came from England, France and Spain, only 1 from Germany. The East accounted for a large number of saints because of all those figuring in the New Testament.

The guiding principle therefore seemed to have been to restore the ancient liturgical calendar of Rome itself and to supplement that with feasts for members of specific groups of medieval saints: founders of religious orders, c13th doctors of the faith, individuals of recent times turned to for help in need. It looked as though those establishing the new calendar had used that of the period of Gregory VII (1073-86), seen as champion of the ancient Roman usage. Klauser refers the reader to his earlier discussion. [1]

Since the publication of these results, this guiding principle detected behind the calendar has been found by Hubert Jedin (1900 – 1980) [2] to have been operative in the new Missal and Breviary generally. That is, it was intended to establish the Roman liturgy of the period of Gregory VII as that of the Western Church generally, supplemented only where additions were inescapable.

According to Klauser, Jedin saw the Tridentine reforms as necessary but as having enforced liturgical unity at the expense of local creativity. Consequently, there was room for improvement.

Klauser comments that the Commissions for the Missal and the Breviary had two key ideas. Firstly, the liturgy was going to be that of the city of Rome, not a distillation of the liturgical traditions of the Church generally. Secondly, there had been a golden age of the liturgy: later accretions should be stripped away.

Today, the first idea is no longer sustainable in a world-wide Church. But the second idea is vitally important today.

In considering the possibility that errors have been made in general and with regard to the liturgy in particular, the Church should not be put off by the dogma that the Holy Spirit guides it. The two (c16th) Commissions point the way forward: they were willing to implement a return to an earlier state. [3]

The Congregation of Rites

The Congregation of Rites, set up to maintain the uniformity of the liturgy, based its legislation on two sources. Primarily, it took into account the liturgical books created during the implementation of the Tridentine decisions, particularly the instructions for performing the rituals, i.e. the rubrics printed in red. But it also considered precedents it had already set itself and along with custom, which meant the custom of Rome.

Now, the liturgy has been fashioned by history. Each detail of it came in existence at a specific point in time and thereafter usually developed: sometimes to the extent of a total transformation that has rendered its significance opaque. Thus certain vestments are no longer recognisable as the ordinary items of clothing they were originally. Again, the altar is holy not because of the tabernacle it came to carry, but because it is used for the Eucharist.

This consideration should had been fundamental in the Congregation’s deliberations. Its decisions regarding any detail should have been made primarily with an eye to historically correct meaning rather than to liturgical law. Because they were not, there was always the danger of losing totally the original meanings of aspects of the liturgy.

For example, during the c19th the wearing of Gothic style vestments for Mass had become increasingly popular in some parts of Europe as matching Gothic church design. But in 1925, the Congregation of Rites had banned the older style, corresponding to ancient real clothing, because it did not conform to the stylised Roman Baroque standard, in which any sense of real clothing had been lost.

Again, in 1921, the Congregation had decreed that at high mass the Benedictus, the last part of the Sanctus, should not be sung till after the Consecration. This was based on a historical misunderstanding.

It was only in the Roman Baroque, when the Sanctus had become a matter of choral polyphony, performed without attention to the liturgy, that the Benedictus had come to be sung after the Consecration. In the early Church, the whole of the Sanctus had been sung by the people before the Consecration, between the two parts of the celebrant’s eucharistic prayer. Thus, on account of the priority of legality over historical authenticity, the Congregation had taken as the liturgical norm a development of the Roman Baroque prompted by polyphony.

The Cult of the Blessed Sacrament

Having indicated at the start of this chapter that veneration of the Blessed Sacrament has in the most recent of his periods been more congenial to the faithful than attending to the liturgy, Klauser now offers a history of the cult of the Sacrament.

After each mass in early times, the faithful might take home with them some of the communion bread placed in their hands, to be eaten whenever they wanted. This was not only used as sustenance, but carried around as protection: as with the medieval popes carrying the Eucharist around with them on their travels.

Some of the communion bread was also retained in the church for later use. As viaticum, it was given to the dying to help them on their journey to the next life. As fermentum, meaning leaven, it was put in the chalice during the next mass, signifying that each Eucharist was one with all others.

