After contemplating for many years the events that led to the forbidden of the Liturgy of Ages, my personal conviction is that the most important cause was the lack of mystagogical catechesis (see the note at the end of the text) that reveals to the already baptized the mystical meanings of the rites of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion, as well as liturgical symbols.
To emphasize the crucial importance of this type of catechesis, I would say that learning the language of symbols is a process that can be compared to learning a foreign (modern or classical) language. The difference consists in the fact that the meanings are not conveyed through words but through sacred objects, persons, and gestures. Without this formation, no one who participates in the Holy Mass is able to understand the language and, consequently, the message that God transmits to us. Supported by the sanctifying grace, this ability can only be obtained through an adequate formation, which the Church provides in the form of mystagogical catechesis. In its absence, once mandatory for all the baptized, the liturgical life became a simple ritualism that allowed the “reformers” to propose liturgical experiments that, in the end, led to the replacement of the Liturgy of the ages.
Who wouldn’t get bored trying to read a book or watch a play in an unknown language? Similarly, how could one wholeheartedly participate in rituals whose sacred signs and symbols he doesn’t understand? Most of us were deprived of a complete mystagogical initiation to help us understand what happened when we were baptized or when we were anointed with holy chrism. For example, if we want to evaluate our capacity to understand only the Baptism, we have a very simple means: let’s ask ourselves if we grasp what the Savior Jesus Christ said to Nicodemus on that unforgettable night: “Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Wouldn’t we express the same doubts as Our Lord’s interlocutor? “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born again?” (John 3:4)
By reading ancient sources, we can observe that the fundamental catechesis (i.e., dogmatic and moral), dedicated to presenting both the Credo and the moral life based on the Ten Commandments revealed through Moses, reached its culmination on the Holy Paschal night when the catechumens received the Holy Baptism.
Following the almost complete abandonment of any type of catechesis, there is little wonder that before the Second Vatican Council, the Sacred Mysteries (i.e., the Sacraments) only “spoke” to a few Christians who were truly able to understand them. Unfortunately, we cannot suppose that things have improved nowadays. In such a context, it is worth remembering that the Fathers of the Church, following in the footsteps of their predecessors, the Apostolic Fathers, were extremely concerned, even passionate, about providing this type of mystagogical formation to all Christians. By reading ancient sources, we can observe that the fundamental catechesis (i.e., dogmatic and moral), dedicated to presenting both the Credo and the moral life based on the Ten Commandments revealed through Moses, reached its culmination on the Holy Paschal night when the catechumens received the Holy Baptism. Immediately after that, during the Octave of Easter, the catechetical writings of Saints like Ambrose, Augustine, and Cyril of Jerusalem demonstrate that mystagogical catechesis was offered to the “illuminated” Christians.
The true meaning of Disciplina arcani
An aspect that is quite challenging for us is related to the fact that the main elements of its content were strictly forbidden to those who were not yet baptized. In our world, dominated by an egalitarian mentality, it is difficult to understand why certain teachings were hidden from unprepared ears. The confusion is so great that some “learned” Protestants or certain secular historians of religions have seen in this an influence of ancient pagan religions on Christianity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before we explore the reason behind this interdiction, let us quote just two texts where it is abundantly clear.
First, here is what we read in a text written by Saint Hippolytus of Rome, The Apostolic Tradition:
“We have delivered these things to you only briefly concerning baptism and the oblation because you have already been instructed concerning the resurrection of the flesh and the rest according to what is written. If there is anything else which needs to be told, the bishop shall tell it privately to those who receive baptism. None but the faithful may know, and even them only after receiving baptism.”
Secondly, from the most comprehensive source that has come down to us from the 4th century, the Catecheses of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1883), we learn that one who has already been initiated must avoid to reveal the content of the mystagogical catechesis to those who, still being mere catechumens, have not reached that stage:
“When, therefore, the Lecture is delivered, if a Catechumen ask you what the teachers have said, tell nothing to him that is without. For we deliver to you a mystery, and a hope of the life to come. Guard the mystery for Him who gives the reward. Let none ever say to you, ‘What harm to you, if I also know it?’ So too the sick ask for wine; but if it be given at a wrong time it causes delirium, and two evils arise; the sick man dies, and the physician is blamed. Thus is it also with the Catechumen, if he hear anything from the believer: both the Catechumen becomes delirious (for he understands not what he has heard, and finds fault with the thing, and scoffs at what is said), and the believer is condemned as a traitor. But you are now standing on the border: take heed, pray, to tell nothing out; not that the things spoken are not worthy to be told, but because his ear is unworthy to receive. You were once yourself a Catechumen, and I described not what lay before you. When by experience you have learned how high are the matters of our teaching, then you will know that the Catechumens are not worthy to hear them.”
