The Formative Period of Latin Liturgy – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part VI
Jul 20, 2021

The Formative Period of Latin Liturgy – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part VI

In the fourth century, the city of Rome was no longer the center of political power, but its classical culture maintained a grip on the elites of the Roman Empire. Beginning with Pope Damasus (r. 366-384), a conscious effort was made to evangelize the symbols of Roman culture for the Christian faith. Part of this project was the Christianization of public space through an extensive building program that was to transform Rome into a city dominated by churches.[1] Another important part of this project was the Christianization of public time; a cycle of Christian feasts throughout the year replaced pagan celebrations, as evident in the depositio martyrum of the Chronography of 354. This liturgical calendar, which can be dated to the year 336, begins with the feast of the Nativity of Christ (December 25) and lists the celebrations of martyrs in Rome together with the place in the city where they were commemorated.[2]

Greek had a considerable place in the worship of the first Christian communities in Rome, and there are still traces of its use in the middle of the fourth century. The formation of a Latin liturgical idiom, which was part of this wide-ranging effort, cannot simply be described as the adoption of the vernacular language in the liturgy, if “vernacular” is taken to mean “colloquial.” The Latin of the canon, of the collects, and prefaces of the Mass was a highly stylised form of speech, shaped to express complex theological ideas, and would not have been easy to follow by the average Roman Christian of late antiquity. Moreover, the adoption of Latinitas made the liturgy more accessible to most people on the Italian peninsula, but not to those in Western Europe or in North Africa whose native language was Gothic, Celtic, Iberic, or Punic.

The Canon of the Mass

The most important source for the early Roman Eucharistic prayer is Ambrose of Milan’s series of catecheses for the newly baptised, dating from around 390, known under the title De sacramentis. Ambrose notes that he follows the “pattern and form” of the Roman Church in everything; this would imply that the same Eucharistic prayer from which he quotes was also used in Rome.[3] The prayers he cites correspond to the core of the later Canon missae: the first epicletic prayer asking for the consecration of the Eucharistic offerings (Quam oblationem), the narrative of institution (Qui pridie), the anamnesis and act of offering (Unde et memores), the prayer for the acceptance of the sacrifice (Supra quae), and the second epicletic prayer for spiritual fruits of sacramental communion (Supplices te rogamus).[4]

The earliest available physical witness to the canon, albeit in a somewhat garbled form, is the Bobbio Missal, an important source for the Gallican tradition dating from the turn of the eighth century. The text that appears, with minor variations, in the mid-eighth-century Old Gelasian Sacramentary, reflects Roman liturgical practice of the mid-seventh century, if not earlier. The differences between Ambrose’s Eucharistic prayer and the received canon are far less remarkable than their similarities, given that the more than two centuries in between were a period of intense and dynamic liturgical development.

Rhetoric of Salvation

Liturgical prayer is a form of public speech, and hence in Christian antiquity, the threefold officia (duties or tasks) of classical rhetoric were applied to it as well: liturgical prayer is a means of teaching the faith (docere); the beauty of its language appeals to the worshipers’ aesthetic sense (delectare); and its rhetorical force spurs the faithful on to a virtuous life (movere).[5] Hence the liturgical prayers that have come down to us in the early medieval Roman sacramentaries were formed according to technical rules of composition. The rhetorical character of these texts is evident from the Eucharistic prayer cited by Ambrose. For instance, the formula of petition “et petimus et precamur[6] (“we both ask and pray”) is an example of a doubling of the verb, which is typical of classical (pagan) worship. This stylistic feature is also found in the Te igitur section of the Gregorian canon, though without the alliteration: “supplices rogamus ac petimus” (“we make humble prayer and petition”).

Another example of effective rhetoric in liturgical prayer is the accumulation of near-synonyms. In Ambrose, the petition to accept the oblation is intensified by three epithets: “Make this offering for us approved, reasonable, acceptable” (scriptam, rationabilem, acceptabilem).[7] In the prayer Quam oblationem of the Gregorian canon, this sequence is increased to five epithets: “Which oblation be pleased, O God, we pray, to make in all things blessed, approved, ratified, reasonable, and acceptable” (benedictam, adscriptam, ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque), with the notable addition of the legal term “ratus” (“ratified, valid”).

