Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Comparing the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite

As we move forward into the second decade of the 3rd millennium, there is, in the midst of discouragement, a lot of hope for the Church. The primary sign of hope is an ever growing - even rapidly growing - mass of dedicated, orthodox young people seeking to live for Christ and His Church. It is also the case that many of these are found to be more traditional in their approach to prayer and Liturgy. This has prompted a good deal of discussion over the Liturgy and how it is best celebrated. In particular, with Pope Benedict's Summorum Pontificum authorizing more widespread use of the "traditional Latin Mass" or the "Tridentine Mass" as it is variously called, it's not uncommon to find oneself in a discussion over the merits of this "older" Liturgical rite. I thought it worthwhile to take the time to try to bring a little bit of light to the subject. Before I begin, there are a few preliminary points worth mentioning.

First, it's very important that we speak of both rites of the Mass with the reverence and respect due to the Holy Sacrifice. Whichever rite is celebrated, it is still the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the greatest act in which a human person can participate. It would be grievously problematic to speak contemptuously of either.  It is my belief that part of this involves what we call these various rites. While no disrespect may be intended in using terms such as the "Traditional Latin Mass," the "Tridentine Mass," the "Novus Ordo," or the "Pauline Mass," they are not consistent with the way the Holy Father wishes us to view these Liturgies. He has declared that from henceforth the "Tridentine Mass" is to be referred to as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, and the "Novus Ordo" as the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Pope Benedict's reasoning for this is very important: both of these Liturgies are fully and entirely an expression of the Liturgy of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, differentiated only by their form. This is critically linked to a key concept that Benedict has stressed throughout his ecclesiastical career: that the Church's traditions and Liturgies exist in a unbroken continuity and that we must view things through a hermeneutic of continuity rather than one of rupture. When we give the Mass a name like the "Novus Ordo," we are speaking of it as if it were something new and thereby do not give it the full respect it deserves as an authentic development of the Liturgy instituted by Christ. Similarly, when we say something like "Traditional Latin Mass" about the Extraordinary Form, we present it as though it is something old and replaceable, or indeed, replaced.

Second, in no way do I consider the Ordinary Form to be superior to the Extraordinary Form - nor the other way around. It is my belief that each is superior in its own ways and inferior in others. All people considering this question should keep in mind that the decision to reform the Liturgy in the first place was made in an Ecumenical Council under the mantle of the Holy Spirit. The decision was not made for no reason, but because to at least some degree, a reform was necessary. This does not in any way imply that the Liturgy in use at the time of this decision was bad. Rather, it simply means that 500 years of doctrinal development and cultural change - some for the better, some for the worse - left the Liturgy in need of some adjustments. Indeed, these two factors have prompted the reform of the Liturgy at various points throughout history, some reforms being more substantial and others more of the character of minor tweakings.

Catholics are certainly free to debate whether a major reform was necessary in the 1960s. Some may believe that it was not. Personally, I am of the belief that a reform may well have been necessary for one simple reason: the world changed more in the 50 years leading up to the Second Vatican Council than it had in the 1,000 years preceding that. While the Church must not change in its substance with the world - truth is not defined by culture - It does need to update some of its external approaches to better proclaim the Gospel in the individual ages in which it may find itself - the way truth is received by persons does change with culture. This is nothing new, of course; the Church has been updating it's approach based on the contemporary culture for 2,000 years. While this article is primarily focused on the Church's Liturgy, it is helpful to point out that I firmly believe that the Second Vatican Council was the antidote to many of the things that have plagued the Church for the past 40 years. John XXIII - now ranked among the Blessed, let us not forget, believed that some changes were necessary in order for the Church to effectively save souls in the 20th century. My belief, which may be the subject of a later discussion, is that without those decisions made at the Council, the Church would find herself in a far worse position today than she does. The Council's saving effects are, in my belief, only now becoming manifest because on the one hand, it takes time for any changes to bear fruit, and on the other, unfortunately the Council was not properly implemented.

I happen to be one of the results of this Council. I wouldn't be Catholic if it weren't for Vatican II and it's reforms of the Liturgy. I would suggest that many others, such as the well known scholar Dr. Scott Hahn (himself responsible for countless conversions) wouldn't be either. All that being said, it is time to bring this aroung to the Liturgy and to examine some of the different aspects of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Liturgy.

Latin versus the Vernacular

It is important to recognize the value of having a sacred language. Indeed, to this day the Jewish people cling to Hebrew as a tie to God Himself, and it is considered by many to be one of the reasons that the Jewish race and culture has survived to this day. A Sacred language also helps to add an important sense of mystery and holiness to Liturgical celebrations. It helps people to realize that what they practice and experience in the Liturgy is tied to the transcendent, and that it is set apart from what they do in the rest of their lives. This is related to the importance of having a common language. With a common language, it doesn't matter where one gos in the world, as the Liturgy will be the same. God is universal, and His Church is universal, and so there is great benefit in being able to attend Mass anywhere in the world without needing to speak the local language. It also ties the people of God together. For these reasons and others, I think that the use of Latin as a sacred and a common Liturgical language is wonderful and critical to preserve.

