In The National Catholic Register last year about the (Low) Tridentine Mass, in a piece titled “You Have The Rite To Remain Silent,” I cited emeritus Pope Benedict’s 2007 document Summorum Pontificum, in which he wrote that his amendment to “the Church’s Lex orandi (law of prayer),” allowing the old Latin Mass and the new Mass on a regular basis, “will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s Lex credendi (law of belief).”
“They are, in fact, two usages of the one Roman Rite,” Benedict said.
In this context, Benedict was using the word “rite” in the
traditional sense of a separate body of liturgical tradition, usually
emanating from a specific geographical or cultural center.
include the Roman rite, the Byzantine rite, the Ambrosian rite, and so
In effect, Benedict was saying the older Latin Mass and the new Mass
are expressions of the same liturgical tradition, not separate modes of
Almost ten years later, I’m not so sure.
Of course, I’m not vain enough to pit my paltry theology against the
Pope Emeritus, nor do I intend to. And I do not believe that Pope
Benedict ever intended to create two separate rites.
In part, he was holding out the clichéd olive branch to the Society
of Saint Pius X (who have yet to take it), as well as other groups such
as the Transalpine Redemptorists of Papa Stronsay, Scotland and
Christchuch, New Zealand, who have been accepted back into the Church.
Among other things, they produce an outstandingly beautiful quarterly
periodical, The Catholic Illustrated.
Benedict was also fulfilling what his predecessor, St. John Paul II had started by creating the Ecclesia Dei commission in 1998 for outreach to traditionalist groups and movements in the Catholic world.
But this past spring was a real mind-bender for anyone who attends
the “Latin” Mass, or prays the Divine Office according to the 1962
rubrics. It came with the liturgical calendar.
Per the new calendar, the Easter season ended at vespers on Pentecost
Sunday night. When we awoke on Monday, May 16, it was - and I cringe as
I type this - “ordinary time,” not one of the most mellifluous terms to
describe the bulk of the Church year.
However, for those observing the extraordinary form of the Mass -
which also extends to the expression of the sacraments, the sacred
offices, and sacramentals as found in the Collectio Rituum -
Paschaltide, in the form of the Pentecostal octave, lasted right through
to Nones (mid-afternoon prayer) on Ember Saturday, May 21, meaning
there was almost another full week of Easter.
So which was it? Were we in the Eastertime/Pentecost octave, or
ordinary time? In one “indivisible” rite, it hardly makes sense that it
could be both simultaneously.
True, our national episcopal conference in Washington can’t seem to
decide if Ascension Thursday should fall on Thursday or the following
Sunday, so both are allowed, depending on the diocese, which makes for
not only calendar-confusion but also bad theology.
When we have to seriously ask “When is Ascension Thursday? Is it this Sunday?” we might be in trouble as “one” Church.
And then there was another skull-clencher: Corpus Christi - or, if
you prefer more words in your Holy Day titles, “The Most Holy Body and
Blood of Christ” - fell on Thursday, May 26, according to the Tridentine
Ordo, but per the new Mass, it was on the following Sunday, May 29.
Yet why stop there?
Just to keep things more confusing, according to an 1885 indult, “The
external solemnity of the feast [of Corpus Christi] must be transferred
in the U.S. and celebrated on the following Sunday when the feast falls
on a week day.”
Yet according to 2016 rules, “When Corpus Christi falls
on a week-day, it is still celebrated on that weekday.”
So in the Latin Mass, we actually have two Corpus Christi
Celebrations in the same week, one on the original weekday and the
“external solemnity” three days later, the following Sunday.
Why is a calendar so important to a faith, especially our faith?
Well, for one thing, it’s what we all agree on and when. One of the
earliest (and ongoing) struggles in the Roman Church was bringing the
nascent form of Christendom into conformity with when to celebrate the
most important day of the year, Easter. (The Irish monks proved
particularly recalcitrant in this regard.)
Also, it’s what separates us from, well, our separated brethren, the
Eastern Orthodox, who just celebrated “their” Easter a couple of weeks
after we Latin-Rite Christians.
So at least from the time of the Council of Trent (1545-63) to the
close of the Second Vatican Council (1965), the Latin Church had its
calendar in order - more or less, but definitely more so than now.
I add this codicil because of the Eastern Catholic Churches - the
Copts, the Maronites, the Ambrosian Rite, The Armenians - are all
ancient rites but still in communion with Rome.
If the calendar is one thing that sets apart a separate rite - even if that rite is under the same pontiff - the Code of Canon Law by which they are controlled by is another.
Obviously, the Latin code applies to both the new Mass and the older Latin Mass.
According to canon 28, “The rites treated in Code of Canon Law for the Oriental Churches,
unless otherwise stated, are those that arise from the Alexandrian,
Antiochene, Armenian, Chaldean and Constantinopolitan traditions” (canon
And here’s where it gets a little (more) knotty. “[These separate
rites] are not just a liturgical heritage, but also a theological,
spiritual and disciplinary heritage characteristic of a peoples’ culture
and the circumstances of their history.”
Do the new Mass and the older Latin Mass exhibit “theological,
spiritual and disciplinary heritages” that differ so totally from each
other that they could be said to be separate rites?
The Tridentine Mass (as the name states) dates back to the Council of
Trent, and, with a few tweaks here and there, remained unchanged until
1965. That’s a four-hundred-year-old “rite”.
The Pauline Missal and the liturgical books-breviaries, lectionaries, sacramentaries- and especially the Code of Canon Law
that came after 1965 gave us not only the local patois in our
liturgical worship, but entirely new forms of worship (face-to-face
Confession), a completely new sacrament (the Anointing of the Sick), and
a renewed Order of the Clergy (the permanent, and often married,
I see the logic - and the hope - that Pope Benedict extended in
wanting to keep things whole: one rite, two forms of expression, both of
which are licit, legal, valid and, as far as fulfilling your Sunday
The faithful need not choose one over the other to the exclusion of
any. I myself attend both the older Latin Mass and the new Mass.
But this experiment - and I don’t know what else to call it- which
aimed at cross-fertilization (bring plainchant to the Novus Ordo! Get
permanent deacons in the Latin Mass!) might only be heading in one
direction, which, ironically ends in two “separate-but-equal” Latin
Still, I hope I’m wrong about the rites.