St. Paul VI’s ‘Missale Romanum’ Turns 50

The document on revisions to the Roman Missal paved the way for new Mass — and new challenges — for the Church.

(photo: Unsplash)

This April marks the 50th anniversary of Pope St. Paul VI’s Missale Romanum (The New Roman Missal), and, while the 1,600-word document is relatively brief as papal documents go, it had a wide and profound impact on the life of the Church.

On April 3, 1969, Pope Paul VI promulgated the apostolic constitution, paving the way for the celebration of the Mass according to the Roman Missal promulgated in 1969 (with another slightly revised missal promulgated in 1970), one of the most visible changes to occur in the post-conciliar Church. The revisions to the Roman Missal that Paul VI announced in Missale Romanum went into effect later that year on the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 30, 1969.

The document, which details the changes that the Roman Missal would undergo, was greeted with great optimism, as many believed these changes would lead to a greater love for and understanding of the liturgy. But the hopes placed in such changes are today tempered by the reality that much work remains to be done to bring Catholics to a greater appreciation for the liturgy, even as the Mass that Paul VI’s document precipitated remains a pastoral touchstone for priests and an accessible entry point for converts to the faith.


Documented Revisions

Pope Paul VI noted in the document that the revisions were another step in liturgical developments begun in the early part of the 20th century by Pope Pius X and continued, more recently, by the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

“The recent Second Vatican Ecumenical Council,” Paul VI writes in Missale Romanum, “in promulgating the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, established the basis for the general revision of the Roman Missal.”

Pope Paul VI cited Sacrosanctum Concilium’s declaration that texts and rites “should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify” and so “that devout and active participation by the faithful can be more easily accomplished” (SC, 50).

In a Feb. 27 article for Adoremus Bulletin, Father Andrew Menke, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Divine Worship, noted that Pope Paul VI’s 1969 document focuses on three specific liturgical changes: 1) adding an increased number of Eucharistic prayers (anaphoras) to “the venerable Roman Canon that had been the sole Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman liturgy down the centuries”; 2) bringing a more inclusive dialogical form to the Mass (inviting the entire congregation to respond to the priest during Mass, instead of only the altar servers as in the past); and 3) offering a wider selection of scriptural readings to the Liturgy of the Word, including more Old Testament readings and the use of a three-year cycle lectionary. The Mass according to the Missal of 1962 usually only included a New Testament epistle and Gospel reading.


Revision and Restructure

According to Lynne Boughton, a professor of liturgical history at the Liturgical Institute-University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, Missale Romanum heralded not only a revision of the missal but also a “reformulation” and “restructuring.”

“Prior to 1969 the Church periodically revised the Roman Rite and its missal,” Boughton told the Register, pointing to several examples of such revisions in Church history, including the 1230 revision that led to the Franciscan Missal and the 1570 revision that followed from the Council of Trent and led to the longstanding Roman Missal, which was revised in 1958 and 1962.

“What was different in the 1969-1970 missal is that the structure of the Mass was reworked,” Boughton said, according to the restructuring of the missal itself.

“Since the 11th-12th century the goal had been to have every ordinary and proper text a priest needed to offer Mass contained in one single volume,” she said. “But because the Roman Missal of 1969-1970 provided a three-year cycle (Sunday) and two-year cycle (weekday) of proper readings, it was physically awkward to have the readings contained in a one-volume missal; thus the need for a separate lectionary. Also separated out from the missal was the Gradual, the book containing the proper responsorial Psalm — previously a proper Psalm at this point in Mass was transcribed in the missal itself.”

In instituting these changes to the Roman Missal, Father Menke writes in his commentary on Missale Romanum, Paul VI sought to “make the logic of the Mass more self-evident” and thereby better able to address contemporary culture.

“The Pope certainly knew the significance of the changes being made to the Sacred Liturgy,” Father Menke writes, “but he was convinced that this work would ultimately help the faithful to grow in holiness in the modern world.” 


Liturgical Challenges

But the changes that Missale Romanum heralded did not have the effect that Paul VI hoped would take place.

A 2014 Pew study on churchgoing with a sampling of 35,000 participants indicates that only 39% of Catholics in the U.S. attend Mass at least once a week (compared to 58% of evangelical Protestants who attend religious services at least once a week).

While the blame for such dismal numbers among Catholics cannot be attributed solely to the changes in the Mass, at least not without considering the cultural upheaval taking place immediately after World War II and continuing well after the Second Vatican Council, challenges in implementing Paul VI’s vision for the liturgy have led to a renewed call for the faithful to better understand the liturgy.

“This was a courageous decision,” Father Menke writes, referring to the promulgation of Missale Romanum, “a decision that has certainly seen its share of difficulties in its unfolding, but a decision that continues to invite the Church to an ever-deeper renewal.”

Gregory DiPippo, the editor of the online liturgical journal New Liturgical Movement, told the Register that such difficulties came about, in part, because the revised missal did not necessarily reflect the intentions of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which saw liturgical reform as much more limited in scope and application.

In 1964, Pope Paul VI commissioned Consilium ad Exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia — the Council for Implementing the Constitution on the Liturgy. Commonly known as “Consilium,” this group was tasked by Paul VI with revising the liturgy; however, according to DiPippo, their revisions superseded what the Second Vatican Council envisioned.

