The Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Rites in Today's World | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | March 28, 2007 | The Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Rites in Today's World | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | March 28, 2007

On Sunday, May 12, 1996, Alfons Cardinal Stickler offered a Tridentine Latin Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York in an overfilled church. A strong supporter of the greater use of Latin in the Mass, Cardinal Stickler was visibly happy that day, stating, "I feel privileged that you have requested this Mass be celebrated here in what is your cathedral. . . . All are welcome here. We are one body, one body in Christ." [1] For several thousand lovers of the Latin Mass that day was a rare joy, but it is sadly all too common that whenever one brings up the topic of the "Latin Mass" either an argument or a litany of clarifications ensue.

Nothing should unify Catholics more than the liturgy, but there is little else that so often separates them. It would be dishonest to begin a discussion of the Mass offered in Latin without admitting that God's beautiful gift to his followers has become a venue for division; what brings Catholics together is also the most virulently debated topic in the Church. What is actually a sign of Catholic unity has unfortunately become an area of contention, leading some Catholics to leave the Church altogether.

It is not my intention here to recount the debates between the various camps who argue whether or not the Mass should be in Latin, offered according to the Tridentine Rite, offered according to the New Rite, or whether the Church should return wholesale to the pre-Second Vatican Council liturgy, or "reform the reform" and "traditionalize" the New Mass. My purpose is to provide a general outline of the Old Rite and the New, as they are offered in Latin, still the official language of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Catholic and secular media is presently abuzz with reports of an imminent Motu Proprio (official Papal provision) allowing all Roman Rite priests the freedom to offer the Mass in Latin without the current ecclesial obstacles. [2] The liturgical use of Latin is becoming increasingly popular, and Orders such as the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (established by Pope John Paul II in 1988) and the Institute of Christ the King (established in 1990) are by necessity turning away applicants because their seminaries are already crowded with young men eager to preserve the old Mass. There are good reasons to celebrate its resurgence in the Church, for it may be that this past venue of division is finally serving its original purpose: to restore unity.

Language, Liturgy, and the Semantic Conundrum

The most common problem that arises when discussing the "Latin Mass" is a basic one: what is meant by the term "Latin Mass"? This is not easily answered because the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council expected all Roman Rite Masses to be offered largely in Latin. It is incorrect, then, to state that only the Tridentine Rite of the Mass is the "Latin Mass." I attend Mass at a parish near Atlanta, Georgia, which is offered according to the Tridentine Rite, and also in Hanceville, Alabama, where the New Rite of Mass is in Latin. The Mass of Trent, called the "Tridentine Mass," and the Mass of Vatican II (Novus Ordo)--sometimes called the "Pauline Mass"--are both correctly called the "Latin Mass" when they are offered in Latin. One can attend the New Rite of Mass at the Vatican offered entirely in Latin.

The Tridentine Mass, unlike the New Mass, can only be offered in Latin; it is presently forbidden to use vernacular in the Old Rite. This regulation was made by the Church in light of its hallowed belief that the Mass should transcend national and cultural divisions; that is, the culture and language of the Church should retain a similar aesthetic and semantic appearance as to best represent its catholicity. By insisting on linguistic continuity, people from all cultures share the same liturgical rites regardless of location. Valerian Cardinal Gracias expressed this idea in his assertion that:
The mind of the Church is expressed in the authoritative teaching of the Fathers is neither Eastern nor Western, but universal. It is expressed in Western languages--Greek and Latin--but it was in Africa rather than in Europe that it received its classical formulation . . . under strong oriental influence. And the same is true of the . . . Latin liturgy itself. No doubt the Roman Rite which has outlived and absorbed other Latin Rites bears an indelible mark on the Roman spirit in its simplicity, its severity, and its concision. But this does not mean that it is only adapted to Western man, or that its spirit is alien from that of the East. On the contrary it gives a classical universal, and supernatural character. . . . [3]
Gracias expresses well the Church's belief that the use of Latin unifies rather than disunites the faithful. The term "Latin Mass," then, can be used to describe both the Tridentine and the new rites of the Roman Mass, and the use of Latin has been preserved, especially in the Old Rite, as a symbol of the Church's unity.

