Catholic worship has been transformed — over two centuries

James Leachman is a Benedictine monk of St Benedict’s Abbey in Ealing, west London. He has written extensively on the liturgy, on Latin, and on liturgical theology. He currently leads the Liturgy Institute, which supports post-graduate instruction, research and scholarly publication in liturgy, as well as work on church architecture, Latin instruction, and a host of other activities. Dom James has been a professor at KU Leuven and at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy in Rome.

To celebrate its 175th anniversary, The Tablet published a series of essays on how Catholic life in Britain has changed. Dom James wrote one of these, titled “Mass Movements”, describing changes in liturgical life in Britain since 1840. The essay seemed highly relevant to our discussions at Pray Tell, and with the kind permission of the The Tablet ( and its publisher, we are reposting it here.

To be sure, modern Catholic Britain has been a special case in liturgical development. The hierarchy was not restored until 1850, and this act provoked a strong anti-Catholic reaction. Leachman describes the typical liturgical life in 1840: “…centred on the Sunday Mass. Celebrated in Latin in a simple chapel, it would have rarely been sung or have more than one male altar server, and often would have no Communion for the people.”

But this was about to change. Leachman describes a range of developments from 1840 to the 1950s: in the Mass itself, in the calendar, the breviary and in the devotional and spiritual practices of the faithful. Many of these were promulgated by otherwise very conservative popes. Pope Pius XII, for example, made substantial changes in the Holy Week liturgies; it was these rather than the reforms of Vatican II that provoked much of Evelyn Waugh’s spleen. Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (1947) emphasised liturgical development:

As circumstances and the needs of Christians warrant, public worship is organised, developed and enriched by new rites, ceremonies and regulations, always with the single end in view, “that we may use these external signs to keep us alert, learn from them what distance we have come along the road, and by them be heartened to go on further with more eager step; for the effect will be more precious the warmer the affection which precedes it.” (§22, quoting St Augustine)

From time immemorial the ecclesiastical hierarchy has exercised this right in matters liturgical. It has organized and regulated divine worship, enriching it constantly with new splendour and beauty, to the glory of God and the spiritual profit of Christians. What is more, it has not been slow – keeping the substance of the Mass and sacraments carefully intact – to modify what it deemed not altogether fitting, and to add what appeared more likely to increase the honour paid to Jesus Christ and the august Trinity, and to instruct and stimulate the Christian people to greater advantage. (§49)

The Church is without question a living organism, and as an organism, in respect of the sacred liturgy also, she grows, matures, develops, adapts and accommodates herself to temporal needs and circumstances, provided only that the integrity of her doctrine be safeguarded. (§59)

I am well aware of the more conservative statements in Mediator Dei – for example, his criticism of what is sometimes termed “archaeologism” in passages such as the following:

… one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive table-form; were he to want black excluded as a colour for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See. (§62)

Conservative or not, Pius XII brought about changes in the Mass, as did his successors. Leachman’s story shows that the liturgy in Britain has developed, maturing, adapting and accommodating itself over time.

And this is true outside of Britain. The liturgy – and the tradition that sings in the liturgy – is alive; in the words of the great historian Jaroslav Pelikan, it is “the living faith of the dead.” Even the Mass preceding the reforms of the Second Vatican Council has continued to adapt, most recently when Pope Benedict XVI modified the Good Friday prayers. There is no such thing as an unchanging “Mass of all time”.

I’ll end as Leachman does, encouraging you to read his article and share your views: “We have come a long way since 1840, but there lies an even more creative road ahead.”


  1. “There is no such thing as an unchanging ‘Mass of all time’.”

    Hmm. Interesting. The Roman Canon was the sole anaphora of our rite for about 1,500 years. That’s the core of the Mass of all time. We had a cycle of readings of almost the same antiquity. And a body of prayers that remained stable during persecutions, plagues, famines, and wars. Lots of beautiful things came to be added on to this Mass, as each generation left its own homage. Then came the 1960s and — well, we know what the 1960s were like.

    1. @Peter Kwasniewski:
      But there is no unchanging ‘Mass of all times,’ – I hope we’re clear on that point.

      Yes the Roman canon dates back some 1,500 years. But there were additions and variations in it well into the Middle Ages. And in the 4th or 5th century when that ancient canon was used in the Roman Rite: how about Prayers at Foot of the Altar? Nope, didn’t exist yet. Nor the introit, nor the Kyrie, nor the Gloria. Not yet part of the Roman rite. Tridentine offertory prayers? Sorry, they didn’t exist for most of the history of the Roman rite. Did the pope genuflect, or elevate the Host and Chalice at the consecration? No, not for nearly another 1,000 years – he prayed the canon straight through with no such gestures. No Agnus Dei yet. No altar rail, no kneeling for Communion. No withdrawal of chalice, for laity only received under both forms. No Last Gospel. Communion bread? Big loaf, leavened, no little unleavened hosts. Language of Roman liturgy in 4th century? Same Latin for canon as for the sermon – just let that sink in! The preaching was in the same language as the canon, the vernacular of the people.

