Rorate Caeli

“The right to celebrate the perennial Mass of the Roman Church is based on immemorial tradition and not on legal positivism” — Homily by Traditional Catholic Priest

A recently-ordained priest's first Mass

Rorate Caeli has been given a copy of a homily preached this past Sunday, the Seventh after Pentecost, by a traditional priest serving in a major metropolitan parish, with whose permission we publish it for the benefit of our readers as we prepare to return to the bunkers and trenches of the 1970s.

Everyone knows that the centrepiece of the Catholic religion is the holy Mass. The Mass is a proper sacrifice in which the true Body and Blood of the Lord are offered to God under the outward appearances of bread and wine through the ministry of an ordained priest. The holy Mass renews—you could say it prolongs and perpetuates—the sacrifice Our Lord offered once and for all on the cross. In fact, it is the self-same sacrifice; only the outward manner of the offering differs.


This holy sacrifice, moreover, does not exist in a void but it is encased in a sublime sequence of prayers and ceremonies called the rite or the liturgy of the Mass. The ancient axiom of the Church Fathers lex orandi, lex credendi—“the law of praying is the law of believing”—reminds us that our liturgical prayers must be an accurate expression of our faith and must inculcate true reverence for God. That is why, especially at the time of the Protestant Reformation, the faith of the people was changed precisely by disrupting the ancient forms of Catholic worship. For example, John Calvin, a radical reformer who denied the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist, once wrote, “God has given us a table at which to feast, not an altar on which to offer sacrifice” (Institutes; IV, xviii, 12, col. 1059), and so by removing the old high altars and replacing them with a common table, the faith of the people in the sacrifice of the Mass was undermined and soon destroyed.


I mention these things because today [July 11] falls right between two important anniversaries related to the sacred liturgy: the papal letter Summorum pontificum from Pope Benedict XVI on July 7, 2007 and the papal bull Quo primum from Pope Saint Pius V on July 14, 1570. The Council of Trent had met from 1545 to 1563 to address the challenges of the Protestant Reformation, above all by clearly defining the Catholic dogmas denied by the heretics [1] and by promoting sound reforms in the life of the Church to root out the abuses which had first sparked the Reformation—things like the poor training and immorality of some of the clergy and the shoddy manner of celebrating Mass in many places.


The Roman missal which Saint Pius V published after the Council of Trent was not cobbled together; it was a codification of the existing liturgy that had developed centuries earlier and been celebrated at the papal court for just as long. It was and is a bulwark against error. In promulgating the Roman Missal, Pope Pius V decreed:


We grant and concede in perpetuity that, for the chanting or reading of the Mass in any church whatsoever, this Missal is hereafter to be followed absolutely, without any scruple of conscience or fear of incurring any penalty, judgment, or censure, and may freely and lawfully be used. Nor are superiors, administrators, canons, chaplains, and other secular priests, or religious, of whatever title designated, obliged to celebrate the Mass otherwise than as enjoined by Us.


In order to remedy the decadence that existed in some places, this holy pope allowed his Roman missal to be used everywhere, even in those churches which also had their own local form of the liturgy. But this prudent saint, with his delicate respect for tradition, still allowed all local variations, such as the usages of the diocese of Toledo or of his own Dominican order, to continue in use if desired. The only condition was that such liturgies had to have a pedigree of at least 200 years. In other words, something that was simply a recent fabrication could not be considered worthy of use in God’s temple. Whereas Pius V abolished all liturgies less than 200 years old, for comparison, we can that note the Novus Ordo, the new rite of Mass devised after Vatican II, has only been around for 50 years.


These 50 years have been troubled years, and it would be distasteful to review the heavy-handed policies of those who tried illegally and immorally to stamp out the timeless Catholic rite of Mass. The Collect today tells us that God’s providence never fails, and the last several decades have witnessed the providential revival of the ancient rite. Thus it was in 2007 that Pope Benedict XVI made an act of justice and declared that the old liturgy had never been abolished: every Roman Catholic priest has the right to say this Mass even without special permission, and the people have the right to request and attend this Mass. There is a right to the right rite. Summorum pontificum is emphatically not an “indult,” which means a special exemption from a prevailing law. It is a recognition that no indult is necessary. Even if a tyrannical stroke of the pen were to rescind Summorum pontificum, technically that would change nothing. Reality would not be altered. The right to celebrate the perennial Mass of the Roman Church is based on immemorial tradition and not on legal positivism.