However, I also think that the restriction of the Liturgy to Latin alone is harmful. In the first place, this was never really the intent of the Church. Latin was originally introduced into the Liturgy precisely because it was the vernacular language at the time. Everybody knew it. It was the English of the first millenium. Latin was made the language of the Church so that everybody could understand the Liturgy. As the centuries went on, the Church expanded and the collection of languages used by Catholics became more diverse, it was helpful to maintain the use of Latin as a common language, and indeed, that sense of the sacred became imbued in it.

However, something can also be lost in excluding the vernacular from the Liturgy. When there is only Latin, the only option for most is to follow along in a missal. Not only can this be distracting (I know college professors who don't want students to bring their textbooks to class for just this reason), but more importantly, "faith comes through hearing" (as St. Paul wrote). This is why in we're not supposed to be reading along in a missal or missalette. It's one of the most common (albeit minor) Liturgical abuses today. It's better for people to hear all of the prayers, acclamations, and so forth than for them to have to read along with them. Now, prayers and acclamations can be learned. The chief problem lies in the reading of the Scriptures in Latin. Traditionally, the readings were read only in Latin with no vernacular repetition. Eventually the Church granted permission for the Gospel to be repeated in the vernacular (and this is what most older Catholics today likely remember from their childhood), but this is clunky and seriously detracts from the prayerful flow that is so important to the Extraordinary Form. One of the tremendous advantages of the Extraordinary Form is that it has the sense of a single, uninterrupted ritual of prayer, an advantage which is hampered by being unable to present some of the more appropriate portions in the vernacular.

The Ordinary Form permits all, part or none of the Mass to be said in either Latin or the vernacular, and so Masses can be offered entirely in Latin for those who would most benefit from it, entirely in the vernacular for those who would most benefit from it, and for the vast majority of us, as a combination of each, allowing the advantage of attention and hearing to be complimented by the advantages that Latin has.

Problems with the Presentation of the Sacrificial Nature of the Mass

Theologically speaking, this is one of the most areas in which I believe the Ordinary Form has the greatest advantage. The basic problem here is that the text of the Extraordinary Form can be somewhat confusing and/or ambiguous when it comes to the fact that the Mass is a Sacrifice. This may come as a surprise as this is usually the very opposite claim that is made against the Ordinary Form! To illustrate my point, consider this text (translated into English) from the Extraordnary Missal:
Accept, O Holy father, Almighty and Eternal God, this spotless host, which I, Your unworthy servant, offer to You, my living and true God, to atone for my numberless sins, offences, and negligences; on behalf of all here present and likewise for all faithful Christians living and dead, that it may profit me and them as a means of salvation to life everlasting. Amen
The problem with this otherwise profoundly beautiful prayer is that it takes place well before the Consecration of the Host. In other words, at this point the priest has bread and wine on the altar - not the Body and Blood of Christ. Certainly, there is a sense in which we do offer the unconsecrated bread and wine to God not unlike the offerings of the firstfruits in Levitical law. The Ordinary Form more explicitly refers to this point in the "Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation" prayer (which many people may be unfamiliar with if they have not attended a daily Mass), and in fact this is the point: the Ordinary Form makes it clear that at this point in the Liturgy, we are making a secondary offering to God, one of the bread and the wine, whereas the Extraordinary Form can easily give the impression that that more important Sacrifice is taking place with unconsecrated bread and wine. The language is very strong for bread and wine, with references to offering it in atonement for sins, for the dead, and so on. Bread and wine do not take away sins: the body and blood of Christ do.

This is of course only one example of the larger difficulty. In the Extraordinary Form, the concept of sacrifice appears 16 times. 12 of these occur before the consecration. In other words, the fact that what is going on here is a Sacrifice is mentioned 3 times more when bread and wine are present than when the Body and Blood of Christ is.

In the Ordinary rite, a much less confusing ratio can be found. Eucharistic prayer I is an almost identical copy of the Extraordinary Form's, and so the same problem can be found: a total of 12 mentions with only 3 coming after the Consecration. However, if one uses Eucharistic prayer IV, there are 4 mentions before and 4 after the Consecration. Eucharistic prayers II and III are less desirable, but the former of these is directed to be used only for daily Masses.

This may seem convaluted to some, but t I honestly think is a real problem. We don't offer the Father bread and wine in the Mass. The Mass is the Mass because we offer the Father the Body and Blood of Christ. Consider that many of the great spiritual writers have taught us that there is a far greater danger in presenting truth mixed with falsehood or ambiguously than in presenting pure falsehood. Pure falsehood will be recognized and rejected, but mixing truth and falsehood or presenting truth in a confusing manner can often leave a question as to just where the truth lies. In view of this, I see a real potential danger in presenting the truth that a Sacrifice is occuring in such a way that it can leave a question as to just what is being Sacrificed.

