The Mass of Paul VI at 50: The Restoration of the Sacred

Part II of the Register’s look at the history of the New Order of the Mass

(photo: Shutterstock)

The Mass of Paul VI turned 50 this Advent, and in the past half-century, its reception has been as mixed as its origins and promulgation have been confusing.

But, as imperfect as the Novus Ordo may seem to some, or as exactly fitting for the modern age as it might seem to others, the new Mass is the primary way for the majority of the Church in the West to encounter Christ’s words, actions and symbols through the sacred liturgy.

The work of reform is not complete, 50 years after that First Sunday of Advent in 1969, the Church continually returns to the sacred in the liturgy to better facilitate the faithful’s ultimate encounter with Christ in the Eucharist.  


Sacred Mystery

In his Nov. 26, 1969, Wednesday general audience address, Pope Paul VI announced on the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 30, 1969, that the new Mass was to become the new liturgical norm of the Roman Rite. Quoting Swiss theologian Maurice Zundel, he reminded the faithful that at its core “the Mass is a mystery to be lived in a death of Love. Its divine reality surpasses all words. ... It is the Action par excellence, the very act of our Redemption, in the Memorial which makes it present.”

Yet, between then and now, that same mystery has in large part been lost to the faithful, said Father Thomas Kocik, author of Singing His Song: A Short Introduction to the Liturgical Movement.

“Few today would dispute that poor decisions were made in an excess of enthusiasm. Different ‘styles’ of Masses proliferated: folk Masses, home Masses, clown Masses, charismatic Masses and so on,” he said, adding, “Where the forces of secularization, individualism and political ideology took hold in the Church, the liturgy was emptied of a sense of the sacred, destabilized by gimmickry of all sorts, or made a platform for political causes.”

To restore this sense of mystery to the new Mass, said Susan Benofy, longtime contributor of Adoremus Bulletin, the new Mass needs to be celebrated as it always has: with a primary focus on the sacrifice on the altar, as indicated by the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC).

The Council, Benofy said, “encouraged active participation of the people, but stressed that the liturgy is ‘an action of Christ the Priest’ (SC, 7) and of his Body, the Church” so that “in the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that Heavenly Liturgy” (SC, 8).  

As the liturgy is now celebrated, however, Benofy said, the focus on sacrifice and looking ahead to heaven has been de-emphasized.

“Given the way the reform was presented and the liturgy is generally enacted, many people now believe that the liturgy is a ‘celebration of community.’” she said, adding that “a casual style of celebration also contributes to an impression of a secular, this-worldly, rather than a heavenly, liturgy.”


Art of Celebration

Addressing this concern for a lax or sloppy celebration of the Mass, John Paul II proposed that the sacred elements of the Mass should be a matter of understanding and practicing ars celebrandi — the art of celebrating — the sacred liturgy, especially in light of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

In a 2005 letter, John Paul II writes, “The ars celebrandi precisely expresses the capacity of ordained ministers and of the entire assembly, gathered together for the celebration, to bring about and live the meaning of each liturgical action. … Through rites and prayers, we must let the Mystery reach and permeate us.”

According to Christopher Carstens, editor of Adoremus Bulletin, ars celebrandi fosters the sense of the sacred sorely missing in the celebration of today’s liturgy.

“When this ‘art of celebrating’ happens, then Christ manifests himself to the Church in the Mass, and his people are transformed by his grace by their participation,” he told the Register. “But when this work of art is carried out poorly on our part — not in keeping with the rites and rubrics, without mature understanding, or lacking proper care and seriousness — then the encounter with Christ loses much of its fruitfulness.”

Central to this art of celebrating, said Father Dennis Gill, director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is a proper offering of the Eucharistic Prayer, the central prayer of the Mass.

“The Eucharistic Prayer is offered to the Father,” he told the Register, “and in so many instances, it’s carried out in a conversational way, as if the celebrant is talking to the faithful assembled in front of him. Whether offered versus populum [toward the people] or ad orientem [to the liturgical ‘east’], that prayer moves to God, and there’s a way to carry it out by all of us in a reverential and beautiful way.”

“But,” he added, undertaking ars celebrandi “has to be a concerted effort; it can’t just be a priest here or there or a community here or there.”

