Rorate Caeli

The Traditional Latin Mass and the active participation of the laity

by John R. T. Lamont

A standard criticism of the traditional Latin mass is that it leaves little or no place for the active participation of the laity. The Novus Ordo promulgated by Paul VI is held up as being far better suited to such participation; this is presented as a reason for preferring the new ritual to the earlier, and for revising the old ritual to bring it closer to the new one – if not for suppressing the old ritual altogether. I will argue that this is not only false, but the opposite of the truth; and that the greater scope for lay participation in the traditional Latin mass arises from the fact that its design aims at achieving the purpose of a liturgy, while the design of the Novus Ordo is not suited to this purpose.

Schola-Sainte-Cécile during the Traditional Latin Mass for the
Feast of St Cecilia, in the Parish Church of St-Eugène-St-Cécile, Paris (2014) - from their website
'Active participation' in magisterial teaching

The first step in addressing this question is to determine what is meant by 'active participation' in the magisterial documents of the Church that call for such participation on the part of the laity.

The first use of the phrase 'active participation' as a desideratum for lay involvement in the liturgy was in the Italian version of St. Pius X's motu proprio Tra le Sollicitudini in 1903; it did not appear in the official Latin text.
The first occurrence of the idea in a magisterial document seems to be in Pius XI's Apostolic Constitution Divini Cultus (1928), where he stated that “In order that the faithful may more actively participate in divine worship, let them be made once more to sing the Gregorian Chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it.” This understanding of active participation was spelled out under Pius XII:

In solemn Mass there are three degrees of the participation of the faithful: a) First, the congregation can sing the liturgical responses. These are: Amen; Et cum spiritu tuo; Gloria tibi, Domine; Habemus ad Dominum; Dignum et justum est; Sed libera nos a malo; Deo gratias. Every effort must be made that the faithful of the entire world learn to sing these responses. b) Secondly, the congregation can sing the parts of the Ordinary of the Mass: Kyrie, eleison; Gloria in excelsis Deo; Credo; Sanctus-Benedictus; Agnus Dei. Every effort must be made that the faithful learn to sing these parts, particularly according to the simpler Gregorian melodies. But if they are unable to sing all these parts, there is no reason why they cannot sing the easier ones: Kyrie, eleison; Sanctus-Benedictus; Agnus Dei; the choir, then, can sing the Gloria, and Credo. In connection with this, the following Gregorian melodies, because of their simplicity, should be learned by the faithful throughout the world: the Kyrie, eleison; Sanctus-Benedictus; Agnus Dei of Mass XVI from the Roman Gradual; the Gloria in excelsis Deo, and Ite, missa est-Deo gratias of Mass XV; and either Credo I or Credo III. In this way it will be possible to achieve that most highly desirable goal of having the Christian faithful throughout the world manifest their common faith by active participation in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and by common and joyful song. c) Thirdly, if those present are well trained in Gregorian chant, they can sing the parts of the Proper of the Mass. This form of participation should be carried out particularly in religious congregations and seminaries. (De Musica Sacra, Sacred Congregation for Rites, 1958).

The magisterial teaching on the importance of the active participation of the laity can be seen from these statements to be part of a larger project; that of making High Mass or at least a sung mass, rather than Low Mass, the norm for Sunday worship in Catholic parishes. This goal is itself implied by the teaching on the necessity of the use of Gregorian chant in mass as the norm, which itself requires a sung mass of some kind. It meant a radical departure from the common practice of the laity attending a Low Mass on Sunday and saying the rosary or other devotions during the mass.

