In 600 His Illliterate Priests Forced Pope Gregory the Great to Alter the Eucharist

18th Saturday

For the four years of Vatican II, the twenty-five hundred bishops had a twofold goal. They tried to get our Church back into step with Apostolic times, while keeping it in step with modern times. The name French bishops gave to being true to Apostolic times was Ressourcement. The name Pope John XXIII gave to keeping in step with modern practices, “reading the signs of the times” was Aggiornamento.

In these articles we have seen how our attempts at Aggiornamento often worked against our being true to Jesus and the Apostles. That was the case in 375 when the low estimation people had of Jesus moved St. Ambrose to drastically alter the way people saw Jesus in the Eucharist. From thinking of the gentle Jesus reclining with them at the Last Supper, Ambrose had them prostrating themselves before the Lord of heaven’s throne.

Then in the creation of the clerical state we saw a similar swerving from the clear line Jesus laid down. He had said he came not to be served but to serve, but in 500 to stay alive, the Church had to position itself among the nobles with inheritances.

After circumstances force us away from what we were in the beginning we must do our best to get ourselves back on course. That’s what we were doing at Vatican II.

In coming to St. Gregory the Great in 600 we will again see where the needs of the times brought the Church to lay aside rituals that had been with her from the beginning. Let’s look at his story.

 Born in 540, he was given the name Gregory, which seems to be derived from a Greek word meaning “A watchful man.” Anyway, he was History’s first Gregory. He is called a saint in the Orthodox and Episcopalian Churches, while even John Calvin credited him with greatness.

Gregory came at the end of the age when any classical Latin was still spoken. 800 of his letters show him to have been a master of grammar and rhetoric. As a young man he served as Prefect of Rome, and then he spent seven years as the Pope’s ambassador to the emperor in Constantinople. After his father’s death he busied himself converting the family estate into the monastery of St. Andrew. He called his life as a monk “an ardent quest for a vision of the creator.”

At the death of Pope Pelagius in 590 all of Rome cried for Gregory to take the pontificate, and he took it over in a big way, putting all areas of the Church on a firm basis. He was quite influential in two concerns we have touched on in these articles. For one thing, he took Church matters in England out of the hands of Irish missionaries, for another thing, he laid down rules for offering the Mass.

Throughout his days Gregory was haunted by a memory of English slaves in Rome’s marketplace. It had him selecting a monk whom he renamed Augustine, sending him to England as the archbishop of Canterbury. One year this resulted in having Queen Eanfled, a convert of Archbishop Augustine’s, celebrating Palm Sunday, the day her husband, King Oswy, a Northumbrian convert of St. Aiden, was celebrating Easter. At the Synod of Whitby in 664 the Irish were made to agree to follow Rome’s calendar.  

Gregory set an exacting formula for our Mass prayers. It came to be called the Roman Canon, and it was followed through the centuries, down to Vatican II. (It was the same Eucharistic Prayer I learned as a new priest in 1952.) The Roman Canon  departed from the practice Jesus handed on to the Apostles.  The blessing offered by Jesus at the Last Supper was the Jewish brakha that was the set the formula for all formal meals such as the Passover.

The brakha, the  prayer spoken by the host always had three parts: 1. He recalled God’s favors, 2. He called down God’s Spirit, and 3. He led the diners in offering themselves as a pleasing gift to God. It was the same with our Eucharist in the early centuries.

One important feature of the brakha and of each early Eucharistic prayer was that, to keep it fresh, the host had to use his own words in praying the three parts.

Justin Martyr in the account of their Sunday gatherings that he left us in 160 handed on the policy of having the host making up his own words. He wrote that the one presiding offered “Eucharist prayers as much as in him lie.”

In the year 600 Pope Gregory found so few priests with an education equipping them to offer up a Eucharistic Prayer in their own words, that he was forced to go against the ways of the early Church. He wrote the Roman Canon that covered the three essential parts of the prayer offered by Jesus at the Last Supper.

That Eucharistic Prayer made Latin the official language of the Roman Catholic Church, and it had us forgetting that through the first centuries the men presiding at the Eucharist had used their own words and their own language. 

The last words of the priest in Pope Gregory’s Latin formula were “Ite, missa est.” That simply meant “Go, it’s finished,” but the people, ignorant of Latin, thought the priest was saying, “Go. It is the Missa.” And that word Missa got changed to our Mass.

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