The Form of the Liturgy

It is to be regretted that the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the form of the Latin Mass promulgated after the Second Vatican Council in 1970, has become a symbol of near-complete rejection of the Latin Catholic liturgical tradition. This includes not only those on the liturgically traditional end of spectrum who see the Ordinary Form as substantially opposed to the immemorial liturgical tradition of Rome. Much of the resistance to the provision of Pope Benedict XVI for permitting use of the pre-Conciliar 1962 Missal, which in Summorum Pontificum he termed the “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman Rite, was precisely grounded on the assumption that the older liturgical forms have died in the new form of the Mass.

For these defenders of the new Missal, those older liturgical forms are not — by any means and under any auspices — to be given further lease on life. The greatest proponents of such a retrospective are priests, bishops, and theologians. They had written, petitioned, and warned whoever might listen as to the dangers of even permitting the older Extraordinary Form as a concession to groups permitted by the diocesan bishop under an older provision by Pope John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to permit individual priests and parishes more openly to celebrate the older forms whenever a stable group requested them occasioned explosions of rage-filled essays on the inauthentic, theologically dangerous, subversive mindset inculcated by the 1962 Missal. Those who attend the Extraordinary Form continue to be lambasted (by some) as traitors to all that is right and good.

All of this is to be regretted, because the claim that accepting the Ordinary Form involves simply the abandoning of the Roman liturgical tradition is by no means obvious or necessary. It has, in large part, been the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The texts, as given, aimed at permitting flexibility between different levels of solemnity and celebration. The liturgical rubrics and preparatory documents of the new form of the Mass foresaw the preservation of liturgical Latin at celebrations with the bishop and other solemn events, plus the widespread use of chant, and were designed to be celebrated ad orientem (toward the apse, symbolically awaiting the second coming of Christ from the East). The original aim seemed to be a liturgy that resembled in large measure what came to exist in the Ordinariate Missal for Anglican groups that have since been incorporated into the Catholic communion — a Latin liturgy thoroughly traditional, but with a wider variety of texts and readings, the use of the vernacular, and simplification of the rubrics and calendar. The liturgical participation of the Byzantine and Oxford Movement Anglican tradition were taken to be ideals for every parish, expressed in wider provision for celebrating Sung Mass in the new form of the rites. If one reads Sacrosanctum Concilium, the impression is not that the new rites were intended to obliterate the Roman Rite from the face of the earth.

Yet, in many ways, that is factually what occurred — and the traditionalists are right insofar as this goes. As positions hardened after the Council, and liturgical “experiments” became more radical, it became anathema to celebrate the Ordinary Form in anything that would resemble the classical liturgical tradition — the new Missal was a symbol and a vehicle for introducing anything that the old rites were not (and, generally, anything at all besides). Anything sung in Latin beyond the Agnus Dei or Sanctus is currently nearly heretical at most parishes. The ancient Gregorian chants of the Mass are still listed as the primary music to be used in the current order of the Mass, but hardly if ever is it attempted to chant with the congregation the English translations of these “proper” texts for the Mass — and don’t even think of trying to reintroduce the Gregorian texts themselves. Denunciations of even the possibility of celebrating the Ordinary Farm ad orientem illustrate how the current state of celebration has departed from the texts. These are just the most obvious points of ordinary opposition. Even more worrying is the fact that serious abuses of the liturgy — such as celebrating Mass without sacred vestments or any concern for the requirements of the rubrics, with glass or pewter or clay chalices, general lack of concern for the Eucharistic species, and a lack of care for using valid forms or matter for the sacraments, including widespread abuses in the practice of many priests concelebrating the liturgy — has become inextricably identified with the new Missal (as John Paul II recognized and tried to correct in Redemptionis Sacramentum). These abuses are in fact celebrated and cherished by many of those who oppose the older rites as essential features of the Ordinary Form; it is no wonder that those familiar with the liturgical history of the Latin Church cannot see in current parish practice much of any continuity with the Roman Rite.

