Monday, October 27, 2003

What makes a rite a rite?


I was privileged to attend a lecture by Professor J. Michael Thompson last Wednesday. He is working to translate the ancient hymns of the Ruthenian Church into English, which is a Cyclopean task. He came to our parish to give us a preview of the work and to explain some of the rationale behind our hymnody.

However, the most intriguing thing that he said was his description of what a rite is. You may or may not know that the Catholic Church is not Roman, but that the Roman Catholic Church is Catholic. In other words, there are other rites or ways of doing liturgy than the way deriving from Rome. Most Catholics in the United States are Roman Rite Catholics, and few of these know that there are at least six other distinct rites as practiced in twenty-one or so autocephalous churches. I have recently become a member of the Ruthenian Church which celebrates the Byzantine Rite. But what is a rite?

A rite, according to Thompson, is composed of three parts--he called the legs of a tripod:
1) A text
2) that is performed with certain actions
3) and that is sung.

The three aspects grow together in a tradition. In other words, the text is designed to go with certain actions and music, and the actions go with certain text and music, and the music goes with certain text and actions. These three things are not created as much as they grow out of a vine that has its roots in the apostles and ultimately in Christ.

Now, we Ruthenians are expending much energy to make sure that #3 is correct. We translated our hymns into English about thirty years ago, and the translations are uneven and the music is not always faithful to the original music. Furthermore, the time that these translations were done was an aesthetic wasteland, as the entire Church knows. If there could have been a worse time for liturgical renewal than the late 60's and early 70's, I can't imagine it. So much that was good was trimmed. The problem is that our music doesn't match our Liturgy, at least not as well as it should.

There are real treasures in our music, treasures that complement the text and actions. For example, it appears to be a common practice to mix melodies and texts. On a feast like the Exaltation of the Cross, which has a more penitential text, the melody will be borrowed from the songs of Easter. Thus, while we sing words of sorrow, we sing in melodies of joy. The effect is somewhat like a Wagnerian leitmotif, making us think of the fulfillment of the mystery about which we sing. If we did not make the effort to recover our music, we would lose these treasures.

Now, the thing you most likely do not know is that there are specific melodies and antiphons to be sung for every day of the Roman Rite, and there are treasures there as well. The reason you will not know this is because Roman Catholics have ignored their heritage. They chopped out their wonderful traditions with a dull knife and tossed them aside, to be replaced by Marty Haugen and the St. Louis Jesuits. It seems to me that the efforts of Michael Thompson could be a model for authentic renewal of the Roman Rite: take the chants and songs and translate them faithfully. Adapt the melodies to serve the genius of the English language. Make the Roman Rite Roman again.

Right now, it is a two-legged stool.

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