Within the church, such bread was kept in a container in a cupboard, at first in the sacristy and then on the wall by the altar. Ordo I (c700, see chapter 2) required the bishop simply to bow to the container when entering the church for mass. After that, genuflexion appeared. In the c12th, it became customary to have a lighted lamp in front of where the Eucharist was.

In the c13th, the Elevation of the consecrated bread was introduced into the mass, as it was believed that seeing it was beneficial for salvation. Both priest and people genuflected, thus making veneration of the sacrament part of the liturgy. This veneration simultaneously brought about the custom of infrequent communion: in contrast to the practice of the early Church, where communion had been an integral part of the liturgy.

In 1264, the feast of Corpus Christi, specially for the Blessed Sacrament, was added to the liturgical calendar, having first appeared in Liege in 1246. One of the features of Corpus Christi was the procession with the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance. Out of this there soon developed the practice called the Exposition of the Blessing Sacrament, the monstrance being displayed during mass. This in turn led to Evening Devotions which ended with the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

This cult was not without criticism in the late Middle Ages, something that was intensified by the Reformers, who claimed that it was idolatrous. The effect was to turn the cult, especially the Corpus Christi procession, into a profession of orthodox faith. Also making their appearance at this time, and probably as a reaction against Protestantism, were the Forty Hours Devotion and the Perpetual Adoration for which sodalities and religious orders were specifically founded.

The cupboards for housing the Sacrament in late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages had given way to elaborate features built into the architecture of churches. But in c16th Rome, new churches had on the high altar an elaborate container with a tent-like silk covering: the tabernacle. In 1614, one of the prescriptions of the Rituale Romanum was for churches everywhere to have such a tabernacle.

(In the c17th,) the Jansenists criticised the excesses of the cult, while the Jesuits, with their new Baroque churches, were its leading proponents. These churches were given beneath the high altar a feature called the ‘throne of exposition’ [p 138] for the veneration of the Blessed Sacrament.

It has been pointed out that this throne was indicative of the fact that ceremonial derived from court protocol had once more now been applied to the liturgy, with Christ in the Sacrament being treated just like some contemporary secular ruler. Church music of the period is comparable to its court music.

Church interiors were like princely throne rooms. The altar was subordinated to the tabernacle and the exposition throne; the monstrance had to be visible from every seat. Thus the cult of the Blessed Sacrament rather than the liturgy of the mass dictated church design.

However, these excesses have of late been allowed less and less. The altar is now regaining its centrality. The only obstacle left is the tabernacle, on account of earlier legislation in its favour by the Congregation of Rites. With this gone, the celebrant will again be able to face the faithful, as he should.

Liturgy and Church Design

So far, there has been no history of church architecture from the liturgical point of view. Yet an understanding of the interrelations of architecture and liturgy is particularly important today, given the large number of new churches being built.

The perspective here should be distinguished from that of contemporary medieval historians. They assume that ecclesiastical architecture must express particular ‘religious or religio-political ideas’ [p 141] and try to work out what those ideas might be. Thus, the early basilicas are taken to represent ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’ [p 141] and Romanesque churches God’s kingdom.

This approach misses the point. We need to separate the builder’s original instructions from any symbolic interpretation in the light of contemporary ideas that might have been offered afterwards. Churches were built to meet the liturgical requirements of the day. It is the relationship between the architecture and contemporary ideas on the liturgy that we need to examine.

By architecture, we mean the basic structure of the building as opposed to accessory details, such as stain-glass windows, pulpits, porches. The details allow for the expression of current ideas, e.g. allegories, but we would be mistaken to suppose that the basic structure expresses those same ideas.

Nothing is known for certain regarding the usual church prior to 300 AD. But by the year 100 AD, a room in somebody’s house will, for city communities, have been replaced by a special building.

