Friday, January 15, 2010

How the Old Mass Shaped the New World

By Michael P. Foley

The fortieth anniversary of the Novus Ordo is a few weeks away, as it was Pope Paul VI’s wish that his new form of the rite take effect on the first Sunday of Advent in 1969.1 While the Pauline Missal was not published until the following year (and its translations much later), this date is as good as any to reflect on a momentous change to the Roman Church’s worship. Because forty is the biblical number for a generation, I would like to devote this column to a reflection on what we may have subsequently lost, not theologically or spiritually, but culturally. My point of departure is a brusque statement from Doctor John Senior: “from the cultural point of view, the new Catholic Mass established in the United States has been a disaster.”2 What could Senior have meant by such a harsh conclusion, and is there any justification for his opinion?

Sacrifice and Civilization

To understand Senior’s position, we must first surmise his view of Western culture:
Whatever we do in the political and social order, the indispensable foundation is prayer, the heart of which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the perfect prayer of Christ himself, Priest and Victim, recreating in an unbloody manner the bloody, selfsame Sacrifice of Calvary. What is Christian Culture? It is essentially the Mass. That is not my or anyone’s opinion or theory or wish but the central fact of two thousand years of history. Christendom, what secularists call Western Civilization, is the Mass and paraphernalia which protect and facilitate it.3
Senior goes on to describe the Mass as emanating outwards to all aspects of life. What is done on a stone altar inspires the construction of a beautiful church. The church inspires a garden and clerics to tend the church and the people who flock to it. Next to the church and the garden is built a cemetery for those who died as faithful servants of what is done on that altar; and around the church-grounds people build their houses and sow their fields, until a community is formed. That community needs laws, and the laws cannot help but be influenced by the sense of justice that radiates from the center of its citizens’ lives. And before you know it, you have a Christian world built around the Mass.

What Senior calls the “central fact of two thousand years” can indeed be confirmed in the history of several towns and cities in Europe, the most famous of which is Munich, Germany, which honors the Benedictine abbey that led to its creation with its very name, Munchen or Munich being German for “monk.” Nor is this a phenomenon unique to the Middle Ages. Fittingly, it is being enacted by several of John Senior’s former students who converted to Catholicism and became Benedictine monks observing the traditional Roman rite. At the invitation of the local bishop, they founded Clear Creek Monastery in a remote corner of Oklahoma ten years ago, and already neighboring lands are being bought and developed by lay Catholics as the monks build a Romanesque church they wish to last a thousand years. If you want to see how the new West, the West not of ancient Greece and Rome but of Christian Europe, became the most astounding civilization in the history of the world, take a trip to rural Oklahoma.

And if you want to know why, then consider more closely the nature of Christianity. As Father Frederick Faber points out, Christianity is “eminently a religion of sacrifice,” and hence, he says, "Where there is no Mass, there is also no Christianity.” Faber sees all of Christian life as an extension of the sacrifice that is the Mass. All of the Church’s charitable works, all of her vows of religious life, all of her teachings, are “nothing but a glorious and unmistakable preaching of sacrifice,” a sacrifice that flows from “the vital force and omnipotent energy of the Mass. That far reaching Sacrifice is everywhere, and does everything for everyone.”4

The Arts

It certainly did something for architecture. Romanesque and Gothic architecture, the Spanish mission style of the American Southwest, the Baroque style of seventeenth-century Europe: all flow from the Mass. The beauty, order, and proportion of the traditional Latin Mass is reflected in the beauty, order, and proportion of the churches in which it was celebrated, and this in turn went on to inspire architecture outside the church. Even basic architectural terminology owes a debt to the Mass. Romanesque and Gothic churches had several levels of allegorical pictures, reliefs, and sculptures on their façades that each told a story. And since several levels of these representations told several stories, it became the custom to indicate the height of a building by how many “stories” it had.5

We also see the impact of the Mass on the Western legal tradition, not only in the weighty matters of jurisprudence and the rule of law but in the tiniest of details. Have you ever noticed a striking similarity between a traditional church design and a courtroom? Public seating in a courtroom gallery, for example, is akin to the pews in the nave of a church; the space for the lawyers and judge is similar to the sanctuary where traditionally only the clergy would be allowed (note that many courtrooms demarcate this space with a “bar” similar in appearance and function to a communion rail); the judge’s bench, elevated and set apart, assumes the same importance as the high altar, which only certain members of the clergy are permitted to approach and only at certain times; the jury benches resemble the choir stalls found in many medieval churches; and the personnel who move in and out of the bench area, such as the bailiffs, resemble the acolytes serving the priest.

And then there is music. It is not just that without the august sacrifice of the Mass, we would be missing out on two of the grandest and most magnificent categories of classical music, the Missa and the Requiem, categories that have been filled with awesome splendor by the likes of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Verdi, Berlioz, Fauré, and Dvorak. It is not just that we would be missing out on Passion music or Lamentations pieces.

