The Catholic Mass: It Wasn’t Always What We’re Used To

By Nathan Ladwig

The Tridentine Mass, also known as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite or just “The (Traditional) Latin Mass”, was instituted after the Council of Trent in 1570 following major revisions to the Roman Missal. These changes to the liturgy during this time of Counter-Reformation in the Catholic Church were established to standardize widely varying liturgical practices and traditions across the Catholic World. These changes also prevented any protestant ideas or customs from being introduced into the Mass during the surge of the Protestant Reformation.

The Tridentine Mass was by far the most widely practiced in Catholicism until the formula for Mass changed in 1969 after the Second Vatican Council. This changed instituted the Novus Ordo Mass, or the Mass of Paul VI, or the Mass in the Vernacular. While the Tridentine Mass is still practiced in some parishes, the Novus Ordo Mass is celebrated much more frequently in Catholic Churches across the globe. Many parishes switched over to celebrating the Novus Ordo Mass to improve their congregations’ understanding of the liturgy and to enact revisions to the Celebration of the Mass that had been encouraged in previous decades.

Although they follow a similar liturgical structure, there are many differences between the Tridentine Mass and the Novus Ordo Mass. The first and most obvious difference between the masses is that the Tridentine Mass is always said in ecclesiastical Latin, while the Novus Ordo Mass is often said in the majority language of the parish: English for Masses in America parishes usually, Italian for Masses in Italy, and so forth.

The direction that the priest celebrates Mass is also a large difference between the Masses. In the Novus Ordo Form, the celebrant faces versus populum, or towards the people, while in the Tridentine Form, he faces ad orientem, towards the altar with his back towards the congregation. The position of the altar is usually also changed, with Tridentine Masses usually being held in parishes that have a high altar, or an altar that is right up against the back of the church.

In addition, the role of the Laity is reduced in Tridentine Masses. While they often recite or sing responses back to the celebrant in the Novus Ordo Mass, the laity in the Tridentine Mass only verbally participate in the singing of the processional and recessional hymns, and sometimes Communion hymns as well. The role of Altar Servers and Deacons is increased to reciting all of these responses (in Latin!) to the Priest for the rest of the parishioners. Altar Servers are additionally almost always males in the Tridentine Form, as their role was inherently tied to the potentiality of Priesthood.

While participants in the Novus Ordo Mass can receive communion standing and in their palms before placing it in their mouths, those attending the Tridentine Form must kneel at an altar rail and receive communion on the tongue, where the celebrant places it into their mouths without the recipient touching the Most Sacred Body of Christ before they consume it. There are many other distinguishments between the Tridentine Form and the Novus Ordo, but these are the major differences between the two.

Personally, I was raised on the Latin Mass, and served as an Altar Boy for almost a decade. My family and I went almost every Sunday to a Latin Mass until I got into high school. We still went to daily masses in English, but the Latin Mass was precious to us, and we would go if given the chance. I always find the Tridentine Form more solemn and respectful, and there is ample time during the liturgy to just sit in silence to pray. The pacing of the Latin Mass, although slow, has a methodical and calming effect, and even though it is celebrated in a dead language, I feel more connected to the Catholic Church as a whole while participating in a Mass that is said in Latin everywhere it is celebrated.

I would suggest that every Catholic should go to a Tridentine Form Mass at least once, not only to see if they are more spiritually touched by the Mass, but also to see a Form of Catholic Liturgy that has been celebrated for over four hundred and fifty years!