Was it traditional in the ancient Church for liturgical prayers to be recited aloud?


QUESTION: Archimandrite Robert, was it traditional in the ancient Church for liturgical prayers like the Eucharistic Anaphora to be recited aloud? If so, what happened to the ancient tradition? And what should we do today?

REPLY: By coincidence, I happen to be preparing a paper on this very topic for a Congress on Armenian Liturgy to be held in NY in September 2002, honoring the 1700 Anniversary of the Baptism of Armenia. I will take the three parts of the question as they were posed, in historical sequence.

1. The ancient tradition: The early evolution of liturgical prayer, a process traced by Allen Bouley, O.S.B., in his seminal work on the topic, From Freedom to Formula, The Evolution of the Eucharistic Prayer from Oral Improvisation to Written Texts (Catholic University of America Studies in Christian Antiquity 21, Washington DC 1981), can be divided into three distinct phases: [1] The first two Christian centuries constitute an initial age of creativity and spontaneity, before the imposition of fixed liturgical texts. [2] During the 2-4th centuries, written liturgical texts begin to appear and coexist simultaneously with extempore prayer. [3] Finally, by the end of the 4th century we begin to see the gradual spread of fixed, written liturgical formularies, which will eventually become obligatory for use by all. These three periods overlap, and the dates indicated are generalized approximations.

In periods 1-2, though we find no direct, fully explicit testimony saying that the extempore prayers were said aloud, it is difficult to see what other conclusion one can draw from the sources. How did they know the prayers were extempore if nobody heard them? Furthermore, we hear frequent complaints of spontaneous prayers that were not orthodox. Ireneus (d. ca. 202), Against the Heresies I, 13:2, roundly condemns the eucharistic prayer of the heretic Marcus, and Cyprian (d. 258), On the Unity of the Church 17, says the Novationists “Offer a different prayer with illicit words.” But how would Ireneus and Cyprian have known the prayers were heretical unless they had heard them proclaimed aloud? The same must be said of all other criticisms of the way some presiders prayed, and instructions how one should pray, of which Bouley cites many examples. Unless the prayers in question were recited audibly, how would one know what sort of prayer was being said?

Furthermore, in Antiquity even private prayers were recited aloud. The New Testament records numerous instances of such prayer aloud, something that is confirmed by innumerable other sources, pagan and Christian, from the classical and Late-Antique periods. St. Niceta of Remesiana (d. after 414), in his liturgical treatise On the Usefulness of Hymns 13-14, admonishes his flock that during vigils they should pay attention to the Scripture lection, and not disturb the reader and others of the congregation by muttering their private prayers aloud to the distraction of others: “No one should be praying with so loud a voice as to disturb the one who is reading.” A century later St. Caesarius, metropolitan of Arles (503-542), had to confront the same issue in Sermon 72, 2: “Above all, dearly beloved, as often as we apply ourselves to prayer we should pray in silence and quiet. If a man wants to pray aloud he seems to take the fruit of prayer away from those who are standing near him.”

Even after the emergence of set liturgical formularies, which become widespread by the end of the 4th century, liturgical prayers continued to be recited audibly because that is how people read in those days — even when alone and reading to themselves. Acts 8:27-35 provides an example of such audible private reading, as does Augustine, Confessions VIII, 6 (15), IX, 4 (8). Our modern practice of silent private reading, even “eye-reading,” without pronouncing the words aloud or even moving the lips, was for the ancients a rare skill that caused wonder when it first emerged, as is clear from Augustine, Confessions VI, 3 (3). So even when liturgical presiders would have been reading from a fixed text, one must conclude that the prayers were said aloud, since in Antiquity that is the way people read even when reading to themselves.

From all of the above, one must conclude that early and Late-Antique Christians prayed aloud regardless of whether the prayer was private or liturgical, extemporaneous or read from a written text.

2. What happened to the tradition? Before the end of Late Antiquity the early tradition began to collapse, and liturgical prayers like the eucharistic anaphora came to be recited secretly. We see this first in Syriac Christianity. Homily 17, attributed to Narsai (d. 502), speaking of the East-Syrian anaphora, says: “The bright(-robed) priest, the tongue of the Church, opens his mouth and speaks in secret with God as a familiar.” In the Greek sources, around AD 600 John Moschos, Spiritual Meadow 196, recounts that “it was the custom in some places for the priests to say the [eucharistic] prayer out loud” — meaning, presumably, that it was no longer the custom everywhere.

