A Short History of the Roman Mass
“For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, My name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to My name a clean oblation: for My name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts.”
-----Malachias 1: 11
“Our Mass goes back, without essential change, to the age when it first developed out of the oldest liturgy of all. It is still redolent of that liturgy, of the days when Caesar ruled the world and thought he could stamp out the faith of Christ, when our fathers met together before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a God. The final result of our inquiry is that, in spite of unsolved problems, in spite of later changes, there is not in Christendom another rite so venerable as ours.”
-----Fr. Adrian Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy , p. 213
“From roughly the time of St. Gregory [d. 604] we have the text of the Mass, its order and arrangement, as a sacred tradition that no one has ventured to touch except in unimportant details.”
-----Fr. Adrian Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy , p. 173
booklet is in large part a compilation of material from Father Adrian
Fortescue’s classic work, The Mass: A
Study of the Roman Liturgy [
THE first source for the history of the Mass is obviously the account of the Last Supper in the New Testament. It was because Our Lord told us to do what He had done, in memory of Him, that Christian liturgies exist. No matter in which respects there are differences in the various Eucharistic liturgies they all obey His command to do “this,” namely what He Himself had done. A definite pattern for the celebration of the Eucharist had developed within decades of the death of Our Lord, a pattern which was carried on well past the conclusion of the 1st century, and which can still be discerned clearly in the finalized Roman Mass of 1570.
earliest and most detailed account of the Eucharist is found in St. Paul’s
First Epistle to the Corinthians, which, of course, predates the Gospels, and
was written in Ephesus between 52-55 A.D. Scholars agree that the
Consecration formula used by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 11, quotes
verbatim from a stylized formula already in use in the Apostolic liturgy.
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and giving thanks, broke, and said: Take ye, and eat: This is My Body, which shall be delivered for you: this do for the commemoration of Me.
In like manner also the chalice, after He had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in My Blood: this do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of Me. For as often as you shall eat this Bread, and drink the Chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until He come.
Therefore whosoever shall eat this Bread, or drink the Chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and of the Blood of the Lord. [1 Cor: 11: 23-27].
The passage is rich in doctrine. It identifies the Eucharist with the Passion. A new and permanent covenant or alliance is concluded between God and man in the Blood of Jesus. His sacrifice was mystically anticipated at the Last Supper. The Apostles, and implicitly their successors, are commanded to celebrate the Eucharist in His memory; and this remembrance is of such efficacy that it is an unceasing proclamation of His redemptive death, and renders it actually present until the day when He returns in the full glory of His Second coming. The Eucharist is the memorial of the Passion, anamnesis in Greek, and it commemorates the Passion by renewing it in an unbloody manner upon the altar. Finally, great purity of soul is required to take part in a rite as sacred as the offering and reception of the Body and Blood of Our Saviour.
knowledge of the liturgy increases considerably in the 2nd century, and
special reference must be made to the testimony of a pagan Roman-----the
younger Pliny [C. Plinius Caecilius, c. 62-113], at that time Governor of
“They assert that this is the whole of their fault or error, that they were accustomed on a certain day [stato die] to meet together before daybreak [ante lucem], and to sing a hymn alternately [secum invicem] to Christ as a god, and that they bound themselves by an oath [sacramento] not to do any crime, but only not to commit theft nor robbery nor adultery, not to break their word nor to refuse to give up a deposit. When they had done this, it was their custom to depart, but to meet again to eat food-----ordinary and harmless food however. They say that they [the apostate informers] have stopped doing; this after my edict which forbade private assemblies [hetaerias] as you commanded.” 1
The status dies is certainly Sunday. There are, according to Pliny, two meetings, the early one, in which they sing their hymn, and a later one, when they eat food-----the Agape or Eucharist. The oath to do no wrong is probably a confusion of Pliny’s mind. He would have taken it for granted that these secret meetings must involve some kind of conspirator’s oath; whereas, the only obligation of which his informers could tell him was not to do wrong. Pliny’s letter does not add much to our knowledge of the early liturgy, but it is worth quoting for the picture it gives, one of the first mentions of Christianity by a pagan, of the Christians meeting before daybreak and singing their hymn “to Christ as a god.”
The early Christians assembled for Divine worship in the house of one of their number which possessed a large dining room, a coenaculum, as the Vulgate puts it. This was because, as a persecuted minority, they could erect no public buildings. Our knowledge of the details of the liturgy increases from the earliest Fathers and with each succeeding century. There is a gradual and natural development. The prayers and formulas, and eventually the ceremonial actions, develop into set forms. There are varying arrangements of subsidiary parts and greater insistence on certain elements in different places will produce different liturgies, but all go back eventually to the biblical pattern. The Roman Mass is a liturgical form that we find first, not in the laws of some medieval pope, but in the Epistles, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Gospels.
Although there was considerable liturgical uniformity in the first two centuries there was not absolute uniformity. Liturgical books were certainly being used by the middle of the 4th century, and possibly before the end of the third, but the earliest surviving texts date from the seventh century, and musical notation was not used in the west until the ninth century when the melodies of Gregorian chant were codified. The only book known with certainty to have been used until the fourth century was the Bible from which the lessons were read. Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer were known by heart, otherwise the prayers were extempore. There was little that could be described as ceremonial in the sense that we use the term today. Things were done as they were done for some practical purpose. The lessons were read in a loud voice from a convenient place where they could be heard, and bread and wine were brought to the altar at the appropriate moment. Everything would evidently have been done with the greatest possible reverence, and gradually and naturally signs of respect emerged, and became established customs, in other words liturgical actions became ritualized.
