Ask Mary: Is the Traditional Latin Mass a Rejection of Vatican II?


There was an article that I came across today that (along with the accompanying comments) I found a bit disturbing…the author and many of the commenters seemed to believe that keeping alive the Traditional Latin Mass serves only to divide the church and he frames it as a rejection of Vatican II. My girlfriend and her family regularly attend the Extraordinary form of the Mass and I go with when I am home. I do not know much about Archbishop Lefebre or the Society of St. Pius X, but Pope Paul VI’s comments on that seem to be taken out of context.

If you could please provide me with some spiritual and theological
guidance, I would greatly appreciate it.


Thanks for the great question! (you people are making me work!  I remember the days of Ask Mary questions that didn’t involve research… 😛 )

Let me begin by saying that I am of the opinion that someone who sets the Tridentine Mass against the Novus Ordo—as if they are members of different teams competing for one prize— likely misunderstands both.  That’s not to say that you can’t recognize beauty in different aspects of each; nor is it to say that you can’t have a personal preference for one over the other, but to argue that the existence of both is somehow a loss for the Church seems to me to miss the point.

For those that are immediately confused by phrases like “Tridentine,” or “Novus Ordo,” some explanation is due… (I’m the first to admit that I’m no expert of liturgical history, so corrections/clarifications in the comment box are most welcome).

For clarity’s sake: Novus Ordo = Ordinary Form, “Mass of Paul VI,” or Post-Vatican II (AKA, the mass you likely attend on Sundays); Tridentine = “Latin Mass,” “Extraordinary Form,” or simply, “EF.”

Until the Second Vatican Council, the mass that you likely attend on Sundays looked a little different.  Ok, maybe it looked a lot different.


Less words spoken aloud by the congregation, way more incense, the priest (mostly) facing the other way, communion rails (i.e., receiving communion kneeling and on the tongue), and—of course—everything except the sermon spoken in Latin.

And it was beautiful.  And if you ever have the chance to attend a Tridentine mass today, go.

One of the primary reasons the Church saw fit to make changes to the way the liturgy was celebrated was to encourage more active participation by the laity.  Call it divine accommodation; the mass was revised for us.

11 But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain

21. In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself

In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community

50. The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, may be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved

I’ve quoted above from Sacrosanctum Concilium: the Vatican II Document Promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1963 which outlined the changes to be made to the liturgy in order to encourage greater participation by the laity. I suggest reading the whole thing for your own understanding and spiritual growth.  Also check out “The Spirit of the Liturgy” by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (#beforehewaspope).

You may have noticed that human beings have a tendency to freak out about change.  We often think change means rejection of the old.  We’re an “either/or” people, so we often struggle to grasp the concept of “both/and.”  The truth is that, whether you’re going to a mass said in English, Latin, or Chinese, it’s in your best interest to know what is going on.  No matter the language or the form, our hearts and minds need to be in the right place.  In the years leading up to Vatican II, the Church— loving mother that she is— saw many of her children struggling (or perhaps better put, not struggling enough) to be actively engaged in the mass.  So she offered another way.

When people talk about Vatican II and the changes made to the mass, you’ll hear the phrase “active participation” used a lot (and, hopefully, from the above quotes you see why.  This was the one of the primary concerns of the Council).  It’s important that we don’t misunderstand this phrase.  Just because changes like speaking in the vernacular were made in order to encourage active participation by the faithful does not mean that the Church was/is saying that speaking aloud = being actively engaged.

There are two sides to this: Go to one of many Catholic masses on any given Sunday and listen to the droning English responses of the congregation, and you’ll learn firsthand that speaking aloud doesn’t necessarily mean that you know or care what is going on.  Conversely, yelling the responses at the top of our lungs with animated faces means nothing if our hearts are lacking the proper disposition.  These changes were made in part to encourage active participation, but ultimately it is up to the individual to decide whether or not to practice active participation in the liturgy.

And lest anyone think that active participation cannot be achieved or that it is/was not encouraged in the Traditional Latin Mass, Pope Pius X saw it a different way:

If you wish to hear Mass as it should be heard, you must follow with eye, heart and mouth all that happens at the altar. Further, you must pray with the priest the holy words said by him in the Name of Christ and which Christ says by him. You have to associate your heart with the holy feelings which are contained in these words and in this manner you ought to follow all that happens at the altar. When acting in this way, you have prayed Holy Mass.”

                  -Pope Saint Pius X

Today, two forms of the Roman Rite of the liturgy are approved.  As I’ve said, they are distinguished as “Ordinary Form” (Post-Vatican II) and “Extraordinary Form” (Latin Mass).  In 2007, Pope Benedict issued an Apostolic Letter to the bishops (Summorum Pontificum) explaining the Church’s decision to restore the Traditional Latin Mass to the liturgy of the Church.  This decision declared the Traditional Latin Mass the “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman Rite, and the “Mass of Paul VI” (post-Vatican II) the “Ordinary Form” (“ordinary” meaning, “normal;” not, “less cool”).  Prior to this, individual priests had to seek permission from their bishops to celebrate the Tridentine Liturgy.   From Summorum Pontificum:

The last version of the Missale Romanum prior to the Council, which was published with the authority of Pope John XXIII in 1962 and used during the Council, will now be able to be used as a Forma extraordinaria of the liturgical celebration.  It is not appropriate to speak of these two versions of the Roman Missal as if they were “two Rites”.  Rather, it is a matter of a twofold use of one and the same rite…

As for the Latin Mass being a rejection of Vatican II, Pope Benedict says:

…As for the use of the 1962 Missal as a Forma extraordinaria of the liturgy of the Mass, I would like to draw attention to the fact that this Missal was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted…

…Many people who clearly accepted the binding character of the Second Vatican Council, and were faithful to the Pope and the Bishops, nonetheless also desired to recover the form of the sacred liturgy that was dear to them. This occurred above all because in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear.

In short, the claim that the existence of the Latin Mass today is a rejection of Vatican II is unfounded (see Summorum Pontificum in which Pope Benedict answers this fear).  It is true that there are those who have rejected Vatican II outright, but attending mass in the Extraordinary Form does not amount to rejection of Vatican II, nor does it serve to divide the Church if properly understood.  My suggestion: Attend mass in the form that brings you closest to Our Lord (attend both if you so please), and accept that other people will do the same.

One final note: I’m by no means an expert when it comes to Vatican II but I’ve read enough to know that when you begin compare what you so often hear people say about Vatican II with the actual documents of Vatican II, they are often worlds apart. (For instance: Did you know that, according to Vatican II, the faithful are still required to know all of our parts of the mass in Latin?)  It leaves you wondering whether these people have spent any amount of time studying these documents, or if they’re just passing along what they’ve been told by others.  This Year of Faith is marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.  It’s a great time to dive in!