I have received a few questions recently about Pope Francis’ recent decision to place many restrictions on the old rite of the Mass. This controversial action has been reported in the secular news, so I wanted to explain it from a Catholic perspective. (I always recommend not getting any news about the Church from secular sources who don’t get it right and often badmouth the Church, but rather from good Catholic sources such as the National Catholic Register newspaper, ncregister.com.)
First, the background: In the earliest times of the Church, the format of the Mass was not completely fixed. If we read the ancient writings of the Apostles, we have more of an “outline” of the structure of the Mass, which has been carefully followed down to the present day. But the exact words and actions taken by the priest were variable.
The essence of the Mass has remained unchanged since Our Lord’s Resurrection and the first Masses of the Apostles: the Scriptures (Bible) were proclaimed; the priest usually preached on them; gifts of bread and wine were brought forward to the altar; the priest stood at an altar of sacrifice in the very person of Christ and prayed in thanksgiving over the gifts together with the people; through the power Christ gives to each priest in every generation, Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary was made present again right there at the Mass; the bread and wine were transformed into Christ’s true Body and Blood; the priest shared the Body of Christ with those who had made themselves ready to receive Him.
In due time, because of the extreme sacredness of the Mass, the Church developed rituals to guard and protect it, so that it would not be lost or corrupted. At first, there were slightly different rituals with their own missals (written handbooks for the celebration of Mass) competing with each other. What they had in common was that the words and the priests’ actions at Mass were standardized so that the Mass would be celebrated the same way and due reverence and honor and fittings sacredness would be preserved. These missals specified the language (Latin, the historical language of the Church since biblical times due to the influence of the Roman empire), the words prayed by the priest and the people, and the precise motions of the priest at the altar.
By the time of the 16th century, the pope (St. Pius V) took what had become the ancient standards for celebrating the holy Mass and forged them together into a single missal to be celebrated by priests everywhere. Since then, the Mass has been celebrated the same way for some 400 years until the 1960s. There are many names for this rite of the Mass: the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), the Mass of Pope St. Pius V, the usus antiquior, the vetus ordo (Latin for the old custom and old order of the Mass), the Tridentine Mass, and most recently, the extraordinary form of the Mass, a name given by Pope Benedict XVI. They all refer to the same thing.
In the 1960s, Pope St. John XXIII convened a council of the bishops of the world (the Second Vatican Council also known as Vatican II). There, he and the bishops made the decision to revise the rite of the Mass with the goal of making it more understandable and engaging to modern-day Catholics. At the time, these revisions were extremely controversial, and some of that controversy continues to this day, over fifty years later. Changes were made on many levels: the language used (the local language of each country was now permitted – but not required – Latin is still permissible everywhere); the prayers were drastically simplified (critics of the revision would say diluted); many of the motions of the priest and the prayers he said were completely eliminated; and so on. While there had been limited “dialogue” between the priest and the people in the old Mass, that was expanded so that the faithful had a wider part in making responses. Perhaps one of the most striking changes was the elimination of silence in the Mass. In the new rite (sometimes called the novus ordo, its Latin name, or the Mass of St. Paul VI), there is almost continuous speaking of priest and people, while in the old Mass, there was a great deal of time for silent reflection and contemplation. Much of what the priest said was spoken quietly so it was not audible to the people. (The faithful had missal books with the words printed on it so they knew what he was saying, but couldn’t hear it out loud). That aligned with the reality that the Incarnation of Christ (God becoming man and taking on human flesh) happened in silence and mystery, when Christ became man at the Annunciation and in the quiet of the night at His birth at Bethlehem.
The cumulative effect of the changes (whether intended or not) was to make the Mass much more similar in outward form to Protestant worship services.
When the new Mass was introduced, the old rite was severely restricted and could be permitted only by special permission of the bishop of a diocese. In 2007, Pope Benedict removed most of the restrictions on the old Mass. As a result, it grew in popularity, especially among young Catholics. Pope Francis has recently re-established the restrictions in a very sweeping fashion. More on this in Part 2.