Rorate Caeli

Pope Pius V and the Mass

Traditional High Mass of Requiem in Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, in London

 Reproduced with permission from the Voice of the Family Digest. To subscribe to this weekly newsletter, scroll to the bottom of this page and enter your email address.


In 1570 Pope St Pius V promulgated a new edition of the Missale Romanum, the Roman Missal, as mandated by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The event was an important one, but it has often been misunderstood. At a moment of liturgical crisis, it would be good to remind ourselves of its real significance.

Superficially, there is a strong parallel with what happened in 1969, when the Novus Ordo Missae was published following the Second Vatican Council. Each General Council mandated a revision of the liturgical books, without going into great detail about what this revision would involve. The reigning Pontiff in each case appointed a commission to carry out the necessary work, and promulgated the result.

However, there are three important areas in which the parallel breaks down: indeed, assuming the parallel holds true has created myths which often attach to the 1570 Missal.

Myth 1. In 1570, the Tridentine Mass was new.
In 1969 the Novus Ordo Missae was new. It contains features never seen before in the liturgy of the Western Church, or only introduced in the run-up to its final promulgation, including the possibility of using the vernacular throughout, and a multi-year lectionary.

By contrast, the 1570 Missal was almost identical to the first printed edition of the Roman Missal, that of 1475, which copied earlier editions of the Roman Missal. These went back through the Missale Romano Seraphicum of the 13th century to the Roman liturgy of the early centuries.

The revision ordered by the Council of Trent was a matter of checking and re-checking, referring to copies of the Missal from the previous two centuries, to get the best possible text. To give just one example, the well-known Advent chant referring to Our Lady, “Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just: let the earth be opened, and bud forth a saviour”, (Isaiah 45:8: in Latin, “Rorate caeli…”) continued “and let justice spring up together…” in the 1474 Missal, but this was corrected to “The heavens tell of the glory of God, and the firmament announces the works of his hands” (Psalm 18:2, Vulgate). It seems that printers, out of laziness or carelessness, had replaced the psalm-verse which should have followed the antiphon with a continuation of the text of the antiphon itself.

If this sounds rather obscure and technical, you are not wrong. Mass-goers would have needed keen ears and a photographic memory to notice the difference between the 1570 Missal and its predecessors.

Myth 2. The 1570 Missal was simplified compared with its predecessors.

The 1969 Mass was vastly simplified compared to the 1962 Missal, in accordance with the mandate of Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium 50 “rites are to be simplified” and passim). The 1570 Roman Missal was also quite simple — the word “austere” is often used — compared with Missals used in France and elsewhere in the preceding centuries. It is to this “Gallican” tradition we owe some glorious liturgical texts, such as the Sequences Lauda Sion for Corpus Christi, and Dies irae for Masses for the Dead. There are four Sequences in the 1570 Missal but many more in the Gallican liturgy — there is one for Christmas for example — but these were not removed in 1570, because they had never made it into the Roman Missal. As far as the Tridentine reform was concerned, the Gallican Missals were to continue with all their glorious complexity, which brings us to the next point.

Myth 3. The 1570 Missal replaced the other Missals in use in the Church up to that time.

The Gallican Missals of France were among a great many Missals in use in the 16th century: several in England, more in Germany; Milan in Italy had the Ambrosian Missal, and the Mozarabic Missal was used in parts of Spain. Similarly, the Dominicans, the Carthusians, the Carmelites, and the Norbertines, all had their own missals, and the Franciscans, wherever they were, used the Roman Missal. All these had for centuries influenced and been influenced by the Roman Missal, whose authority and prestige was particularly great, so they had a good deal in common, but there were still noticeable differences.

St Pius V allowed all Missals which had existed for more than 200 years to continue in use. The point of this requirement was to exclude any which had been tainted by the influence of Protestantism and other heresies. All the above mentioned Missals continued in use after 1570, except the English ones which were the victims of the Reformation (the Sarum alone survived a little longer). Eventually the French and German Missals fell out of use, a process which was not complete until well into the 19th century. The Ambrosian and Mozarabic Missals, and those of the religious orders, continued in use up to Vatican II, and most of them continue in use today.

St Pius V allowed dioceses and religious orders to adopt the Roman Missal if they wished, and it was by this process of adoption that priests being trained for the English Mission started being taught the Roman Missal, and the French and German dioceses eventually lost their distinctive liturgical books. St Pius established the principle that all priests in the Latin Church could use the Roman Missal, but he did not eliminate the alternatives.

What is true is that the Council of Trent was an important milestone in the assertion of the authority of the papacy over the liturgy. Up to that time bishops could authorise new liturgical texts, and in the context of the turmoil of the Protestant Revolt, this was a dangerous situation. Some bishops became Protestant, casting aside their office and liturgy; more insidiously, others tried to continue as normal while introducing heresy into their preaching and services. Successive popes had hesitated to denounce and remove from office bishops who had lost the faith, or were simply corrupt, in case they went into open schism. Sometimes the situation could be retrieved by faithful Catholics on the ground, who did the work of preaching and rooting out corruption which the bishops failed to do: this was a particular talent of the newly-founded Jesuits. But it was clearly essential to take control of the liturgy away from bishops.