The Lavabo or washing of hands is an evident example. In all rites the celebrant washes his hands before handling the offerings, an obvious precaution and sign of respect. St. Thomas Aquinas remarked: “We are not accustomed to handle any precious things save with clean hands; so it seems indecent that one should approach so great a sacrament with hands soiled.” 2 The washing of the hands almost inevitably came to be understood as a symbol of cleansing the soul, as is the case with all ritual washing in any religion. There were originally no particular prayers mandated for the washing of hands, but it was natural that the priests should say prayers for purity at that moment, and that eventually such prayers should find their way into the liturgical books. What prayer could be more appropriate than Psalm 25, Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas? All ritual grew naturally out of these purely practical actions, just as vestments evolved out of ordinary dress. The only really ritual actions we find in the first two centuries are certain postures, kneeling or standing for prayer, and such ceremonies as the kiss of peace, all of which were inherited from the Jews. 3
It is easy to understand that the order, the general outline of the service, would become constant almost unconsciously. People who do the same thing continually, naturally do it in much the same way. There was no reason for changing; to reverse the order suddenly would disturb and annoy people. The early Christians knew for instance at which moment to expect the lessons, when to receive Communion, when to stand for prayer. The fact that the catechumens were present at some part of the service, but must not see other parts, involved a certain amount of uniform order. But the prayers too, although there was as yet no idea of fixed forms, would naturally tend towards uniformity, at least in outline. Here also habit and custom would soon fix their order. The people knew when to expect the prayer for the emperor, the thanksgiving, the petitions. The dialogue form of prayer, of which we have many traces in this first period, also involves uniformity, at least in the general idea of the prayers. The people made their responses, “Amen,” “Lord have mercy,” “ Thanks be to God”, and so on at certain points, because they knew more or less what the celebrant would say each time. In a dramatic dialogue each side must be prepared for the other. So the order and general arrangement of the prayers would remain constant. We find in many cases the very same words used; whole formulas sometimes long ones, recur. This can be easily understood.
In the first place there were many formulas that occur in the Old or New Testament, that were well known in Jewish services. These were used as liturgical formulas by Christians too. Examples of such forms are: “Amen,” “Alleluia”, “Lord have mercy”, “Thanks be to God “, “For ever and ever”, “Blessed are Thou O Lord our God.” Moreover it will be noticed that extempore prayer always tends to fall into stereotyped formulas A man who prays for the same object will soon begin to repeat the same words. This may be noticed in extempore preaching. The fact that since all early Christian language was saturated with Biblical forms means that it would hardly be possible for the bishop to use different words and forms each time he prayed, even if he tried to do so. And why should he try? So the same expressions recurred over and over again in the public prayers. A formula constantly heard would soon be considered the right one, especially as in some cases [the psalms and Lord’s prayer] the liturgy already contained examples of constant forms. A younger bishop when his turn came to celebrate, could do no better than continue to use the very words [as far as he remembered them] of the venerable predecessor whose prayers the people, and perhaps himself as deacon, had so often followed and answered with reverent devotion. 4
Historical factors played a crucial role in the manner in which the liturgy was celebrated. During times of persecution brevity and simplicity would be its principal characteristics for obvious reasons. The toleration of Christianity under Constantine I, and its adoption as the religion of the Empire under Theodosius I [379-95], had a dramatic effect on the development of ritual. Congregations increased in size; and benefactions for the building and furnishing of churches resulted in the enrichment of vessels and vestments. Those presenting such gifts would naturally want them to be of the richest and most beautiful nature possible. In a parallel and natural development the liturgical rites became more elaborate, with solemn processions and stress upon the awesome nature of the rite. This elaboration of the liturgy proceeded faster and further in the East than in the West during the fourth century, but the universal change in style was initiated throughout the Christian world by the change from an illegal and private ritual into a state supported public one.
the fourth century onwards we have very detailed information about liturgical
matters. The Fathers such as St. Cyril of
fact that until the 8th century the West did not apply the general principle
that rite follows patriarchate is both anomalous and unique. That the Bishop
of Rome was Patriarch of all the West is a fact not disputed by anyone, and
yet the Western Churches did not follow his rite. Until the 8th century, it
was the local rite of the city of
about the 8th century the local Roman rite gradually spread throughout the
West, displacing the Gallican liturgies, but being modified by them in the
process. There are two places in
about the middle of the 4th century there were certainly some liturgical
books, How long before that anything was written one cannot say. The first
part of the liturgy to have been written appears to have been the Diptychs.
The word Diptych is derived from the Greek for twicefolded. A Diptych
consisted of two tablets [covered with wax at the beginning] hinged and
folded together like a book. On one the names of the living for whom prayers
were to be said were written, on the other the names of the dead. These names
were then read out by the deacon at the appointed place in the liturgy. Their
use, in the East went on till far into the middle ages. Then the lessons were
set down in a book. The old custom of reading from the Bible until the bishop
made a sign to stop, soon gave way to a more orderly plan of reading a
certain fixed amount at each liturgy. Marginal notes were added to the Bible
showing this. Then an Index giving the first and last words of the amount to
be read is drawn up. Other books were read besides the Bible [lives of Saints
and homilies in the Divine Office]; a complete Index giving references for
the readings is the “Companion to the books,” comes, liber comitis or comicus.
