On Holy Thursday fifty years ago (April 3, 1969) Pope Saint Paul VI signed the Apostolic Constitution Missalis Romani, thus promulgating the Roman Missal which had been renewed by decree of the Second Vatican Council. In this seminal document he indicated and explained the most significant changes made to this liturgical book concerning; the Eucharistic Prayer, the Order of Mass and the Lectionary. Three days later (April 6) the Sacred Congregation for Rites published the Decree promulgating the new Order of Mass, along with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. The following year brought the typical editions of the Roman Missal (March 26, 1970) and the Lectionary (September 30, 1970).
To bring such a monumental task to completion required courage. Animated by his love and pastoral concern for the People of God, Pope Paul VI showed he had that courage in abundance. Pope Montini was well aware of the challenge at hand, indeed he was often the first one to point out with clarity the suffering which would have to be faced while underlining the necessity of facing it. He recalled it many times in various speeches: to the Consilium, to the faithful, and to the clergy. All the time he was guiding, explaining, defending and promoting the liturgical reform that has its clearest expression in the Missal. His goal in all of this was to renew the Church, for it is through the liturgy, and in particular the Mass, that the Church experiences communion with, through and in Christ. The Missal is necessary for the celebration of Mass, and the Mass is necessary for the renewal of the lives of those who participate in it.
While the reform of the Missal may at first have seemed like a mammoth task, as indeed it was, it should be recognized that much of the groundwork had already been done. Paul VI recalled this fact in the Apostolic Constitution, mentioning early on the intervention of Pope Pius XII in the 1950s in order to reform the Easter Vigil and the rites of Holy Week in the Roman Missal. This was a first step at a time when the liturgical movement was in ferment within the Church. Now, after the Council called by Pope John XXIII, the Council Fathers had spoken and they had asked for a general revision of the Missal and not merely some cosmetic overlay.
Therefore Paul VI wanted to implement these provisions:
“The recent Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, has laid the foundations for the general renewal of the Roman Missal, laying down that ‘texts and rites should be ordered in such a way that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify,’ (cf SC 21) and later that ‘the Order of Mass should be revised in such a way that the purpose proper to its individual parts, as also the connection between them, may be more clearly evident, and that devout and active participation by the faithful may be facilitated,’ (cf SC 50) then that ‘the treasures of the Bible be opened up more abundantly so that richer fare may be spread before the faithful at the table of God’s Word.’ (cf SC 51).” (Apostolic Constitution)
Almost as if to stave off the inevitable objections the Pope specified that “it should not be thought that this revision of the Roman Missal has been introduced without preparation,” given that it was supported by progress in liturgical disciplines and by knowledge of ancient liturgical sources unknown to the Tridentine reformers. Three areas were of the most interest. Above all was Pope Paul’s decision to add three other Eucharistic Prayers alongside the Roman Canon, as well as the enrichment of prefaces “either taken from the earlier tradition of the Roman Church or now newly composed.” Then, regarding the Order of Mass, he explained that
“‘the rites have been simplified, due care being taken to preserve their substance’ (cf SC 50). For those things ‘that, with the passage of time, came to be duplicated or where added to little advantage’ (ibid.) have been omitted, especially with regard to the rites for the offering of the bread and wine and with regard to the rites of the breaking of the bread and of Communion. Furthermore, ‘there have been restored … in accordance with the ancient norm of the holy Fathers, various elements which have suffered injury through the accidents of history.’ (cf ibid.). Among such are the Homily (cf SC 52), the Universal Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful (cf SC 53), and the Penitential Rite or rite of reconciliation with God and with the brethren, to be enacted at the beginning of Mass: to which due importance has been restored, as was opportune.”
Finally, he dealt with the Lectionary, which was to be renewed according to the prescription of the Council that “‘over the course of a prescribed number of years a more representative portion of the Holy Scriptures be read to the people’ (cf SC 51)”, thus the Sunday readings have been arranged over three years, completed by a two yearly cycle for ferial days.
