The Traditional Mass of the Roman Rite


"At that hour of the Sacrifice, at the words of the Priest, the heavens are opened, and in that mystery of Jesus Christ, the choirs of Angels are present, and things below are joined to things on high, earthly things to heavenly, and the service is both a visible and an invisible event." — St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome († 604)

What is the Holy Mass?

The Holy Mass is the heart and the highpoint of the life of the Church, for in the Mass Christ enables His Church and all Her members to take part in His Sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving, reconciliation and satisfaction, that He once and for all offered up upon the wood of the Cross: through this Sacrifice of the Mass - which is the unbloody re-enactment of His bloody Sacrifice upon the Cross - Christ showers His saving gifts upon His Mystical Body the Church. The Holy Mass is the official public act of worship of the Church Militant upon earth and a foretaste of and participation in the heavenly liturgy of the Church Glorified. The Holy Mass makes present anew for us in space and in time – in an unbloody, sacramental manner – the bloody Sacrifice of the Cross which took place 2000 years ago. God knows no time, as He dwells in eternity. The Mass is God’s way of breaking into our time and space in order to apply to us the benefits of His Sacrifice, and in order to allow us to take part here on earth in the Heavenly Liturgy. Thus, in the Mass, past, present and future become one and the same moment. The Holy Mass is offered not only to adore and to thank the Most Holy Trinity, but also to make satisfaction for the sins of the living and the dead, and to beg God for spiritual and temporal favours. It is Christ Himself, the Everlasting High Priest, Who, through the ministry of validly ordained priests, offers up the Eucharistic Sacrifice. And it is also the same Christ Who is the Victim of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, truly present under the outward forms of bread and wine. By means of the words of consecration, the miracle of Transubstantiation takes place, that is, the change of the complete substance of the bread and the complete substance of the wine into the Body and the Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Under the consecated species of bread and wine, the living and glorified Christ is really, truly and substantially present. Because it is a Living Victim, the same Risen Christ Who unceasingly offers Himself in Heaven, the whole living Christ is made present, offered up and consumed upon our earthly altars – that is, the Body, the Blood, the Soul and the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Mass is a type of sacrifice known as a sacrificial meal, because the Victim is not only offered up by the priest upon the Altar, but also consumed by the priest and then by the faithful at the communion rail – the table of the Lord. The Holy Communion, which is the Fruit of the Sacrifice of the Mass, unites the communicant more closely to Christ, strengthens the bonds of love between the communicant and Christ and the Church, wipes out the daily sins of the communicant, and grants him everlasting life. One receives the whole Christ even if one receives just one of the two species, as Christ is fully present totally in both, even in the tiniest crumb and in the smallest drop. The substance of the bread and wine are changed into the Living Christ, whilst the accidents – the smell, taste, texture and appearance of bread and wine – remain unchanged. Thus one recognises the Lord with the eyes of faith, trusting in His unerring and almighty Word, which assures us that this is no longer bread and wine, and which we believe is capable of turning bread and wine into His Very Self so as to become food and drink for our bodies and souls.  Christ remains present as long as the outward forms are intact. Whoever wishes to receive our Lord in the Holy Communion must be in the state of grace (friendship with God) and must confess his belief in our Lord’s Real Presence in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Otherwise, as Saint Paul writes, he who receives the Holy Commuion without distinguishing the Body and Blood of the Lord, eats and drinks to his own condemnation. Outside of the celebration of Mass, the Body of Christ under the form of the Host is kept in the Tabernacle, a golden safe which usually sits upon the high Altar. The Tabernacle is veiled, and a candle nearby must always be burning, to show that Christ is present. Because Christ Himself is present within the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, we must duly honour Him with the worship of adoration, and kneel before Him every time that we pass by the Altar where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. By visiting the Most Holy Sacrament, we show Him our thankfulness, our love, and our recognition that He is our Maker, our Saviour, our Lord and our God.


Why is the ''Tridentine'' liturgy called the "Traditional" liturgy?

Because this Liturgy - in all her substantial elements - has her origin in the earliest times of the Church.  The texts of the traditional Mass of the Roman Rite can be found in the Missals of Pope Saint Damasus (A.D. 266-284), Pope Saint Leo (483), Gelasius (491), and Pope Saint Gregory the Great (590). The Roman Canon has remained unchanged at least since those times. It was this Liturgy of the Mass that was brought by countless missionaries to all parts of the world. The traditional Mass of the Roman Rite is without a doubt the oldest christian liturgy. In the early christian ages the very origin of our Liturgy of the Mass was ascribed to the holy Apostle Peter, for example, in the fifth century, by Innocent in his Epistle to Bishop Decentius.


Why is this Liturgy often referred to as "Tridentine"?

