The Didascalia: A Sometimes Humorous Look at the Liturgy of the Early Church

duraAs you may know the Catholic Faith was illegal in the Roman Empire prior to 313 AD when the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan permitting the Christian Faith to publicly flourish. Prior to that time Church buildings as we know them today were rare. Mass was usually celebrated in houses.

Now careful here. These “houses” were usually rather large, with a central courtyard or large room that permitted something a little more formal than Mass “around the dining room table.”  I remember being taught (incorrectly) that these early Masses were informal and emphasized an informal communal quality and were celebrated facing the people. Well that isn’t really true. People didn’t just sit around a table or sit in circle, not at all. They sat or stood formally and everyone faced one direction: East.

In the drawing  above right you can see the layout of an ancient House Church from the excavated 3rd Century House Church at Dura Europos (Syria). Click on the picture for a clearer view. The assembly room is to the left and a priest or bishop is conducting a liturgy facing east at and altar against the east wall. A baptistery is on the right and a deacon is guarding the entrance door. The lonely looking deacon in the back of the assembly hall is there to “preserve good order” as you will read below. The Picture below left shows the baptistery of the Dura Europa House Church.

What is remarkable about these early liturgies is how formal they were even though conducted under less than ideal circumstances. The following text is from the Didiscalia, a document written in about 250 AD. Among other things it gives rather elaborate details about the celebration of the early Catholic Mass in these “House Liturgies.” I would like to print an excerpt here and make my own comments in RED. You will find that there are some rather humorous remarks in this ancient text towards the end.

Now, in your gatherings, in the holy Church, convene yourselves modestly in places of the brethren, as you will, in a manner pleasing and ordered with care. [So these “house liturgies were NOT informal Masses. Good order and careful attention to detail was essential].  Let the place of the priests be separated in a part of the house that faces east. [So, even in these early house Masses the sanctuary, the place where the clergy ministered was an area distinct from where the laity gathered. People were not all just gathered around a dining room table.]  In the midst of them is placed the bishop’s chair, and with him let the priests be seated. Likewise, and in another section let the lay men be seated facing east. [Prayer was conducted facing to the east, not facing the people].  For thus it is proper: that the priests sit with the bishop in a part of the house to the east and after them the lay men and the lay women, [notice that men and women sat in separate sections. This was traditional in many churches until rather recently, say the last 150 years.] and  when you stand to pray, the ecclessial leaders rise first, and after them the lay men, and again, then the women. Now, you ought to face to east to pray for, as you know, scripture has it, Give praise to God who ascends above the highest heavens to the east. [Again note, Mass was NOT celebrated facing the people as some suppose of the early Church. Everyone was to face to the east, clergy and people. Everyone faced one direction. The text cites Scripture as the reason for this. God is to the East, the origin of the light.]

Now, of the deacons, one always stands by the eucharistic oblations and the others stand outside the door watching those who enter [Remember, this was a time of persecution and the early Christians were careful only to allow baptized and bona fide members to enter the sacred mysteries. No one was permitted to enter Sacred liturgy until after having been baptized. This was called the disciplina arcanis or “discipline of the secret.” Deacons guarded the door to maintain this discipline], and afterwards, when you offer let them together minister in the church. [Once the door was locked and the Mass begin it would seem that the deacons took their place in the sanctuary. However it also seems that one deacon remained outside the sanctuary and maintained “good order” among th laity.] And if there is one to be found who is not sitting in his place let the deacon who is within, rebuke him, and make him to rise and sit in his fitting place…also, in the church the young ones ought to sit separately, if there is a place, if not let them stand. Those of more advanced age should sit separately; the boys should sit separately or their fathers and mothers should take them and stand; and let the the young girls sit separately, if there is really not a place, let them stand behind the women; let the young who are married and have little children stand separately, the older women and widows should sit separately[This may all seem a bit complicated but the bottom line is that seating was according to Gender and Age: the men on one side, the women on the other, older folks to the front and the younger ones to the back. Also those caring for young children should be in a separate area. See – Even in the old days there was a “cry room!”] And a deacon should see that each one who enters gets to his place, and that none of these sits in an inappropriate place. Likewise, the deacon ought to see that there are none who whisper or sleep or laugh or nod off. [Wait a minute! Do you mean to tell me that some of these early Christians did such things! Say it isn’t so! Today ushers do this preserving of good order but the need remains!] For in the Church it is necessary to have discipline, sober vigilance, and attentive ear to the Word of the Lord. [Well that is said pretty plain and the advice is still needed].

