Commentary on the Tridentine Mass

by Fr. James Chelich
July 2007

Religion 122

Click here to download The Tidentine Form and the Post Vatican II Form Comparison


The “Tridentine” Form for the celebration of Mass is the Mass as it was celebrated when I was a boy (up until 1962). At that time the Form for celebrating the Mass was revised, according to the directives of Vatican Council II, into the Form in which we celebrate the Mass today. Pope Benedict XVI has recently allowed for a “wider celebration” of the Tridentine Form.

Does this mean a change in the way we will celebrate the Mass?

For a good number of years now, individual Bishops have had the discretion to permit the Tridentine Form of the celebration of Mass to be celebrated in their Diocese. Here, in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, our bishops have permitted the Trindentine Form to be celebrated weekly since 1990 – first at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Grand Rapids and currently at Sacred Heart Church in Grand Rapids. Any Catholic who wishes, is free to worship at Mass in this Form. What is different now, as a result of the Pope Benedict’s initiative, is that bishops may not prohibit the Tridentine Form from being celebrated in their diocese, but are called to make provision for its celebration if requested. Pope Benedict’s initiative will mean no change in the way we celebrate the Post Vatican II Form of the Mass in our parishes. And, as Bishop Hurley has publicly indicated, Pope Benedict’s initiative will mean no change in our diocese, as we are already providing for the celebration of the Mass in the Tridentine Form commensurate with the expressed need. Perhaps the next and more important question might be:

What does this development have to say to the way we celebrate Mass today?

I intend to share some thoughts about this; but before I do, I would like to help you see what the Tridentine Form of the celebration of Mass looked like and how it differed from the Form of the celebration of the Mass of we use today.

Part I
The Form and Shape of the Mass

First, let me explain that the Mass has an essential shape that cannot be changed and is permanent. Around this essential shape other ceremonies and prayers of the Mass are formed, that with the passage of time can be changed:

The liturgy is make up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted,
and elements subject to change. These latter not only may be changed
but ought to be changed with the passage of time, if they have suffered
from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature
of the liturgy or have become less suitable.

The Constitution on the Divine Liturgy,
Vatican Council II, Chapter 1, #21

The Essential Shape of the Liturgy of the Word:
The essential shape of the Liturgy of the Word is made up of three elements:

  1. readings from the Bible,
  2. a homily or sermon on the readings,
  3. prayers offered by the community.

This service is actually older than Christianity. It comes from the Sabbath Morning Service used in the Jewish Synagogue. Jesus, himself was a devout, religiously practicing Jew (see Luke 4:16ff), and the apostles and first disciples of Jesus were also religiously practicing Jews (see Acts 3:1;10:9-14). They attended the Synagogue for this worship service each Saturday morning. Obviously, when they participated with their fellow Jews in the Synagogue Morning Service, the apostles and disciples announced to them the “Good News” that Jesus was the long awaited “Messiah” of the Jewish People (ref. Acts 2:14-36 and 13:1-6, 13-43). When they were expelled from the Synagogue for doing this (c. 85 AD), they held their own service of Scripture Reading, Reflection and Prayer on Sunday morning. These early Christians also began to make some changes in the character of the service. The three elements remained the same, but changes took place that made each of the elements Christ-centered (Christian). Christian worship has Jewish roots.

The Essential Shape of the Liturgy of the Eucharist

During the meal,
Jesus (1) took bread, (2) blessed and (3) broke it, and (4) gave it to them.
‘Take this,” He said, “this is my body.’
He likewise (1) took a cup, (2) gave thanks, and (3-4) passed it to them,
and they all drank from it.
He said to them: ‘This is my blood, the blood of the covenant,
to be poured out on behalf of many.’ Mark 14:22-24

The essential elements of the Liturgy of the Eucharist is made up of four elements drawn directly from the passage quoted above:

  1. the taking and preparation of gifts of bread and wine
    (called the Offertory or Preparation of the Gifts),
  2. pronouncing the words Jesus used at the Last Supper
    over the bread and wine that change them into what Jesus
    says they are: His Body and His Blood (called the Consecration),
  3. the breaking the bread that is now the Body of Christ in preparation
    for Holy Communion (called the Breaking of the Bread),
  4. the sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ (called Holy Communion).