Initially, the Eucharist was part of an ordinary meal, there will have been tables and reclining couches; the room will ideally have been rectangular. But once the Eucharist had become a separate event, the couches will have disappeared, along with all the tables, apart from that of the bishop; during this phase, the room could have been square or rectangular. Then, when the Service of the Word was joined to the Eucharist, a rectangular room became necessary, to enable the bishop to address the faithful.

At this stage, the altar-table is likely to have been positioned towards the middle of the room. It would have been like the meal tables of the period: smallish and square, round or horseshoe-shaped. The community, ordered by age, sex etc, stood in front of the table. Behind was the chair of the bishop, with on either side the benches of his presbyters, giving a horseshoe configuration.

Purpose-built churches at this stage will probably have had an east – west main axis, on account of the age-old custom of praying to the east. The usually east-facing façade will have meant the congregation facing the door to pray. From the mid c4th, façades became west-facing, meaning only the celebrant and his helpers had to turn and face east in order to pray.

The Emperor Constantine, with the twin aims of having Christian edifices to rival pagan ones and of having monuments to himself, was the first to build monumental churches. The first of these was the Lateran basilica, (certainly completed by the early 320s). Here, all the Roman Christians could gather: previously, the city had been divided into districts, each with its own ‘titular church’ [p 144]. The design was that of the large public buildings of the time, called basilicas.

The Lateran basilica was a long room, rectangular in shape and terminating in a semi-circular apse. In the centre of the apse was the bishop’s chair; round the walls was the presbyters’ bench. The altar was a small table in front of the apse, with a canopy over it. In front of and beside the altar were 7 more, used only for receiving the offerings at the offertory.

The long room had a row of columns down either side. Above these were upper walls with numerous windows. The effect was to focus the attention of the congregation on the altar and the sanctuary. During services the faithful assembled in the nave between the two rows of columns; they had the narrow side aisles beyond the columns for their offertory and communion processions to the altar.

However, such a large building was not ideal. The words of the celebrant at the altar could not be heard by all, nor could the epistle and gospel readings, even when the deacon and sub-deacon read from desks in the central aisle. Like modern cathedrals, basilicas were suitable for large-scale ceremonies rather than for the liturgy.

In front of the Lateran basilica was a large forecourt, with porticos round it, separating it off from the secular world. It contained a source of running water where faithful washed their hands before praying, as was the custom; those excluded from part of the liturgy, candidates for baptism and repentant sinners, might wait here; charitable gifts derived from the offertory might be given to the poor here.

At the side of the basilica was the baptistery, a circular building with a big font. This sort of basic plan for basilica and baptistery was used for generations thereafter.

In large examples, a transept might be added, crossing the central aisle where it met the apse. This gave the church a cruciform plan. However, research has shown that the original intention was not symbolic but practical liturgically. The transept provided a space for the congregation to deposit its gifts at the offertory and also get close to martyrs’ memorial connected to the altar.

When infant baptism became the norm, the large baptistery disappeared from new churches, replaced by a small chapel located near the church entrance. Yet the long rectangular type of church building has been retain right down to the present: the Eucharist may not be celebrated in a central location [4]. Recently, diamond and elongated oval shaped ground-plans have been implemented, to bring the faithful closer to the liturgy.

In the medieval period [5], stone became the preferred building material, leading to heavier structures and fewer windows. The addition of a crypt underneath meant that the sanctuary was raised (above the level of the nave).

This last was the precursor of a further development. From the c12th, choir screens were introduced (separating nave from apse), with an ‘altar of the Holy Cross’ [p 148] in front. Thus, the clergy came to celebrate the liturgy at an altar on a ‘stage’ [p 148], while the laity celebrated it at what was effectively a second altar of their own at a ‘lower level’ [p 148].

Klauser mentions other changes. The celebrant’s back was turned to the congregation and the altar placed against the wall, with a reredos added. The episcopal throne was moved to the left wall. Chapels were given altars for private masses. Towers appeared and, in the c11th, the forecourt disappeared. Thus, the architecture seems to reflect ‘the breaking up of the community and its liturgical life’ [p 148].