Such a concerted effort is what Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon, hopes that the Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook will achieve. Published for the clergy and faithful of his archdiocese last January, the 375-page handbook was written by Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the archdiocesan Office of Divine Worship.

“Our thinking here in Portland,” Msgr. O’Connor told the Register, “is that we’re asking our priests to celebrate the Mass as the Church envisions, using the current documents of the Church, all the things published since Sacrosanctum Concilium.”

“The Novus Ordo can be done reverently, prayerfully and beautifully,” he added. “But there are some places where the liturgy has become sloppy or folksy, and while the Mass is still essentially there, the sacred is not there.”


Teach the Mass

There is also a catechetical component essential to the new Mass, which, as Pope Francis states in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, begins in the pulpit.

“When preaching takes place within the context of the liturgy, it is part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace which Christ pours out during the celebration,” he writes. “This context demands that preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist.”

According to Father Peter Stravinskas, president of the Catholic Education Foundation and editor of the apologetics journal The Catholic Response, such teaching must also include explicit lessons on proper worship, including a few basic principles that lie at the heart of the liturgy.

“First, God is God and I am not,” he said. “Secondly, because I’m a creature, I have a duty to worship God. Thirdly, the Church’s primary reason to exist is to provide communal worship of the Triune God. We bring men to God and God to men when we come together for Holy Mass. If these principles were etched in the consciousness of the average Catholic, our whole style of worship would change.”

In addition, Carstens said, catechesis can also show the faithful that elements of the new Mass that might seem “novel” are actually quite old.

“Many of the ‘novel elements of the new Mass are only novel from our point in history,” he said. “Oftentimes in the liturgical life of the Church, the vernacular was employed, the general intercessions prayed, and the dialogues actively used. Still, with their reintroduction 50 years ago, these elements weren’t automatically the sources of spiritual renewal they were meant to be. How many, for example, listen attentively and meditate upon the expanded cycle of readings, or pray ‘fully, consciously and actively’ the Universal Prayer? A half-hearted participation in the Mass, new or old, cannot sanctify as it ought.”


Tradition Uninterrupted

Such a connection with Tradition was also a part of Pope Benedict XVI’s efforts in restoring a sense of the sacred to the liturgy — a keynote of his pontificate. Benedict sought to heal the apparent rupture between Tradition and the contemporary Church, which the new Mass seemed to precipitate, by presenting the liturgy within the context of what he called in his Christmas 2005 address to the Roman Curia a “hermeneutics of reform,” which he characterized as “the correct key” for the Second Vatican Council’s documents’ “interpretation and application” — as opposed to the “hermeneutics of disruption,” which divorced Tradition from these documents.

The hermeneutics of reform was especially important, Benedict said, in the relationship between personal devotion to and public worship of the Eucharist.

“In the period of liturgical reform,” he says, “Mass and adoration outside it were often seen as in opposition to one another: It was thought that the Eucharistic Bread had not been given to us to be contemplated, but to be eaten, as a widespread objection claimed at that time.” But, he adds, “The experience of the prayer of the Church has already shown how nonsensical this antithesis was.”

There are indications that the Church is taking notice of Benedict’s hermeneutics of reform, too, said Benofy.

“A re-sacralizing [of the Mass] is necessary,” she said. “There is work being done in this direction: attempts to introduce chant and sacred styles of music (including recent compositions) and more traditional sacred styles in newly built or renovate churches. But these practices need to be more widespread.”


Try and Do

Diligence in celebrating the new Mass, realigning it with Tradition, and incorporating liturgical catechesis for clergy and faithful will all help restore the sense of the sacred to the new Mass, Carstens said.

“The best thing the Church, her ministers and her people can do to implement the Novus Ordo,’ he said, “is to celebrate it faithfully and intelligently.”

“Of the Christian faith generally,” he added, “G.K. Chesterton once noted that it’s not that the faith has been tried and then failed, but that it has been found difficult and, therefore, left untried. I’ve often thought something similar about the Novus Ordo: It’s not that it has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult — or inconvenient, or demanding or not personally conducive, or what have you — and left untried.”

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

Read Part I here: “The Mass of Paul VI Turns 50.