No, it is more basic than that. Without the Mass, there would probably be no Western tonal scale as we know it, for it was the Gregorian chant enshrining the Mass that preserved the eight modes of ancient Greek music, and it is on two of those modes that our major and minor keys are based. Without the Mass, there would probably be no musical notation, which developed in the Middle Ages because the body of Gregorian chant for the liturgical year was growing too large for any one person to remember in its entirety. Without the Mass, there would be no polyphony, no oratorios such as Handel’s Messiah (a genre invented by the founder of the Oratorians, Saint Philip Neri), and no opera as we know it, which developed with the help of the early Jesuits. Without the Mass, there would be no solmization, that is, no simplified way of reading music by sight with the use of the do-re-mi scale, for this method was invented by an Italian monk using the hymn for the Feast of Saint John the Baptist.

And without the Mass, there would not be even some popular secular music, such as carnivale, which developed as a way of bidding adieu to fun right before Lent, and jazz, which developed because slaves in New Orleans were allowed to assist at Mass and express their culture on Sundays and holy days, which in turn allowed for a new synthesis of African and European sounds to emerge at the beginning of the twentieth century. Without the Mass, there would also not be the current style of tobacco auctioneering, which was developed in the nineteenth century after its creator heard Gregorian chant at a High Mass.

Reply to an Objection

At this point we might wonder whether what I have been saying could apply to any form of the Mass, that it need not have been the extraordinary form of the Roman rite behind these developments. While I do not deny this possibility, I would nevertheless indicate three reasons why the traditional Latin Mass, and not some other form of the Eucharistic liturgy, has proved to be such a powerful leavening agent.

1. Stability

First, the extraordinary form is the product of slow and gradual change which gives it stability and continuity, and all without being fossilized like a butterfly in amber. This stability, in turn, provides a reliable springboard for dynamic cultural change. As the philosopher Michael Oakeshott points out, in order to undertake vast new projects, even the most progressive of dreamers must be conservative with his tools, for it is familiarity with one’s tools that enables one to effect sweeping changes successfully.6 Think of how little Microsoft or Apple would accomplish if the order of the letters on their employees’ keyboards were changed every week, an order that has remained the same since it first appeared on a manual typewriter in 1874.

In this analogy, the liturgy is not the project but the tool: it should not be the object of change, but the agent of change, and as such it should not be subject to much change itself. You would think that a changing liturgy would be good for a changing culture, but it is not. For it is not the liturgy that should change dramatically at the hands of the faithful; it is the faithful that should change dramatically at the hands of the liturgy. It is they that should be shaped and reshaped by the sacred mysteries made present in divine worship, a reshaping that goes on to affect the way they perceive reality, make decisions, and live their lives—in other words, the way they produce a culture and a civilization. Conversely, when the liturgy changes all the time, people do not, and the culture suffers accordingly.

2. Manliness

Second, the traditional Latin Mass exudes a healthy understanding of Christian manhood. This is important from a cultural perspective, not because men are the only contributors to human culture (for they are not), but because great cultures thrive when its men view themselves as called to protect the things and persons that produce great culture. This male presumption, I hasten to add, is in no way prejudicial against women; on the contrary, a world in which biological fathers act as good spiritual fathers and in which even single men comport themselves not as predators or playboys but as potential fathers would be a world which allows both sexes to flourish, protected from the evils that uncivilized manliness brings.7

But encouraging the right kind of manliness is difficult because men do not have the same obvious cues from nature as women do about how precisely they are indispensable to the flourishing of the human race; they are thus more prone to overlook their higher, noble calling or, to put it in more modern jargon, they are more likely to have an identity crisis. This is a point I would like to develop in a later article, but let me for the moment simply state that traditional, apostolic liturgy helps greatly in promoting the Christian notion of chivalry that goes so far in resolving this crisis. This is obvious in the Byzantine rite: while the West is seeing fewer and fewer men in the pews, Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches consistently retain roughly equal numbers of men and women, in large part because their liturgy is demanding, hierarchical, non-pandering, and disciplined, all the things that appeal to a manly spirit.8 And while lay women are active in the life of the Eastern churches, their sanctuaries are generally reserved to male priests, male servers, and male lectors.

This is apparent in the Tridentine rite as well, which not only has a clear hierarchical structure and sense of discipline that boys and men find appealing, but is guarded by boys and men in the form of the priest and his ministers. The new Mass, by contrast, does not send the same clear signal. A focus on meal rather than sacrifice, for instance, deprives men of an important manly concept, for it was men and men alone who sacrificed rams and bullocks and calves to the Lord God in the Old Testament, and it was the Son of Man who offered the ultimate sacrifice of Himself on the cross in what is world history’s greatest manly act. Second, Mass facing the people gives the impression that Mass is about the people rather than God, and with this comes the loss of a vertically-oriented hierarchy. And third, the relatively few rubrics of the new Mass give it less structure and less discipline, especially where reverence of the Eucharist is concerned.