      And most important of all, as Grillo has made clear elsewhere on this site: the Mass in the 4th century, like the Mass of Vatican II, was an act of the people (e.g. they sang a vernacular responsorial psalm refrain, there was no ‘gradual’ yet by the schola – just reflect on the ecclesiology implicit in that!), and the Mass had not yet undergone its Carolingian transformation into a clerical drama that the people attended, prayed at, were inspired by, perhaps loved, but did not participate directly in.

      So if you’re hoping we all can go back to the way it always was, … dream on.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        And wasn’t it prayed aloud, the advent of quiet recitation coming – with resistance – as the people’s tongues migrated from Latin to Romance and then to the descendant vernaculars?

      2. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Yes indeed. But it must be admitted, silent canon arose very soon thereafter, and I believe it was setting in in Rome even in c. 6th century when the people still understood and spoke Latin. So at least part of the motivation must have been a rising misunderstanding of priest during Eucharistic Prayer as quasi-magical shaman (to put it very colloquially).

      3. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        The average practicing Catholic has no idea that the Mass of the 4th century was different from the Tridentine Mass of the 20th century. None. I didn’t realize this.

        In hindsight the church, both in the immediate aftermath of the council, as well as today, should have stressed the return to the historical norm.

        I see very little if any defense of the Pauline Mass anywhere on the net—which is actually how I found this site.

      4. @DJ Corlew:
        Yes, there is a common internet story that the Mass was virtually unchanged from very early on (the Last Supper?) until 1969, when Everything Went Wrong.

        But it isn’t so.

        As for “defence of the Pauline Mass”, I’m not sure that it requires defending. The popes from Paul VI through Francis, have used it for virtually every public celebration.

        Yes, there are critics who say that these popes — and the thousands of bishops, abbots, cardinals, priests who have used the Mass of Paul VI exclusively — are wrong, that they have been misled by the popes, who were in turn misled by Abp Bugnini, etc. But Bugnini himself was clearly influenced by Pope Pius XII, not to mention the liturgical movement that started in the late 19th century.

        So it’s possible that all these people were wrong. So how far do we turn back the dial? Before 1969? Before the changes to the Holy Week liturgy? Before the introduction of the dialogue Mass in the 1920s?

        The more plausible view, and the best defence, if one is needed, is that the inspired voice of the Church — hierarchy and people — has been clear, for a long time now. And this reasonable position can be held without attacking or rejecting either the Pauline Mass (as revised several times since 1969) or the Mass of John XIII (as revised by Benedict XVI).

      5. @DJ Corlew:
        I have to comment on your statement:
        “In hindsight the church, both in the immediate aftermath of the council, as well as today, should have stressed the return to the historical norm.”
        I was very interested in liturgy, even as a very young teenager. I clearly remember being taught how the chenges were not so much changes as they were a return to the ancient liturgy of the Church. I believe what was said was that we have come full circle to rediscover the original intent. All through high school and college and beyond both in catechsis and training, many teachers and pastors stressed the renewed understanding of liturgy with an honest acknowledgment of the constant development throughout the entire history of the Church.
        I love the latin mass. I sang it with joy and prayed it with conviction. I still find it beautiful and inspiring. And… I thank God every Sunday for Vatican II and the movement of the Holy Spirit during that council.

  2. The article was a great survey but had very little that could be said to distinctively describe English/British liturgical praxis – or for that matter, parish praxis. It focused more on an overview of the general reforms in the Church and could easily have been written about another country. It thus ignores some nuances and complexities. J.D. Crichton’s “English Catholic Worship” (admittedly, a much larger work) paints a more detailed and interesting picture of the variations (as he and other contributors saw it) in Catholic worship, upto the beginnings of the revised liturgy

  3. I don’t believe Leachman to be correct when he implies that hand missals were the exception rather than the rule. Yes, some folk prayed the rosary at Mass, or devotions from The Garden of the Soul, but hand missals became increasingly common throughout the 20th century. Even in a “small” market like England, there were several publishers (the Roman Missal from Burns Oates Washbourne of London, the St Andrew Missal from Laverty of Leeds, etc, etc).

    I agree with Joshua (#4) when he says that the Crichton/Winstone/Ainslie 1979 symposium English Catholic Worship gives a much better guide to what was going on in England and Wales during that 140-year period.