“What the Second Vatican Council does say is that the scriptural passages are to be broadened” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 92), DiPippo said. “But the members of Consilium took this as a license for going well beyond the mandate to do the same thing with other classifications of text, not just with the scriptural readings.”

One unfortunate effect of this wholesale revision, DiPippo said, was a sense that the liturgy was manufactured by man instead of received by God, thereby obscuring mystical elements of the Mass, a point which Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also noted in his memoir Milestones.

“There is no doubt that this new missal [promulgated by Paul VI] in many respects brought with it a real improvement and enrichment,” Benedict XVI writes, “but setting it as a new construction over against what had grown historically, forbidding the results of this historical growth, thereby makes the liturgy appear to be no longer a living development but the product of erudite work and juridical authority; this has caused us enormous harm.”

Benedict described the liturgy that emerged after Missale Romanum as “self-made” by man and therefore not properly focused on the source of the liturgy: God.

“When liturgy is self-made …,” Benedict writes, “it can no longer give us what its proper gift should be: the encounter with the mystery that is not our own product but rather our origin and the source of our life. A renewal of liturgical awareness, a liturgical reconciliation that again recognizes the unity of the history of the liturgy and that understands Vatican II, not as a breach, but as a stage of development: These things are urgently needed for the life of the Church.”


Eucharistic Celebration

But as Benedict acknowledges, the Mass that resulted from Missale Romanum also brought enrichment to the Church — including a welcomed refocus on the Eucharist as the central liturgical action of the Mass, said Timothy O’Malley, director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame.

“We can talk about whether the revision was perfect, and likely it wasn’t, because no revision of the Mass is perfect,” he said, “but it had as its goal placing the Eucharist at the heart of the Church.”

O’Malley sees the restoration of the dialogical aspect of the liturgy as crucial to this Eucharistic focus.

“Some of the dialogical parts are important early in history of the Church, and St. Augustine speaks of the sursum corda, the ‘lift up your hearts’ as a key moment of the Eucharistic celebration, where the people are gathered together and assembled and lift up their hearts. The heart is, of course, the seat of affections, desires, the will, all of which we lift up to God, and by lifting them up to God, we lift ourselves into heavenly existence. To speak these words, St. Augustine assumed, the entire congregation would be genuinely participating in the liturgy.”

But as St. Augustine also noted, any exterior response by the faithful in the Mass, O’Malley said, must begin with an interior response.

“One of the Church’s greatest tasks is to provide the kind of education where it is possible to form people to offer the Eucharist well,” he said. “That means the dialogical dimension of participation is not merely a matter of speaking words, but also of understanding what we’re doing when we speak those words.”


Parish Life

The expanded optional parts of the Mass mentioned in Missale Romanum have also allowed for greater pastoral latitude in celebrating the liturgy.

Father Samuel Martin, the pastor of St. John parish in Marshfield and Christ the King parish in Spencer in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the Register that the variations of the anaphora allow him to adapt the liturgy to the needs in his parishes.

“For example, I use Eucharistic Prayer No. 2 during the weekdays,” he said, “No. 3 for funerals and weddings, and No. 1, the Roman Canon, for weekends, and ‘all the saints’ for big solemnities.”

Despite the variety, Father Martin said, the continuity between the Mass and the Church’s rich patrimony of faith and Tradition shines through, especially when he prays the First Eucharistic Prayer, the Canon of the Mass.

“Some people get a charge out of the Canon,” he said. “They like hearing all those names of the early saints and martyrs of the Church. That’s one of the times we retain continuity — these prayers have been said for centuries, and there will be someone else standing at the altar at St. John’s or Christ the King praying these same prayers centuries from now.”


Before the Altar

The Mass that became the Western Church’s liturgical norm after Missale Romanum has also drawn those outside the Church into its most profound mysteries.

John and Megan Glassbrenner will be coming into the Church this Easter, April 21, along with their two children, Hudson, 6, and Lily, 5, who will be baptized at that time at St. Mary Church in Altoona, Wisconsin. The Glassbrenners are receiving instruction through the parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and their children are receiving instruction at St. Mary’s elementary school.

For John Glassbrenner, the journey to Rome began on the road to Emmaus and concluded at the altar of sacrifice in the Catholic Mass.

“I would say there are several reasons I and my family are coming into the Church,” he told the Register. “The Mass is the biggest one.”

As a Protestant trained in scriptural theology, Glassbrenner believed that Christ’s appearance to the disciples on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13-25) showed how Jesus revealed himself solely through the Scriptures — until he began looking at the passage through a Catholic lens.

“This passage in Luke 24 introduced to me the Eucharist and made the Mass more powerful to me,” he said. “In this passage, Jesus comes to the disciples, teaches them through Scripture, which is the Liturgy of the Word, and breaks bread with them, which is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Then they leave, which is the dismissal, telling people what happened to them. Well, that’s the Mass!”

Glassbrenner told the Register that the changes to the Mass announced in Missale Romanum helped facilitate his understanding of the Eucharist.

“The inner action happening in Mass is something a child could interact with and understand,” Glassbrenner said.

In fact, through his children’s questions and the dialogical aspects of the Mass, Glassbrenner said, he came to better understand the importance and meaning of the Eucharist.

“My children’s questions became my questions, and by learning the responses, I saw how these responses enhanced the Mass,” he said. “The responses were teaching me to become part of the Mass even as I and my family are becoming part of the Church’s body.”

Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.