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A Short History of the Roman Mass

This history of the Roman Mass is a summary of A Short History of the Mass by Michael Davies, which is itself an abbreviated version of Adrian Fortescue's highly respected The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy [1912]. It mainly covers the history of the Roman rite from Apostolic times to the mid-20th century. More recent changes to the mass are discussed in more detail on the Order of the Mass page.

First Sources for Eucharistic Liturgy

First source for the Christian Eucharistic liturgy is the account of last supper in Gospels. The "Words of Institution" which are the heart of the consecration, are based on last supper texts. A definite pattern for celebration of the Eucharist had developed within two decades of death of Christ.

The Gospel narrative outlines the essentials of the Eucharistic sacrifice. The Lord took bread, gave thinks, blessed and broke bread, gave it to his disciples, took wine, gave thanks, Gave them to drink.

  • Offertory: Bread and Wine Brought to the altar, Celebrant gives thanks
  • Consecration: Blessed bread and says word of consecration Blesses wine and consecrates
  • Communion: Bread is broken, consumed by the celebrant and given to people

The earliest account of a Eucharistic celebration is found in St. Paul's 1st Corinthians 11:23-27, written sometime before the Gospel accounts were in circulation.

"Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread. [24] And giving thanks, broke, and said: Take ye, and eat: this is my body, which shall be delivered for you: this do for the commemoration of me. [25] In like manner also the chalice, after he had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me." (Words of Jesus: Institutional narrative) [26] "For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come." (Instructions of Paul: Anamnesis)

This passage is rich in doctrine. The text immediately following Jesus's words "Do this in memory of me" explicitly identifies the Eucharist with the Passion of Christ. Eucharistic prayers generally follow the same pattern with the Anamnesis (words associating the Eucharist with Christ's passion, resurrection, and ascension) immediately following the "Words of Institution"

Other sources confirm that by the second century, the Eucharist meal was celebrated by Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire. In the second century A.D. Pliny the Younger reports on the activities of the Christians:

"They were accustomed to meet on a certain day to meet before daybreak and sing a hymn to Christ as God. They bound themselves to an oath to not do any crime. The departed then met again to eat food."

Development of Ceremonies in first Centuries

Early worshippers met in homes that had a large dining room or Cenacle. Eventually prayers and formulas developed into ceremonies, and liturgical books were known to exist by the 4th century.

From an early time lessons were read from the Bible before the Eucharistic meal, and Psalms and Lord's Prayer were known by heart. The Kiss of peace, and several other common prayers and responses, including Amen, Alleluia, Lord have mercy, Thanks be to God, Forever and ever, and Blessed Be were inherited from the Jews.

Eventually liturgical actions became ritualized. For example, washing of the hands was always done before a sacrifice, and Lavabo or Psalm 25 ("I will wash my hands among the innocent") became associated with the ritual.

End of Persecution

During time of persecution, brevity and simplicity in the Eucharistic celebration were valued. But the end of persecution had consequences for public worship. Christians soon began meeting in larger buildings with larger congregations. Once Christian worship was publically supported, Church furnishings became more elaborate and enrichment of vessels, vestments associated with mass occurred. Liturgical rites expanded, especially in the east, and solemn professions began.

Writings of many of the Church fathers regarding the liturgy exist from early times, but the Greek rite developed well before the Roman rite and we know little about the Latin liturgy before the 4th century. Greek speaking Church fathers who left us detailed descriptions of the rites they celebrated include: Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Basil the Great, and John Chrysostrom. The liturgies celebrated by the latter two, St. Basil and St. John Chysostrom, still form the basis of many Eastern rite liturgies.

More detailed information about the history and traditions of the Eastern rites is included in Unit 8. For our discussion of the Roman rite, it is only necessary to mention the influence the Eastern rites had upon the Roman rite. For this reason we need to look more closely at the ancient and now obsolete Gallican rite, which is thought to have been a Latinized version of the Eastern liturgy.

The Gallican Rite

In the early centuries of the Church, there were three primary Patriarchates: Rome, Antioch and Alexandria. Each had their own liturgy, and in the east, most sees followed a rite similar to that of the regional Patriarchate. The Antiochene and Alexandrian rites are therefore the Parent rites of most Eastern liturgies.

