The extraordinary rite

July 24, 2007

A couple of days ago I set down some thoughts about the context for Benedict XVI’s recent decree Summorum Pontificum, the decree which has liberated the liturgical rites that were restricted in 1970 as part of the reforms of Vatican II. Whether the things I said made any sense, I’m not sure, but tonight I thought I’d sort out my thoughts on the decree itself, and collect a few helpful links for anyone else who has an interest in this subject.

I think I discern at least three purposes served by this decree. I’ll call them continuity, reconciliation, and correction. For many years before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger had been a vocal critic of what he saw as the marked discontinuity in the Church’s prayer and worship that resulted from the Vatican II liturgical reforms. In particular, he stated that the decision to completely suppress the liturgy in use prior to Vatican II was a poor one, arguing instead that developments ought to occur organically, and slowly. As he says in the explanatory letter issued together with the decree, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too.” Thus, as I argued a few days ago, he hopes that the reintroduction of this ancient rite into the life of the Church will serve to remind us of our past, and of our inheritance, and to make that inheritance live again.

As for reconciliation, about this too the Pope is quite explicit: “It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church.” After Vatican II there were certain groups who did not accept the Council’s authority — I, and I think the Pope too, am thinking in particular of Bishop Lefebvre and those who followed him — which resulted in a formal schism. Looking back at previous periods when Church unity has been broken, the Pope acknowledges that often the Catholic Church did not do all that it legitimately could to reconcile. He does not want to make the same mistake in our own time, and hopes that the restoration of the old rite will help to bring schismatics back to the Church. Let us hope that he is right.

Finally, the reintroduction may serve as a corrective to the many degradations, great and small, that have afflicted the new liturgy since the Council. It is quite instructive to read Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium and compare it to the received wisdom about what the Council taught. One hears, for instance, that “The Council replaced Latin with the vernacular.” Well, not really. The Council Fathers agreed that the readings should be rendered in the vernacular, and that for pastoral reasons “the limits of its [the vernacular’s] employment may be extended” (SC 36). May be. Latin remains the official language of the new rite; any priest may celebrate that rite in Latin at any time. (This is the reason why it is wrong to refer to the old rite as the “Latin” rite.) Or one hears that “Chant was replaced by hymns and other congregational songs.” Again, the Constitution is quite clear that Gregorian chant is to retain “pride of place” in the new liturgy (SC 116), though the Fathers conceded that other music, “especially polyphony”, was “by no means excluded”. Clearly, they did not foresee our current situation! In any case, the last few decades have seen a wide range of liturgical experiments, most of it done seemingly without reference to what the Council had said. These “arbitrary deformations of the liturgy”, as Pope Benedict calls them, might be opposed by the reintroduction of the old rite in two ways: there’s little room in the old rite for experimentation, so it itself will resist that sort of mischief; and, exposure to the old rite may teach us the ethos of the Mass as it has been historically celebrated, and it is to be hoped that this will rub off on the new rite as well.

There have been some people, and even some bishops, ringing alarm bells over the decree. They accuse the Pope of “turning back the clock”. I don’t understand this at all. The Pope is not imposing anything, he is only permitting. At most, he’s letting another clock run in tandem with the existing one. And in any case it is disconcerting to hear alarums about backwardness from a body that’s supposed to carry its past with it. The theory of inevitable progress has no foundation in Catholic thinking. Remember what Spenser said: “For he, that once hath missed the right way, The further he doth goe, the further he doth stray.” Amen.

As it happens, I have some experience with the old rite — let me call it the “extraordinary” rite, since that is its new name. There is a parish in my diocese that celebrates it regularly, with the permission of the bishop. I have been a number of times. It is a beautiful rite. At this parish they have a competent Gregorian schola to sing the chant, and that is wonderful. When I am there I think of all the many generations of Catholics who celebrated that same rite, and I am much more aware of the connection between them and me.