The Collects

The presidential prayers known as collects are later in origin than the Eucharistic prayer and may go back to the first half of the fifth century. Their typical style is well established already in the earliest examples that have come down to us in the Verona manuscript (also known as the “Leonine Sacramentary”), which is from the first quarter of the seventh century, but contains material that has been dated from 400 to 560. The style of the collects is terse, well-balanced, and economical in expression; each prayer consists generally of a single sentence, even if the syntax can at times be complex. In her study of the Sunday collects of the Missale Romanum, where the oldest euchological material of the Roman rite is preserved, Mary Gonzaga Haessly distinguishes between a Protasis (Prelude), which is “the basis or background for the Petition,” and an Apodosis (Theme), which “is, in general, the part of the Collect that expresses the purpose of the Prayer, or the goal toward which it gravitates.”[8] The Protasis usually in some way anticipates the Petition, which is in turn fulfilled in the Apodosis. This structure can be illustrated with the example of a Sunday collect already contained in the Old Gelasian Sacramentary (mid-eighth century). The prayer is remarkable for its literary beauty and theological richness:

Almighty, ever-living God,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us:
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.
Through our Lord….[9]

The Prefaces

It is a characteristic of Western liturgies that the preface, originally considered the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, varies according to the liturgical season or feast. Its general theme, which is praise and thanksgiving for the divine economy of salvation, leads into the heart of the Eucharistic sacrifice. The preface corresponds with the celebrant’s call to the people, “Lift up your hearts” (Sursum corda), and shows a distinct lyrical tone. The great number of prefaces in ancient Roman sources suggests that improvisation and new composition prevailed here for a longer duration than for other parts of the Mass. The exemplar of the Gregorian sacramentary, sent by Pope Hadrian I to Charlemagne in the late eighth century (the Hadrianum), has only 14 prefaces, and this pattern prevailed in the course of the Middle Ages, when the number of prefaces became strictly limited. This pruning was arguably too drastic, but there were good reasons for it: many ancient prefaces are profuse in style and content, and they introduce idiosyncratic themes that can detract from the praise and thanksgiving to God, which marks the opening of the Eucharistic prayer. The Missale Romanum of 1570 has 11 prefaces, to which several were added in the 20th century. After the Second Vatican Council, the corpus of prefaces was greatly expanded to 81 in the Missale Romanum of 1970, and more were added in the second and third typical editions.[10]


The fourth and fifth centuries were a crucial stage in the development of Latin liturgy. The canon and the variable prayers of the Mass draw on the style of pagan prayer, but their vocabulary and content are distinctively Christian, indeed biblical. Their diction eschews the exuberance of the Eastern Christian prayer style, a style that is also found in the Gallican tradition. Many of the early collects are considered literary masterpieces. Christine Mohrmann rightly speaks of the fortuitous combination of a renewal of language, inspired by the newness of Christian revelation, and a stylistic traditionalism that was deeply rooted in the Roman world.[11] The formation of this liturgical idiom contributed significantly to the comprehensive effort of Church leaders in late antiquity to evangelize classical culture. In the next instalment, I will look at the papal stational liturgy, which was decisive for the development of the ritual shape of the Roman Mass.

For previous installments of Father Lang’s Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass series, see Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V.


  1. See the beautifully illustrated volume by Hugo Brandenburg, Ancient Churches of Rome from the Fourth to the Seventh Century: The Dawn of Christian Architecture in the West, trans. Andreas Kropp, Bibliothèque de l’Antiquité Tardive 8 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2005).
  2. See Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), 175.
  3. Ambrose, De sacramentis III,1,5: CSEL 73,40.
  4. Ambrose, De sacramentis IV,5,21-22; 6,26-27: CSEL 73,55 and 57. The term “canon” seems to have been used first in the sixth century; the oldest known reference to “prex canonica” is Pope Vigilius, Ep. ad Profuturum, 5: PL 69,18.
  5. See Mary Gonzaga Haessly, Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Missal: with Introduction, Text, Commentary and Translation (Cleveland: Ursuline College for Women, 1938), 5.
  6. Ambrose, De sacramentis, IV,6,27: CSEL 73,57.
  7. Ambrose, De sacramentis, IV,5,21: CSEL 73,55.
  8. Haessly, Rhetoric in the Sunday Collects of the Roman Missal, 13.
  9. Roman Missal: Renewed by Decree of the Most Holy Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, Promulgated by Authority of Pope Paul VI and Revised at the Direction of Pope John Paul II, English translation according to the third typical edition (London: Catholic Truth Society, 2011), Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time.
  10. See The Prefaces of the Roman Missal: A Source Compendium with Concordance and Indices, ed. Anthony Ward and Cuthbert Johnson (Rome: C.L.V.–Edizioni liturgiche, 1989).
  11. See Christine Mohrmann, Liturgical Latin: Its Origins and Character: Three Lectures (London: Burns & Oates, 1959).
Father Uwe Michael Lang

Father Uwe Michael Lang, a native of Nuremberg, Germany, is a priest of the Oratory of St Philip Neri in London. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and teaches Church History at Mater Ecclesiae College, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Allen Hall Seminary, London. He is an associate staff member at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, and on the Visiting Faculty of the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, IL. He is a Corresponding Member of the Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger / Papst Benedikt XVI, a Member of the Council of the Henry Bradshaw Society, a Board Member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and the Editor of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.