This is confirmed for the patriarchate of Constantinople by Novella 167 of emperor Justinian I (527-565), dated AD 565, which legislates: “Moreover, we order all bishops and presbyters to say the prayers used in the the divine oblation and holy baptism not inaudibly, but in a voice that can be be heard by the faithful people, so that the souls of those who listen may be moved to greater compunction and raise up glorification to the Lord God…” Then Justinian paraphrases in support of his views 1 Cor 14:15-17 about how can one say “Amen” to your thanksgiving if the other person does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough but the other person is not built up. Then Rom 10:10: “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” — implying thereby that one must know what it is the mouth is saying in order to believe it with the heart and be saved. The Novella concludes: “Hence it is fitting that the prayers in the holy oblation and the other prayers be offered by the most holy bishops and presbyters in an audible tone to Our Lord Jesus Christ Our God, with the Father and the Holy Spirit…” Justinian ends by threatening compulsion and sanctions for non-compliance with his decree — proof positive that he was combatting an existing abuse and ordering a return to what he still considered the true tradition.

Despite Justinian’s legislation, from the 8th century on the Byzantine liturgical commentaries and manuscripts witness to the abandonment of the earlier tradition. Already in the earliest Byzantine liturgical manuscript, Barberini Gr. 336 from around 750, the Divine Liturgy has rubrics instructing that prayers be recited secretly. Around 1085-1095, chapter 39 of the Byzantine liturgical commentary known as the Protheoria confirms not only that Justinian’s battle had been lost, but that the silent anaphora was giving rise to perplexity and discontent among the faithful: “some of the congregation are puzzled and ask: “What is all that? What is the priest whispering to himself. And they want to know what the prayers are.”

The same degenerative process is observable in the West. Around AD 750, Ordo Romanus I, 88, already witnesses to the silent canon, and by the 9th c. we already see a clear distinction between the Preface, which is sung, and the postsanctus, beginning with the Te igitur, often preceded by the title Canon Missae or Canon Actionis, which the celebrant recited silently.

3. What should we do today? Before answering the last question, I must caution against reading into what we have seen so far conclusions that are unwarranted. This is an important caution, for people systematically misinterpret the past in terms of their present concerns. Thus they will be tempted to conclude that in the past, liturgical ministers recited the prayers aloud deliberately, with the intention in mind that the congregation might hear them. Such a conclusion would be anachronistic romanticism. Apart from the Novella 167 of Justinian cited above in the previous section, in the Early and Late Antique Church one finds scant evidence that anyone was much concerned with how much of the service the congregation could or could not see or hear or participate in, except for the psalmody, Scripture lessons, preaching, and holy communion.

The truth of the matter is that in praying aloud, early Christians were simply imitating what was general usage in the surrounding culture of Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism, where not only public but even private prayer and private reading was said aloud. But how loud was loud? In the huge basilicas of the post-Constantinian East, not furnished with modern sound-systems, one can doubt that many of the people present in church could have heard and understood the anaphora even if the presider shouted it out at the top of his lungs. In addition, Byzantine rubrics and iconography show that the priest recited the prayer bowed, a posture that certainly does not facilitate intelligible vocal proclamation. Around AD 600 John Moschos (ca. 540/50-†619), Spiritual Meadow 196, tells how a group of boys had memorized the anaphora from hearing it repeated aloud in church — but they did so, he adds, because “in those days it was the custom for children to stand before the holy sanctuary during divine worship.” This leaves moot the question just how audible the anaphora would have been to adults attending the service in the naves, aisles, and galleries, further away than the children crowding up to the sanctuary chancel.

