Keeping the Liturgy Chaldean


In this article, I will present the Church’s instructions for reforming the liturgy, given to us by the Second Vatican Council in the document, Sacrosanctum concilium and the Congregation of Oriental Churches’ Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions. Using these documents we will understand what the Church desired. Then I will compare the 2006 Reform by the Chaldean Church’s Patriarchal Liturgical Committee and the 2014 Reform overseen by His Beatitude, Mar Louis Raphael I Sako. By comparing these liturgies, we will see that the 2006 Reform meets the call of the Holy See, while the 2014 Reform strays far from it.

Sacrosanctum concilium wanted to reform the liturgy (i.e. Mass and sacraments) to preserve the traditions of the various rites (Western and Eastern) while at the same time adapting elements to our own times. This is because the Church’s work is directed toward the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen gentium § 11).

The Congregation’s Instruction tells us that principles in Sacrosanctum concilium apply not only to the Roman rite but also to the Eastern Churches. The purpose of the Congregation’s document is clear: “The intent of the Instruction, presented to the Eastern Churches which are in full communion with the Apostolic See, is to help them fully realize their own identity” (§ 5). Even with frequent contact with the Latin rite (especially in regions outside of their own land), the Eastern traditions are to maintain their own culture.

The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches mentions the five rites that have their own heritages and origins (canon 28 § 1 and 2). The Chaldean Church being one of these major and ancient centers has not only the honor but the duty of preserving the gifts given to her by the Lord, gifts that fully express her and gifts that enlighten the entire Church. The Church recognizes the danger in these times of Eastern Churches losing their identities because of migrations from the East into Latin rite territories, but urges these Eastern traditions to hold fast to their liturgies because the Church is universal, it is meant for the whole world and for all cultures, and all cultures should come into the fold of the one Church, that all may be one in Christ. The Instruction says that the many forms of Eastern liturgies reinforces the unity of the Church rather than causing division (§ 15).

Keeping Tradition

150826_frankarticle1Sacrosanctum concilium speaks of reforms as restorations of elements in the liturgy that have suffered change through time because of things taken from other rites. The Council then commands, “In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify” (§ 21). Again, the Council says: “Other elements which have suffered injury through accidents of history are now to be restored to the vigor which they had in the days of the holy Fathers” (§ 50).

St. Pope John Paul II says that the Council asked “the Eastern Churches in full communion with it [the Apostolic See] to have the courage to rediscover the authentic traditions of their own identity, restoring the original purity where necessary” (L’Osservatore Romano, November 23-24, 1987, p. 6.). For the Eastern Churches to restore their liturgies to their original purity, the Congregation has told them to eliminate those things which altered their authenticity (§ 18).

To accomplish this goal of restoring what is ancient in the liturgy, the Council says nothing new should be introduced, but if something is added it must be added in a way that grows organically from what is already there (SC § 23).

It is clear that the Church desires the authenticity and genuineness of all the specific rites. Regarding the Eastern Churches, the Church wants them to keep their traditions, not become latinized or mix their liturgies with the liturgies of other churches. If they have, the Second Vatican Council and the Congregation of Oriental Churches has told them to recover their ancient practices and customs, get rid of things that are not their own and that don’t belong, and renew their own liturgical expressions in their particular forms. This is what it truly means to be catholic: that the whole world, in all its diversity, is brought into the one fold of Christ, maintaining what makes them diverse and uniting in the Holy Spirit.

Facing the East

One of the major points the Church has made regarding the Eastern rites is an ancient form that is being lost. Since ancient times, it has been the custom of the Eastern Churches to face the east during Mass. St. John Damascus, as quoted by the Instruction, explains the many theological reasons behind this. On the one hand, it is scriptural, because God is intelligible light (1 John 1:5), and Christ in prophecy is called the Sun of justice (Mal. 3:20) and the east (Zech. 3:8 of the LXX). Thus, facing the east in this case would be facing Christ, since the sun rises in the east. God also planted the Garden of Eden, paradise, in the east of Eden, so the new paradise, which is the new temple and the Body of Christ, is also in the east, where we long to be and toward which we look. St. John Damascus writes: “Finally, the Lord placed the cross looked toward the west, and so we prostrate ourselves in his direction, facing him. When he ascended to heaven, he was raised toward the east, and thus his disciples adored him, and thus he will return, in the same way as they saw him go to heaven (cf. Acts 1:11), as the Lord himself said:

‘For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be’ (Mt. 24:27). Waiting for him, we prostrate ourselves toward the east. It is an unwritten tradition, deriving from the Apostles” (Expositio accurata fidei orthodoxae, IV, 12: pg. 94, 1133-1136).

The Instruction says that this interpretation explains why the priest faces east. The priest does not “have his back toward the people” but he faces the same direction as them, guiding them toward the Kingdom (§ 107). In many church buildings, the church has been constructed in a way in which this is impossible, but the liturgical practice is maintained in that the Lord represents the east, so facing Him on the cross, the priest retains the theological significance. The modern Latin rite practice of facing the people has been incorporated into the liturgies of some Eastern rites, but the Instruction has written against this: “Such practice [of facing the east], threatened in numerous Eastern Catholic Churches by a new and recent Latin influence, is thus of profound value and should be coherent with the Eastern liturgical spirituality” (§ 107).

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) writes in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, in agreement with John Damascus, “Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, pg. 75). For the Chaldean Church, an ancient Eastern Church whose Anaphora dates back to the Apostles themselves, this theologically beautiful and enlightening practice of facing the Lord in common liturgical prayer cannot be compromised.