You may have seen in the Catholic press that anxious dissidents are now openly drawing their knives against the traditional liturgy. They had never been able to swallow the liberation of the Mass. Take these words of an Italian bishop uttered in July of 2007; he said: “This day is for me a day of grief. I have a lump in my throat and I do not manage to hold back my tears … It is a day of grief, not only for me, but for many who lived and worked in the Second Vatican Council. Today, a reform for which so many labored … has been cancelled.” And only a few months ago, a Jesuit editor, sensing favourable winds, opined: “The church needs to be clear that it wants the unreformed liturgy to disappear and will only allow it out of pastoral kindness to older people who do not understand the need for change. Children and young people should not be allowed to attend such Masses” (Religion News Service, April 13, 2021). I must not be bright enough to understand why, at a time when most young people have stopped practicing, a priest would want to forbid them from attending Mass. Since the Mass is the centrepiece of the Catholic religion, you could not ask for a clearer illustration than this of the false prophets Our Lord warns of in today’s Gospel. The old Mass is a threat to their new religion. Once you’ve understood that, you’ve understood everything.


The objection is made that we should not care too much about the outward form of the liturgy—all that really counts is that Mass is offered validly. It is true that it would be wrong to entertain a punctilious attachment to the outward forms of the liturgy only for their own sake. This would be an empty ritualism, the sort of thing that under the Old Covenant was distorted into Phariseeism. But it would be very wrong to conclude that the liturgy is therefore unimportant. Fifty years ago, when the new missal was promulgated, the General Instruction had to be withdrawn and rewritten because its definition of the Mass was so off the mark. It read: “The Lord’s Supper, or Mass, is the sacred meeting or congregation of the people of God assembled, the priest presiding, to celebrate the memorial of the Lord,” a definition which the great Cardinal Ottaviani decried as “a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in … the Council of Trent.” And this should hardly surprise us, when we recall that the architect of the reform, Monsignor Bugnini, stated: “We must strip from our Catholic prayers and from the Catholic liturgy everything which can be the shadow of a stumbling block for our separated brethren, that is, for the Protestants.” And indeed, six Protestant ministers served as advisors to the committee which produced the new rite.


You all know that the Church is indefectible—meaning she cannot ever lose anything pertaining to her essence, such as the seven sacraments. This does not mean that Church leaders are prevented from occasionally making disastrous blunders in practical policies. The Holy Ghost protects the Church from approving for use a form of Mass that would be actually invalid or overtly heretical: the validity of a sacrament is either/or, not a spectrum, so of course the reformed Mass is still valid. Valid just means the sacrament “works.” But in terms of receiving grace from a sacrament, there is also the question of fruitfulness: this goes beyond validity and depends on the personal dispositions of the recipient and also on the liturgy itself. That is a question of more or less. When I offer Mass or when Padre Pio offered Mass, there is no difference in validity, but certainly he offered Mass more fruitfully. Likewise, a form of Mass hemmed in with careful and precise signs of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament causes the participants to be better disposed than a liturgy from which signs of adoration and reverence have been systematically removed.


The liturgy should also express our faith accurately, and although the modern rite does not deny the Catholic faith, which would be impossible at least in the officially approved liturgical book, nonetheless it does obscure and attenuate the faith [2]; not to mention the abuses and real sacrileges which easily slip in when a liturgy is riddled with options. The Lord in today’s Gospel gives us a criterion of judgment: by their fruits you shall know them. The fruits we see are decimated Mass attendance, plummeted vocations, and almost universal disbelief in the Real Presence.


Our attachment to the traditional Mass, therefore, is not borne of nostalgia or aesthetics, but because it is a more perfect expression of the Catholic faith, one which gives greater glory to God and better prepares us for fruitful reception of the sacrament. Come what may, it is a treasure we shall never be willing to forego.




1. Such as these condemnations of errors relating to the Eucharist from Session XXII of the Council: “If any one saith, that in the Mass a true and proper sacrifice is not offered to God; or, that to be offered is nothing else but that Christ is given us to eat; let him be anathema” (canon 1); “If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the Mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits him only who receives; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema” (canon 3).

2. Compare, for example, the Offertory prayer for the offering of the host from the traditional Mass: “Receive, O holy Father, almighty and eternal God, this unspotted host, which I, Thy unworthy servant, offer unto Thee, my living and true God, for my innumerable sins, offenses, and negligences, and for all here present: as also for all faithful Christians, both living and dead, that it may avail both me and them for salvation unto life everlasting,” with the offering of the bread from the Preparation of the Gifts in the New Mass: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life,” a text based on a Jewish meal prayer, with all references to the sacrificial nature of the Mass expurgated.