Pope Benedict’s Summorum pontificum and its accompanying “Letter to the Bishops,” issued last month, will theoretically make the so-called Tridentine Mass more widely available than it has been since Vatican II. I say “theoretically” because, according to Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who was granted a rare prepublication glimpse at the texts, “This document will not result in a great deal of change for the Catholics in the United States.... This issue of the Latin Mass is not urgent for our country.” His imperturbability contrasts sharply, however, with the tone of the motu proprio itself.

The pope anticipates intense controversy, which he tries to pacify in advance by offering irenic reassurances to all parties in the letter and by invoking ten previous popes in Summorum itself. “There have been very divergent reactions ranging from joyful acceptance to harsh opposition” based on “fear that the document detracts from the authority of the Second Vatican Council,” but also fear of “disarray or even divisions within parish communities.”

Moving from tone to content, the new documents make two major claims that some will find arguable: one about the past, one about the future. As to the past, we are told that the Roman Missal issued by Pope John XXIII in 1962 “was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted.” I don’t know if this is technically correct under canon law, but it looks like a case of historical revisionism. The 1962 missal was the last edition, with rubrics somewhat simplified, of the missal authorized by the Council of Trent, first published by Pope Pius V in 1570. The liturgy used today, which people of my generation once called “the new Mass” and wistful Latinophiles still call the Novus Ordo, was authorized by Vatican II, reformed through the labor of the best liturgical scholars of that time, and promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969, published complete in 1970 (third edition 2002). In those days, the Vatican tolerated no doubt that Pope Paul’s missal was meant to supplant Pope John’s, not to supplement it. The 1974 notification Conferentium episcopalium, for instance, stated that whenever a vernacular translation of the new missal went into effect, from that point on “Mass, whether in Latin or the vernacular, may be celebrated lawfully only according to the rite of the Roman Missal promulgated 3 April 1969 by authority of Pope Paul VI.” The sole exception: Elderly priests who could not learn the new missal could request permission to continue using the old one, but only for private Masses. “Ordinaries cannot grant this permission for the celebration of Mass with a congregation.”

In a worldwide survey taken in 1980, most bishops reported that few Catholics were still requesting the old Mass. Yet Vatican officials perceived enough demand to issue Quattuor abhinc annos in 1984. It permitted groups of laypeople to apply to their local bishop and, after affirming loyalty to Vatican II, receive an indult allowing limited celebration of the 1962 missal. In 1988, hoping to heal the schism led by traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei, stating that “respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition, by a wide and generous application” of the 1984 directives. Organized advocates of the old tradition, not without help from the commission set up to administer Ecclesia Dei, have pushed ever since for the most generous application they could obtain. Over the years I have received boatloads of mail from such groups prophesying that the old Mass would soon be available to all once again. If these efforts had succeeded, and it seems that more than once they almost did, we would have gone in a few short decades from a church in which bishops had no authority to permit the 1962 Mass to one in which they had no authority to forbid it.

The fear of precisely that situation ensured that most of the opposition to early drafts of Summorum pontficum came from bishops. So the pope is eager to reassure them that “these new norms do not in any way lessen your own authority and responsibility,” and that indeed “the document is the fruit of much reflection, numerous consultations and prayer.” Nevertheless, Summorum assumes that requests from the laity will usually be handled at the parish level, and that any refusal to grant the old liturgy can be circumvented. If “some group of lay faithful...does not obtain what it requests from the pastor” it may go over his head to the bishop, who is “earnestly requested to grant their desire.” But “if he cannot provide for this kind of celebration,” all is not lost. “Let the matter be referred to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei,” which evidently will make the arrangements. On what other issue does the laity have this much clout in a church that is not a democracy?

The pope’s other arguable statement is the more important one: it will be at the center of all sorts of difficulties until its practical implications are worked out. “It is not appropriate to speak of these two versions of the Roman Missal as if they were ‘two rites.’ Rather, it is a matter of a twofold use of one and the same rite.” The missal of Paul VI remains the “ordinary expression” of the Roman rite; the missal of Pius V, as revised by John XXIII, is now licit as an “extraordinary expression” of it. However, “there is no contradiction between the two editions.”