"Tridentine" means "of Trent". After the Council of Trent in 1570, Pope Saint Pius V ordered that the liturgical books, with their prescribed texts and rubrics, in use in the City of Rome at that time, thenceforward be made obligatory for the whole Latin Church, that is, everywhere in the world where the Mass of the Roman rite was celebrated. That Rite had organically grown since the apostolic times and was best preserved in the Eternal City. The Pope also determined that, besides the Roman Rite, also other usages and rites should continue to exist, which could claim to be at least two hundred years old. And thus, for example, the Ambrosian Rite in the archdiocese of Milano (Italy), and the Mozarabic Rite in Toledo (Spain), continue to be celebrated to this day, as well as the usages of the Dominicans, the Benedictines, and other religious orders. The Pope chose the term two hundred years, in order to take out of circulation and use any and all liturgical books which had become infected with Protestant errors during the Reformation. Pope Saint Pius V introduced no new Liturgy, Order of Mass, or Rite. ''Indeed, the Missal of 1570 differs very little from the first printed Missal of 1474, which in turn is a faithful reproduction of the Missal from the time of Pope Inncent III." (General introduction to the Roman Missal of 1970). Thus, the traditional Mass of the Roman Rite is neither 'Tridentine'' nor ''of Pope Saint Pius V'', but simply the ''Mass of the Roman Rite'', the same Liturgy of the Mass that had been safeguarded, handed down and celebrated throughout the ages, until the infelicitous introduction of the ''Novus Ordo Missae" (''New Order of Mass'') by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Indeed, in order to distinguish the Traditional Liturgy of the Roman Rite from the new-style liturgy (which hardly resembles a Rite at all), one could perhaps reserve the name ''[Traditional] Mass of the Roman Rite'' for the Liturgy of the Mass as that was universally known and used in the Latin Church until the year 1970. (A suggestion of Father Aidan Nichols, O.P.). Eventually one could invent a new name for the ''Novus Ordo Missae'' (''New Order of Mass''), such as ''Ritus Communis'' (Common Rite) or ''Ritus Vulgaris'' (Vulgar Rite).       


What did the Second Vatican Council say about the Tridentine or Traditional Mass?

The Second Vatican Council declared that the use of Latin, and all recognised liturgical rites, were to be preserved, maintained and fostered in every possible way. The Council also declared that the faithful should be taught to sing the unchangeable parts of the Holy Mass in Latin according to the ancient and venerable Gregorian Chant, which is and shall remain proper to the Roman Rite.


Is this Tridentine or Traditional Liturgy allowed by the Pope to be celebrated?

Yes. When Pope Paul VI in 1969 gave permission to introduce the new liturgy, he also granted permission to – amongst others - the bishops of England and Wales – to continue to use the Missal of the Tridentine or Traditional Roman Rite. In 1984 Pope John Paul II broadened this permission out to the whole world, and in a motu proprio in 1988 he asked the bishops of the world to allow wide and generous use of this permission to be made in their dioceses. Thereafter, a Papal Commission determined that the Traditional Roman Rite never had been outlawd – and that it, as an ancient and legally recognised rite of the Church, in fact never can be outlawed. Any priest anywhere may always celebrate the Traditional Mass in private, even without permission of the local Ordinary.


Why does the priest, when celebrating the Tridentine Mass, stand with his face towards the Altar rather than towards the people?

The priest faces the altar because he offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass ''in persona Christi'' (in Christs’ name and person) to the Holy Trinity, and because the priest, as representative of Christ, the Head of the Church, leads Body of the Church - the faithful - towards God, and represents them before God. Since the beginning of christianity – and in all rites, both western and eastern - the priest has always stood with his face towards the east, towards the rising sun, which is the symbol of the "New Jerusalem", the heavenly fatherland: he leads the flock just as the Good Shepherd does. (Also in the hebrew temple service, the priest stood with his face towards the altar, towards God, and not towards the faithful.) When the priest addresses the faithful, he turns around and says: ''Dominus vobiscum'' (The Lord be with you) or ''Orate, fratres'' (Pray, brethren!). When the priest reads the Epistle and the Gospel in the vernacular, and preaches a homily, he stands facing the people.


Why are some of the parts of the Holy Mass recited in silence?

All the prayers of the Mass are addressed to God, and not to the people. Especially during the Canon of the Mass – from the end of the Sanctus till just before the Pater Noster - is this silence the most effective expression of worship of God, Who comes to us in the Mystery of the Transubstantiation.  Even the Angels, who take part in the Holy Mass, are silent during the Canon and shudder out of wonder for so great a Mystery. This silence during the Canon reminds us of the Arcanum Fidei – the obligation of secrecy surrounding the faith – which was in vigour during the times of persecution in the early ages of christianity.


Why is the Holy Communion received kneeling and upon the tongue?

