Explainer: What is the history of the Latin Mass?
Today's announcement from the Vatican that Pope Francis has revoked the ruling of Pope Benedict XVI that allowed any Catholic priest to celebrate Mass using the rubrics of the pre-Vatican II liturgy might have caused a reader or two to hear a phrase that he or she thought had been lost to the mists of time: the Latin Mass.
But don’t call it a comeback; it’s been here for years. For a relatively small subset of Catholics, Sunday Mass (or, for that matter, daily Mass) is always in Latin, and it includes many of the trappings of the liturgy as celebrated before the Second Vatican Council. A visitor to such a Mass might feel transported back to 1950—or to 1650. All the readings in Latin; an altar rail; the priest facing east with his back to the congregation; Communion on the tongue while kneeling; mantillas and rosary beads galore (and, for a Sunday “High Mass,” the Latin chanted by the priest with music sung by a choir).
If you meet a Catholic male who grew up in the 1950s or earlier (the church wasn’t big on female altar servers in those days) and whisper to him, “Introibo ad altare Dei,” not a beat will pass before the response is given: “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.” Readers of James Joyce’s Ulysses might also recognize the former phrase, from Buck Mulligan’s blasphemous use of it in that novel’s opening lines.
What exactly are we talking about when we talk about “the Latin Mass”?
But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about “the Latin Mass”?
It is important to note there is a rather substantial difference between “the Latin Mass” and the Mass that is referred to in the 2007 papal motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum,” now known as the “extraordinary form” of the Mass; it is also often called “the Tridentine Mass” or “the Traditional Latin Mass.” The latter is the form of Catholic liturgy whose use Pope Francis has restricted with his motu proprio "Traditionis Custodes." The “ordinary form” of the Mass—the version 99 percent of Catholics experience when they go to Mass—actually has a Latin root. In fact, all vernacular translations of the Mass are based on the Latin edition of the Roman Missal, the first version of which was promulgated in 1970 after Pope Paul VI’s 1969 apostolic constitution "Missale Romanum." The current Latin edition of the Missale Romanum is the “editio typica tertia,” the “third typical edition,” and was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
When you attend a Mass said in your local language, it is a translation from the Latin ur-text that has been approved by the local bishops’ conference. Readers of America might remember the latest translation for the church in the United States in 2011 caused quite a stir, in large part because of the use of a more literal word-for-word translation from the Latin instead of a more freewheeling “dynamic translation.” (It’s why you now have to say “consubstantial” and “incarnate.”) It was a reminder of the difficulty of rendering liturgical translations in the vernacular in any age. To give a taste of how much more jarring that was in the 1960s when the church moved to vernacular translations, witness this 1966 suggestion for the “Our Father” from America contributor Gareth Edwards:
Heavenly Father, may your name be said reverently. May your reign over men come soon. May your wishes be carried out on earth, just as they are in heaven. Give us today the food we shall need tomorrow. Cancel our debts to you: we cancel those others owe to us. Keep away from us the worst trials and save us from the power of evil. Answer our prayer.
Mr. Edwards had some other suggestions: “Unacceptable words include: abide, behold, brethren, hallowed, sin (verb), will (as finite verb and as noun meaning ‘wish’).” Did you just suddenly find yourself becoming a traditionalist? In any case, it is still perfectly valid for any priest to say Mass according to the 2002 Latin text: It looks and feels just like a normal Mass—it’s just in Latin instead of English.
The vast majority of the time you hear a reference to the “Latin Mass,” the liturgical form in question is the “extraordinary form.” Its history previous to the post-Vatican II liturgical changes is a long one.
However, the vast majority of the time you hear a reference to the “Latin Mass,” the liturgical form in question is the “extraordinary form,” which is a rather different animal. Its history previous to the post-Vatican II liturgical changes is a long one: four centuries, to be exact.
In 1570, Pope Pius V promulgated an edition of the Missale Romanum that was to be used throughout the Latin church, with the exception of those places where another rite had been celebrated for at least two centuries. A prominent example among many is the “Ambrosian Rite,” celebrated in and around Milan in Italy. As part of a program of sweeping reforms in many areas of church life spurred by the Council of Trent, Pius V’s Missale Romanum was intended to establish uniformity in the celebration of the Eucharist. In widespread use from the end of the 16th century until 1962 (with tinkering here and there by various popes), the rite inherited the Latin name for Trent, Tridentum, and thus is often called “the Tridentine Rite.”
In 1962, Pope John XXIII promulgated a new version of the rite. His predecessor, Pope Pius XII, had already substantially modified the celebration of Holy Week in the previous decade; John XXIII had also previously removed from the traditional Good Friday prayers derogatory mentions of “the perfidious Jews” (in Latin, “perfidis Judaeis”). These changes, among others, were codified in the 1962 promulgation, along with a greatly simplified church calendar and a revision of the rubrics used for the celebration of the Mass.
