Catholic Encyclopedia – Rites



Ritus in classical Latin in means primarily, the form and manner of any religious observance, so Livy, 1, 7: “Sacra diis aliis albano ritu, græco Herculi ut ab Evandro instituta erant (Romulus) facit”; then, in general, any custom or usage. In English the word “rite” ordinarily means, the ceremonies, prayers, and functions of any religious body, whether pagan, Jewish, Moslem, or Christian. But here we must distinguish two uses of the word. We speak of any one such religious function as a rite — the rite of the blessing of palms, the coronation rite, etc. In a slightly different sense we call the whole complex of the services of any Church or group of Churches a rite-thus we speak of the Roman Rite, Byzantine Rite, and various Eastern rites. In the latter sense the word is often considered equivalent to liturgy, which, however, in the older and more proper use of the word is the Eucharistic Service, or Mass; hence for a whole series of religious functions “rite” is preferable.

A Christian rite, in this sense comprises the manner of performing all services for the worship of God and the sanctification of men. This includes therefore:

(1) the administration of sacraments, among which the service of the Holy Eucharist, as being also the Sacrifice, is the most important element of all;

(2) the series of psalms, lessons, prayers, etc., divided into unities, called “hours”, to make up together the Divine Office;

(3) all other religious and ecclesiastical functions, called sacramentals. This general term includes blessings of persons (such as a coronation, the blessing of an abbot, various ceremonies performed for catechumens, the reconciliation of public penitents, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament etc.), blessings of things (the consecration of a church, altar, chalice, etc.), and a number of devotions and ceremonies, e.g. processions and the taking of vows. Sacraments, the Divine Office, and sacramentals (in a wide sense) make up the rite of any Christian religious body. In the case of Protestants these three elements must be modified to suit their theological opinions.


The Catholic Church has never maintained a principle of uniformity in rite. Just as there are different local laws in various parts of the Church, whereas certain fundamental laws are obeyed by all, so Catholics in different places have, their own local or national rites; they say prayers and perform ceremonies that have evolved to suit people of the various countries, and are only different expressions of the same fundamental truths. The essential elements of the functions are obviously the same everywhere, and are observed by all Catholic rites in obedience to the command of Christ and the Apostles, thus in every rite is administered with water and the invocation of the Holy Trinity; the Holy Eucharist is celebrated with bread and wine over which the words of institution are said; penance involves the confession of sins. In the amplification of these essential elements in the accompanying prayers and practical or ceremonies, various customs have produced the changes which make the different rites. If any rite did not contain one of the essential notes of the service it would be invalid in that point, if its prayers or ceremonies expressed false doctrine it would he heretical. Such rites would not be tolerated in the Catholic Church. But, supposing uniformity in essentials and in faith, the authority of the Church has never insisted on uniformity of rile; Rome has never resented the fact that other people have their own expressions of the same truths. The Roman Rite is the most, venerable, the most archaic, and immeasurably the most important of all, but our fellow Catholics in the East have the same right to their traditional liturgies as we have to ours. Nor can we doubt that other rites too have many beautiful prayers and ceremonies which add to the richness of Catholic liturgical inheritance. To lose these would be a misfortune second only to the loss of the Roman Rite. Leo XIII in his Encyclical, “Præclara” (20 June 1894), expressed the traditional attitude of the papacy when he wrote of his reverence for the venerable able rites of the Eastern Churches and assured the schismatics, whom be invited to reunion, that there was no jealousy of these things at Rome; that for all Eastern customs “we shall provide without narrowness.”

At the time of the Schism, Photius and Cerularius hurled against Latin rites and customs every conceivable absurd accusation. The Latin fast on Saturday, Lenten fare, law of celibacy, confirmation by a bishop, and especially the use of unleavened bread for the Holy Eucharist were their accusations against the West. Latin theologians replied that both were right and suitable, each for the people who used them, that there was no need for uniformity in rite if there was unity in faith, that one good custom did not prove another to be bad, thus defending their customs without attacking those of the East. But the Byzantine patriarch was breaking the unity of the Church, denying the primacy, and plunging the East into schism. In 1054, when Cerularius’s schism had begun, a Latin bishop, Dominic of Gradus and Aquileia, wrote concerning it to Peter III of Antioch. He discussed the question Cerularius had raised, the use of azymes at Mass, and carefully explained that, in using this bread, Latins did not intend to disparage the Eastern custom of consecrating leavened bread, for there is a symbolic reason for either practice. “Because we know that the sacred mixture of fermented bread is used and lawfully observed by the most holy and orthodox Fathers of the Eastern Churches, we faithfully approve of both customs and confirm both by a spiritual explanation”. These words represent very well the attitude of the papacy towards other rites at all times. Three points, however, may seem opposed to this and therefore require some explanation: the supplanting of the old Gallican Rite by that of Rome almost throughout the West, the modification of Uniat rites, the suppression of the later medieval rites.

