The following is Part I of a two-part article examining changes in the Mass. Part II was published in March 2010: The Day the Mass Changed, How it Happened and Why.
On November 29, 1964 — a year after the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was enacted — the “New Mass”, as it was then called, was introduced into US parishes. A fairly typical description of what Catholics experienced at Mass on that day, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is this:
“Parishioners sitting in their places that morning knew something was different from the moment the Mass began. The week before, the priest and altar boys had entered in silence; now everyone was expected to sing at least two verses of a processional hymn. The scriptural passages for the day were read aloud in the vernacular…. The priest, standing behind a new altar set up in the middle of the sanctuary, still said some prayers in Latin, but the people were encouraged to recite others along with him, again in their own language.… The distribution of Communion was now different. In the past, the priest had repeated a prayer in Latin as he worked his way along the line of parishioners kneeling at the altar. He now paused in front of each parishioner, in many places standing rather than kneeling, held up the Communion host so they could see it, and said, ‘Corpus Christi‘ (‘the Body of Christ’), to which the communicant responded, ‘Amen.’ In a few months this, too, would be said in English, and the altar rail itself would be gone…
“The church discontinued all Latin by 1969.”
This description appears in a recent book by James M. O’Toole, The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (Cambridge, MA: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008, pp 204, 208).
Forty-five years later, most of the features O’Toole found novel in 1964 are generally considered an integral part of the liturgical reform of Vatican II. Catholics who recall the new practices introduced on November 29, 1964 would likely agree that this was “the day the Mass changed”, even though the revision of the Rite of Mass was almost five years in the future.
Now, at the beginning of 2010, we are awaiting the new English translation of the Missal — the first experience of the “new era of liturgical renewal” envisioned by Liturgiam authenticam (§7), the Fifth Instruction on implementing the Council’s liturgical reform, issued in 2001.
Critics of the new translation say that it represents a retreat from the reforms of Vatican II. But is it? A brief review of the history of the early reforms may provide some insight.
Sacrosanctum Concilium and other early documents
The Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963, certainly provided for use of the vernacular at Mass, but Latin was not to be discontinued:
“SC 36. 1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.
“2. But since the use of the mother tongue… frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended…
“3. These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used; their decrees are to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See…”
Within a year, other Vatican documents gave more details of the liturgical reform and provided for some of the other practices O’Toole lists. The two earliest documents were Sacram Liturgiam and Inter oecumenici.
On January 25, 1964, Pope Paul VI issued apostolic letter Sacram Liturgiam, which listed norms of SC that could be put into effect without waiting for the issuance of revised liturgical books. Its provisions were to take effect on February 16, 1964. Of the eleven paragraphs of the document, only one dealt directly with the Mass, and that prescribed a homily on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation.
This document also announced that Pope Paul VI was setting up a special commission to revise the rites and publish new liturgical books. This commission, made up of bishops and experts, was known as the Consilium for Implementing the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The Consilium was officially established by the pope on February 29, 1964. Vincentian Father Annibale Bugnini was the Consilium’s Secretary, and was under-secretary in the Sacred Congregation of Rites (1966-69), when it became the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship.
At a meeting in April 1964, the US bishops, as “the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority”, decided on the extent to which the vernacular would be used at Mass, and agreed on an English translation of those parts. The bishops’ decision was confirmed by the Holy See in May, and the date for first use of the vernacular in the Mass in the United States was set for the First Sunday of Advent that same year.
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.
Inter oecumenici (§57) specified which parts of the Mass could be in the vernacular as permitted by SC §54, and the provisions corresponded with what the US bishops had decided at their April meeting. In addition a few other changes were listed.
The readings are to be done facing the people (Inter oecumenici §49), and they may be read by a layman (§50). The omissions that O’Toole noted — the Gospel passage read at the end of Mass and the prayers after Mass — are specified in §48j. The new formula for distributing Communion, “Corpus Christi” (“The Body of Christ”), is given in §48i.
O’Toole’s recollections include all the changes specified in these two documents (which were often introduced in two stages) but also several other practices: singing hymns, the priest standing behind a “new altar” (that is, facing the people), receiving Communion standing and the removal of the altar rail.
Apart from Mass facing the people, which is mentioned in Inter oecumenici, none of these practices is mentioned in SC or the first implementing documents. How is it that they were introduced almost everywhere on November 29, 1964?