Finally, even if the people did hear the prayers, that does not mean they understood them. Before the modern era most of the Christian faithful were illiterate and unschooled, and they spoke and understood a dialectical form of language and had a very limited vocabulary. The language used in the liturgy, even if a literary form of their mother tongue, was of a quite different level from the vernacular dialects they spoke, and employed a vocabulary far beyond their grasp. Even homilies in the Late-Antique rhetorical tradition of the Greek Fathers were barely understood by the common people, and St. Gregory Nazianzen, bishop of Constantinople (380-381, d. ca. 390), dreamt of the people shouting at him to preach in a language they could understand. So even if the liturgy were celebrated audibly in the literary form of their mother tongue, they would have understood little of what was said.

One cannot automatically conclude, then, that the prayers were said aloud in antiquity for the same reasons we want to say them aloud today. So while I would agree that the prayers should be heard and understood by the people (with some nuances I note below), my judgement is not based on what was done in the past. The Church has never been guided by a retrospective ideology, because Tradition is not the past; it is the Church s self-consciousness now of that which has been handed on to her not as an inert treasure but as a dynamic inner life. Consquently, the solution to today’s pastoral-liturgical problems must depend on today’s needs, regardless of what Christians did or did not do in the past.

Hence, our problem is a new one, arising not only from the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, but from the use of the vernacular in modern cultures where most of the faithful are literate, have had at least some secondary schooling, and know the modern literary form of their language used in the liturgy even if they speak a dialect at home. Where that is not yet true, the whole problematic is pastorally irrelevant. One of the great figures of Vatican II, Melkite Catholic Patriarch Maximos IV Saïgh (1878-1967), urged the West to allow the vernacular in the liturgy, following the lead of the East, “where every language is, in effect, liturgical.” But that, taken literally, is flatly false. Modern Russian is not a “liturgical language” in the Christian East, nor is Demotike or Modern Greek. In Russian and Greek Orthodoxy the liturgy is celebrated in an older, now dead form of language the people no longer understand, so it makes little difference whether the prayers are said aloud or not.

Be that as it may, in one liturgical tradition after another, the modern Liturgical Movement has swept aside centuries of practice by overturning the age-old custom of reciting at least certain liturgical prayers, especially the most solemn prayer of the eucharistic anaphora, in secret. Today most Christians would agree that since the liturgy is for everyone, not just for a professional coterie of clergy, all the baptized have the right to hear and make their own the liturgy’s holy words. Such a view, of course, may meet with resistance from self-appointed “preservers of the mystery,” for whom secrecy was a necessary adjunct to the mystery nature of the anaphora. That view is both historically false and theologically untenable. Long after all the prayers have been heard and studied, and all the theologians have had their say, the divine mysteries remain mysteries because of their very nature, and not because we seek to make them unintelligible by hiding them under a camouflage of silence!

Does that mean the prayers should be said aloud today? Of course — but WHICH ones? Certainly not ALL of them, for the principle, true in itself, that the liturgy is everyone’s and all the baptized have the right to hear and make its prayers their own, can be exaggerated. Surely not all the prayers of the liturgy should be recited audibly. Some of them are later additions, some of them private devotional prayers for the clergy, which only obscure the flow of the rite when read aloud.

So to answer this question one must have a knowledge of the history, structure, and dynamics of our present liturgies. Today’s eastern eucharistic liturgies have a two-storey structure of priestly prayers plus diaconal acclamations, litanies, and chants meant to “punctuate” and “cover” and sometimes even “explain” the priestly prayers said silently. The diaconal acclamations in liturgies like the Armenian and Assyro-Chaldean, for instance, instruct the faithful by expressing in briefer, simpler form the meaning and substance of what is being accomplished secretly by the priest. So it is not enough just to ordain that all the prayers be said aloud. We are dealing not just with prayers but with the entire shape of the liturgy, and any changes must take the whole into account.

But in a brief Question and Answer dialogue like this “Question Box” rubric, it is impossible to enter fully into the complexities of all these issues in detail and in every liturgy. Suffice it to say here that the prayers to be said aloud should include the anaphora and those others that mark the pristine structure of the liturgy and define the meaning of its respective liturgical units, but exclude those that are later duplications of the early prayers fulfilling that function, or are private devotional prayers of the priest, dialogues between priest and deacon or priest and concelebrants, etc.

Pontificio Istituto Orientale


© Published under permission of Fr Robert Taft, 2004.

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