Pope Paul’s ‘Novus Ordo’ should be judged on its own merits

Father John A. Kiley

Some time ago, a friend cited a liturgical commentator who pointed out that the post-Vatican II Mass celebrated according to the new rite of Pope Paul VI is not simply a revision of the old Roman Missal, the Tridentine Mass.

The rite of the new Mass, the notorious Novus Ordo, is not a modification or a modernization of an older rite. The Mass of Pope Paul VI is a completely new rite, a totally new ceremony, a new formula. As a new rite the post-Vatican II Mass must be understood, celebrated and appreciated on its own merits. A priest celebrant as well as a worshipping congregation would be mistaken simply to open the new missal and offer Mass simply with an eye to the Mass older Catholics knew as children. The Novus Ordo is not just new words for the old Mass; it is a completely new ceremony.

Obviously, a distinction must be drawn between the sacramental liturgy of the church – the church’s timeless act of worship – and the rite or ceremony or rubrics through which it is celebrated. For example, the Roman rite differs startlingly from the Byzantine, Coptic and Oriental rites of the Eastern church. Yet, the worship is the same. The saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ is made present again through Scripture and sacrament. Hymns might vary. Postures might differ. Participation might fluctuate. Ambiance might contrast. Yet, God is fittingly worshipped.

The function of a rite is to bring to the surface the deepest meaning of the public liturgy. The grandiose ceremonies of the Eastern rites draw attention to the heavenly aspects of the Catholic worship. The obscurer elements of the Oriental rites underline the mystery that permeates the supernatural world. The vernacular proclamation of the Scriptures in the Roman rite heralds the evangelistic element in church life. Those who worship facing the east, the rising sun, indicate a belief in the second coming, the final return of Christ. Mass celebrated toward the people evokes a sense of community. Mass celebrated toward the outside wall bespeaks another world beyond the gathered community.

All of these ritual nuances are valid. The Catholic liturgy should indeed be heavenly, mysterious, evangelistic, communitarian, catechetical, personal, prayerful, otherworldly, comforting. Different cultures, different eras and different communities will inevitably appreciate the manifold truths of Christianity in diverse ways. The Eastern church has always been more otherworldly than the Western church. They have inclined more toward a monastic mentality than toward a missionary frame of mind. And certainly their rites illustrate this inclination. Chant, incense and mystic symbols abound. The Western church has been somewhat more parish-oriented, more practical than contemplative. The heightened role of Scripture and preaching in the new rite illustrate this. The admission of the laity to various roles in the Western rite also highlights this practical bent. So rites may validly differ. Each rite will reflect assorted shades and different depths of the whole mystery.

Ritual then serves liturgy. Rites express faith. The new order of Mass that has been official since 1964 contains a message for the people of this day. First, worship must always be the dominant theme of any authentic rite. “We come to you, Father, with praise and thanksgiving. …” Then the proclamation of Scripture is also integral to every sacrament. And the unity of the Christian faithful is the practical result of a beneficial rite as well. The Novus Ordo will convey its mysteries in a manner that might at times be different from the past and at times might borrow from the past. But the uniqueness of the New Rite must always be respected. Worshippers would be wrong to look for old patches sewn onto new cloths. The new rite is an entirely new fabric that must be assessed on its own merits and should not be judged solely in the light of older practices. The celebration of an authentic rite is an act of faith that eternal truths can be grasped through practical gestures, that heavenly adoration can be rendered through earthly signals.