50 years of vernacular liturgy: a retrospective

Firstly, today is the memorial of the death of Saint Thomas Aquinas (and his feast in the Traditional Mass), but that is not the anniversary I want to highlight today. Strange, however, is the coincidence of the Angelic Doctor’s transitus and our present consideration– Thomas’ works constitute a marvelous corpus of medieval Latin and a shining achievement of Western culture; today, on the other hand, we “celebrate” fifty years of the Roman Mass in the vernacular. On 7 March 1965, Paul VI presided the first vernacular Mass (in Italian) at the Roman parish Ognissanti (All Saints).

This Mass was not celebrated according to the present Novus Ordo as we know it; the liturgy at Ognissanti was, as best as we can describe, a hybrid between the Traditional Mass and what would later become the Novus Ordo. This was a provisional rite adopted (supposedly) in accordance with Paul VI’s motu proprio Sacram Liturgiam (1964), the instruction Inter Oecumenici of the Congregation of Rites (1964), and, of course, Vatican II’s constitution on the sacred liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (1962). It’s structure was far more like the Traditional Mass than the Novus Ordo, and while the readings from Scripture were proclaimed in Italian, many of the prayers in which the priest addresses God on behalf of the people (collect, super oblata/secreta, offertorium) as well as other common prayers (confiteor, Credo, Pater Noster), remained in Latin. Among many other changes, however, the traditional prayers at the foot of the altar were severely truncated to a simple versicle and response based on Psalm 42 (Introibo ad altare Dei/ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meum), and Mass was celebrated versus populum. The Italian-language blog Messa in Latino has posted photographs of the provisional 1965 Missal as celebrated by Paul VI, clearly showing the retained usage of Latin.

Everybody (including Paul VI) knew that not everybody would receive the new rites with enthusiasm, since it involved drastic changes to what good Catholics had known for centuries. Sincere, well-meaning criticisms of the provisional Mass arose out of this fact. Mere nostalgia for the old liturgy did not drive such criticisms; rather, the critics prophetically foresaw the consequences of such a substantial modification of a venerable rite. Furthermore, as many immediately noted, many of the changes had no justification in the Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy.

Just days after this Mass, on the feast of St. Patrick, Paul VI launched a blistering attack on the critics during his Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

La prima categoria è quella delle risposte che notano una certa confusione, e perciò un certo fastidio: prima, dicono questi osservatori, si stava tranquilli, ciascuno poteva pregare come voleva, tutto era conosciuto circa lo svolgimento del rito; ora tutto è novità, sorpresa, cambiamento; perfino il suono del campanello al Sanctus è stato abolito; e poi quelle preghiere che non si sa dove andarle a trovare, quella comunione ricevuta stando in piedi; e la fine della Messa che termina in tronco con la benedizione; tutti che rispondono, molti che si muovono, riti e letture che si recitano ad alta voce…; insomma non c’è più pace e si capisce meno di prima; e così via.

Non faremo la critica di queste osservazioni, perché dovremmo mostrare come esse rivelano scarsa penetrazione del senso dei riti religiosi, e lasciano intravedere non già una vera devozione e un vero senso del significato e del valore della santa Messa, ma piuttosto una certa indolenza spirituale, che non vuole spendere qualche sforzo personale d’intelligenza e di partecipazione per meglio comprendere e meglio compiere il più sacro degli atti religiosi, a cui siamo invitati, anzi obbligati ad associarci.

The first category [of criticism of the reformed rites] are those responses which note a certain confusion, and thus a certain annoyance: firstly, these observers say, we used to be calm, anybody could pray as he wished, everything was known concerning the unfolding of the rite; now everything is novelty, surprise, change; to this end, the sound of the bell at the Sanctus was abolished; then, those prayers which nobody knew where to find were abolished, then communion received while standing came into effect; the Mass which finishes suddenly with the blessing is no more; now, everybody responds, many move around, with rites and readings which are recited aloud… in sum, there is no more peace and we understand less than before; and so on.

We will not criticize these observations, because we would have to show how these objections reveal a shallow penetration into the sense of religious rites, and which already allow for a true devotion and a true sense of the meaning and value of the Holy Mass, but also that these objections show a certain spiritual laziness, which does not want to expend some personal effort of intelligence and participation in order to better understand and to better accomplish this most sacred of religious acts, to which we are invited, or rather, obligated to join ourselves.

In retrospect, we ironically find “spiritual laziness” in Novus Ordo Masses more so than in TLM communities. Furthermore, many critics of the liturgical reform, especially Cardinals Ottaviani, Siri, and Bacci, were learned men in the finest Thomistic tradition, all of whom understood the peril of haphazardly and suddenly tinkering with a rite which is fruit of centuries of organic development. With regard to participation, it seems as if Paul VI substituted the authentic sense of participatio actuosa as articulated by the Liturgical Movement (and enshrined in the legislation of Pius X and Vatican II) with the superficial idea of exterior action as participation. Papa Montini continues, characterizing the reform with false dichotomies:

prima bastava assistere, ora occorre partecipare; prima bastava la presenza, ora occorrono l’attenzione e l’azione; prima qualcuno poteva sonnecchiare e forse chiacchierare; ora no, deve ascoltare e pregare.

before, it was enough to observe, now one must participate; before, one’s presence was enough, now, attention and action are necessary; before, somebody could doze off and perhaps chat; now it is not so, one must listen and pray.

