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The Mind of the Church on the Novus Ordo

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 13, 2010

In recent weeks, several severe critics, opponents and denigrators of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite have claimed that they are simply following the lead of Pope Benedict XVI when he was a cardinal, and they have cited one or more writings of Joseph Ratzinger in which he expressed criticisms of certain aspects of the implementation of the new rite. I want to emphasize that he expressed these concerns in scholarly work, and that, taken in context, it is always clear that Ratzinger as a cardinal was not ill-disposed toward the Novus Ordo. Rather, he was interested in improvements which might be made (no liturgy is perfect) and, in particular, he was opposed to the free-wheeling manner in which some ignored the rubrics when saying Mass, as we shall see.

In any case, it has been necessary to answer these critics on two counts, and it occurred to me that, in view of the apparently unending controversies over the liturgy, our users at large would be interested in what we may legitimately call the mind of the Church on the Novus Ordo. So I’ll provide my answers publicly in this space.

First, it is absolutely critical to note that the mind of the Church or even of the Pope himself cannot be determined by looking at the writings of a future pope before he became pope. A cardinal’s election as pope does not in any way validate his earlier remarks, none of which were protected in the least by the grace of his later office. To assert that the mind of the Church is known from the work of Joseph Ratzinger in, say, 1990, is no wiser than saying it can be known by his common theological opponent, Walter Kasper.

So even if some of Cardinal Ratzinger's remarks seem very negative in isolation from his entire body of work—or indeed even if it were possible to argue that his whole outlook on the Novus Ordo was negative (which was not the case)—this would tell us nothing about the mind of the Church. No, to learn the mind of the Pope (and therefore something of the mind of the Church) on such matters as the liturgy, we need to look to what the Pope has said while in office.

Second, while in office, Pope Benedict XVI has made his approval of the Novus Ordo clear. He has also made clear that his serious criticisms do not apply to the rite itself but  to the false interpretation of the Missal of Paul VI as something that requires constant experimentation and innovation, as if priests are to superimpose their own improvisations on the official liturgy and, in so doing, frequently substitute the banal for the sublime.

Benedict made these points in explaining his decision to widen the use of the Tridentine Mass (the Missal of Pope John XXIII) in his 2007 Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum. Readers will recall that the Pope issued an accompanying Letter to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of Summorum Pontificum to explain his decision. In that letter he recounted why he wanted to expand the use of what he now called the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and, in so doing, he deliberately responded to the fear that this expansion was somehow intended to demote the Novus Ordo or undermine the Second Vatican Council’s call for liturgical reform.

Let us listen to Joseph Ratzinger as Pope:

This fear is unfounded. In this regard, it must first be said that the Missal published by Paul VI and then republished in two subsequent editions by John Paul II, obviously is and continues to be the normal Form – the Forma ordinaria – of the Eucharistic Liturgy.

Benedict went on to explain that many have continued to long for the older liturgy (which is one reason for making it more widely available, the other being to try to reconcile those who have fallen out of full communion with the Church over it), but he also explained what the real problem was:

Many people who clearly accepted the binding character of the Second Vatican Council, and were faithful to the Pope and the Bishops, nonetheless also desired to recover the form of the sacred liturgy that was dear to them. This occurred above all because in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. [emphasis added]

Finally, the Pope ended his discussion of the Novus Ordo by stating that the key to its use in unifying the Church is a reverent fidelity to the actual rubrics of the missal itself, and he closed by expressing his fundamental judgment of the value of this normal form of the rite:

The most sure guarantee that the Missal of Paul VI can unite parish communities and be loved by them consists in its being celebrated with great reverence in harmony with the liturgical directives. This will bring out the spiritual richness and the theological depth of this Missal.

My advice to those who seriously dislike the Novus Ordo is this: Admit your personal preference for the Extraordinary Form if you like; true Catholics should not criticize you for it, even if they prefer the Ordinary Form. Combat abuses of the Novus Ordo where you can; the Church will thank you for that. But do not denigrate the rite itself, as if it is something unworthy or profane, and never imply that the billion Catholics who use and have come to love it are somehow inferior in their Faith.

It is possible to debate the merits and demerits of any liturgy, but it is not possible to cite either Pope Benedict XVI or the mind of the Church as being anything less than in favor of the prescribed use of the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. Finally, no approved liturgy of the Church should ever be treated with disrespect, nor its adherents stigmatized if they are not disobedient, for it is a sacred thing.

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Show 13 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: gallardo.vm5565 - Aug. 16, 2010 7:29 PM ET USA

    For a reverent celebraton of the N.O. Mass please try the Nobertine Fathers at St. Michael's Abbey in Silverado, California. Yes, California of all places. At abbey N.O. Mass in Latin 4 times a week. In its close to 40 years of existence and close to 70 consecrated men. http://www.stmichaelsabbey.com/ - the fruits of obedience.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Aug. 16, 2010 1:28 PM ET USA

    I have to say that New Sister's comments are revealing. If you define "irreverent" as being able to detect the personality of the priest, than indeed most N.O. Masses will be irreverent; but this is absurd. As for E.F. Masses, very few would be irreverent now that they are done by priests who care about them for faithful who similarly care (like-mindedness is always achievable through separatism), but many were irreverent, sloppy and rushed--and many parishioners inattentive or bored--when the E.F. was universal.