In addition, a clear-headed liturgical scholar can admit that, even if many things listed above are abuses not essential to the Ordinary Form, there remain structural problems in the new Missal that were not foreseen by its architects, and subsequently took on a life of their own. There remain questions about the wisdom of the lectionary not including certain scriptural texts deemed problematic (such as 1 Cor 11), overly many “options” that have plausibly encouraged bad liturgical sense on the part of celebrants, the appearance that many of its sacramental rites are overly banal (especially, the Book of Blessings), or the elimination of liturgical seasons like Septuagesima or the Octave of Pentecost. Most obvious is that, within a liturgical tradition which from time immemorial only ever used the Roman Canon, and despite the instructions of the new Missal, it has become normative in some parts of the world to celebrate every Mass, including on the most solemn feasts, with the Second Eucharistic Prayer, merely because it is short or because of a false sense of antiquity. These tendencies were lamented even by such as Louis Bouyer, who was involved in the drafting of the new Missal. Some changes after the Council, such as the introduction of a plethora of Eucharistic Prayers (those for Reconciliation or Various Needs) with no ground in the tradition, were largely a result of maneuvering and abuses — these changes are justifiably claimed to spoil the integrity of the Roman tradition in the OF Missal.

Conversely, it would obviously be foolish to think that the older rites of the Extraordinary Form are perfect or ideal. (Those of a more purist bent argue that lamentable decisions were made even before 1962 that damaged the Roman Rite’s integrity, acknowledging a similar point.) Even as I uphold that it is not un-Catholic for liturgical scholars to argue that the new Missal represents a rupture with the Roman Rite, or that the new rites are vastly inferior to the old, I want to propose that credit has not been given to the new rites. In many ways, they have not been given a chance because of historical happenstance, as the conversation has been overly dominated by a radical decision for tradition or rupture. It needs be said, still, that many popular arguments against the new rites are question-begging.

The fact that a change occurred, or that a text is newly composed and an older text no longer present, is not de facto a fault in the new rites. Even when true that a change is an innovation in the Roman Rite, the purpose of liturgy is not merely stasis; the Agnus Dei itself was an innovation unknown to the Roman liturgy at the time it was introduced. There are governing considerations for liturgy beyond merely “what is historically integral to this liturgical tradition.” Nor is it compelling to think that the use of the vernacular, advocated throughout Catholic history by many reform-minded saints, necessarily implicates the new rites in a “modernist” mindset indirectly inspired by German Idealism. That much is hogwash. The rites are the product not of any one member of the committee that drafted them, but of the Church that received and has adapted them over the years since 1970. There were radicals among the initial drafters of the Missal and those who helped shape contemporary practice in America today, but the moderate texts that were produced by the Church were not solely the outcome of any particular agenda. What we have are the texts and rites as they stand, and these should be evaluated on their own merits. Even further, as we evaluate the Extraordinary Form based on its potential in an ideal celebration — a Solemn High Mass with an educated, informed, and participating laity — so too we should look to what the new Missal ought to be, rather than its problematic permutations.

I should note that I am not someone that lacks experience; I have been weekly celebrating the Extraordinary Form for a group that requested it, alongside the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, and I participate regularly in events for Una Voce and Juventutem. Nevertheless, and despite my appreciation for the older rites, I would argue that the Ordinary Form, as it was intended to be celebrated and as the rubrics foresee, does have its own distinct advantages. Unlike the Byzantine tradition, the Ordinary Form can have the typical Roman flow, Zen-like and with ample space for silence, when done well and celebrated ad orientem. As long as one does not abandon Latin-language celebrations, celebrating in the vernacular does permit explanation of the rites, the chanting together of proper texts with the congregation, and an easier learning curve for converts or children. The new form expands what can be sung beyond what was normative in a 1962 Solemn High Mass, and it is uplifting to chant the full Mass, including the Canon, in the ancient Roman tones. The new form permits a continuous set of readings throughout the week, and a variety of Prefaces, whereas the older form quickly gets repetitive when a series of ferial days and saints’ days use identical texts. I much prefer the new rites to the old for private Masses during the week.