There are other semantic complications, especially those regarding how the liturgy is discussed and experienced. If we interpret the documents of the Second Vatican Council as the Fathers expected, there is much more continuity between the two rites when offered in Latin than is commonly experienced at a typical Mass in the vernacular. The terms employed to describe the division of the Mass not only represent a semantic change, but also correspond to a difference in how the Mass is offered and experienced.

Before the Council the two parts of the Mass were referred to as the "Mass of the Catechumens" and the "Mass of the Faithful." The Mass of the Catechumens is the first part of the liturgy during which the candidates for baptism were allowed to participate; they were required to leave before the Mass of the Faithful, or the Mass proper, had begun. This first section of the Mass included the "prayers at the foot of the altar" up to the "Credo." After the Creed, the Mass of the Faithful began, which included the offertory, consecration, communion, and "acts of gratitude." While the essential parts of the Mass are the same, Old Rite and New, the terms employed to describe them are different.

In the New Mass, the Mass of the Catechumens is called the "Liturgy of the Word," (Liturgica Verbi) thus emphasizing the desire that the Word of God be expounded during the first section of the liturgy. The Mass of the Faithful is now called the "Liturgy of the Eucharist," (Liturgica Eurcharista) during which the Canon is read and the consecration occurs. The opening rites are perhaps the most noticeably different parts of the old and new rites; for example, the "prayers at the foot of the altar" are not recited in the New Mass. Before approaching the altar the priest in the Tridentine Rite recites Psalm 42: "Judica me, Deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta/Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy. . . ." After these preparatory prayers the priest and acolyte recite the "Confeteor," ("I Confess") now called the "Actus P¾nitentialis" ("Penitential Rite"). When this part of the Mass occurs in Latin, the new and old rites are more similar. In the Latin text, the New Mass still directs the faithful to strike the breast and recite the "mea culpa" three times (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa/Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault).

The New Mass as it is generally offered in the vernacular gives preference of time to the Liturgy of the Word. Whereas in the Tridentine Rite only one Epistle is read followed by a Gospel passage, the New Rite contains two readings and a responsorial Psalm. The first reading (Prima Lectio) includes a passage from the Old Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, or the Book of Revelation; the responsorial Psalm (Psalmus Responsorius) is recited or sung verse by verse by a cantor, to which the faithful respond with an antiphon; the second reading (Secunda Lectio) is a reading from one of the Epistles; and the Gospel Reading (Evangelium) is a reading from one of the four Gospels. When the readings occur in the Tridentine Mass they generally take about ten minutes; when they occur in Latin in the New Rite they take about fifteen to twenty minutes; and when they occur in the vernacular in the New Rite, they often take about twenty-five minutes. Including all the introductory rites, readings, and the homily, the Tridentine Mass generally requires about thirty minutes to complete the Mass of the Catechumens. The Liturgy of the Word in the New Rite, when offered in Latin, takes about forty minutes, but about fifty minutes when using the vernacular.

The difference is even more pronounced in the second part of the Mass. The Tridentine Rite takes almost an hour to complete all of the parts of the Mass of the Faithful, whereas the Liturgy of the Eucharist often takes as little as ten minutes to complete nowadays. Perhaps owing to the sensibilities of priests who offer the New Mass in Latin, I have timed the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the vernacular to last as long as forty minutes in Latin. These disparities in time reveal a significant difference in emphasis; the New Mass in the vernacular is mostly comprised of the first part of the liturgy--the Liturgy of the Word--while the old Mass is mostly comprised of the second part of the liturgy, the Sacrifice. When the New Rite is offered in Latin the two parts of the Mass tend to be more equal. So, generally speaking, when either the Tridentine or New Rite Mass is offered in Latin, there is a stronger emphasis upon the sacrificial nature of the liturgy.

