Once again, we are very grateful indeed to Dom Alcuin Reid for sharing his work with our readers. He writes here about the 50th anniversary of the first Mass celebrated by a Pope in the vernacular, and the “implementation” of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred liturgy.
This anniversary, and the celebration of it, may seem a little anomalous—after all, the ‘new’ Mass came into force on the first Sunday of Advent in 1969. Why the celebrations now?
March 7th, 1965, was in fact the date on which the Instruction Inter Oecumenici “On the Proper Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” dated September 26, 1964, came into force. It was the first significant implementation of the liturgical reform. Hence Paul VI’s words at the beginning of his homily at Oggnisanti: “Today we inaugurate the new form of liturgy in all the parishes and churches of the world.”
Inter Oecumenici is well worth reading, particularly articles 11-19 (on liturgical formation) which precede any discussion of ritual changes. As in Sacrosanctum Concilium itself, sound and thorough liturgical formation at every level is regarded as an essential prerequisite for full, conscious and actual participation in the Sacred Liturgy.
The Instruction certainly effects changes though, simplifying ritual salutations, omitting psalm 42 from the beginning of Mass, introducing the prayer of the faithful, abolishing the subdeacon holding the paten, removing the last Gospel, saying that the main altar in a church should be constructed so that Mass “may” be celebrated facing the people, etc. The Ordo Missae published in January 1965 incorporated the changes made by Inter Oecumenici and added more. This is not the occasion to evaluate them, though it is worth noting that no less than Klaus Gamber judged the 1965 Ordo Missae (there was no 1965 Missale Romanum) to be the last form of the traditional Roman rite, appropriately reformed according to the provisions of the Council.
Inter Oecumenici also extended the place which may be granted to the vernacular language in the celebration of the liturgy. The competent territorial ecclesiastical authority, with the approval of the Holy See, was to decide how extensive this was to be. At the beginning of 1965 the preface and Roman canon (there were no other “Eucharistic prayers”) remained in Latin—though the Instruction notes that “it pertains solely to the Apostolic See to concede the vernacular in other parts of the Mass which are chanted or recited by the celebrant alone” (§ 58).
Let us return to the church of Ognissanti on the Via Appia Nuova in Rome’s Appio-Latino quarter, and “the first Mass in Italian in history” celebrated by Paul VI (well, given the canon &c., mostly in Italian). To arrive at an extensive use of the vernacular merely 459 days after the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy on December 4, 1963, was quite an accomplishment—a direct fruit of the requests submitted by the Italian bishops to the Consilium and of the prompt and positive responses it increasingly gave to such requests.
The leadership of the Consilium and, seemingly, most Italian bishops, regarded the maximum use of the vernacular as being of great importance, if not as indispensable, in achieving a participatory and truly pastoral liturgy. “The fundamental norm from today and in the future is to pray understanding every phrase and word, to complete [them] with our personal feelings, and to make them one with the soul of the community that sings with us in unison,” Paul VI said in his homily.
Indeed, reading the memoirs of the Consilium’s Secretary, Annibale Bugnini CM, it becomes clear that the question of arriving at a liturgy that was completely in the vernacular was a burning quest which left the clearly nuanced provisions of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy far behind (“In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue” § 54; see also § 36). Bugnini himself had to admit that “it cannot be denied that the principle, approved by the Council, of using the vernaculars was given a broad interpretation.” Indeed, he held—somewhat arrogantly—that since its introduction “millions and hundreds of millions of the faithful...have at last achieved worship in spirit and truth” and “can at last pray to God in their own languages and not in meaningless sounds.” Paul VI himself asserted that March 7th, 1965, was “a great event, that shall be remembered as the beginning of a flourishing spiritual life, as a new effort to participate in the great dialogue between God and man.”
Indeed, as the Christian East has never forgotten, the Sacred Liturgy is not in the first place a comprehension exercise. It is the ritual worship of Almighty God employing multivalent symbols which thus become privileged sacramentals—sacred language included. Certainly, penetrating the meaning of the rites and prayers is fundamental, but this is facilitated by the work of liturgical formation (or more effectively, by liturgical habituation over a lifetime)—no short cuts, such as the quick rendering of the liturgy in the vernacular, are viable here. Even the liturgical proclamation of the texts of Sacred Scripture is not simply a didactic exercise, although certainly, the vernacular can be of immense help with participation, as indeed in some other parts of the liturgy (such as the prayers of the faithful). The Second Vatican Council knew this. But the wholesale removal of Latin from the liturgy and liturgical celebrations completely in the vernacular are contrary to what the Second Vatican Council desired and approved.
Not eighteen months after promulgating Sacrosanctum Concilium, Paul VI regarded this day as marking “the beginning of a flourishing spiritual life.” It would appear in retrospect that he was, by and large, wrong. Neither the introduction of the vernacular or the ritual reforms that this date saw (or their successors) has led to a “flourishing” ecclesial life in the decades since. There are many causes for the decline we have suffered, and there are generations of Catholics who love and hold the vernacular liturgy dear, but it remains a fact that the modern liturgy has not filled our churches. Indeed, apart from the committed and well-formed laity (who are few), there are numerous mute, extraneous spectators in our churches today who are just as disengaged from the vernacular liturgy as their forebears were from the liturgy when it was in Latin.
The issue is not fundamentally one of language—which is why, perhaps, the celebration of 50 years since the first Italian Mass in history is a little disingenuous. Rather, the issue is the nature of Catholic liturgy, and of the formation in it which is necessary to enable widespread fruitful participation in and connection with the action of Christ in the liturgy.
Fifty years ago, instead of prompting and processing requests for more and more vernacular, and pushing the pope for their extension, the Consilium might have spent its time and energy more profitably had it turned its attention to the a priori condition for fruitful participation in the Sacred Liturgy, namely liturgical formation. Today we may do well to turn ourselves to the same work—while not forgetting the enormous question of the effect not only of the vernacularization of the liturgy, but also of its radical ritual de- and re-construction at the Consilium’s hands.
The opening words of Blessed Paul VI’s homily at Ognissanti declared: “Today’s new way of prayer, of celebrating the Holy Mass, is extraordinary.” Indeed it was. Perhaps, though, it is now time to look to recover the manner of Catholic liturgical prayer and life that is truly ordinary in respect of our tradition and that is in accordance with the wishes of the Council.