Priestly Ignorance of the New Mass

If priests are not aware of the origins of the new Mass, how can we expect fruitful dialog about the fact that some people prefer the preconciliar Mass to the modern one?

At a reunion of priests on the occasion of an anniversary, there was a discussion of the many aspects of Church life, especially about the suppression of the pre-Paul VI Roman Rite. Only one of the priests had celebrated the Mass of St. Pius V, and some of the padres were surprised at how some younger priests favored the old Mass.

“I just believe that when the Second Vatican Council said that we had to use English that we have to accept what it said,” opined one of the brethren.

In my usual and subtle way, I commented on his statement.

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“What are you talking about? The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was written before the Novus Ordo was written and speaks of permitting the vernacular, not mandating it.”

In fact, the Constitution says, “The use of the Latin language is to be maintained in the Latin rites, except where a particular law might indicate otherwise” (36.1). The next statement reads, “there cannot at all infrequently [haud raro] exist a practice of using the local language…firstly in the readings and in instructions given to the people, in some prayers and in some of the singing” (emphasis added). Paragraph 54 also calls for “a suitable place for the local language” in the liturgy, not the exclusion of Latin.

The Second Vatican Council called for a reform of the liturgy but did not write the new Missal. There is a real need to distinguish the conciliar teaching on the Eucharist in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the reforms that were promulgated afterward. The Novus Ordo was composed after the bishops went home and the pope had approved the decrees. Just as there are those who quibble with the use of the phrase Tridentine Mass, there is much more reason to distinguish the teaching of the Council from the postconciliar Mass. Just as there are those who quibble with the use of the phrase Tridentine Mass, there is much more reason to distinguish the teaching of the Council with the postconciliar Mass.Tweet This

Msgr. Klaus Gamber was a severe critic of the New Mass. He had no trouble distinguishing it from the Council teaching, however. He wrote: “There is also a consensus that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy corresponded in many respects to the legitimate pastoral requirements of our time. But no such consensus exists when we look at the reforms that were actually introduced.”

Cardinal Ratzinger, in the preface of a French edition of Gamber’s book The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background, had a very startling comment on the work of the committees that rewrote the Roman Missal. After mentioning J.A. Jungmann’s theory of the organic development of the Western liturgy, he wrote, 

What happened after the Council was something else entirely: in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it—as in a manufacturing process—with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product. 

(This is the translation on the book cover of Gamber’s work, it varies somewhat from that given in the Ignatius Press collected works, with “insipid” instead of banal.)

Louis Bouyer, one of the liturgical theologians at the Council had a similar idea. “You’ll have some idea of the deplorable conditions in which this hasty reform was expedited when I recount how the second Eucharistic prayer was cobbled together…I cannot reread that improbable composition without recalling the Trastevere café terrace where we had to put the finishing touches to our assignment in order to show up with it at the Bronze Gate by the time set by our masters” (Memoirs of Louis Bouyer, 222). It sounds like some of the reforms were written as I wrote some college term papers, the night before they were due.

The man in charge of the process of producing the final reforms was, in Bouyer’s no-holds-barred description, “the mealy-mouthed scoundrel… the Neapolitan Vincentian, Bugnini, a man as bereft of culture as he was of basic honesty” (Memoirs, 219).

Bugnini is the bugbear of many people who see him connected with conspiratorial figures. In Memoirs, Bouyer attests to the Neapolitan’s manipulation of the efforts of his coworkers. In a private discussion with Pope St. Paul VI, Bouyer found out that the pontiff did not understand why a certain detail of the liturgy was included. “Naturally, I answered: ‘Why simply because Bugnini had assured us that you absolutely wished it.’ His reaction was instantaneous: ‘Can this be? He told me himself that you were unanimous on this!’”

Bouyer seemed to believe other people were using Bugnini. What is clear, however, is that St. Paul VI was not completely satisfied with the reform package he eventually ratified. Some of the ambivalence of the pontiff explains why he gave a special permission for the Old Mass to continue to be celebrated in England, with restrictions. This so-called “Agatha Christie Indult” was given when a group of intellectuals and artists, including non-Catholic Agatha Christie, had petitioned the pope to allow the rite to survive under limited conditions. It says something about the saint’s reading in English that he was said to have recognized the author of Miss Marple but not Evelyn Waugh, who also signed.

I am sure that only a minority of priests know about the backstory of how the new Missal was produced. Even when the new translation of the Missal came out in 2011, when some very crucial changes were promulgated (even the wording of the consecration of the Precious Blood), or in the fix given to the Collect Prayers, the translation of which was apparently defective in every Mass said with the English language Missal for over fifty years, there was never much information given about the haste and even intrigue involved in the postconciliar “reform.” 

If priests (and, of course, and more culpably, the bishops) are not aware of these things, how can we expect fruitful dialog about the fact that some people prefer the preconciliar Mass to the modern one? It was my personal hope that the revival of the Mass of St. Pius V would truly promote “the reform of the reform.” Instead, the argument has led some people to extreme positions, including some of the so-called “traditionalists” who I feel are on the side of the angels but whose opinions have been caricatured and manipulated to stop needed adjustments to the New Mass.

Things could still change for the majority of parishes and parishioners. The ad orientem option with the Novus Ordo would improve the spirituality of the priests and focus the attention of the people on the sacrifice and not on the sacrificers. I am disappointed with so many priests, and, of course, bishops, who decry “the priest turning his back on the people” as the favored cliché argument used against priest and people looking to God. They obviously don’t get the point of the discussion.

We should start disabusing those “conservatives” who attack the Council in principle, not taking into account the unique style of rhetoric and the reasons behind it, and without reading the actual documents, and at the same time those liberals who defend a “Council” that never was, never will be, nor never should have been. 

More light, less heat about liturgical topics requires a broader and deeper approach to liturgical theology than what I received in seminary (and what the Second Vatican Council saw as necessary) and than what I believe is available in most formation programs today. The Council wanted to rescue the liturgy from rubricism; now we seem to have two competing rubricisms, the old and the new, with a number of young priests and seminarians in favor of the old. The center, it seems, does not hold, but that is where most of us are. I hate to sound like Mercutio on the Montagues and Capulets, but sometimes…


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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