The first question this raises is: If there is so little difference, why does there have to be so much fuss? Benedict considers the fear of “divisions within parish communities” to be “unfounded,” yet he foresees the creation of “personal parishes” and “chaplains” specializing in “the older form of the Roman rite,” while also specifying that such entities “cannot...exclude celebrating according to the new books.” The situation calls for “interior reconciliation in the heart of the church,” since “centuries” of church history demonstrate an “obligation...to make every effort to make it possible for all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew.” What is the crucial difference between the two forms of the Roman rite that is so threatening to unity, making all these efforts and precautions necessary?

The second question is: If there is so little difference, why must there be two distinct forms of the Roman rite? Indeed, Quattuor abhinc in 1984 insisted on strict separation between the two: Tridentine celebrations “must be according to the 1962 missal and in Latin; there must be no interchanging of texts and rites of the two missals.” But since then the Ecclesia Dei Commission has relaxed these stipulations, seeking to incorporate newly canonized saints into the 1962 Mass, and allowing vernacular readings (permitted since 1958) to be taken from the three-year lectionary of Paul VI. Benedict now approves of such things as “mutually enriching.” But does it make sense to have parallel forms of the liturgy if they are going to be intermingled anyway? Or is the real intent to eviscerate liturgical reform by “Tridentinizing” the Mass of Vatican II?

Why the fuss, and why two forms? Both questions turn on the more basic question: What is the essential difference between the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Mass? Some of the more obvious differences are, in fact, relatively superficial. Though the older liturgy is often called “the Latin Mass,” for instance, the main difference is not one of language. The missal of Paul VI was published in Latin and can be celebrated in Latin, though it was designed as the basis for approved vernacular translations. Before Vatican II, there were times and places where the Missal of Pius V was lawfully celebrated wholly or partly in Old Slavonic, Armenian, Mandarin, even Mohawk, though Summorum gives no policy on languages for the 1962 Mass. The most familiar visual symbol of liturgical renewal—the altar facing the people—is not mandatory in the new missal, and was not forbidden in the old. Both the 1570 and 1962 rubrics expressly permit the early medieval practice of celebrating versus populum.

But most people don’t know that the two versions can be this flexible about language and altar orientation. Catholics who are invested in one or the other tend to see each liturgy as embodying an ecclesiology with political ramifications. The new Mass, to many of its supporters, offers a model of the church as a united assembly, priests and laity gathered as one around a central altar, confessing our sins, hearing the Scriptures, praying for the needs of the world, greeting each other in peace, receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s presence, and carrying that graced presence out into the world as we disperse. The congregation participates by listening and responding to the prayers and readings. Many of those who yearn for such a “church as community” ideal also hope for greater lay participation in the life of the church: more consultative and collaborative forms of leadership, more responsiveness to the new problems of today’s world. From the perspective of a “community” ecclesiology, with clergy and laity united in hearing the Word of God (and keeping it!), the Tridentine Mass seems to offer a poor substitute: The altar is three steps up from the rest of the church’s floor, separated from the congregation by a railing, approachable only by the ordained, who turn their backs to the assembled people and mumble an ancient tongue. The congregation’s deepest involvement in the proceedings takes the form of merely looking at the host when it is elevated after the consecration. To some, the whole thing looks like an enactment of monarchical right-wing political values masquerading as the Christian gospel.

On the other hand, the Mass celebrated before Vatican II focused sharply on the central moment of transubstantiation; all that comes before and after is preparation or aftermath. This liturgy depicts a more contemplative model: a church on its knees before the awe-filled mystery—the Son of God come among us in the broken flesh and spilled blood of an innocent human being who was killed yet lives eternally with the divine life of God he wills to share with us. In the presence of that incomprehensibility, bells tremble, incense smokes, candles burn, hearts quake, choirs echo the heavenly host in the same words that inspired our ancestors in the faith for centuries, suggesting the unchanging quality of eternity. For those who desire this kind of church—a secret place where Almighty God dwells hidden in our world, a foretaste of heaven amid the trials and disappointments of earthly mortality—the new Mass seems a tawdry affair indeed: an undisciplined burst of feel-good spirituality that evades the real difficulties and sacrifices of a committed Christian life; a cheap dose of “relevance,” designed to make the Mass seem entertaining so that people of little faith will not flee out of boredom; even, to some, a deliberate effort to confuse the faithful by disguising left-wing egalitarian political and social agendas as Christian values. Many people who favor the more “contemplative” ecclesiology long for clearer structures of authority, more emphasis on doctrinal accuracy, greater trust that contemporary issues can be addressed with the wisdom of tradition.