  • Posted by: New Sister - Aug. 16, 2010 11:05 AM ET USA

    Let's be honest here -- RARELY does one find a reverent celebration of the N.O. Mass. Each priest is able to put his own self into it, which shouldn't be possible. On the rare occasions where I have found a solemnly celebrated N.O. Mass, they served as respites of RELIEF to my modernist-hating (Deo gratias) soul. I cannot recall ever seeing, however, an irreverently celebrated E.F. Mass, nor heard dissent from the pulpit at one. The fruits: TLM parishes get vocations; N.O.s struggle to.

  • Posted by: c_truelove7100 - Aug. 15, 2010 1:58 PM ET USA

    Honestly, if you read RATZINGER'S "The Spirit of the Liturgy" and you read BENEDICT XVI's "Summorum Pontificum," you'll find a similar reverence for the ordinary form. You're right; what he has always been arguing against has been the abuses that many have inserted into their celebrations of the ordinary form. He's pro-ordinary form and anti-liturgical improv.

  • Posted by: deacon2476427 - Aug. 14, 2010 2:41 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this very balanced view of the Roman Rite, let's remember that the Missal of Paul VI is the Ordinary Rite of the Roman Rite and The Tridentine Rite is the EXTRAORDINAY Rite. I grew up with the Tridentine Rite and saw many abuses of that Rite, for example very fast 10 minute masses and a very sloppy celebrations of the rite. I have come to love the current Ordinary Rite and still have to put up with sloppy celebrations, and abuses. But I would rather the current rite done well.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 14, 2010 2:05 PM ET USA

    Pope Benedict, to his eternal credit, overcame those daunting political concerns and did the right thing for the right reason. The Novus Ordo is not completely bereft of traditional doctrinal, liturgical, and spiritual elements. But the circumstantial evidence associated with its authors, its development, its content and rubrics, and its similarities to revolutionary modifications made by Protestants to the central act of Catholic worship over the centuries does give one pause.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 14, 2010 1:50 PM ET USA

    The problem also involves more than scholarly or spiritual considerations. Politics is a major factor as well. The Holy Father has to deal with tremendous political pressure from many who despise anything to do with Tradition. During negotiations with the Card. Hoyos, SSPX leaders were advised that despite a certain empathy in the Vatican, acknowleging the legitimacy of the Tridentine Mass was impossible due to the tremendous political opposition it would cause among the bishop conferences.

  • Posted by: athelstane1972 - Aug. 14, 2010 1:04 PM ET USA

    In all honesty, I'm not sure your treatment here does full justice to the thinking of Joseph Ratzinger on the liturgy. Admittedly, allowance must be made for the fact that his thinking on liturgy has been something of a moving target over years. Space does not permit me a full treatment here. Suffice it to say that his strongest comments (say in Fr. Gamber's book preface - a "fabricated" and "a banal on-the-spot product") seem to go a bit beyond mere "implementation" of V2.

  • Posted by: Lisa Nicholas, PhD - Aug. 13, 2010 8:58 PM ET USA

    I would agree that many of those who denigrate the Novus Ordo are really reacting against liturgical abuse and a casual attitude toward rubrics. There really is no reason that a celebration of the Mass according to the Ordinary Form cannot be beautiful and reverent, with the focus firmly on Almighty God. I recommend an article that has just appeared in the Aug/Sept 2010 issue of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review: "Twelve Instant Ways of Beautifying the Novus Ordo," by Monica Migliorino Mller, PhD.

  • Posted by: CatherineNY - Aug. 13, 2010 4:55 PM ET USA

    An excellent and timely article, which clarified the matter for me in important ways.

  • Posted by: ebierer1724 - Aug. 13, 2010 4:39 PM ET USA

    Amen!

  • Posted by: gallardo.vm5565 - Aug. 13, 2010 4:33 PM ET USA

    Thank you! This is what I love about this site and about these commentary pieces. I was asked by someone to comment on this, the Novus Ordo, and so I drafted an email using both Summurum Pontificum and his letter to the Bishop to hopefully express the vision of the Holy Father on the whole of the Liturgy. I’ll think I’ll add this piece to it as well. Keep up the good work - God Bless!

  • Posted by: jbryant_132832 - Aug. 13, 2010 2:49 PM ET USA

    Thanks for this clear and concise summary. As one who was out of the Church for 25 yrs (left in the late 60's), I was SHOCKED at all the changes that had taken place in the Mass during my absence. I frankly didn't know what to make of it all, and wondered what had brought it all about. With all the tension between the N.O. and the Latin traditionalists, I wasn't sure where to come down on it all, but always felt in my heart that the N.O. Mass was valid (but also often abused).

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