In the west, things were more complicated. Until the 8th century, all agreed that Rome was the leading patriarchate in the West, but most Western Churches did not follow the Roman Rite. Instead they followed a variation of the Gallican rite, a Latinized version of the Antiochene Rite. It is thought that the Gallican rite originated in southern France in the second century and spread from there.

Local liturgies based on the Gallican rite were used in Milan, Gaul, Brittany, Ireland, England, and Spain throughout the early Middle Ages. And over the years certain prayers and practices that originated among the Gallican family of liturgies were incorporated into the Roman Rite.

Most prominent forms of the Gallican liturgy were the Ambrosian Rite in Milan and the Mozarab Rite in Spain (Toledo). The Celtic Rites of Ireland were probably also a family of liturgies descended from the Gallican rite.

In the first centuries of Christendom, the diocese of Milan was of secondary of importance to that of Rome in the west, and it is likely that it was the Ambrosian variant of the Gallican rite that most influenced the Roman liturgy.

By the tenth century there was pressure throughout Western Europe to conform to the Roman Rite. During the Middle Ages many local liturgies were replaced with the Roman rite, which this time included some of the prayers of Gallican liturgies.

Little remains of the prayer books documenting most Gallican rites used in Western Europe before the tenth century. One exception are those of the Mozarab rite. These were specifically preserved by the great Spanish Cardinal Ximenes in the late 1500s. He saw to it that liturgical books for the Mozarab rite were re-published and preserved, and it is largely due to his efforts that the rite is still celebrated today.

Origen of the Roman Rite

Although little is known with certainty about the Roman rite during the first centuries, we know that parts of the mass were inherited from Jewish ceremonies and one of these was the reading of the names of the living and dead for whom prayers were being offered. This custom was dropped by the time of the Tridentine mass but re-instituted in the post-Vatican II mass as "Prayers of the Faithful".

It is also known from tradition that lectors read lessons from the gospels and epistles before the Eucharistic service and that the selections of which gospel passages for specific masses became regularized over time. St. Jerome is thought to have been commissioned to select the Epistles and Gospels used on Sundays throughout the year, which have been used ever since in the Roman calendar.

In the late 300s, St. Ambrose published a book for newly baptized Christians called De Sacramentanis that included a fourth century version of the Canon of the Mass. The canon of Ambrose was somewhat shorter but identical in essence to the Tridentine Canon. This proves that the Traditional Roman Canon, which differs significantly from the Eastern Anaphoras, was in existence in its essential form by the fourth century.

Earliest complete Liturgical Books

The earliest Latin Sacramentaries are the source of much of our knowledge about the early Roman rite. It is not known when the Roman rite began to be celebrated in Latin instead of Greek, but there were few translations of scriptures or liturgical books in the first few centuries, so the transition from Greek to Latin was probably gradual.

Latin is naturally a more terse language than Greek so the Latin version of the liturgy evolved in a more austere form that the Greek. In its oldest known form the Latin rite was shorter and less ornate than contemporary Eastern rites.

Three of the earliest and most complete Roman Sacramentaries, on which our knowledge of the prayers and order of the Roman rite is based, are:

  • Leonine Sacramentary (dated from ~450, St. Leo the Great) — Oldest Latin Sacramentary, but Incomplete
  • Gelasian Sacramentary (dated from~500, Pope Gelasius) — Oldest Latin Sacramentary that that is mostly complete. Contains the Canon and complete masses including feasts arrange according to the liturgical year.
  • Gregorian Sacramentary (dated from~600, St. Gregory the Great) — Revision of the Gelasian Sacramentary that was simplified and arranged more orderly.

Gregory the Great's contribution to the Roman liturgy went far beyond reorganization of the Sacramentary. He also modified the Lectionary and codified Gregorian chant. His principle lasting work was the definitive arrangement of the Roman Canon, which was kept intact, with minor expansions, from the 6th century to the 20th century.

Gallican Additions to the Roman Rite

At the time of Gregory the Great the only other great patriarchate in the west was Toledo which celebrated the Mozarab Rite. But within a century, Spain fell to the Moslems, leaving Rome the sole Patriarchate in the west. From the 9th century on, especially under Charlemagne, the Roman rite spread throughout Europe, while incorporating some traditional 'Gallican' prayers.

