Last week, it was reported widely in the press that the Pope “was bringing back the old Latin Mass.” These reports were misleading on two counts:
First, the current Mass (the one said everyday at Jesuit Church) is already a Mass of the Latin (or Roman) Rite. It may be said in Latin without special permission. After all, Latin is the language of the Roman Rite and Vatican II itself said, “The use of Latin is to preserved in the Latin rite.” When even small changes are made in the vernacular text of the Mass (for example, from “This is the Word of the Lord” to “The Word of the Lord”), these changes are based on the Latin text, which remains normative. When I say private Masses, for example, I almost always celebrate in Latin. At Jesuit High School, we had several Latin Masses in recent years (usually for Latin classes). St Patrick’s Church, in addition to celebrating the older form of the Mass, also celebrates the ordinary form in Latin. In other words, the Pope can’t “bring back” Latin because it never went anywhere. It remains and always has been the normative language of the Roman Rite.
Strictly speaking, it’s not even true that he brought back the “old Latin Mass.” As the Pope notes, it was never officially abolished after Vatican II, not even after the Missal of Paul VI was promulgated in 1970. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, certain groups in certain parts of the world were authorized to celebrate Mass according to the 1962 Missal. Pope John Paul II expanded that privilege in 1984 and further still in 1988. Now almost every diocese in the United States has at least one Catholic church or chapel that offers the “old Latin Mass.”
So what did the Pope do? In part, the following:
1) He established the old Missal, promulgated by Pius V and reissued in 1962 by John XXIII, as an “extraordinary form” of the Mass. The Missal of 1970, the fruit of the liturgical renewal of the 20th century, remains the “ordinary” form.
2) Every priest now has the right and privilege, when celebrating “Mass without the people,” of celebrating according to the older Missal without any special permission. Such Masses may be attended by the faithful who so desire. These can be celebrated on any day of the year except during the Sacred Triduum.
3) The Pope permits and encourages pastors to celebrate Mass according to the older Missal for “stable groups of the faithful who adhere to the earlier liturgical tradition.” These Masses can be celebrated on weekdays and once on a Sunday or feast day. Pastors also should grant requests from priests and groups of lay faithful for the older Mass for special celebrations, like weddings, funerals, pilgrimage Masses, etc.
Why has the Pope made the older form more accessible?
1) According to the Pope, a good number of people, long after Vatican II, remained strongly attached to the older usage of the Roman Rite, which had been familiar to them from childhood.
2) Other people became attached to the earlier form of the Missal after enduring years of liturgical abuses and false forms of creativity in the celebration of the new Missal. In short, interest in the older form of the Mass has grown as people have experienced a loss of the sacred in some celebrations of the new Missal.
3) The Pope seems to hope that the more frequent celebration of the older form will lead to a more reverent and faithful celebration of the “ordinary form.”
4) The Pope emphasizes that there is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal. “In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church's faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”
That last point is very compelling. The Mass as celebrated by St. Ignatius, St. Vincent de Paul, and St. Frances de Sales; the same Mass that nourished Therese of Lisieux and Maria Goretti; the Mass that attracted into the Church the likes of Clare Boothe Luce and Evelyn Waugh; that Mass cannot be “harmful” or simply all of a sudden enter into the realm of “the forbidden.”
The Pope’s wise and generous action helps restore liturgical balance and can assist the Church in preserving her ancient spiritual riches. To which I say, Deo gratias!