All these testimonies – to which we could add others from saints like Dionysius the Areopagite, or Maximus the Confessor – confirm the existence of the “discipline of the secret.” This forbade the disclosure of the Creed to pagans. In the case of those who had expressed their desire to receive Baptism and had became catechumens, they were temporarily prohibited from receiving the content of the mystagogical catecheses. To support their anti-liturgical heresies specific to Protestantism, two Calvinist authors from the 17th century, Isaac Casaubon and Jean Daillé, argued that Catholic worship emerged as a result of borrowing elements from Greek and Roman mystery religions. According to them, the original purity of Christianity had been betrayed. These two Protestant authors coined the phrase “disciplina arcani” without understanding its true reason for existence.
Just as in the case of human growth, the Christian Tradition provides spiritual nourishment that must be appropriately suited to each individual. This includes the knowledge of Credo and moral law, the understanding the Holy Scriptures based on the sacred hermeneutical principles unveiled by the Fathers of the Church, and a deeper comprehension of the meanings of the Sacraments and the Mass.
As in the case of the growth of the human being, the Christian Tradition offers a spiritual nourishment that must be properly adequate to every person. The knowledge of both the faith and the moral law, the understanding of the Holy Scriptures according to the rules of the sacred hermeneutics exposed by the Fathers of the Church, the deeper understanding of the meanings of the Sacraments and the Mass, all these represent the multi-faceted aspects of the “food” delivered to the believers. But, as in the case of the organic development, growth is gradual. That is why the Apostles Peter (1 Peter 2:2) and Paul (1 Corinthians 3: 1-2) speak of feeding with “milk” those who are still carnal, being at the beginning of the life of faith. As in real life, in religious life exist a growth from the childhood to the adult age and the former one to the old age of wisdom. Essentially, Disciplin arcani helps this maturation process of those Christians who are receiving the mystagogical catechesis.
Just as in the case of human growth, the Christian Tradition provides spiritual nourishment that must be appropriately suited to each individual. This includes the knowledge of Credo and moral law, the understanding the Holy Scriptures based on the sacred hermeneutical principles unveiled by the Fathers of the Church, and a deeper comprehension of the meanings of the Sacraments and the Mass. These represent the multifaceted aspects of the “food” bestowed upon believers. However, similar to the organic development, growth is gradual. That is why the Apostles Peter (1 Peter 2:2) and Paul (1 Corinthians 3:1-2) speak of feeding those who are still carnal with “milk,” as they are at the initial stages of their faith journey. Just as in real life, in religious life is growth from childhood to adulthood and from earlier stages to the wisdom that belongs to the old age. Therefore, Disciplina Arcani is directly connected to the dynamic of the interior life of those who hope to enter the Kingdom of God.
The reason for its existence was by no means of a magical nature, as in the case of pagan mystery religions. In those religions, according to the beliefs of their practitioners, the presence of a non-initiate would made the rituals ineffective. However, in Christianity, the reason for the discipline of the secret is completely different. The ascending path towards the state of the “perfect man” in Christ, as mentioned by Saint Paul (Ephesians 4:13), presupposes the existence of multiple hierarchical levels (that is why, in Eastern monastic Tradition, Saint John Climacus mention the “Ladder of Paradise”). In short, no one becomes a saint overnight, but rather through a initiation of his soul, an inner growth (or ascension) in grace that is attained by deepening one’s faith and liturgical life through mystagogy. The traditional world knew that one cannot become an adult without first being a child, just as one cannot reach the age of wisdom without complete maturation. What rational pedagogy would propose to a child what is suitable for an elderly person, or to an adult what is necessary for a child?
The Mystagogical Lesson of Saint Ambrose of Milan
The image of the organic growth of man has a strictly analogical value. In fact, as we will see from the wonderful catechesis presented to the newly baptized by Saint Ambrose of Milan, it pertains to the growth in grace of those who enter the gate of the Christian mysteries. More specifically, this refers to “the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth” (Ephesians 4:24), as Saint Paul the Apostle tells us. If Baptism involves the birth of the “new man” and Confirmation (i.e., the “Sacrament of maturity”) signifies his growth to adulthood, all of this take place through the mysterious work of grace in the souls of Christians and through the “renewal of the mind” (Ephesians 4:23) obtained through mystagogical catechesis.