One of the oldest House Churches was the House of Peter in Capernaum. There is evidence of a House Church where early masses were celebrated going back to as early as the 1st Century. Wall writings from that period were found. Over time the House Church was enlarged. After the Edict of Constantine a Byzantine Church was built on the site. But it was destroyed after the Byzantine period in the wake of Christian/Muslim conflicts. The whole area  of Capernaum lay buried until the 1940s when it was rediscovered. Unfortunately in the 1960s a terribly ugly Church was built atop the ruins and it looks like a space ship that has landed on these ancient ruins. Here are a couple of videos that discuss the House and later House Church of St. Peter in Capernaum.

26 Replies to “The Didascalia: A Sometimes Humorous Look at the Liturgy of the Early Church”

  1. Since becoming a devotee of the Extraordinary Form (the old Latin Mass) I have found the eastward direction of prayer during Mass to be very spiritually edifying. I have found that it enables me to focus better on the prayers and to unite them with the prayers of Priest as the prayers of Mass are directed toward God.
    I noticed that in a Mass televised by EWTN on 1-10-10 that Pope Benedict said Mass facing the east in the Sistine Chapel. Seems like Didiscalia is an excellent apologetic tool as well – the Faith of the early Christians is the Faith of the Catholic Church!

    1. Yes the Pope is encouraging a greater freedom to use the traditional orientation even in the Ordinary Form of the Mass. I the Holy Land I celebrated more than half the masses for our group using the “eastward” direction simply becuase a “new” altar had never been erected. The point is that we are free to celebrate in this manner However, if a priest were to consider doing this a major parish Mass he would and should surely catechize the people and I, personally, would not do so without informing the Bishop simply because it IS a significant departure from the usual practice today and he is the chief liturgist of the diocese. Some may argue that a priest would not be required to ask his Bishop to do this. From a purely legal perspective maybe not (I am not sure) but as a priest I would not feel comfortable making a major Change at Sunday Masses without some discussion with the Bishop. An ocaasional situation, say for a daily Mass at a side altar is a small matter but Sunday Masses are of a different level in my mind.

      I also agree with you that I like the orientation to the “East” I use it for the Latin Mass of course and also for private masses at a side altar. As long as the people understand that they are facing with the priest I find that many of them like it too, even if they still prefer what they are used to.

      1. Msgr Pope,

        If the Bishop is the chief liturgist in his diocese, I’ll be praying for you to be elevated to the Episcopate.

  2. How very interesting and timely. Everyone faced East. Thank you Monsignor.

    (in that ugly ’60s church I see a triceratops, minus a few plates around the neck.)

  3. I’m trying to visualize our very-amiable deacons as bouncers – can’t quite do it. 😉

  4. My parish church was built in the 1950s with the sanctuary at the west end of the nave. Thus, the congregation at worship faces west toward the altar (ad occidentem ?) and the priest, when facing the congregation, is actually facing east. In this situation, would it make sense to have the priest celebrate facing the altar, i.e. west, with the congregation rather than literally turned ad orientem?

    I guess my question is whether it is more important for celebrant and congregation to be facing the same direction or to have him facing true east?

    1. THis scenario is a lot like what has been faced at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Since the apse faces west, the celebrant stands on the opposite side of the altar and, incidentally facing toward most of the people in the nave of the basilica. Some historians however argue that in the earlier years of the basilica that the people also faced toward the east for the Eucharistic Prayer. In other words they had the celebrant behind them. I personally find this unlikely but many calim here is ample evidence. Perhaps a reader could point to some source where the evidence is presented. I know there are books but I mean on the internet for convenience. At any rate, the orientation at St. Peters has not changed due to the late 60s changes. It is just less notable now since it seems like any parish church where Mass is now celebrated in this way. Prior to the 1960s St. Peters was an obvious exception to the usual practice and it was usually argued in the 1950s that the Pope had this special “privilege” But such an argument was not really well rooted in the actual history. At any rate I am sure other readers can provide better details than I can here on a busy afternoon.

