Earlier this month, Pope Francis celebrated the Saturday Vigil Mass at All Saints Church in Rome in order to mark the 50th anniversary of the so-called “first Mass in Italian.” For, in this parish, on March 7, 1965, Blessed Paul VI celebrated Mass partially in the vernacular for the first time, according to a reformed version of the 1962 Missal (a version of the Missal that was wholly discarded by 1969 to make way for the Novus Ordo Mass).
Like many of his generation, Pope Francis apparently views this event as a milestone in Church history that deserves celebration. Indeed, Paul VI certainly saw his use of the vernacular as a wondrous moment, and five decades on, his words on the occasion merit examination.
In his Angelus address on the day of the “Italian Mass,” Paul spoke thusly:
This Sunday marks a memorable date in the spiritual history of the Church, because the spoken language officially enters the liturgical worship, as you have already seen this morning…
The welfare of the people demands this care, so as to make possible the active participation of the faithful in the public worship of the Church. It is a sacrifice that the Church has made of her own language, Latin; a sacred, sober, beautiful language, extremely expressive and elegant. She has sacrificed the traditions of centuries and above all she sacrifices the unity of language among the various peoples, in homage to this greater universality, in order to reach all.
And this [also] for you, faithful, so that you may know better [how to] join yourselves to the Church’s prayer, so that you may know [how to] pass from a state of simple spectators to that of participating and active faithful, and if you truly know how to correspond to this attention of the Church, you will have the great joy, the merit and the chance of a true spiritual renewal.
When read now, 50 years later, these words seem to portend the confusion and misdirection that would deluge the remainder of Paul’s reign, and that persists into the present day. Paul appears as a man divided against himself, trumpeting “the chance of a true spiritual renewal” while simultaneously describing this “chance” as the result of the sacrifice of “the traditions of the centuries.”
It is an extraordinary statement, for it seems an utter absurdity to claim that a spiritual renewal could flower from the destruction of the Church’s Sacred Tradition. It is an axiom of the Church’s understanding of herself, so critical in its theological response to the Reformation, that Revelation depends upon Scripture and Tradition. When we say that the Church is a “traditional” institution, we mean it in a literal sense—Tradition is a pillar of the Church, a part of its fundamental essence.
As such, the Church at war with her Sacred Tradition is the Church at war with herself. To sacrifice Tradition is to contradict the Church’s divinely ordained nature. The “sacrifice” of Sacred Tradition cannot lead to “spiritual renewal”—and the half-century that has passed since the Italian Mass proves it.
For some time now, Catholics disturbed by the diminishment and degradation of the liturgy that followed the Vatican II have stressed that the council itself did not mandate the Novus Ordo Mass, but gave only a general instruction with an eye towards modest liturgical reform, noting, for example, that Sacrosanctum Consilium expressly requires that “use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” So, many wonder, how is it that the Novus Ordo of 1969 was born of, and implemented according to, the commands of the council?
The kernel of the answer, it seems, lies in Paul’s Angelus statement. It appears that, perhaps with some misgivings, Paul had already adopted a “hermeneutic of rupture” regarding the liturgy before the council had even closed its final session. Indeed, at the outset of his homily for the Mass, Paul deems “extraordinary, today’s new way to pray, celebrate Mass” and speaks of the “new form of the Liturgy” he inaugurates at All Saints Church. With these words, the pope himself declared the Mass of the Ages dead. He heralded an innovation.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Paul gave approval to the radical re-working of the liturgy that is the Novus Ordo, often rightly called the Mass of Paul VI. The words of March 7, 1965, formed the foundation for the enthusiasms of the Modernists and, rolling over Lefevbre and Ottoviani, for decades the faithful were taught to tear down or ignore the liturgical and devotional life that existed on the day before Paul went to All Saints.
None of this is to say that the Missal of 1962 should have been fixed for all time. The liturgy can be, and needs to be, reformed from time to time. But true reform respects the Sacred Tradition—the ancient form of Christian worship, developed over the centuries—of which the Church is promoter and guardian.
With the proclamation of Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict at last paid to the ancient liturgy the respect that is its due. He longed for the “mutual enrichment” of the two forms of the Roman rite, a means, perhaps, to graft the best elements of the Novus Ordo to the Missal of John XXIII, and thereby finally realize the original vision of the council. This work of true reform awaits the next generation of leadership in the Church and, when it is accomplished, we pray, the Church will truly experience the “spiritual renewal” Paul envisioned but never witnessed.