Saving the New Mass?

This is being written on an iPad Mini screen, which makes writing anything beyond small gobbets a penitential work. But perhaps life could do with some more penance. Anyway, prepare for typos while I prepare for slings and arrows.

At present I am staying at the small but fervent Monastère St Benoît, in the steamy hills beyond St Tropez, and over the past week uncomfortably hot for one now acclimatised to the gentle summers of England. Of the many virtues of this house, apart from its excellent liturgical life, can be numbered its excellent liturgical library and the encyclopaedic liturgical knowledge of the prior, Dom Alcuin Reid. Both have enabled me to make some progress in preparing for a research proposal.

Yesterday was published online the text of Dom Alcuin’s paper at the recent colloquium of the Church Music Association of America in Philadelphia. The paper is entitled Reflections on authority in liturgy today. I do not propose to offer a commentary on the paper here, as it is quite accessible and comprehensible and merits reading in its entirety. As the title suggests, it addresses the place and limits of authority in the liturgy as we experience it today as the fruit of recent decades of change. In confronting the reality that too often too many have acted as their own pope in the celebration of the Church’s liturgy, as well as the reality that even real popes have limits on their legitimate authority over the liturgy, the paper addresses itself both to those who adhere to the postconciliar reformed liturgy and to those who adhere to the ancient liturgy. On both sides subjective motivations can overpower objective demands. The liturgy is not for ‘me’, but for the Church and thus for me only within the Church, and taken out of its proper ecclesial context it can become the plaything, and victim, of personal whim and neediness.

It is the paper’s admonitions to both sides as to how properly to address liturgical desires and aspirations that have intersected especially with my own reflections in recent times. On these reflections I would like to spend a moment or two.

Central to these thoughts is the question as to whether the liturgy is something we fashion anew to suit our time and context (too often code for suiting ourselves) or is it something received, which forms us and to which we allow ourselves to be adapted. The tendency of some who use the more ancient form of the Mass, and of many who use the more recent form, is to do their own thing, to make changes that are against the liturgical law proper to the particular form they use.

Dom Alcuin’s admonitions to both are necessary: to obey liturgical law. At the heart of the problem is the fact that to the degree to which liturgical law is set aside or directly flouted, to that degree does the resulting liturgy cease to be the Church’s liturgy and becomes instead the liturgy of my little coterie, even if it be a parish or monastery. To that degree also is the unity of the Church undermined.

The liturgy belongs to the whole Church, and by it the Church excites unity in its worship of God. The liturgical law safeguards that integrity without which there can be no real unity other than, perhaps, an unity of desire and feeling, which leaves one then still stuck in the mire of subjectivity rather than objective unity.

This is not a question, necessarily, of validity, but of fruitfulness. How can a liturgy celebrated in defiance of the conditions the Church lays down for it ever be truly and fully fruitful? Or put more bluntly: how can build-your-own liturgy be pastorally effective in reality? The answer to both is: it can’t, by definition.

Some time ago I posted a lament of a liturgical loner. I am no less one today. On the one hand I find the ancient Mass embodied in the 1962 Missal intellectually satisfying and ecclesiologically coherent, yet I find it unfamiliar territory in practice, with a mindset and methodology that is not immediately accessible to me, clerically heavy and potentially a little alienating. On the other hand, and partly in consequence, I see the reasonableness in the basic desire of the Liturgical Movement to foster a richer actual participation in and engagement with the Church’s liturgy, a desire which was granted a magisterial voice at the Council; yet I find the reform that was delivered in the Council’s name unsatisfying intellectually and spiritually, and something irreconcilable with the organic development of the liturgy up until the new liturgy’s birth in 1969. Worse still, it is clearly not what the Council mandated.

Even more gravely, the reforms to the Mass made expressly for the benefit of the people have been attended by an immense decline in Mass attendance, and sacramental practice in general. It’s no good blaming a secularised culture, as the reforms explicitly sought to accommodate and address that culture. As the adage has it, she who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow.

So I am left looking to the interim rites of the mid to late 60s to find something that embodies together the conciliar mandate for reform, an organic connection to the liturgical tradition of the Church and a liturgy that seeks to make of the congregation more than a mere presence at Mass, but an engaged participant that seeks to offer worship to God according to its proper charism.