      1. Oh, by the way, to answer your more direct question. In the centuries when an exact eastward orientation was not possible in certain churches due to street grids and other topographical features, the Crucifix came to represent “liturgical east.” Hence every one facing the cross came to represent everyone facing east. Thus if your parish were ever to adopt the “eastward” orientation (say for a Latin Mass) it would seem best to use the current altar, being sure it had a crucifix and have everyone face that direction. In my own parish, our High Altar faces South. And when we have celebrated the Latin Mass (EF) we use it, but it is the cross that “orients” us.

  5. Very interesting about St. Peter’s and thank you for the information (on a busy afternoon) about “liturgical east.” It is my understanding, however, that mass versus populum is an option and not a mandate in the Novus Ordo. Therefore, one would not have to celebrate the extraordinary form in order to celebrate ad orientem (but I can’t recall where this understanding came from). Peace.

  6. It’s interesting how much the Church has changed in traditions: from everyone facing East to the priest facing the people, from toddlers receiving Communion to only children above reason receiving Communion, from churches representing the Kingdom to churches representing office buildings, etc. It might seem like, to the outsider, that the Catholic Church is an offshoot of the Orthodox Church. But that’s why it’s a good idea to remember the difference between Apostolic Tradition and liturgical, disiplinary, and other traditions.

  7. Didn’t St. Peter’s have something of a ‘rood screen’ on the side of the altar above the confessio, so that while the laity may have been across the altar from the Holy Father (who’s the only one allowed to use the main altar), there was still something of a block to actually seeing what’s going on. Pope Benedict has brought some of this back with the 6 candles and crucifix on the altar.

    I could very well be wrong, tho.

  8. Our church, remodeled in the 1980s, has the altar near the South wall, with the large crucifix (10 feet high) behind and somewhat to the left. Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for the explanation of using the crucifix to “orient” the liturgical celebration.

  9. When I visited Rome, it seemed that the churches faced all different directions, and if not the church itself, certainly the various chapels therein. As for the basilicas, St. John Lateran and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls are slightly off an West-East axis, while S. Maria Maggiore is NW to SE.

  10. I’m reading B16’s “A New Song for the Lord.” I just finished the chapter Built from Living Stones: The House of God and the Christian Way of Worshiping God. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger states: “The spirit builds the stones, not vice versa. Where the spirit does not build, the stones become silent; Where the spirit is not alive, cathedrals become museums, memorials to the past. (That the spirit builds the stones) also denotes the essential replaceability and the fundamental equivalence of all church buildings, whether we like it or not.”

    These words brought to mind the following hymn. I wasn’t able to find a particularly good recording online, but here at least is the text:

    “Built on the Rock the Church doth Stand”
    by Nicolai F.S. Grundtvig, 1783-1872
    Translated by Carl Doving, 1867-1937

    1. Built on the Rock the Church doth stand,
    Even when steeples are falling;
    Crumbled have spires in every land,
    Bells still are chiming and calling,
    Calling the young and old to rest,
    But above all the soul distrest,
    Longing for rest everlasting.

    2. Surely in temples made with hands,
    God, the Most High, is not dwelling;
    High above earth His temple stands,
    All earthly temples excelling.
    Yet He whom heavens cannot contain
    Chose to abide on earth with men,
    Built in our bodies His temple.

    3. We are God’s house of living stones,
    Builded for His habitation;
    He through baptismal grace us owns
    Heirs of His wondrous salvation.
    Were we but two His name to tell,
    Yet He would deign with us to dwell,
    With all His grace and His favor.

    4. Now we may gather with our King
    E’en in the lowliest dwelling;
    Praises to Him we there may bring,
    His wondrous mercy forthtelling.
    Jesus His grace to us accords;
    Spirit and life are all His words;
    His truth doth hallow the temple.

    5. Still we our earthly temples rear
    That we may herald His praises;
    They are the homes where He draws near
    And little children embraces.
    Beautiful things in them are said;
    God there with us His covenant made,
    Making us heirs of His kingdom.