The existence of the Gallican Rite was a unique anomaly. The natural principle that rite follows patriarchate has been sanctioned by universal tradition with this one exception. Since the first organization of patriarchates there has been an ideal of uniformity throughout each. The close bond that joined bishops and metropolitans to their patriarch involved the use of his liturgy, just as the priests of a diocese follow the rite of their bishop. Before the arbitrary imposition of the Byzantine Rite on all Orthodox Churches no Eastern patriarch would have tolerated a foreign liturgy in his domain. All Egypt used the Alexandrine Rite, all Syria that of Antioch-Jerusalem, all Asia Minor, Greece, and the Balkan lands, that of Constantinople. But in the vast Western lands that make up the Roman patriarchate, north of the Alps and in Spain, various local rites developed, all bearing a strong resemblance to each other, yet different from that of Rome itself. These form the Gallican family of liturgies. Abbot Cabrol, Dom Cagin, and other writers of their school think that the Gallican Rite was really the original Roman Rite before Rome modified it Paléographie musicale. Most writers, however, maintain with Mgr Duchesne, that the Gallican Rite is Eastern, Antiochene in origin. Certainly it has numerous Antiochene peculiarities, and when it emerged as a complete rite in the sixth and seventh centuries (in Germanus of Paris, etc.), it was different from that in use at Rome at the time. Non-Roman liturgies were used at Milan, Aquileia, even at Gobble at the gates of the Roman province. Innocent (401-17) naturally protested against the use of a foreign rite in Umbria; occasionally other popes showed some desire for uniformity in their patriarchate, but the great majority regarded the old state of things with perfect indifference. When other bishops asked them how ceremonies were performed at Rome they sent descriptions, but were otherwise content to allow different uses. Saint Gregory I (590-604) showed no anxiety to make the new English Church conform to Rome, but told Saint Augustine to take whatever rites he thought most suitable from Rome or Gaul.

Thus for centuries the popes alone among patriarchs did not enforce their own rite even throughout their patriarchate. The gradual romanization and subsequent disappearance of Gallican rites were (beginning in the eighth and ninth centuries), the work not of the popes but of local bishops and kings who naturally wished to conform to the use of the Apostolic See. The Gallican Rites varied everywhere (Charles the Great gives this as his reason for adopting the Roman Use; see Hauck, “Kirchengesch. Deutschlands”, 11, 107 sq.), and the inevitable desire for at least local uniformity arose. The bishops’ frequent visits to Rome brought them in contact with the more dignified ritual observed by their chief at the tomb of the Apostles, and they were naturally influenced by it in their return home. The local bishops in synods ordered conformity to Rome. The romanizing movement in the West came from below. In the Frankish kingdom Charles the Great, as part of his scheme of unifying, sent to Adrian I for copies of the Roman books, commanding their use throughout his domain. In the history of the substitution of the Roman Rite for the Gallican the popes appear as spectators, except perhaps in Spain and much later in Milan. The final result was the application in the West of the old principle, for since the pope was undoubtedly Patriarch of the West it was inevitable, that sooner or later the West should conform to his rite. The places, however, that really cared for their old local rites (Milan, Toledo) retain them even now.

It is true that the changes made in some Uniat rites by the Roman correctors have not always corresponded to the best liturgical tradition. There are as Mgr Duchesne says, “corrections inspired by zeal that was not always according to knowledge”, but they are much fewer than is generally supposed and have never been made with the idea of romanizing. Despite the general prejudice that Uniat rites are mere mutilated hybrids, the strongest impression from the study of them is how little has been changed. Where there is no suspicion of false doctrine, as in the Byzantine Rite, the only change made was the restoration of the name of the pope where the schismatics had erased it. Although the question of the procession of the Holy Ghost has been so fruitful a source of dispute between Rome and Constantinople the Filioque clause was certainly not contained in the original creed, nor did the Roman authorities insist on its addition. So Rome is content that Eastern Catholics should keep their traditional form unchanged, though they believe the Catholic doctrine. The Filioque is only sung by those Byzantine Uniats who wish it themselves, as the Ruthenians. Other rites were altered in places, not to romanize but only to eradicate passages suspected of heresy. All other Uniats came from Nestorian, Monophysite, or Monothelete sects, whose rites had been used for centuries by heretics. Hence, when bodies of these people wished to return to the Catholic Church their services were keenly studied at Rome for possible heresy. In most cases corrections were absolutely necessary. The Nestorian Liturgy, for instance, did not contain the words of institution, which had to be added to the Liturgy of the converted Chaldees. The Monophysite Jacobites, Copts, and Armenians have in the Trisagion the fateful clause: “who wast crucified for us”, which has been the watchword of Monophysitism ever since Peter the Dyer of Antioch added it (470-88). If only because of its associations this could not remain in a Catholic Liturgy.

In some instances, however, the correctors were over scrupulous. In the Gregorian Armenian Liturgy the words said by the deacon at the expulsion of the catechumens, long before the Consecration: “The body of the Lord and the blood of the Saviour are set forth (or “are before us”) were in the Uniat Rite changed to: “are about to be before us”. The Uniats also omit the words sung by the Gregorian choir before the Anaphora: “Christ has been manifested amongst us (has appeared in the midst of us)”, and further change the cherubic hymn because of its anticipation of the Consecration. These misplacements are really harmless when understood, yet any reviser would be shocked by such strong cases. In many other ways also the Armenian Rite shows evidence of Roman influence. It has unleavened bread, our confession and Judica psalm at the beginning of Mass, a Lavabo before the Canon, the last Gospel, etc. But so little is this the effect of union with Rome that the schismatical Armenians have all these points too. They date from the time of the Crusades, when the Armenians, vehemently opposed to the Orthodox, made many advances towards Catholics. So also the strong romanizing of the Maronite Liturgy was entirely the work of the Maronites themselves, when, surrounded by enemies in the East, they too turned towards the great Western Church, sought her communion, and eagerly copied her practices. One can hardly expect the pope to prevent other Churches from imitating Roman customs. Yet in the case of Uniats he does even this. A Byzantine Uniat priest who uses unleavened bread in his Liturgy incurs excommunication. The only case in which an ancient Eastern rite has been wilfully romanized is that of the Uniat Malabar Christians, where it was not Roman authority but the misguided zeal of Alexius de Menezes, Archbishop of Goa, and his Portuguese advisers at the Synod of Diamper (1599) which spoiled the old Malabar Rite.