The Identity of the Priest and the Latin Mass

One complaint often heard about the Tridentine Mass (often from those who have not experienced it) is that it is impersonal. Some claim that Latin makes the liturgy distant, and that when the priest faces the altar he is "separate" from the faithful, or "turned away." Anti-Latin Mass comments were a cottage industry in Catholic books and articles during the 1970s and 1980s, despite the fact that all Eastern Catholics offer the Divine Liturgy facing the altar and intone many or all parts in non-vernacular language. For example, Robert Hovda's 1976 booklet, Strong, Loving and Wise: Presiding in Liturgy, states:
At one time--a time this author remembers well--it was popularly considered desirable for the one presiding to be as anonymous as possible. The less of oneself that showed through, the better. The ideal was pretty much an obliteration of self in liturgical celebration, if that isn't putting it too crudely. [4]
Hovda notes that "some anthropologists like the 'old' liturgy so much better than the 'new,'" because the "'liminality' of the liturgy was evident on a much more superficial level (language and rubrics)". In other words, those who favor the old liturgy are "anthropologists" who enjoy its "liminality" or the superficial aspects of language and rubrics. "Liturgy," he concluded, "is something that persons of faith do in a community. And they have to bring their real selves and their whole selves and their true selves to it." [5]

Hovda's disdain for the anonymity of the priest in the Old Rite can be seen even in the writings of some Church leaders. Joseph Cardinal Bernadin wrote a pastoral letter on the liturgy in 1984, wherein he noted, in discussing church environments, "What matters most is that the room allows us all to gather closely, see one another's faces, to be truly present to each other." He continues to assert that, "Liturgy is an activity . . ." and "it is important to bear in mind our need to see and hear one another, even as we see and hear the priest, the reader, the cantor." [6] Again, Eastern Catholics would take umbrage with such a view, since in the Eastern rites priests offer the Divine Liturgy from behind an iconostasis, often completely hidden from the view of the faithful.

It is true that in pre-Conciliar Masses the priest was expected to suppress his own identity, but the intention was not as insidious as some suggest. It was not to eliminate one's personality as much to highlight the theology of the liturgy--that the priest during the Mass is in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). He was expected to prevent his personality from overwhelming that of Christ's. The heart of the Mass is to offer the unbloody Sacrifice of Christ as an act of divine worship of God. God, not man, was, and is, to be the focus of the Mass. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, has stated in his preface to Dom Alcuin Reid's book, The Organic Development of the Liturgy: "For the Liturgy is not about us, but about God. Forgetting about God is the most imminent danger of our age. As against this, the Liturgy should be setting up a sign of God's presence." [7] Whereas vernacular Masses can sometimes revert into theatrics, the tendency in Latin-language Masses--both new and old rite--is to lift the mind away from the priest and more toward the holy mysteries.

The 1975 General Instruction on the Roman Missal reiterates the perennial view of the Church regarding the role of the priest, noting, "Within the community of believers, the presbyter is another who possesses the power of orders to offer the Sacrifice in the person of Christ" (#60). The special place given to the priest during the Holy Sacrifice is again asserted in the Vatican's 1980 exhortation On Certain Norms Concerning Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery, stating that, "It is reserved by the priest, by virtue of his ordination, to proclaim the Eucharistic prayer which of its nature is the high point of the whole celebration" (#2). The point, then, of the Old Rite's suppression of the priest's personality within the liturgy is to emphasize the identity of his role in relation to Christ, for the faithful at Holy Mass, states the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, "receive the Lord's body and blood in the same way the apostles received them from Christ's own hands" (#48). Indeed the Church continues to affirm this liturgical ethos, one of the hallmarks of the Tridentine Mass. Priests who offer the New Rite of Mass in Latin, such as those at Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and an increasing number of parishes worldwide, generally look to the Old Rite as a point of reference. Where the New Mass is offered in Latin, the priest's identity is accordingly deferred to the Lord's.