'Active participation' in this sense is obviously not lacking in the traditional Latin mass, since this sense was defined in terms of the components of that mass. There is also a fact that is not usually cited in debates over active participation, perhaps because of its obviousness and non-academic nature. Active participation by the laity does not take place if the laity do not come to mass. The Novus Ordo has proved incapable of attracting people to attend it, as was predicted by Cardinal Heenan at the 1967 Synod of Bishops upon witnessing its prototype;[1] after its introduction mass attendance in most countries of the world began a fall that has continued with no end in sight. The traditional Latin mass on the other hand was successful at getting the laity to attend it prior to the introduction of the Novus Ordo, and has proved successful at attracting increasing numbers of faithful since restrictions upon its celebration were lifted by Pope Benedict XVI.

Lay participation in absolute terms

It might however be objected that the restricted sense of 'active participation' used in magisterial documents is not the one by which the relative merits of the traditional Latin mass and the Novus Ordo should be judged. The relevant sense is the ordinary meaning of the words 'active participation', which refers to the degree to which the laity take part in the liturgy of the mass. This sense determines the extent to which the laity are formed, instructed and sanctified by attendance at mass; it is thus this sense that should be used in evaluating the relative merits of the traditional Latin mass and the Novus Ordo. And it is in this sense that the traditional liturgy is deficient, and the Novus Ordo is superior.

To respond to this objection, and to bring into focus the real nature and merits of the traditional Latin mass, we need to distinguish between the participation of the laity in the liturgy as a relative notion – the proportion of the activity in the mass undertaken by the laity as opposed to the clergy in the liturgy – and participation as an absolute notion; the amount of activity undertaken by the laity in the liturgy in absolute terms. Participation here is not understood as including all spiritual activity undertaken by the laity in connection with the liturgy, but in the obvious sense of externally observable activity by the laity that forms part of the liturgical celebration; baldly, what is written in the liturgical books and done by the laity. When this distinction is made, it can be seen that the traditional mass permits much more participation by the laity in absolute terms. The content of the lay participation that can be undertaken by the whole congregation is what is found in the Kyriale Romanum. Learning to sing this content properly and singing it regularly every Sunday is a much more rich, complex, and difficult task than anything available to the laity in the Novus Ordo. (There may be a theoretical possibility of singing this content in the Novus Ordo, but its possibility is almost never even approximately realised, with the exceptions of a few Oratorian establishments. It does not exist at all in most of the world, and this is not an accident; it is connected to the nature of the Novus Ordo, for reasons that will be described below.) In fact, mastering the Kyriale Romanum is a greater task than mastering the whole of the celebration of the Novus Ordo – both its lay and clerical components – in the form that the Novus Ordo virtually always takes. It is such a substantial task that serious arguments have gone on about whether or not it is realistic to expect congregations to achieve it. So the scope for lay participation in absolute terms is far greater in the traditional mass than in the Novus Ordo, and contains as much as it is reasonably possible for the laity to carry out even in ideal circumstances. It is thus absurd to criticise the former for its lack of scope for active participation by the laity.

The traditional mass and divine worship

The reason why the traditional Latin mass permits this amount of participation by the laity is important. It is because that mass is a form of religious worship in the sense in which religious worship has been understood throughout the history of the human race. Those societies which have acknowledged the true God or believed in false gods have been convinced that worship is among the most serious and important activities of individuals, families and communities, because it is decisive for the fates of the worshippers in this world and the next. They have accordingly devoted an important part of their energies to worship. They have developed styles of architecture, and constructed elaborate buildings in these styles – Greek architecture is one style among many that was developed primarily for the construction of temples. They have developed music; both polyphony and musical notation were developed by the Catholic Church for religious purposes. They have developed and used elaborate and rich garments for the main functionaries in religious worship, and – most significantly for our purposes – they have devised complex and precise rituals that follow pre-established rules. The fundamental idea behind all this effort is that an activity of supreme importance has to have great thought, care and resources devoted to it, resulting in a complex and elaborate structure that uses all the highest resources available to a human culture. This result is found in the most disparate societies – ancient Egypt, China, India, the Aztecs, Babylon, the kingdom of Judah in the Old Testament, the Christian Church – despite the vast differences between the entities they worshipped, simply because they share this basic idea about the supreme importance of worship. A special priestly class has been necessary in all these societies for the single reason that the complexity of worship makes its direction a full-time job, which only those with long specialised training are capable of undertaking. The development of special liturgical languages is a natural result of this process. The ritual of worship has a sacred character, which means that it is preserved in its original linguistic form when the spoken language changes. Again this development of a liturgical language – Latin, Old Church Slavonic, Geez, Sanskrit, Pali – is common to the most disparate forms of religious belief.

