The Novus Ordo (despite EPII) is an orthodox and valid Mass: but the way it was introduced was part of the hermeneutic of rupture

Paul VI (CNS)

Fr Alexander Lucie Smith last week wrote a blog entitled “Giving credit where it’s due to Pope Paul VI”. Good for him: this was the pope, after all, who gave us Humanae vitae. Praising Pope Paul was, of course, asking for trouble, and Fr Lucie Smith’s piece was followed by a lengthy and sometimes bad-tempered discussion, much of it about the allegedly protestantised Novus Ordo, the language of which, according to one commentator, was deliberately stripped by its creators of all sacrificial meaning. This is often said: but I hope to show that it simply isn’t, factually, the case.

Most of the trouble has been caused by the theologically vague second Eucharistic prayer, which depends for our understanding of its meaning not on its own text but on what the Church says it means. This is a prayer, we are to understand, which as much as the three others, validly effects the Sacrifice of the Mass when celebrated by validly ordained priest. But you can hardly teach from it. Ideally, lex orandi, lex credendi: but we have, thank heavens other ways of finding out what the lex credendi is in this case.

The spiritual impoverishment of EPII has over the years, I am convinced, caused massive damage to the faith of the church. Because of its extreme shortness, it’s the prayer most people get on a Sunday (some clergy seem more interested in getting the whole thing over with than in a reverent celebration). When it was first introduced, it was a shock to many. The hyper-conservative Cardinal Ottaviani wrote a long and pained letter to the Pope about the Novus Ordo, in which he said among much else that “The second of [the three new canons] gave immediate scandal to the faithful on account of its brevity. Of Canon II it has been well said, among other things, that it could be recited with perfect tranquility of conscience by a priest who no longer believes either in Transubstantiation or in the sacrificial character of the Mass—hence even by a Protestant minister.”

It has to be said that this is indeed the case. Ronald Jasper, the Anglican liturgist, one of the six Protestant observers who as result of the now incredible and long since dead ecumaniacal fervour of the period was (surely scandalously) present as an observer as the Consilium composed the new prayers, opined in The Catholic Herald (December 22, 1972) that “Today’s liturgical study has brought our respective liturgies to a remarkable similarity, so that there is very little difference in the sacrificial phrasing of the prayer of oblation in the [Anglican] Series Three and that of Eucharistic Prayer II in the Missa Normativa (Novus Ordo Missae).”

That isn’t in fact true. The “sacrificial phrasing” of the Catholic EPII hardly exists but is assumed: that of the Anglican prayer tries to sound more or less Catholic, but adds unambiguously Protestant qualifications to satisfy the Evangelicals.

Here is the part of the prayer Jasper was talking about: “Therefore, heavenly Father, we do this in remembrance of him: with this bread and this cup we celebrate his perfect sacrifice made once for all upon the cross; we proclaim his resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven; and we look for the fullness of his coming in glory. Accept this our sacrifice of thanks and praise; and as we eat and drink these holy gifts in the presence of your divine majesty, renew us by your Spirit, inspire us with your love, and united us in the body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Alternative Services, Series 3, 1971: 29).

That phrase “made once for all upon the cross” is the Anglican code traditionally used to convey the following: we hereby expressly deny that this liturgy is the sacrifice of Calvary made truly present. “This our sacrifice of thanks and praise” in this context means exactly the same. No such language appears in EPII: the trouble is that as Cardinal Ottaviani rightly pointed out, this prayer is so vague that it could indeed be recited “with perfect tranquility of conscience by a priest who no longer believes either in Transubstantiation or in the sacrificial character of the Mass—hence even by a Protestant minister.” In an Anglican study published at the time the writer comments of the series 3 prayer that “the ‘once for all upon the cross’ words rule out any suggestion that the sacrifice of Christ is re-iterated or added to in the Eucharist. The mighty acts of Christ are also identified with the making of the memorial using the bread and the wine. Sign and signified are linked in a moderate realist fashion.”

It can’t be said that the Novus Ordo prayer II rules out the “realist” understanding that the Mass is indeed the sacrifice of Calvary, and the Church declares that no less than all the other Eucharistic prayers the prayer effects such an outcome. The priest declares in the “Orate Fratres” that the celebration which is unfolding is indeed a sacrifice, and the people’s response reaffirms it. But EPII is defective in that it doesn’t itself unfold this understanding in any way, as do Eucharistic prayers I (obviously), III (“ we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living Sacrifice. Look we pray upon the oblation of your Church and, recognising the sacrificial Victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us with yourself, grant that we, who are nourished by the body and blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ”) and IV (“Look, O Lord, upon the Sacrifice which you yourself have provided for your Church, and grant in your loving kindness to all who partake of this one Bread and one Chalice that, gathered into one body by the Holy spirit, they may become a living sacrifice in Christ to the praise of your glory. Therefore Lord, remember now all for whom we offer this sacrifice.”). So the language of Eucharistic Prayers I, III, and IV is richly and unambiguously sacrificial, and Eucharistic Prayer II is sacrificial because it is part of a Mass which has been solemnly declared to be so: “meum ac vestrum sacrificium”. All the same, it is surely difficult not to accept that Cardinal Ottaviani had a point.

Whether one defends the Novus Ordo (as with reservations I do, even though I follow the Usus Antiquior when I can) or dismisses it, it is undoubtedly the case that its introduction brought about a huge rupture with the past which because of the way it was done was more destructive than exhilarating. As Fr Klaus Gamber tellingly recounted in his book The Reform of the Roman Rite, “…when Luther and his followers first discarded the Canon of the Mass, this change was not commonly noticed by the people because, as we know, the priest spoke the Canon in a low voice, as a private prayer. But Luther purposely did not dispense with the elevation of the Host and Chalice, at least not initially, because the people would have noticed that change. Much more radical than any liturgical changes introduced by Luther was the reorganization of our own liturgy — above all, the fundamental changes that were made in the liturgy of the Mass. It also demonstrated much less understanding for the emotional ties the faithful had to the traditional liturgical rite.” [My italics]

Paul VI’s greatest blunder was to impose the new Mass rather than phasing it in, and to suppress the old. Cardinal Ratzinger said in his introduction to Fr Gamber’s book that “instead of a liturgy which was the fruit of continuous development, a fabricated liturgy was put in its place. A living growing process was abandoned…”

The Novus Ordo hence became part of the Hermeneutic of rupture: now, because of Summorum pontificum, there is some chance that it may eventually become part of the hermeneutic of continuity: yet another benign part of Pope Benedict’s healing legacy. But it will take many years; and for countless Catholic souls the damage done can never be undone.


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