In about 785 Pope Adrian sent a Roman mass book, based on the Gregorian Sacramentary to Charlemagne. It was Charlemagne's intent to standardize the liturgy throughout his realm with the help of Alcuin. Alcuin received Adrian's mass book and used it to create a mixed-rite version based mainly on the Roman liturgy, supplemented with parts of the Gallican rite. In which the Gallican influence on the Roman rite can still be found are in the longer, more ornate liturgies of Holy Week, Palm Sunday, and Candlemas.

By the 11th century, Alcuin's Gallicanized Roman Rite had become the standard in the West, with the exceptions of the Mozarab rite in Spain and the Ambrosian rite in Milan.

Pre-Tridentine changes to the liturgy

Very few changes in the Roman Rite occurred since it was promulgated throughout Europe by Charlemagne during the 9th century and the 20th century. Some of these changes were:

  • Prayers at the Foot of the Alter preceding mass were not formally adopted into the universal mass until after Trent, but they were added to many local masses over time.
  • The Gloria was introduced gradually, first in Bishop's masses and solemn feasts.
  • Other traditions incorporated in the Roman Rite from Gallican influences include Recitation of the Creed, the Offertory Prayers, the Lavabo, and the Last Gospel.

Protestant Break with Tradition

Prayers added later to the Roman Rite were some of the first to be abolished by the Protestant reformers. These include the Prayers before the Altar, the Confiteor (because it called upon Mary and the Saints), the Offertory Prayers (because of their sacrificial meaning), and the final blessing after communion. These were removed because they were incompatible with Protestant theology.

The Principle of 'lex orandi, lex credendi' (The law of prayer is the law of belief) speaks of the importance of prayers that reflect creeds. The liturgy of the Church should be a guide to her teaching, and the Protestant Heresies were revealed by what they omitted from the Mass.

"In older times local churches were permitted to ADD new prayers but they were not permitted to subtract or modify traditional prayers. . . . Hence Cranmer, in taking this unprecedented course acted with inconceivable rashness."

Development of the Low Mass

The traditional low mass evolved as a simplification of the high mass, not the other way around. The Orthodox Church has no equivalent to a low mass.

Until the Middle Ages only one mass was said per day in each religious community, with all deacons and assistants concelebrating. Eventually, as mass books became more available, the practice of every priest saying his own mass arose. This change had many far-reaching affects, including changes to Church architecture and Canon law.

Once priests began saying daily masses the practice arose of doing masses with specific intentions, sometimes with a stipend, especially for requiem masses. Chantries were chapels specifically endowed for masses for the dead. Guilds sponsored masses for their dead members. Masses increased to such an extent that they were curbed by Canon law to one per day, except on Sundays or feast days. Churches were built with many altars and the need for an abridged service led to the low mass. The increased popularity of the low mass led to the Missal.

When priests said the whole mass himself, both the priestly prayers from the Sacramentary, and the lessons from the Lectionary, he needed to have them in one book. Missals became popular and spread widely under Innocent III. He compiled the Missale Secoundum Consueltudineum Momane Curaie, for members of the Curia who had to travel. As an authorized Roman missal spread, it did much to make the Roman Rite more popular everywhere. The Roman missal was adopted by the newly formed Franciscan Order and became so popular that Sacramentaries faded into disuse in many areas.

Mediaeval Uses and the Importance of Printing

During the Middle Ages local dioceses frequently added their own prayers. For example, the Sarum Rite, widely used in England, was not an independent rite, but a variation of the Roman Rite.

The freedom of diocese to add to the rite was ended by Pius V's Tridentine mass. He eliminated many of local variations and insisted on uniformity. The Council of Trent's distrust of liturgical innovation was largely due to the abuses of the Protestants.

The Pronouncements of Trent were an important factor in standardizing the liturgy, but an even more important factor was the introduction of printing. The widespread availability of the Missal of Pius V throughout Europe assured its nearly universal adoption.

