What is the Traditional Mass?

The Traditional Mass is known by many names:

  • The Old Mass
  • The Latin Mass
  • The Traditional Latin Mass (TLM)
  • The Tridentine Mass (Missa Tridentina)
  • The Pre-Vatican II Mass
  • The extraordinary form (forma extraordinaria) of the Roman Rite
  • The older use (usus antiquior) of the Roman rite.

As explained above, the Christian ritual of the Eucharist developed over centuries into diverse rites in different cultures and localities, each rite having the same Sacrifice and the same general pattern, but with distinctive prayers and ceremonial. In the West, there emerged the Roman rite, the Gallican, the Mozarabic, the Ambrosian, and so on. Given the special connection between the Roman rite and the Holy See, it is not surprising that the former became the dominant rite in the West.

Little is known about the development of the Roman liturgy in the first three centuries, but historians can trace its Canon (core prayers) as far back as the fourth;[1] and from then on we see slow, organic development until the sixteenth century. This development was not entirely uniform throughout the Roman rite. By the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) there were many local variations and also abuses. Protestants were spreading their novel ideas and practices; and a rite which admitted of diversity was more vulnerable to their influence. Pope St. Pius V brought order and uniformity to the rite in 1570, when he issued an official missal (Mass book) strictly to be observed throughout the Western Church, excepting local rites and uses at least 200 years old.[2] The Roman liturgy remained virtually the same for the next four centuries.

What most people notice about this form of the Mass is that the priest faces the same way as the congregation and says all the prayers in Latin. Actually, the new liturgy can be celebrated in this way as well. Distinctive features not found in the new liturgy include the prayers at the foot of the altar, the offertory prayers, and the silent Canon. (The Roman Canon is an option in the new Mass, but it is not said silently). Every prayer and every gesture is saturated with reverence and meaning, and strong themes of sacrifice focus the attentive worshipper on the pre-eminent spiritual reality unfolding before him. These sundry elements come together in a most harmonious way, producing an atmosphere conducive to prayerful recollection and humble worship. Fr. Frederick William Faber, author of the hymn "Faith of our Fathers," wrote:

It came forth out of the grand mind of the Church, and lifted us out of earth and out of self, and wrapped us round in a cloud of mystical sweetness and the sublimities of a more than angelic liturgy, and purified us almost without ourselves, and charmed us with the celestial charming, so that our very senses seemed to find vision, hearing, fragrance, taste, and touch beyond what earth can give....[3]

In the following century, Pope Paul VI wrote that this form of the Mass

has been received by all as one of the numerous and admirable fruits which the holy Council [of Trent] has spread throughout the entire Church of Christ. For four centuries, not only has it furnished the priests of the Latin Rite with the norms for the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice, but also the saintly heralds of the Gospel have carried it almost to the entire world. Furthermore, innumerable holy men have abundantly nourished their piety towards God by its readings from Sacred Scripture or by its prayers, whose general arrangement goes back, in essence, to St. Gregory the Great (r. 590-604).[4]

Pope Benedict XVI added that it

enriched not only the faith and piety but also the culture of many peoples. It is known, in fact, that the Latin liturgy of the Church in its various forms, in each century of the Christian era, has been a spur to the spiritual life of many saints, has reinforced many peoples in the virtue of religion and fecundated their piety.[5]

Fruitful participation in the Traditional Mass is mainly interior, and requires a certain measure of detachment and recollection. For modern man so accustomed to constant activity, sensual stimulation, and instant gratification, this can be particularly difficult. It was, perhaps, with this in mind that in 1962 the Second Vatican Council called for an update of the liturgy to help facilitate "devout and active participation by the faithful."[6]

In 1969, Pope Paul VI announced

the liturgical innovation of the new rite of the Mass ... a change in a venerable tradition that has gone on for centuries ... something that affects our hereditary religious patrimony, which seemed to enjoy the privilege of being untouchable and settled. ... [W]e shall do well to take into account the motives for this grave change. The first is obedience to the Council. ... The other reason for the reform is this renewal of prayer. It is aimed at associating the assembly of the faithful more closely and more effectively with the official rite...."[7]
The revised rite had simpler ceremonies, shorter prayers, and abundant options. The vernacular, rather than Latin, was made the principal language of the liturgy, and consequently Gregorian chant was largely abandoned.[8]

Unfortunately, the new Roman Missal "was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy that were hard to bear."[9] What became common throughout the Roman rite was an atmosphere focused on community often at the expense of the sacred.

Many clergy and laity had difficulty coping with these dramatic changes, and sadly, not a few left the Church to form groups which maintained the traditional forms and customs. Pope St. John Paul II recognized the "rightful aspirations" of those who remained "attached to some previous liturgical and disciplinary forms,"[10] and Benedict XVI said the Traditional Mass "must be given due honour for its venerable and ancient usage."[11] He also urged bishops to make provisions for Catholics who "continue to adhere with great love and affection to the earlier liturgical forms."[12]

Many Catholics have since come to appreciate the traditional form of the Mass, not merely to avoid the excesses which followed the revision of the missal, but for its own value: for its rich prayers and beautiful ceremonies, its profound reverence and symbolism, its helpfulness in facilitating interior prayer and adoration, and its special connection with our fathers in the faith.

1. Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. Liturgy of the Mass. Here we will not explore the various rites and uses which developed into, out of, or alongside, the Roman rite.

2. See the Apostolic Constitution Quo Primum.

3. Qtd. in Gihr, Nikolaus. The holy sacrifice of the mass; dogmatically, liturgically and ascetically explained, Part II, Sect. 33; p. 337 (St. Louis: Herder, 1902)

4. Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum (1969). Text in parentheses added.

5. Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, para. 3

6. Sacrosanctum Concilium, nos. 1, 50

7. Pope Paul VI, General Audience of 26 Nov. 1969

8. Ibid

9. Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to bishops, 7 July 2007

10. Ecclesia Dei, 5c

11. Summorum Pontificum, Art. 1

12. Ibid, para. 8


Todd Aylard