In fact, this is precisely one of the reasons that the bishops at the Second Vatican Council asked for a reform of the Liturgy. Even prior to the Council (as early as the 1950s), one very well respected Liturgist lamented that it was "well known" that the people of that time had lost the idea that the Mass was a Sacrifice, citing some of the problems mentioned here. Correcting these was one of the goals of the Liturgical reform.

Some of these prayers are worse than others. For example, another part of the offertory reads, "Come Thou, the Sanctifier, Almighty and Everlasting God, and bless + this sacrifice which is prepared for the glory of Thy holy Name." Clearly, the intent of the prayer is good and proper. The problem is that it sounds (or reads) to the average Mass-goer as though the Sacrifice has already been prepared - even while it is merely bread and wine. Whatever the intent, the way it is presented is problematic.

At the same time, the Extraordinary Form has a lot of tremendous material in the Mass of the Faithful (what is known as the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form). it is much longer (in a good way), more beautiful, more rich in symbolism and and conveys the majesty of what is taking place. The extended invocations of the saints are much appreciated.

Lectionary and Liturgical Calendar

This one's pretty simple. Catholics get to hear a lot more of the Scriptures in the Ordinary Form. The Calendar is also much more clearly organized, with clearer delineations between levels of Liturgical celebrations. In the pre-Vatican II calendar, there was hardly a day without some kind of special celebration.  In the current calendar, memorials and feasts of saints seem to carry more meaning because they are not an everyday occurrence.


First and foremost, the ability of the people to hear the Consecration is, in my opinion, of tremendous importance. In the Extraordinary Form, the Consecration is to be said silently. While it's easy to think of what would hopefully rare and unusual problems with this (e.g., some have complained that they want to be able to hear the Consecration to ensure that the priest is doing it properly and that they truly are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ), I simply think it is right for the people to hear it. Christ gave His Body and Blood for all, not for the apostles only. The words "This is My Body" should be heard by all, in my opinion. In fact, this is tied closely to the fact that the priest offering Mass acts in persona Christi - in the person of Christ. It is Christ who offers the Mass, and the faithful should be ever aware of this, realizing just what they are watching and, hopefully, deriving great spiritual benefit from it.

Another concern is that of the way that each form engages the participation of the faithful. There are two sides to this issue. On the one hand, all of the time the celebrant spends "on his own" in the Extraordinary Form lends itself wonderfully to silent prayer. This is very profound, and certainly greatly desirable. On the other hand, that prayer is a prayer which is in a certain sense detached from the Mass itself. The greatest prayer of all is taking place at the altar. The faithful should be engaged in this, treating it with the greatest of all reverence.

Of course, the participation called for in the Ordinary can be taken too far or overdone. At times, there is almost no room for one to join his or her personal prayer to the intentions of the Mass. This is, of course, more of a problem with the way the Mass is celebrated and not with the Ordinary Form itself, which calls for times of silence. I believe that at its core, the idea of bringing the faithful into a more "focused" - for lack of a better term - worship in the Mass is a good thing. It must simply be done in the right way.

Some Miscellaneous Points
The ad orientem celebration (when the priest offers Mass facing "away" from the people) is, in my opinion, by far the single most important difference one is likely to see when attending the Extraordinary Form. It cannot be understated what benefits come from this. First and foremost, it rightly orients the mind of the priest, bringing him to recall at every moment that each word he utters is in prayer to the Almighty and not as a statement for the faithful to hear. Second, it rightly orients the congregation, bringing them to recognize that the priest is praying to God and, indeed, offering sacrifice to Him. Of course, this can be done in the Ordinary Form, but almost never is. It is beautiful, it puts the Sacrifice, the transcendence of God, and the role of the priest all in wonderfully striking perspective. I believe it should be the exclusive posture for celebrating Mass.

The Extraordinary Form also has many other beautiful prayers, symbols, and actions that help to express the depth of what is actually taking place. More than that, because the Mass is an objective reality and not merely a collection of symbols, these truly accomplish what they represent. For example, the Extraordinary Form contains a tremendous amount of preparation. Before the Mass even begins, the priest stops before approaching the altar to ask forgiveness for his sins and to prepare to approach the altar. How wonderfully this demonstrates how serious an action he is about to undertake, and indeed, how important is it that the priest truly does prepare himself for the holy things he is about to do. It really is very beautiful and theologically profound.

In the end, I would love to see a Liturgy that combines the great elements of each of the two forms we have now. Nonetheless, we must always remember how great what it is that we do have. Whatever form of Mass you find most spiritually enriching, go!

God bless!