The Western medieval rites are in no case (except the Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites), really independent of Rome. They are merely the Roman Rite with local additions and modifications, most of which are to its disadvantage. They are late, exuberant, and inferior variants, whose ornate additions and long interpolated tropes, sequences, and farcing destroy the dignified simplicity of the old liturgy. In 1570 the revisers appointed by the Council of Trent restored with scrupulous care and, even in the light of later studies, brilliant success the pure Roman Missal, which Pius V ordered should alone be used wherever the Roman Rite is followed. It was a return to an older and purer form. The medieval rites have no doubt a certain archæological interest; but where the Roman Rite is used it is best to use it in its pure form. This too only means a return to the principle that rite should follow patriarchate. The reform was made very prudently, Pius V allowing any rite that could prove an existence of two centuries to remain (Bull “Quo primum”, 19 July 1570, printed first in the Missal), thus saving any local use that had a certain antiquity. Some dioceses (e.g. Lyons) and religious orders (Dominicans, Carthusians, Carmelites), therefore keep their special uses, and the independent Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites, whose loss would have been a real misfortune still remain.

Rome then by no means imposed uniformity of rite. Catholics are united in faith and discipline, but in their manner of performing the sacred functions there is room for variety based on essential unity, as there was in the first centuries. There are cases (e.g. the Georgian Church) where union with Rome has saved the ancient use, while the schismatics have been forced to abandon it by the centralizing policy of their authorities (in this case Russia). The ruthless destruction of ancient rites in favour of uniformity has been the work not of Rome but of the schismatical patriarchs of Constantinople. Since the thirteenth century Constantinople in its attempt to make itself the one centre of the Orthodox Church has driven out the far more venerable and ancient Liturgies of Antioch and Alexandria and has compelled all the Orthodox to use its own late derived rite. The Greek Liturgy of Saint Mark has ceased to exist; that of Saint James has been revived for one or two days in the year at Zakynthos and Jerusalem only. The Orthodox all the world over must follow the Rite of Constantinople. In this unjustifiable centralization we have a defiance of the old principle, since Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Cyprus, in no way belong to the Byzantine Patriarchate. Those who accuse the papacy of sacrificing everything for the sake of uniformity mistake the real offender, the oecumenical patriarch.


A complete table of the old rites with an account of their mutual relations will be found in the article LITURGY. Here it need only be added that there is a Uniat body using each of the Eastern rites. There is no ancient rite that is not represented within the Catholic Church. That rite, liturgical language, and religious body connote three totally different ideas has been explained at length in the article GREEK RITES. The rite a bishop or priest follows is no test at all of his religion. Within certain broad limits a member of any Eastern sect might use any rite, for the two categories of rite and religion cross each other continually. They represent quite different classifications: for instance, liturgically all Armenians belong to one class, theologically a Uniat Armenian belongs to the same class as Latins, Chaldees, Maronites, etc., and has nothing to do with his Gregorian (Monophysite) fellow-countrymen. Among Catholics the rite forms a group; each rite is used by a branch of the Church that is thereby a special, though not separate, entity. So within the Catholic unity we speak of local Churches whose characteristic in each case is the rite they use. Rite is the only basis of this classification. Not all Armenian Catholics or Byzantine Uniats obey the same patriarch or local authority; yet they are “Churches” individual provinces of the same great Church, because each is bound together by their own rites. In the West there is the vast Latin Church, in the East the Byzantine, Chaldean, Coptic, Syrian, Maronite, Armenian, and Malabar Uniat Churches. It is of course possible to subdivide and to speak of the national Churches (of Italy, France, Spain, etc.) under one of these main bodies. In modern times rite takes the place of the old classification in patriarchates and provinces.


The Reformation in the sixteenth century produced a new and numerous series of rites, which are in no sense continuations of the old development of liturgy. They do not all represent descendants of the earliest rites, nor can they be classified in the table of genus and species that includes all the old liturgies of Christendom. The old rites are unconscious and natural developments of earlier ones and go back to the original fluid rite of the first centuries. The Protestant rites are deliberate compositions made by the various Reformers to suit their theological positions, as new services were necessary for their prayer meetings. No old liturgy could be used by people with their ideas. The old rites contain the plainest statements about the Real Presence, the Eucharistic Sacrifice, prayers to saints, and for the dead, which are denied by Protestants. The Reformation occurred in the West, where the Roman Rite in its various local forms had been used for centuries. No Reformed sect could use the Roman Mass; the medieval derived rites were still more ornate, explicit, in the Reformers’ sense superstitious. So all the Protestant sects abandoned the old Mass and the other ritual functions, composing new services which have no continuity, no direct relation to any historic liturgy. However, it is hardly possible to compose an entirely new Christian service without borrowing anything. Moreover, in many cases the Reformers wished to make the breach with the past as little obvious as could be. So many of their new services contain fragments of old rites; they borrowed such elements as seemed to them harmless, composed and re-arranged and evolved in some cases services that contain parts of the old ones in a new order. On the whole it is surprising that they changed as much as they did. It would have been possible to arrange an imitation of the Roman Mass that would have been much more like it than anything they produced.

They soon collected fragments of all kinds of rites, Eastern, Roman, Mozarabic, etc., which with their new prayers they arranged into services that are hopeless liturgical tangles. This is specially true of the Anglican Prayer-books. In some cases, for instance, the placing of the Gloria after the Communion in Edward VI’s second Prayer-book, there seems to be no object except a love of change. The first Lutheran services kept most of the old order. The Calvinist arrangements had from the first no connexion with any earlier rite. The use of the vulgar tongue was a great principle with the Reformers. Luther and Zwingli at first compromised with Latin, but soon the old language disappeared in all Protestant services. Luther in 1523 published a tract, “Of the order of the service in the parish”, in which he insists on preaching, rejects all “unevangelical” parts of the Mass, such as the Offertory and idea of sacrifice, invocation of saints, and ceremonies, and denounces private Masses, Masses for the dead, and the idea of the priest as a mediator. Later in the same year he issued a “Formula missæ et communionis pro ecclesia Vittebergensi”, in which he omits the preparatory prayers, Offertory, all the Canon to qui pridie, from Unde et memores to the Pater, the embolism of the Lord’s Prayer, fraction, Ite missa est. The Preface is shortened, the Sanctus is to be sung after the words of institution which are to be said aloud, and meanwhile the elevation may be made because of the weak who would be offended by its sudden omission. At the end he adds a new ceremony, a blessing from Num., vi, 24-6. Latin remained in this service.

