Liturgical Diversity in the Third Millennium

The liturgy in the West, today, is far richer than that set forth in the liturgical books promulgated by Pope Paul VI.


In the 1970s, it was generally assumed that the liturgical reform, called for by Vatican II, had taken its final shape with the publication of the new liturgical books. Recent events have shown clearly, however, that the liturgy in the West, today, is far richer than that set forth in the liturgical books promulgated by Pope Paul VI.

Recent decisions regarding the extraordinary or older form of the Roman Rite, the Anglican Catholic Rite, and the ancient rites of religious orders, opened the door to a rich variety of rites. In the 1970s, however, most insisted that, outside of a few places in Milan, Spain, and Portugal, there was only one way to celebrate a Latin or Western Mass: the Roman Rite of Paul VI. The flexibility of the newer, or ordinary form, of the Roman Rite has proven to be an inadequate substitute for a variety of rites.

The most important alternative to the ordinary form of the Roman Missal, promulgated by Paul VI, is the extraordinary or older form of the Roman Mass. This form of the Mass has a much more extensive, richer text of its ordinary parts. It has fewer Gospels, Epistles, and Lessons. Unlike the newer form, there is never both an Epistle and a Lesson on the same day. The older rubrics are much more detailed and strict than the newer ones. There are more allowed variations in the newer form than in the older one. Unlike the very flexible newer rite, there are a very limited number of forms the older right can take. The flexibility of the newer rite has not always been completely positive. The alternatives to the newer form of the Roman Rite are described below, with special attention to the older form of the Roman Rite, which is the only alternative most pastors will encounter.

Many people currently misunderstand what distinguishes the two forms of the Roman Mass. One misunderstanding relates to language. Some think the older form is only celebrated in Latin, although in many countries, including the United States, the Leonine Prayers after Low Mass are in the vernacular. There is also a limited ability to use the language of the people in the Liturgy of the Word. Permission to celebrate in German was given briefly, and had long expired when the 1962 Missal was promulgated. Celebration in Greek lasted into the Middle Ages; the date it ended is uncertain. The newer form of the Mass is usually celebrated in the language of the people, but this form is also regularly celebrated in Latin. The older form is almost always celebrated with the celebrant facing the liturgical East, most of the time, while the newer form is usually celebrated facing the majority of the people. But both forms may be celebrated either way, especially when the architecture of the Church requires it. Vestments have changed over the years, but the newer form may be celebrated in the older vestments, and the newer gothic chasuble may be used in the older form as part of a complete set of vestments, as required in 1962.

The older extraordinary form is contained in the 1962 Missal. It is not the 1964 or 1967 Missal. The reforms of the Venerable Pius XII are part of the 1962 Missal. These include the suppression of the Confiteor immediately before communion, and the optional nature of the Leonine Prayers. There are three basic forms of the older rite, plus pontifical forms when celebrated by a bishop, and certain other prelates. Prior to the time of Pius XII, the ordinary form of the Missa Cantata, or sung Mass, was without incense, a master of ceremonies, and torches. The more solemn form of the Missa Cantata required an indult. Pope Pius XII made the more solemn form ordinary, which is the one we normally see today. The Missa Cantatais celebrated by a priest with a choir, and, ideally, with about ten altar servers, but can be celebrated with as few as three. The Epistle (or Lesson) can be chanted by a cleric (in cassock and surplice) other than the celebrant. This includes tonsured seminarians in a traditional seminary, but not seminarians from modern seminaries, below the order of Deacon.

The low Mass is another form of the older rite. Pius XII allowed, and encouraged, teaching the congregation to participate, viva voce, in the Low Mass, Vatican II encouraged this, as well. The low Mass, however, can also be celebrated in a more traditional way, with the responses given only by the altar boys, or, in the absence of altar boys, by only one or a few members of the congregation, or by the celebrant himself. The Congregation is permitted to participate in the responses.  In 1962, in congregations that had not been taught how to participate verbally, trained altar boys sometimes joined in for the responses.  In convents, it was a traditional practice for Mass to be celebrated, without altar boys, but with all of the nuns, or a few of them, giving the responses.  The low Mass is celebrated by a priest with one or two altar boys, with a larger number of servers allowed. One feature of all three forms of the older Mass, which is particularly apparent in the low Mass, is that much of it is celebrated secreto, or in a tone of voice that is inaudible to the great majority of the congregation. In the 1964 and 1967 Missals, the Cannon was no longer prayed secreto, but the 1964 and 1967 practices are no longer allowed. There are variations in the low Mass if one of the altar boys is a cleric, but this does not include seminarians from modern seminaries, below the order of Deacon.

The third form of the older Mass by a priest in a parish church is the Solemn High Mass. This requires a fully vested deacon, and subdeacon, along with a number of other ministers, as well as three liturgical books, incense, a master of ceremonies, torches, and a humeral veil. A cleric-seminarian in a traditional institute under the jurisdiction of the CommissionEcclesia Dei may replace the subdeacon, but a seminarian-lector, or seminarian-acolyte, in an ordinary seminary may not. If the subdeacon is replaced by a person not in major orders, he does not wear a maniple, or touch the chalice with his hands.

