Saturday, December 15, 2018

Left Behind: A Different Take on the Mass of Paul VI

There is no Last Gospel. The preparatory prayers are gone. There is a single Confiteor. The collects and readings are gone or moved. It is done facing the people. There is no more chant. This is different. That is different. So much is different.

Writers in the last five or six decades, whether defending or condemning the 20th century changes to the Roman rite, often focus on what is different and whether or not that is a good thing. What no one seems to talk much about is what the reformers retained from the old rite and how strange those things are, given the antiquarian motives behind the new liturgy. Is it not strange that certain ancient elements of the old rite went dormant while the oddest medieval accretions remained?

Many, many years ago this writer went to an old rite Mass at Sacred Heart Church in New Haven, Connecticut sung by a professional schola of men to a congregation of less than a hundred people. I had one of those little red Ecclesia Dei pew booklets, which I discarded after being unable to follow the Mass with it. Instead, I watched the Mass as people in past times, bereft of literature, watched it, by following the dramatic actions: the priest ascending the altar after striking his breast in unworthiness, the words of Christ incensed and sung at the Gospel, the offering of bread and wine, the elevation of the Sacred elements at the moment of Transubstantiation, protestations of unworthiness at Communion and more. After Mass I was convinced I saw something of a different ethos from what I grew up knowing at St. Bridget's. What was strangest to me was not what was different (the rites were obviously quite different), but what was the same.

Well over a decade later, and only slightly less ignorant about the Roman liturgy, that initial confusion continues. Is the new Mass more "Protestant"? Some believe so, and in practice it is, but textually this is doubtful. The reception of the new liturgy, unfortunately, came in an ecumenical age with unrestricted optimism as to the future integration of religious parties. Mass facing the people and vernacular, misunderstood as the primitive norm, were only the contemporary norm of heretics, and received in the same praxis as that of the heretics. Strictly speaking, I agree with Geoffrey Hull that the new Mass is fundamentally a twin child of Jansenist spirituality and antiquarian scholarship. As such, it is a communitarian reimagination of the Eucharist in a third century Roman home. The Pauline liturgy, through that lens, is somewhat confusing.

The first and foremost oddity is the introduction with the Confiteor, an early medieval emandation to the liturgy. The Introit, initially an entrance hymn, became abbreviated with the addition of the Little Hours to the Mass and the grander cathedral ceremonies inspired by monastic chapters. The beginning of Mass became confined to the sanctuary and the clergy, rather than simply approach the altar, made protestations of unworthiness to stand at the altar of God as did the high priests of the Old Covenant, lest they be struck dead and removed by the length of a rope. In the old low Mass, the server makes the responses at the Iudica me and Confiteor, not on behalf of the people, but in place of the deacon and subdeacon. It is, essentially, a clerical act of purification caught up in the medieval aesthetic of ritual propriety. Why, then, did it remain in the reformed liturgy, albeit in a reduced fashion?

It was kept in an amended fashion, not only in reduction of the number of saints mentioned, but also in purpose. The single Confiteor functions much more like a collective act than a priestly act. The purpose of this does not seem to be to reduce the priesthood, as some may think, but to involve the laity more in a point at which they are not naturally involved. The 1964/7 revisions of the Tridentine Mass also indicated the Confiteor be said allowed from the sedilia, an expansion of a mistake on the low Mass. In this, the reformers took the low Mass to be the absolute norm for the old Mass and acted accordingly.

Next, and similarly debated, is the Offertory. Why is there an Offertory in the reformed Mass? As late as the 8th century, in the Ordo Romanus I, the Roman Church had still resisted the oriental introduction of Eucharistic preparation rites. The Lord Pope simply accepted the offering of the bread from whoever baked it and brought it to the altar. The Frankish and Gallican liturgies introduced elaborate Offertory processions, possibly extant in the 1474 Curial Missal, and ante-Eucharistic prayers, anticipating the Sacrifice, to accompany them. The entire act was caught up in quintessentially medieval Eucharistic theology of the Mass as the anamnesis of Calvary, as Christ's Sacrifice of the Cross manifested again in plain sight. 

Pope Paul's Mass, curiously, retains an Offertory, but unlike the Confiteor, it is not a modification of the Tridentine rite. Nay, it is an altogether new series of prayers based on 3rd century Jewish Seder Meal Prayers which Christ never said and which were, certainly, never part of the primitive house Masses of the Roman Church. Why retain a vitiated ceremony? Could it be that, as with the preparatory prayers, the reformers took the existing liturgy as normative and reacted against exact elements they disliked? Some writers envision the reformers as having ripped apart the old liturgy, brick by brick, and having replaced it with something fabricated ex nihilo. For the Office, collects, and readings this is true; for the ordo Missae it is apparent that the Consilium began was an understanding of the essentials of the current Mass and then went backward, piece by piece. In the Offertory there was no antiquarian antecedent, and so they had to invent one.

The last, and most medieval, element of the old Mass that the reformers retained is the elevation of the Sacred species. In the late Dark Ages and early part of the High Middle Ages, after the sung Canon transformed into a silently spoken prayer, the people demanded to see the Host, to know that the priest had said the proper prayers to change the elements at the proper time. Popular piety, which included lay and sacerdotal prostrations to the ground (not unlike those still done in the Greek rite), met the now said Canon and found the laity unsure of what was transpiring for five quiet minutes. The elevation was in fact an elaboration of participatio actuosa on the part of the people and the priests who understood it was their duty to serve their wishes before the altar of God.