    6. Here stands the font before our eyes
    Telling how God did receive us;
    The altar recalls Christ’s sacrifice
    And what His table doth give us;
    Here sounds the Word that doth proclaim
    Christ yesterday, today, the same,
    Yea, and for aye our Redeemer.

    7. Grant then, O God, where’er men roam,
    That, when the church-bells are ringing,
    Many in saving faith may come
    Where Christ His message is bringing:
    “I know Mine own, Mine own know Me;
    Ye, not the world, My face shall see.
    My peace I leave with you.” Amen.

    Hymn #467
    The Lutheran Hymnal
    Text: Eph. 2: 19-22
    Author: Nicolai F.S. Grundtvig, 1837
    Translated by: Carl Doving, 1909, alt.
    Titled: “Kirken den er et gammelt Hus”
    Composer: Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1871
    Tune: “Kirken den er et”

  11. I really like the idea of congregating according to age and gender especially since so many women and young ” ladies ” seem to have lost the sense of modesty in dress!!! I know that the practice of congregating according to sex was practiced in America at least in some communities. Friends of mine remember attending churches where this was done. I think it may have lasted to the middle of the 20th cent, at least in some ethnic churches.

  12. I think this is all nonsense. All bumbling along about which direction to pray in, when so many churches are becoming emptier and emptier. Maybe as a Church we should be worrying about whether or not people attend and participate in the Mass and worry less about directions. Surely we’re in the presence of the Lord no matter which direction we’re facing.

    1. Does that mean you would’nt mind if the Priest prayed the Mass towards the Altar? If all this is nonsense, it should’nt matter, right? After all we’re in the presence of the Lord no matter which direction we’re facing.

    2. I am somewhat sympathetic with you in this. We need to avoid an overly inward focus that distracts us from the necessary outward focus the Lord called us to, namely, to evangelize. That said, we cannot exclude any discussion on the Church’s most important work: the worship of God. In this sense discussions of liturgy are necessary and important. The difficulty in implementing the perfect balance in our discussions is to come up with an “approved list” of topics wherein, we we discuss “thus and so” we are on good ground but when we discuss “such and so” we are bumbling along as you say. Those who are passionate about the orientation of worship see it as very significant. You obviously do not. Anon, who comments below agrees with you it seems. But who decides “the list” of worthwhile discussions? Some argue that anthropocentrism is what has emptied our churches and one way to restore a more theocentric focus is the reorient the Eucharistic prayer toward God. Others, such as yourself prefer no change or don’t really have a preference one way or the other. But I am already breaking your rule, so I’ll end now. I am sympathetic with your concern but unsure how to implement it.

    3. Why are they “emptier”? Does the direction (and manner, and content) of the prayer have something to do with it, perhaps? The parishes I regularly attend that pay particular care to the reverence of the liturgy (both ordinary and extraordinary form) are not emptier– they’re packed.

    4. The Liturgy is the visible sign of our Faith. What was once a source of stability and comfort was altered dramatically, forced on us. That says something, something dramatic, to average Joe Pew-sitter. In addition, the Liturgy has become less and less about the Divine Action and more and more about the human actions that take place during it. When people here “You, you, you, you, you” for decades, eventually they take it to heart and stop coming. After all, if church is all about me and my desires and wants, and if I desire not to go, than why go?

      Save the Liturgy, save the world.

  13. Since I was a child I have always wondered why when buried in grave-yards, we are placed with the feet facing toward the east. Then I learned that when Jesus the Judge comes to rise us from the dead to resurrection He will come from the East, therefore we will rise to face Him. The 3 Wise men came from the East (and wise men still seek him) saying “where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. Matt 2:2. Jesus in Matthew 24:27 reveals to us as follows: “For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so also shall the coming of the Son of man be.” So as the Sun rises in the east, so also shall the coming of the Lord Jesus be from the east. Therefore it is proper to acknowledge God in prayer facing toward the east. In the Old Testiment when the High Priest went to the Alter of God, when he left, he would walk backwards so as not to turn his back on God, always facing Him.

  14. Msgr Pope,
    Do people today in the US have alters in their homes? Does the Church have to approve alters that are in homes and can a priest perform a private Mass in a home with an alter. Just curious. We may have to go underground one day.

  15. Someone should make a movie which contains a historically accurate scene of a Mass in an early ‘house church’.

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