Tridentine and Proud

Criticism of “Tridentine Catholicism” by modernists and even some defenders of the ancient Roman liturgy leads me to think the term should be embraced as a badge of honor.

If those interested in liturgical matters have heard it once, they have heard it a thousand times: the ancient form of the Roman Mass shouldn’t be referred to as “Tridentine.” Neither the Council of Trent nor Pope St. Pius V created a new liturgy.

St. Pius V’s missal was largely that used during St. Gregory the Great’s pontificate a millennium earlier. Most additions made since the time of St. Gregory were themselves centuries old. The core of St. Gregory’s missal went back to the earliest centuries of the Church. St. Pius V positively commanded dioceses and religious orders which had unique liturgical rites of at least two hundred years old to maintain their own liturgies.

That’s all perfectly true. Yet criticism of “Tridentine Catholicism” by modernists and even some defenders of the ancient Roman liturgy leads me to think the term should be embraced as a badge of honor. Of course, like many periods in Church history, the “Tridentine era” saw some debatable or even dubious theological opinions commonly accepted, optional prayers and spiritual practices treated as virtually essential, etc. But, for the most part, “Tridentine Catholicism” is simply a natural growth from the Catholicism of the apostolic, Patristic, and medieval eras—not the “corruption” alleged by many over the past hundred years.

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Attitudes toward the liturgy exemplify the difference between the traditionally Catholic and modern views. In the papal bull promulgating his missal, Quo Primum, St. Pius V declared that he “restored the Missal itself to the original form and rite of the holy Fathers” while also, as mentioned, mandating that all liturgical forms of at least two hundred years old be preserved. At the time, the crucial link between these two principles would have been obvious to Catholics. It is easily overlooked.

Contemporary mentalities tend to equate “restoring the rite of the holy Fathers” with restoring the “simple” liturgy of the Church’s earliest centuries. Many see the addition of numerous prayers and ceremonies during the Middle Ages (or even during the later Patristic period) as a corruption. Those who rightly value those additions will argue that it is imprudent to give up great goods of longstanding use in the Church for the sake of “returning to the Fathers.” 

For most of Church history, however, Catholics would not have considered there to be any difference between the “rite of the Fathers” and the “medieval liturgy” or between the “rite of the Fathers” and the “Tridentine Mass.” For most of Church history, additions to liturgical texts and ceremonial were not considered deviations from the rites of the Fathers. Such additions were considered part of the rite of the Fathers—not because they were used by the Fathers but because they were a natural outgrowth of the Fathers’ own intentions and orientations.

Early Christians didn’t desire a sparse liturgy. Prayers and rituals were fairly rapidly added during the first Christian generations because the desire for a more extensive and detailed liturgy was universally shared. Even the catacomb paintings reveal this attitude. It merely took time for the desired liturgical forms to develop. Once the initial developments were in place, the pace slowed during the later Patristic period and the Middle Ages. This is why a similar process of elaboration took place throughout both the Western and Eastern churches.

Until the twentieth century, only Protestants wished to “restore” so-called “early Christian simplicity.” Some during the Renaissance and Baroque ages wanted to eliminate all traces of Gothic architecture because they considered it primitive or barbaric. Later, the Gothic Revival wished to eliminate all traces of the Renaissance and Baroque out of a belief that these were pagan. Such debates concerned which extensive, detailed, elaborate, “non-simple” liturgical, musical, and architectural forms should be embraced.

St. Pius V’s command to preserve liturgies of at least two centuries’ existence confirms this attitude. Two hundred years was not arbitrary. Quo Primum was issued in 1570. In 1376, Pope Gregory XI had returned the papacy to Rome from Avignon. The Great Western Schism began in 1378. It ended in 1417, but its effects lingered for more than another century. 

St. Pius wished to eliminate developments from that chaotic time, when abuses and theological deviations more easily crept in. His goal was restoration of the medieval liturgy—as a natural and positive growth of the “rite of the Fathers”—in the most developed form it took prior to the Great Western Schism. Once the Church reconnected to that, it treated developments of the Baroque era as further natural and positive growth.