Comparing Two Liturgies

150826_frankarticle3We must now ask, between the Chaldean Liturgical Reform of 2006 and the Patriarchal Reform of 2014, which one best fits the prescriptions and instructions of the Holy See, as shown in Sacrosanctum concilium and the Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions? Which one most resembles and maintains the traditions passed down from the Apostles through the Fathers of the Church of the East, in the face of modernity and latinization in the West?

To begin, the Patriarchal Liturgy removes the glorification to the Father (“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your Name. Your kingdom come. Holy, holy, you are holy…”). This is a flagrant departure from Chaldean theology and spirituality. It was inserted by Patriarch Timothy II (+823) who recognized that in the Our Father, the Lord taught us how to pray, and so emphasized the glorification of the Name of God by adding the thrice-holy acclamation taken from Isaiah 6 in the prophet’s vision of the angels worshipping before the divine throne. By beginning and ending the liturgy with this prayer, the Fathers of the Chaldean liturgy have followed the scriptural pattern according to Christ’s way of prayer:

beginning and ending with glorification of the Father, with a glorification of the Trinity in between (“Holy, holy, you are holy”). With its removal, a significant departure from the Chaldean tradition has been accomplished by His Beatitude.

In the 2006 Reform, after the Homily and before the Presentation of the Gifts, the priest, preparing himself to ascend the altar, washes his hands while saying this prayer silently: “May the Lord wash away the filth of our trespasses with the hyssop of his clemency, and blot out the spots of our sins with the sea of his mercy, amen,” then, “May the Lord cleanse the foulness of our sins and trespasses in his grace and mercy, amen.” While ascending the altar, the priest continues silently, saying, “When our hearts are sprinkled and purified from wicked intentions, we will be worthy of entering the high and exalted Holy of Holies…” In this liturgy, the washing of the hands is linked with the purification of the heart from evil intentions. In the Patriarchal Reform, however, this is distorted. The priest does not even wash his hands! He simply ascends the altar with the prayer “When our hearts are sprinkled and purified…” with no liturgical action to accompany it. This detracts from what the Second Vatican Council calls for in its emphasis of sensible signs that instruct the faithful; for the faithful, in the 2006 Reform, can see the priest wash his hands before entering the Holy of Holies, which signifies to them the holiness of this entrance, but the faithful in the Patriarchal Reform are hidden from this.

Above is written about what the Congregation’s Instruction and what Joseph Ratzinger have said about the position of the priest during Mass. In the 2006 Reform, “the priest goes to the middle of the sanctuary before the altar, in order to enter the Holy of Holies, offering three bows, approaching at each bow.” Thus, the priest stands in front of the altar, facing the cross in the same direction as the people. Upon receiving the gifts, the priest holds “the chalice in his right hand and the paten in his left, with his arms crossed,” so that, while facing the Crucified Christ on the Cross, the chalice, which will hold the Precious Blood, is on the same side as the wounded side of Christ. This requires that 1) the priest is facing the Cross, and 2) that the icon of the Cross has the Crucified Lord. Both of these are rejected by the Patriarch so that all liturgical symbolism and action is lost in this part of the liturgy. The threat of latinization which the Instruction warns against (see above) in this regard (where an Eastern rite priest faces the people) is met in Patriarch Sako’s liturgy. For His Beatitude has removed the Crucified from the Cross, making the Cross a mere decoration and removing all theological and liturgical significance to the Mass itself, which is a commemoration of Christ crucified as a sacrifice for our sins. This necessarily means that the placement of the chalice and paten have no relation to the Cross, stripping it of its depth of beauty and significance and eliminating the meaning of the Eucharist as sacrifice.

The Anaphora

150826_frankarticle2The Anaphora in the Divine Liturgy is the prayer the priest uses during the Liturgy of the Eucharist to change the species of bread and wine into the true Body and Blood of our Lord. This section of the Mass, then, is a climax. The Instruction given by the Congregation of the Oriental Churches tells us: “In the celebration of the divine Mysteries, the text of the Anaphora shines like a precious treasure” (§ 54). The Chaldean (Mesopotamian) Anaphora is the only Anaphora in the Church that claims to have its origins in the Apostles themselves (Addai and his disciple Mari). In Antioch and in Mesopotamia, Anaphoras were formulated. The Mesopotamian model follows the Jewish blessing of food, the Birkat ha Mazon, which makes sense because of its origins in the Apostles who were Jews, and the Antiochene model has its own formula. The Patriarchal Mass does not follow the Chaldean formula, but follows the Anaphora of Nestorius which is an Antiochene pattern. For example, the placement of the Institution Narrative (“This is my body…my blood…”) is one of the great differences between the Patriarchal Mass and the 2006 Reform: the former attaches the Institution Narrative to the Thanksgiving section like the Antiochene liturgy and the Anaphora of Nestorius. The Anaphora of the 2006 Reform, following the command of Christ to “do this is memory” of him, inserts the Institution Narrative in the Memorial section. Instead, in the Memorial section, the Patriarchal liturgy eliminates more than half of the text and adds intercessions that were never part of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari.


These are just few of many instances in which the Mass of Patriarch Sako strays far from the ancient traditions and customs of the ancient Chaldean liturgy and against the directives of the Holy See. His recent reform contradicts the beauty and particularity of the Chaldean liturgy by incorporating in it elements from other liturgies, diminishing what the Chaldean Church can offer the Church Universal. It is a demand, not only of the Holy See, but of conscience itself that we “stand firm and hold to the traditions” (2 Thes. 2:15) taught by the Apostles through the Fathers, and that every Church sui iuris shares its distinctions in the pool of Catholicism, for the strength of the Church’s call to evangelize the whole world and for the faith of all faithful born in their particular cultures.