The New Missal: Mass has continually evolved over its 2,000 year history


By Dennis Sadowski

Catholic News Service


When the third edition of the English-language version of the Roman Missal is implemented at Advent, it will mark the continuing evolution of the eucharistic liturgy that began in the earliest days of the church.

The most recent changes — which more closely reflect “Liturgiam Authenticam” (“The Authentic Liturgy”), the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments’ 2001 document on liturgical translations — are unlikely to be the last, liturgists agree.

From Aramaic to Greek to Latin to vernacular language after the Second Vatican Council, the Mass has evolved over 2,000 years in an effort to help worshippers appreciate the mystery that is God.

“It’s not the changing that’s abnormal. It’s not changing that’s abnormal,” said Jesuit Father John Baldovin, professor of historical and liturgical theology at Boston College, who explores the history of the missal and the new English translation in a video series on the National Jesuit News website.

The first eucharistic prayer is seen on a page from a copy of the new Roman Missal in English published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. New missals are on the way to parishes throughout the United States for use beginning the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 27. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec) (Sept. 16, 2011)

“People may find it interesting that this has developed over centuries. It isn’t something dropped out of the sky at Vatican II, but it has a history,” said Christina Ronzio, director of the Office for Worship in the Cleveland Diocese.

“What it does is it establishes continuity of that tradition of the church,” she said.

The Missal of Pius V appeared seven years after the Council of Trent concluded its work in 1563, implementing the council’s call for uniformity in liturgical books. The council met in 25 sessions in three periods beginning in 1545. By its conclusion the council codified the celebration of Mass and defined teaching on Scripture and tradition, original sin, justification, the sacraments and the veneration of saints.

The council allowed religious orders that had their own liturgical rites in place for more than 200 years — among them the Dominicans and the Franciscans — to continue using their own missal. Those missals continue in use today with updated translations approved by the Vatican.

In part, credit the development of the printing press for the missal’s introduction in the 16th century, said Father Richard Hilgartner, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat on Divine Worship.

Until the late 16th century, holy books were reproduced by hand by monks, making widespread distribution of sacred texts impractical.

Long before the first missal was promulgated, a desire for consistency in worship began to emerge. Some Mass prayers can be traced to the third century, said Rita Thiron, director of the Office of Worship in the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., citing the second eucharistic prayer, which dates to about 215.

By the seventh and eighth centuries the sharing of prayer texts became more common, Father Hilgartner said. Sacramentaries also were assembled, the most notable being the Old Gelasian Sacramentary in the seventh and eighth centuries and the Gregorian Sacramentary in the late eighth century.

At the same time, Latin was becoming the language of the church. Father Daniel Merz, associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Divine Worship, explained that the use of Latin took several hundred years to emerge, beginning in the third century; by the 10th century it was widespread.

“But even in Rome it’s interesting that the first several hundred years you can see there was this concern to have the language be in the language of the people,” he said.

After the Council of Trent it would be more than four centuries before the Roman Mass saw significant changes. Even though several popes granted concessions to missionaries to allow Mass to be celebrated in local languages to aid in evangelization — including Iroquoian for the Jesuits in 1773 near modern-day Montreal — Mass changed little until Vatican II.