Thursday, March 12, 2020

"It Was Common in the Early Church"

Education and the passage of time have given in me a healthy does of skepticism when people make extravagant claims about the antiquity of a certain custom. This is especially the case when the antiquity of such customs are cited as justifications for progressive liturgical novelties.

"This practice was common in the Early Church" is a phrase that should inspire misgivings in the hearer. Why? Because so many of the novelties we see today are fraudulently claimed to come from the patristic era. As we will see in this brief compendium, the commonalities between such customs and patristic practice is usually superficial. "It was common in the Early Church" is usually a tool used to shoe-horn some novelty into the Church under the faux guise of historical antiquity.


The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) was instituted in 1972 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The creation of the RCIA program was said to be a "restoration" of the catechumenate of the early Church. Prior to 1972, adult converts joining the Church did so through a process of individualized instruction in which the convert met privately for instruction with a priest and was admitted to the Church at the priest's discretion based on his or her progress. The RCIA program was meant to "restore" a more structured approach to conversion that took place in the context of the whole Christian community with entrance to the Church being celebrated at Easter. This was supposed to be based on patristic practice. However, the similarities between RCIA and the ancient catechumenate are only skin deep.

In the ancient Church, persons who sought admittance to the catechumenate needed a sponsor to vouch for their good life. The sponsor was not simply a person who "accompanied" them through the catechetical process, as today, but was rather more like a professional reference whose good word was necessary for the catechumen to obtain admittance. The catechumen was interviewed about their lifestyle in a way moderns would find offensive and invasive: Was the person prone to drunkenness? Did he have a good reputation? Did he frequent the gladiatorial games? Did he keep slaves? Was he chaste? Did he visit the sick or perform works of mercy? The inquiry was meant to establish that the prospective catechumen was of excellent moral character. Acquaintances might be interviewed to obtain third party verification. One can imagine the indignation of Susan from the Parish Council types if modern RCIA included an interview where a catechumen was questioned about his or her sexual activity or if one's neighbors were queried about what a catechumen did on the weekends.

The catechumenate lasted three years, unlike the one year RCIA program. Catechumens were dismissed after the first part of Mass (Mass of the Catechumens), something moderns would find exclusionary and offensive. During pre-baptismal instruction, catechumens were only given very vague and symbolic explanations about the sacraments; it was only after baptism, during the period traditionally known as mystagogy, that the literal effects of the sacraments were explained. Many of the greatest catechetical sermons that have come down to us are sermons of a bishop explaining for the first time what had already happened to a new convert at Easter. During the final stages of preparation, a catechumen was expected to keep silence, abstain from sexual relations if married, fast and pray. They underwent an exorcism, based on the belief that anyone who had not been baptized was under the direct power of the devil and needed to be freed from Satan's power (not very affirming to modern sensibilities). Furthermore, other Christians were encouraged to keep an eye on catechumens (i.e., spy on them) to make sure they were not doing immoral things in their personal time. Any indication that such was happening could result in the catechumen's baptism being delayed or being expelled from the catechumenate as being unworthy.

All of this is so foreign to the spirit and vision of contemporary RCIA that it is laughable to try to portray RCIA as a "restoration" of the ancient catechumenate.


In the debates about a female diaconate, it is often asserted that "deaconesses" were common in the early Church and were only suppressed at a later date. Thus, opening the diaconate to women would be a "restoration" of an ancient custom. This is an argument made by promoters of this idea; for example, in a 2019 interview on the matter, Cardinal Walter Kasper called the admittance of women to the diaconate an "ancient tradition" (source).

It is true that there were women called deaconesses in the early Church. St. Paul calls a woman named Phoebe a "deaconness" in Rom. 16:1. Pliny's famous Letter to Trajan (c. 112 AD) makes reference to torturing two female Christians "who were called deaconesses" (Letter 10:96).

This does not mean these women were ever sacramentally ordained, however. The confusion is on the word deacon, diakonos, which in Greek simply means "servant." In the days before the hierarchical vocabulary of the Church was strictly formalized, diakonos could refer to the ordained diaconate, or it could also refer to persons who served or assisted in the charitable works of the Church in someway. For example, that retired woman in your parish who volunteers in the parish office three days a week, sells tickets at the annual Rummage Sale, takes communion to the home-bound, and manages the food pantry? People like that could be referred to as diakonoi in the early Church by virtue of their service. This is similar to how originally the word presbuteros ("elder") could refer to the institutional priesthood (priest comes from the word prebuteros), or it could refer to any older Christian of good repute. It took some time for these titles to become standardized.