Saint Ambrose begins by mentioning the content of the fundamental catechesis that was exposed during the preparation to receive the Baptism:
“A daily sermon on morals, when the deeds of the Patriarchs or the precepts of the Proverbs were read, in order that, being informed and instructed by them, you might become accustomed to enter upon the ways of our forefathers and to pursue their road, and to obey the divine commands”.
The concrete change of life through learning and living the Christian moral code was an absolute priority. What meaning does Baptism have if the one receiving it does not learn to live according to the graces received? Having become saints through Baptism, they are now capable of receiving the lights of a mystical understanding of the sacraments. Until then, this was not possible:
“Now time warns us to speak of the mysteries and to set forth the very purpose of the sacraments. If we had thought that this should have been taught those not yet initiated before baptism, we would be considered to have betrayed rather than to have portrayed the mysteries; then there is the consideration that the light of the mysteries will infuse itself better in the unsuspecting than if some sermon had preceded them.”
When deprived of mystagogical catechesis, and therefore the proper growth in understanding, Christians perceive the Liturgy as a burdensome weight to bear. This burden becomes even heavier in a context where any baptized person is bombarded with a wave of knowledge that often contradicts – directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly – the teachings of Judeo-Christian Revelation.
The words of Saint Ambrose not only highlight the prohibition but, furthermore, designate anyone who would dare to transgress it as a betrayer of the mysteries rather than a teacher of them. To explain this, he refers to the Gospel of Saint Apostle Mark where, at the end of chapter 7, the healing of a deaf and dumb man by our Lord Jesus Christ is described. This healing takes place within each of us during the ritual of Baptism, when the priest, moistening his finger, repeats exactly what our Lord did. In essence, it is only from that moment that we become capable of hearing and speaking the divine mysteries. This was taken very seriously by Church Fathers such as Ambrose and Clement of Jerusalem, recognizing that our intellectual abilities need the uncreated sanctifying grace in order to be elevated to the level of understanding the sacramental and liturgical mysteries.
When deprived of mystagogical catechesis, and therefore the proper growth in understanding, Christians perceive the Liturgy as a burdensome weight to bear. This burden becomes even heavier in a context where any baptized person is bombarded with a wave of knowledge that often contradicts – directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly – the teachings of Judeo-Christian Revelation. The abandonment of divine worship is a phenomenon that speaks for itself. What value does the language of sacred symbols have in the era of technology and science, in the world of democratic capitalism, communications, and space travel? Or what use is faith in “eternal life” if medicine claims not only to conquer illness but, very soon, to annihilate even death itself? And what place does the teaching about original sin and its consequences have if we are repeatedly told that only the vicissitudes of outdated social forms generate wrong behaviors? Ultimately, what meaning do notions like “sin,” “guilt,” “merit,” “modesty” or “shame” hold?
It is no wonder that since the 19th century, we have seen (pseudo)theologians concerned with “updating” the faith and the Roman Catholic Liturgy and Sacraments. The emergence of modernism – “the synthesis of all heresies” (Pope Pius X) – and the works of authors such as Rudolf Bultmann, Teilhard de Chardin, or Hans Küng are directly related to all these “progressive” directions that seek to reconcile Catholic faith to the modern world. But all these experiments are doomed, sooner or later, to collapse, because intellectual “fashions,” whether purportedly (pseudo)theological or (pseudo)philosophical, are just as perishable as fashion trends. Nothing can be stable outside the context of true Tradition, where we encounter, covered in dust like the diamonds in a forgotten crown, the sacred symbols. They are here. We encounter them in the Holy Sacraments and in the Liturgy of the ages. There are always available good guides: the perennial Saints and Doctors of the Church, as well as contemporary fathers like Romano Guardini, Claude Barthe, or Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. We only have to decide to learn that “language” which allows us access to the Kingdom of Heaven – the place of what an old and beautiful Romanian folktale named “Youth Without Age and Life Without Death.”
NOTE: The word “catechesis” had been borrowed, through Latin, from the Ancient Greek noun κατήχησις (katēkhesis). This noun is derived from the Ancient Greek verb κατηχέω (katēkhéō) which signifies the instruction through questions and answers: the apprentice being the one who asks, and the master being the one who answers. The word “mystagogy” also comes from the Ancient Greek: the noun μυσταγωγία (mystagōgía) means “initiation into the mysteries.” The notion of “mystagogic catechesis” designates that process of initiation of the baptized into the mystical meanings of the Christian sacraments. There is also a “mystagogic” interpretation of the Holy Liturgy.
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