Most questions about how the extraordinary rite is to be celebrated are settled in an Instruction of April 30, 2011. This makes it clear that there is an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for those who want the older form; with instruction being offered in the seminaries. The Instruction makes it clear that the two forms of the Roman Mass cannot be mixed at all. The Mass is to be celebrated the way it was intended to be celebrated: under the 1962 Missal. It is not, however, to be a museum piece, frozen in time. The addition of new saints and new prefaces is anticipated. At low Mass, the Gospel and Epistle (or Lesson) may be proclaimed in Latin alone, in Latin and then in the language of the people, or in the language of the people only. This is not intended as a change in the existing rules. This seems to imply that when the readings are repeated in the vernacular, this is part of the Mass, and the maniple does not need to be removed, as was the frequent practice in 1962. Since Vatican II treats preaching as part of the Mass, it is not necessary to remove the maniple to preach.

In some churches, the altar boys kiss the celebrant’s hand at certain points in the Mass. This practice was in the rubrics, but over a generation before 1962, it died out. This indicates that it is not required. Many clerics and seminarians wear birettas at the older form of the Mass. They should remove them, and put them back on, according to the 1962 rubrics. Monks and friars seldom wear birettas, and never wear them with a cowl. Women are more likely to cover their heads at an older form of the Mass, than at a newer one. The manner of distributing communion in the older form of the Mass must conform to the 1962 practices, and not the more modern ones.

There are certain questions that may arise which were never anticipated in 1962. For example, if there is a microphone on the altar, common sense favors turning if off, at least from the offertory until the last Gospel. In 1962, nobody anticipated that a mixed military unit of men and women would attend Mass in the same military formation. Again, common sense suggests that the men remove their caps in unison, while the women leave theirs on, although this may offend some feminists.

The special Ember Day form of the Mass, traditionally celebrated in a small number of European churches, was never allowed in the United States. On Ember Days, however, the older form of the Mass must be celebrated with the prayers and genuflections in the 1962 Missal.

The April instruction makes it clear that the ceremonies of the sacred triduum may be celebrated according to both forms of the Roman Rite in the same church.

Other rites that will now enrich our liturgical life are the ancient ones of orders of friars and monks, especially that of the Dominicans. The question of the Dominican rite has been discussed in the Order of Preachers for some time. The April instruction makes it clear that individual friars and monks can celebrate the older rite of their order, without the need of permission. This is even clearer in the Latin text than the English one. We should now see not only the older form of the Roman Rite, but also the Dominican Rite.

The third major alternative to the newer form of the Roman Rite is the Anglican Rite. At the time of Saint Pius V, all the dozens of rites of the British Isles were suppressed. New priests had to be trained in seminaries outside of Britain, and be secretly sent back to Britain, risking  their own lives in doing so. The only practical way to do this was to use only the Roman Rite. The largest of the suppressed rites was the Salisbury, or Salem, Rite.

A few years ago, when several parishes of Anglicans rejoined the Catholic Church, they were allowed their own liturgy, which has many elements derived from the Salem Rite. The Church is now in the process of erecting prelatures for Anglican Catholics in many English-speaking countries. This process may increase the number of priests celebrating the Anglican Rite in the United States, from a handful, to about a hundred.

Finally, there is some speculation that the Mozarabic Rite may someday be authorized for Spanish-speaking Americans. This liturgy is quite different from the other Western rites, in that it completely escaped the standardizing pressures of the Carolingian period.

In summary, contrary to the expectations of the 1970s, we are likely to have at least three major forms of the liturgy. One of these will be the ordinary and most common one, but the others will be ancient and rich, appealing to those who appreciate their beauty. The extraordinary rites will continue to attract seminarians and congregations in great numbers. Perhaps, we all need to ask ourselves if we trusted that the Holy Spirit was preparing something beautiful when he inspired the Second Vatican Council to call for liturgical renewal.

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4 Responses to Liturgical Diversity in the Third Millennium

  1. Giovanni A. Cattaneo says:

    One could argue that the greatest time for Liturgical diversity was actually prior to the Council of Trent. In which the Rite of the Roman Curia was not celebrated universally unlike today in which the so called ordinary form of the Roman Rite has almost universal recognition as the western expression of Worship for the Christian West.


  2. JabbaPapa says:

    Liturgical unity has not existed since 1st century AD.


  3. annem040359 says:

    This wonderful article comes just a few days before the great feast of Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the Church. Happy Birthday Church!


  4. Gertrude says:

    “Perhaps, we all need to ask ourselves if we trusted that the Holy Spirit was preparing something beautiful when he inspired the Second Vatican Council to call for liturgical renewal.”

    Far be it from me to question the Holy Spirit, especially as Anne reminds us that we prepare to celebrate Pentecost.

    But (and there is always a ‘but’ when it comes to Vatican 2,) the evidence points to the Holy Spirit being a scarce visitor during those august proceedings.


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