This raises the question, of course: if the liturgy was not safe in the hands of bishops, would it be safe in the hands of popes? Bishops were supposed to be guardians of the faith and of the traditions of their churches, but having an obligation and obeying it are not the same thing. Popes have the same obligation, and like their fellow bishops are also human. That St Pius V’s reverence for tradition was not shared by all popes was apparent even before 1570. The Council of Trent considered, though it did not settle, the controversy over the new-fangled Breviary of Quiñonez. This strange production, more suited to saying than singing, which violated the principle that the whole Book of Psalms be read in the course of each week, was actually enforced by Pope Urban VII on diocesan clergy in 1535. Pope St Pius V abolished it in 1568.

The Breviary of Quiñonez was an example of the superficially rational and convenient liturgical option which was to tempt the guardians of the Church again and again as the centuries passed. The next victims of this tendency were the ancient hymns of the Breviary. In 1631 Pope Urban VIII published new versions of them, because he thought the Latin was not very elegant. Although never accepted by the religious orders, these maimed versions, which are more difficult to sing, remain in some versions of the breviary to this day.

A similar project was undertaken with the equally unsingable Latin Psalter by Cardinal Augustin Bea, and promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1947. If you want to know whether you are looking at a translation of Cardinal Bea’s hobby-horse, try looking up Psalm 83:7, the origin of the phrase “valley of tears”, the “valle lacrimarum” of the Salve Regina. Bea removed it as insufficiently close to the original Hebrew, and the Knox translation accordingly gives us “valley of thirst”. The Second Vatican Council ordered that a new translation be made, “to take into account the style of Christian Latin, the liturgical use of psalms, also when sung, and the entire tradition of the Latin Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 91). Sadly, this instruction was not very closely followed, and we now have yet another unsingable version of the Latin Psalter which bears little resemblance to what our forefathers in the Faith used, the “Neo-Vulgate”, which sticks with Bea’s per vallem sitientiem.

St Pius V gives us an example of fidelity to liturgical tradition. Why, we may ask, is this fidelity so important? Why should we prefer the words used by our predecessors over the product of the latest scholarship or literary fashion?

One problem is that a liturgy based on the latest scholarship and fashion will quite quickly go out of date and out of fashion. Fifty years ago the best scholarship told us that in the Early Church Mass was usually celebrated with the priest facing the people; today it says the opposite. The poor scholarship of the 1950s justified the re-arrangement of tens of thousands of sanctuaries, at an unimaginable cost and the destruction of irreplaceable historic art. Are we going to put them all back now?

Again, what of the decidedly dated theories of child development which contributed to the Directory on Masses with Children in 1974? What of the studies on attention spans which influenced debates about how long the readings should be for the reformed Lectionary of 1969? Should the Neo-Vulgate have been done all over again when they found the Dead Sea Scrolls? Are we to be prisoners of the state of knowledge of the 1950s and 1960s forever?

To keep the entire liturgy up to date would mean revising it thoroughly each generation. This would imply a total loss of liturgical continuity. Middle aged people would not worship as they had as children, let alone as their grandparents worshipped. And then again, we cannot be sure that a new scholarly consensus is better founded than the old one.

If you want to buy a car or a suit which won’t look “very last year” a year from now, don’t get the very latest fashion in colour or design, but something more classical. The liturgy which Pope St Pius V restored for the Church was served by historical scholarship, certainly, but this scholarship was about preserving the inheritance of the past, not giving us the latest insights. Theological debates and preaching can tell us the latest thing, if it is worth hearing, but the ancient liturgy brings us something quite different: the atmosphere and the very words of the age of the Fathers of the Church, which have embedded themselves in Catholic spirituality and art for centuries, both before St Pius V’s time and since. When the liturgy seems puzzling, or the Latin tradition differs from the Greek or Hebrew, this is not necessarily a sign of some school-boy error which ought to be corrected: it often reflects the “tradition of the Latin Church”, which is teaching us some important truth.

The liturgy is like some large and complex work of art. It may have passages which are puzzling, or even look out of place, but this is a challenge to us to understand it better, and not find a way to flatten it out so it has nothing distinctive to say to us. It can be the most puzzling features which hold our attention for the longest, and have the greatest power to transform us. Again, we can understand things we cannot explain. That the lessons of the liturgy cannot be codified as a book of copy-book aphorisms is a point in its favour, not a point against it.

St Pius V teaches us that if we respect and love the liturgy of our predecessors in the faith, they can speak to us through it, and God can speak through them.

This article was first published in the magazine Calx Mariae.