Gothic architecture showed further developments. Technical advances in building with stone made possible the large, colourful stained-glass windows which distracted the faithful from the liturgy. [6] Side chapels appeared to accommodate the increase in private masses; they also provided for the services of the guilds and fraternities now dividing the congregation. Choirs were lengthened to fit in all the stalls needed by cathedral clergy or monks perform their daily office.

Preaching, more important with the rise of the preaching orders, was transferred to a pulpit in the body of the church; the content of sermons was losing its connection with the liturgy. Above the high altar appeared pictures that could be changed to fit the season; these caused the faithful to consider the lives of Christ and the saints rather than concentrate on the liturgy. Thus, Gothic architecture reflects an altered religious life and a community continuing to disintegrate.

An important change came with the Baroque, Renaissance architecture having affected decorative detail only. The screen was done away with and side chapels repositioned, in order that the congregation would be united in a single large space. But this was not for a true liturgy, it was for:

‘a devotion to the Sacrament which went under the name of liturgy’ [p 150]

After the eventual demise of the Baroque, church architecture almost always copied the two medieval styles. However, after World War I there was dissatisfaction with this. Architects began designing churches not for the liturgy as it was but as they hoped it would become. The aim was to reunite the congregation and avoid features, such as windows behind the altar, that would distract from the liturgy, thus restoring the altar as the focus of attention.

In 1949, a Liturgical Commission published guidelines for church design. [7] Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel (1955) showed how mistakes could be made: its cave-like design shows a sensibility that is ignorant of Christian salvation history.


1 Gregory VII

More obscurity from Klauser. At the start of chapter 3, he seems to be saying in a roundabout way that Gregory VII achieved very little in his attempt to reform the liturgy. Therefore, the two Commissions were mistaken in their view of him as a champion of the ancient liturgy.     [Back to the main text]

2 Jedin

Hubert Jedin was a German Catholic priest and important historian who wrote a history of the Council of Trent and a history of the Church in 10 volumes. After the Vatican II reforms, he in fact expressed grave concerns about what was happening.     [Back to the main text]

3 The Guidance of the Holy Spirit

The argument is obviously immensely important for the Catholic Church.     [Back to the main text]

4 A Central Location

Klauser presumably means that the Congregation of Rites won’t allow centrally placed altars.     [Back to the main text]

5 A Garbled Account

The 3 paragraphs here starting ‘In the medieval period’ (‘In the Middle Ages’ [p 147]) represent a page long paragraph in Klauser. This paragraph is unsatisfactory in the extreme. These are just the most striking problems:

Firstly, it appears to cover the whole period from the end of the Roman Empire to the c12th, around 700 years. To connect the changing architecture of all those centuries to their changing liturgy just cannot be done in one page. Contrast the previous account of the much shorter basilica period: Klauser spends 3 pages on that.

Secondly, there is no chronological sequencing within the period.

Thirdly, there is surely a world of difference between some tiny village church, in Anglo-Saxon England say, and some Romanesque cathedral or similar, in a French city, say. But Klauser ignores that.

Fourthly, the choir is mentioned twice, but only in passing. Klauser refers to the choir screen and to chapels along the ambulatory running round the choir. How can Klauser suggest that the choir screen separated the people from the liturgy without pointing to the effect of the choir! (It’s the choir as architectural feature we are considering here. The liturgical impact of the choir as a group of singers is something else that Klauser fails to take account of. He mentions the issue once, briefly: his reference to Baroque polyphony.)     [Back to the main text]

6 Stained-Glass Windows

Klauser’s idea that the stained-glass windows were a distraction contrasts with the usual view of them as religious education for the illiterate. His notion also seems off the target. If the people in the High Middle Ages were cut off from the liturgy by distance, by the choir and its screen, by the celebrant having his back turned and whispering (in Latin, another issue Klauser treats inadequately) etc, having stained-glass windows to look at can’t have had much impact on participation.     [Back to the main text]

7 Architectural Guidelines

Klauser reproduces these as his Appendix II, pp 161-169.     [Back to the main text]

(c) John C Durham, 2007

Pages for Klauser:    Intro |  Ch 1 |  Ch 2 |  Ch 3 |  Ch 4