Lastly, to save trouble, the whole texts are written out as they are wanted,
so we come to the [liturgical] Gospelbook (evangelarium), Epistlebook (epistolarium),
and finally the complete Lectionary (lectionarium).
we must notice an important difference between the older arrangement and the
one we have now in the West. Our present books are arranged according to the
service at which they are used; thus the Missal contains all that is wanted
for Mass, the Breviary contains all the Divine Office, and so on. The older
system, still kept in all Eastern churches, considers not the service but the
person who uses the book. One book contained all that the bishop or priest
says at any service, the deacon has his book, the choir theirs, and so on.
The bishop’s book, from which the priest also used whatever he needed is the
Sacramentary [Sacramentarium or liber sacramentorum]. It contained
only the celebrant’s part of the Eucharistic liturgy, such prayers as the
Canon, Collects, and Prefaces, but not the Epistles and Gospels or such sung
parts as the Gradual. It also contained the bishop’s part in many other
services, ordinations, baptism, blessings and exorcisms, in short all
sacerdotal functions. The deacon had his book too, the diakonikon; but as his function at
Towards the end of the fourth century St. Ambrose of Milan, in a collection of instructions for the newly baptized entitled De Sacramentis, quotes the central part of the Canon which is substantially identical with, but somewhat shorter than, the respective prayers of the Roman Canon. This proves beyond doubt that the core of our Canon, from the Quam oblationem [the prayer before the Consecration], including the sacrificial prayer after the consecration, was in existence by the end of the fourth century.
The earliest Roman Sacramentaries are the first complete sources for the Roman Rite. These were written in the Latin language which had gradually replaced Greek as the language of the Roman liturgy. Scholars differ as to the precise time when the transition was complete, giving dates from the second half of the third century up to the end of the fourth. Both languages must have been used side by side during a fairly long period of transition. 7 The genius of the Latin language certainly affected the ethos of the Roman Rite. Latin is naturally terse and austere when compared with the rhetorical abundance of Greek. It was a natural tendency of Latin to curtail redundant phrases, and this terseness and austerity are a noticeable mark of the Roman Mass. 8
the Sacramentaries, three stand out as the earliest, the most complete, the
most important in every way. These are the so-called Leonine, Gelasian, and
Gregorian Sacramentaries, named respectively after three popes St. Leo
[440-61], Gelasius [492-6], and St. Gregory the Great [590-604]. The names
imply an authorship which cannot be substantiated even in the case of St.
Gregory. There is no evidence that Pope Gelasius contributed anything to the
Sacramentary attributed to him; St. Leo may have composed some of the prayers
in the Leonine Sacramentary, but this is not certain; but the Gregorian
Sacramentary almost certainly contains some material composed by St. Gregory.
The Leonine Sacramentary, the Sacramentarium
Leonianum, the oldest of the three, can be found in a seventh century
manuscript preserved in the Chapter Library at
The Gelasian Sacramentary is the oldest Roman Massbook in the proper sense of the term. It is far more complete than the Leonine, and has the feasts arranged according to the Ecclesiastical Year. It also contains the Canon and several votive Masses. The most ancient extant manuscript dates from the 8th century and contains some Gallican material.
St. Gregory the Great became Pope in 590 and reigned until 604. His achievements during those fourteen years almost defy credibility. Prominent among the many important reforms that he undertook was that of the liturgy. His pontificate marks an epoch in the history of the Roman Mass, which, in every important respect he left in the state that we still have it. He collected the Sacramentary of Gelasius into one book, leaving out much but changing little. What we now refer to as The Gregorian Sacramentary cannot be ascribed to the Pope himself as, apart from other evidence, it contains a Mass for his feast, but it is certainly based upon his reform of the liturgy and includes some material composed by him.
The keynote of the reform of St. Gregory was fidelity to the traditions that had been handed down [the root meaning of the Latin word traditio is to hand over or hand down]. His reform consisted principally of the simplification and more orderly arrangement of the existing rite-----the reduction of the variable prayers at each Mass to three [Collect, Secret, and Postcommunion], and a reduction of the variations occurring at that time within the Canon, prefaces and additional forms for the Communicantes and Hanc Igitur. These variations can still be found on a very few occasions such as Christmas and Easter. His principal work was certainly the definitive arrangement of the Roman Canon. The Lectionary was also given a definitive form, but was still to undergo considerable change subsequently. The Order of Mass as found in the 1570 Missal of St. Pius [1566-1572], apart from minor additions and amplifications, corresponds very closely with the order established by St. Gregory. It is also to this great Pope that we owe, to a large extent, the codification of the incomparable chant that bears his name.