Karlstadt began to hold vernacular services at Wittenberg since 1521. In 1524 Kaspar Kantz published a German service on the lines of Luther’s “Formula missæ”; so also Thomas Münzer the Anabaptist, in 1523 at Alstedt. A number of compromises began at this time among the Protestants, services partly Latin and partly vernacular. Vernacular hymns took the place of the old Proper (Introit, etc.). At last in 1526 Luther issued an entirely new German service, “Deudsche Messe und ordnung Gottis diensts”, to be used on Sundays, whereas the “Formula missæ”, in Latin, might be kept for week-days. In the “Deudsche Messe” “a spiritual song or German psalm” replaces the Introit, then follows Kyrie eleison in Greek three times only. There is no Gloria. Then come the Collects, Epistle, a German hymn, Gospel, Creed, Sermon, Paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, words of institution with the account of the Last Supper from I Cor, xi, 20-9, Elevation (always kept by Luther himself in spite of Karlstadt and most of his colleagues), Communion, during which the Sanctus or a hymn is sung, Collects, the blessing from Num., vi, 24-6. Except the Kyrie, all is in German; azyme bread is still used but declared indifferent; Communion is given under both kinds, though Luther preferred the unmixed chalice. This service remained for a long time the basis of the Lutheran Communion function, but the local branches of the sect from the beginning used great freedom in modifying it. The Pietistic movement in the eighteenth century, with its scorn for forms and still more the present Rationalism, have left very little of Luther’s scheme. A vast number of Agendæ, Kirchenordnungen, and Prayer-books issued by various Lutheran consistories from the sixteenth century to our own time contain as many forms of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Pastors use their own discretion to a great extent, and it is impossible to foresee what service will be held in any Lutheran church. An arrangement of hymns, Bible readings (generally the Nicene Creed), a sermon, then the words of institution and Communion, prayers (often extempore), more hymns, and the blessing from Num., vi, make up the general outline of the service.

Zwingli was more radical than Luther. In 1523 he kept a form of the Latin Mass with the omission of all he did not like in it, chiefly because the town council of Zurich feared too sudden a change, but in 1525 he overcame their scruples and issued his “Action oder bruch (=Brauch) des nachtmals”. This is a complete breach with the Mass an entirely new service. On Maundy Thursday the men and women are to receive communion, on Good Friday those of “middle age”, on Easter Sunday only the oldest (die alleraltesten). These are the only occasions on which the service is to be held. The arrangement is: a prayer said by the pastor facing the people, reading of 1 Cor, xi, 20-9, Gloria in Excelsis, “The Lord be with you” and its answer, reading of John, vi, 47-63, Apostles’ Creed, an address to the people, Lord’s Prayer, extempore prayer, words of institution, Communion (under both kinds in wooden vessels), Ps. cxiii, a short prayer of thanksgiving; the pastor says: “Go in peace”. On other Sundays there is to be no Communion at all, but a service consisting of prayer, Our Father, sermon, general confession, absolution, prayer, blessing. Equally radical was the Calvinist sect. In 1535 through Farel’s influence the Mass was abolished in Geneva. Three times a year only was there to be a commemorative Supper in the baldest form; on other Sundays the sermon was to suffice. In 1542 Calvin issued “La forme des prières ecclésiastiques”, a supplement to which describes “La manière de célébrer la cène”. This rite, to be celebrated four times yearly, consists of the reading of 1 Cor, xi, an excommunication of various kinds of sinners, and long exhortation. “This being done, the ministers distribute the bread and the cup to the people, taking care that they approach reverently and in good order”. Meanwhile a psalm is sung or a lesson read from the Bible, a thanksgiving follows, and a final blessing. Except for their occurrence in the reading of I Cor, xi, the words of institution are not said; there is no kind of Communion form. It is hardly possible to speak of rite at all in the Calvinist body.

The other ritual functions kept by Protestants (baptism, confirmation as an introduction to Communion marriage, funerals, appointment of ministers) went through much the same development. The first Reformers expunged and modified the old rites, then gradually more and more was changed until little remained of a rite in our sense. Psalms, hymns, prayers, addresses to the people in various combinations make up these functions. The Calvinists have always been more radical than the Lutherans. The development and multiple forms of these services may be seen in Rietschel, “Lehrbuch der Liturgik”, II, and Clemen, “Quellenbuch zur praktischen Theologie”, I (texts only). The Anglican body stands somewhat apart from the others, inasmuch as it has a standard book, almost unaltered since 1662. The first innovation was the introduction of an English litany under Henry VIII in 1544. Cranmer was preparing further changes when Henry VIII died. Under Edward VI (1547-53) many changes were made at once: blessings, holy water, the creeping to the Cross were abolished, Mass was said in English, and in 1549 the first Prayer-book, arranged by Cranmer, was issued. Much of the old order of the Mass remained, but the Canon disappeared to make way for a new prayer from Lutheran sources. The “Kölnische Kirchenordnung” composed by Melanchthon and Butzer supplied part of the prayers. The changes are Lutheran rather than Calvinist. In 1552 the second Prayerbook took the place of the first. This is the present Anglican Book of Common Prayer and represents a much stronger Protestant tendency. The commandments take the place of the Introit and Kyrie (kept in the first book), the Gloria is moved to the end, the Consecration-prayer is changed so as to deny the Sacrifice and Real Presence, the form at the Communion becomes: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving” (similarly for the chalice). In 1558 Elizabeth’s Government issued a new edition of the second Prayer-book of Edward VI with slight modifications of its extreme Protestantism. Both the Edwardine forms for communion are combined. In 1662 a number of revisions were made. In particular the ordination forms received additions defining the order to be conferred. A few slight modifications (as to the lessons read, days no longer to be kept) have been made since.

