Comment Opinion & Features

The strange birth of the Novus Ordo

(CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

Half a century on, the New Mass remains controversial. It's time for a reassessment

After several decades of liturgy wars, few are unaware of the turbulent history of the post-conciliar liturgy since the New Order of Mass (Novus Ordo Missae) was promulgated 50 years ago, on April 3, 1969, by Pope Paul VI with his apostolic constitution, Missale Romanum. The Novus Ordo was produced in a mere five dizzying years by a committee of bishops, guided by an assemblage of experts. The process itself was a novelty, starkly contrasting with the gradual and organic growth (over more than 1,500 years) of the liturgy it replaced.

The Vatican Council’s constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was promulgated by Paul VI on December 4, 1963. Little time was lost in its implementation. With the motu proprio Sacram Liturgiam, of January 25, 1964, Pope Paul VI erected a committee to revise all the liturgical rites, to be called the Consilium ad exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia (Consilium), “the committee for carrying out the constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”. The committee’s first president was Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna, and its secretary was the controversial Fr Annibale Bugnini.

The Consilium is arguably the most ambitious but ill-starred committee in the Church’s history. Its membership was large and international in spread. Its initial 42 members (later 51) were mostly bishops; assisting them were more than 200 official consultors and unofficial advisers. Despite the use of working groups, plenary sessions of the Consilium were unwieldy and procedurally flawed.

The assessment of the Consilium’s first plenary meeting in the diary of Ferdinando Antonelli OFM, a full member (later a cardinal), was not flattering: “Merely an assembly of people, many of them incompetent, and others well advanced on the road to novelty. The discussions are extremely hurried … and voting is chaotic … Of 42 members, yesterday evening we were 13, not even a third of the members.”

By the eighth meeting, in April 1967, he found attendance improved, if far from full, though serious procedural problems remained, especially voting by show of hands. “But nobody counts who has raised a hand and who has not … It is disgraceful.” Even at this late stage no minutes were being recorded.

The real force in the Consilium was Fr Bugnini. Antonelli observed in 1967 that “Fr Bugnini has only one interest: press ahead and finish.” The French Oratorian Louis Bouyer, a leading light of the pre-conciliar Liturgical Movement and consultor to the Consilium, recalls Bugnini in his Mémoires as a “mealy-mouthed scoundrel … a man as bereft of culture as he was of honesty” whose “manoeuvres” Cardinal Lercaro was “utterly incapable of resisting”. When Bugnini faced opposition which was “not only massive but, one might say, close to unanimous” he would carry the day by declaring that “The Pope wills it!” From Paul VI himself Bouyer would learn that Bugnini pressed the pope to approve the removal of the cursing psalms by asserting a unanimous, but non-existent, recommendation from the Consilium.

By means of incremental changes the liturgy was recrafted by the Consilium to the point of reconstruction. The Instruction Inter Œcumenici, dated September 26, 1964, made several changes to the Mass, such as removing the Last Gospel, introducing bidding prayers and a communally recited Paternoster, and allowing use of the vernacular language save for the preface and canon. In November 1964, the Eucharistic fast was reduced to one hour. In March 1965, conditional permission was given for concelebration and Communion under both kinds on a limited basis. A month later the preface was permitted to be said in the vernacular.

In April 1967, an instruction on sacred music allowed for the use of new music and instruments other than the organ at Mass. The next month, the Instruction Tres abhinc annos mandated the removal of most of the celebrant’s sacred gestures at the altar, and allowed for the canon itself to be said in the vernacular and, consequently, aloud.

Meanwhile, out of the public eye, the Consilium had devised, in parallel to the public reforms, a new form of Mass by May 1966. At the October 1967 synod of bishops in Rome this new form, dubbed the Missa Normativa, debuted before the synod fathers, celebrated by Fr Bugnini. It revealed simplified rubrics, a longer liturgy of the Word and a substantially new offertory, and the ancient Roman canon was replaced by what is today’s Third Eucharistic Prayer.