Each of these four elements is in direct continuity with the four actions of Jesus at the Last Supper – the first Eucharist. Immediately after Jesus ascension, the Eucharist was celebrated on Sunday evening (see Luke 24:13-35). After being expelled from the Synagogue the apostles and disciples joined the Eucharist service to the Word service now held on Sunday morning (see Acts 2:42-47).

There are three pronounced differences between
the Form of the Tridentine Mass and the Form of the Post Vatican II Mass:

First, in the Tridentine Form the prayers of both the priest and people were spoken entirely in Latin. Children grew up with a Missal. It was our own and we brought it to Mass with us. This Mass Book had the Latin prayers printed on one side of the page and the English translation on the other side. Adults used these Mass Books as well, but with more sophisticated reflection aids inserted throughout. It bears emphasizing that we knew the Latin responses by heart and we also knew the meaning of what we were saying and praying. In other words, it was a very intelligible worship for those who chose to be intelligently engaged.

Second, in the Tridentine Form the priest led most of the Mass standing in front of the altar; and, when addressing prayers to God, he turned toward the altar to pray them. This included the words of Consecration pronounced over the bread and wine which then become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Often people refer to this by saying that the priest “had his back to the people” (something that hints of intended rudeness or indifference to their presence). Actually, the intent was to have the whole people of God facing God together, in the same direction, with the priest leading the prayers. Others refer to this as “the altar faced the wall.” Actually, the intent was to have the altar and the whole church face East, from which Christ says that he will come in his Second Coming (see Matthew 24:27-33); and toward which, with the eyes of faith, we look with expectant joy. Saint Augustine says in City of God, “here we have no permanent city.” We are a pilgrim people. We are on a journey. We are here for a season and a purpose, and we have a destination beyond the horizon of death – in eternal life with Christ. From of old, the Form of the celebration of Mass was filled with such Bible-rich and faith-expressive nuances. They formed part of the rich mysticism of the celebration. One of the criticisms often made of Mass in the Post Vatican II Form that it has far too few of these Bible-rich and faith-expressive nuances, or that those there are, are too diluted to be recognized and fully enjoyed.

Third, the number and order of prayers and actions said and done by the priest and people in the Post Vatican II Form are now, at points, different from the Tridentine Form. I have printed here the order of these prayers and actions, side-by-side, for you to compare. I will also note and make some commentary on the differences.

Part II
The Introductory Prayers and Rites

(Here examine Comparison Sheet #1: The Introductory Prayers and Rites)

Notice on the comparison sheet that much of the Tridentine Introductory Prayers and Actions were a quiet private dialogue between the priest and the altar servers. These prayers were spoken to each other in a voice not audible to the assembled congregation, at the bottom step in front of the altar, and facing the altar. While our religious training

and our Missal prompted us to follow along and to make these prayers our own, the Form of the Tridentine Mass did not call for the congregation to be part them. The congregation’s part did not properly begin until the Entrance Hymn. After that point the introductory prayers and actions between priest and people in the Tridentine Form have a remarkable resemblance to those between the priest and people in the Post Vatican II Form.

One element taken from the Tridentine Mass’ private prayers between the priest and servers and now placed in the Post Vatican II Mass’ Introductory Prayers between the priest and congregation is the confession of sinfulness: “I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sister, that I have sinned…” This inclusion helps to make the “Lord, have mercy / Christ, have mercy / Lord, have mercy” a full rite (action) of repentance for sin.

The “Lord, have mercy / Christ, have mercy / Lord, have mercy” was once the people’s response to an ancient litany of petitions which was prayed the beginning of the Mass.

