The Mass of Paul VI at 50: Marking the Golden Jubilee of the New Order

Why the Mass Was Revised

(photo: Shutterstock)

The Second Vatican Council brought about a sea change in many aspects of the Catholic Church, and none more so than, 50 years ago, when the Mass of Paul VI — the Novus Ordo, the New Order of the Mass was officially promulgated on Nov. 30, the First Sunday of Advent, 1969.

The emergence of the new order of the Mass marked a historical change in the way that the Church prayed in its liturgy and celebrated the Eucharist.

The reason for this change is linked directly to the Council’s constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which called for a revision of the liturgy, including greater use of the vernacular, the introduction of a three-year cycle of scriptural readings for Sunday Mass compiled in the Lectionary, and a restoration of general intercessions (the Prayer of the Faithful).

Additional changes in the Mass stem from the work of the Consilium, a body of bishops and liturgists commissioned by Paul VI in 1964 and led by its controversial secretary, then-Father and later Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, who according to memoirs of some Consilium members pushed for novelty in the reforms. The Consilium’s members served as architects for the changes to the Mass called for — and others that were not called for — by Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Today, liturgists and theologians look back on the new form of the Mass, explaining what drove the revisions to the liturgy and how the changes were received.


Pope, Council and Consilium

Since its promulgation, the new order of the Mass has been called the Mass of Paul VI, although, according to Father Dennis Gill, director of the Office for Divine Worship of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and professor of sacred liturgy at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, the idea for a new form of the Mass did not originate with Paul VI but was the result of an interpretation of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the proposals pushed by the Consilium.

Sacrosanctum Concilium gave an overview of potential areas of reform,” Father Gill said, “and then the Consilium, which was established by Paul VI to carry out the constitution, had its own project of reform. … He was directed by both of those tracks — what Sacrosanctum Concilium indicated and what the Consilium proposed.”

But according to Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, all the changes introduced by the new Mass can be attributed to one “overarching idea” that guided both the Conciliar document and the commission assigned to carrying out its principles.

“The key term that goes through Sacrosanctum Concilium and the work of the Consilium is active participation,” he said, noting that the term is used 11 times in the document itself, including most famously in its discussion of the general goal of liturgical reform:

“The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, may be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved” (SC, 50).

 Father Thomas Kocik, author of Singing His Song: A Short Introduction to the Liturgical Movement, told the Register the Council’s goal of “the promotion of ‘active participation’ (participatio actuosa) in the liturgy for all of Christ’s faithful … called for pastors to be ‘thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy,’ and to impart this spirit to their people through widespread liturgical formation.”

The Conciliar document on the liturgy also called for a balanced approach to reform by retaining “sound tradition” on the one hand and being “open to legitimate progress” on the other, said Father Kocik. He noted that the document pointed to examples of such balance: allowing for greater use of the vernacular, while also preserving the use of Latin in the liturgy, and allowing for cultural variations in the Mass while also maintaining the unity of the Roman Rite. Sacrosanctum Concilium also noted that Gregorian chant — the sacred music of the Church — “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” while also allowing for “other kinds of sacred music” and music from within particular cultures.

“These are balanced proposals for reform,” Father Kocik said.

Derivations From the Council

But this same balance was missing when it came time for the Consilium to integrate these principles into the revised form of the Mass, said Father Peter Stravinskas, president of the Catholic Education Foundation and editor of the apologetics journal The Catholic Response.

“The Consilium had been deputed to make changes the Council Fathers had in mind,” he told the Register, “but there was a sort of hostile takeover, and the Consilium went far beyond the mandate of the Council Fathers. A very heavy ideological scalpel was taken to the Roman Rite. And of course we move on from there to things that aren’t even in the Roman Missal, like standing for Communion, facing the people, altar girls, Eucharistic ministers and Communion in the hand. … If the Council Fathers went to the average parish Mass today, they would be stunned because none of this was envisioned.”

According to Susan Benofy, former research editor and longtime contributor to the liturgical journal Adoremus Bulletin, the motivations behind the Consilium’s derivations reach back to early 20th-century efforts at liturgical reform.

