On Saying the Tridentine Mass | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 16, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.comOn Saying the Tridentine Mass | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 16, 2007


"It has been the constant concern of the Supreme Pontiffs, and up to the present time, to ensure that the Church of Christ offers a worthy worship to the Divine majesty 'to the praise and glory of His name,' and 'to the benefit of all His Holy Church.'" -- Benedict XVI, Summorum Pontificum, July 7, 2007.


Lo, those many years ago, Schall was ordained to the priesthood the year after John XXIII made the last revision of the Latin Missale Romanum before Vatican Council II. At the time, the pope raised waves because he dared to change the Canon to the extent of adding the name of St. Joseph to its list of those present at every Mass. Some do not even accept changes from the Pius Xth edition of the Missal. However, looking over the whole scope of the Church, including Byzantine rites, there have always been differing ways of celebrating Mass, usually including a different language and external forms. Still, in principle, it can be said that all the essential parts of the Mass--word, sacrifice, and communion--were clearly present in all the varied rites in so far as they were orthodox.

However, with the advent of the Novus Ordo in 1969, and its apparent, in practice at least, suppression of the older missal, I, along with most priests on the Roman rite, have said this Mass in the vernacular. However, in my own private Masses, I often use the Latin Novus Ordo form found in the back of the present Roman Missal. Much of the English translation of the Novus Ordo has been rather vapid, and the Latin not as elegant as that of the Tridentine Mass.

If at least three popes have reaffirmed the validity of this Novus Ordo Mass, however much it might be improved, we must assume it is within the long and orthodox tradition of the Church's worship. There are those who insist that Pius X was the last "valid" pope because of issues concerning the form of Mass. In effect, these views make subsequent popes heretical, so that, on this assumption, it is difficult to see any continuity in the actual Church. Benedict intended to address these concerns by frankly affirming that the Old Mass had never been abrogated. The Novus Ordo, however, is not a new rite, but another version of the Roman Latin rite. The bottom line is that the same Mass is always celebrated no matter what language or variety of movement so long as it is in the direct line of ancient tradition and the authority of the Church.

On September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Benedict's Motu Proprio takes effect. Any priest can then, if he wishes or is requested, celebrate Mass in Latin according to the latest Tridentine Latin form. This permission is not to be seen as somehow taking away something from those who still prefer the vernacular, as no doubt many will prefer. While there are not a few who look upon this decree as "conservative," or "back-going," I fail to see why giving me the permission to say Mass in another language is somehow a "narrowing" of my freedom. If I say you can say Mass in any language but French, that does not expand but it narrows my liberty. The pope is not saying that anyone "must" say or attend a Tridentine Mass, bur rather that if someone wants to say or attend Mass in that form, well and good. If I can go to Mass any Sunday in Spanish, as I can, why cannot I go in Latin, which is the remote source of Spanish?

As it is, on any given Sunday or weekday, any priest, as far as I can tell, can say Mass in French, German, or Spanish if he wants to. I used to say Mass in Italian in my Roman days. In the earlier American church during periods of immigration, Mass was said in German, Polish, Spanish, or Italian. Parishes were organized to make this possible. Such churches have largely disappeared, only to be replaced by today's situation in which Masses are now said routinely in a veritable Tower of Babel number of languages. Many think they have a "right" to hear Mass in their own tongue. Some even excuse themselves from going to Mass if they are in a place where they do not know the language of the local Mass, something that is rather frequent in our tourist-oriented world.

Let's look at the issue this way. On any Sunday, in any large diocese in the United States (or Europe), any Catholic can validly go to Mass and fulfill his Sunday obligations in English, Chinese, Cantonese, Lithuanian, Polish, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Korean, Vietnamese, Caldean, Japanese, Croatian, Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, or I do not know what all. I have heard it said that in Los Angeles and other large cities, hundreds and hundreds of languages are spoken. You cannot go to the seminary in many dioceses unless you learn Spanish. My nephew was recently on a work detail in Puerto Rico. He went to Sunday Mass in Spanish, even though he does not know Spanish. As far as I know, one is not "excused" from Sunday Mass simply because he does not know the language of the Mass. Most people can figure out what is going on if the same Mass is being said before them in a language they do not know.

Indeed, paradoxically, this situation is an argument for the Latin Mass, not against it. Had the Church retained the discipline of the Latin Mass, we might have avoided this enormous multiplication of languages and the acrimonious controversies over valid translations. We wonder if all the translations in all the languages are accurate, faithful to the original Latin text. The Holy See must have to approve hundreds of different language canons, in all of which a modern language constantly changes.