The medieval elevation brought God's presence to the church in a particular instant, an act of theophany before a congregation hoping for the Sacrifice to be accepted. The same Incarnational piety that generated the mystery plays, Eucharistic processions, and which added Saint John's Prologue to the end of Mass also created the elevation and enhanced it by breaking the silence of the Canon was exclamatory hymns that said this was the same body born of the Virgin and hung upon the Cross for our salvation:
Ave verum corpus, natum
de Maria Virgine,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.
O Iesu dulcis, O Iesu pie,
O Iesu, fili Mariae.
Miserere mei. Amen.
Pope Paul's Mass continues to elevate the Host and Chalice, and even has an exclamation after the elevation of the Chalice. The exclamation, whichever is chosen, departs from the previous focus on the Real Presence of Christ at the altar, which has just taken place, and moves into an apocalyptic, forward looking approach:
Mortem tuam annuntiamus, Domine, et tuam resurrectionem confitemur, donec venias.
One aspect of the Pauline Mass which I hold to be a theoretical improvement over the existing liturgy is that the Canon can be sung aloud as it once was at the celebrant's discretion. This option, even if accompanying the de facto norm of Mass versus populum, more or less eliminates the need for the elevations, given that its context has all but disappeared. No more would children and their fathers huddle in the pew waiting for the bell to ring and the celebrant to list the bread. They could now hear it, and probably see it, in live time.

This post is not so much a critique of the Pauline Mass, over which endless debate has raged long enough. I mean only to highlight that certain parts of the old Mass remain, disjointedly, because the reformers took much of the old rite as their basis before applying their suppositions. For all their inventiveness they took much for granted.


  1. What I've never understood is why did the elevation on the sacred species after the consecration come into practice if there was (and is) already an elevation at the end of the Canon.

    1. My opinion is that when the communion of the faithful finally reached its low point in terms of frequency, people needed a replacement, so elevations for the purpose of adoration were introduced.

      The elevation of the species at the end of the canon didn't serve that purpose, i.e. the species weren't "shown" to the people in order for the Eucharist to be adored, but "shown" to God in order for him to be adored.

      Now that the communion is once again frequent there is no need for the elevations interrupting the canon.

    2. Marco, the elevation at the end of the Canon has a different purpose. It is the act of offering the Sacrifice of Christ, Who has been made present earlier in the prayer. It is not primarily for popular viewing, but a priestly act. The twin elevations of the Sacred Species are moments of revelation meant for the people, to show them that Christ has indeed become present.

      Marko, I think there were ameliorations for infrequent Communion—the blessed bread after Mass, the candles on February 2, the branches on Palm Sunday, creeping to the Cross on Good Friday, and the Sacramentals—but I think the elevations really were more an elaboration of the very Roman focus on the Incarnation. The ceremony of Benediction is something I have never really found too interesting, not to say it shouldn't happen, but it also seems construed as a prolongation of the elevations at Mass, of the Cross. I do agree that they are awkward in the Paul VI Mass and, as I said, I can't quite understand why they were kept, but people seem to like them and hold them as providing a finality to the change, so I am not too eager to have them cut.

  2. The new offertory might have served either to emphasize that Mass is a meal (seder), or to make it as "first Christians did it", as the new texts superficially resemble some prayers from the Didache. (A similar method was used by marketing the II Eucharistic prayer as Canon of St. Hyppolit which it is not.)

    There is another very late feature preserved in the new Order of Mass. "Ecce Agnus Dei..." before Communion. It appeared in the Roman Ritual in 18th century only.

  3. All in all, can it be said that many of the reforms simply took medieval elements and gave them new form?

    1. In some cases, absolutely; the Confiteor is more a popular introduction. Aside from the Seder prayer, however, the Offertory really does seem to have retained some of its medieval purpose (preparing the Sacrifice and priestly purification); the priest still blesses water, still cleanses his hands, and still offers incense.

    2. I like the penitential prayer, absolution and Comfortable Words where we have it in Divine Worship, after the Prayers of the People and before the Offertory. Although I'll also note, while I like the Prayer of Humble Access just before the Agnus Dei, it is something of an unnecessary duplication of the penitential rite.

  4. As a working hypothesis: the Consilium was guided by the principle of reworking everything insofar as they could get away with it. At the time, they could only do so much. For instance:

    1) they wanted to eliminate the penitential act at the beginning of Mass (and did so for Palm Sunday and a couple of other days); and so they introduced options that diluted the penitential aspect a bit;
    2) Paul VI--so I seem to remember reading--insisted that they restore the offertory, which they initially excised; they gave as the primary option to recite it all silently, not out of deference to the ancient custom, but to minimize its impact on the congregation;
    3) the elevations, at least technically such, were replaced with "ostendere," showing the consecrated elements; possibly a quibble of terminology, but that rubric makes it possible for the priest, facing the people, to hold up the host or chalice for the consecration and simply continue holding it there at the same height in order to "show" it to the congregation.

    A confirmation of this principle being at work might be their desire to eliminate completely the Roman Canon; only Paul VI's insistence restored it to the final product.