“The principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium were largely the same as those that guided the reform that had already taken place from the time of Pope Pius X onward,” Benofy told the Register. “These principles had been promoted by the preconciliar liturgical movement, but within that movement there were different emphases.”

“One group stressed catechesis so the people understood the liturgy and so could participate more fruitfully in it. Another group stressed adapting the rite as the way to encourage participation,” Benofy added. “It was the latter idea that apparently dominated the Consilium and those prominent in the implementation of the reform.”

The Consilium introduced a number of changes to the Mass not called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium, Father Kocik said, including a new penitential rite and new offertory prayers, and “three new Eucharistic Prayers were added (and more came later) for optional use as alternatives to the Roman Canon, which for more than a thousand years had been the sole Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Rite in all its legitimate variants.”

Father Kocik acknowledged that there may be good arguments for these changes, “but the fact remains that these are radical reforms contravening [Sacrosanctum Concilium’s] insistence that ‘any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.’”


Faithful Response

When the new Mass was introduced as the standard form of celebration in parishes, it was met with a mixed reception.

“There were two sides to this story” of how the new Mass was received, Msgr. O’Connor said. “One side would say ‘It was great’ and the other would say — ‘ … To a certain extent, what we did, dropping the Latin, turning the priest to face the people and using table altars instead of high altars, we certainly did look more Protestant than ever before, and that became a problem for some people.”

But according to Benofy, most faithful were already inured to liturgical changes that had been taking place in the years leading up to the new Mass.

“The changes in the Mass actually began on the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 29, 1964,” she told the Register. “And people were already referring to this as the ‘new Mass.’ A number of practices such as Mass facing the people at a table-style altar, removal of statues and Communion rails, though not actually called for by the rite, were introduced at that time, and the ‘folk’ Mass soon followed.”

Additional liturgical changes, Benofy said, also followed before the Missal of 1970, which “meant that the faithful’s understanding of the liturgy and their own faith life had already been undergoing change for five years when the new form of the Mass was introduced in 1970.”

One unintended result of the new Mass being introduced, according to Father Kocik, was dwindling congregations.

“Reputable sociological studies attest to the rapid decline in Mass attendance following the imposition of the new Mass,” he told the Register.

Father Kocik noted that other factors — such as the social revolution of the 1960s — also played a part in this decline, “but the fact remains that the adaptation of the Church’s liturgy to the perceived needs of ‘modern man’ did not, as was expected, herald a new springtime of Christian life and worship.”

On the other hand, according to Father Neil O’Donoghue, theologian at the Pontifical University at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland, for many of the faithful, the new Mass was appealing if only because of the greater use of the vernacular — which the bishops had already asked and received permission for by Paul VI three years before the new Mass was promulgated.

“There was a groundswell of popular support for having the whole Mass in the vernacular,” he said.


Pope Paul’s Hope

In the days leading up to the promulgation of the new order of the Mass on the First Sunday of Advent 1969, in a Wednesday general audience on Nov. 26, 1969, Pope Paul VI expressed great hopes for the liturgy that was about to become a part of the Church’s patrimony. Although he acknowledged that the new rite would doubtless cause consternation and “irritation” among some of the faithful, it was also an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the liturgy.

“Finally, if we look at the matter properly, we shall see that the fundamental outline of the Mass is still the traditional one, not only theologically, but also spiritually,” he said. “Indeed, if the rite is carried out as it ought to be, the spiritual aspect will be found to have greater richness.”

According to Father Gill, the Church must continue to promote this richness, especially in what he calls the liturgy’s “theological dimension — what it says about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and what it says about the redeeming sacrifice of Christ and the Holy Spirit, who actually allows us to encounter that sacrifice. And that theological dimension doesn’t belong to the Mass only used yesterday but also the Mass that is used today.”

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

This article and the commentary by Father Roger Landry from Saturday are part of the Register's coverage of the Novus Ordo at 50.