Roman Mass as reformed by St. Gregory gradually spread and became predominant
not only in
Sacramentary that bears the name of St. Gregory is the term used for a family
of Sacramentaries which emerged after his pontificate. The most important of
the Gregorian Sacramentaries is the one referred to as The Adrianum. It was sent by Pope Adrian I [722-795] to
Charlemagne at the request of the Emperor in 785 or 786. Charlemagne had
asked for a Roman Massbook as he wished to standardize the liturgy in his
Empire in accordance with the Roman usage. He was helped in this task by
Alcuin, an English monk, who made up for deficiencies in the Roman
Sacramentary by adding material from Gelasian sacramentaries current in
The additions to the Roman rite, some of which originated in Jerusalem and the East as well as from Gallican rites, or via Gallican rites, form its more elaborate, decorative, and symbolic parts. The pure Roman rite was exceedingly simple, austere, and plain; nothing was done except for some reason of practical utility. Its prayers were short and dignified, but almost too austere when compared with the exuberant rhetoric of the East. In our Missal we have from non-Roman sources much of the Holy Week ritual, and such decorative and symbolic processions and blessings as those of Candlemas and Palm Sunday. Doctor Fortescue writes:
“If one may venture a criticism of these additions from an aesthetic point of view, it is that they are exceedingly happy. The old Roman rite, in spite of its dignity and archaic simplicity, had the disadvantage of being dull. The Eastern and Gallican rites are too florid for our taste and too long. The few nonRoman elements in our Mass take nothing from its dignity and yet give it enough variety and reticent emotion to make it most beautiful.” 9
We have now arrived at the early middle ages. From this time forward there is little to chronicle of the nature of change in the order of the Mass itself which had become a sacred and inviolable inheritance, its origin forgotten. It was popularly believed to have been handed down unchanged from the Apostles, or to have been written by St. Peter himself. Dr. Fortescue considers that the reign of St. Gregory the Great marks an epoch in the history of the Mass, having left the liturgy in its essentials just as we have it today. He writes:
“There is, moreover, a constant tradition that St. Gregory was the last to touch the essential part of the Mass, namely the Canon. Benedict XIV [1740 1758] says: ‘No pope has added to or changed the Canon since St. Gregory.’” 10
Whether this is totally accurate is not a matter of great importance, and even if some very minor additions did creep in afterwards, perhaps a few Amens, the important point is that a tradition of more than a millennium certainly existed in the Roman Church that the Canon should not be changed. According to Cardinal Gasquet:
“This fact, that it has so remained unaltered during thirteen centuries, is the most speaking witness of the veneration with which it has always been regarded and of the scruple which has ever been felt at touching so sacred a heritage, coming to us from unknown antiquity.” 11
Although the rite of Mass did continue to develop after the time of St. Gregory, Doctor Fortescue explains that:
“All later modifications were fitted into the old arrangement, and the most important parts were not touched. From, roughly, the time of St. Gregory we have the text of the Mass, its order and arrangement, as a sacred tradition that no one has ventured to touch except in unimportant details.” 12
Among the later additions:
“The prayers said at the foot of the altar are in their present form the latest part of all. They developed out of medieval private preparations and were not formally appointed in their present state before the Missal of Pius V .” 13
They were, however, widely used well before the Reformation and are found in the first printed edition of the Roman Missal .
Gloria was introduced gradually, at
first only to be sung on feasts at bishop’s Masses. It is probably Gallican.
The Creed came to
These prayers almost invariably have a liturgical use stretching back centuries before their official incorporation into the Roman rite. The Suscipe sancte Pater can be traced back to the prayer book of Charles the Bald . 15
The prayers which came into the Roman Mass after the time of Gregory the Great were among the first to be abolished by the Protestant Reformers. The included the prayers said at the foot of the altar, the Judica me, with its reference to the priest going to the altar of God, and the Confiteor with its request for the intercession of Our Lady and the saints were particularly unacceptable. The Offertory prayers, with their specifically sacrificial terminology, and the Placeat tibi which comes after the Communion, were totally incompatible with Protestant theology.
The fact that these prayers were incompatible with the Protestant heresy is hardly surprising as one of the reasons which must have prompted the Church to accept them, guided by the Holy Ghost, is the exceptional clarity of their doctrinal content. This tendency for a rite to express ever more clearly what it contains is in perfect accord with the principle lex orandi, lex credendi. This principle has been explained very clearly by Dom Fernand Cabrol, in the introduction to his edition of the Daily Missal:
“A pope in the fifth century, in the course of a famous controversy, pronounced the following words which have been regarded, ever since, as an axiom of theology: Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi [let the law of prayer fix the law of faith]----in other words, the liturgy of the Church is a sure guide to her teaching.
“Above all else the Church prizes the integrity of the faith of which she is the guardian: she could not therefore allow her official prayer and worship to be in contradiction with her doctrine. Thus, she has ever watched over the formulae of her liturgy with the utmost care, correcting or rejecting anything that seemed to be in any way tainted with error.
“The liturgical books are, therefore, an authentic expression of the Catholic faith, and are, in fact, a source from which theologians may, in all security, draw their arguments in defense of the faith. The liturgy holds an important place among the loci theologici [theological sources], and in this respect its principal representative is the Missal. The latter is not, of course, a manual of Dogmatic Theology, and it is concerned with the worship of God and not with the controversial questions. It is nonetheless true that in the Missal we have a magnificent synthesis of Christian doctrine----the Holy Eucharist, Sacrifice, prayer Christian worship, the Incarnation, and Redemption, in fact, in it all dogmas of the Faith find expression.”
