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50 Years Ago Today: Mass in the Vernacular

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

March 6, 2015
Paul VI new mass
On Saturday March 7, Pope Francis will visit the church of “Ognissanti’ (All Saints) in Rome to commemorate fifty years to the day that Blessed Paul VI celebrated the Eucharist for the first time in the vernacular rather than in the customary Latin language. It was the first time a new way of celebrating mass was inaugurated after Vatican II’s Decree on the Liturgy SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM was promulgated on December 4, 1963. This important document, the first of Vatican II, was approved at the end of the second year of the Council.
When Paul VI celebrated mass 50 years ago today, he said that it was a great liturgical reform that would bring about an authentic spiritual renewal in the Church. This weekend is a good opportunity to recall some important points about the great changes that have taken place in the liturgy over the past half a century. The practices associated with the “New Mass” after the Council had their beginnings decades earlier. The reform of the liturgy did not simply begin with Vatican II. The practices introduced in 1964 had been suggested much earlier. Since the middle of the 19th century there had been an interest in various aspects of the liturgy, its history, ceremonies and music. Fr. Lambert Beauduin, a Belgian responsible for the liturgical movement in France held that the liturgy creates Christian community; it is the source and center of all Christian life - an idea that later made its way into the Second Vatican Council's constitution on the liturgy. The theological basis of the entire liturgical movement was the body of Christ. This idea "body of Christ" gained momentum and finally received papal approval in Pope Pius XII's encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi.
Maria Laach Abbey GermanyBenedictines were real pioneers and leaders in the international Liturgical Movement. Benedictine liturgical scholars claim that the origin of the pastoral liturgical reform was in 1924, when the first Missa recitata, or dialogue Mass, was celebrated in a crypt of Maria Laach Abbey in Germany. This German abbey played a significant role in the 20th century, particularly in the field of liturgy. The Benedictine monks of St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, beginning with liturgical pioneer Fr. Virgil Michel were the founders of the Liturgical Movement in English-speaking countries. St. John’s Abbey was a real center of liturgical activity. Already in 1926, the Benedictines in Minnesota were publishing an influential liturgical journal, Orate Fratres (later renamed Worship).
Collegeville Abbey MinnesotaThe Collegeville abbey was instrumental in founding in 1940 the Benedictine Liturgical Conference that would host national meetings called Liturgical Weeks. They were attended by thousands of priests, religious and laity interested in liturgical reform. While at first the main concern of the Liturgical Movement was that people be educated about the liturgy so they could better understand and participate in it, at a later stage, liturgists decided that the people’s participation would be possible only if changes were made in the rites, and began to advocate such changes.
The First Instruction on the Proper Implementation of the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, Inter oecumenici, was issued by the Sacred Congregation for Rites on September 26, 1964, to take effect by March 7, 1965, the first Sunday of Lent. This document specified which parts of the Mass could be in the vernacular as permitted by SC #54. The normal Sunday experience for the vast majority of Catholics continued to be the new Mass celebrated in the vernacular. The new Mass could also be celebrated in Latin, something that I do often especially in international assemblies. The use of Latin is a beautiful way to express unity rather than division.
The Extraordinary Form
We must not forget that the Second Vatican Council never asked for the creation of a new rite for the liturgy, but for greater use of the vernacular language and greater participation of the faithful. On July 7, 2007 Pope Benedict XVI released his apostolic letter "Summorum Pontificum" on the use of the Roman liturgy prior to the reform of 1970. The decree was issued "motu proprio," a Latin term meaning on the Pope’s personal initiative in the matter. In the letter Benedict eased restrictions on the use of the 1962 Roman Missal, which was standard before the new Order of the Mass was introduced in 1970. The so-called "Tridentine" Mass an extraordinary form of the Roman Rite is not considered to be a distinct rite, but rather a different form of the same right.
Addressing fears of opponents of his apostolic letter, Benedict pointed out that the norms do not detract from the authority of Vatican II, nor do they question the liturgical reform that the council called for. In an explanatory letter that accompanied the document addressed to the bishops of the world, Benedict wrote that his decision was motivated by a desire to bring about "an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church." In Pope Benedict’s decision about the greater use of the Tridentine Mass, there are no winners or losers. Whoever wants to appeal to the Motu proprio to ignite tensions, instead of fostering the spirit of reconciliation, will radically betray it.
The liturgy accompanies the Church on her journey through history. We have two forms of the mass: one ordinary and the other extraordinary – of a single rite of celebration of the Mass. The mystery of the death and resurrection of the Lord is so great that it cannot be identified or limited in a definitive and exclusive way with one form or the other of the rite that is celebrated. Both Popes Benedict and Francis strongly desire to support reconciliation among Catholics and to reconcile the church with its rich liturgical past. It is through the liturgy that we encounter the Lord Jesus, his death and resurrection. He is the source and summit of our life. He is our reconciliation and our lasting peace.