The full litany is still used in the Liturgy of the Eastern Catholic (Byzantine) Church.

One can examine the Tridentine Mass’ Bible-rich introductory prayers between the priest and server, and ask if today, before Mass begins, some personal, prayerful preparation needs to take place on the part of those assembled to celebrate Mass in the Post Vatican II Form. A prescribed order of quiet personal prayer and recollection might dispose many to a more fruitful participation in the communal prayers and actions of the Mass.

Part III
Liturgy of the Word and Offertory

(Here examine Comparison Sheet #2: The Liturgy of the Word and Offertory Rite)

In its instruction on the Liturgy (Worship) of the Church, Vatican Council II called for a much more generous use of the Sacred Scriptures (the Bible).

The Post Vatican II Form of the celebration of Mass calls for no longer two, but three readings at Sunday and Holy Day Masses: one from the Old Testament, another from the New Testament and one from the Gospels. Further, the readings would no longer be on a repeating annual cycle, but on a three year cycle – allowing for a three times larger reading of the Bible than before (actually covering the majority of the Bible every three years.) Prescribed readings are important, otherwise the preacher tends to draw only from preferred passages to address preferred themes and topics. Clearly, the message is “Enter into the riches of God’s Word!” One of the criticisms of both the Tridentine and the Post Vatican II Forms is that many preachers still don’t. Instead the congregation gets an account of the preachers last vacation, a humorous story, a thought for the day, or an admonition not grounded in the Scriptures on one of the preacher’s favorite social issues.

The Prayers of the Faithful were restored in the Post Vatican II Form.
This litany of petitions with the congregational response, “Lord, hear our prayer,” has an ancient history. I has long been and continues to be part of the Mass in the Eastern (Byzantine) Catholic Churches, and was in earlier times also a part of the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Post Vatican II Form introduced the Presentation of the Gifts of bread and wine by members of the congregation. In the earliest Forms of the Mass, people brought gifts of bread, wine, and other food stuffs, along with money to worship. These gifts were received by the Deacons at the door of the Church as they arrived. The Deacons then set aside some of the bread and wine for use in the Mass. In the Post Vatican II Form members of the congregation bringing forward the bread and wine to be used in the Eucharist during Mass, often along with the collection.

The Post Vatican II Form introduced two new prayers at this point. Upon placing the gifts of bread and wine on the altar, the priest pronounces (aloud, if there is no singing at the moment; silently, if the congregation is still singing the Offertory Hymn) two blessings (one for the bread and one for the wine) taken directly from the Jewish ceremonial for the Passover Meal. The inclusion of these blessings emphasize the tie between the Old Passover (from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land) with the New Passover (from sin and death to life with Jesus in the Kingdom of God). The First Eucharist took place during the Passover Meal which Jesus was celebrating with his apostles the night before he died.

Another great emphasis found in the instruction on the Liturgy of Vatican Council II was to increase the participation of the congregation. The entire congregation is now called to sing the hymns, not just the choir (if one were present). From ancient times, the psalms were the text of priority, but other hymns with Bible or faith themes were also embraced. One of the enduring critiques of the Post Vatican II Form is the weak, if not sometimes silly, text of the hymns selected. Songs are not “filler” in the Liturgy of the Mass, they are sung prayers. Their text needs to express cogently and artfully the Bible themes of our relationship with God or the action of the Mass at the point where they are being sung.

Part IV
The Consecration & Preparation for Communion

(Here examine Comparison Sheet #3:
The Consecration, Our Father, Breaking of Bread and Kiss of Peace)

Prior to the liturgical reforms of Vatican II there was only one Prayer of Consecration: the Roman Canon. In the Post Vatican II Form there are three additional prayers for regular use on Sundays and Weekdays, as well as two for Masses of Reconciliation and three for Masses with children. A response by the congregation was inserted in the Post Vatican II Form after the words that consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. The priest says: “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” The congregation responds with one of four brief responses. This calls the congregation to engage the presence and saving action of Christ in the prayer.

