What most people call the “Latin Mass” seems to have a bewildering number of names and many of them are imprecise for one reason or another. Perhaps surprisingly ”Latin Mass” is the least precise of all. But another label, Tridentine, can be used by some naysayers in a way that is downright troublesome.
Among the many names for it, calling the liturgy conducted in Latin and pursuant to the 1962 Missal the “Extraordinary Form” is certainly accurate since Pope Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum formalized the term, along with the term Ordinary Form for the form of the Mass commonly seen today. Pope Francis seems to prefer calling the Extraordinary Form the Vetus Ordo, or Old Form, which lines up nicely given that the Ordinary Form is also called the Novus Ordo, or New Form. So, regardless of any possible connotations, the benefit of the labels Extraordinary Form or Vetus Ordo for the so-called Latin Mass is that they are precise, accurate and used by popes. Many, though, prefer to call the Traditional Latin Mass/Old Form/Extraordinary Form the “Tridentine Mass,” which, historically speaking, can be both right and wrong, and which is often a springboard to an increasingly common and often deliberate fallacy.
First, though, what’s the problem with calling it the far more popular term, the “Latin Mass”? In short, the problem is that almost every Catholic Mass celebrated in the West right now is the Latin Mass—new, old, whether it\’s presented in English, French or Spanish, it is a Latin Mass. The Roman Rite of the Church, which is to say the churches not including those of the Eastern or other rites, not only share a history of Latin, but indeed the Church\’s official language today is Latin (see generally Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 36 and Veterum Sapientia).
To demonstrate this firsthand only requires looking back to events in recent memory. In the United States, the terminology of the Ordinary Form of the Mass was revised in 2011 so that it would more fully comport with the original Latin. If you attend Mass you no doubt remember the change in some of the language. Moreover, Lumen Fidei, released by Pope Francis in July, like all encyclicals, is in Latin, with all other versions being translations; the original of the Canon Law is in Latin, as are many other official documents, including formal correspondence from the Vatican to the other nations of the world. This is because the language of the Roman Catholic Church is, right this very moment, Latin, and its documents are then allowed to be translated into the many local languages (that is, the “vernacular”) within the Church and without. So the ordinary, regular, new Mass, the one we in the United States are used to hearing in English, is a Latin Mass translated into our “vernacular”. It, too, in its original form, is a Latin Mass. If you put the word “Traditional” in front of “Latin Mass” you get closer to the truth, but to call the Extraordinary Form of the Mass the “Latin Mass” as a way to distinguish it from the Ordinary Form, is merely a convenient bit of nonsense.
The common fallback, then, is to call the Traditional Latin Mass the “Tridentine Mass.” This is done within the Church and is completely accurate, if used with precision. But it also can be used to deliberately set up a fallacy to minimize the history the Traditional Latin Mass within the Church. To understand this requires looking back to the Council of Trent itself.
With the rise of Protestantism in the late Middle Ages there came a liberality in religious practice. Princes wanted power without having to acknowledge a Church over them, kings wanted the lands and valuables acquired by the religious orders in their countries which were not, at the time, under their control. They embraced the reformation, and within few decades everything Catholic seemed to be turned on its head. In such an age, the liturgy, the doctrines, and the traditions of the Church itself were questioned. Declared protestants and particular nobles seeking power mocked the practices of the Church, and even those faithful to the Church began to lose sight of which essentials had to be preserved and which could be revised. Seeing the need to protect the Church and its ancient traditions, a council was called in Trento, Italy. This, in English, would be called the Council of Trent. It was an important conference that had much to say on a wide range of topics, responding to important issues of the day, clarifying matters, fighting back some of the wilder claims. In many ways the job of the Council was to clarify what was changeable, revisable, or in need of correction and what was not. In order to protect what could not be changed or lost, the Council had to formalize many things that to that point had been informal, or simply tradition.
The documents and proclamations produced by the Council were described as “Tridentine,” derived from the name of the town and the council itself. See generally, Council of Trent at Wikipedia. As a result of the Council, in 1570 Pope St. Pius V issued a revised catechism, missal and the Apostolic Constitution Quo Primum, requiring the use of the historic Latin Mass, with a few revisions. Quo Primum required that any other Order of Mass which did not have 200 years of consistent use by 1570 would cease. Old forms, which had simply fallen out of use, such as from the Celtic Rite, were to cease. Others, such as that of the Dominican Rite, still in practice and with the required history, could continue. But everyone else in the West was to use the same form of the Mass. This version came to be referred to as the Tridentine Mass.
