Rorate Caeli

How Old is the "Old Mass"? - Michael Charlier

The vision of St Gregory the Great during Mass
How Old is the "Old Mass"?
Michael Charlier (source in German)
November 27, 2023

At the time of Pope Gregory (590 - 604), many parts of the Roman liturgy were already so old that no one could remember their introduction or even speak of them having been "introduced". Of Gregory's predecessors, Damasus I (366 - 384) and Gelasius I (492 - 496) are named as popes who intervened in the liturgy in one way or another. 

Damasus, for example, regulated the more or less spontaneous transition from the Greek to the Latin liturgical language by suggesting an authoritative translation of the Septuagint -- thus creating what later became known as the Vulgate. To avoid an obvious misunderstanding: this transition was by no means an attempt to introduce the "colloquial language" into the liturgy, driven by the pursuit of "comprehensibility for all". The Latin of the earliest known liturgical prayers was not the spoken language, but a classical, in places almost archaic Latin, which was characterized by borrowings from the (always religiously influenced) official language of the imperial court and the art of the rhetors.

Even in these earliest times, it was generally believed that the Roman liturgy had its origins in the time of the apostles. Differences between the liturgies of different patriarchates were not perceived as problematic, as these patriarchates traced themselves back to different apostles as the founders of their own traditions. Much stronger was the awareness of the basic structure common to all these liturgies -- a strong indication that the Eucharist had already received its essential form in the circle of the apostles before they separated for their missionary work in all three continents known at that time.

The basis of this unity was always the unity of faith, and the early councils did not concern themselves with liturgical questions, but ensured the unity of faith. As long as this was given, or as long as it could be achieved through often painful disputes, ritual differences were considered irrelevant. This is precisely the decisive difference compared to the era of the schism of faith that reached its first climax with Luther, which has now broken out again at the heart of the Church with the papal claim that the "old faith" expressed in the "old liturgy" is incompatible with the "modern faith" allegedly laid down at Vatican II.

But back to the origins. Even in apostolic times, the connection between a common meal and the celebration of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11), which was originally a remembrance -- but not an essential continuation -- of the "Last Supper," had become problematic and was no longer practised, at least in some places, as early as the end of the first and beginning of the second century. From the middle of the 2nd century, in the writings of the church scholar Justin Martyr, the order of a Sunday liturgy is handed down, which already shows the basic elements and order of the Roman liturgy: a liturgy with readings from the Old and New Testaments, exposition of Scripture, intercessory prayers, and finally the Eucharistic prayer of blessing over bread and wine followed by Communion.

It will now be readily conceded that this basic structure can also be recognized in the "new Mass" of Paul VI. This concession must, of course, be combined with the embarrassing question of why the entire subsequent development and unfolding of doctrine and liturgy over more than a millennium and a half should be literally discarded -- if not with the aim of rejecting this entire development and initiating a new interpretation that is better suited to our modern taste, ostensibly based on an alleged "pure original form" (known to us, moreover, only in its broadest outlines). And this is unmistakably linked to a relativization and reduction of the very faith declared by those Fathers of the Church in the early centuries and established by the ecumenical councils.

The Eucharistic "prayer of blessing" from the time of Justin has not survived. The attempt of the liturgical reformers to appropriate the alleged "Canon of Hyppolitus" from the early third century for their "new Mass" must be considered a failure for several reasons: firstly, because this prayer of consecration probably does not originate from the context of a Eucharistic celebration, but from a bishop's consecration; secondly, because it did not originally come from Rome, but from an oriental tradition; and, finally, because the reformers made extensive cuts, changes, and even falsifications to the traditional text in order to adapt it to their "contemporary" ideas. Therefore, the Second Eucharistic Prayer of the new Mass cannot be justified by reference to this alleged "predecessor."

In fact, the earliest formal Eucharistic Prayer in the West becomes accessible to us in Roman records towards the end of the 4th century -- which is understandably some time after the last persecutions of Christians ended, and state recognition had come. And this Eucharistic Prayer already corresponds in many details to the Roman Canon, which was then disseminated throughout the West in the following centuries.

It is therefore clumsy, if not misleading, to speak of the "Tridentine" liturgy today. The Roman Canon and many other, less central elements of the Latin liturgy and also of the Roman calendar can be found almost word for word in the missal of the Roman Curia of the 13th century or the Franciscan "traveling missals" of the 14th century. These in turn go back to the time of Innocent III (d. 1216) and earlier still. In fact, these "traveling missals" arose from the need of the wandering mendicant friars to be able to carry all the prayers and readings required for the celebration of Mass with them in an easily transportable form. Until then, a whole collection of "sacramentaries" had been used for the liturgy in monasteries and episcopal churches, together with "lectionaries", "antiphonaries," and other ritual books.

Thus, the "Missale Romanum" itself, a single book comprising the texts of the Mass, is not older than 800 years -- but the Roman Rite with its prayers, feast days, and ceremonies handed down in this Missal can actually be documented back to the time of Gregory the Great. This is evidenced not only by the medieval sacramentaries and the "Ordines," some of which are from late antiquity, but also by the missal expositions by Amalar of Metz (†850), Rupert of Deutz (†1130), or Durandus of Mende (†1296). Although some of these explanations were already controversial at the time they were written because of their allegorical-pastoral approach, they largely agree in their description of the rite and its tracing back to the time of Gregory.

Even more than the "Gregorian chant" -- whose melody developed considerably from its late antique origins as it drifted through the Middle Ages -- the Roman liturgy can therefore rightly be described as the "Gregorian rite" or also as "the divine liturgy of St. Gregory."