The liturgical changes that followed Vatican II and its constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), resulted in the pre-Vatican II Mass all but disappearing from public view. In 1971, Pope Paul VI allowed for its celebration but with careful restrictions on its use. In a 2019 article in Italian in L’Osservatore Romano (reported on earlier in July 2021 by Christopher Lamb of The Tablet), Corrado Maggioni, S.M.M., undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, said that Paul VI’s 1971 instruction was intended as a mercy for aged or sick priests who were offering Mass without a congregation. For Pope Paul VI at least, the Catholic Church now had one universal rite.
The liturgical changes that followed Vatican II and its constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), resulted in the pre-Vatican II Mass all but disappearing from public view.
In later years, Pope John Paul II allowed for the use of the 1962 Missale Romanum in specific cases, in part to effect a reconciliation with a breakaway traditionalist group, the Society of St. Pius X, which had rejected the liturgical reforms that followed Vatican II.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a motu proprio, “Summorum Pontificum,” which granted permission for the much wider celebration of the Tridentine Mass. Priests were allowed to celebrate the old form in private whenever they wished, and in parishes “where a group of the faithful attached to the previous liturgical tradition stably exists, the parish priest should willingly accede to their requests to celebrate Holy Mass according to the rite of the 1962 Roman Missal” (Article 5). Further, “If a group of the lay faithful...has not been granted its requests by the parish priest, it should inform the diocesan bishop. The bishop is earnestly requested to satisfy their desire” (Article 7).
Why the reason for two forms? Pope Benedict XVI had long been a critic of the way liturgical reforms had been carried out in the decades since Vatican II, decrying what he saw as a loss of reverence and a decreasing emphasis on the Mass as a sacrifice in the post-conciliar liturgy. He also saw the normalization of the “extraordinary form” within the liturgical life of the church as a possible leaven for the Mass most of us see every Sunday; in other words, it would not just be an alternative for those who wished to celebrate according to the 1962 Missal but an influence on liturgies in general—making them more reverent, more connected to the church’s Latin roots and more historically continuous with the Tridentine Rite celebrated almost worldwide for centuries.
Pope Benedict XVI saw the normalization of the “extraordinary form” within the liturgical life of the church as a possible leaven for the Mass most of us see every Sunday.
In fact, according to John Thavis in The Vatican Diaries, Benedict XVI recognized that the typical “low Mass” of the pre-Vatican II liturgy—a quick and efficient affair in which the priest all but muttered the prayers of the Mass to himself and his altar boys, while the congregation was silent—was “was not what liturgy should be,” and also recognized that many did not regret its passing. Benedict spoke of a “mutual enrichment” between the best elements of the extraordinary form and the best of the ordinary form.
In 2008, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos of the Ecclesia Dei Commission said that Pope Benedict XVI wanted the Tridentine Rite to be celebrated in every parish worldwide. The Ecclesia Dei Commission had been established by Pope John Paul II in 1988 to dialogue with the Society of St. Pius X. The commission was suppressed by Pope Francis in 2019 and its remaining duties assigned to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. While the Society of St. Pius X remains in schism, “Summorum Pontificum” had the effect of taking some of the wind out of its sails; a fair number of its adherents now attend Vatican-approved extraordinary form liturgies.
In 2011, Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said that the pope’s long-term goal was actually a merging of the two rites into something new. “In fact, Pope Benedict knows well that, in the long term, we cannot stop at a coexistence between the ordinary form and the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, but that in the future the church naturally will once again need a common rite," he said at a Vatican conference on “Summorum Pontificum.” However, “because a new liturgical reform cannot be decided theoretically, but requires a process of growth and purification, the pope for the moment is underlining above all that the two forms of the Roman rite can and should enrich each other,” Cardinal Koch concluded.
Among younger “John Paul II priests” ordained in the 1990s and 2000s, the extraordinary form achieved a relatively higher level of acceptance.
As some priests and parishes began offering the option of the extraordinary form of the Mass after 2007, reactions varied. In some places the Sunday celebration of the extraordinary form became a huge draw for traditionally minded Catholics who were unsatisfied with their own parish’s offerings; in others, it became a haven for a small minority of liturgical hardliners. Among clergy, the response was also disparate: Many priests trained in the spirituality and theology of the post-conciliar church were adamant in their opposition to its spread. Among younger “John Paul II priests” ordained in the 1990s and 2000s, the extraordinary form achieved a relatively higher level of acceptance.