In the Tridentine Form, the Our Father with its sequel prayer, the Sign of Peace, and the Breaking of the Bread while singing the ‘Lamb of God’, were interspersed in one another in a confusing mix. The Post Vatican II Form simply drew together the pieces proper to each action and set the actions in a sensible sequence:

First, the Praying of the Our Father

with its sequel prayer, “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil…” (now spoken audibly),
followed by the newly added “For Yours is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory…”

Second, the Rite of Peace

with the priest praying (now audibly), “Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles…,”
followed by the priest saying, “The peace of the Lord be with you,”
and then concluded by the invitation for all to share the Sign of Peace.

Third, the Rite of Breaking Bread

with the priest breaking the consecrated bread
while the congregation says or sings the Lamb of God.

The Sign of Peace is NOT a new element. It was in the Tridentine Form, but only in the Solemn Mass (with Deacon and Subdeacon), and shared only by the clergy present.
A persistent problem with the Sign of Peace in the Post Vatican II Form is that people assume that it is a time for greeting people. In fact, it is nothing of the kind. It is a time for expressing our desire to be reconciled and at peace with our brothers and sisters before we approach the altar to receive Holy Communion – especially those with whom we are angry or “on edge.” Jesus’ explicitly calls for this (see Matthew 5:23-24). He sees Peace-Making flowing directly from praying the Our Father (see Matthew 6:9-15). The people we are angry or “on edge” with may not be present at Mass, but we are called to consciously have them in mind as we turn to those around us to exchange the Sign of Peace. The Sign of Peace is a serious (not, however, somber) expression of heart-felt desire to be at peace with all in our lives.

Part V
Communion and Concluding Rites

(Here examine Comparison Sheet #4:
The Communion Rite and Concluding Rites)

Here, once again, we find the Post Vatican II Form brings the elements in the Tridentine Form into a sensible sequence.
Notice that in concluding the Mass in the Tridentine Form the priest, after praying the
Post Communion Prayer, dismisses the congregation with the words: “Go, the Mass is ended!”, to which the congregation answers: “Thanks be to God.”

But the Mass actually continues. The priest goes on and

  1. prays a private prayer, “May the homage of my service…”
    during which the congregation kneels, and
  2. invokes a blessing over the congregation: “May almighty God bless you,
    Father, Son and (+) Holy Spirit…”.
    But even then the liturgical action of the Mass is not yet ended, because the priest
  3. addresses a greeting to the congregation: “The Lord be with you.”
    to which the congregation answers: “And with your spirit.”
  4. and introduces a reading of the Gospel: “The beginning of the holy Gospel according to John” the reading of which then follows.

The Post Vatican II Form drops two of these elements and brings the rest into a logical sequence. After Post Communion Prayer, the priest:

  1. addresses the congregation: “The Lord be with you;”
    to which the congregation answers: “And also with you.”
  2. invokes a blessing over the congregation: “May almighty God bless you,
    Father, Son and (+) Holy Spirit…”
  3. says farewell to the congregation, “Go, the Mass is ended!”;
    to which the congregation answers: “Thanks be to God!”
  4. The priest then departs, usually while the congregation is singing the optional Recessional Hymn.

In the Trindentine Mass, the priest’s private prayer (“May the homage of my service…”) and the reading of the Last Gospel (John 11-14) at the end of Mass were originally private meditations recited by the priest after he left the altar and on the way back
to the sacristy (vesting room). By now you will have noticed several elements in the Tridentine Form that originally were either private prayers or meditations of the priest and assisting ministers but which subsequently came to be part of the action of the Mass. In the Post Vatican II Form most of these elements have been removed.

One of the most significant developments in the Post Vatican II Form is that both the Body and the Blood are offered to the members of the congregation who approach for Holy Communion. This is a restoration of the common practice in the earliest Forms of the celebration of the Mass. One can appreciate the profound sense of it if one reflects on the words of Consecration. At Mass, through the instrumentality of the priest acting in His person, Jesus’ explicitly says to his disciples present:

“1) Take this 2) all of you and 3) drink from it…”

Liturgical Worship should make it possible for Jesus’ disciples present to fulfill the command and invitation they hear Jesus giving them. It is important to note that in the Catholic faith there can be no question that a person receives the whole Christ whether they take just the Body of Christ or just the Cup of the Blood of Christ or both.

The Post Vatican II Form reintroduced the option of receiving the Body of Christ in the most ancient form known: in the hand. The earliest description of how to receive Holy Communion indicates that the Body of Christ was to be received in the hands, formed together as a throne, and then taken by one hand from the other into the mouth to be eaten:

Coming up to receive, then, do not have your wrists extended or your fingers spread, but making your left hand a throne for the right, for it is about to receive a King,

and cupping your palm, receive the body of Christ, and answer, “Amen…” then partake, taking care to lose no part of it…

After partaking of the body of Christ, approach also the cup of His blood. Do not stretch out your hands, but, bowing low in a posture of worship and reverence as you say, “Amen,” sanctify yourself by partaking of the blood of Christ.

Cyril of Jerusalem (c 313-387) Mystagogical Caetchesis 4, #21-22

It might be interesting to mention that in the Post Vatican II Form there is nothing I can find requiring or prohibiting a Communion Rail. It seems to logically follow that in new churches, they need not be installed; but in old churches, they need not be removed. Despite all the curious arguments to the contrary, it really offends nothing that people might receive Holy Communion on their knees at a Communion Rail.

Part VI
Some Final Thoughts


I am old enough to remember worshipping at Mass in the Tridentine Form. As a boy and a young man I found this Form beautiful, moving and meaningful. I was blessed with priests who conducted themselves with reverence at Mass and spoke the prayers with clarity and grace. I was also blessed with a pastor who was an effective preacher of the Scriptures. I can, however, also remember priests who could tear through a Mass in 13 minutes, and people who found this acceptable as worship because it proved convenient to getting on with other things. I also watched a quarter of the congregation come in just before Offertory (missing the entire Liturgy of the Word) and a third of the congregation leave Church directly after receiving the Body of Christ. Many in the first group were also in the second. They really thought they had worshipped at Mass. These things scandalized me as a boy and young man.

In the Post Vatican II Form, I have known priests who could “do a Mass” in 16 Minutes, and people who wanted to know why I couldn’t hustle along too. I had the good sense and bad memories to ignore them. I have also know priests who presented themselves in the style of Jay Lenno and conducted the Mass as if it were Saturday Night Live. There was little in their manner that drew attention to the presence of Christ or His saving sacrifice. Facing the people can be a temptation to perform in a self-aggrandizing manner that some priests cannot resist. Never-the-less, it is just not honest to blame either the Tridentine or the Post Vatican II Form for the excesses (even abuses) of either the ministers or the congregation at Mass.


A more recent problem with worship stems from the drift of our contemporary culture. People are pressed to do more and more. As a consequence, they have less and less time, or even desire, to pause and reflect. Their lives leave them exhausted and depressed. They welcome being entertained. In both Protestant and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Catholic Worship there has been a growing tendency to entertain and call it worship. In Catholic teaching, the Liturgy of the Mass is the expression of the real presence and work of Jesus for our salvation. The Liturgy is also the work of the people responding to His presence and work with praise, adoration, thanksgiving and heartfelt petition. The Liturgy should be artful, reverent, joyful, readily comprehensible, and easy to participate in. It should not be “creative,” novel or gimmicky. There is a pronounced difference between worship and entertainment. Worship is not entertainment, and the Liturgy of the Mass is not a place for entertaining.