In the authoritative exposition of Catholic doctrine edited by Canon George Smith it is stated that:
“Throughout the history of the development of the sacramental liturgy, the tendency has always been towards growth, additions and accretions, the effort to obtain a fuller, more perfect, more clearly significant symbolism.” 16
sound and invariable practice of the Church in the West was breached for the
first time by the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers. They broke with the
tradition of the Church by the very fact of initiating a drastic reform of
liturgical rites, and this would still have been the case even had their reformed
liturgies been orthodox. The nature of their heresy was made clear not so
much by what their rites contained as by what they omitted from the traditional books. [Emphasis added] In 1898 the
Catholic bishops of the
“They must not omit or reform anything in those forms which immemorial tradition has bequeathed to us. For such an immemorial usage, whether or not it has in the course of ages incorporated superfluous accretions, must, in the estimation of those who believe in a Divinely guarded visible Church, at least have retained whatever is necessary, so that in adhering rigidly to the rite handed down to us we can always feel secure; whereas, if we omit or change anything, we may perhaps be abandoning just that element which is essential. And this sound method is that which the Catholic Church has always followed . . . That in earlier times local churches were permitted to add new prayers and ceremonies is acknowledged . . . But that they were also permitted to subtract prayers and ceremonies in previous use, and even to remodel the existing rites in the most drastic manner, is a proposition for which we know of no historical foundation, and which appears to us absolutely incredible. [Emphasis added] Hence Cranmer, in taking this unprecedented course, acted, in our opinion, with the most inconceivable rashness.” 17
evolution of what we call Low Mass is the most important of the modifications
referred to by Father Fortescue. The simplicity of the Low Mass could give
rise to the impression that it is the primitive form. Nothing could be
further from the truth. It is, in fact, a late abridgment. All that has been
written concerning the Roman Mass so far has concerned what we would describe
as the High Mass. From the beginning we read of the liturgy being celebrated
with deacons and assistants and in the presence of the people who sing their
part. Until the Middle Ages, Mass was not said more than once on the same
day. The bishop or senior cleric celebrated, and the rest of the clergy
either received Communion or concelebrated. This is still the practice in the
The change came about for theological reasons. Each Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice has a definite value before God; therefore, two Masses are worth twice as much as one. The custom arose of offering each Mass for a definite intention and the acceptance of a stipend for so doing. This was particularly the case where Requiem Masses were concerned. Faithful Catholics would make provision in their wills for Masses to be said for their souls and would make endowments to monastic foundations for this purpose. In the later Middle Ages, chantries were established for the specific purpose of offering requiems for a particular person, and it was the common practice of all medieval guilds to have Masses said for their deceased members. By the 9th century, the multiplication of Masses had progressed so far that many priests said Mass several times a day. [In the 13th century, action would be taken to curb the excessive multiplication of Masses, and a number of synods forbade priests to celebrate more than once a day, except on Sundays and feast days and in cases of necessity.]
The multiplication of Masses led to the building of many altars in the same church and in monasteries where many priests would celebrate at the same time on different altars. By the 9th century every large monastery was called upon to offer hundreds or even thousands of Masses each year. All these factors led to the abridged service that we call Low Mass, and it was Low Mass that caused the compilation of the Missal as we know it today.
the earlier period, as we have seen, the books were arranged for the specific
people who used them. The priest’s book was the Sacramentary, containing his
part of Mass and other services. He did not need to have the lessons or
antiphons in his book, as he did not say them. But at a private celebration
he did say these parts himself, substituting for the absent ministers and
choir. Books had to be compiled containing these parts too, and the process
had begun as early as the 6th century in Sacramentaries which show the
beginning of this development. By the 9th century the Common Masses of Saints
are often provided with Epistle, Gospel and choir’s part. The 10th century
saw the first attempts to compile what is known as the Perfect Missal, Missale plenarium, giving the text of
necessity for a truly comprehensive Perfect Missal was given a particular
stimulus by the need in
Low Mass then reacted on High Mass. Originally the celebrant said or sang his part and listened, like everyone else, to the other parts-----the Lessons, Gradual and so on.
Later, having become used to saying these other parts at Low Mass-----in which he had to take the place of ministers and the choir himself-----he began to say them at High Mass too.