The difference between traditional and modern mentalities is obviously not limited to liturgical matters. At the Council of Trent, the Bible and St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica were placed next to each other on the altar. For centuries, all Catholics accepted that scholastic theology built on and clarified the theology of the Fathers. Even those who preferred the less systematic and more rhetorical Patristic “format” for presenting theology to the scholastic one highly valued the clarifications, intellectuality, and objectivity of the scholastics. St. John Henry Newman and other converts from Anglicanism are chief examples. 

Many twentieth century theologians rejected the scholastics in favor of ambiguity, emotion, and the subjective. For them it was not a matter of preferring one “presentational format” to another. They rejected as corruption what faithful Catholics had always seen as perfection.

A final important contrast concerns attitudes toward devotional prayers (such as the Rosary and Stations of the Cross) which became increasingly widespread during the High Middle Ages, the fourteenth century Devotio Moderna, and the emphasis on meditation and mental prayer in the religious reform movements of the sixteenth century (Capuchin Franciscans, Discalced Carmelites, Jesuits, Oratorians, etc.). From the sixteenth century until the twentieth, these developments were rightly seen as an outgrowth of earlier Catholic piety. 

As early as the fourth century, monks used the knots in their prayer ropes to count prayers, just like the beads of a rosary. It is unlikely that any consciously concerned themselves with the distinction between such “devotional prayer” and the “liturgical prayer” of the psalms. Following the fifth century’s First Council of Ephesus, such prayer increasingly took on a Marian character. 

We also know that early monks engaged in meditation and mental prayer throughout the day, not during spiritual reading but informally while performing manual labor. Mental prayer during spiritual reading gradually evolved into the more structured Lectio Divina. From there, canons regular and monks began to formulate steps of mental prayer. These methods gradually became more precise until reaching their fully developed form in the sixteenth century. 

Even once they were fully formalized, however, such methods were meant as aids. Most great spiritual writers since the sixteenth century believed most Catholics would benefit from their use, at least in the initial stages of the spiritual life. But while they absolutely insisted upon the value of mental prayer in the broadest sense, they accepted that foregoing the use of particular methods is best for some Catholics.

That devotional prayer and methods of mental prayer became more formalized and standardized significantly later than the liturgical prayer was no more a departure from earlier spirituality than embellishment of the liturgy was a departure from so called “primitive simplicity.” Liturgical, devotional, and mental forms of prayer all became more standardized and, in one way or another, elaborated as time went on. 

The nature of liturgical prayer assured that it underwent the process first and most rapidly. Next came devotional prayer, which is also tied to specific texts and can be said in common. Since mental prayer is entirely individual and has no specific texts, it is only natural that it was formalized last.

Emphasizing the distinction between the three forms of prayer is itself a twentieth-century development. The Good Friday liturgy, for example, opens with the clergy prostrate and engaged in mental prayer. The Litany of Saints is considered liturgical when included in the Mass for certain occasions but devotional when used in most contexts. But for most of Church history, nobody thought in terms of “liturgical” and “non-liturgical” spirituality. It was accepted that all forms of spirituality incorporate liturgical, devotional, and mental prayer. The unique aspects of the Mass and the sacraments were often stressed. The difference between liturgical prayer as such (which includes the Divine Office) and non-liturgical prayer was not.

Catholics also always accepted that liturgical, devotional, and mental prayer are all objective—grounded in the Church’s objective principles of prayer and the spiritual life. The idea that “liturgical spirituality” is objective while the emphasis on mental and devotional prayer traditional to certain religious orders is subjective is another twentieth-century invention. Its origin lies in wrongly equating “objective” with “communal” and “subjective” with “individual.” But the past half century has made clear that Mass can be celebrated in a spirit as subjective as that of traditional mental prayer is objective.

Unfortunately and ironically, disparagement of “Tridentine piety” comes not just from enemies of the Tridentine Mass but also from some of its most vocal advocates. Again and again, such individuals wrongly claim that the organic codification of devotions and of methods of mental prayer which occurred from around 1100 to around 1600 were somehow a “revolution” and that theories dating from the early twentieth century constitute “tradition.”

It is time to call a halt to such nonsense.


  • James Baresel

    James Baresel is a freelance writer. Publications for which he has written include Tudor Life, Catholic World Report, American History, Fine Art Connoisseur, Military History, Catholic Herald, Claremont Review of Books, Adoremus Bulletin, New Eastern Europe and America’s Civil War.

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