Reforms of Pius V

The Missal of Pius V was published in 1570 following the Council of Trent. The necessity of a new, uniform missal arose as a result of the chaos and havoc visited upon the liturgy by Protestant 'Reformers'. Protestants made essential changes to the liturgy to reflect their rejection of the idea of the Real Presence, the Eucharistic sacrifice, and the Veneration of saints. They substituted prayers suitable for a 'communion service' that were a complete break with liturgical traditions.

Because of the abuses of the Protestants, the Council of Trent recognized the need for a universal and unchanging liturgy. The main purpose of the Tridentine mass was not to add or subtract anything from the essential rite, but to strip regional variations and prayers recently added for local observance. The main prayers removed were "sequences" for particular feasts, and local processions and ceremonies.

The top priority of the Council of Trent was to codify Catholic Eucharistic teaching because this was an area where the "reformers" had done the greatest damage. Protecting the Divine Sacrament of the Eucharist was essential to Church unity. The proclamations of Pius V accompanying the release of the Missal of 1570 marked the first time a Council had resorted to legislation to control liturgy or to impose an unchangeable rite of mass.

Antiquity of the Mass

The Tridentine Mass should not be considered a new mass. It is not different in any substantial way from the Pre-Tridentine Mass. The Missal of 1570 was very similar to the Roman Missal of 1474, which was based entirely Innocent III's missal of 1216, which was in turn based on the usages of Gregory the Great [~600].

The Tridentine Roman Canon is the oldest and most venerable example of all the Eucharistic prayers in use today. It is older than any known eastern rite.

Revisions after 1570

There have been revisions since the reform of St. Pius V, but until the changes which followed Vatican II none were of significance. In some cases changes that are cited as "reforms" were mainly concerned with restoring the Missal to the form codified by St. Pius V when deviations appeared. The reforms of Popes Clement VIII (1604) and Urban VIII (1634) were of this nature. In addition:

  • Pope Pius X made a revision of the music. The Roman Gradual of 1906 contained restored forms of the chants sung by the celebrant and were therefore printed in the Missal.
  • Pope Pius XII authorized several revisions in the 1950s, chiefly concerned with the calendar. He restored the Easter Vigil from the morning to the evening of Holy Saturday and reformed several the Holy Week prayers.
  • Pope John XXIII also made several reforms concerned principally with the calendar.

In none of these reforms was any significant change made to the Ordinary of the Mass.

Post Vatican II Changes

"In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas"
(In necessary things, unity, in doubtful things, liberty, in all things, charity.)

The Post Vatican II changes to the Roman Liturgy were extensive. They included not only changes to the Order of the Mass, but also to the rubrics, liturgical calendar, and Canon law. Changes to the prayers and organization of the Roman liturgy are covered on the Order of the Mass page.

The modifications to the liturgy enacted after Vatican II were significant, but it was changes to the rubrics, atmosphere, and presentation of the mass, rather than textual changes that most affected the character of Catholic worship. Some of innovations associated with the new mass include:

  • Usage of the vernacular instead of Latin, renaming of common prayers;
  • Significant changes in the Church calendar, three year liturgical cycle;
  • Prayers of the canon read aloud instead of silently with priest facing the congregation;
  • Use of lay lectors and extraordinary ministers; Communion in the hand;
  • New music guidelines and hymnals; Guitars, pianos, choirs in the sactuary;
  • High altars, communion rails, tabernacles removed from sanctuaries

None of these changes affected the sacramental validity of the mass. However, the flurry of innovations significantly changed the atmosphere of the mass and many of the changes were controversial. Unfortunately, the dramatic changes to the mass tended to confuse the faithful and divide Catholics into "modernist" and "traditionalist" factions.

Well intentioned Catholics may have had valid concerns with the traditional liturgy that might have been resolved over time in a gradual and charitable manner. A truly Catholic understanding of human nature and respect for tradition could have guided the process of introducing incremental changes over time, but that is not what happened. Instead the changes to the liturgy were abruptly altered and regretably politicized with the effect of dividing the laity and weakening thethe Church.

Unity is one of the marks of the true Church of Christ. Both laxity and excessive rigorism can be used by enemies of the Church to confuse and divide Christians. Faithful Catholics should seek unity and work to heal divisions rather than to allow differences having to do with the liturgy to divide us. God Bless both faithful Novus Ordo and Traditionalist Catholics.