These "deaconesses" were not women who had been ordained, but women who aided in the work of the Church in various ways—distributing alms, standing as godparents for the newly converted, preparing candidates for baptism, caring for the physical infrastructure of the Church, visiting the sick, and so on. Over time, these offices constituted a sort of "order" within the early Church, perhaps with its own distinctive garb.

But as time went on and the vocabulary of the Church became formalized, it was increasingly inappropriate to refer to these women as "deaconesses." The ordained diaconate had always been male—the original seven deacons in Acts 6 were all male, and there is not a single record of a ordained female deacon.  By 325, the Church thought it was necessary to make some strict distinctions. The Council of Nicaea decreed that women working in such ministries of service were not to be considered ordained, and after this the practice of calling them "deaconesses" faded. The council's decree is in the context of persons who may think they have received sacraments but have in fact not:

"Concerning the Paulianists who have flown for refuge to the Catholic Church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized; and if any of them who in past time have been numbered among their clergy should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and ordained by the Bishop of the Catholic Church; but if the examination should discover them to be unfit, they ought to be deposed. Likewise in the case of their deaconesses, and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity" (Council of Nicaea, Canon 19)

"Since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity." There never was a history of an ordained female diaconate, and Cardinal Kasper and his type are being blatantly disingenuous to assert that the cries for ordaining female deacons today represent any sort of "ancient tradition."

Eucharistic Prayer 2

The reforms of the Novus Ordo introduced the novelty of having multiple Eucharistic Prayers. One of these is Eucharistic Prayer #2, which is the shortest Eucharistic Prayer and often used in daily Masses offered in the NO. It is the prayer which begins, "It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation..." This prayer is often touted as being extremely ancient, pre-dating the traditional Roman canon, and written by St, Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235).

In fact, the prayer is modern invention loosely based on a patristic ordination prayer that may have been composed by St. Hippolytus. And everything about this ancient prayer is uncertain; as Fr. Finigan at The Hermeneutic of Continuity wrote, "
The origin, authorship and dating of the document is not established with the certainty that would enable us to draw safe conclusions as a solid basis for practical liturgical proposals." It was drawn up by the liturgical committee on the inspiration of the historical text. The specific text of Eucharistic Prayer #2 is no more ancient than the other prayers of the Novus Ordo.

Communion in the Hand

Communion in the hand is another practice that is said to originate in the Early Church. The argument in support of this is usually a letter from St. Cyril (313-386). The famous passage begins with the phrase "Approaching therefore, do not come forward with the palms of the hands outstretched nor with the fingers apart, but making the left [hand] a throne for the right since this hand is about to receive the King." The passage is taken from Cyril's Mystagogical Catecheses, a series of lectures delivered to neophytes after baptism.

What is not often understood is that how persons may have received communion in the hand in the old days was not akin to how it happens today. For one thing, recipients did not receive directly into their hand, but used a special liturgical cloth known as a dominica that was brought for this purpose. But more interesting is the practice of touching the consecrated host to ones eyes. The same was done with the Precious Blood; Cyril says that the Precious Blood was smeared on the eyes, forehead, and other sensory organs. Look at the passage in full:

“In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?

Then after you have partaken of the Body of Christ, draw near also to the Cup of His Blood; not stretching forth your hands, but bending, and saying with an air of worship and reverence, “Amen” and, hallow yourself by partaking also of the Blood of Christ. And while the moisture is still upon your lips, touch it with your hands, and hallow your eyes and brow and the other organs of sense. Then wait for the prayer, and give thanks unto God, who has accounted you worthy of so great mysteries.

Hold fast these traditions undefiled and, keep yourselves free from offense. Sever not yourselves from the Communion; deprive not yourselves, despite the pollution of sins, of these Holy and Spiritual Mysteries.