Though the Holy Father does not mention this issue, it seems clear that the self-separation into different language groups has in effect broken down community, not opened it up. If you have a parish in which the 9:00 a.m. Mass is in Spanish, the 10:30 a.m. in English, and the 12:30 p.m. in Lithuanian, you really have not one community but three using the same church. If it is quite clear today that one has to "hunt" for a Mass in one's own language, it is a sign of division even though valid. Not even English is a common language of worship in this country. If we all used Latin with a tradition of seeing it related to our own language, we would in many ways have a more unified Church. Even today, a hymn like the Salve Regina, sung in Latin, is often one with which every one in all language groups is familiar.


If I go to Mass in the Tridentine form, I am not going to a different Mass from that of the Novus Ordo, no matter in what language I hear the latter Mass. I have always thought that the Vatican should publish an official Missal that everyone, no matter what language he speaks, is expected to own and which will not change, except perhaps for the addition of new saints. On one side would be the Latin and the other the vernacular, whatever it is that one speaks. Over a lifetime, if the Mass were in Latin, everyone would be used to the same service, and would be able to follow and know what it means in his own language. We would then have more common music and all know certain Latin prayers and chants. That strikes me as more genuinely universal than anything we now have.

We are rather close to breaking down into merely national churches without this injection of a more obvious unifying form of liturgical unity. One cannot argue, in principle, that a vernacular language cannot be used. It certainly has good arguments for it. But any living language turns out to be very much more unstable than we might suspect. One only has to recall the controversies about the feminization of the language to see the ambiguous effect this movement had on our reading and hearing of the liturgy.

Indeed, the whole structure of the English language was changed so that older customs, like using "Him" for God, were eliminated by not a few and "Brethren" had to be changed to "Brothers and Sisters," if not "Sisters and Brothers." Amusingly, the older tradition always did use "Ladies and Gentlemen," not "Gentlemen and Ladies," and that latter, I suspect, had origins in Christian theology. The number of words that we cannot use in our normal language, let alone in the liturgy, grows daily. This rapid change is the basis of the argument to use a stable or "dead" language, be it Latin of Slavonic or Greek. The "Thou and Thee" of the Godhead reminds us that English itself has an older more stable form. The language itself becomes a basis of its own culture, a culture common to Christians who had a common worship and doctrine that depended on their knowing how they were distinct.


In this short document, the Holy Father was mainly concerned with continuity. The reaffirmation of the Tridentine Mass in its last revision under John XXIII is an indirect way of saying that this earlier form did not somehow become "heretical" or contain anything "wrong." There is nothing wrong with preferring a Novus Ordo vernacular Mass. But that is no reason to say that the older Mass is somehow suspect. The pope even went out of his way to admonish those who do regularly choose to celebrate the older rite not to do so as if there were anything wrong with the Novus Ordo. One might say that the Tridentine form had too few readings, while the Novus Ordo has far too many ever to remember.

The replacement of the sermon for the homily on scripture has yet to prove its superiority. The faithful are in dire need of systematic teaching on doctrine. The neglect of doctrine has left generations bereft of familiarity with orthodox teaching in the Church, this all in the name of Scripture. It is not that one cannot find "doctrine" in Scripture--that is its origin--but the discipline of clear teaching is not merely or fully satisfied by scriptural commentary or reading. Catholicism includes the direct addressing of reason.


One of the things that comes up with the two ways to celebrate the same rite is the "mood" of each. Clearly, they have different "feels." The Tridentine Mass was surrounded by silence. The Blessed Sacrament was a focus within the actual church. The primary relation was between the person and the Godhead through the celebration of the one Mass, the sacrifice, death, and resurrection of Christ. Kneeling was a sign of reverence. The central feature was awe, transcendence. Everyone, especially the priest, was focused not on the community but to the East, to the source of faith, symbolized by the Sun, light, the Word, the Father. The priest's back was not "against" the people behind him. All--priest and people--were facing the same direction, to God; all were going in the same direction, none concentrating on themselves.

The understanding of community in the Tridentine Mass was that every person was actively worshipping God. He was content that his neighbor was doing the same. He was not "ignoring" the others present. All were directed to the same Godhead and realized they were. That is what formed their "community." There was time enough for fellowship later. The two are not opposed, but they are not exactly the same.

