Old Mass stressed the many ways we call upon the Lord

January 14, 2013

Before moving on from the topic of liturgy, we might do well to stop and consider what was lost in the liturgical reforms that took place after the Second Vatican Council.

Most Catholics would likely say nothing was lost. The Mass in the vernacular could be understood by all, the role of Sacred Scripture was expanded and enhanced, the lay faithful had a more prominent role, the priest faced the people, and the structure of the Mass was greatly simplified.

It is that last point – the noble simplicity esteemed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – which Catherine Pickstock, a leading theologian at Cambridge University, finds to be problematic in the reformed liturgy.

Those who have access to a pre-Vatican II missal might do well to read through, in English, the order of the Mass that existed prior to the reforms and note the extensive differences from the current liturgy. (A version is also available on the Internet at www.liturgies.net/Liturgies/Catholic/TridentineLatinEnglish.htm.)

Aspects of the pre-Vatican II liturgy emphasized our infinite distance from God.

Aspects of the pre-Vatican II liturgy emphasized our infinite distance from God.

In her book, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, Pickstock notes that in their zeal to simplify the structure of the Mass, the reformers "ironed out" the frequent "re-commencements" of the faithful's approach to the altar of God. They erased many of the oblations, prayers of intercessions, citations of the apostles and the saints, requests for mercy and assistance, and rites of purification.

The reformers' belief was that many of these prayers were extraneous to the liturgy and hid its real purpose, which was as a memorial of a simple meal.

However, in Pickstock's view, the simplification of the Mass eliminated the "liturgical stammer" – the repetitions and frequent imploring of God's mercy that indicated, not our sinfulness and humiliation, but rather our distance from God. A focus on that distance is what in fact brings the faithful closer to God.

Her plea for a re-consideration of the mediaeval and Tridentine Mass reflects, she says, not nostalgia, but a desire for liturgy that challenges modern habits of speech and thought that deny the priority of the transcendent.

The Vatican II reforms, Pickstock says, were not radical enough. They led to a separation of liturgy from life by taking little account, if I understand her properly, of the tentativeness that is necessary to our approach to the all-holy God.


The Gloria is a prime example of where much has been lost in translation. Our translation of "Gloria in excelsis Deo" is "Glory to God in the highest" implying that the congregation wishes to give glory to God.

There is, however, much ambiguity in the original Latin. Is it in fact an expression of God's glory rather than the worshippers' attempting to give God something he already has? Is the congregation impersonating the angels' worship of God? Does it emphasize that God's "place" is exalted and immovable in contrast with human situatedness, which is always contingent and relative?


This uncertainty in the meaning of "Gloria in excelsis Deo" accentuates that in all our acts of giving, God is the real donor, an emphasis that is lost in the English translation.

Likewise, the old liturgy several times called upon specific apostles and martyrs to unite themselves with our prayer, a call that intensified the prayer or petition. This call underlined the personhood of the faithful who are praying, underlined their expectant and passionate desire for God.

Pickstock would maintain that our knowledge and our experience of selfhood is indeterminate and a shifting flux. The liturgy is the best forum for expressing this "nature" of the human person because it is in the mystery of the liturgy that our dependence on the transcendent is most evident.


Moreover, the pre-modern Mass and its "liturgical stammer" aptly express the dependence of this shifting flux on God.

A liturgy that "irons out" the diverse ways we call upon the Lord, that gives short shrift to God's merciful act of drawing us into his otherness and that brings the image of God down to the level of our humanity may lose the sense of the transcendence that is obvious in the old Mass and in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy.

We may have no desire to return to the old liturgy, but we should not believe nothing was lost in the liturgical reforms. A rite of the Mass that was more complex than the current rite nevertheless was able to instill a profound sense of the tentative nature of our approaches to the all-holy God.

Letter to the Editor - 01/28/13