The cost and effort devoted to worship has certainly been intended to bring about a positive attitude to the worshipper on the part of the divinity, but that does not mean that it has been considered to be optional, or a sort of speculative investment. It has been considered to be a strict obligation in justice; the intended effect of the most lavish worship has been to first give the divinity what is due, and thereby avert divine punishment for neglect of the rights of God or the gods.
This obligation is taught by the Scriptures at length in the clearest terms. John Henry Newman drew attention to this in his sermon 'Offerings for the Sanctuary':

Every attentive reader of Scripture must be aware what stress is there laid upon the duty of costliness and magnificence in the public service of God. .... The Book of Exodus shows what cost was lavished upon the Tabernacle even in the wilderness; the Books of Kings and Chronicles set before us the devotion of heart, the sedulous zeal, the carelessness of expense or toil, with which the first Temple was reared upon Mount Sion, in the commencement of the monarchy of Israel. 'Now have I prepared', says David, 'with all my might for the house of my God, the gold ... and the silver ... and the brass ... the iron ... and wood ... onyx stones, and stones to be set, glistering stones, and of divers colours, and all manner of precious stones, and marble stones in abundance.'[2]

In answer to the objection that Christ condemned splendour in worship, Newman points out that this misrepresents Our Lord's teaching, and shows how splendour in Christian worship goes beyond justice and expresses love;

This is what He condemned, the show of great attention to outward things, while inward things, which were more important, were neglected. … The light of Divine truth, when in the heart, ought to beam forth outwardly; and when a man is dark within, well were it that he should show himself outwardly what he is. Such as a man is inside, such should be his outside. Well; but do you not see that such a view of doctrine condemns not only those who affect outward religion without inward, but those also who affect inward without outward? … We must begin, indeed, with the heart; for out of the heart proceed all good and evil; but while we begin with the heart, we must not end with the heart. We must not give up this visible world, as if it came of the evil one. It is our duty to change it into the kingdom of heaven. ... The light of Divine truth must proceed from our hearts, and shine out upon every thing we are, and every thing we do. … They who rejoice with their brethren in their common salvation, and desire to worship together, build a place to worship in, and they build it as the expression of their feelings, of their mutual love, of their common reverence. They build a building which will, as it were, speak ... They will build what may tell out their deepest and most sacred thoughts, which they dare not utter in word: not a misshapen building, not a sordid building, but a noble dwelling, a palace all-glorious within; unfit, indeed, for God's high Majesty, whom even the heaven of heavens cannot contain, but fit to express the feelings of the builders,—a monument which may stand and (as it were) preach to all the world while the world lasts … when our Lord blamed the Pharisees as hypocrites, it was not for attending to the outside of the cup, but for not attending to the inside also.

The whole sermon is important, and should be read in connection with this subject.

Using the best available material and cultural resources in the worship of God has a transformative effect on human culture. What is used in the worship of God is sanctified thereby. By devoting what is best in human culture to the worship of God, that culture is itself sanctified in its best expression. Christian worship thus raises human culture from the natural to the supernatural level.

