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Reflections on the Importance of History

by Josep Jungmann


The liturgy of the Catholic church is an edifice in which we are still living today, and in essentials it is the same building in which Christians were already living 10 or 15 or even 18 and more centuries ago. In the course of all these centuries, the structure has become more and more complicated, with the constant remodelings and additions, and so the plan of the building has been obscured — so much so that we may no longer feel quite at home in it because we no longer understand it.

Hence we must look up the building plans, for these will tell us what the architects of old really wanted, and if we grasp their intentions, we shall learn to appreciate much that the building contains and even to esteem it more highly. And if we should have the opportunity to make changes in the structure or to adapt it to the needs of our own people, we will then do so in such a way that, where possible, nothing of the precious heritage of the past is lost.

Thus to a great extent we can apply to the history of the liturgy what Cardinal Newman said about another department of history:

“The history of the past ends in the present; and the present is our scene of trial; and to behave ourselves towards its various phenomena duly and religiously, we must have recourse to those past events which led to them. Thus the present is a text and the past its interpretation.”

In matters liturgical a knowledge of the original text, or the original form used in the primitive church, while of considerable value, is not our only interest. Nowadays we no longer expend such efforts as did scholars 50 years ago to reestablish the original text from the documents that have come down to us. For we now realize that other forms, which developed in the years that followed, also proceeded from the life of the church. In the same way as the original, or at least in a similar way, they are derived from the inspiration and activity of the Holy Spirit. They tell us of the manner in which those later generations prayed and worshiped, and what they added to the primitive forms out of their own resources. And also, they form the links of a chain connecting our present-day worship with the life and worship of the primitive church. All the links in that chain are important, for only when we possess them all do we have a complete explanation of the present-day form of our divine worship. But it remains true that the first links are the more important, for they determined the course that succeeding forms were to take.