The bishops’ reaction was hardly enthusiastic. Only 71 synod fathers gave unqualified approval, while 62 wanted changes, 43 rejected it outright and four abstained. Cardinal John Heenan of Westminster was politely scathing, telling the synod that few of the consultors could ever have been parish priests, and that the Missa Normativa would reduce parish congregations to “mostly women and children”. Antonelli’s judgment was pithy: “The synod of bishops was not a success for the Consilium.”

Bugnini and the Consilium pressed on undeterred, though Cardinal Lercaro was moved into retirement. Three closed-door celebrations of the new form, with some tweaks, were made in the presence of Paul VI. By May 1968 three new Eucharistic prayers had been approved. After more tweaks and deliberations Paul VI gave his written approval to the Novus Ordo on November 6, 1968. The apostolic constitution Missale Romanum, which delivered the Novus Ordo to the Church, was signed off on April 3, 1969, and the Novus Ordo published on May 2 to prepare for implementation throughout the Church on November 30.

The Novus Ordo was prefaced by a general instruction, the inadequacies of which prompted a group of theologians already worried by the Novus Ordo to compose a “Short Critical Study of the New Order of Mass”. Before it could be sent to Paul VI, it was leaked to the press. It opened with a covering letter signed by two once-powerful cardinals, Ottaviani and Bacci, and has become known since, inaccurately, as the Ottaviani Intervention. It was a searching critique of the theological implications of the Novus Ordo, which its authors held to be detrimental to faith and a significant departure from the established understanding of the Mass. At the heart of their concerns was the definition of the Mass in the general instruction, which described it as a supper but not a sacrifice. Their critique led to a corrected general instruction being published in the 1970 edition of the missal; otherwise, the reform horse had bolted.

In England the Novus Ordo, particularly the consequent suppression of the hitherto traditional rite of Mass, provoked alarm within and without the Church. A group of more than 50 eminent writers, thinkers and artists, including two Anglican bishops, made an appeal to the pope in 1971. It pleaded for the survival of the traditional rite of the Mass, which “belongs to universal culture” as well as to the Church. It has been named in honour of the signatory whose name apparently most struck Paul VI: Agatha Christie. The resulting papal indult permitting limited use of the traditional rite of Mass, in England and Wales only, has been known ever since as the Agatha Christie indult.

Yet many regarded it as a positive change. Perhaps most were neither alarmed nor overjoyed but acquiesced to the changes out of habitual obedience to the Church. However, with the Novus Ordo now 50 years old, it seems timely to reassess the reform, not from a progressive or conservative viewpoint, but by the measure of the Vatican Council itself.

In a 2016 conference paper, Professor Stephen Bullivant contended that the liturgical reforms mandated by the Council, with their emphasis on active participation, were “manifestly motivated, and justified, by neo-evangelistic thinking and concerns”, though “new evangelisation” was yet to be coined. Despite its ancient Christian heritage, Europe was justly seen to be in as much need of evangelisation as the non-Christian cultures of Africa and Asia. Thus the Council’s provision for “more radical adaptation of the liturgy” in “mission territories” informed liturgical reform in traditionally Christian cultures now self-identifying as mission territories, vernacular language and music being a case in point.

The Council’s stated aim in reforming the liturgy was “to impart an ever increasing vigour to the Christian life of the faithful”, while seeking “to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church”. One can assert the reform’s success in the latter aim when looking today at the classic mission territories of Africa and Asia. Success in the former aim, when looking at the established Christian cultures of Europe and the Americas, is harder to claim. A Mass reformed specifically to address the modern situation – or rather that of the 1960s – has been met with a drastic and largely consistent decline in Mass attendance.

Bullivant identifies the Council’s own measure of judgment for liturgical reforms: that they be “pastorally efficacious to the fullest degree”. Authentic pastoral efficacy is hard to concede given the decline in attendance at the reformed liturgy, and the resurgence of the traditional liturgy, especially among the young. In light of this, Bullivant argues that the logic of the Council’s decrees demands that the reformed liturgy be revisited. Dare we do so? Dare we not do so?

Fr Hugh Somerville Knapman OSB is the author of Ecumenism of Blood: Heavenly Hope for Earthly Communion (2018)