March 2020 Print

Modernity and the New Mass

By Fr. Philippe Toulza

Editor’s Note: The following is taken from the Symposium on the Mass of Paul VI: Diagnosing a Reform, held on March 2019. The oral character has been retained throughout.

Not many names have been given to the reality this symposium is discussing. We call it the “New Mass” and of course this name is bound to disappear. It is also called the “Mass of Paul VI” and this name will probably last forever. There are not many other names for it. But it ought to be called the “Modern Mass.”

What Do We Mean By “Modern”?

Naturally, this name, unlike the other two, implies a judgment, and this judgment is not shared by all. For when we say that the Mass of Paul VI is modern, we are not using this adjective in an improper sense, the sense we use, for example, when we say that a building or a machine has been modernized; for in this case, “modern” means “recent” and more precisely “benefitting from recent techniques.” Calling the Mass “modern” in this sense of the word would be the same as calling it “new,” an adjective that is already widely used and bereft of any judgment as to its quality. When we say, therefore, that the Mass of Paul VI is modern, we intend to use this adjective in its proper sense, as a correlate of the concept of “modernity.”

In this short talk, that is precisely what I should like to establish: that the Mass of Paul VI is modern. To establish means to prove. The context of a symposium conference is always limited, but it can still suffice sometimes to establish a proposition. In this case, it will not suffice, because it cannot. The proposition that “the Mass of Paul VI is modern” unites the predicate “modern” to the subject “Mass of Paul VI”; and these terms designate two things that are not simple but complex. “Modernity” is complex; it does not consist in a single idea, but in a collection of several ideas, therefore an order of ideas; a disorder, we should say, to be exact. The “Mass of Paul VI,” like any liturgical rite, is also complex: it includes gestures, words, and objects that occur successively one after another; it, too, is a whole. The declaration that the Mass of Paul VI, in all its complexity, deserves to be called “modern,” with the complexity that this notion implies, can only be accomplished rigorously with an amount of time that has not been allotted for this talk.

The Treasure of the Church in the Face of Modernity

To say that “the Mass of Paul VI is modern” is no compliment. It is far more severe than saying an idea or a book is modern, or that a person has modern convictions, because we are speaking of the Mass, the sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, by whom all things were made, by whom men can be saved, in whom all things will come together at the end of the world. This sacrifice was total, because it was mortal, in a word, a true sacrifice; it was total because if in a sense the creature is nothing compared to God this is because in a sense God is everything to the creature; it was total because it was the accomplishment of the ancient sacrifices and is fitting for the entire period of time that remains until the Parousia.

For these reasons, the Church watches with pious care over what Archbishop Lefebvre called the “treasure of the Church,” the Mass, the total, in a way absolute sacrifice that in her eyes is the supreme element of the Church’s treasure. Yes, to say that a Mass can be modern offends Catholic ears. And yet, it is indeed the case.

Modern ideas were born progressively between the 14th and 16th centuries in the Western world, and the Catholic Church has from the start been their principal and avowed enemy; she used against them the means she disposed of thanks to her divine constitution, up until Vatican II. As sociologist Emile Poulat pointed out, the concept of modernity and the adjective modern are rare in the conciliar documents. The major problem the Vatican II Fathers faced was rather that of inaugurating a new relation between the Church and the world; they sought to leave the conflict behind them and to establish more than an armistice, a peace based on shared views. It was not about becoming modern but about making peace with the world; however, what had hitherto provoked war? Modern thought, that presided over the course of the new world. Consequently, it was not with the world as the world that the Church wished to dialogue, but with the world as modern.

We constantly come back to Paul VI’s famous speech at the closing of the Council, and how could we not? It was above all in this speech that he joined hands with modernity. When he promulgated the Novus Ordo Missae four years later, there was no doubt that the mission of this reform of the rite was to incarnate in the Catholic liturgy the new principles that the authorities of the Church were adopting, principles regarding their relations with the world, but also their conception of man and of religion. We can therefore affirm without fear of error that the Mass of Paul VI was the liturgical complement to the Church’s adaptation to the modern world: a reconciliation with the modern world. This is saying a lot, but it is not enough. We cannot do without a definition of modernity if we wish to accomplish the purpose of this talk.

Definition of Modernity

What, then, is modernity? It is, need we repeat, not one idea, but an order of ideas, a doctrine in sum. What is the essence of this doctrine? Allow us to try to synthesize what authors say of it, be they for or against modernity. Modernity is a doctrine on man. What is man in truth? He is something, a substance, we would say in philosophy, finite, therefore created. As a being, as a substance, he resembles God. As finite, as created, he is distinct from God. Now, if we consider him in his relation to the other creatures in the universe, the other created substances, we can say that his superior faculties, intelligence and will, distinguish him from the animals, plants, and minerals. There are therefore three elements that enable us to consider man distinctly: 1, his substance, a finite creature; 2, his intelligence; 3, his free will.

Modernity is a doctrine on man. It therefore has something to say about his substance, about his intelligence, and about his free will.

  1. On his substance, what does it say? That it is great, worthy, superior. Modernity magnifies man. In this respect, it is a form of humanism.
  2. On his intelligence, what does it say? That it is great, worthy, superior. Modernity magnifies reason and science according to modern philosophy.
  3. On man’s freedom, what does it say? That it is great, worthy, superior. Modernity is an apology for freedom and rights.

