A Concluding Survey of the Liturgical Landscape – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part XX
Sep 29, 2022

A Concluding Survey of the Liturgical Landscape – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass: Part XX

In my series of short articles for Adoremus, I have sketched the origins and the development of basic form and structure of the Mass in the Roman tradition. Looking back on a history that spans almost two millennia, this last entry will offer a few general considerations with a view to the present liturgical landscape.

Continuity and Change

Ever since the liturgical reforms that were initiated by Pope Pius XII in the mid-20th century, fully embraced by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), and implemented in the post-conciliar period, there has been an intense and often controversial debate on continuity and rupture in liturgical development. When this question is discussed, especially in online publications, the long and complex history of the Roman liturgy is not always sufficiently recognized. The trajectory I have traced in my brief contributions shows both continuity and change. From its formative period in late antiquity, the ritual shape of the Roman Mass was affected by many religious, social, cultural, political, and economic transformations. But changes are to be expected over such a long period of time and in the wide geographical area where this rite has been used. It is really the essential continuity that stands out.

Jesus instituted the Eucharist by means of his words and actions at the Last Supper, in anticipation of his redemptive self-offering on the Cross. The character of the Eucharist as an act of worship and of spiritual sacrifice emerges clearly in the early Christian period, even when sources are few and far between. Rooted in the Last Supper and formed by “Temple piety,” the rite that stood at the heart of the Christian liturgy came to be celebrated as a memorial in which the sacrifice of Christ became present and its saving effects were communicated to those who partook in it. Even in the modest material settings of the first two centuries, the sacred character of the Eucharist is evident in the place and time set apart for its celebration, and in the personal conduct expected from those who shared in it.

The Latin liturgical tradition becomes more tangible to us from the fourth century onwards, above all with the early form of the Canon of the Mass attested by Ambrose of Milan around 390. The Roman Rite of Mass was forged in the practice of the papal stational liturgy of the late ancient and early medieval period. Many sacramentaries of the Gregorian type begin with a separate section “How the Roman Mass is to be celebrated,” which corresponds to the essential structure of the solemn papal Mass of Ordo Romanus I. With the exception of “soft spots” (mainly in the introductory rites, the offertory, and the concluding rites), this Order of Mass remained remarkably stable in different liturgical settings (from magnificent cathedrals to modest rural chapels) and was codified in the post-Tridentine reform.

The further outward we move from this core structure, the more variety we find. Liturgical development always begins at the local level, and the Roman Mass became dominant in the Western Church through a long process that began with the Carolingian reforms in the eighth century and reached a decisive point with the climax of the medieval papacy in the 13th century. At the same time, local and regional customs and traditions not only survived but were integrated into the Roman structure and thus enriched it. In response to the cataclysmic events of the Protestant Reformation, the bishops at the Council of Trent strongly supported a standardization of the Church’s public worship. The Roman Missal of 1570 inaugurated a period of unprecedented stability in the celebration of Mass that would last until Vatican II. At the same time, however, there is always a certain measure of adaptation when a normative tradition is brought to life in a liturgical celebration. The ritual shape of the Mass will depend to a significant extent on the particular building, its material resources, and—last but not least—the persons involved. Each historical period put its stamp on the forms of the Church’s public worship. The complex and varied world of modernity was bound to have such an impact as well.

Revisiting Liturgical Landmarks

As my brief overview has shown, some key landmarks of liturgical scholarship are in need of revision. Three areas in particular call for a renewed approach: Firstly, recent contributions from various scholarly disciplines propose a fresh look at the Carolingian reforms and allow us to see in them an enrichment of the Roman tradition by the integration of Gallican elements. Secondly, in light of the wider manuscript evidence, the received typology of the early medieval Ordo Missae should be revisited. This would include a reconsideration of the role of private apology prayers in the Mass. While some of these prayers are excessive in their length and penitential emphasis, they show an interiorization of priestly spirituality that continues to be valuable. After due pruning, these prayers were successfully integrated into the Roman Order of Mass. Thirdly, the liturgy of the later medieval period, which has sustained damning criticism from liturgical scholars, has been to some degree rehabilitated. This complex period offers not only signs of decay but also of vitality.

Taking a step further, it is high time to challenge the conventional narrative that the liturgy of the Western Church moved from early dynamic development through medieval decline to early modern stagnation and was only revived in the wake of Vatican II. This narrative still has considerable traction both in academic publications and in a wider public, despite its questionable hermeneutics, that is, the principles that guide the interpretation of historical sources. While recourse to Christian origins is fundamental for Christian faith and worship, the attempt to canonize a supposedly classical form—whether it be the early liturgy before the Constantinian settlement in the fourth century or the Roman Rite before the Carolingian reforms—does not do justice to the spiritual and cultural deepening that divine worship experienced in the long Middle Ages and also in the Baroque period. In a seminal contribution of 1966, Joseph Ratzinger brought to light the ambivalence of such liturgical purism that easily turns into unbridled desire for innovation. As he concluded pithily: “Mere archaism does not help and mere modernization even less.”[1]

Joseph Ratzinger endorsed the idea of an “organic” development of the liturgy. By evoking the image of the pope as a “gardener” in his care for the liturgy, he contrasted a natural (or even botanical) model of growth with a technical model of constructing.[2] In the long history of the Roman liturgy, there were no doubt moments of ritual change and innovation that make it difficult to apply the category “organic.” From a wider perspective, however, I believe it is justified to see such substantial continuity once the Roman Mass acquired its distinctive structure in late antiquity, which was enshrined in the missal of 1570. Another factor should be considered here: pre-modern means of communication and administration meant that any liturgical reform preceded necessarily by a slow and gradual pace, and its application depended on local initiative. There is no precedence for the speed, the efficiency, and the global reach that marked ritual change at the time of the Second Vatican Council.

Vatican II initiated “the most extensive renewal of the Roman Rite ever known,”[3] certainly since its period of formation. This history is still being made, and keeps taking turns that are unexpected (at least to the present author). Hence it would be unwise to make predictions for the future. Given the revolutionary changes that have affected Western societies for a considerable time, we may note the persistence of the Roman liturgical tradition and its rediscovery among the younger generations of the faithful.

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. Joseph Ratzinger, “Catholicism after the Council,” in The Furrow 18 (1967), 3–23, at 11. He renewed this critique in Joseph Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, trans. Salvator Attanasio and Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 131–132, and The Spirit of the Liturgy, in Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence, Joseph Ratzinger Collected Works 11, ed. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 49–50 and 52–56 (first published in 2000).

  2. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Organic Development of the Liturgy,” in JRCW 11, 589–594, at 591 (first published in 2004).
  3. Benedict XVI, Video Message for the Closing of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin (June 17, 2012).

Image Source: AB/Wikimedia. The Christ in Majesty mosaic in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.