Liturgical Practices – Immutable Divine or Changeable Human?

by Fr. William Rock, FSSP.

Pope Pius XII by Michael Pitcairn

“The sacred liturgy does, in fact, include divine as well as human elements.  The former, instituted as they have been by God, cannot be changed in any way by men.  But the human components admit of various modifications…”  These words are found in paragraph 50 of Mediator Dei, an encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy, promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1947.  This same concept is echoed in paragraph 21 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy promulgated by the Second Vatican Council (1963): “For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change.”

The most immediate understanding of the “immutable elements divinely instituted” are the fundamental matter and form of the Sacraments.  The Church has no authority to change these.  But does that then mean that everything else is the “human elements” which can be changed?  One may be tempted to say “yes, everything besides the matter and form of the Sacraments are ‘human elements’ which can be freely changed by the Church’s hierarchy.”  But is this really the case?

In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke wrote “Now there were in the church which was at Antioch prophets and doctors…And as they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Ghost said to them: Separate me Saul and Barnabas, for the work whereunto I have taken them” (Acts 13:1-2).  It is important to note that the Greek word translated as ministering (λειτουργέω) is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament in use at the time of Our Lord and the Apostles) in connection with liturgical worship.  This interpretation – that these prophets were conducting liturgical services – is supported by Cornelius a Lapide in his commentary on these passages.  These prophets, then, in the passage of Acts just quoted, were conducting liturgical services.

Early Christians Worship in the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus

From Acts, a Lapide directs his readers to 1 Corinthians 14 for a further explanation of the role of these prophets.  He explains that “the Apostle [Paul] is describing in this chapter [1 Cor 14] everything that took place then in the public assemblies of the Church.”  The commentary explains that by “the name of prophets [St. Paul] means those who were filled with the Holy Spirit, and received from Him some revelation of doctrine, or word of exhortation, or of prayer.”  To these prophets “the Holy Spirit would give the power of expounding Holy Scripture, or of teaching or preaching, or of singing, or of leading the people in exalted prayer in the vulgar tongue.”

According to a Lapide, these prophets of the Apostolic age had a central role in the liturgical life of the early Church.  But once the Church was sufficiently established and such gifts became rare, the ceremonies became more fixed, relying more on Sacred Scripture.  But does this mean all of what was done by and through these prophets, their prayers and hymns, were completely discarded?  If they were not, if they continued to be used in the churches and then handed down through history, should these be considered immutable divine elements or changeable human elements?  After all, they were instituted by the Holy Ghost through prophets.  And further, could they even now be discerned and thus marked out from the rest of the liturgical texts?

Pope Gregory the Great being Instructed by the Holy Ghost (from a 12th-century copy of his Dialogues)

But what about the developments of the liturgy in the post-Apostolic age of the Church?  The Christian liturgies have not remained static since the death of the Apostles and prophets.  They have, rather, grown and developed.  St. Thomas, in addressing whether the actions performed during the celebration of Mass are becoming, stated that “the custom of the Church stands for these things: and the Church cannot err, since she is taught by the Holy Ghost” (S.T. III, q. 83, a. 5, s.c.).  It was St. Thomas’ conviction, and one that was apparently widely held based on his use of it in the Summa (as the “sed contra” arguments were generally short arguments from accepted authorities), that the Holy Ghost guides the development of the Liturgy over time.

This conviction of St. Thomas is implied by Dom Prosper Guéranger in the general preface to his Liturgical Year where he wrote that it was his aim “to show what is the spirit which the Holy Ghost has put into each of the several periods of the liturgical year” for various elements of the liturgy reflect the thoughts which “our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Wisdom of God, dictates by the Holy Ghost to His well-beloved bride the Church!” It was the Holy Ghost Who, through men, guided the development of the Christian Liturgy over the course of its history.

While His influence may not have been as dramatic and evident as was His influence through the New Testament prophets, the Holy Ghost continued, in the post-Apostolic age, to develop the liturgy.  As the Holy Ghost guided the development of the ceremonies of the historical Christian Liturgies, then to what category would these belong – the immutable divine or changeable human?  Or perhaps they belong to neither and rather to a third category.

While this article raises more questions than it answers, it should make one thing clear – that the distinction between the immutable divine and changeable human elements of the Liturgy is not as readily evident and clear-cut as might have first been thought.  A certain deference should, consequently, be shown to the historical Christian liturgies as they have been handed down, for they are not simply the products of human ingenuity.

Fr. William Rock, FSSP was ordained in the fall of 2019 and is currently in residence at Regina Caeli Parish in Houston, TX.

July 15, 2021