The burden for the traditionalist stream in the Church is to acknowledge that there was a valid desire to make of the liturgy something that better acknowledged the presence of the congregation and better engaged it in the act of worship. The burden facing the progressive stream is to acknowledge that the reforms have failed in their purpose, not least because they do not square with the Council’s liturgy decree.

The unhappy legacy of the Council itself is that it framed its mandate for reform in a web of generalities, vagaries and ambiguities. It was a compromise document that in its execution really pleased very few.

In light of what Dom Alcuin points out, the solution cannot lie in swapping elements between the old liturgy and the new. It does lie in making the best of what is there legitimately in both. Regarding the new liturgy, a burning challenge in most parishes is that of the various lay ministries in Mass, their logical and licit employment, and their nature as a service not as a right to be asserted at every turn.

It is, in fact, at the very least a matter of formation. Priests are formed over six or seven years full time to perform their sacred ministry. They must pass exams and assessments. Permanent deacons too must be formed for their ministry over time. Is there an adequate equivalent for those who perform the lay ministries? One example suffices: I have seen children asked to read at Mass, with barely a few minutes for preparation. All too often the result is a mangling of the Word of God, and thus a disservice to God, to the congregation and to the child himself or herself. Is that a proper exercise of lay ministry? What attitude to the liturgy does it expose?

The time has come, as a basic first step, to establish a uniform and consistent system for forming those who exercise a liturgical ministry, one that is comparable in degree and quality to the seminary formation of priests and deacons; and to ensure thereafter that only those properly formed and instituted (preferably by the bishop) are allowed to exercise a ministry in the liturgy. In a way comparable to the vesting of the ordained ministers, the lay ministers should also be required to dress in a way fitting to the liturgy.

Some will argue, not without warrant, that this is too cosmetic and too late a reform. They will point to inherent defects in the new liturgy that allow it to become an indulgence of man rather than the worship of God. But in my own case I have found that the more deeply I was formed, the greater my knowledge grew about the nature of the liturgy and its history, the better I was able to recognise the problems and the greater my ability and will to work towards remedying them.

And they need to be remedied. The ancient and the new forms of Mass will coexist for the time being. More and more the churches using the old liturgy are growing while the churches using the new are largely withering. Statistics, if nothing else, make it clear that unless there are radical changes to the celebration of the new liturgy, and soon, most parishes which celebrate it will not survive. Demographically, the old liturgy churches have a younger membership. My proposal is that, at the very least and as a very first step, we take lay formation for and participation in liturgical ministry vastly more seriously if, in fact, we hope to maintain it at all. Of course, the same need is just as urgent, if not more so, for certain generations of clergy who were often short-changed in their own formation. Only then can the laity be recatechised in the full riches, purpose and potential of the Church’s liturgy.

For now, I will continue to look to the interim Mass of 1965 as a lost opportunity for meeting the demands of both tradition and development. It deserves revisiting.

This was a bit of a late night ramble. Take it as you will.


Join the Conversation

  1. One way forward is via the minor orders/ ministries. But bishops are largely unwilling because they exclude women and they are not gutsy enough to take on the ensuing backlash !

  2. I’ve heard that one of my Byzantine Deacon friends is going to be releasing a podcast episode discussing why the East didn’t descend into the same liturgical chaos following the Council. Should be interesting…

    1. To put it very briefly, after the council’s liturgy decree the instruction Inter Œcumenici was issued which outlined some changes to the Mass. In early 1965 a new Ordo Missae was promulgated which incorporated the changes (eg streamlined prayers at the foot of the altar, simplified rubrics, vernacular readings). In 1967 further changes were made with the instruction Tres abhinc annos, with further amendments and more vernacular. Both were still clearly structured on the old Mass though some would argue that in 1967 a turning point was reached. You can find an electronic copy of 1965’s Mass online if you Google it! Pax.

          1. Sorry for the faulty link. Try this:

            The quotation comes from the passage where Msgr Bugnini defends the choice to have kept in the 1965 missal the introductory verse “Introibo ad altare Dei”. He writes: “il serait vraiment déplaisant que dans la restauration finale cette petite perle ait disparu de l’Ordo Missae.” => “it would be really unpleasant if IN THE FINAL RESTORATION this little pearl had disappeared from the Ordo Missae.”

