Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Review: The Old Mass and the New

Looking to the Past for Liturgical Renewal

I have recently developed a keen interest in Latin as the language of the Church. Not that I would ever abandon the Catholic faith for some schismatic Traditionalist sect, but in the past few years I have grown increasingly fond of Latin and have come to appreciate more and more the wisdom of the Church in preserving this language for use in prayer and in official ecclesiastical texts. My heightened interest in Latin can chiefly be attributed to the July 7, 2007 release of Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which allowed for the unrestricted use of the Latin Mass (according to the 1962 Missal promulgated by Blessed John XXIII) by priests of the Roman Rite without the need for special permission from their respective bishops. Simply put, Pope Benedict made the Latin Mass more accessible to those who desire it.

This document was met with praise from most traditional-minded (“conservative”) Catholics but was derided and criticized by many of the more “progressive/liberal” Catholics who usually evoke the “spirit of Vatican II” to justify their own liturgical innovations. Amidst this debate over Benedict’s motu proprio comes a wonderful little book by Bishop Marc Aillet of the diocese of Frejus-Tuolon, France entitled, The Old Mass and the New, Explaining the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum of Pope Benedict XVI.

Bishop Aillet makes a strong case in favor of the pope’s decree, drawing from past papal pronouncements as well as Council Documents from Vatican II, the Council of Trent and reaching back into history as far as Gregory the Great and beyond. He sketches a brief outline of liturgical development within the Latin Rite and explains the importance of the Latin language, symbolic gestures, Gregorian chant, and the palpable sense of Mystery and of the sacred, distinctive to the traditional Roman form of worship.

Make no mistake - the author of this book is not opposed to Mass in the vernacular according to the revised 1970 Missal. In fact, when celebrated in accordance with the rubrics and with a mind toward honoring the tradition that has been handed down to us, the New Mass can be just as reverent and uplifting, and it certainly produces the same fruits – namely the Body and Blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, offered as a Sacrifice to God. With that in mind, the vernacular Mass of Paul VI should be seen as a genuine development of what came before – not a break with tradition (as Traditional Catholics claim), but a natural growth in the Church’s lived experience of worship.

Yet, as Bishop Aillet explains in The Old Mass and the New, we must keep in mind that the Old Mass, the Tridentine Latin Mass, which came before, is clearly a vital part of that same lived experience. These two Forms cannot cancel each other out; they are part of a single whole. The Old Mass was never officially abrogated. There was never a decree issued, or pronouncement made that banned its use. It can still provide all the grace and splendor of Christ present to us, as it did for centuries to many generations of Catholics prior to Vatican II. And it is this historic link that draws so many back to this ancient Form of the Mass, especially the younger generation who were raised after the Council and who search for something tangible that ties them to their heritage of faith.

This attraction to the Tridentine Form is not merely a case of over-developed “nostalgia.” It is more than sappy sentimentality that draws so many people (especially the young, who have no personal memory of these things) to a Liturgy in a foreign language that requires no small amount of preparatory work to understand and to participate. Bishop Aillet points out that Catholics who attend these Old Masses are on a whole more educated and liturgically well formed than the average Catholic. These Christians know that the Old Mass contains within it beautiful expressions of faith that can (with the help of Benedict’s motu proprio) inform and enrich the New Mass.

For example: the priest facing away from (or more correctly in the same direction with) the people, so that all are oriented toward Christ; the use of Gregorian chant and traditional hymns rather than the trite folk songs so common in modern Masses; the incense, bells, and ritual gestures; the sense of sacredness and reverence – many of these components can be carried over into the New Mass within the guidelines of the rubrics. Bishop Aillet stresses that even the use of Latin itself is allowed in the post-Vatican II liturgy. But somehow these elements were dropped almost completely from most parishes after Vatican II, as though the Council Fathers forbade anything remotely like the Tridentine Mass. It was as though a giant rift opened up in the line of liturgical development, and 1970 marked the death of the Old and the birth of the New.

After reading The Old Mass and the New, one sees that in issuing Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI does not close that rift so much as he proclaims boldly that the rift was never there to begin with. The Old Mass is alive and should be given to the people to cherish. The Old can survive alongside the New, each giving renewed vitality to the other. This is the message of Bishop Marc Aillet in this present book. Pope Benedict has offered a tremendous blessing for Catholics around the world by providing the Old Mass as a living tradition on which to pattern our future worship.

[To purchase your own copy
of The Old Mass and the New, by Bishop Marc Aillet, and to find other great Catholic books and products visit The Catholic Company website. Also be sure to check out their great selection of Mary statues.]


  1. Thanks for the information on The Old Mass and the New, one sees that in issuing Summorum Pontificum. What do you think of the new missal translation?

  2. Great question. I would be interested to know your thoughts as well...

    What I’ve seen so far, I do like. Anything that gets us closer to the original meaning of the Latin is a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned. The current English is often over-simplified and not very “poetic” (if that is the right word). It seems that the translators back then tried to find words that were “common” or simple to understand rather than finding accurate translations that reflected the true meaning of the Latin. The new translation does a better job of reflecting the actual ideas behind the Latin. But also, I think the new translation is more “poetic” in places where the current words are a bit flat and ordinary – as it stands now the words often sound like ordinary speech the way we would talk to each other in conversation. I thing liturgical language should be unlike ordinary speech and have a certain flair to it that elevates the mind and takes us out of the ordinary. I’m looking forward to seeing the new text implemented.