Writing for America in 2007, the Rev. Michael Kerper, who described himself as having “been shaped by the Second Vatican Council,” nevertheless found the experience of celebrating in the extraordinary form a positive one:
My reluctant engagement with the Latin Mass has not undermined my own priestly spirituality, born of Vatican II. Rather, it has complemented and reinforced the council’s teaching that the priest is an instrument of Christ called to serve everyone, regardless of theological or liturgical style.
Writing a few years later, another priest, Peter Schineller, S.J. (a former associate editor of America), had a very different experience:
In my mind I could not but think back to the Second Vatican Council, and all that the Council and subsequent documents tried to bring about—active participation, emphasis on the important things, vernacular, elimination of accretions and repetitions, etc. It was sad and disheartening. What happened? Why would the Catholic faithful seek out and attend this older form of the Mass?
“One thing I know,” Father Schineller concluded. “I myself will never freely choose to celebrate the Tridentine Mass.”
An America contributor in 2017, Timothy Kirchoff, offered a defense of the extraordinary form of the Mass that focused on the possibility of moving past divisions. “Many young Catholics seek a greater understanding of and continuity with the pre-conciliar church. Many older Catholics who lived through the council and are intimately familiar with the flaws of the pre-conciliar church worry that revisiting old-fashioned practices will bring back problems that Vatican II took pains to correct. Each group has something to learn from the other,” he wrote. “Those lessons only become clear when we set aside ideological concerns and have the patience to understand each other’s experiences. The form of rigidity we most need to worry about is the ideological rigidity that prevents us from seeing how God is at work among our fellow Catholics.”
“We find commonalities when we have the patience to look for them, just as the liturgies we attend look quite different but are at heart the same celebration of the Paschal mystery.”
In many parishes where the extraordinary form is now offered, any mutual enrichment has been paralleled by a similar sense of serious division. Rather than leading toward a new universal rite, in some cases the institution of an extraordinary-form Mass has resulted in the parish community being sundered, in part because many adherents (and opponents) consider the extraordinary form part and parcel with a rejection of the theology of Vatican II as a whole. Pope Francis has made it clear that acceptance of Vatican II is a sine qua non of being a faithful Catholic today. “The council is the magisterium of the church,” the pope said in January of this year. “Either you are with the church and therefore you follow the council, or if you do not follow the council or you interpret it in your own way, as you wish, you are not with the church. We must be demanding and strict on this point.”
Pope Benedict XVI’s edict “unfortunately opened the floodgates for those who wanted to reject the Council,” said John Baldovin, S.J., a professor of historical and liturgical theology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and author of Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics, in an email interview with America. “Pope Benedict’s stated purpose was to provide for small groups of the faithful who could not break an attachment to the old forms. The reality is quite different. Now, many younger priests and seminarians are devotees of the former rite—and worse, try to impose it upon their congregations.”
“I believe that Pope Francis recognizes the divisive nature of the movement to return to the old Mass and other pre-Vatican II liturgies,” Father Baldovin continued. “The post-Vatican II liturgy is centered on the premise that the people of God celebrate the liturgy together in virtue of their shared baptism.”
“I believe that Pope Francis recognizes the divisive nature of the movement to return to the old Mass and other pre-Vatican II liturgies,” Father Baldovin said.
Instead, the church has experienced two different forms coexisting uneasily, with the ordinary form of the Mass remaining by far the predominant usage. But the promulgation of "Traditionis Custodes" brought the extraordinary form back into Catholic news. In June, Pope Francis restricted the usage of the Tridentine Rite in St. Peter’s Basilica, allowing it for “groups with particular and legitimate needs” but putting an end to the practice of individual priests celebrating the extraordinary form at private Masses throughout the basilica. But "Traditionis Custodes" goes much further.
The liturgy of the church, Francis clearly states, is the rite promulgated in the wake of Vatican II. "I take the firm decision to abrograte all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs that precede the present motu proprio, and declare that the liturgical books promulgated by the saintly Pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, constitute the unique expression of the lex orandi (rule of prayer) of the Roman Rite," Francis said in a letter accompanying the release of "Traditionis Custodes." (For a specific list of restrictions and regulations surrounding the celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass going forward, click here.)
What will be the reaction from people in the pews? In some corners, apoplexy and a feeling of betrayal, particularly so recently after Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio. “My suspicion is that the majority of Catholics, especially bishops, will be relieved. The most ardent supporters of the old forms will be infuriated,” Father Baldovin commented. But will it lead to that most drastic of situations, a possible schism in the church?
“Sad to say, there are many elements contributing to a possible schism today,” Father Baldovin wrote. “Many of them are really questions of moral theology, some simply of politics. But it would not be surprising if a church that went into schism gravitated to the pre-Vatican II liturgy.”
[Read this next: I once fell in love with the Latin Mass—which is why I understand why Pope Francis restricted it.]