So, first, it is important to note that the Council of Trent did not change the language of the Mass to Latin. It had already been Latin in most of the Western World for almost a millenium. Further, the Council did not completely overhaul the Mass. Instead, it was revised and formalized to protect it from the uncontrolled excesses during the age of the Reformation. But the essentials of the ancient Mass were far older than anything that could be called Tridentine.
Indeed, it could certainly be argued that Peter and Paul’s coming to and dying in Rome secured the fact that in the future Latin would be the language of the eternal Church. It is undeniably a fact that the Mass was in Aramaic and Greek before it was in Latin, even in Rome itself. But, inevitably, the Mass would come to be in Latin. Later the most common translation of the Bible (St. Jerome’s Vulgate) would then be in Latin (around 400 A.D.), and documents written within, and for, the Church would be in Latin. Without question, by about 600 A.D., Pope St. Gregory the Great had formalized the Mass in Latin in the West. This means that the Traditional Latin Mass, now the Extraordinary Form, has been around, admittedly with revisions and additions, for over 1,400 years, not just the 440 years since Trent.
Which brings us full circle to the truth that Latin is still, right now, the language of the Church. In 1963, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, was promulgated by Pope Paul VI, allowing for Mass in the vernacular instead of Latin when a territorial decree permits the exception, see Sacrosanctum Concilium §36. Permission was obtained by the U.S. Bishops in May of 1964 to use the vernacular, which began almost immediately (causing no small amount of confusion). The new Order of Mass followed with the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum in 1969. (For a bit of the history of the development of the Novus Ordo see The Mass of Paul VI at Wikipedia.)
These days, those with an incomplete picture compare Vatican II to the Council of Trent, suggesting they are the same because both changed the missal. The result of the Council of Trent, however, was protection of the timeless traditional liturgy. The results of Vatican II are more complicated.
Vatican II, after all, produced wise and inspired documents, in keeping with the great traditions and history of the Church. The media coverage, and the “Spirit of Vatican II” (which people would, and still do, refer to when they want to support personal conclusions not found in the documents of the council), led to teachings and practices that clearly had nothing to do with what Vatican II was about. The Mass was no different—no document of Vatican II suggested the complete abandonment of Latin in the Masses of the Church around the globe. (Quite the contrary. Again see Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 36.) They did, though, allow for the use of the vernacular with permission, and soon afterwards the Novus Ordo was established.
To say that the Novus Ordo, or Ordinary Form, which is to say the Order of Mass seen at most Churches today, is less valid than the Traditional Latin Mass (as some calling themselves Traditionalists do) is to step onto a path that points out of the true Church. To conclude that Vatican II itself was something other than a great council of the Church, in keeping with its greatest traditions, also puts one on that same perilous path. The documents themselves show otherwise. Conclusions of this type, for the very few who have made them, represent one extreme.
There is, though, another extreme. To suggest that Vatican II addressed the sacred liturgy the same way that the Council of Trent did is factually wrong. To suggest that the Order of Mass, or the language of Mass, is frequently changed in a dramatic way, is a fallacy. To claim that the traditional Mass was Tridentine, as a way of minimizing it from something ancient to something more recent, is disingenuous if not deceptive. To be certain the Extraordinary Form, as it is now called, was formalized at Trent, but it was not invented there.
Just as it is wrong to suggest that the Novus Ordo Mass in the vernacular is less valid than the Traditional Latin Mass, it is equally wrong to suggest that the Traditional Latin Mass is anything other than an ancient and precious part of the Church itself, which the Church should protect, as indeed is mandated by the Magisterium of the Church.
In the end, the Traditional Latin Mass is a great treasure of the Church. It has survived the assaults of tyrants and barbarians, protestors and reformers, complete outsiders and officials within the Church itself. It is, in this age, being recognized again for its great beauty, by young and old alike. It has stood for countless ages, and, despite assaults, and however you refer to it, its long history is undoubtedly just the beginning. It can proudly be called Tridentine, so long as its long history is acknowledged instead of minimized by the people doing so.