The Anglican Communion service follows this order: The Lord’s Prayer, Collect for purity, Ten Commandments, Collect for the king and the one for the day, Epistle, Gospel, Creed, sermon, certain sentences from the Bible (meanwhile a collection is made), prayer for the Church militant, address to the people about Communion, general confession and absolution, the comfortable words (Matt., xi, 28; John, iii, 16; 1 Tim., i, 15; 1 John, ii, 1), Preface, prayer (“We do not presume”), Consecration-prayer, Communion at once, Lord’s Prayer, Thanksgiving-prayer, “Glory be to God on high”, blessing. Very little of the arrangement of the old Mass remains in this service, for all the ideas Protestants reject are carefully excluded. The Book of Common Prayer contains all the official services of the Anglican Church, baptism, the catechism, confirmation, marriage, funeral, ordination, articles of religion, etc. It has also forms of morning and evening prayer, composed partly from the Catholic Office with many modifications and very considerably reduced. The Episcopal Church in Scotland has a Prayer-book, formed in 1637 and revised in 1764, which is more nearly akin to the first Prayer-book of Edward VI and is decidedly more High Church in tone. In 1789 the Protestant Episcopal Church of America accepted a book based on the English one of 1662, but taking some features from the Scotch services. The Anglican service-books are now the least removed from Catholic liturgies of those used by any Protestant body. But this is saying very little. The Non-jurors in the eighteenth century produced a number of curious liturgies which in many ways go back to Catholic principles, but have the fault common to all Protestant services of being conscious and artificial arrangements of elements selected from the old rites, instead of natural developments. The Irvingites have a not very-successful service-book of this type. Many Methodists use the Anglican book; the other later sects have for the most part nothing but loose arrangements of hymns, readings, extempore prayers, and a sermon that can hardly be called rites in any sense.


The language of any Church or rite, as distinct from the vulgar tongue, is that used in the official services and may or may not be the common language. For instance the Rumanian Church uses liturgically the ordinary language of the country, while Latin is used by the Latin Church for her Liturgy without regard to the mother tongue of the clergy or congregation. There are many cases of an intermediate state between these extremes, in which the liturgical language is an older form of the vulgar tongue, sometimes easily, sometimes hardly at all, understood by people who have not studied it specially. Language is not rite. Theoretically any rite may exist in any language. Thus the Armenian, Coptic, and East Syrian Rites are celebrated always in one language, the Byzantine Rite is used in a great number of tongues, and in other rites one language sometimes enormously preponderates but is not used exclusively. This is determined by church discipline. The Roman Liturgy is generally celebrated in Latin. The reason why a liturgical language began to be used and is still retained must be distinguished in liturgical science from certain theological or mystic considerations by which its use may be explained or justified. Each liturgical language was first chosen because it was the natural language of the people. But languages change and the Faith spreads into countries where other tongues are spoken. Then either the authorities are of a more practical mind and simply translate the prayers into the new language, or the conservative instinct, always strong in religion, retains for the liturgy an older language no longer used in common life. The Jews showed this instinct, when, though Hebrew was a dead language after the Captivity, they continued to use it in the Temple and the synagogues in the time of Christ, and still retain it in their services. The Moslem, also conservative, reads the Koran in classical Arabic, whether he be Turk, Persian, or Afghan. The translation of the church service is complicated by the difficulty of determining when the language in which it is written, as Latin in the West and Hellenistic Greek in the East, has ceased to be the vulgar tongue. Though the Byzantine services were translated into the common language of the Slavonic people that they might be understood, this form of the language (Church-Slavonic) is no longer spoken, but is gradually becoming as unintelligible as the original Greek. Protestants make a great point of using languages “understanded of the people”, yet the language of Luther’s Bible and the Anglican Prayerbook is already archaic.


When Christianity appeared Hellenistic Greek was the common language spoken around the Mediterranean. Saint Paul writes to people in Greece, Asia Minor, and Italy in Greek. When the parent rites were finally written down in the fourth and fifth centuries Eastern liturgical language had slightly changed. The Greek of these liturgies (Apost. Const. VIII, Saint James, Saint Mark, the Byzantine Liturgy) was that of the Fathers of the time, strongly coloured by the Septuagint and the New Testament. These liturgies remained in this form and have never been recast in any modern Greek dialect. Like the text of the Bible, that of a liturgy once fixed becomes sacred. The formulæ used Sunday after Sunday are hallowed by too sacred associations to be changed as long as more or less the same language is used. The common tongue drifts and develops, but the liturgical forms are stereotyped. In the East and West, however, there existed different principles in this matter. Whereas in the West there was no literary language but Latin till far into the Middle Ages, in the East there were such languages, totally unlike Greek, that had a position, a literature, a dignity of their own hardly inferior to that of Greek itself. In the West every educated man spoke and wrote Latin almost to the Renaissance. To translate the Liturgy into a Celtic or Teutonic language would have seemed as absurd as to write a prayerbook now in some vulgar slang. The East was never hellenized as the West was latinized. Great nations, primarily Egypt and Syria, kept their own languages and literatures as part of their national inheritance. The people, owing no allegiance to the Greek language, had no reason to say their prayers in it, and the Liturgy was translated into Coptic in Egypt, into Syriac in Syria and Palestine. So the principle of a uniform liturgical language was broken in the East and people were accustomed to hear the church service in different languages in different places. This uniformity once broken never became an ideal to Eastern Christians and the way was opened for an indefinite multiplication of liturgical tongues.