The reform of the liturgy did not begin with Vatican II. The practices introduced in 1964 had been proposed much earlier.
The Liturgical Movement
Since at least the middle of the 19th century there had been an interest in various aspects of the liturgy, its history, ceremonies and music. Benedictines were particularly prominent in this international Liturgical Movement.
In the United States, St. John’s Benedictine Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, was well-known as a center of liturgical activity. It was there that an influential liturgical journal, Orate Fratres (later renamed Worship) was first published in 1926.
The abbey was instrumental in founding the Benedictine Liturgical Conference in 1940 to hold national meetings called Liturgical Weeks. In 1943 this organization became simply the Liturgical Conference, and was no longer sponsored by the Benedictines. The Liturgical Weeks were attended by thousands of priests, religious and laity interested in liturgical reform.
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. Later some liturgists decided that the people’s participation would be possible only if changes were made in the rites, and began to advocate such changes. Thus many of the practices associated with the “New Mass” after the Council actually had their beginnings decades earlier.
Mass facing the people
Though the priest celebrating Mass facing the people was not mentioned in the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy (SC), permission was included in the 1964 Instruction Inter oecumenici, in a section on “Designing Churches and Altars to Facilitate the Participation of the People:”
“90. In building new churches or restoring and adapting old ones every care is to be taken that they are suited to celebrating liturgical services authentically and that they ensure active participation by the faithful (see SC art. 124).
“91. The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there” (Emphasis added).
Setting up a new, temporary altar in order to be able to celebrate Mass facing the people is never mentioned.
Many Catholics think that Mass facing the people was an innovation of Vatican II. However, liturgists had been arguing for decades that it was permitted by the rubrics of the older Missal.
For example, in 1937 Orate Fratres published a question about an earlier article that mentioned a Mass said by a priest facing the congregation, and asked about the justification for this practice. The response said that it was the current custom in St. Peter’s Basilica and other Roman churches for the priest to face the people because of the location of the altar, and that there were specific rubrics for the Mass instructing the priest what to do in such cases. It concluded:
“Not only, therefore, does no Church law or rubric forbid the construction of altars at which the celebrant faces the people as of old, but the present rubrics, as quoted above, still make provision for Mass celebrated at such an altar” (Orate Fratres, April 18, 1937, p. 280).
In 1959, the same journal, by now known as Worship, addressed a variation of the same question (vol. 33, #2, pp. 123-125). In this article the question was whether a temporary altar could be placed in front of the old altar so that the priest could say Mass facing the people.
This question was answered by Father Frederick McManus, who taught canon law at Catholic University and was wellknown as a speaker and writer on liturgical law. In his response, Father McManus said that a temporary altar was perfectly lawful, and suggested that such an altar should be close to the Communion rail. He also said that a permanent altar facing the people may be erected, and cites an article of Father Annibale Bugnini explaining that the desire to have Mass facing the people is a justification for reserving the Blessed Sacrament on an altar other than the main altar. He says that the Holy See is “encouraging” a “revival” of Mass facing the people; but the evidence he cites is less conclusive. He notes that at an international conference on liturgy held in Assisi in 1956, Pope Pius XII had said that experts would study the question of what should be done with the tabernacle on an altar facing the people; and he also cites a 1957 decision from the Congregation for Rites that said that if there is only one altar in a church it cannot be used for Mass facing the people. Father McManus sees this decision as permissive, because it does not forbid the practice as such, but deals only with the case of a church with a single altar — a situation that he considers rare.
Father McManus then says that the desirability of the Mass facing the people is a separate question, and that those who promote it generally have compelling pastoral or theological reasons.
“Even from a psychological point of view, the faithful are more conscious of their unity with the celebrating priest when they see his face instead of his back. But much more important, the unity of Christ (in the person of His minister) with His members in the act of worship is said to be better signified or expressed through the Mass ritual versus populum” (p. 125).
In his opinion, the versus populum (facing the people) option at least occasionally is advisable as a way of helping the people to realize that the Mass is the Church’s sacrifice, and that it would be particularly helpful it they could hear the Canon:
“Its words directly concern the worshipping community, they express its unity with Christ and the celebrant in the offering of sacrifice, and yet they are unheard and unintelligible to the faithful. Perhaps the celebration of Mass with celebrant facing the people, even if done only on occasion, may help to involve the people in the sacred action and to move them to that inward participation which the words demand” (p. 125).