          2. Ah, we think alike! I went to the Wayback Machine myself, and find there are many interesting links on the SC website. Thank you!

            It is curious that the little gem did not get through to the NOM. Was Annibale being insincere, or was even he not in control of the reform once it gained speed?


          3. My opinion is that he was sincere when he wrote those words. Why would he have lied? Should he have had in mind the sweeping reform that followed, what he wrote in that article would have made no sense.

            In 1965, everyone was ready to accept that wise and moderate reform of the missal. Archbishop Lefebvre wrote very positive statements about it and embraced it without any reserve.

            What happened later was the result of the revolutionary dynamic that shook the foundations of the Church and of civil society during the 1960’s. Everything got out of hands.

            It could even be argued that the 1969 missal was a clumsy and unsuccessful attempt to regain control of that dynamic.

          4. Certainly the genie was out of the box soon after the Council, and in some countries (eg Holland) some wild experimentation was going on.

            Where can Lefbvre’s opinion of the 1965 OM (and also, 67 variationes) be found among his writings?


          5. Can you read French? If you can, I’ll send you an article written by Archbishop Lefebvre on June, 6th 1965 about the 1965 reform. That article was included later in the Archbishop’s book “Un évêque parle”, in 1979.

          6. Article de Mgr Lefebvre dans “Itinéraires” le 6 juin 1965, repris dans le livre “Un évêque parle”, Editions D.M.M., 1979, p. 24 :

            “Quelque chose était à réformer et à retrouver.

            Il est clair que la première partie de la messe faite pour enseigner les fidèles et leur faire exprimer leur foi avait besoin d’atteindre ces fins d’une manière plus nette et dans une certaine mesure plus intelligible. À mon humble avis deux réformes dans ce sens semblaient utiles : premièrement les rites de cette première partie et quelques traductions en langue vernaculaire.

            Faire en sorte que le prêtre s’approche des fidèles, communique avec eux, prie et chante avec eux, se tienne donc à l’ambon, dise en leur langue la prière de l’oraison, les lectures de l’Épître et de l’Évangile ; que le prêtre chante dans les divines mélodies traditionnelles le Kyrie, le Gloria et le Credo avec les fidèles. Autant d’heureuses réformes qui font retrouver à cette partie de la messe son véritable but. Que l’ordonnance de cette partie enseignante se fasse d’abord en fonction des messes chantées du dimanche, de telle manière que cette messe soit le modèle suivant lequel les rites des autres messes seront adaptés, autant d’aspects de renouvellement qui apparaissent excellents. Ajoutons surtout les directives nécessaires à une prédication vraie simple, émouvante, forte dans sa foi et déterminante dans les résolutions. C’est là un des points les plus importants à obtenir dans le renouveau liturgique de cette partie de la messe.

            Pour les sacrements et les sacramentaux, l’usage de la langue des fidèles semble encore plus nécessaire, puisqu’ils les concernent plus directement et plus personnellement.

            Mais les arguments en faveur de la conservation du latin dans les parties de la messe qui se font à l’autel sont tels qu’on peut espérer qu’un jour prochain des limites seront mises à l’envahissement de la langue vernaculaire dans ce trésor d’unité, d’universalité, dans ce mystère qu’aucune langue humaine ne peut exprimer et décrire.”

    1. Music ministry in the Catholic USA is secular. It contains music videos just as the secular artists promote. I believe it’s written and used for the composer’s on benefit. And it is not for the Kingship of Jesus Christ. The words and music of the new composers do not create reverence rather irreverence.

  3. I don’t want my presence to be “better acknowledged”. I thirst only for God’s presence. In the mystical worship of the Mass, my interior focus upon God is a total participation. I don’t want that to be distracted by obligations to join in with others except in those fewest words of self abandonment: Domine, non sum dignus …

    1. Just so long as we are clear that what “I” want should align with what the Church wants of me, otherwise I fall into the trap of subjective liturgy. Liturgy should make demands of us, but the right demands of course! Pax.