There are a few things about the extraordinary rite that take some getting used to, however. First, the readings are in Latin. In his decree, the Pope has, very wisely in my opinion, stated that even in the extraordinary rite the readings may be given in the vernacular. Scripture is to be proclaimed; I like to look at the lector and listen to the proclamation, not read along in a translation. In my judgment, the use of Latin for the readings raises a curtain between the celebrant and the congregation, and I’m glad that won’t be obligatory now. Second, the old rite is very much more textured, more “three-dimensional”. Not all the prayers are said aloud. Much of the Eucharistic prayer, for instance, is said by the priest sotto voce. This makes the rite, for me at least, and with my limited experience, difficult to follow. I’m never totally sure, for instance, when the consecration is taking place. That seems less than ideal, and it certainly implies that the reintroduction of the rite will need to be accompanied by catechesis. Finally, I am always a bit irked to rediscover that the only part of the Pater noster that the congregation gets to sing is the last line: Sed libera nos a malo. I really do prefer to sing the whole thing. It will take some time to adjust to such, admittedly minor, details.

Interesting times!


Here are a set of links that may prove interesting:

Summorum Pontificum: the unofficial English translation of the decree

Explanatory letter: the beautiful, very pastoral letter accompanying the same

Summorum Pontificum blog: a forum dedicated to the decree and the responses to it

Summorum Pontificum database: a resource for finding people willing to help in some way with the revival of the extraordinary rite

Fixing the Mass: a thoughtful blog post challenging the idea that Latin in the liturgy is bad

2 Responses to “The extraordinary rite”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Thank-you Craig for a sensitive and well-reasoned post.

    When we refer to the teachings of the II Vatican Council, we must not forget that the Fathers had a global perspective. They were writing at a time when the Church was becoming less and less western, and the trend continues. Hundreds of millions of Catholics to-day are not of European descent, nor do their heritage or cultures derive from the west. The liturgical reforms were, to a large degree, aimed at this reality. The Church is enriched by incorporating (think of the literal meaning of this word) the cultures of all her children into her worship. This is communicated most eloquently in Sacrosanctum Concilium (par. 37):

    Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.

    Essential to this is, I believe, the liberty to use the vernacular. For average believer in the Congo, or East Timor, or China, or Bolivia, Latin is not part of his heritage, as it is for ours. It may be our job, in the west, to preserve this heritage: I do not think it is so much theirs.

    Do I disagree with Benedict’s decree? Certainly not. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say, “The Pope is not imposing anything, he is only permitting.” But I do think that this decision has been blown out of proportion by the news reporters and commentators. The vast majority of Catholics will continue to use the modern rite.

    What I do fear is that Catholics, especially in America, will be confused by conservatives who (perhaps often only implicitly) claim the superiority of the Tridentine rite. This is clearly not the Holy Father’s intent; moreover, I think in this case it is appropriate to speak of the spirit of the II Vatican Council, which is clearly opposed to such interpretation. The faithful should not think that their worship is inferior because it is not as “traditional”.

    I will finish by confessing that I myself am an amateur lover of Latin. I think the Novus Ordo Missae is beautiful and edifying in its original Latin. But for everyday worship, give me English. It helps sanctify my mother tongue; it is what I know and understand best.

  2. cburrell Says:


    Thank-you for your thoughtful response to my post. As has happened before, you are quick to remind me that the globe extends well past the horizon, and that the Church makes her decisions with that wide perspective in view. It’s good that you remind me, because I do tend to forget. It is a sound reason — probably — to move away from Latin as normative toward vernacular.

    But I would add that though Latin has no independent standing in those cultures, it does acquire one to the extent that Catholicism is established there. The Church, which extends through time and carries its past within it, like tree rings, brings Latin and Latinate culture with it, to some extent at least. It will be important, for instance, for the theologians who come from Africa and Asia to understand the language, for much of the Church’s life and thought has been expressed in it. Of course, this cultural influence also works in the other direction: as the Church extends into those cultures, she will be influenced and enriched by what they offer. It is a two-way street.

    In the meantime, I think the greatest responsibility for preserving the Latin heritage of the Church lies with us. This is partly why I am so animated on the subject, for I see it as a kind of summons to action. But we’re not very well equipped to carry on the tradition either, sadly. Even I, who admire the language and love the history, have a comprehension level that I expect would have been rivaled by a Roman dog.

    There’s no doubt at all that the amount of chatter about this decree far outstrips the effect it will have, at least in the near term. As Pope Benedict himself says, most priests are not capable of celebrating the extraordinary form, so they won’t be doing it. But perhaps in a decade or two we’ll see it as an ordinary (without thereby ceasing to be extraordinary) part of the Church’s life, as it once was.

    I pray that a rivalry of rites will not happen. These are now two forms of one rite, and in the ways that truly matter they are equivalent.

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