According to the Council documents and the expectations of the Fathers who ratified them, the old and new rites of the Mass were to be more similar than they typically are today. The New Rite of the Roman Mass was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Holy Thursday, 1969, according to the directives of the Council. The Fathers ordered that, "particular law remaining in force, the use of Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin Rites" (SC 36, ¤ 1). It was assumed that the ordinary (fixed or unchanging) parts of the Mass were to remain in Latin, while the variable parts were to be allowed in the vernacular. The Council states that: "But since the use of the mother tongue . . . frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants" (SC 36, ¤ 2). In general, wherever the New Rite of the Mass allows for options, the Council Fathers directed the priest to choose the option in continuity with the pre-conciliar Mass, asserting that: "Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing" (SC 23). However, anyone who attends the Tridentine and New Rite in the vernacular cannot help but notice the lack of organic continuity between the two liturgies.

One of the watchwords of those who disparage the use of Latin is the Council's call for "active participation." It is argued that one cannot actively participate in a liturgy that is in a "dead language." The problem is that the Council did not mean by "active participation" that one must actively respond verbally to the utterances of the priest. As Fr. Joseph Fessio, a doctoral student under then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, has asserted:

The Council actually spells out its intent, in paragraph 14 of Sacrosanctum Concilium: 'Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations, which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.' The key words here are "full, conscious, and active participation." The Latin for 'active participation' is actuosa participatio. [8]

Fessio notes that the first papal use of the term actuosa participatio appears in the writings of Pope St. Pius X. In his Motu Proprio, Tra le Solicitudini, Pius X states, "In order that the faithful may more actively participate the sacred liturgy, let them be once again made to sing Gregorian Chant as a congregation." The Pope's intention was not to eliminate Latin so that the faithful could respond in the vernacular, but rather that they more actively involve themselves in Latin chant.

Before Pius X was Pope, a Jesuit, Angelo dei Sancti, used the term in a document that likewise used it to refer to active participation in the singing of Latin chant. Popes Pius XI and XII both used the term to refer only to the congregational use of Gregorian Chant; this, in fact, is what the Council had in mind when it used the term. We can see this desire in several passages throughout the Council documents. For example, we find it stated that, "The Church acknowledges Gregorian Chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services (SC, 116). While Latin chant is today rarely sung in Roman Rite churches, Eastern Rite parishes still retain the music and language of their particular traditions; Greek Rite Catholics still intone Greek tunes and Ukrainian Rite Catholics still intone Slavonic tunes, even when these rites are offered in foreign countries, such as the United States. Fr. Fessio concludes that despite the recent disuse of Latin in the New Mass, "the Council did not abolish Latin in the liturgy. The Council permitted the vernacular in certain limited ways, but clearly understood that the fixed parts of the Mass would remain in Latin."

The Future of the Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Directions

While Roman Catholic parishes are beginning to turn back to Latin, they are also turning back toward the altar. While this is still required of all Tridentine Latin Masses, the priest who offers the New Mass presently has the option to face the altar (liturgical east) or the people, unless the bishop orders specific guidelines. The Council, however, envisioned a liturgy more similar to the Tridentine Mass. In the foreword to U. M. Lang's, Turning Toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes:

To the ordinary churchgoer, the two most obvious effects of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council seem to be the disappearance of Latin and the turning of the altars towards the people. Those who read the relevant texts will be astonished to learn that neither is in fact found in the decrees of the Council. The use of the vernacular is certainly permitted, especially for the Liturgy of the Word, but the preceding general rule of the Council text says, 'Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites' (SC 36, ¤ 1). [9]