  4. Thank you Father for your most interesting post. Concerning the congregation and the Usus Antiquior, I think a careful study of the encyclical ‘Mediator Dei’ by Pope Pius XII, especially on what constitutes participation – which allows much scope for prayer within the liturgical laws and theology of the liturgy – is called for today. One could also mention the instruction ‘De Sacra musica et sacra liturgica’ of 1958, which sought, if my memory serves me correctly, the implementation of Mediator Dei. One would also say, on the subject of liturgical law, unity and the Usus Antiquior, that there are also legitimate variations in a number of countries, religious orders and other groups, and customs. The ‘New Liturgical Movement’ is a hopeful sign and can, and does, play a big role in promoting the sacred liturgy. I think the jury is still out concerning the 1965 missal. Klaus Gamber thought it fulfilled Vatican II’s stipulations in regards to the sacred liturgy. But perhaps the last ecumenical council – if one bears in mind Aidan Nichols thoughts on the subject – was too quick in saying what had to happen in the realm of liturgy in its prudential judgements.

  5. Thank you for these insightful reflections.

    I see it as a flaw in the argument that we continue to speak about “the Church” — “doing what the Church tells us to do” — as if it is self-evident what this term refers to — as if “the Church” were a single person who is handing down laws for the best advantage of the people of God.

    But in reality, from at least 1948 on, “the Church” has meant liturgical radicals who have pushed their own agenda of simplification, abbreviation, modernization, and pragmatic utilitarianism on the Church, with papal approval. These things are aberrations that deserve to be resisted — of course, patiently, intelligently, and in a principled manner, but nevertheless with a firm intention to restore the integrity and fullness of the Roman rite as it existed before the Liturgical Movement in its cancer phase took over at the top level and drove the Roman rite into the dead end of the Novus Ordo.

    What I continue to wonder, and I say this with genuine respect for your work, is why you would not give the old rite (and I mean here not the 1962, which is already pretty seriously compromised, but the Roman rite circa 1948, that is, before the post-World War II fetish for experimentation commenced its reign of terror) a chance to prove itself in your hands and heart. That is, why not live for a while with this rite, and see whether or not it “makes sense”? My own experience, as a layman naturally, is that things that used to puzzle or bother me slowly revealed their rationale as I got used to them. Now I look at the Mass and the other sacramental rites in their classic Tridentine form and say: “Yes, this works – this is beautiful, fitting, and complete.” I found to be that especially true of the old Holy Week.

    1. Salve! Thank you for commenting here.

      You ask me why I do not “live for w while with this rite”. I am not quite sure what that means. If it means just saying the old rite myself then, at the moment, that is not overwhelmingly attractive to me. If you mean living in a community/context of the old rite then this is not so easily done. My monastic community is new rite, and I am now on a new rite parish. What I have done is, only a few days ago, spent 10 days staying at Dom Alcuin’s community. I was impressed by their liturgical observance, and I certainly enjoyed getting into the flow again of the chant.

      At the moment I still see a validity in a mild reform in the liturgy along the modest lines actually mandated by the Council: vernacular readings, setting aside the duplication of the celebrant having to recite prayers etc that were being sung by other ministers, a less obtrusive priestly preparation at the beginning of Mass, etc. And the conciliar mandate for reform cannot be just forgotten as though it never happened: it must be faced and dealt with, either be reforming the reform made in its name, or by a specific magisterial act abrogating it.

      That is why the interim rites interest me – OM65 clearly is the Mass of Vatican II while also clearly being in organic continuity with liturgical tradition. It left the canon alone as well as the integral reverence of the liturgical action. Even Lefebvre was approving of it. What distorts our perception of OM65 is that we have seen 50 years of development since, and cannot help but see OM65 as tainted by what came after it.

      Moreover MR62 is a rather arbitrary point at which to stop liturgical tradition. For some committed trads this is an imperfect missal, even a tainted one. Is a pre-53 missal better? Or a pre-Pius XII one? Or maybe pre-Pius X? Why not go the whole hog and argue for pre-Trent—after all Geoffrey Hull sees the seed of liturgical decay there? We end up in a situation in which each chooses for himself on varying sets of idiosyncratic principles. It is ecclesiologically impossible. The Catholic Church has a magisterial authority which establishes unity in liturgy. That this has been sadly lacking for some decades is not an argument for ignoring magisterial authority altogether. Then we may as well be Protestants.