Some liturgists were especially enthusiastic about Mass facing the people. Among them was Father Hans Ansgar Reinhold (known as H. A. R.), who wrote a regular column in Orate Fratres called “Timely Tracts”. In the April 14, 1940 edition, Father Reinhold’s column “My Dream Mass” was a description of a Mass that the author imagines taking place twenty years in the future, i.e., in 1960. His description includes the following:
“… The altar was a stone table with low candlesticks. The priest stood behind it facing his flock, as is done in Rome and many other churches in the old country, especially Belgium and Germany. My priest never turned his back to the people, in spite of the new theory that the priest ought to turn towards the wall in order the better to symbolize that he speaks and sacrifices to God in the name of the congregation” (p. 265).
In 1960, when preparations for the Council were underway, Father Reinhold published a book, Bringing the Mass to the People (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1960), suggesting several changes in the Mass the Council might make. Among his recommendations is an altar facing the people.
“The doctrinal, pastoral, and psychological reasons for a return to the older way of facing the congregation even during the Banquet-Sacrifice … are so convincing that I hope that this will be made the normal position for the priest” (p. 44).
This change did not remain a mere theoretical possibility. Some priests, influenced by these opinions, actually said Mass facing the congregation long before the Council.
On February 25, 1945, Father Reinhold’s Worship column was called “The soldiers are ahead of us!” It featured a letter from a military chaplain who says that he had wanted to try Mass facing the congregation “ever since H. A. R. suggested it to me when I first became a chaplain” (p. 170). The chaplain summarizes his explanation to the men, which followed the ideas of Fathers Reinhold and McManus. He suggests that this practice promotes greater knowledge of the Mass and so will increase devotion to the Mass and increase Mass attendance.
Father Gerald Ellard, SJ, was a founder and associate editor of Orate Fratres/Worship and a prolific writer on liturgy. In his 1948 book The Mass of the Future (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1948) he claims:
“At the 1947 Liturgical Week in Portland the Masses were all celebrated versus populum with brilliant success…” (p. 271).
In some places bishops explicitly allowed the practice. Father Ellard quotes from two pastoral letters written by French bishops in 1945 and 1946, both making explicit allowance for Mass facing the people. He also describes the altar of a Church in Burlington, Vermont, built so that the priest can celebrate facing in either direction, and comments approvingly:
“Perhaps in this double provision it is the real prototype of the setting of the Sacrifice of the Future” (p. 270).
Note that none of the advocates of Mass facing the people mentions the history or the significance of the priest facing East, ad orientem. The usual rationale given for the priest facing the people at Mass was that it was a more ancient practice.
Removal of altar rails, standing to receive Communion
Introducing the practice of standing to receive Communion and removing altar rails also preceded the Council. One notable example is the Benedictine abbey church at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota.
During the 1950s, Father Godfrey Diekmann, a monk at St. John’s, participated in developing the plans for a new abbey church. Father Diekmann, a prominent liturgist and editor of Worship, served as an expert (peritus) at the Second Vatican Council (as did Father McManus), and was also a consultor to the Consilium group formed to implement the Council’s liturgical reforms (as was Father McManus).
Some details of the plans for the new church are given in The Monk’s Tale: A Biography of Godfrey Diekmann, OSB (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), by Sister Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, who taught liturgy at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and served on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). She writes:
“The plans represented a stunning departure from certain “inherited prejudices” about what a church should look like…
“The abbey church at St. John’s is remarkable in many respects. Planned in the decade before the Second Vatican Council was announced, and dedicated before the convocation of the first session, the church in nearly all respects anticipated the liturgical reform that it would soon house” (Monk’s Tale p. 169, 170. Original emphasis).
Among other innovations, the new abbey church had no Communion rail. Father Diekmann gave reasons for this in a letter to Dominican Father Pierre Marie Gy, of the Liturgical Institute of Paris, who was also an expert at Vatican II and consultor to the Consilium.