The partisans of the two kinds of Mass may seem very far apart, but there are thoughtful observers who think their dispute hardly matters. Before Summorum was released, National Catholic Reporter correspondent John L. Allen Jr. opined in a New York Times op-ed (May 30, 2007) that “when the decision officially comes down, its importance will be hyped beyond all recognition, because doing so serves the purposes of both conservatives and liberals within the church, as well as the press.” But “there’s scant evidence of a huge pent-up demand for the old Mass.... In the end, the normal Sunday experience for the vast majority of Catholics will continue to be the new Mass celebrated in the vernacular.” For Allen himself there’s no love lost: “If only we could convince the activists to slug it out in Latin, leaving the rest of us blissfully oblivious, then we might have something.” I’m ready whenever you are.

I’ll admit it. I recognize myself in the pope’s description of that “good number of people [who] remained strongly attached” to the traditional Roman rite, since “the liturgical movement had provided” us “with a notable liturgical formation and a deep, personal familiarity” with the liturgy that has “stimulated in the spiritual life very many saints in every century.” I think the matter boils down to something quite simple: The reformers of Vatican II, both the scholars who revised the rites and the bishops who implemented them, saw real pastoral needs that the liturgical celebrations of that time were not meeting. With the holiest of intentions, they sought to fix what appeared to be wrong. But they went too far and made the very human mistake of lurching from one extreme to the other, unleashing both liberal and conservative revolts they neither intended nor foresaw. By now St. Peter’s boat needs to correct course, and that correction cannot happen without a renewed reacquaintance with the liturgy as it was before the reform: not merely as a text in old books, but as a living celebration. Whatever one thinks of Summorum pontificum, something like it had to happen.

The reason is that each Mass offers a different, but not false, way to encounter the infinite God, who is beyond all categories. To oversimplify, the Vatican II Mass emphasizes the word, the Tridentine Mass emphasizes the sacrament. The 1970 missal assumes vernacular celebration, offers the richer three-year lectionary, requires a homily on Sundays, and directs that the Eucharistic Prayer be recited audibly. But when the 1970 Mass is done badly, it degenerates into relentless chatter, less interesting than a talk show: The priest talks. Somebody reads. Somebody else reads. The priest reads, then talks again, and we’re only halfway through. Next he reads the Eucharistic Prayer....

The 1962 Mass communicates in the more atavistic “languages” of gesture, movement, and sight. The elaborate choreography of the ministers, the prescribed motions of the priest’s consecrated hands, the repetitive kissing and unveiling and carrying of holy objects-the host, the chalice, the paten, the cruets, the missal, the censer, the bells—all “speak” in their own profound way the message summed up in the Last Gospel: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory,” held up before our eyes at every altar in the world throughout all time. But to those who have forgotten the ancestral sign language, the whole thing seems like a mindless rehearsal of pointless rubrical minutiae—and in Latin to boot!

Different people have different needs, but the Catholic and universal church needs it all: the fullness of the Christian tradition. Jesus loved not only the contemplative Mary and the activist Martha, but even the hapless Lazarus. So too the pope asks us not to be restricted in our affections, but to widen our hearts (quoting 2 Corinthians 6:11–13). If the Vatican II Mass, with its ecclesiology of community, teaches us neighborly love like the Sermon on the Mount, the Mass of Trent calls to us as the burning bush called to Moses, to pause from our worldly tasks and gaze at an incomprehensible miracle: the Creator acting decisively in human history. If the 1970 Mass promotes an outward-looking spirituality that cares for the suffering as Mother Teresa did, the 1962 Mass asks us to embrace the suffering human condition with a more inward spirituality like Padre Pio’s. The day may come when all this can somehow be encompassed in a single order of Mass, but that day is not yet here, and I think we should expect more liturgical transitions in the years to come. The task now is somehow to recover what was left behind without losing what has been gained, like the householder who brings forth both new and old (Matthew 13:52).

To those who would ban one Mass in favor of the other, I ask: Which one announces the more profound liberation? The poor man on the hillside crying out to the crowd, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”? Or the voice that addresses us out of inexplicable fire, “I have heard the cry of my people, and I will lead you out of the land of slavery, to sacrifice before me here on my holy mountain”? Some of us may hear one more clearly than the other, but the same God summons us all.


Read more responses to Summorum pontificum: The Old Rite Returns

Peter Jeffery is Scheide Professor of Music History at Princeton University. He is the author of Translating Tradition: A Chant Historian Reads ‘Liturgiam Authenticam’ (Liturgical Press).
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Published in the 2007-08-17 issue: View Contents
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