The Novus Ordo and divine worship

Although the traditional Latin mass is a form of religious worship of this sort, the Novus Ordo is not. This is not simply a matter of its having abandoned most of the ritual acts and details of the traditional mass; it is also a result of its practice of offering many different options for the way the mass is celebrated. The simplest options of course involve very little time, knowledge and effort on the part of the priest, but the very existence of such options makes the Novus Ordo an anti-liturgy by the standards of most human religions. In the Novus Ordo there is no determinate language or form in which worship is offered. The nature of the worship is left up within wide limits to the whim of the individual priest, and the easiest and least complicated form is the most commonly used ('Eucharistic Prayer II', a fabrication produced over the course of an afternoon in a farcical episode in a Roman bistro). The Novus Ordo is not a form of worship, of the kind of worship that is common not only to traditional Christian and Jewish liturgies, but also to all the main religions of the world. This is why the contents of the Kyriale Romanum are virtually never used in the Novus Ordo, although it is theoretically permissible to use them. These contents are parts of a liturgy that is worship of God in the traditional sense. Their function does not exist in the Novus Ordo, so they are useless and confusing if they are introduced into that form of the mass. The ugliness, banality and idiocy of the architecture, vestments, art, and music that has been developed for the Novus Ordo express its nature and purpose as an anti-liturgy. Their character faithfully communicates the nihilism implicit in the rejection by the Novus Ordo of the traditional Catholic and human conception of worship. It is a rejection both of the duty owed to God to devote the best resources to his worship, and of the sanctification of human culture – and thus of human society – that results from the performance of this duty. This nihilism was the force behind the orgy of destruction of sacred things – altars, sanctuaries, crucifixes, paintings, statues, vestments – that accompanied the introduction of the new rite. [3]

This reveals a deeper sense in which the traditional Latin mass offers more scope for active participation by the laity than does the Novus Ordo. We have seen that the traditional mass offers more scope for lay participation, in the obvious sense of giving the laity more complex and substantial work to do than is possible in the Novus Ordo. But it is also the case that in the traditional mass there is a liturgy to participate in, whereas in the Novus Ordo there is not. The traditional mass and the Novus Ordo cannot be said to be liturgies in the same sense of the term 'liturgy'. The traditional mass is a liturgy in a way that the Novus Ordo is not; it is a complex and ancient mass of ceremonies, having many-layered depths of meaning and symbolism that are rooted in a great and deep literary past, and having one of the world's great musical traditions – and one of the world's great architectural traditions – as its components. The Novus Ordo was deliberately created to be none of these things. These features possessed by the traditional mass and lacking in the Novus Ordo mean that the nature and possibilities of lay participation in the traditional mass are completely different from those in the Novus Ordo.

This discussion of course implies that the Latin church must return to the traditional Latin mass in the worship of God. It also vastly extends the requirement of lay participation. The traditional mass requires that the highest forms of human culture be devoted to it. But in order for this to happen these highest forms have to exist; and bringing them into existence involves no less than creating civilisation. This is primarily the work of the laity. Great religious art and architecture were of course always largely funded and created by laymen. In addition to the direct production of the materials for the worship of God, there is the general basis of literary, musical, artistic, architectural, scientific, educational, and intellectual skills needed to produce the best that human culture can afford. This is predominantly the work of the laity.

This account of the nature of lay participation in the liturgy is unexpected and somewhat daunting, given the difficulties of preserving civilisation in the modern world. But its demands are the right one for the present situation of Catholics. In grappling with the evil of an anti-Christian world, it is easy to forget that victory in the struggle will not come from denouncing these evils, but from offering a positive good that attracts supporters to the Catholic side. The necessity of constructing the elements of civilisation for the purposes of Catholic worship is also a necessity for constructing a good that is all the more appealing in the light of the barbarism that surrounds us.



1 Cardinal Heenan told the assembled bishops at the Synod; 'At home it is not only women and children but also fathers of families and young men who come regularly to Mass. If we were to offer them the kind of ceremony we saw yesterday in the Sistine Chapel we would soon be left with a congregation mostly of women and children.' His expectations of attendance by women and children were exaggerated.

2 John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 6, Sermon 21, 'Offerings for the Sanctuary', at see also

3 Characteristic episodes in this destruction are documented by Michael Davies in The Barbarians have Taken Over (