In the fourth and fifth centuries the Rites of Antioch and Alexandria were used in Greek in the great towns where people spoke Greek, in Coptic or Syriac among peasants in the country. The Rite of Asia Minor and Constantinople was always in Greek, because here there was no rival tongue. But when the Faith was preached in Armenia (from Cæsarea) the Armenians in taking over the Cæsarean Rite translated it of course into their own language. And the great Nestorian Church in East Syria, evolving her own literature in Syriac, naturally used that language for her church services too. This diversity of tongues was by no means parallel to diversity of sect or religion. People who agreed entirely in faith, who were separated by no schism, nevertheless said their prayers in different languages. Melchites in Syria clung entirely to the Orthodox faith of Constantinople and used the Byzantine Rite, yet used it translated into Syriac. The process of translating the Liturgy continued later.. After the Schism of the eleventh century, the Orthodox Church, unlike Rome, insisted on uniformity of rite among her members. All the Orthodox use the Byzantine Rite, yet have no idea of one language. When the Slavs were converted the Byzantine Rite was put into Old Slavonic for them; when Arabic became the only language spoken in Egypt And Syria, it became the language of the Liturgy in those countries. For a long time all the people north of Constantinople used Old Slavonic in church, although the dialects they spoke gradually drifted away from it. Only the Georgians, who are Slavs in no sense at all, used their own language. In the seventeenth century as part of the growth of Rumanian national feeling came a great insistence on the fact that they were not Slavs either. They Wished to be counted among Western, Latin races, so they translated their liturgical books into their own Romance language. These represent the old classical liturgical languages in the East.

The Monophysite Churches have kept the old tongues even when no longer spoken; thus they use Coptic in Egypt, Syriac in Syria, Armenian in Armenia. The Nestorians and their daughter-Church in India (Malabar) also use Syriac. The Orthodox have four or five chief liturgical languages: Greek, Arabic, Church-Slavonic, and Rumanian. Georgian has almost died out. Later Russian missions have very much increased the number. They have translated the same Byzantine Rite into German, Esthonian, and Lettish for the Baltic provinces Finnish and Tartar for converts in Finland and Siberia, Eskimo, a North American Indian dialect, Chinese, and Japanese. Hence no general principle of liturgical language can be established for Eastern Churches, though the Nestorians and Monophysites have evolved something like the Roman principle and kept their old languages in the liturgy, in spite of change in common talk. The Orthodox services are not, however, everywhere understood by the people, for since these older versions were made language has gone on developing. In the case of converts of a totally different race, such as Chinese or Red Indians, there is an obvious line to cross at once and there is no difficulty about translating what would otherwise be totally unintelligible to them. At home the spoken language gradually drifts away from the form stereotyped in the Liturgy, and it is difficult to determine when the Liturgy ceases to be understood. In more modern times with the growth of new sects the conservative instinct of the old Churches has grown. The Greek, Arabic, and Church-Slavonic texts are jealously kept unchanged though in all cases they have become archaic and difficult to follow by uneducated people. Lately the question of liturgical language has become one of the chief difficulties in Macedonia. Especially since the Bulgarian Schism the Phanar at Constantinople insists on Greek in church as a sign of Hellenism, while the people clamour for Old-Slavonic or Rumanian.

In the West the whole situation is different. Greek was first used at Rome, too. About the third century the services were translated into the vulgar tongue, Latin, which has remained ever since. There was no possible rival language for many centuries. As the Western barbarians became civilized they accepted a Latin culture in everything, having no literatures of their own. Latin was the language of all educated people, so it was used in church, as it was for books or even letter-writing. The Romance people drifted from Latin to Italian, Spanish, French, etc., so gradually that no one can say when Latin became a dead language. The vulgar tongue was used by peasants and ignorant people only; but all books were written, lectures given, and solemn speeches made in Latin. Even Dante (died 1321) thought it necessary to write an apology for Italian (De vulgari eloquentia). So for centuries the Latin language was that, not of the Catholic Church, but of the Roman patriarchate. When people at last realized that it was dead, it was too late to change it. Around it had gathered the associations of Western Christendom; the music of the Roman Rite was composed and sung only to a Latin text; and it is even now the official tongue of he Roman Court. The ideal of uniformity in rite extended to language also, so when the rebels of the, sixteenth century threw over the old language, sacred from its long use, as they threw over the old rite and Id laws, the Catholic Church, conservative in all these things, would not give way to them. As a bond of union among the many nations who make up he Latin patriarchate, she retains the old Latin tongue with one or two small exceptions. Along he Eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea the Roman Rite has been used in Slavonic (with the Glagolitic letters) since the eleventh century, and the Roman Mass is said in Greek on rare occasions at Rome.