Thus we have our present arrangement where the celebrant also says in a low voice at the altar whatever is sung by the ministers and choir. 18
reference has been made to the triumph of the Roman Rite, it was by no means
celebrated with complete uniformity. A proliferation of local variations or
“uses,” such as the Sarum Rite in
“In everything of any importance at all, Sarum [and all the other medieval rites] was simply Roman, the rite which we still use. Not only was the whole order and arrangement the same, all the important prayers were the same too. The essential element, the Canon, was word for word the same as ours. No medieval bishop dared to touch the sacred Eucharistic prayer.” 19
only important development in the history of the Roman Missal between the
pontificate of Innocent
to the establishment of printing in Europe in the 15th century, every Missal,
Bible, Pontifical, Gradual, Antiphonal or Book of Hours had been laboriously
and often beautifully written by hand, usually by monks. Every monastery had
its scriptorium. The illuminated
manuscripts of these often unknown monks constitute some of the greatest
masterpieces in the history of art. The destruction of countless examples of
these priceless and irreplaceable treasures by the Protestant Reformers
constituted a crime against civilization as well as religion, which is less
well known but no less heinous than their destruction or vandalization of the
churches, monasteries and cathedrals in which the liturgy so exquisitely
presented in these manuscripts was celebrated. The devastation unleashed by
the Reformation upon the cultural heritage of the people of
“Between 1536 and 1553 there was destruction and plunder in England of beautiful, sacred, irreplaceable things on a scale probably not witnessed before or since . . . By the end, thousands of altars had gone, countless stained glass windows, statues and wall paintings had disappeared, numerous libraries and choirs had been dispersed. Thousands of chalices, pyxes, crosses and the like had been sold or “defaced” [smashed, presumably for easier transport] and melted down, and an untold number of precious vestments either stripped or seized.” 20
The Missal of St. Pius V was compiled and published in 1570 in obedience to the Fathers of the Council of Trent. This is the Missal that is used today whenever the Traditional Mass of the Roman Rite, commonly called the Tridentine Mass, is celebrated rather than the Mass of Pope Paul VI found in his 1970 Missal. It is the clearly expressed wish of Pope John Paul II that the Traditional Mass should be made available whenever there is a genuine desire for it on the part of the faithful. 21
The intentions of the Fathers of the Council of Trent were well expressed by Fr. Fortescue:
“The Protestant Reformers naturally played havoc with the old liturgy. It was throughout the expression of the very ideas [the Real Presence, Eucharistic Sacrifice, and so on] they rejected. So they substituted for it new communion services that expressed their principles but, of course, broke away utterly from all historic liturgical evolution. The Council of Trent [1545 1563], in opposition to the anarchy of these new services, wished the Roman Mass to be celebrated uniformly everywhere. The medieval local uses had lasted long enough. They had become very florid and exuberant; and their variety caused confusion.” 22
The first priority of the Council of Trent was to codify Catholic Eucharistic teaching. It did this in very great detail and in clear and inspiring terms. Anathema was pronounced upon anyone who rejected this teaching, and the Fathers insisted that what they had taught concerning the Eucharist must remain unmodified until the End of Time:
“And so this Council teaches the true and genuine doctrine about this venerable and divine sacrament of the Eucharist, the doctrine which the Catholic Church has always held and which She will hold until the end of the world, as She learned it from Christ Our Lord Himself, from His Apostles, and from the Holy Ghost, Who continually brings all truth to Her mind The Council forbids all the faithful of Christ henceforth to believe, teach or preach anything about the most Holy Eucharist that is different from what is explained and defined in the present decree.” 23
In its eighteenth session, the Council appointed a commission to examine the Missal, to revise and restore it “according to the custom and rite of the Holy Fathers.” Fr. Fortescue considers that the members of the Commission established to revise the Missal “accomplished their task very well”:
“Their goal was not to make a new Missal, but to restore the existing one ‘according to the custom and rite of the holy Fathers,’ using for that purpose the best manuscripts and other documents?” 24
makes particular mention of the liturgical continuity which characterized the
new Missal. The Missal promulgated
by St. Pius V is not simply a personal decree of the Sovereign Pontiff, but
an act of the Council of Trent, even though the Council closed on
It would be impossible to lay too much stress upon the fact that St. Pius V did not promulgate a new Order of Mass [Novus Ordo Missae]! The very idea of composing a new order of Mass was and is totally alien to the whole Catholic ethos, both in the East and in the West. The Catholic tradition has been to hold fast to what has been handed down and look upon any novelty with the utmost suspicion. Cardinal Gasquet observed that
“Every Catholic must feel a personal love for those sacred rites when they come to him with all the authority of the centuries. Any rude handling of such forms must cause deep pain to those who know and use them. For they come to them from God through Christ and through the Church. But they would not have such an attraction were they not also sanctified by the piety of so many generations who have prayed in the same words and found in them steadiness in joy and consolation in sorrow.” 25
essence of the reform of St. Pius V was, like that of St. Gregory the Great,
respect for tradition; there was no question of any “rude handling” of what
had been handed down. In a letter to The
Tablet, published on
Missal of 1570 was indeed the result of instructions given at Trent, but it
was, in fact, as regards the Ordinary, Canon, Proper of the time and much
else a replica of the Roman Missal of 1474, which in its turn repeated in all
essentials the practice of the Roman Church of the epoch of Innocent
Writing in 1912 Father Fortescue was able to comment with satisfaction:
“The Missal of Pius V is the one we still use. Later revisions are of slight importance. No doubt in every reform one may find something that one would have preferred not to change. Still, a just and reasonable criticism will admit that Pius V’s restoration was on the whole eminently satisfactory. The standard of the commission was antiquity. They abolished later ornate features and made for simplicity, yet without destroying all those picturesque elements that add poetic beauty to the severe Roman Mass. They expelled the host of long sequences that crowded Mass continually, but kept what are undoubtedly the five best; they reduced processions and elaborate, ceremonial, yet kept the really pregnant ceremonies, candles, ashes, palms and the beautiful Holy Week rites. Certainly we in the West may be very glad that we have the Roman rite in the form of Pius V’s Missal.” 26
The antiquity of the Roman Mass is a point which needs to be stressed. There is what Father Fortescue describes as a “prejudice that imagines that everything Eastern must be old.” This is a mistake, and there is no existing Eastern liturgy with a history of continual use stretching back as far as that of the Roman Mass? 27 This is particularly true with regard to the traditional Roman Canon. Dom Cabrol, O.S.B., “Father” of the Modern Liturgical Movement, stresses that:
“The Canon of our Roman Rite, which in its main lines was drawn up in the fourth century, is the oldest and most venerable example of all the Eucharistic prayers in use today.” 28
Fr. Louis Bouyer, one of the leaders of the pre-Vatican II Liturgical Movement, also emphasized the fact that the Roman Canon is older than any other ancient Eucharistic prayer:
“The Roman Canon, such as it is today, goes back to St. Gregory the Great. Neither in East nor West is there any Eucharistic prayer remaining in use today that can boast such antiquity. For the Roman Church to throw it overboard would be tantamount, in the eyes not only of the Orthodox, but also of the Anglicans and even Protestants having still to some extent a sense of tradition, to a denial of all claim any more to be the true Catholic Church?” 29
It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the importance of the traditional Roman Missal from any standpoint. Dr. Anton Baumstark [1872-1948], perhaps the greatest liturgical scholar of this century, expressed this well when he wrote that every worshipper taking part in this liturgy
“Feels himself to be at the point which links those who before him, since the very earliest days of Christianity, have offered prayer and sacrifice with those who in time to come will be offering the same prayer and the same sacrifice, long after the last fragment of his mortal remains have crumbled into dust.” 30
who reflect upon the nature of the mystery of the Mass will wonder how men
dare to celebrate it, how a priest dares to utter the words of Consecration
which renew the sacrifice of
It is natural that the Church, the steward of these holy mysteries, should clothe them with the most solemn and beautiful rites and ceremonies possible. It is equally natural that the book containing these rites should appropriate to itself some of the wonder and veneration evoked by the sacred mysteries themselves. This veneration for the traditional Missal is well expressed by Dom Cabrol:
“The Missal, being concerned directly with the Mass and the Holy Eucharist, which is the chief of the Sacraments, has the most right to our veneration, and with it the Pontifical and the Ritual, because those three in the early Church formed one volume, as we have seen when speaking of the Sacramentary. The Church herself seems to teach us by her actions the reverence in which the Missal should be held. At High Mass it is carried by the deacon in solemn procession to read from it the Gospel of the day. He incenses it as a sign of respect, and it is kissed by a priest as containing the very word of God Himself.
“In the Middle Ages every kind of art was lavished upon it. It was adorned with delicate miniatures, with the most beautifully executed writing and lettering and bound between sheets of ivory, or even silver and gold, and was studded with jewels like a precious reliquary.
“The Missal has come into being gradually through the course of centuries always carefully guarded by the Church lest any error should slip into it. It is a summary of the authentic teaching of the Church, it reveals the true significance of the mystery which is accomplished in the Mass and of the prayers which the Church uses.”
Dom Cabrol also pays tribute to the incomparable beauty of the Missal from the literary and aesthetic point of view. He stresses that this is not a question of “art for art’s sake”:
“We know that truth cannot exist without beauty . . . The beauty of prayer consists in the true and sincere expression of deep sentiment. The Church has never disdained this beauty of form which follows as a consequence of truth; the great Cathedrals on which in past ages she lavished all the marvels of art stand witness to this.”
historical value of the Missal as a living link with the earliest and
formative roots of Christian civilization in
If these evidences of antiquity were merely a question of archaeology, we could not enlarge upon them here, but they have another immense importance. They prove the perpetuity of the Church and the continuity of her teaching. We have life by our tradition, but the Western Church has never confused fidelity to tradition with antiquarianism; she lives and grows with the time, ever advancing towards her goal; the liturgy of the Missal with its changes and developments throughout the centuries is a proof of this, but it proves also that the Church does not deny her past; she possesses a treasure from which she can draw the new and the old; and this is the secret of her adaptability, which is recognized even by her enemies. Though she adopts certain reforms, she never forgets her past history and guards preciously her relics of antiquity.
Here we have the explanation of the growing respect for the liturgy and of the great liturgical revival which we see in these days. What we may call the “archaisms” of the Missal are the expression of the faith of our fathers, which it is our duty to watch over and hand on to posterity.
In his book, This Is the Mass, Henri Daniel-Rops writes:
“Therefore was it declared in the Catechism of the Council of Trent that no part of the Missal ought to be considered vain or superfluous; that not even the least of its phrases is to be thought wanting or insignificant. The shortest of its formularies, phrases which take no more than a few seconds to pronounce, form integral parts of a whole wherein are drawn together and set forth God’s gift, Christ’s sacrifice, and the grace which is dowered upon us. This whole conception has in view a sort of spiritual symphony in which all themes are taken as being expressed, developed, and unified under the guidance of one purpose.” 32
The beauty, the worth, the perfection of the Roman liturgy of the Mass, so universally acknowledged and admired, was described by Fr. Faber as “the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven.” He continues:
“It came forth out of the grand mind of the Church, and lifted us out of earth and out of self, and wrapped us round in a cloud of mystical sweetness and the sublimities of a more than angelic liturgy, and purified us almost without ourselves, and charmed us with celestial charming, so that our very senses seem to find vision, hearing, fragrance, taste and touch beyond what earth can give.” 33
There have been revisions since the reform of St. Pius V, but until the changes which followed Vatican II these were never of any significance. In some cases what are now cited as “reforms” were mainly concerned with restoring the Missal to the form codified by St. Pius V when, largely due to the carelessness of printers, deviations had begun to appear. This is particularly true of the “reforms” of Popes Clement VIII set out in the Brief Cum sanctissimum of 7 July 1604, and of Urban VIII in the Brief Si quid est, 2 September 1634. The “reforms” of these two Popes have been used as a precedent for the reform of Pope Paul VI, but it is only necessary to glance through the Briefs of these popes, to see how utterly nonsensical such a comparison is. 34
Pius X made a revision not of the text but of the music. The Vatican Gradual
of 1906 contains new, or rather restored, forms of the chants sung by the
celebrant, therefore to be printed in the Missal. In 1955 Pope Pius XII
authorized a rubrical revision, chiefly concerned with the calendar. In 1951
he restored the Easter Vigil from the morning to the evening of Holy
Saturday, and, on
John XXIII also made an extensive rubrical reform which was promulgated on
However, the unbroken tradition of East and West for over 1600 years, that the Eucharistic Liturgy should never be subjected to radical reforms-----although it might develop through the addition of new prayers and ceremonies-----was breached in 1970 when the newly composed Missal of Pope Paul VI was published, the New Order of Mass having been published in 1969.
