From the Tridentine Period to the Liturgical Movement – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part XVII
Jun 20, 2022

From the Tridentine Period to the Liturgical Movement – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part XVII

In the decades after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), standardized liturgical books for the Roman Rite were promulgated, beginning with the Breviarium Romanum (1568) and the Missale Romanum (1570). In 1588, Pope Sixtus V created the Sacred Congregation of Rites, which was to give authentic answers to questions arising from the new liturgical books and ensured the observance of liturgical norms. The minor changes and additions that subsequent popes made in the Missal did not affect the basic structure and shape of Mass. Thus the period between 1570 and the mid-20th century was marked by a stable ritual that came to be known as the “Tridentine Mass.”

The English liturgist and historian Adrian Fortescue did not consider such liturgical centralization felicitous, but he conceded that it was widely considered necessary for the good of the Church at a time of crisis.[1] However, it should also be noted that in an increasingly global Church, the Tridentine reforms were applied in varying degrees and with different speeds. Local customs not only persisted but were purified and gained new vigor where dedicated pastors implemented the Trent’s program of renewal effectively.

Questions of Liturgical Participation

The Protestant reformers’ emphasis on the royal priesthood of the baptized promoted conscious participation of the people in church services. Renaissance Humanism and the new technology of printing led to a focus on worship as text.[2] Consequently, participation was largely concerned with language comprehension, and the prevailing use of Latin in the Roman Rite came under severe criticism. At the Council of Trent, the question of liturgical language was debated with remarkable depth, and the arguments produced by the Protestant reformers were considered very seriously.[3] The Decree on the Sacrifice of the Mass (1562) contains a carefully worded exposition on the subject, stating that it did not seem expedient to the council fathers that the Holy Mass should generally be celebrated in the vernacular. However, they recognized the value of the liturgical texts for the instruction of the faithful in a language that was intelligible to them. Therefore, pastors and those entrusted with the care of souls should preach frequently about what is read at Mass, especially on Sundays and feast days.[4]

The festive culture of the Baroque period (around 1600-1750) saw a great flourishing of sacred music, art, and architecture, which engaged the senses of the faithful and had the capacity of leading them to a profound understanding of the mysteries celebrated in the liturgy. Still, the perceived gap widened between the “clerical” liturgy performed by the sacred ministers in the sanctuary and the ways the laity found to participate in it. In the Catholic Enlightenment of the 18th century, efforts were made to promote the people’s understanding of and partaking in the liturgy. There were demands to introduce the vernacular language, the celebration “facing the people,” and, in general, to simplify rites in order to make them more intelligible. At the time, various currents in the Church endorsed similar ideas, though for different motives, such as Jansenism in France and Italy, which advocated a return to early Christian liturgical practice to instill a more restrained piety and seriousness in the moral life. Some of these demands were supported by the rationalist zeitgeist, which saw Christian worship above all as a useful exercise for the moral edification of the individual and for the building up of society. They also coincided with agitation for national churches under the patronage of the monarch and with greater independence from the papacy, as is evident by such nationalist-inspired movements as Josephism and Febronianism which developed in the German-speaking lands.

The Liturgical Movement of the 19th and 20th Centuries

The modern liturgical movement is connected with the rebirth of Benedictine monasticism after the devastations the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars brought to the Catholic Church in Europe. Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875), who re-founded the Abbey of Solesmes in France in 1832, made a stirring appeal in the first volume of his popular work L’Année Liturgique (The Liturgical Year), published in 1845: “Open your hearts, children of the Catholic Church, and come and pray the prayer of your Mother.”[5] Thus Guéranger stood at the beginning of a movement that aspired to make the unique spiritual treasure that was enshrined in the liturgical books of the Church more accessible to the ordinary faithful and place it at the heart of the devotional life.