The simplified calendar might have missed some things, but it does have the advantage of restoring some older feasts and freeing up space for celebrating ferial days that — with the new texts — are quite pleasant. The new Mass is also eminently portable; the simplified rubrics are lifesaving when traveling abroad, especially in places hostile to open religious practice. Some of these rubrical simplifications incidentally match the practice of our Dominican Rite, even if they depart from typical Roman practice in 1962. I have been moved to tears at the OF equivalent of a “Solemn High Pontifical” Mass (a celebration with a bishop, his priests, and two deacons), incorporating a classical Mass setting by Haydn. Similarly, when concelebration is practiced with full ceremonial and vestments, as the rubrics foresee, the experience can be inspiring for laity and concelebrants alike (and the pseudo-theological theory that has gained traction among traditionalists, according to which concelebration decreases the spiritual value of the Mass, is ridiculous). The Liturgy of the Hours facilitates lay people to make praying the Office their own, as many ordinary college and high school students do in our campus ministries. This has been even easier with the advent of apps for these purposes (that are now widely used).

This is not personal, idiosyncratic practice. First, it is in the texts. The manual written by Bishop Elliott, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, details the way to celebrate the new rites with dignity and precision, according to its rubrics and not merely by aping the 1962 Missal. There are increasingly many American churches where the Ordinary Form is regularly celebrated in the way I describe, and, as a reason for the renewed period of growth in their congregation, Oratorian churches have been preeminent among such exemplars. It is achievable. There are many new musical resources and parishes that have begun to use Fr. Samuel Weber’s Propers of the Mass (for instance) at their ordinary Sunday celebrations. Some bishops have become practically infamous for encouraging ad orientem celebrations at their cathedrals. It is not only perfectly possible to celebrate the Ordinary Form in a traditional manner — there are good arguments to be made, from the texts and the perspective of the liturgical movement that produced it, that this is the way the liturgy was intended be celebrated. I would go so far as to say that the Ordinary Form liturgy on Sundays, in any given parish church, should ideally be celebrated as it is in the Toronto Oratory. While suitable preparation, education, and the support of the bishop would of course all be necessary before bringing a parish from the current state to the ideal, the point here is that the Ordinary Form need not be the plaything or shibboleth of the liturgical radical. A “traditional” Ordinary Form Latin liturgy on Sundays, resembling a High Mass, alongside a vernacular “family” Mass, is perfectly possible and, in many ways, healthier than the status quo where the Missals have become shots across the bow.

All said and done, it might be true that the Ordinary Form has flaws. I have outlined some of them myself. And it is perfectly reasonable for sane, educated Catholics to debate and question the wisdom of our current structure of our liturgical worship. This was, in fact, a freedom permitted and encouraged by the Second Vatican Council. And it remains open to asking whether the current flaws, even when acknowledged, are as serious as the advocates of return to pre-Conciliar purity make them out to be. No Missal is static, and even if the criticisms are accurate in some measure, they are not necessarily a reason to return to the state of affairs of 1962 or before. The way to improve the OF Missal is to do it well in the present, to make the case for revisions with solid liturgical scholarship, and to petition hierarchs for the relevant changes. For example, many of the omissions from the new lectionary that some find problematic could be restored with the flick of a pen. There is no reason we could not further encourage improving the Ordinary Form, whether the Eucharistic liturgy or other sacramental rites. This isn’t a desire to indefinitely “tinker” — every living liturgical tradition needs to have regular rubrical clarification or modification. And the current state supports this possibility: the editio typica tertia of the Missal made a series of helpful changes to the existing liturgy, as the new English translation and other editions forthcoming from the USCCB vastly improved the quality of our vernacular liturgy.

Yet I defend the Ordinary Form not to pooh-pooh the Extraordinary. The current liturgical permission for celebrating both forms of the Roman Rite is a great boon. Immediately after the Council, positions hardened and abuses sadly became the norm; since then, we have turned to a better state of liturgical life in the Church. Those who would be left cold and uninspired by a typical parish Ordinary Form liturgy now have many opportunities to attend other liturgical forms of worship, as do those who would not profit from praying in the Extraordinary Form. The permission of Summorum Pontificum has allowed those groups that felt unfairly forced to attend Ordinary Form liturgies against their will to have breathing room and nevertheless be part of an ordinary diocesan parish — I celebrate at diocesan parishes where one liturgy is EF and the following is OF, both sets of parishioners together in one parish with kids in the same school and baking cookies for the same bake sale. Many campus ministries and parishes have begun to offer the Extraordinary Form Mass on a regular basis, at demand from young people. Nobody is forced to attend an Extraordinary Form liturgy if they do not want to do so, but those who want it can have it. The Byzantine Liturgy is now known to many American Catholics. It has been for many young Catholics, along with the Ordinariate, a familiar exemplar of what it looks like to celebrate the vernacular liturgy well. So too the Internet has permitted access to many of the resources that can make an ordinary parish capable of celebrating both rites with great dignity and for wider understanding of our liturgical patrimony beyond Rome.