Two examples bear witness to how the Pope himself followed the work of revising the lex orandi of the Missal, after hearing the opinions of the Roman Curia and of other bodies. The first is a hand-written note on the Order of Mass:
Wednesday 6 November 1968, 7pm – 8.30pm. Along with Rev. Fr. Annibale Bugnini We have reread the new Ordo Missae compiled by the Consilium ad exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia following observations made by Us, the Roman Curia, the Sacred Congregation of Rites, participants in the 11thplenary session of the Consilium itself, and by other ecclesiastics and lay faithful. After careful consideration of the various proposed modifications, many of which have been accepted, We have given Our approval to the new Ordo Missae, in Domino. Paulus pp. vi (published in L’Osservatore Romano” May 9, 2018, page 8)
The second hand-written note concerns the Lectionary:
In the very brief space of time indicated it has not been possible for Us to take a careful and complete view of this new and ample Ordo Lectionum Missae. However, based upon Our trust in the expert and pious people who have prepared it after a long period of study, and based upon the trust which is due to the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, which has examined and composed it with so much skill and solicitude, we gladly approve it, in nomine Domini. On the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, June 24, 1969. Paulus pp. vi
With a pastor’s heart Paul VI desired to explain and illustrate the reasons, scope and extent of the liturgical reform. In doing so he helped to capture all its positive aspects without remaining silent in the face of the areas of resistance that were opposed to the change, just as he did not remain silent in the face of the erroneous applications which disfigured the reform. He put it in these terms during a general audience on 19 November 1969:
Thus the reform that is about to take place everywhere is the response to an authoritative mandate of the Church. It is an act of obedience, a matter of the Church’s being consistent. It is a step forward in the Church’s genuine tradition. It is a clear sign of faithfulness and vitality to which we must all give ready allegiance. It is not a fad, a fleeting or optional experiment, the invention of some dilettante. (Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville 1982, p. 539)
Aware of his own authority he confirmed the worth of the liturgical reform in an address to a Consistory on May 24, 1976:
For Our part, in the name of tradition, We beseech all our children, and all Catholic communities to celebrate the rites of the restored liturgy with dignity and fervent devotion. Use of the new Ordo Missae is in no way left up to the choice of priests or people. The Instruction of 14 June 1971 provided that celebration of Mass according to the former rite would be permitted, by faculty from the Ordinary, only for aged or sick priests offering the sacrifice without a congregation. The new Ordo Missae was promulgated in place of the old after careful deliberation and to carry out the directives of Vatican Council II. For a like reason Our predecessor Saint Pius V, after the Council of Trent, commanded the use of the Roman Missal revised by his authority. In virtue of the supreme authority granted to Us by Jesus Christ We command the same ready obedience to the other new laws, relating to liturgy, discipline, pastoral activity, made in these last years to put into effect the decrees of the Council. Any course of action seeking to stand in the way of the conciliar decrees can under no consideration be regarded as a work done for the advantage of the Church, since it in fact does the Church serious harm. (Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville 1982, p. 178)
The Roman Missal is translated into various languages which are approved by the Episcopal Conferences and confirmed by the Apostolic See. In this regard we should note once more what Paul VI wrote in the Apostolic Constitution promulgating the new Missal:
“We are no less confident that it will be received by the Christian faithful as a help in witnessing to and strengthening the unity of all, by means of which, in a variety of so many languages, one and the same prayer of all will rise up, more fragrant than any incense, to the heavenly Father, through our High Priest Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit.”
Fifty years have passed and we celebrate a golden jubilee! We can give thanks to the Lord for so many things. Above all we can be grateful to Paul VI for all he gave to the Church while suffering for her. In his words and actions the post-Conciliar liturgical reform, which he carried out in faithful obedience to Sacrosanctum Concilium, did not simply aim at a revision of the shape of the liturgy, rather it aimed at the renewal of the Church, the mystery at the centre of his programmatic encyclical Ecclesiam suam.
Fr. Corrado Maggioni, S.M.M.
Under-Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments