The Mass of Pope Pius V was the singular ritual for the Eucharistic sacrament for four hundred years. It is very surprising, then, that even before Vatican II was called into session in 1962, there was considerable pressure and expectation that the Mass would be reformed—most notably, that it would be celebrated in the language of the population, the vernacular—but the entire list of desired changes was lengthy and exhaustive. Underlying a call for changes in the Mass was a sweeping renewal of sacramental theology, a return to the practices of the ancient Church and the writings of the Church Fathers. It does come as a surprise to many Catholics that such studies were well underway by 1900, and that liturgical theology, along with Scripture study, were perhaps the two most thriving, academically speaking, of all the sacred sciences when Vatican II did its work from 1962 through 1965.
I am indebted to Doors of the Sacred (2014), which I highly recommend, for much of the historical data regarding the studies of the sacraments in the twentieth century. The rites and style of the Mass of Pius V were drawn from the late Renaissance period, and as DOS author Father Joseph Martos observes, the ritual was passed along untouched and largely ahistorical despite the massive changes in human history between 1600 and 1960. (p. 115ff) It would never have occurred to me when I made my first communion in 1956 that the Mass was celebrated in any fashion different from what Jesus had done at the Last Supper. It is interesting that the historical optic of my youth, the Last Supper of DaVinci, was in fact quite different from the 1956 Mass celebrated by Monsignor Schreckenberger on the East Side of Buffalo when little Tommy here labored to make his first communion correctly. I was too busy following the correct reception etiquette—e.g., do not chew the host—to be concerned about historical dissonance.
As it turned out, though, 1956 was pretty late in the game. By that late date even popes were pondering the results of the past century or more of scholarship. The ritual of the Mass of Pius V was not drawn from any specific document of Scripture or early Church Father, although this would not be general knowledge. The earliest non-Biblical document to address the Eucharistic celebration, the Didache, is in fact remarkably sparse on details. Something to remember about the Tridentine (i.e., post-Trent) Mass ritual of 1570 is that for its day it was a modern document, written in a language (Latin) that educated men and women of letters would use for the next several centuries. The overarching concerns of the composition of the 1570 rite were doctrinal correctness, particularly in matters dealing with the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and Catholic unity in the face of what were now three major divisions within the European Protestant household.
It is common to read and hear the argument that the Mass of Pius V is the only true Mass today, that the present-day Mass of Pope Paul VI (1969) is at the least a grave mistake foisted by Vatican II; a few hold that the post-Vatican II Mass is even invalid. Pius V probably would not have gone this far regarding the rite he composed, as he did give permission to several dioceses and cities to keep their old rites if they were older than two-hundred years old. Again, the unchanging nature of the Tridentine Mass as we were instructed as youngsters derives from the desire to preserve the core of Catholic belief from Protestant assault or misunderstanding. In addition, theologians after Trent emphasized the principle of ex opere operato (“by the work of the work”) when speaking of sacraments in general. Specifically, the correctness of the sacramental rite—using the proper words, substances, and gestures—assured the validity or saving nature of the sacrament. The 1570 Mass rite became the official “work of the work” where the sacrament of the Eucharist was concerned.
There were pressures for changes in the 1570 rite when missionaries brought the faith to China and the Malabar Coast of India. Specifically, the Jesuits, who were both innovative and energetic, hoped to celebrate sacraments in some form of harmony with centuries-old customs of other cults, notably Buddhists. These requests were not granted, and in fact as the Church progressed into the nineteenth century some popes encouraged scholars to engage in research of the sacraments, notably from the thirteenth century writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, who in 1879 was singled out by Pope Leo XIII as the official philosopher/theologian of the Church, most notably in seminaries and the training of priests. The hope appears to have been the buttressing of Catholic belief and practices against the trends of what we would call the Modern West.
As Joseph Martos observes, this resurgence into the works and times of St. Thomas led Church scholars into both areas of Aquinas’s thought that were more complex than first believed, and then into the entire medieval world of thought, which again in matters of theology proved to be much more complex than accepted at that time. Scholars began to examine the early Eastern Christian writings on sacraments, which placed much more emphasis upon experience and less upon legal precision.
Some popes were dismayed by what scholars and churchmen were discovering. Others were not, and next Saturday we will try to focus on the twentieth century renewal of theological thinking regarding sacraments, which in many cases turned out to be very ancient as well.