      That is why I can feel comfortable in Dom Alcuin’s community, since the observance there is fully approved and is integrated into the life of the Church centred on the See of Peter.

      So I guess I am saying that the NOM is indeed mightily deficient, but it is not without some merit in parts, and of course it is the only rite I have known in my lifetime. What I am yet to be convinced of is that MR62 is the necessary answer. Nevertheless, I lament its wholesale destruction and I find the tired, facile and ideological arguments against it largely ignorant and tiresome.

      So I look to 65, to see if there we can find a Mass that answers Vat2, and harmonizes with tradition and the basic logic and decorum of worship. I have made no final judgments at all. It is a work in progress!


      1. Thank you for your response to my comments.

        For a long time, I sincerely tried to understand, appreciate, and embrace Sacrosanctum Concilium. But it was not possible, after reading Michael Davies, and later Henry Sire’s Phoenix from the Ashes and above all Yves Chiron’s recent biography of Annibale Bugnini, to see in this document anything more than a carefully contrived blueprint for liturgical revolution. It contradicts itself on several points and takes refuge more often than not in massive ambiguities that were deliberately put there — and we know this now based on documentary research, no conspiracy theories needed.

        The chink in the armor of SC for me was reflecting more carefully on the astonishing statement where the Council simply abolishes Prime. Any council that would dare to abolish an ancient liturgical office vitiates itself from the get-go. I recommend on this matter the analysis of Wolfram Schrems:

        Since none of the documents of Vatican II contain de fide statements or anathemas, it does not seem as if the charism of infallibility is ever being called upon. Moreover, given their very nature, a bunch of practical pastoral recommendations can obviously be mistaken, and there is ever-mounting evidence that the aims and means of the radical arm of the Liturgical Movement were grievously misjudged.

        Finally, the idea that 1965 represents the implementation of SC is hard to sustain in the light of repeated statements by Paul VI that what he promulgated in 1969 *is* the fulfillment of the liturgy constitution. 1965 was, and was always seen internally as, an interim step on the evolutionary process away from medieval-Baroque liturgy to Bauhaus modern liturgy.

        The “moment of truth,” I think, is when students of liturgy realize that the 1962 is extremely similar to 1965 in this respect: it was an interim missal in whch Bugnini and the other liturgists working at the Vatican had changed as much as they felt they could get away with. Even assuming all the good will in the world, these liturgists had experienced a triumph of renovationism with the Holy Week “reform” under Pius XII — a reform that was notable as a dramatic deformation of some of the most ancient and poignant rites of the Church — and they were rolling along with the momentum. The abolition of octaves and ancient vigils (such as the vigils of the apostles) under Pius XII is a part of this same sad tale of cutting away some of what was most distinctive and most precious in the Roman heritage.

        This is why it is not arbitrary for traditionalists today to say that the missal ca. 1948 is the place to go. The reason is simple: except for some newly added feasts (the calendar being the part of the liturgy that changes the most), it is in all salient respects the missal codified by Trent. It is the Tridentine rite tout court. For those of us who believe that this Tridentine rite represents an organically developed apogee of the Roman rite which it behooves us to receive with gratitude as a timeless inheritance — even as Greek Catholics receive their liturgical rites, which also achieved their mature form in the Middle Ages — a missal from 1948 gives us all that we are looking for, and nothing tainted.

        People like to point to “improvements” that could be made to the old missal, but I am really not convinced that they would be improvements. I have addressed some examples here:

        The question of the reform of the Divine Office under Pius X is a whole separate can of worms. It is easy to see that the Church should restore some elements of the traditional Roman office that were lost, but by no means easy to see exactly how that should happen. In other words, the situation with the office seems to me to be vastly more complex than the situation with the altar missal or the other sacramental rites. Fortunately, Benedictine monks have the option of sticking with their original Antiphonale Monasticum, which is largely untouched by the rupture of Pius X.

        Lastly, if you would be willing to reach out to me by email, I’d like to send you an as-yet unpublished lecture I gave in Windsor, Ontario, not long ago, arguing that by the laws of liturgical development we should expect liturgy to mature to a point of perfection that requires no further substantive change. My email is professorkwasniewski (at)

        Thank you for bearing with this lengthy reply.


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