I had my first holy communion in 1973. As a boy, I had no recollection of the pre-1970 liturgy. The Mass in 1973 was completely in the vernacular. However, it was clear to me that the demolition of the high altar and communion rail and the placing of a cheap, table-like structure in the sanctuary somehow didn't make sense. I knew from the beautiful vestments in the sacristy (which we never used), from old missals and hymn books etc that something had gone terribly wrong. When I questioned it all, I was told that we were returning to the simplicity of primitive, early Church practices. Everything from table altars, Mass facing the congregation, Mass only in the vernacular, communion in the hand etc was introduced as an "early, primitive Christian practice". We were "returning to our roots" we were told.... It was then at that early age that I began to read Sacrosanctum Concilium for myself. It seemed obvious to me at the time that the Fathers of the Council could never have envisioned what came to be known as the Novus Ordo (at least not from reading Sacrosanctum Concilium). It wasn't until adulthood after reading works by Mgr Klaus Gamber that I learned this "return to early Christian practice" was indeed not completely true and according to Pius XII's "Mediator Dei" was not in thinking with the Church.
CWR: Speaking about older rites, what about the worship of the early Church? There was much talk of going back to its “purer” forms after the Council. Where do we stand with that today?
Dom Reid: Cardinal Ranjith spoke of this issue in his keynote address, decrying “a kind of false archaeologism which echoed the slogan: ‘let us go back to the liturgy of the early Church.’” His Eminence continued: “In this theme was a hidden understanding that only what happened in liturgy in the first millennium of the Church was valid. This was supposed to be part of the process of aggiornamento. Mediator Dei indicates that this view is in error when it states: ‘the liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity’ [MD 61]. Moreover, since information on the liturgical practice of the early centuries is not so clearly attested to in the written sources available to us from that era, the danger of a simplistic arbitrariness in defining these practices is greater and runs the risk of being pure conjecture. Besides, it is not respectful of the natural process of growth of the traditions of the Church over the subsequent centuries. Neither is it in consonance with the belief in the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church down the centuries. It is also highly pedantic and unrealistic.”
Of course, today we know that what scholars 50 years ago thought was the liturgy of the early Church is not necessarily what scholars hold now. The clearest example of this is the so-called Eucharistic prayer of Hippolytus, which was assumed to be the earliest example of a Roman anaphora and was accordingly used as the basis for the creation of Eucharistic Prayer II promulgated by Paul VI. Today scholars recognize that these assumptions were inaccurate, which is embarrassing to say the least. So too the assumption that the early Church celebrated the Eucharist “facing the people” in the manner that became popular in the 20th century has been shown to be false. These are the dangers and limitations of archaeologism—as opposed to respecting the organic development in the liturgy in history.