In the first centuries of the christian era - in the times of persecution - could acolytes or lay christians sometimes find themselves in circumstances wherein they saw themselves necessitated to touch the Sacred Species, for example, in order to bring the Holy Communion to the bed-stricken and imprisoned faithful, in stead of the priest or deacon, for whom it might be too dangerous or impossible. The form of Communion in the hand then in use took place in a totally other way than now, and with much more respect. The communicants were instructed to wash their hands before Communion. The Communon Host was placed upon the palm of the right hand, whilst the left-hand was placed under the right hand to make a ‘throne’, and the communicant then bowed his head down towards the Host to receive It directly with his tongue into his mouth, without ever touching the Sacred Host with his own hand. The hands of women communicants had to be veiled, and later, also those of men communicants. And still, abuses crept in. These abuses and the increasing respect for the Most Blessed Sacrament led to the fact that already in the third century (year 200), Pope Saint Eutyches ordered, that laymen ought neither to touch, nor to bring to the ill and the absent the Holy Communion. The Council of Saragossa in the year 380 declared the sentence of excommunication as a punishment for any and all laymen who dared to ''handle the Holy Communion as in times of persecution'', that is, to touch with their hands the Sacred Species. The Concil of Rouen (650) once again forbade priests to lay the Holy Communion upon the hand of the faithful. Until the seventies of the twentieth century, the Sacred Host was everywhere in the world received by the faithful directly upon the tongue and kneeling. The Second Vatican Council did not change this practice. The Council Fathers delared that as little as possible should be changed in the celebration of the Holy Mass - only that which was stricly necessary and that which would be for the clearly greater good of the faithful. It was only after the Council that here and there one began to experiment with giving Communion on the hand - and other liturgical aberrations -, in clear violation of liturgical practice, church law, and the will of the Council. Pope Paul VI in his encyclical ''Mysterium Fidei'' (1965) reiterated the binding Catholic doctrines regarding the Sacrificial character of the Mass and the Real Presence. That same Pontiff in the Instruction ''Memoriale Domini'' (1969) declared that the faithful must continue to receive the Holy Communion ''kneeling and upon the tongue'', which was and would remain the universal traditional practice. The Instruction gave as the principal reasons against ''handcommunion'' 1) the age-old venerable tradition, 2) the danger of profanation, and 3) that the absolute majority of the bishops was against any innovation in this matter.

Just the same, the bishops of Netherland (and of a few other northern european countries) asked the Holy See to grant an indult (special permission) to distribute Holy Communion - besides in the universally approved traditional way - also standing and upon the hand. The Bishops motivated their request, by claiming that in the Netherlands it was already being done without permission anyway, and that a prohibition would not stop the abuse. It was a sort of blackmail to force the Vatican to permit against its will a practice which the Bishops in the Netherlands (Belgium, France and Germany, as well) had already abusively introduced. Later this indult would be asked for by and granted to other bishops in other lands as well. But Communion in the hand - where officially allowed - in the mind of the Church remains an unwillingly tolerated exception to the universal rule. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, when asked what most distressed her of all the post-conciliar changes in the Church, replied: ''Communion in the hand.'' When the Mass is celebrated according to the Missal of 1962, (i.e., the Traditional Mass), the faithful may receive the Holy Communion only upon the tongue and kneeling (with the exception of the ill and the aged, who - of course - do not have to kneel).


Why is the Traditional Holy Mass celebrated in Latin?

The Faith and the Holy Mass were carried by the Apostles and the first missionaries throughout the whole Roman empire, where the official tongue was the Latin in the west, and the Greek in the east. After the Roman empire went under, Latin eventually became a dead language and thus became fixed in its words and forms. Therfore the Latin tongue lends itself as no other for the purpose of expressing liturgical and theological concepts in a clear and uncompromising way, so that the faithful over the whole world wide can understand them correctly, without running the danger of understanding and/or interpreting them differently in each land. Another benefit of using Latin as a sacred tongue is that the texts and chants of the Liturgy are thereby safeguarded against profanation.


Why has the Latin language undergone no changes, whereas the vulgar tongues (languages of the people) keep changing over the years?

The vernacular tongues are slowly but surley ever developing, and as a result the meaning of words change in the course of time. The nearly exclusive use of the vernacular in the Liturgy of the Roman rite was introduced only 35 years ago, and already many text revisions have taken place. New texts are constantly being prepared to take the place of older ones, because the meaning or usage of the words keeps changing, or because the ''experts'' cannot agree on how best to (mis)translate the Latin, or because they have simply developed a taste for ever more changes and are never satisfied with the official liturgical texts and rubrics. The Latin, on the otherhand, is unchangeable, and therefore is and must remain the measuring stick by which all translations are checked. The Latin is therefore of irreplaceable value in safeguarding and fostering unity in the Church's worship and prayer, and in order to forecome theological misconceptions. The wild growth in the vernacular of all kinds of private liturgical compositions, that are mostly of poor quality and in conflict with the spirit of the Liturgy and the faith of the Church,  is partly to blame on the lack of those necessary measuring sticks - the Latin and the Tradition (both Apostolic and Ecclesiastical) - to which the Liturgy of the Mass, the Divine Office and the Sacraments in the vernacular (people's tongue) must always be compared.    