These are all internal characteristics of the Missal which have been magnified by external modifications to its execution, namely, the inclusion of female lectors, distributors of Holy Communion, and altar servers. Father James McLucas has written eloquently in this magazine of the effect that this “outsourcing” of the celebrant’s privileges has had on the priesthood: “The notion that the Church can offer the work of the priest to others without doing harm to both his masculinity and personality is a gross presumption.”9 Others are quick to point out that using female altar servers is bad for priestly vocations, since boys are naturally drawn by the example of other males serving and protecting God’s sacred things, and if you add even one girl to the mix, it spoils the entire ethos of a chivalrous band of brothers. But I would go one step further: having female ministers in the sanctuary is not only bad for priests and for potential priests, it is bad for the men and boys who have no vocation to the priesthood whatsoever. And what is bad for men and boys is bad for the culture.

3. God at the Center

The third and final reason is the simple fact that the extraordinary form makes it unmistakably clear that, in the other words of my pastor Father David Leibham, “it is about God—period.” This is true about the traditional Latin Mass even when it is celebrated, as Father Jonathan Robinson puts it, “carelessly, stupidly, or perhaps, sometimes, wickedly.”10 Robinson, who does not write as a friend of the extraordinary form, nevertheless admits that “the perennial attraction of the Old Rite is that it provided a transcendental reference, and it did this even when it was misused in various ways.”11 His example is Mass with the king of France at the palace of Versailles, in which the king sat in a tribune that was more prominent than the altar. The king’s nobles would sometimes form a circle around him at the foot of the altar, their backs to the sanctuary as they gazed attentively at their monarch. Needless to say, this is “messed up,” but Robinson notes that even here the “Mass held its own” against this twisted arrangement. The nobles were there to worship their earthly king, not God, and yet the king they were worshipping was worshipping the true God. Hence, even if they were there to fulfill a worldly end, the king’s orientation “was a living testimony that there was another power that even the absolute monarch was forced to acknowledge.”12

By contrast, Robinson observes, while the Novus Ordo can be celebrated in a reverent way that directs us to the transcendent, “there is nothing in the rule governing the way the Novus Ordo is to be said that ensures the centrality of the celebration of the Paschal mystery.”13 Indeed, there are professional liturgists who prefer the new form of the rite because it allows them to engraft all sorts of non-liturgical agenda onto the liturgy. One priest, for example, sees the Mass as a great opportunity to bolster ethnic self-esteem, address ecological degradation, and encourage economic empowerment.14 Note that he prefers the ordinary form because it is a more malleable vehicle for cultural development; yet ironically, great culture has not exactly sprung from the celebration of the ordinary form.


We are now in a better position to understand Senior’s harsh remark about the new Mass. Without denying that significant cultural goods may yet come out of the Pauline Missal, we can at least identify the secret behind the old Missal’s influence. That secret is found in Luke 12:31—“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” As we approach the fortieth anniversary of a kind of wandering in the wilderness, let us at the beginning of a new liturgical year renew our appreciation for the extraordinary form and the paradox behind it: When you seek God first and find Him in a Mass that points to Him vividly, the results are simply marvelous.


  1. November 30, 1969. Cf. Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution, Missale Romanum. [back]

  2. The Restoration of Christian Culture(Ignatius Press, 1983; reprinted, Roman Catholic Books), 38. [back]

  3. Ibid., 16-17. [back]

  4. Father Frederick Faber, The Blessed Sacrament, bk. 2. [back]

  5. For more details on the historical facts mentioned in this article, see my Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything(Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). [back]

  6. Michael Oakeshott, “On Being Conservative,” in Rationalism in Politics, ed. Timothy Fuller (Liberty Fund, 1991), 179f. [back]

  7. Cf. Harvey Mansfield, Manliness (Yale University Press, 2006), 242. [back]

  8. For a fascinating discussion on men and Eastern Orthodoxy, cf. the prologue of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, available at, and “Men and Church,” available at [back]

  9. 22. [back]

  10. Jonathan Robinson, The Mass And Modernity (Ignatius Press, 2005), 308. [back]

  11. Ibid., 307. [back]

  12. Ibid., 308. [back]

  13. Ibid., 311, italics added. [back]

  14. Reverend David William Antonio, An Inculturation Model of the Catholic Marriage Ritual (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 98-100. [back]

[Michael P. Foley is associate professor of patristics at Baylor University. He is author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything(Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Foley's article, "How the Old Mass Shaped the New West," Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition Vol. 18, No. 4 (Fall 2009), pp. 38-41, is reproduced here by kind permission of Latin Mass, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060, and the author.]