Catholic Liturgy in the News

The Vatican’s Ecclesia Dei Commission has issued in instruction, “Universae Ecclesiae,” on the use of the “extraordinary form” of the liturgy (i.e., the mass that was common before Vatican 2, aka the Tridentine mass, aka the “old Latin mass,” aka the Missal of 1962). See Fr. John Z’s links and commentary.

Let me sketch the history.

After Vatican 2, permission was given to say the mass in the vernacular. Then the liturgy books were revised,  and the liturgy itself was greatly simplified. Then a very poor translation was made of that liturgy for English speaking audiences. There was a reaction. The Society of St. Pius X, reacting against both the liturgical changes and theological issues (ecumenism and interfaith relations) started ordaining its own bishops, and its founder, Marcel Lefebvre was excommunicated, along with the bishops he ordained. The old form of the mass was not officially abrogated, but practically disappeared. In the name of “the spirit of Vatican 2,” all kinds of experimentation was done. Altar rails were ripped out of churches, altars were turned around (or smashed). Awful “folk music” was introduced. Some thought the liturgy was becoming “Protestantized.” Other “traditionalists” complained, but bishops and the pope did nothing.

Then, the tide began to turn. In 1988 John Paul II issued the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, which encouraged bishops to allow celebrations of the old form for those attached to it. This usually meant that bishops allowed one celebration in each diocese, and those priests who dared to celebrate it on their own, like Houston’s Steve Zigrang, were stripped of their faculties. The Society of St. Pius V was established as kind of an official counterpart to the SSPX.  Those in Rome responsible for approving translations began to be more careful; the English translation of the second edition of the Roman Missal was never approved. In 2001, Liturgiam authenticam laid out the new rules that would govern liturgical translations–faithful translations were expected, not the loose paraphrases that had been approved in the 1970s.

This is the background to the latest actions. In 2004, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued the instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, on the proper celebration of the mass, correcting abuses that had crept in since Vatican 2, and making it clear that no priest has the authority to innovate. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum, which underlined the fact that the old mass had never been abrogated, and said any priest who wanted to could celebrate it–taking the power away from bishops and their liturgical bureaucrats. This instruction now clarifies that motu proprio–spelling things out plainly to those bishops and their bureaucrats that the pope is serious. Later this year, the English translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal will be published, and all Catholics will know that the days of loose experimentation are at an end. Rome views the liturgy seriously.

Traditionalists are rejoicing in the spring time of Roman revival. The mass that was the mainstay of Catholic life for over centuries, that nearly disappeared after Vatican 2, is back, to be “treasured” and to be held “alongside” the revised form. Any priest can celebrate it without permission–he just needs to be able to pronounce the words and understand what he’s doing. Any group of faithful, no matter how small or how young, can ask for it. The mass is to be celebrated as it was in 1962, without any of the changes after that date introduced back into it. All of this is in accord with a basic principle that Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has held dear–Vatican 2 is to be understood in accord with a hermeneutic of continuity: the Catholic church does not change. It is the same as it was before Vatican 2.

And I think some apologies are owed to Steve Zigrang.