The Shape of the “Tridentine Mass” – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part XVI
May 24, 2022

The Shape of the “Tridentine Mass” – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part XVI

The liturgical life of the late medieval Western Church was not in a general state of decay and decadence, but there were certainly aspects in need of correction. Early modern reformers observed that priests exhibited signs of greed, a lack of preparation, carelessness in liturgical functions, or disregard for rubrics. Such grievances can be seen as part of the general critique of the state of the clergy and the appeals for renewal, which were concerns widely shared at the time.

The profound rupture of the Protestant Reformation had a momentous impact on liturgical life. Martin Luther (1483-1546) rejected the sacrificial character of the Mass and condemned the Roman canon. However, he changed the ritual structure of the Mass only gradually, and in many Lutheran church orders some elements that had a popular appeal were retained, including Eucharistic vestments and the elevation of the consecrated species.[1] Other Reformers, such as Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zurich, as well as the compilers of the English Book of Common Prayer (especially in its second edition of 1552), went much further in their rejection of Catholic liturgical tradition.

The Council of Trent (1545–1563)

Calls for renewed liturgical discipline were already heard during the first period of the Council of Trent from December 1545 to March 1547. However, the question was resumed in earnest only in its last period, from January 1562 to December 1563, alongside the deliberations about the decree on the sacrifice of the Mass. The bishops and religious superiors representing various European nations at the council expressed a strong desire for a unified missal.[2] At the same time, it seems to have been the prevailing view among the council fathers that they were not in a position to undertake the revision of liturgical books themselves. In the final session on December 4, 1563, it was decided that several reform measures, which the council was not able to complete, should be left to the pope, among them the reform of the breviary and of the missal. The discussions among the council fathers served to establish two fundamental principles for this work: in the first place, the council fathers supported a unification of the Order of Mass and its rubrics; any celebration of Mass was meant to conform to this general standard. Secondly, there was a broad consensus that the Roman Rite should be pruned of more recent accretions, especially those containing apocryphal material, those reflecting private devotions, and those judged to be superstitious.

The Missale Romanum of 1570

In the new edition of the Missale Romanum that was promulgated by Pope Pius V on July 14, 1570, the “Ordinary of Mass” (Ordinarium Missae) is largely indebted to Burchard’s ordo of 1502 (except for the offertory procession, which was not included). Burchard’s rubrical instructions are the main source for the Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae (“Rite to be observed in the celebration of Mass”) that is placed at the beginning of the missal.

While liturgical books from the later Middle Ages contain a range of tropes, that is, texts (in both poetry and prose) added to embellish or augment chants from the Order or from the Proper of the Mass, the missal of 1570 explicitly proscribes the troping of the introit, the Kyrie, and the Gloria.

Considerable work was done on the liturgical calendar.[3] The very full sanctoral cycle of the pre-Tridentine books was substantially reduced, with the aim of bringing the temporal cycle to the fore again, especially in Lent. There were no significant alterations in the structure of the temporal cycle of the liturgical year, which had been established since the early Middle Ages, and few modifications were made in its prayers, chants, and readings. The most substantial change was the purging of the poetic sequences to be sung before the gospel, except those for Easter, Pentecost, and Corpus Christi (as well as the Requiem Mass).

The Common of Saints was laid out more systematically, with complete Mass formularies. The number of votive Masses was reduced; their use was strictly regulated and restricted to weekday ferias.

The Shape of the “Tridentine Mass”

The Missale Romanum of Pius V thus stands in continuity with the plenary missals of the Roman Rite in the form used by the papal curia, which go back to the 13th century. This continuity extends even further to the time of the Gregorian reform in the 11th century, and, in the essential structure and contents of the rite, to the papal stational Mass of Ordo Romanus I. Perhaps the most momentous novelty concerns the form of celebration. The Ordinarium Missae of 1570 contains some rubrical instructions for the solemn or high Mass (Missa solemnis), with the assistance of deacon and subdeacon, as well as musical notation for the parts of the rite that are to be sung, including the intonations of Gloria and Credo, the prefaces, the Lord’s Prayer, and the dismissal. However, the comprehensive and detailed Ritus servandus in the opening section of the missal seems to give priority to the low Mass (Missa lecta), which was said (rather than sung) by a priest with the assistance of one or more servers. The indications for the solemn Mass appear as additions to an underlying shape and structure, which is that of the low Mass. Hence it could be argued that the Ritus servandus ratifies the shift, which began with the Franciscan ordinal Indutus planeta, towards an understanding that the ritual forms of the Mass were, as Chadwick has aptly put it, “based on low Mass rather than low Mass being a reduction of the normative pontifical Mass, from which the solemn form with deacon and subdeacon is also a reduction.”[4]