Does this mean that the laity does not actively take part in the liturgy of the Holy Mass?

No, that means no such thing. It was the original intention of the Liturgical Renewal Movement (and also of the Second Vatican Council) that there should be a serious, intense and interior participation of the faithful during the Holy Mass, foreall by lifting one's spirit and heart heavenwards and morally uniting oneself to the priest, who offers the Divine Victim upon the altar, and by offering ones' own self up to that very Divine Victim, Jesus Christ. Following the words and the actions of the priest by means of a layman's missal can be an important help in better understanding and appreciating the beauty of the Liturgy. And last, but not least, the faithful are encouraged to learn and to sing in Latin the fixed chants of the Mass - the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. These fixed parts of the Mass have always belonged to the faithful and must again belong to them!


How can one help to save the Traditional Latin Mass and ensure its future existance?

Lex orandi, lex credendi (Legem credendi statuit lex orandi), that is, The way we pray determines the way we believe. Let us then so often as possible assist at Holy Mass and at other liturgical functions only there, where they are celebrated in a worthy, pious, respectful and correct manner. The Mass and sacraments, when carried out as they ought to be, are a true joy and comfort for the soul. Above all, let us keep praying that the traditional Mass of the Roman Rite will be restored to Catholic altars everywhere in the world. (We are here referring only to the Latin Church, to which the majority of Roman Catholics belong, as the various Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church – Byzantine, Maronite, Syriac, and so forth – have remained unchanged and true to Tradition, and thus do not need to be restored.)

 AMDG ~ July 2004


Postscriptum: As of 7 July 2007 the Supreme Pontiff Pope Benedict XVI, with his Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio ‘Summorum Pontificum’, has set free from the approval of the local Bishop the Liturgy of the Mass, the Sacraments and the Divine Office; has declared that the classical Roman Rite (called in this Motu Proprio ‘the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite’) never has been abolished or forbidden and must be held in honour; and has decreed that each and every priest, in the celebration of  the Holy Mass, the Sacraments and the Divine Office, may make free use of the liturgical books which were in use before 1970. Let us pray, that, in spite of misinformation spread by the official Catholic press, and in spite of the attempts of many Bishops to thwart also this Motu Proprio, as they have for many years thwarted the Motu Proprio ‘Ecclesia Dei’ issued by Pope John Paul II in 1988, that the Catholic Faithful will be able to claim what is rightfully theirs, and that the Mass of the Tradition once again shall be offered upon every altar  – ‘ad laudem et gloriam Nominis Sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque Ecclesiae Suae sanctae.’ !         



1) Aidan Nichols, OP, Looking at the Liturgy. A critical view of its contemporary form, 1996;

2) P. van de Kerckhove, Gebeden en Rituelen van de Heilige Mis;

3) Joseph Ratzinger, Introduzione allo spirito della liturgia, Edizioni San Paolo, 2001;

4) Catechism of the Catholic Church. Nr. 1077-1112, 1995;

5) Romano Guardini, Lo spirito della liturgia (Der Geist der Liturgie), 1930;

6) Alcuin Reid, OSB, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, 2004;

7) Fortesque, O’Connell & Reid, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described (2003);

8) David Berger, Der Heilige Thomas van Aquino und die Liturgie, 1997;

9) David Berger, Thomas Aquinas and the Liturgy, Sapientia Press, 2004;

10) Klaus Gamber, Fragen in die Zeit, 1999;

11) G. Hull, The Banished Heart: Origins of Heteropraxis in the Catholic Church, 1995;

12) G. Hull, The Proto-history of the Roman Liturgical Reform ;

13) John Parsons, A Reform of the Reform?, 2001;

14) Jonathan Robinson, The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward, 2004;

15) László Dobszay, The Bugnini Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform, 2003.

16) Lugmayr, M., Handkommunion: eine historisch-dogmatische Untersuchung, Stella-Maris-Verl., 2001;

17) M. Ramm, vertaler GMJ van der Vegt, De H. Mis en haar riten verklaard ;

18) H. Kunkel, vertaler GMJ van der Vegt, Het Heilig Misoffer ;

19) Benedict XVI, Motu Proprio ‘Summorum Pontificum’, 7 July 2007 ;

20) Benedict XVI, Accompanying Letter to the Bishops of the Church regarding the extraordinary Roman Rite.


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