  4. I think that one thing traditionalists do not realise, is that liturgy is like a language. As soon as it starts being used again it does evolve, and this is the case post Summorum Pontificum. At our parish in a Low Mass, the readings are all in the vernacular and the “Leonine Prayers” after Mass have been dropped.The Mass already is different from that experienced prior to Vatican II; something that elderly parishioners sometimes comment on.

  5. I’m curious. Did Pius XII ever experience the changes promulgated in his name? It seems to me that the Vatican Use was not affected by the changes during his reign.

    1. @Brian Duffy:
      I should think he did. The revision of the Easter Vigil took place in 1951, the rest of Holy Week in 1955, simplification of the rubrics also 1955. Pius XII died in 1958.

  6. There is some talk that St John XXIII actually reverted back to the former usage for Easter but I haven’t been able to confirm this.

    1. @Brendan O’Keeffe:
      Indeed, there is some evidence of this in various photographs from the period (e.g. Pope S. John carrying the Host back to the altar on Good Friday). How extensive this was is unknown to me, but it is not purely apocryphal.

  7. The vast majority of traditionalists do not hold an ignorant view that the Mass was virtually unchanged since very early on. The notion that we think Jesus strolled into the upper room in a fiddle back and sang a Latin High Mass is insulting. Nothing Fr Ruff wrote about the history of the Mass is surprising – I’ve read those facts many times via traditionalist and ROTR sources.

    I’d say the idea that the old Mass is a “Mass of all time” has less to do with the idea that the Mass was unchanging and more to do with the idea that it changed over time rather than very very suddenly. It is more akin to comparing the old Mass to an ancient house lovingly cared for and added to over time by all its occupants vs a new house built by one generation that borrows some design elements from the ancient house while claiming it is more true to the original design of the ancient house it was built to replace.

    1. @Jack Wayne:

      You’d be surprised, though, how many traditionalists, especially the younger ones, think that Jesus used Latin at the Last Supper. I don’t know where they get that idea, and they refuse to listen to history.

      1. @Paul Inwood:
        I probably would be surprised, since I interact with traditionalists quite a bit and have never encountered anyone who thinks that, or who refuses to listen to history when they do think incorrect things (most seem like eager sponges wanting to suck up as much knowledge as they can, if anything). How would such people explain that the Greek kyrie is a holdover from when liturgy was celebrated in Greek, for example?

        At any rate, if the major anti-traditionalist argument is that we’re all a bunch of dumb bunnies sticking our fingers in our ears and going “lalalalala” when confronted with historical facts, then those of us who support the EF have nothing to worry about.

      2. @Paul Inwood:
        How many?

        More typical appears to be accepting at face value the overlay of analogical/symbolic meanings (or rationalizations) that were laid over the ritual after their development as if those were the reasons for the developments.

      3. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Now I would say that this IS common – traditionalists love symbolism.

        I would say another common fault of (typically older) traditionalists is resisting things that are positive developments and in-keeping with the 20th century liturgical movement, but that are negatively associated with the post-Vatican II reform. I would say this is a difference between younger and older traditionalists and comes from having to live during the indult days.

  8. Jack, I think that a critical word in DJ Corlew’s first comment is “internet”; for whatever reason, both “progressives” and “traditionalists” seem to express more polarized views on blogs and in comment boxes than they do in person … this blog being the exception that proves the rule, of course!

    As for symbolism: I know plenty of “progressives” who love symbolism as well. The debate seems to revolve around which symbols are legitimate developments and which are not; which symbols should be added and which removed.

    As quoted above from Mediator Dei:

    [The Church] has not been slow – keeping the substance of the Mass and sacraments carefully intact – to modify what it deemed not altogether fitting, and to add what appeared more likely to increase the honour paid to Jesus Christ and the august Trinity. (§49)

    At Mass this Sunday — a very “progressive” Mass at a Boston church but with some very “traditional” music; in the whole, though, a Mass so lovely that it moved me to tears — the children came forward to lay gifts of food, boxes of cereal and cans of various sorts, on the altar steps, surrounding the priest who was chatting with them and encouraging them, going completely “off the book”. Good symbols or bad? How about burying the Alleluia?

    I think if we can agree that the liturgy does develop, has developed, will continue to develop, there’s hope for a more productive conversation around all this.

    1. @Jonathan Day:
      Much of that can be fine. It’s the awesome baptisms that can get grate upon repetition; itchiness with ritual has the unintended effect of drawing more attention to the celebrant’s caprice. I suspect this is a reason the Church moved away from encouraging improvisational liturgy – it’s not merely a control issue.

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