It is a question how far one may speak of a special liturgical Latin language. The writers of our Collects, hymns, Prefaces, etc., wrote simply in the language of their time. The style of the various elements of the Mass and Divine Office varies greatly according to the time at which they were written. We have texts from the fourth or fifth to the twentieth century. Liturgical Latin then is simply late Christian Latin of various periods. On the other hand the Liturgy had an influence on the style of Christian Latin writers second only to that of the Bible. First we notice Hebraisms (per omnia soecula soeculorum), many Greek constructions (per Dominum nostrum, meaning” for the sake of”, dia) and words (Eucharistia, litania, episcopus), expressions borrowed from Biblical metaphors (pastor, liber proedestinationis, crucifigere carnem, lux, vita, Agnus Dei), and words in a new Christian sense (humilitas, compunctio, caritas). Saint Jerome in his Vulgate more than any one else helped to form liturgical style. His constructions and phrases occur repeatedly in the non-Biblical parts of the Mass and Office. The style of the fifth and sixth centuries (Saint Leo I, Celestine I, Gregory I) forms perhaps the main stock of our services. The mediæval Schoolmen (Saint Thomas Aquinas) and their technical terminology have influenced much of the later parts, and the Latin of the Renaissance is an important element that in many cases overlays the ruder forms of earlier times. Of this Renaissance Latin many of the Breviary lessons are typical examples; a comparison of the earlier forms of the hymns with the improved forms drawn up by order of Urban VIII (1623-44) will convince any one how disastrous its influence was. The tendency to write inflated phrases has not yet stopped: almost any modern Collect compared with the old ones in the “Gelasian Sacramentary” will show how much we have lost of style in our liturgical prayers.

Use of Latin

The principle of using Latin in church is in no way fundamental. It is a question of discipline that evolved differently in East and West, and may not be defended as either primitive or universal. The authority of the Church could change the liturgical language at any time without sacrificing any important principle. The idea of a universal tongue may seem attractive, but is contradicted by the fact that the Catholic Church uses eight or nine different liturgical languages. Latin preponderates as a result of the greater influence of the Roman patriarchate and its rite, caused by the spread of Western Europeans into new lands and the unhappy schism of so many Easterns. Uniformity of rite or liturgical language has never been a Catholic ideal, nor was Latin chosen deliberately as a sacred language. Had there been any such idea the language would have been Hebrew or Greek.

The objections of Protestants to a Latin Liturgy can be answered easily enough. An argument often made from I Cor., xiv, 4-18, is of no value. The whole passage treats of quite another thing, prophesying in tongues that no one understands, not even the speaker (see 14: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth but my understanding is without fruit”). The other argument, from practical convenience, from the loss to the people who do not understand what is being said, has some value. The Church has never set up a mysterious unintelligible language as an ideal. There is no principle of sacerdotal mysteries from which the layman is shut out. In spite of the use of Latin the people have means of understanding the service. That they might do so still better if everything were in the vulgar tongue may be admitted, but in making this change the loss would probably be greater than the gain.

By changing the language of the Liturgy we should lose the principle of uniformity in the Roman patriarchate. According to the ancient principle that rite follows patriarchate, the Western rite should be that of the Western patriarch, the Roman Bishop, who uses the local rite of the city of Rome. There is a further advantage in using it in his language, so the use of Latin in the West came about naturally and is retained through conservative instinct. It is not so in the East. There is a great practical advantage to travellers, whether priests or laymen, in finding their rite exactly the same everywhere. An English priest in Poland or Portugal could not say his Mass unless he and the server had a common language. The use of Latin all over the Roman patriarchate is a very obvious and splendid witness of unity. Every Catholic traveller in a country of which he does not know the language has felt the comfort of finding that in church at least everything is familiar and knows that in a Catholic church of his own rite he is at home anywhere. Moreover, the change of liturgical language would be a break with the past. It is a witness of antiquity of which a Catholic may well be proud that in Mass to-day we are still used to the very words that Anselm, Gregory, Leo sang in their cathedrals. A change of language would also abolish Latin chant. Plainsong, as venerable a relic of antiquity as any part of the ritual, is composed for the Latin text only, supposes always the Latin syllables and the Latin accent, and becomes a caricature when it is forced into another language with different rules of accent.

These considerations of antiquity and universal use always made proportionately (since there are the Eastern Uniat rites) but valid for the Roman patriarchate may well outweigh the practical convenience of using the chaos of modern languages in the liturgy. There is also an æsthetic advantage in Latin. The splendid dignity of the short phrases with their rhythmical accent and terse style redolent of the great Latin Fathers, the strange beauty of the old Latin hymns, the sonorous majesty of the Vulgate, all these things that make the Roman Rite so dignified, so characteristic of the old Imperial City where the Prince of the Apostles set up his throne, would be lost altogether in modern English or French translations. The impossibility of understanding Latin is not so great. It is not a secret, unknown tongue, and till quite lately every educated person understood it. It is still taught in every school. The Church does not clothe her prayers in a secret language, but rather takes it for granted that people understand Latin. If Catholics learned enough Latin to follow the very easy style of the Church language all difficulty would be solved. For those who cannot take even this trouble there is the obvious solution of a translation. The Missal in English is one of the easiest books to procure; the ignorant may follow in that the prayers that lack of education prevents their understanding without it.

The liturgical languages used by Catholics are:

1. Latin in the Roman, Milanese, and Mozarabic Rites (except in parts of Dalmatia).

2. Greek in the Byzantine Rite (not exclusively).

3. Syriac in the Syrian, Maronite, Chaldean, and Malabar Rites.

4. Coptic in the Coptic Rite.

5. Armenian by all the Churches of that rite.

6. Arabic by the Melchites (Byzantine Rite).

7. Slavonic by Slavs of the Byzantine Rite and (in Glagolitic letters) in the Roman Rite in Dalmatia.

8. Georgian (Byzantine Rite).

9. Rumanian (Byzantine Rite).


A. Rubrics

The most obvious and necessary study for ecclesiastical persons is that of the laws that regulate the performance of liturgical functions. From this point of view liturgical study is a branch of canon law. The rules for the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, administration of sacraments, etc., are part of the positive law of the Church, just as much as the laws about benefices, church property, or fasting, and oblige those whom they concern under pain of sin. As it is therefore the duty of persons in Holy orders to know them, they are studied in all colleges and seminaries as part of the training of future priests, and candidates are examined in them before ordination. Because of its special nature and complication liturgical science in this sense is generally treated apart from the rest of canon law and is joined to similar practical matters (such as preaching, visiting the sick, etc.) to make up the science of pastoral theology. The sources from which it is learned are primarily the rubrics of the liturgical books (the Missal, Breviary, and Ritual). There are also treatises which explain and arrange these rubrics, adding to them from later decrees of the S. Congregation of Rites. Of these Martinucci has not yet been displaced as the most complete and authoritative, Baldeschi has long been a favourite and has been translated into English, De Herdt is a good standard book, quite sound and clear as far as it goes but incomplete, Le Vavasseur is perhaps the most practical for general purposes.

