What may we call the old Mass?

I’m fond of referring to the “traditional Latin Mass” on this blog, a term which ruffles plumage, especially at more, ahem, mainstream Catholic Web sites and fora. Go to Catholic Answers Forum, for instance, and you’re likely to be accused of schismatic tendencies for using the term. After all, what, are you implying that the new Mass is totally alien to Tradition, or that it can’t be said in Latin? (Rawr!)

Well, no, the new Mass is not alien to Tradition, but neither is it strictly traditional (and yes, there is a difference: the former concerns doctrinal truth, the latter encompasses discipline and praxis). Tradition comes from the Latin root word tradere, “to hand down.” Therefore a thing is traditional to the extent that it was handed down to us by our ancestors. The Mass we have today was not what was handed down to us by our ancestors, excepting the most recent generation of them: that’s why we call it the Mass of Paul VI, and not the Missal of Paul VI. It’s an entirely different order of Mass, new enough that there are people within living memory who predate it. Give it a few generations and sure, a stronger case for traditionality can convincingly be made, but until then, we’re still living in an age of liturgical novelty. And while it can be said in Latin, it virtually nowhere is. So, when I talk about a “traditional Latin Mass,” people get it: no more explanation is needed. You have to be pretty clever to convince yourself otherwise.

The same people who would club people over the head with rolling pins for using the phrase “traditional Latin Mass” will often insist to high Heaven that the appropriate term is “the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.” That’s the term the Church uses! If you don’t use it, you’re not of one mind with the Church! (That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. I was literally told that once, in almost those exact words, and not just by some random Catholic busybody but by the superior of a religious order).

But easy now. Let’s look at Summorum Pontificum, the document issued by Pope Benedict XVI which liberated the use of the old Mass (emphasis mine):

Art 1. The Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI is the ordinary expression of the lex orandi (rule of prayer) of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite. The Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V and revised by Blessed John XXIII is nonetheless to be considered an extraordinary expression of the same lex orandi of the Church and duly honoured for its venerable and ancient usage.

Erm, hmm. OK, what else?

It is therefore permitted to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass following the typical edition of the Roman Missal, which was promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962 and never abrogated, as an extraordinary form of the Church’s Liturgy.


§3 For those faithful or priests who request it, the pastor should allow celebrations in this extraordinary form also in special circumstances such as marriages, funerals or occasional celebrations, e.g. pilgrimages.

Then there’s the subsequent letter which Pope Benedict issued to the bishops of the world:

The last version of the Missale Romanum prior to the Council, which was published with the authority of Pope John XXIII in 1962 and used during the Council, will now be able to be used as a Forma extraordinaria of the liturgical celebration.  It is not appropriate to speak of these two versions of the Roman Missal as if they were “two Rites”.  Rather, it is a matter of a twofold use of one and the same rite.

As for the use of the 1962 Missal as a Forma extraordinaria of the liturgy of the Mass, I would like to draw attention to the fact that this Missal was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted.

Those are literally the only instances in which the letters “extra” appear anywhere in either document.

So Pope Benedict said, “The old liturgy may be celebrated as an extraordinary form of the Mass,” and some folk promptly reply, “Get that? He says it’s to be called THE EXTRAORDINARY FORM OF THE MASS” and proceed to shower with anathemas anyone who doesn’t speak like they do, as if the primary purpose of Summorum Pontificum were to inaugurate a liturgical vocabulary rather than clarify the legal standing of the old Mass. “The Extraordinary Form” isn’t a perpetually legally binding title we’re obligated to use under pain of mortal sin: it’s a throwaway description of the juridical standing of the old form of the Mass relative to the new one (i.e., it is extraordinary — out of the ordinary; not the norm). And the best evidence for that is that Pope Benedict himself, in the same letter to the bishops, sometimes referred to it as the usus antiquior (the “more ancient use” of the Mass), and his successor has referred to it in official documentation as the Vetus Ordo (the “Old Order,” as opposed to the Novus Ordo, the “New Order,” of Mass).

Could Pope Benedict, or can Pope Francis, be accused of not being of one mind with the Church?

I have no real problem with calling it the “Extraordinary Form” and one may note that I often refer to the reformed Mass on this blog as the “ordinary form” (lower case letters!), but it’s silly to insist that a description used by the Pope emeritus on a few occasions was, in fact, a definition to which we must adhere exclusively as if with divine and catholic faith, and to use that description as a blunt object with which to bludgeon people into embarrassed silence. That’s not “thinking with the Church,” that’s just Phariseeism.

Distribution of Holy Communion at an Anglican Use Mass at Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, TX — a form of the Mass which is apparently neither ordinary nor extraordinary.

Well, I suppose I do have one problem with calling it “The Extraordinary Form”: it’s no longer accurate. The traditional Latin Mass was, for a time, the sole extraordinary use of the Roman rite, but as of 2009, there’s also an Anglican Use Mass, which is considered part of the Roman rite’s patrimony and the celebrants of which are subject to their local Roman rite ordinaries. It, too, is certainly an extraordinary (out of the ordinary) form of the Roman rite Mass.

Actually, I guess I have two problems: if you’re not a Catholic dweeb like me, you won’t know what either “Ordinary” or “Extraordinary Form” mean, anyway, so the description is functionally useless and insisting on it is counterproductive. They are juridical terms far removed from the practical lives of ordinary Catholics: nearly everyone uses “Novus Ordo” for the reformed Mass and “Latin Mass” for the old one, and even-more-nearly everyone knows what is meant by those terms. Which is another good reason not to browbeat people who use such terms conversationally.


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