If we are going to cite patristic practice for Communion in the hand, are we going to also insist that the faithful smear the Precious Blood on their foreheads and other sensory organs? Surely no one would argue for such a thing. This is an example of the danger of affirming a practice merely because it is ancient (see our essay on Archaeologism). Catholics should certainly never support traditions being thrown out for no reason, but neither should we mindlessly tout whatever was patristic as being superior; to do such denies the legitimate development of doctrine and praxis under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, St. Cyril's assertion that one should receive communion "despite the pollution of sins" is extremely suspect. For this reason some have questioned the authenticity of this passage. What St. Cyril describes certainly should not be considered definitive. But, even if we grant such things did happen as described by St. Cyril, they came to be viewed as an abuse by the late patristic age. This is why by the following century we see communion on the tongue is the norm, as evidenced in the writings of Pope St. Leo the Great (see Sermon 91).

Many things from the patristic age died out with time, and rightfully so. Let us give one more example from a letter of St. Basil of Caesarea. St. Basil says:

"All the solitaries in the desert, where there is no priest, take the communion themselves, keeping communion at home. And at Alexandria and in Egypt, each one of the laity, for the most part, keeps the communion, at his own house, and participates in it when he likes" (Letter 93).

Would anybody today support giving the Eucharist to lay people to keep in their house to self-communicate whenever they saw fit? Clearly not. So we see that the way Communion was handled vis-a-vis the laity in the Early Church was a world apart from the practices being promoted today as "ancient."

Now, you may argue that perhaps I am backhandedly making the case for Communion in the hand by demonstrating that the modern discipline is much more restrained than patristic custom. It undoubtedly is, at least in the sense that communicants today today rub the sacred species on their faces. But whether the modern means of receiving communion in the hand is good and whether it is patristic are two different arguments. Others more competent than I have made the case against communion on the hand eloquently; my purpose here is to merely argue that communion in the hand as practiced today is not patristic.

Mass Facing the People

The liturgical reformers of the mid-20th century asserted confidently that celebration of Mass ad orientam was a medieval development that was representative the "exclusion" of the laity from the mysteries of the altar. The more ancient custom, we were told, was the inclusion of the laity through the practice of Mass versus populum ("facing the people"), which subsequently became the norm after the Second Vatican Council for the purpose of emphasizing the Church as the family of God and the Eucharistic celebration as a "meal."

Appeals to the antiquity of Mass versus populum are riddled with difficult, however. Martin Luther famously thought that at the Last Supper, Jesus faced the disciples. Appeals to the Last Supper seating arrangement are foolish one way or another, however, because the actual seating arrangement at the Last Supper was determined by Greco-Jewish dining custom and not liturgical considerations ("Last Supper and Liturgy", USC, Jan. 2011).

The liturgical reformers cited an ancient "Roman custom" of celebrating Mass towards the people in patristic times as a basis for encouraging the practice after Vatican II. However, as Msgr. Klaus Gamber demonstrated in his excellent book The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, the masses "facing the people" in ancient Rome were quite different from anything we experience today.

In ancient Church, the orientation of the liturgy was determined by the direction of East, towards which all Masses were celebrated. But the architecture of a Church was determined by the location of a martyr's tomb, over which churches were generally constructed whenever possible (see "Fenestellae", USC). Usually the architectural and liturgical demands were in harmony, but sometimes they were not. For example, in the case of the ancient basilica of St. Peter, the placement of the altar was based on the location of the tomb of St. Peter. But constructing the church upon this plan did not allow for the altar to be facing east, for topographical reasons. To face East during the liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest necessarily had to face the congregation, because East was behind the congregation.

However—and this is what the liturgical reformers never quite grasped—when the priest turned to face the East in such situations, the entire congregation did as well. Thus you would have a situation where the priest and people were all uniformly looking East, towards the narthex. The priest would actually be looking at the backs of the congregants. Thus the priest and people were united in facing welcoming the Lord during the liturgy.

So, to sum up (1) in the early Church, liturgies were always carried out facing east (2) which always necessitated the priest and people facing the same direction (3) in cases where the priest "faced the people", he faced their backs, and (4) not from reasons of "including the community" in the celebration, but in order to orient himself towards the east liturgically, and (5) this only happened in churches where topographical/architectural factors made such celebrations necessary.

Bonus: The Peace Prayer of St. Francis

Okay, this one certainly isn't something people argue is patristic, but it is a prayer that is ubiquitously thought to be composed by St. Francis but which was really dates only to 1912.