B. History

The development of the various rites, their spread and mutual influence, the origin of each ceremony, etc., form a part of church history whose importance is becoming more and more realized. For practical purposes all a priest need know are the present rules that affect the services he has to perform, as in general the present laws of the Church are all we have to obey. But just as the student of history needs to know the decrees of former synods, even if abrogated since, as he studies the history of earlier times and remote provinces of the Church, because it is from these that he must build up his conception of her continuous life, so the liturgical student will not be content with knowing only what affects him now, but is prompted to examine the past to inquire into the origin of our present rite and study other rites too as expressions of the life of the Church in other lands. The history of the liturgies that deeply affect the life of Christians in many ways, that are the foundation of many other objects of study (architecture, art, music, etc.) is no inconsiderable element of church history. In a sense this study is comparatively new and not yet sufficiently organized though to some extent it has always accompanied the practical study of liturgy. The great mediæval liturgists were not content with describing the rites of their own time. They suggested historical reasons for the various ceremonies and contrasted other practices with those of their own Churches. Benedict XIV’s treatise on the Mass discusses the origin of each element of the Latin liturgy. This and other books of seventeenth and eighteenth-century liturgiologists are still standard works. So also in lectures and works on liturgy in our first sense it has always been the custom to add historical notes on the origin of the ceremonies and prayers.

But the interest in the history of liturgy for its own sake and the systematic study of early documents is a comparatively new thing. In this science England led the way and still takes the foremost place. It followed the Oxford Movement as part of the revived interest in the early Church among Anglicans. W. Palmer (Origines liturgicæ) and J. M. Neale in his various works are among those who gave the first impulse to this movement. The Catholic Daniel Rock further advanced it. It has now a large school of followers. F.C. Brightman’s edition of “Eastern Liturgies” is the standard one used everywhere. The monumental editions of the “Gelasian Sacramentary” by H.A. Wilson and the “Leonine Sacramentary ” by C. L. Feltoe, the various essays and discussions by E. Bishop, C. Atchley, and many others keep up the English standard. In France Dom Guéranger (L’année liturgique) and his school of Benedictines opened a new epoch. Mgr Duchesne supplied a long-felt want with his “Origines du suite chrétien”, Dom Cabral and Dom Leclereq have advanced to the first place among modern authorities on historical liturgy. From Germany we have the works of H. Daniel, Probst, Thalhofer, Gihr, and a school of living students. In Italy good work is being done by Semeria, Bonaccorsi, and others. Nevertheless the study of liturgy hardly yet takes the place it deserves in the education of church students. Besides the practical instruction that forms a part of pastoral theology, lectures on liturgical history would form a valuable element of the course of church history. As part of such a course other rites would be considered and compared. There is a fund of deeper understanding of the Roman Rite to be drawn from its comparison with others, Gallican or Eastern. Such instruction in liturgiology should include some notion of ecclesiology in general, the history and comparison of church planning and architecture, of vestments and church music. The root of all these things in different countries is the liturgies they serve and adorn.

Dogmatic Value

The dogmatic and apologetic value of liturgical science is a very important consideration to the theologian. It must, of course, be used reasonably. No Church intends to commit herself officially to every statement and implication contained in her official books, any more than she is committed to everything said by her Fathers. For instance, the Collect for Saint Juliana Falconieri (19 June) in the Roman Rite refers to the story of her miraculous communion before her death, told at length in the sixth lesson of her Office, but the truth of that story is not part of the Catholic Faith. Liturgies give us arguments from tradition even more valuable than those from the Fathers, for these statements have been made by thousands of priests day after day for centuries. A consensus of liturgies is, therefore, both in space and time a greater witness of agreement than a consensus of Fathers, for as a general principle it is obvious that people in their prayers say only what they believe. This is the meaning of the well known axiom: Lex orandi lex credendi. The prayers for the dead, the passages in which God is asked to accept this Sacrifice, the statements of the Real Presence in the oldest liturgies are unimpeachable witnesses of the Faith of the early Church as to these points. The Bull of Pius IX on the Immaculate Conception (“Ineffabilis Deus”, 8 December 1854) contains a classical example of this argument from liturgy. Indeed there are few articles of faith that cannot be established or at least confirmed from liturgies. The Byzantine Office for Saint Peter and Saint Paul (29 June) contains plain statements about Roman primacy. The study of liturgy from this point of view is part of dogmatic theology. Of late years especially dogmatic theologians have given much attention to it. Christian Pesch, S.J., in his “Prælectiones theologiæ dogmaticæ” quotes the liturgical texts for the theses as part of the argument from tradition. There are then these three aspects under which liturgiology should be considered by a Catholic theologian, as an element of canon law, church history, and dogmatic theology. The history of its study would take long to tell. There have been liturgiologists through all the centuries of Christian theology. Briefly the state of this science at various periods is this:

MLA Citation

  • Adrian Fortescue. “Rites”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. CatholicSaints.Info. 20 June 2012. Web. 16 May 2021. <>