Does the Novus Ordo Really Have “Noble Simplicity” Compared to the Tridentine Mass?

J.M.J.

Greetings, merry Christmas, and happy new year to all!

It has been quite a while since I’ve posted anything, unfortunately, so I understand if people have been thinking this blog is dead. It’s not, in fact, dead. I have one post mostly written that I haven’t gotten around to publishing, continuing with the subject of lay readers that I already made two posts on. I also have another big post — focusing on evolution — in the idea stage. But time is a beast, and, very often, I find myself wanting to do other things. With all that said, there’s something I’ve been thinking about over the past couple weeks that I wanted to discuss.

One of the primary directives of Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium is the following:

“In the revision of the liturgy, the following norms should be observed: the rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless [inutiles] repetitions; they should be within the peoples’ powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 33-34).

Now, many, including me, take issue with the repetitions in the older Mass being called “useless,” and I would also question whether “comprehension” of the rites should be a primary aim. After all, the Holy Mass is an infinite mystery, and, try as we might, we will never totally understand it.

But what I’d like to focus on here is the idea of “noble simplicity.” In Sacrosanctum Concilium, and in the revised Order of the Mass, it seems that “noble simplicity” requires short, simple prayers – and hence, the saints’ names in the Confiteor and in the Libera Nos following the Our Father got cut. The numerous signs of the Cross in the Canon got cut. The Domine, Non Sum Dignus is said by the priest and people together, once only. And there are numerous other examples of this rather unfortunate trend as well.

However, I would suggest that, in one respect, the revised Order of the Mass fails utterly in its aim to be nobly simple, and that the former Mass is clearly more in line with the aims of Vatican II’s directives.

If the former missal has something definitely going for it, it’s that the Mass has a clearly delineated structure, and the faithful in the pews can know what to expect each time. To put it simply, the Traditional Latin Mass doesn’t really have options. There is the option of what type of Mass will be offered – Low Mass, High Mass, Solemn Mass – but that’s essentially it. The Novus Ordo, however, allows for so many options in all of its parts that any Mass according to that missal would differ from others. Let’s observe some examples. For the sake of ease, I’m going to refer to the older Mass as the “Tridentine Mass” (even though it was around well before the Council of Trent).

The Tridentine Mass, with very rare exceptions, always begins with the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. These don’t change. These begin with Psalms 43 and 42, then include a Confiteor said by the priest and then a Confiteor said by the servers on behalf of the faithful. There is then a brief quotation from Psalm 85, followed by two prayers as the priest goes up to the altar. This pattern can be expected at essentially every Tridentine Mass.

In the Novus Ordo, however, there are multiple options after the Sign of the Cross, which will depend on the whim of the priest offering the Mass. So, for example, he could say, “The Lord be with you,” (R\: And with your spirit), or he could say, “The grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (same response), or he could even say, “Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (the response here is either “And with your spirit” or “Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”).

Then, for the Penitential Act, there are three options, which can be chosen at the priest’s discretion: 1) the Confiteor and Kyrie; 2) just the Confiteor; 3) just the Kyrie, with prescribed introductions before each petition.

So far, then, there’s six official variations from the Sign of the Cross to the Kyrie, which will differ from priest to priest, while the Tridentine Mass has a stable and unchanging setup.

As far as Scriptural readings are concerned, the Tridentine Mass has three variations: the priest reads the Epistle and the Gospel himself at a Low Mass; he chants them at a High Mass; and in a Solemn Mass, the subdeacon chants the Epistle while the deacon chants the Gospel. That’s the extent of variations to be expected in this area. In the Novus Ordo, though, there are numerous options. As is the case in most places, lay people – men or women – are permitted and even expected to read the first two readings. They may do so in their own clothes, or vested in something such as an alb or a cassock and surplice. Alternatively, the priest himself may read the readings, though this is rarely done. Yet all options would be licit, and all of them could feasibly happen, depending on the desire of the priest.

Then we reach the Eucharistic Prayer. In the Tridentine Mass, the prayer is the Roman Canon. No other options exist, no textual variations exist, and the rubrics are always the same. In the Novus Ordo, not only are there technically ten different prayers (the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayers II-IV, the two Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation, and the Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs – which has four variations), but also, within the Roman Canon, the priest has the option of abbreviating it by omitting most of the saints and all of the “Through Christ our Lord. Amen” conclusions. Thus, there are eleven possible Eucharistic Prayer variations from Novus Ordo to Novus Ordo, while it will always remain the same in the Tridentine Mass.

There are more options I could explore within the Novus Ordo as well, but this is enough to make my point. This doesn’t even bring up options such as having Mass ad orientem or ad populum; English or Latin, or a mix of each; bare altar, or altar with a crucifix and candles; male or female altar servers; Extraordinary Ministers or just the priest distributing Communion; and on and on.

My goal is not to say that options are intrinsically a problem. They can be utilized to good effect, as the Anglican Ordinariate Mass, and some of the Divine Liturgies, demonstrate. But my question is this: have we really rendered the liturgy “nobly simple” by allowing a dizzying plethora of options, which end up making the Mass more of an a la carte menu? Or might the Tridentine Mass have something to teach us in its stable and constant character?

God bless, all.