Cardinal Ratzinger notes: "There is nothing in the Council text about turning altars towards the people; that point is raised only in postconciliar instructions." In his book, The Feast of Faith, Ratzinger observes, "The original meaning of what nowadays is called 'the priest turning his back on the people' is, in fact--as J. A. Jungmann has consistently shown--the priest and the people together facing the same way in a common act of Trinitarian worship. . . ." [10] The theology behind this notion is Scriptural, as seen in Ezekiel's prophecy: "And, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came by way of the east (per viam orientalem): and his voice was like the voice of many waters and the earth shone with his majesty" (Ez 43:2). Churches such as Mother Angelica's Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, St. John Cantius in Chicago, Old St. Mary's in Cincinnati, and St. Josaphat Church in Detroit are among the growing number of parishes who offer the New Mass in Latin with the priest facing liturgical east (the altar).

The value of the Latin Mass is being re-appreciated throughout the world. At the 2001 Liturgical Conference in Fontgombault, France, Cardinal Ratzinger argued that it is essential "to recognize that both Missals (Tridentine and Paul VI) are Missals of the Church, and belong to the Church which remains the same as ever." And in his preface to Franz Bried's Die heilige Liturgie, Ratzinger wrote, "The Church stands and falls with the Liturgy." The way Mass is offered is clearly important to our Holy Father. In his homily at the Abbey of Fontgombault, given while offering the Tridentine Latin Mass, he stated: "Let us pray to the Lord to help us--to help the Church--to celebrate the Liturgy well, to be truly at the feet of the Lord, to receive the gift of true life, the essential and necessary reality, for the salvation of all, the salvation of the world. Amen."

This is an appropriate prayer for anyone attending Holy Mass, Latin or vernacular. As Latin returns to the liturgy, we should rejoice in the liturgical heritage of the Church and prevent old debates from perpetuating divisions. Whether the Mass is offered in Latin or vernacular, the Old Rite or new, it is the same Sacrifice of Christ, a peace offering for our sins, the Sacrifice he made on Good Friday when he reconciled all men to himself, "making peace through the Blood of His Cross. . . ." (Col. 1:20). In Pope John Paul II's homily at the Basilica of St. John Lateran on June 10, 2004, the late Holy Father exclaimed:

"Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem!... - Sion, praise the Saviour / your guide, your pastor / with hymns and canticles." With untold emotion, we hear this invitation to praise and joy echoing in our hearts. At the end of Holy Mass we will carry the Divine Sacrament in procession to the Basilica of St Mary Major. Looking at Mary, we will understand better the transforming power that the Eucharist possesses. Listening to her, we will find in the Eucharistic mystery the courage and energy to follow Christ, the Good Shepherd, and to serve him in the brethren.

Truly the Mass gives us the "courage and energy to follow Christ, the Good Shepherd"; the splendor of the Church's Latin liturgical patrimony uplifts the soul. The English Oratorian, Fr. Frederick Faber, called the Latin Mass "the most beautiful thing this side of heaven," and certainly it is.


[1] New York Times, May 13, 1996.

[2] This article was originally written in late 2006. However, as of this posting (March 28, 2007) there are rumors that Pope Benedict XVI may issue a Motu Proprio regarding saying the Mass in Latin within the a matter of weeks or even days.

[3] Cardinal Gracias Speaks, 1977, 207.

[4] Hovda, Strong, Loving and Wise, 1976, 64.

[5] Hovda, 64, 65.

[6] Bernadin, Pastoral Letter on the Liturgy, 7.

[7] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, preface to Dom Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, 2005, 13.

[8] "The Mass of Vatican II",

[9] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, foreword to U.M. Lang, Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, 2004, 9.

[10] Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith, 1986, 140.

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Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Asian history at the University of Alabama.

He did his doctoral studies at the University of Oregon, where he studied Chinese history, philosophy, and religion. His more recent research has centered on East/West religious dialogue. He has also been researching the history of Catholic martyrs in China. He has previously written articles for about Pope Benedict XVI, Buddhism, and the Church in China.

Dr. Clark has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and has also been a guest on "EWTN Live."

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