The Liturgical Movement that arose in the 19th century, that Pius X adopted, and which inspired the Second Vatican Council viewed the issue of liturgical reform as one primarily of education and catechesis, not as a reform of the rites themselves. Pastors of souls must take up their grave responsibility to teach and inform their flocks of the significance of the liturgy as it exists, to rediscover the treasure of the Mass as we have received it. What Paul VI suggests here, however, is something completely different– that despite the fact that the venerable Roman liturgy has nourished the faith and piety of countless generations and innumerable saints, it is suddenly now inadequate for “modern man”. He somehow implies that “attention and action” were not required in the older missal, or that one was not required to “listen and pray”. This is nothing short of an insult against the Church and her patrimony!

Regardless of rite, whether Traditional or Novus Ordo, one can doze off or just be present or chat with another person. Just as easily, in either the Traditional liturgy or in the Novus Ordo, one can participate actively, pay attention, listen, and pray. The difference lies in the interior disposition of the individual person, not in the form of liturgy. The Liturgical Movement realized this, and in doing so, its proponents advocated rigorous catechetical programs to help unlock the true spirit of the Roman rite which, in many places, had been obscured by ostentatious Baroque sentimentality. For the original proponents of reform, it was always a question of edifying and uplifting the people, not of deconstructing the liturgy. The “spiritual laziness” which the Pope mentioned is not proper to a liturgical form; rather, we might say that it belongs more properly to those who would destroy the coherent complexity of the Roman Rite for the sake of placating the vicissitudes of modernity.

…finalmente si può capire e seguire la complicata e misteriosa cerimonia; finalmente ci si prende gusto; finalmente il Sacerdote parla ai fedeli, e si vede che agisce con loro e per loro. Abbiamo testimonianze commoventi, di gente del popolo, di ragazzi e di giovani, di critici e di osservatori, di persone pie e desiderose di fervore e di preghiera, di uomini di lunga e grave esperienza e di alta cultura.

…finally we can understand and follow the complex and mysterious ceremony; finally we take enthusiasm; finally the priest speaks to the people, and we see that he acts with them and for them. We have moving testimonies, from the people, from children and from the youth, from critics and from commentators, from pious, desirous, fervent, prayerful people, from men of long and profound experience and of high culture.

Again, in his overly optimistic and binary assessment, Paul VI continues this false dichotomy of “before, it was bad; now it is good” or “before, nobody understood; today, everybody understands”. This dichotomy has unfortunately persisted in the minds of too many Catholics today. The transition to the vernacular in the liturgy has in no small way contributed to this false hermeneutic of liturgical rupture.

We must remember, however, that the Council never intended to abolish Latin in the liturgy; quite the contrary, it stated that “It should be provided that the Christian faithful can likewise say or sing in the Latin language those parts of the Order of Mass which pertain to them” (Provideatur tamen ut christifideles etiam lingua latina partes ordinarii Missae quae ad ipsos spectant possint simul dicere vel cantare; cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium par. 54). In keeping with this directive, the Mass which Paul VI celebrated at the parish of Ognissanti fifty years ago largely retained many time-honored Latin orations. Even if the form of the “provisional rite” left much to be desired (as does the Novus Ordo), it has a redeeming quality in the sense that, though lauded as a “vernacular Mass”, the timeless heritage of the Roman Rite did not go completely extinguished.

Today, if you go to Ognissanti in Rome, one will find this plaque above a statue of the Pietà (the dead Christ in the arms of Mary). It reads (in my translation), “Repeating the old benevolence of Saint Pius X to the Religious of Don Orione and to the parish family of Ognissanti, His Holiness Paul VI, inaugurating the liturgical reform decreed by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, deigned to celebrate in this temple the first Mass in the Italian language, amidst the stirred exultation of an entire people [di tutto un popolo] forever faithful and mindful”. The history of this plaque, however, is far less rosy than the inscription might indicate.

This plaque is not located in its original place; in fact, it used to be placed much closer to ground level. After it was installed, the plaque was repeatedly defaced and vandalized, obviously by those who were not happy with the path of the liturgical reform; one could hardly speak of the esultanza di tutto un popolo. The repeated vandalism came to an end only when it was moved and installed above the Pietà— for nobody would dare to climb upon a statue of Jesus and the Blessed Mother. Although vandalism is certainly not the right way to protest a decision (as unjust as that decision may be), this anecdote underscores the fact that we cannot view the story of liturgical reform through rose-tinted glasses. We cannot say that all was bad until Paul VI and Vatican II fixed everything. We cannot say that common Catholics were unable to piously pray and participate in a Latin-language liturgy. If we continue to accept these false dichotomies, then we are the ones who will inevitably fall into “spiritual laziness”. However, if we remain a people sempre fedele e riconoscente, forever faithful and mindful or our illustrious heritage, we recognize that it is precisely through the Latin language that the glory of the Roman liturgy shows her genius.

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