The pertinent question to ask about the Form of the celebration of the Mass is:

Does it effectively point to Jesus presence
and His action in the Mass?

In this regard, I find that the Post Vatican II Form of the Mass has been a development for the better:

  1. It much more fully lays open the Sacred Scriptures
    (whether they are preached or not is another question).
  2. It enhances comprehension both by being in the native language of the people and by placing in a sensible order the prayers and actions of the Mass,
    especially before Holy Communion and at the conclusion of the Mass.
  3. It calls for greater participation on the part of the congregation (in both song
    and prayer) in responding to Jesus’ presence and action in the Mass.
  4. It welcomes the communicant to participate in the full outward sign of Holy Communion by receiving from the cup of the Blood of Christ.
  5. It restores the ministry of the Deacon and Lector.


Let’s now return to the question I left unanswered at the beginning of our examination of the Tridentine Form:

Pope Benedict XVI has recently allowed
for a “wider celebration” of the Tridentine Form of the Mass.

What does this development
have to say to the way we celebrate Mass today?

The introduction and implementation of the Post Vatican II Form of the Mass in the mid 1960s was done terribly – and with sad consequences. A transition that should have unfolded over several years, took place in a couple months. In most places the explanation given for the change and instruction on each of the changes was dismally poor or non-existent. One Sunday the new “portable altar” was there, and the priest was standing behind it facing the people. Further, there was absolutely no expressed awareness that this change would be traumatic to people who had grow old with the Tridentine Form. No provision was made for them to continue to worship in that Form. People who found the transition painful and difficult were at best ignored and at worst dismissed as backward.

Because of this, an untold number of Catholics were alienated from their Faith, abandoned its practice, and died in resentment. Others who “Stuck with it” were attacked for their personal devotional practices – practices that from their childhood they had been encouraged to pursue. People were rudely told to put away their rosary at Mass. They were told: “Vatican II got rid of those things.” Religious sensibilities were trampled in every direction, and the Tridentine Form was increasingly labeled, “defective,” and anyone valuing it, “reactionary.”

Pope Benedict’s initiative vindicates these individuals lost to the practice of their Faith, as well as those who were mistreated. It says that the Form in which the Church taught them to worship was not backward or a hallmark of reactionary Catholicism. It was and is a legitimate Form of the celebration of the Mass at one point along the ancient history of the development of the Mass’ Form. This vindication was long overdue.

In the 1970s the Post Vatican II Form became in common parlance, “The New Mass,” an expression suggesting that the old one was cast away and a new one was made up. For many, this signaled their freedom to have a hand at reinventing the Mass for themselves. The kinds of silliness that were thrown in to make the Mass “interesting” and “more relevant” ran the full spectrum of the imagination. If I had not lived through it, I would not have believed it. Pope Benedict’s initiative reminds us that the Post Vatican II Form is in continuity with the Tridentine Form and other Forms that came before it. I hope this study has helped you recognize this.

Pope Benedict stresses that the Form is not for an individual or a group of individuals to invent for themselves. It belongs to the Church which is from the Apostles – continuous in it Worship and consistent in its Faith. If the Form of celebrating the Mass where you go to Church looks and sounds like the Post Vatican II Form, then it is the Post Vatican II Form. If it looks and sounds like “The New Mass,” “Father Jim’s Mass,” or “This or That Group’s Mass,” then it is not the Post Vatican II Form. There is a reason why it is important to hold to the Form faithfully and with careful attention. Unity of common usage in the required elements of prayer and action at Mass is important to maintaining an atmosphere of hospitality, courtesy and ease of participation among Catholics and between Catholic churches. A Catholic should be able to move from church to church for the celebration of Mass and be able to participate, both in word and gesture, as confidently as if they were in their own parish. “We don’t do that here” or “We change that here” has nothing to do with an honest reading of the teaching of Vatican II or the celebration of the worship of the Universal Church.