The New Old Liturgy: Celebrating the Received Tradition of the Roman Rite
Nov 21, 2018

The New Old Liturgy: Celebrating the Received Tradition of the Roman Rite

Editor’s note: It was during the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council that Pope Benedict XVI first spoke of quarrelling “hermeneutics,” or interpretations, following the Council. On the one hand is the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” that “risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.” On the other hand is the “hermeneutic of reform” which he describes as a “renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.” If reading the Council and understanding the Church today requires the proper hermeneutic, does the same hold true for appreciating and celebrating her liturgy? Is there a split between the pre-Conciliar and post-Conciliar books and their use? Monsignor Marc Caron, Professor of Sacred Liturgy at St. John Seminary in Boston, believes no such rupture exists, even while differences appear between pre-Conciliar and post-Conciliar practice. Monsignor Caron introduces here a new series for Adoremus, “Liturgical Traditions,” one that situates the Novus Ordo rites amidst the received liturgical observances, thereby helping us to understand today’s rites in their proper “hermeneutic of reform.” Future entries will appear in the print edition of the Bulletin and on the Adoremus website, 


Over the years, many priests and deacons directly involved in promoting the liturgical renewal launched by the Second Vatican Council have been left perplexed at how few indications the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) gives as to how one actually does anything during the course of Mass. For example, how does the deacon hold his hands while he reads the Gospel? Or, how is a priest meant to use a censer when incensing a free-standing altar? Whenever questions of this kind were raised with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments since the promulgation of the first edition of the GIRM in 1970, the answer given often did not answer the question!


Circular Spin

Over and over again, the official journal of the Congregation, Notitiae, directed readers back to the liturgical documents in force at the time, the same documents which had given rise to the questions. Responses to dubia submitted to the congregation routinely asserted that no rubrics, no practices, no customs from the previous Order for Mass and its ritus servandus could now be assumed to be illustrative or determinative in settling questions about the manner in which the new Order for Mass was to be celebrated. This attitude effectively cut the celebration of Mass off from its past, and provided no context for understanding or implementing the gestures required by the revised General Instruction.

Unfortunately, this state of affairs has tended to create a situation in the Church where there are as many ways of enacting a particular gesture of the liturgy as there are celebrants. Or, no single gesture is carried out in the same way by the same celebrant in successive Masses. Or, it can easily lead to the conviction that “these details don’t really matter.” All of these scenarios weaken the celebration of the Eucharist, which depends, like all ritual does, on the elements of stability of form, predictability, and repetition. These are precisely the elements which the traditional practice of the Roman rite can bring to the Novus Ordo. Therefore, it would seem that the optimal approach to the ars celebrandi of the revised Order for Mass demands a recourse to the tradition, so as to give the Novus Ordo these necessary qualities of stability of form, predictability, and repetition.


Tradition Lends a Hand

Thanks to the promulgation of the third typical edition of the Roman Missal in 2002, it is now indeed legitimate for celebrants of the Novus Ordo to refer to the broad liturgical tradition which preceded it when looking for direction on how to perform this or that gesture at Mass. This change of attitude was signaled by a few words now found in GIRM no. 42 in one line which has no precedent in the previous editions of the General Instruction. Regarding the gestures and postures of the people and ministers, GIRM no. 42 reads in part:

“Therefore, attention should be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice.” [Emphasis added.]

This tiny phrase, it seems to me, heralded a new approach to understanding the revised Order for Mass. That new approach to a more authentic implementation of the Order for Mass was seconded by the emphasis in the post synodal exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (2007) on the value of recovering a proper ars celebrandi of the Mass in conveying the beauty and the holiness of the liturgical action taking place. Similarly, this approach has been bolstered by the hope expressed in Summorum Pontificum (2007) that the two forms of the Roman Rite might mutually enrich each other over time.


Thought Experiment

What might our celebration of the Eucharist look like if the prescriptions of the latest edition of the GIRM were to be implemented according to the “received tradition of the Roman Rite?” What would this approach demand of the priest celebrant, concelebrants, deacons, other ministers, and of the assembled faithful themselves? As GIRM no. 42 suggests, this exercise would be limited to the movements and postures of the Novus Ordo, not to other elements of the celebration of Mass.

But starting from the directives found in the GIRM and in the Order for Mass, and relying on the previous liturgical tradition to fill in what may be either unspecified now, or simply assumed, could this principle help the Church to better understand how one goes about celebrating the Novus Ordo? Rather than starting from scratch in trying to figure out how to celebrate Mass, why not start with what has been most foundational and most reliable in the existing liturgical tradition regarding the gestures and postures at Mass?

Over the next series of entries, I will show how one might interpret the provisions of the GIRM in the light of the “received tradition of the Roman Rite.” It is possible, I believe, to do so while at the same time preserving the distinction between the two forms of the Roman Rite which Summorum Pontificum demands. The main inspirations for this series are the two best commentaries on the revised Order for Mass, the very well-known Ceremonies of the Roman Rite by Bishop Peter Elliot (Ignatius, 1995), and the less well-known Cérémonial de la Sainte Messe by André Mutel and Peter Freeman (Artège, 2012).

With these as our guides, I will offer a description of the ars celebrandi of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite which draws upon the practical and spiritual wisdom found in the long tradition of the Roman Rite. In so doing, I hope that the beauty and grace of our celebrations may inspire more and more men and women of our time to seek with their whole hearts the One who is Beauty itself.

Monsignor Marc B. Caron

Monsignor Marc B. Caron, S.T.D., is the vicar general and the moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Portland, ME. He has served as a pastor, as the director of the diocesan Office for Worship, and as a chancellor of the diocese. Most recently, he was a member of the faculty of St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA, where he was also director of liturgy. In 2021, he received the doctoral degree from the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, writing on the sacramental nature of the diaconate. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.