02Nov The Wisdom of Hippolytus

The full text of The Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus is online here, for those who want to savour the spirit of Christianity around 200 AD. They took their faith seriously back then, as the text shows.

A significant passage from this well-respected ancient Christian source suggests some guidelines about the right way to lead liturgical prayer. Hippolytus favours a certain flexibility and freedom in regard to the formulae to be used, so long as orthodoxy is respected. Surely the many pastoral questions being raised about how to use the new missal cannot be simply squelched, as some would want to do, by a literalist reading of Matthew 16:16-20 — a text too often used to buttress an absolutist version of papal power, in the direction of “causa finita est!” Some respondents to this website take such a rigid, almost fascist view of Petrine authority that they must truly be scandalised by the earlier version of that meeting between Jesus and Peter in Mark 8:27-33 (Peter as stumbling-stone — and remember that St Mark was St Peter’s helper in Rome, as Papias records), and even more offended by the stance of St Paul in Antioch, where he sharply differed from Peter about what constituted good liturgy (Gal 2:11-14. Paul even ventures to tell us:  I rebuked him to his face, for he was in the wrong..).

I remember as a theology student back in the sixties, when liturgy was in a fluid state, admiring the relatively liberal view about extempore liturgical praying expressed by Hippolytus of Rome. In his classic work The Apostolic Tradition written about the year 220 AD, this learned Roman priest offers some fine suggestions about how the Eucharist should be prayed, then adds:

Let the bishop give thanks in the manner described above. It is not, however, necessary for him to use the form of words set out there, as though he had to make the effort from memory to say them by heart in his thanksgiving to God. (Episcopus autem gratias agat secundurn quod praediximus. Nullo modo necessarium est ut proferat eadem verba quae praediximus, quasi studens ex memoria gratias agens deo).

But let each pray according to his abilities. If a man can make a becoming and worthy prayer, it is well. (sed secundum suam potestatem unusquisque oret. Si quidem aliquis habet potestatem orandi cum sufficientia et oratione solemni, bonum est).

If someone has the ability to pray a lengthy and suitable prayer, do not prevent him. The prayer must only be correct in orthodoxy. (Si autem aliquis, dum orat, profert orationem in mensura, ne impediatis eum. Tantum oret quod sanum est in orthodoxia).

Such an approach suggests that one could in good faith sit fairly loosely to the new missal, following it as the framework of the prayer, while faithfully pursuing other legitimate values too, such as clarity of meaning, good phrasing, and inclusive language. To reduce all liturgical presiding to a rigid, unquestioning obedience to what may turn out to be just a temporary phase or style in the Vatican would be an abdication of common sense and personal, not to say pastoral, responsibility.

I truly hope that a total, uncritical submission of mind and will to the linguistic “rightness” or “authenticity”  of the new missal will not become yet another absolutist criterion in the selection of new bishops in the future, or that any criticism of it, however mile, will not become an added shibboleth, (along with so many others), that will exclude enthusiastic, energetic and otherwise loyal priests from consideration for that role. This sort of narrow, almost clone-like selection process is visibly doing great harm to the church’s pastoral influence in Europe and America at least, and probably elsewhere as well. It is surely the Lord’s will that those with leadership gifts should be chosen to lead, rather than those who either hold no views critical of the church’s status quo, or if they do hold such views, keep them grimly to themselves, for fear of rocking the boat.


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