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Review: Byzantine Liturgical Reform by Thomas Pott


Sr. Member
Dec 20, 2005
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Northeast US
Quick Review

Byzantine Liturgical Reform
Fr. Thomas Pott O.S.B (Monastery of Chevetogne)
Translated from French by Father Paul Meyendorff
St. Vladimir's Seminary Press

Bottom Line: Interesting, but really for specialists.  I was reading for historical data points on the "renewals" it discusses, but even for me who has a little background in the subject, it was hard to read because it assumes the reader knows a fair amount. 

I did a quick read of this over about 4-5 hours, and am giving a quick initial review. 

This book is written by a (Byzantine, Russian tradition) monk at the dual Latin-Byzantine Catholic monastery of Chevetogne in Belgium.  It is his doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical Oriental Institute's Byzantine Liturgy program, turned into a book, subsequently translated into English.  I mention this to note that the author is not ignorant of the current "Byzantine" liturgy, and (presuming he attends their daily Orthros and Vespers and that said services are properly conducted) he probably more knowledgable about it and its internals that most of us who aren't monks.  Also, his dissertation was written under the guidance of Father Robert Taft, whose liturgical scholarship on the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, on the "Liturgy of the Hours" and such have been excellent.

The book is an attempt to write Byzantine liturgical history in the context of the (generally Latin Catholic, but not exclusively) academic liturgical studies and paradigms of the past 100 years or so.  It does this to put Byzantine liturgical evolution into contemporaneous socio-cultural and historical trends, rather than a pattern of manuscripts or a pattern of "how one particular element of the liturgy developed" (ref: Father Taft's work on the Divine Liturgy, or Father Stefanos Alexandropoulos' work on the Presanctified Liturgy).  Key themes of interest include how "how liturgy was actually lived in the church as a historical community of actual people" (a theme of high interest to Father Taft, and a concern that rightly pervades much of the historical profession today) as well as on how liturgical "renewal" took place.

When the book refers to liturgical renewal, it means almost any major change in the liturgy.  While some on this forum cringe at this thought  given the "renewal" of the Latin Church of the past 50 years, it's worth noting that, according to Father Thomas' methodology, instances of "renewal" in the Roman liturgy during the 20th century included those under Pope Pius X, Pius XII, as well as those of Paul VI.  All of these had different effects (even at the popular level - Pius X's reform,among other things, restored popular appreciation and parish use of Gregorian chant from almost zero).  Also note that, since his view of contemporary Latin liturgy comes from one of the "best" monasteries in the Latin church, with a presumably reverent liturgy and strong Gregorian chant program, his view of even the Pauline reform is inevitably different from many people in American pews. 

By his definition, "liturgical renewal" is relevant to the "Byzantine liturgy" (i.e. the liturgies of the Chalcedonian Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches) because the liturgy has changed, and not randomly but intentionally and often with specific pastoral purposes in mind.  For instance, the liturgy used classically in Hagia Sophia, as far as I've seen from the secondary sources I've seen discuss it, was quite different from the one used today, to the point that the current service books are almost-to-completely useless for the Hagia Sophia liturgy. 

The first third of the book discusses the concepts behind academic study of liturgical renewal (necessary for any dissertation of this type, and probably boring to the average reader) .  The remainder is a discussion of three liturgical renewals: the Studite renewal of the 8-1000s, the formation of the Holy Friday (12 Gospels) and Paschal Orthros Services, the Prothesis Rite, and the renewals under the Ukranian Greek Catholics after the Union of Brest, of St. Peter Moghlia (which he's quite positive toward despite his criticism of St. Peter's Latinizations) and Patriarch Nikon. 

Readers not familiar with Byzantine history, the history of Byzantine liturgy, and the liturgical scholarship of the Latin Catholic academic tradition of the past century or so will have a very hard time following the book.  It assumes one knows all this.  Some familiarity with the liturgical manuscripts that are out there would also be helpful.  But most importantly, the first three examples have multiple references to the current Triodion, Horologion, and Prothesis rite.  If you're not capable of functioning as a reader in your parish, or if you've never seen your priest perform the prothesis rite, you'll probably be lost when he talks about these.   

Therefore, I do have to judge that this book is for liturgy specialists - not enthusiasts, but people who have academic background in this, or those who at least know the current services well enough to function as clergy, and who are also familiar with current redactions of at least basic Byzantine history.  And I say "current" because I believe, for instance, the role of the Jerusalem monasteries like St. Sabbas Monastery in Byzantine ecclesial life is generally acknowledged only in books written in the past 20 years.  This book simply assumes the reader knows what this is. 

For my objectives, the discussion of liturgical renewal in the context of the Sabbaites and the Studites' own attempts to preserve/renew spirituality in their hard times was interesting, as was the discussion of the evolution of the 12 Gospels parts of Holy Friday Orthros, but again it was often hard reading.  [I was also hoping he'd discuss the origins of Σήμερον κρεμᾶται ἐπὶ ξύλου, but I don't think he did, and given his objectives he probably could not have fit it into his 50 pages on that service.  I also hoped that he'd talk more about the Sabbaites, but he laments he can't because of paucity of sources]   

Finally, for those curious, he makes no recommendations on what "renewal" to make today, and essentially limits his thoughts on this subject to his final, vague, throwaway paragraph.