The Novus Ordo Mass focused on the priest, now called a presider or celebrant. He faced a community facing him around what usually looked like a table, not an altar. The "meal" aspect increased; the sacrifice aspect decreased. There was a familiarity. Silence was not emphasized. People shook hands, hugged, smiled, and whispered. The guitar replaced the organ. The priest was tempted to add various greetings and comments. Some even changed the wording of important parts of the Mass as if it were under their authority to do so. It is not that the Novus Ordo had to be filled with dubious exceptions. It could be done as the Church asked, and is in many places.

Cardinal Ratzinger said in The Spirit of the Liturgy that the priest was tempted to be an actor. It was easy to look upon the central altar as a stage. In several Masses I attended recently, people clapped at the music or even at the presentation of programs. What happened at the out of place "kiss of peace" often had to be seen to be believed. One had the impression of a "performance." The earlier tradition never clapped at the music. The reaction was awe. The musician himself was part of the worship. All were focused on the Godhead. Their music or part was not done for themselves. Moving music on or near the altar away from a choir loft contributed to this performance feeling.

The personality of the priest, Cardinal Ratzinger said in the same book, should decrease. It is not "his" Mass; he is a servant there to do what the Lord guides through the Church. The Mass transcended the personality of the priest. We should not have to choose what parish or Mass we go to on the basis of a calculation of the personality or talents of the priest, however fine they might be. The liberals go to liberal parishes; the conservatives to conservative ones. That is just another version of the language problem of separating people rather than uniting them.

We used to often hear Catholics or other people coming into the Church saying that there was something powerful about going to a Mass that is celebrated basically the same way now that it was two, four, nine hundred years ago. It was not only that we went to the same Mass as the Chinese or the Germans or the Spanish, but that we went to the same Mass as our ancestors. We have a statue of John Carroll, the first American Catholic bishop-ordinary, in front of our main building here at Georgetown. There is something powerful, in thinking of the Tridentine Mass, to realize that he and I say the exact same Mass that itself transcends time. The same is true if we think of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who lived before the Tridentine formula, which was based on earlier Roman-influenced liturgies.

In conclusion, I think that the words cited from Benedict in the beginning from Summorum Pontificum strike best at what I want to say here. The concern of the Supreme Pontiffs is that the Church of Christ offers "a worthy worship to the Divine Majesty." It is offered first "to the praise and glory of His name" and secondly "to the benefit of the all His Holy Church." When he promulgated this motu proprio, this is what the Holy Father had in mind. He intended precisely to "benefit" the Church, but one can only do this if we "glorify" God as God Himself has directed us. The worship of the Father in Christ through the Spirit is not a human concoction, though appropriate to the Incarnation it has human aspects in architecture, words, music, personality, material gifts, bread and wine prior to consecration.

I would recommend two readings in connection with this issue of connecting the present and ancient tradition of the same Mass, the same liturgy. The first is the last section of Catherine Pickstock's book After Writing on the nature of the classic Roman liturgy; the second is the chapter "On Praying the Canon of the Mass," in Robert Sokolowski's Christian Faith & Human Understanding. No two readings that I know give a better sense of what is at stake in the question of the one Mass.

The Holy Father is concerned with something that is his duty, namely that all say and understand the same Mass, whatever be its language, or particular variation:
Each particular Church must concur with the universal Church, not only as regards the doctrine of the faith and the sacramental signs, but also as regards the usages universally accepted by uninterrupted apostolic tradition, whish must be observed not only to avoid errors but also to transmit the integrity of the faith, because the Church's law of prayer corresponds to her law of faith.
The latter passage Benedict cites from the "General Introduction to the Roman Missal" (2002).

What is said here, if I understand it properly, is simply that the doctrine and the expression of worship manifest, visibly and interiorly, the same form of worship of the Trinitarian God. This form is to be present in all nations and times in obedience to the mandate of Christ to "do this in memory of me." This is the form of worship that mankind could not itself formulate, but only receive. The papacy has as one of its principal tasks the integrity of this worship. This is what the pope's decree was about.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Interviews, and Book Excerpts:

Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
The Spirit of the Liturgy page
For "Many" or For "All"? | From God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Music and Liturgy | From The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer | From The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
Reform or Return? | An Interview with Rev. Thomas M. Kocik
Does Christianity Need A Liturgy? | From The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy | Martin Mosebach
Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord: Pope Benedict XVI and the Liturgy | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
The Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Rites in Today's World | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture.

Read more of his essays on his website.

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