Learning the Liturgy From the Saints: An Interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., author of "The Mass and the Saints" | Ignatius Insight
Learning the Liturgy From the Saints: An Interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., author
of The Mass and the Saints | Ignatius Insight | March 24, 2009
Father Thomas Crean's new book, The Mass and the Saints, is a collection of carefully selected
passages from saints and other great spiritual writers from throughout the
ages, about the Mass, the Eucharist, and the liturgical worship of the Church.
Most of the authors are canonized saints of the Church, and many are doctors of
the Church, including Church Fathers such as St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St.
Gregory the Great; great scholars of the Middle Ages such as St. Anselm, St.
Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas; and more modern figures such as
Prosper Gueranger and Pope John XXIII.
Crean was recently interviewed by Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight,
about The Mass and the Saints.
Insight: What inspired you to write this book, a compilation of quotes by
saints (and near saints) about the Mass?
started off as a translation of St Albert the Great's commentary on the Mass, a
long work called De Sacrificio Missae, which as far as I know has never been
translated into English. Part way through I realised that St Albert's style was
too prolix for modern tastes and that a simple translation was unlikely to
appeal to a wide authorship.
I had discovered many passages which I found striking or beautiful, and which I
did want to make available in English. At the same time I had been thinking of
putting together a compendium of Eucharistic quotations from St Thomas Aquinas'
writings, illustrated with pictures. The two projects merged, and then I
realised that there was no reason to stop with St. Albert and St. Thomas, but
that I could try to find as many different "voices" as possible, to produce something
like a symphony in words. My inspiration was the Catena Aurea: the commentary on the four
gospels which St Thomas put together out of the works of the Fathers and some
slightly later writers such as Alcuin of York. I say this was my inspiration: it
would be presumptuous to say that it was my model.
generally, I wanted to offer my own contribution to the "liturgical debate"
which is prominent in the Church today; it seemed to me that those who had
participated in the sacred liturgy with the greatest love—the
saints—were best able to teach us how to think about it.
Insight: How did you go about selecting the various quotes? Did you have a
certain criteria in mind?
Crean: I made
use of what I had to hand, first in the library of the Dominican priory where I
was living, then in the library of the University of Cambridge. The standard
reference books on the history of the Mass helped me to orient myself,
especially in regard to the Fathers of the Church; other works I came across by
chance, for example the sermons of St Vincent Ferrer.
looking for quotations that would be beautiful or striking. As I wrote in the
preface, I wanted to produce a book that would aid "meditation and devotion". I
was also looking to show the continuity of the Church's faith through time, so
I made a point of trying to give quotations from every century. At the same
time, I gave a certain preference to the earlier centuries, as having more
innate authority, and to the doctors of the Church. Again, I was looking both
for quotations that would give a straightforward account of why some phrase or
ceremony appeared in the Mass, and for quotations which would give a more
mystical interpretation of the action of the Mass, as the Catena Aurea gives both a literal and
mystical commentary on the gospels.
also included some quotations to show how some problems that we might think of
as particularly modern were not unknown in the past, for example chatting in
church. So, there were a number of different criteria in play.
Insight: In addition to well-known saints such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St.
Francis de Sales, and St. Augustine, there are many names that aren't nearly as
familiar. Who are some of those authors? Do you have some personal favorites?
non-canonised authors who appear quite a lot are Amalarius and Durandus.
Amalarius was a ninth-century bishop who had studied under Alcuin of York. He
had a particular gift for giving mystical interpretations of the ceremonies of
the Mass. He is not popular with everyone, but I found him inspiring. Durandus
was a great compiler. He lived in the thirteenth century, and wrote a massive
work called the Rational of Divine Offices, where he gives exhaustive explanations,
both literal and mystical, for all that is done in the Mass, the sacraments and
the liturgy of the hours. It's a treasure trove, but only a small part has ever
been translated into English.
much more famous author, but one whom I hadn't studied before preparing this
book, is St Robert Bellarmine. I particularly appreciated the care with which
he explains the words of the Roman Canon, in his defence of the Mass against
the early Protestants.
short descriptions of all the authors cited are given at the back of the book,
along with references to the principal sources used. Sometimes I made
discoveries that surprised me. Isaac of Stella, for example, appears in the
modern breviary, and I had always supposed that he must have lived somewhere in
the Middle East. In fact he was a monk from the north of England!
Insight: Obviously there is much to be learned about worship, the Mass, and the
Eucharist from the saints. What are some of the essential lessons they can
either teach us or remind us of?What are some of the notable differences
between how, say, a thirteenth-century or sixteenth-century Catholic approached
the Mass and how Catholics generally approach it today?
suspect that many Catholics come to Mass today to listen to the readings (and
sermon) and to receive Holy Communion. Those are both excellent reasons, of
course, but neither corresponds to what is most proper to the Mass, since one
can listen to Scripture and even receive Communion at other times. What is most
proper to the Mass is that it is the sacrifice which is offered to God under
the New Covenant. I think that this was better understood in past times. I hope
that some of the quotations included in the book can help to renew an
understanding of this: that was why I began with a section called "the
Sacrifice", before passing to the various parts of the Mass itself.
Insight: What are some of the reoccurring or prevalent themes that emerge in
these texts? Are there any that might be new or even surprising to modern-day
prevalent theme that might be surprising to modern readers is the very idea of
a "mystical sense" to the Mass, the idea that the Mass is a recapitulation of
the life of the incarnate Word, from the nativity to the Ascension, or even a
recapitulation of the whole of sacred history. So the introit, for example,
would represent the desire of the fathers for the coming of the Redeemer, the Gloria his birth, the Gospel his
public preaching and so on. This idea is worked out slightly differently by
different authors, but there is a basic unity of approach within the Church's
indicated above in connection with Amalarius, some 20th Century
liturgists did not like this idea, rejecting it as arbitrary or whimsical; but
I think that in doing so they miss part of the full splendour of the Mass as
willed by God. Such mystical interpretation, incidentally, lends itself more to
the usus antiquior than to the Mass of Paul VI, because of the more unchanging
nature of the former; also, the mystical interpretations were largely fixed by
the mediaeval writers, who were commenting, of course, on the pre-Vatican II Ordo.
Insight: Having studied and reflected on the many thoughts of saints and
doctors about the Mass, what do you hope readers will gain from your
Fr. Crean: I hope
that they will grow in love for the holy Mass, the product, as Blessed Isaac of
Stella puts it, "of divine power and human care". And if they do, perhaps they
might say a prayer for me when they take part in the mysteries.
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Fr. Thomas Crean is a Dominican friar of the Priory of St. Michael the Archangel, Cambridge. He was educated at
Oxford University and took a licence in theology at the Toulouse, with the Dominicans there. He is the author of the widely praised book
God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins.
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