“We have definitely planned to eliminate the Communion rail. We figure that it has come to denote in people’s minds not merely the distinction between sanctuary and nave, that is between priest and people, but actually separation. And we feel this is most undesirable, particularly because Communion itself is the sacrament of union, and for it to be distributed at a symbol of separation seems most inappropriate. We know that it could be of a very slight and unobtrusive character, but de facto it has come to mean separation from the sanctuary and the altar in the minds of the people. We therefore propose to indicate the distinction by three steps, basing ourselves on the paragraph in the Holy Father’s allocution after Assisi in which he says that the Head and the body are not to be considered as two separate entities, but form one unit which together is operative in worship. Instead of the customary communion rail, we plan to have four small “tables”, only about a foot wide and about four feet long, and about three feet high. The celebrant will be standing on one step higher than the people who will receive, and the latter will receive standing. There are several such tables in a neighboring diocese and my own experience with them has been very satisfactory…” (Monk’s Tale, pp. 171-172).
Father Frederick McManus was another advocate of standing for Communion. In 1960, Father McManus wrote a commentary on new rubrics for the Mass promulgated by Pope John XXIII (Handbook for the New Rubrics, Baltimore; Helicon press, 1960). These new rubrics made only small changes in the Communion rite, and made it clear that Communion was to be distributed at the proper time during Mass, not begun at the Offertory, as was done in some places.
These new rubrics made no change in the manner of receiving, however. But Father McManus suggested that the practice of distributing Communion outside of the proper time may have been due to large congregations in churches with crowded Mass schedules. Communion could be distributed more expeditiously if people were standing rather than kneeling.
“Where conditions are seriously crowded, it may even be advisable to expedite the distribution by directing the communicants to stand rather than kneel; the problem and the inconvenience sometimes encountered seem sufficient to excuse from the ordinary regulation that the laity in the Latin Church communicate while kneeling” (p. 146).
The singing of hymns in the vernacular was also a feature of most people’s experience of the “New Mass”. This, too, was promoted by liturgists before the Council. In some European countries, especially in German-speaking ones, hymns had been sung at Mass for centuries and some ethnic parishes in the US retained the custom. Though it was not the general practice, some liturgists — especially those who worked for more use of the vernacular —began to encourage hymn-singing at Mass.
In 1956 there was a presentation called “Making Active Participation Come to Life” at the Liturgical Week sponsored by the Liturgical Conference. In it Father Eugene Walsh, SS, a professor at Baltimore’s St. Mary Seminary, introduced what he claimed was “the most all round useful means for making active participation come to life, a program that is to be used at low Mass” (“Making Active Participation Come to Life” People’s Participation and Holy Week: 17th North American Liturgical Week. Elsberry, MO: The Liturgical Conference, 1957, pp. 47-48).
The program consisted of a “dialogue Mass” at which the people spoke their responses in Latin and also sang hymns in English at the Entrance, Offertory, Communion, and at the end of Mass. Father Walsh clearly thought this method of participation was superior to the singing of the actual Mass texts in Gregorian chant.
During the discussion after Father Walsh’s presentation, two priests in the audience, both from rural parishes, explained how they were able to instruct their parishioners in the basic Gregorian chants so that they could regularly participate in the sung high Mass. But Father Walsh defended the superiority of his “Low Mass Program.”
“I think we must always distinguish between participating, and participating with an insistence on learning… I come from a large urban area, and I feel that we have to reach all of these people, and I do not think that we can do it just by the sung Mass. This is one of the beginning programs which lends itself to more simplicity and perhaps is catechetically better because it is more in the language of the people…” (p. 48).
In 1958 the Sacred Congregation for Rites issued the “Instruction on Sacred Music and the Sacred Liturgy”, which explicitly allowed such vernacular singing, but did not consider it “direct participation” because it did not involve the actual liturgical texts prescribed for those parts of the Mass.
“At low Mass the faithful who participate directly in the liturgical ceremonies with the celebrant by reciting aloud the parts of the Mass which belong to them must, along with the priest and his server, use Latin exclusively.
“But if, in addition to this direct participation in the liturgy, the faithful wish to add some prayers or popular hymns, according to local custom, these may be recited or sung in the vernacular” (§14b).
The practices that were introduced on November 29, 1964 — use of the vernacular language, the priest celebrating Mass facing the people, singing vernacular hymns, standing to receive Communion and the removal of altar rails — were almost universally understood to be part of the “New Mass.” As we see, none of these were required by the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, but all had a significant “pre-conciliar” history.
How did these sudden changes come about? We will explore this in more detail in Part II.