What is the Tridentine Mass?

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The Tridentine Mass is the old form of Mass that was authorised for use throughout the Roman Catholic Church from 1570 until it was replaced following the second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

The Tridentine Mass is also known as the ‘Old Mass according to the 1962 Missal’, and sometimes inaccurately called ‘The Latin Mass’.

In a Tridentine Mass:

– everything is in Latin,
– the priest conducts the liturgy facing East, leading the community who are behind him
– everything happens strictly and precisely according to the rubrics (instructions)
– the congregation follows the Mass in private prayer and doesn’t play an active part
– Before the 1960s the Tridentine Mass was never called by that name – it was simply ‘The Mass’; because there was no other sort of Mass.

The Tridentine Mass was never banned by the Vatican, although it was restricted in many places. The intention was always that the old liturgy should continue where it was appropriate, but that for most churches the new liturgy would more suitable.

The Tridentine Mass is in the news. On 11th October 2006 The Times reported that:

Pope Benedict XVI is understood to have signed a universal indult – or permission – for priests to celebrate again the Mass used throughout the Church for nearly 1,500 years. The indult could be published in the next few weeks, sources told The Times.

If this permission is granted it will give further heart to many Catholics who’ve missed a much-loved and familiar liturgy since the success of vernacular masses in the 40 years since Vatican II.

The Sunday programme’s Edward Stourton is joined by Dr Laurence Paul Hemming, a specialist in Catholic liturgy, and by Catholic journalist and writer Austen Ivereigh to discuss the Pope’s move to revive the Tridentine Mass.

Why people like the Tridentine Mass:

– It’s a theatrical and poetic experience of great spiritual power
– It has more of a sense of the mystery and the sacred
– It’s more clearly sacrificial than the modern Mass
– It’s part of a tradition of worship that’s centuries old
– It’s always the same – there’s no freedom for personal variations
– The language has a brevity and power that vernacular versions don’t achieve
– Modern texts are often banal
– Because it was the same in every country, it produced a sense of community with other Catholics worldwide
– Because it’s what they grew up with
– Because they don’t like change
– Some people also feel that the modern mass downgrades the status of the priest unacceptably, and weakens the theological content of the service in order to make it more readily understood.

Where this has happened, and it’s very much a matter of opinion, it is the result of local liturgical initiatives and not due to the specific changes made by Vatican II.

The experience of the Old Mass is powerfully evoked in this passage:

Even non-believers like Carl Jung have acknowledged that the Tridentine Mass is a solemn rite of extraordinary power.

The very entrance of the priest, bearing the veiled chalice and paten and preceded by servers, announces that an action of extraordinary importance is about to be re-enacted. It may be re-enacted daily, but it is no everyday action.

From the repeated allusions to offering, oblation, and victim, it becomes clear that the action is a sacrifice. By its nature the Mass is always a sacrifice, but its sacrificial character is more insistently affirmed and articulated in the Tridentine than in the present rite.


Why was the Mass changed?

In changing the Mass the Church saw that there were two types of content in the liturgy.

Some of it, especially the sacraments, was unchangeable, because it was ‘of divine institution’ and the Church had a duty to guard it.

But other parts of the liturgy were changeable and the Church decided that it could (and sometimes should) alter and adapt those to serve the community better and make it easier for people to take the liturgy to their hearts.

People and priest

In the new version of the Mass the priest faces the congregation as part of the community and the congregation themselves play a much more active part in the service.

The liturgists believed that the Mass was the concern of the whole Body of Christ – including the members of the Church, and therefore they said liturgy should be “celebrated in community with the active participation of the faithful”.

They added

To promote active participation, acclamations by the people are favoured, responses, the chanting of the psalms, antiphons, canticles, also actions or gestures and bodily postures. One should also observe a period of sacred silence at an appropriate time


The most obvious difference between the old Mass and the new Mass was that it promoted the use of the language of the place where the mass was being celebrated (vernacular language) rather than Latin. (Many people think that Vatican II banned the use of Latin; it didn’t do that at all.)

An average Christian without specialist liturgical formation would find it difficult to distinguish between a Mass sung in Latin according to the old Missal and a sung Latin Mass according to the new Missal.
This was done, as Pope John Paul II put it, ‘so that every individual can understand and proclaim in his or her mother tongue the wonders of God’.

This wasn’t a total rejection of history, as some thought; in the earliest days of Christianity liturgy would have been in the local languages of Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. Latin became a popular church language first in Africa, later spreading to Rome. Latin did not achieve total supremacy in the Church until the 7th century.

Was the Tridentine Mass banned?

The Tridentine Mass wasn’t banned by Vatican II but most Bishops restricted its use. In 1984 the Mass was allowed wider use by an indult (a canonical permission).

Pope John Paul II gave the Mass a new lease of life in 1988 when he wrote:

…respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition, by a wide and generous application of the directives already issued some time ago by the Apostolic See for the use of the Roman Missal according to the typical edition of 1962.
Nowadays the Church allows the Tridentine Mass to be celebrated in parish churches ‘where this would be a genuine pastoral service to the faithful asking for it’.


History of the Tridentine Mass

The final version of the Tridentine Mass was codified in 1570 by the Council of Trent, but some of the material in it is nearly 1000 years older.

The Council of Trent was a response by the Catholic Church to the dramatic upheaval of the Reformation. Roman Catholic bishops met for 25 sessions of debate between 1545 and 1563; further discussions continued in Rome for years afterwards.

Liturgical reform wasn’t the Council’s only result; it led to the founding of the Jesuits, a revision of the Church Calendar and much clarification and codification of Catholic doctrine.

The liturgical problem was that many local variations on the Mass had been created in the confusion that followed the Reformation, not all of them of high quality or in line with the central doctrine. The Church realised that different liturgies could become a real threat to unity.

The liturgical reforms were made by a commission set up for the purpose by Pope Pius V. Their job was to create new, centrally authorised orders of service that every Church in every country would have to use. They issued the Breviarum Romanum in 1568 and the Missale Romanum in 1570.

The Council of Trent carried out considerable reforms in the sphere of Catholic worship by removing many appalling abuses and by rearranging the form of the Catholic liturgy.

But the Tridentine reforms were in fact more in the nature of a restoration of the medieval status quo than a truly constructive and creative renewal of Christian worship in the light of the Gospel and arising from a need to adapt worship to the requirements of a new age.

The liturgists went back to an earlier form of Mass (1472) and cleaned things up, removing what one theologian called “the rank and monstrous excesses which had, particularly during the later Middle Ages, crept into the Mass”.

They produced an order of service that laid down in minute detail what would be done and said at each stage of the Mass, and so gave churches a simple and effective template for worship that could be shared by congregations everywhere.

The Mass remained unchanged for 400 years, and served the Church well, despite coming in for much criticism in more recent times, largely for giving the congregation virtually no active role to play in the service.

Current liturgical thinking is generally critical of the Tridentine era (effectively the four hundred years from the 1560s to the 1960s).

Nevertheless the Tridentine liturgy provided the basis for consolidation after the schism of the Reformation, for spiritual growth and devotional fervour among the laity, and for mission to every continent in the world.

Incidentally, the Tridentine Mass didn’t completely remove all other orders of the Mass: several others survived on a small scale, among them the Ambrosian rite, the Mozarabic rite of Toledo, the rite of Braga, the Carthusian rite, the Carmelite rite and the Dominican rite.

in BBC News site


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