The earliest known record of the prayer ("Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace", etc) is its appearance in the December 1912 issue of the small devotional French Catholic publication La Clochette, the bulletin of the League of the Holy Mass. At the time it was simply called "A Prayer for Peace." Although the prayer was published anonymously, the texts in La Clochette were generally written by its founding editor, Father Esther Bouquerel (1855–1923), who was most likely the author. Around 1918, Franciscan Father Étienne Benoît reprinted the "Prayer for Peace" in French, without attribution, on the back of a mass-produced holy card depicting St. Francis on the front. The prayer began circulating in the United States in English in 1927—not through the Catholic Church, but through the Quakers, of all people. It does not appear tp have been adopted by Catholics until Cardinal Spellman distributed millions of copies of the prayer to soldiers during World War II under the title "Prayer of St. Francis." Since then, it has been almost universally (but incorrectly) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.


In all of these cases (sans the Sr. Francis Prayer), we can see that what was pushed as being "common in the Early Church" was in reality only loosely based on mere external similarities that were completely different in substance. Whenever you hear any novelty being put forward on the grounds that it was "common in the Early Church", you can almost always assume there is some slight-of-hand going on.

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Ibelin said...

So much great stuff in this post!

Anonymous said...

"It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation"

Isn't the "Vere dignum et iustum est" part of the Traditional Latin Mass? I think there's a mistake here.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the RCIA and the catechumenate, not *everything* has to be restored to say that *something* was restored. At my parish, I'm conscious of who's entering the church because they've been publicly identified to us at Mass and they're asking us to pray for them. And catechumens were traditionally baptized at Easter and Pentecost (maybe Epiphany?).

So, yes, some aspects of the RCIA restore some aspects of the catechumenate. In that respect, it's closer to the catechumenate model than having individual converts enter on their own timelines.

It's not 100% restoration or nothing.


Boniface said...


Yes that is part of the traditional Roman canon. I am not saying that prayer is not traditional or something. i am just saying Eucharistic prayer 2 can be identified because it always starts with that prayer while Eucharistic Prayer 1 has various different prefaces. See here:

Blue said...

Let us remember that Eucharistic Prayer 2 if actually written by Hippolytus was when he was a schismatic and anti-pope.

In addition, the innovator's made significant changes to it. Thus, for example, they suppressed the phrases ut mortem solveret et vincula diaobli dirumperet, et infernum calceret et iustos illuminet ("so that He could conquer death, break the chains of Satan, trod Hell under foot, and illuminate the just"), and qua nos dignos habuisti adstare coram te et tibi sacerdotes ministrare ("for holding us worthy to stand before Thee and serve Thee as priests"). Catholic concepts which the liturgial innovators removed and all concepts the innovators and liberal Protestants abhor.

Most significant of all, they inserted into the original text the phrase "FOR US", an action which makes their heretical intent more clear as in addition, when Eucharistic Prayer 2 is used, the Te Igitur, Memento domine, and Quam Oblationem-three prayers that unambiguously allow for the Catholic interpretion of "for us" are no longer said. Thus, there is absolutely no build-up or preparation in Eucharistic Prayer 2 for the consecration. Sneeze and you will miss it.

In Eucharistic Prayer 2, it is impossible to understand Transubstaniation.

Let us also remember that like Crammer and Luther, Paul VI added "which is given up for you" to the words of Consecration.

The intent of the Novus Ordo Missae was to obfuscate, make ambiguous, and clearly deny the teachings of Catholicism as the new mission of the conciliar church is not the salvation of souls but first tolerance and then acceptance of error straight into the hearts of Catholics.

Anonymous said...

great comment Blue
@2nd anon, fair enough, however it would be better to restore things right or not at all. for example, it would be even easier to know who the catechumens were if they had to leave after the Mass of the Catechumens is done precisely. likewise the catechumens would treat the preparation for the sacraments as more than just a "catechism 101" course if some mystery was kept, and at least some private time with a confessor before making the jump where he can check your character and not just rubber stamp anything. fwiw i did attend a parish in college that allowed the catechumens to leave, it did feel more special to welcome them.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick comment on RCIA.

Actually, RCIA was based on the 1962 or 1964 (I forget which) reform for the reception of converts. It was laid out in much the same way as RCIA.

It never caught on, and was never really used much of anywhere.

Most Priests kept relying on the form in the Roman Ritual.