It seems to me that Catholics who have since grown up after the Council, experiencing a visceral need for rich liturgy in an increasingly secular environment, have been better able to appreciate what it is to engage in “full, active, and conscious participation.” If a monastery wants to celebrate the older rites, or a parish wants to put on Solemn High Mass, my response is, “More power to them. We need them among us.” In a world where faith and love has grown cold, we need to employ all the resources of our tradition. But that means recognizing the need for re-embodying our tradition in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite as well.

Wherever our liturgical life should go in the future, we need to permit and even foster sane discussions about our rites, grounded in serious liturgical scholarship. There should be a communal recognition that contemporary liturgical scholarship has improved upon or falsified theories that undergirded changes in the 1970 Missal. Beyond that, we have learned from our experiences. For Catholics today, the experience of dwelling together and learning from various liturgical traditions enhances our ability to see what truly matters in our public prayer. The variety in our expressions of the liturgy, beyond the dual forms of the current Roman Rite, extend to a whole host of Eastern and Western liturgical traditions that, despite being vastly contingent in their particular forms, share a central intuition: that our public liturgical prayer, as we received it, is a heritage we should treasure. Regardless of which form of the liturgy we attend or believe is superior, the beauty of the current situation is that common cause can and should be made around a commitment to preserve our Catholic liturgical tradition and to utilize the riches of that tradition to bring us, and the world, closer to God.

Fr. James Dominic Rooney, OP About Fr. James Dominic Rooney, OP

Fr. James Dominic Rooney, OP, is a Dominican priest and PhD candidate in philosophy at St. Louis University. He ministers at churches in the St. Louis area, including the St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Mission.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Fr Rooney, glad to see your critical view of different liturgical traditions. For me, a key to good liturgy is celebrating with reverence. Glad you brought that up.
    As I read through your article, having grown up in the United States studied Latin in high school and in the seminary, what you write about makes sense on some levels. My experience in Asia suggests areas of the world not familiar with the European liturgical traditions have different needs. Is there room for inculturation of liturgy in parts of the world not rooted in Greek and Roman language and culture? Have we learned from the Chinese Rites Controversy?

    • Avatar Fr. JD, OP says:

      I work closely with Asian Christians and have been highly in favor of inculturation (I study medieval Confucian philosophy). Of course, this needs to be done with smarts and by people that are deeply familiar with it, let alone under proper ecclesial supervision. But I have in fact complained that there is little use of the rich Chinese aesthetic tradition in the design of vestments or in the liturgical chant. Perhaps ironically, it was the modern “Marty Haugen” movement in America that killed inculturation in Asia – many places went for “On Eagle’s Wings” and so forth over their own classical aesthetics. Traditionally, though, there were efforts to bring classical Chinese aesthetics to bear on our liturgical art (See for instance,

    • Avatar Will Dapron says:

      Fr. Rooney, this is an extremely great article. I really appreciate it.

  2. Avatar Deacon David Oatney says:

    Father Rooney, thank you for essentially saying what many of us believe… that all of our Catholic liturgical heritage should be celebrated with dignity and solemnity.

  3. Avatar Jim Foley says:

    There is much common sense in Fr. Rooney’s article. I enjoy the Ordinary Form when celebrated with due reverence, but I also find value in the Extraordinary Form. Like Fr. Rooney I also appreciate the Eastern Catholic Divine Liturgy. Each of these liturgies is a different approach to the ineffable mystery of God. As such, I find them complementary rather than opposed. A little less liturgical provincialism and a greater recognition of the universality of the Church would go a long way to rectifying the problems that Fr. Rooney enumerates.


  1. […] Weekly Easter Celebrates the Resurrection into the Kingdom – Marty Dybicz at Catholic Stand The Inherent Structural Problems of the New Liturgy – Fr. James Dominic Rooney, O.P., at H&PR Catholic Ministries Get Advice on Finances […]