Regarding the Traditional Mass of the Roman Rite, the “Tridentine” Mass, Father Fortescue concludes:
“Since the Council of Trent the history of the Mass is hardly anything but the composition and approval of new Masses. The scheme and all the fundamental parts remain the same. No one has thought of touching the venerable liturgy of the Roman Mass, except by adding to it new propers.” 35
His final assessment of the Missal of St. Pius V merits careful meditation:
are many days still on which we say the Mass that has been said for centuries
back to the days of the Gelasian and Leonine books. And when they do come,
the new Masses only affect the Proper. Our Canon is untouched, and all the
scheme of the
Msgr. Klaus Gamber, one of the greatest liturgists of this century, asks in his book, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, a very pertinent question concerning the motivation of the reform which followed Vatican II, but was in no way mandated by the Council:
“Was all this really done because of a pastoral concern about the souls of the faithful, or did it not rather represent a radical breach with the traditional rite, to prevent the further use of traditional liturgical texts and thus make the celebration of the “Tridentine Mass” impossible-----because it no longer reflected the new spirit moving through the Church?” 37
Thanks be to God, the Tridentine Mass is not simply “the most beautiful thing this side of heaven” but the Mass that will not die. Just as the faithful of Milan refused to allow the Ambrosian Mass to be replaced by the Roman Mass, so the faithful of the Roman Rite have refused to abandon the Mass that is redolent of the liturgy “of the days when Caesar ruled the world and thought he could stamp out the faith of Christ, when our fathers met together before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a God.” Its renewed use is spreading throughout the world with every day that passes, and each year more and more young priests are ordained who are resolved to celebrate Mass only according to the Missal of St. Pius which is as certain to be the Mass of our children as it was the Mass of our fathers.
Collect for the Feast of St. Pius V
O God, who for the overthrowing of the enemies of Thy Church, and for the restoring of the beauty of Thy worship, didst choose blessed Pius as supreme Pontiff: grant that we may so cleave unto Thy service, that overcoming all the snares of our enemies, we may rejoice in Thy eternal peace.
chief source for this book was Father Adrian Fortescue’s classic work The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy
1. Cited in TM, p. 16.
3. TM, p. 50.
4. TM, pp. 50-52.
5. TM, pp. 255 & 261.
6. TM, pp. 115-117.
7. TM, p. 126.
8. TM, p. 127.
9. TM, p. 184.
10. TM, p. 172.
11. F. Gasquet & H. Bishop, Edward VI and the Book of Common Prayer (London: John Hodges, 1890), p. 197.
12. TM, p. 173.
13. TM, pp. 183-184.
14. TM, p. 184.
15. TM, p. 305.
16. G. Smith, Editor, The Teaching of the Catholic Church (London: Bums & Oates, 1956), p. 1056.
The Cardinal Archbishop and Bishops of the
18. TM, pp. 185-190.
19. TM, pp. 204-205.
20. J.J. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), pp. 85 & 87.
Letter from Augustin Cardinal Mayer, O.S.B., President of the Ecclesia Dei
Commission, to the Bishops of the
22. TM, pp. 205-206.
23. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum (Editio 31), 873a.
24. TM, p. 206.
25. Gasquet & Bishop, op. cit., p. 183.
26. TM, p. 208.
27. TM, p. 213n.
28. Introduction to the Cabrol edition of The Roman Missal.
29. Cited in Ottaviani et al., The Ottaviani Intervention: Short Critical Study of the New Order of Mass , Fr. Anthony Cekada, trans. (Rockford, Illinois: TAN, 1992), p. 57, n.1.
Cited in T. Klauser, A Shorter History
of the Western Liturgy (
31. From the Common of the Dedication of a Church, The Roman Missal.
32. H. Daniel Rops, This Is the Mass (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1958), p. 34.
34. The complete text of both these briefs together with the bull Quo Primum can be found in my book Pope Paul’s New Mass (Angelus Press, 2818 Tracy Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri 64019, 1980).
35. TM, p. 211.
36. TM, p. 213.
37. K. Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy (Roman Catholic Books, P.O. Box 255, Harrison, New York 10528, 1993), p. 100.