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What’s Past Is Prologue . . .

Around the time Pope Benedict XVI released Summorum Pontificum, which expanded the use of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite of the Mass, I attended a Catholic conference at the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in Florissant, Missouri. The shrine boasted a lovely pre-Vatican II altar that inspired a conversation on the Tridentine Mass with an elderly lady during one of the breaks.

The conversation was enjoyable and spirited, with reminiscences from her on what the Mass was like when she was a girl and with a confession from me, the post-Vatican II convert, that while I appreciated the old Latin liturgy I wasn’t particularly attached to it. When it was time to head back in for the next talk, my new friend suddenly turned to me and asked if I’d like a “prayer book” on the Tridentine Mass. Thinking she meant a paper pamphlet, I wasn’t especially interested, but I could not hurt her feelings. I smiled and said, “Sure!” I figured I’d stuff the pamphlet in my purse, skim through it when I had some time, and discreetly dispose of it when I returned home.

So, I followed her to her car where she had the prayer book. She rummaged around for a few moments and then turned and handed me the gift she’d had in mind. I stared in shock at a leatherbound St. Joseph Daily Missal that had been published in 1961. A cracked and dirty plastic cover had preserved the missal in remarkable condition. I asked the lady if she really meant for me to keep what was obviously a far more significant prayer book than I thought she had in mind. Yes, she wanted me to keep it. She had two conditions. She wrote her name in the missal so I could pray for her, and she asked me to take the missal to a Tridentine Mass. I happily agreed and thanked her profusely—and I have indeed fulfilled those conditions in the years since.

I may not have a deep interest in attending the extraordinary form liturgy on any more than an occasional basis, but I have always been fascinated by old books. For that reason alone I was thrilled to thumb through this missal, likely one of the last published in the United States before the Second Vatican Council. Two features of the missal snagged my attention.

When I entered the Church in 1996, the first missal I bought was a St. Joseph Sunday Missal. There wasn’t a lot of similarity between that missal and the pre-Vatican II missal I’d been given, the most notable difference being that the old missal was on a one-year cycle with daily and Sunday Masses in one volume while the new missal contained only the Sunday liturgies. But there was one striking similarity: Each had a liturgical calendar. The new Sunday missal had dates stretching from 1985 through 2002. The old daily missal’s dates were from 1962 to 2000. The compilers of the missal published before Vatican II obviously expected the Mass to remain largely the same through the close of the second millennium. They could barely imagine how drastically it would shift within that very decade.

But the liturgists responsible for compiling the old missal did know change was coming. They may not have realized the missal they were putting together would so quickly become obsolete, but they anticipated some change in the liturgy and were excited. Here is how the Preface to the old daily missal begins:

The rapid growth of the modern liturgical movement  received a new and salutary impetus from His Holiness Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical letter “Mediator Dei” of November 29, 1947, on the Sacred Liturgy. He clearly indicates the importance of lay participation in the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: “It is desirable that all the faithful should be aware that to participate in the Eucharistic Sacrifice is their chief duty and supreme dignity, and that, not in an inert and negligent fashion, giving way to distractions and day-dreaming, but with such earnestness and concentration that they may be united as closely as possible with the High Priest, according to the Apostle [Paul], ‘Have this in mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2, 5). And together with Him and through Him let them make their oblation, and in union with Him let them offer up themselves.”

The changes to the liturgy following Vatican II did not drop from the sky, however startling they were at that time to Catholics, many of whom thought the age-old ways would be followed forever—or at least until the dawn of the third millennium. But there had been a renewal of the liturgy taking shape since the early years of the twentieth century, and signposts were planted through the decades leading up to the release of the Mass of Pope Paul VI. What had gone before paved the way for what was to come. Past was prologue, as Shakespeare said.

And so it is now, in these last couple of weeks since Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world with his announcement that he would renounce the papacy. In retrospect there were signs that indicated the direction, but nothing that could really prepare the Catholic world (or the non-Catholic world) for the reality. Perhaps now we Catholics, who never experienced the radical changes to the liturgy promulgated by a pope in 1969, will be able to feel some empathy for those Catholics who never could quite accept the new liturgy—now that we are having to face accepting the sudden renouncement of the beloved pope who restored the extraordinary form.


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