A defining moment for the modern liturgical movement was Pope Pius X’s motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini (originally written in Italian) on the restoration of Church music (1903). The fundamental principle of Tra le sollecitudini, “active participation,” was to become the cornerstone of liturgical renewal in the 20th century: “It being our ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit restored in every respect and preserved by all the faithful, we deem it necessary to provide before everything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for the object of acquiring this spirit from its indispensable fount, which is the active participation in the holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.”[6] Much ink has been spilt on the interpretation of “active participation,” and more recently there have been valid attempts at a renewed reading of this principle, which gives priority to interior participation in the prayer and sacrifice of Christ and his Church.[7] At the time, Pius X demanded a new attention to the quality of liturgical celebrations, especially regarding sacred music, and a revision of liturgical books, which he began with the new edition of the breviary.

The liturgical movement, which flourished especially in French- and German-speaking countries in the first half of the 20th century, intended to bring the people to a closer understanding and love of the rites of the Church. Thus, the Belgian Benedictine Lambert Beauduin (1873-1960), in a widely received paper at the 1909 Malines Catholic Congress, called for “a more enlightened and hierarchical piety” that was grounded in the liturgy itself.[8] To achieve this means, Beauduin proposed vernacular editions of the Missal and other liturgical books for the use of the faithful, as well as liturgical periodicals and study weeks (gatherings of clergy, religious, and laity to pray and study about the Church’s sacred liturgy). Beauduin also recommended the dialogue Mass, in which the people would make the responses to the priest, rather than just the servers making them at the altar.

The short book Vom Geist der Liturgie (On the Spirit of the Liturgy), published in 1918 by Romano Guardini (1885-1968), a German theologian of Italian background, became a foundational text of the liturgical movement. Like Beauduin, Guardini wanted to introduce the ordinary faithful to the liturgy as “the supreme example of an objectively established rule of spiritual life.”[9] At the same time, however, Guardini and the Benedictine monks of Maria Laach in Germany gave the liturgical movement a more definitive direction. While the texts and rubrics of the liturgical books were largely followed, changes were introduced to the form of celebration, with the idea of making the liturgy more approachable to the people of his time, such as Mass “facing the people” and vernacular hymns. Guardini also promoted the minimalist aesthetics that became widespread in sacred art and architecture. Bishops in various European countries were increasingly concerned about about such tendencies.


While Pope Pius XII approved the principal aims of the liturgical movement in his encyclical on the sacred liturgy Mediator Dei (1947), he rejected certain excesses of its protagonists and recalled the need to respect liturgical tradition. At the same time, Pius XII began a process of liturgical reform that culminated in the renewed Holy Week of 1955. Thus, the pope in many ways anticipated the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, to which I will turn in the next instalment.

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 Adrian Fortescue, The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451, 4th ed. Alcuin Reid (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 36.

  2. See Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology: The Hale Memorial Lectures of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 1981 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1984), 104, and John Bossy, Christianity in the West, 1400–1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 103.

  3. See H. A. P. Schmidt, Liturgie et langue vulgaire. Le problème de la langue liturgique chez les premiers Réformateurs et au Concile de Trente, Analecta Gregoriana 53 (Romae: Apud Aedes Unversitatis Gregorianae, 1950), 81-198.

  4. Council of Trent, Session 22 (September 17, 1562), Decree on the Sacrifice of the Mass, chapter 8; see also canon 9.

  5. As cited in Cuthbert Johnson, Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875): A Liturgical Theologian (Rome: Studia Anselmiana, 1984), 350.

  6. Pius X, Motu Proprio on the Restoration of Sacred Music Tra le sollecitudini (November 22, 1903).

  7. See, above all, Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 171–177; also Daniel G. Van Slyke, “Actuosa Participatio from Pius X to Benedict XVI: Grace and Gregorian Chant,” in Antiphon 23 (2019), 101–144.

  8. Lambert Beauduin, “La vraie prière de l’Église”, in Dom Lambert Beauduin et le renouveau liturgique, ed. André Haquin (Gembloux: Éditions Duculot, 1970), 238–241, at 241.

  9. Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. Ada Lane (London: Sheed & Ward, 1935), 121.

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