There were practical reasons in favor of the low Mass: above all, it was better suited to the demands of pastoral care, especially in the countryside, since it could be celebrated in places that lacked the human resources needed for the solemn liturgy. Furthermore, the simpler form of the Mass proved to be extremely useful in the worldwide missionary expansion of the Catholic Church in the early modern period. The sung liturgy was still cultivated, especially on important occasions of the Church’s year and the post-Tridentine period brought a flourishing of sacred music. At the same time, the conceptual shift that can be observed in the 1570 missal reversed a liturgical principle that the solemn pontifical liturgy is the normative exemplar, in which all other celebrations of Mass participate to a greater or lesser degree. This principle had shaped the development of the Roman Mass since the late ancient and early medieval periods.

The increasing prevalence of the simplified, spoken ritual meant that the sensory dimensions of the liturgy and hence the stimuli for the meditative and affective participation of the laity were curtailed. The structure of the solemn Mass is not a linear sequence but rather a complex fabric of different ritual actions that are performed simultaneously. Paul Barnwell applies to this fabric the musical concept of “polytextuality”[5] and argues that it offered the laity various ways of engaging with it. As a result of the shift from ritual complexity towards the low Mass, and the retention of almost exclusive use of Latin, the gap widened in the post-Tridentine period between the “official” liturgy that was performed by the priest at the altar and the devotional exercises the laity used to follow it.


The Council of Trent’s decision to leave the reform of the missal and breviary in the hands of the pope (and thus also his curia) inaugurated a period of unprecedented standardization of the Latin liturgical tradition. The new medium of printing—now closely supervised by ecclesiastical authority—meant that uniform liturgical books could much more easily be produced and distributed throughout the Catholic Church. Thus, the 16th century marks a decisive moment in the long transformation from oral to written culture, with profound consequences for the celebration of the liturgy. The desire to strengthen the visible unity and cohesion of the Church, which had already been felt at Trent, led to the adoption of the Roman books even where an older tradition existed, with some notable exceptions that included the Ambrosian Rite in Milan and the Mozarabic Rite in Toledo. At the same time, the prevalence of a prescriptive liturgical book does not produce simple uniformity in the ways in which the liturgy is enacted, let alone experienced.

In the next installment, I will review some of the developments of the Roman Mass until the beginnings of the Liturgical Movement in the 19th century.

For previous instalments of Father Lang’s Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass series, see:

Father Uwe Michael Lang, a native of Nuremberg, Germany, is a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and teaches Church history at Mater Ecclesiae College, St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Allen Hall Seminary, London. He is an associate staff member at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, and on the Visiting Faculty of the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, IL. He is a Corresponding Member of the Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger / Papst Benedikt XVI, a Member of the Council of the Henry Bradshaw Society, a Board Member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and Editor of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.


  1. See Helmut Hoping, My Body Given for You: History and Theology of the Eucharist, trans. Michael J. Milller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), 223-235.

  2. See Hubert Jedin, “Das Konzil von Trient und die Reform des Römischen Meßbuches,” in Liturgisches Leben 6 (1939), 30-66, at 37-45, and “Das Konzil von Trient und die Reform der liturgischen Bücher,” in Ephemerides Liturgicae 59 (1945), 5-38, at 28-30.
  3. See Anthony Chadwick, “The Roman Missal of the Council of Trent,” in T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy, ed. Alcuin Reid (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 107-131, at 116-117 for a concise overview.
  4. Chadwick, “The Roman Missal of the Council of Trent,” 108-109.
  5. Paul S. Barnwell, “The Nature of Late Medieval Worship: The Mass,” in Late Medieval Liturgies Enacted: The Experience of Worship in Cathedral and Parish Church, ed. Sally Harper, Paul S. Barnwell and Magnus Williamson (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), 207-218, at 216-218.

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