Can the Church Be Reconciled with Modernity?

For a long time, the Church considered that she did not have the right, to use the terms of Pius IX, to reconcile herself with modernity. She has since changed her tune. Why? The pretext was that there are similarities between modern thought and the Catholic religion.

  1. Modernity affirms the dignity of human nature and of the human person; but the Church also magnifies man; in the earthly paradise, God made Adam the master of all things. In Christianity, there is also a form of humanism, integral humanism.
  2. Modernity upholds the greatness of reason and knowledge. But the Church is also a friend of intelligence, which she marries with the Faith; she has always supported true science.
  3. Modernity exalts man’s freedom and rights. And the Church has never disdained the will; she has always considered that freedom was the sign that man was created in the image and likeness of God.

In fact, these are only similarities. It is true that, like modernity, the Church confesses the dignity of human nature, its intelligence and its free will. But the modern conception of this is essentially contrary to the Catholic religion. Indeed:

  1. Modernity magnifies humanity in a holistic vision that places God in parentheses (agnosticism) and tends to deny Him (atheism). For example, all modern thought necessarily accepts the sovereignty of the people, which disposes the order of politics and legislation sovereignly, absolutely, and independently of any objective order that would impose itself upon humanity, such as the natural and divine order.
  2. Modernity magnifies reason in a rationalistic perspective that, while it does not deny the possibility of Revelation and the supernatural order, refuses to allow the Faith to do anything but restrict itself to the personal, private sphere.
  3. Modernity magnifies freedom in a liberal perspective; man is independent, which means that no law imposes itself upon him by nature or by any authority superior to that of the collectivity.

It is not just a part of modern thought that goes against Catholicism; it is not peripheral, accidental aspects of it; it is its very nature. There is no misunderstanding, they are two entirely opposite viewpoints. This is exactly what we find in the Mass of Paul VI. Yves Chiron has demonstrated that along with Bugnini, Pope Paul VI participated in the work sessions to write the New Mass. The Mass of Paul VI was not only a liturgical disposition to facilitate the pacification of the relations between the Church and the world; it is modern because the standards, gestures and words of which it is composed are, as a whole, modern. They follow modernity’s three major lines of thought: humanism, intelligibility, and freedom. They magnify man, they magnify his reason, they magnify his freedom. They do not remain within the Catholic ambitus in doing so. No, they leave this ambitus behind. Unfortunately, I can only offer you a few arguments.

First Reason: Humanism

Maintaining that sin is a reality diminishes the quality of man. The Mass is less a praise of man and more a praise of God. Why is the Mass a sacrifice? Because the Mass is a praise of God’s greatness. When we pay homage to someone, whom do we glorify? The one to whom we are paying homage. We are not there to glorify ourselves. The centurion who asked Our Lord to heal his sick servant did not say “I am a centurion; I am an officer,” but “I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof.” The humility required in the Mass is what guided the Church to place these words on the lips of the priest, then the faithful, just before Holy Communion. As for the New Mass, it mixes the glorification of man in with the praise of God and honors the profane. It is simply out of place. It is also a modern-spirited glorification.

The change to the “Suscipe Sancte Pater” is the flagship in which we find all this humanism. Here is the old form of the Suscipe prayer:

“Accept, O Holy Father, Almighty and eternal God, this spotless host [Our Lord Jesus Christ], which I, Thine unworthy servant, offer to Thee, my living and true God, to atone for my numberless sins, offenses, and negligence; on behalf of all here present and likewise for all faithful Christians living and dead, that it may profit me and them as a means of salvation to life everlasting. Amen.”

How does the new prayer of the offering of the host compare?

“Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.”

God is spoken of as the God common to all religions. The bread is offered only as bread, as a natural thing, the fruit of the earth and of men’s labor. Man’s work is offered to God. The prayer disregards the consecration of the bread that will become the Body of Christ through the ministry of the priest, in order to obtain the remission of sin, satisfaction, and the grace to attain Heaven. With the New Mass, the tendency is to consecrate the work of men that is worthy to be presented to God, as if our activity could be a sacrifice. We remain standing, speak to God on a familiar tone, and offer our bread.

I am going to be severe here. When they say the new liturgy has a wicked origin, I think they are not entirely wrong, for Satan’s sin, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, was that when God offered him a supernatural happiness that could be obtained with supernatural help, he refused and wished to attain this happiness by his own strength and consecrate himself.

Second Reason: Intelligibility

Desacralization is the result of humanism and simplicity is the result of rationalism. Both are to be found in the use of the vernacular and the abandonment of many sacred rites.

Human reason is exercised through intelligibility. They wanted to bring intelligibility into the liturgy. In Latin, our intelligibility is not used; we remain in ancient times when our reason was enslaved to obscurantist powers. When we hear the Mass in our language, we are emancipated from the dictatorship of dead languages and, therefore, of those who know them, the priests.

It is the common practice of all religions to require a sacred language in order to distinguish the sacred from the profane. Even in the Eastern Churches the sacred languages ended up becoming distinct from the languages of the people. Dom Guéranger sings the praises of Pope St. Gregory on this point: “The Duke of Bohemia, Vratislas, asked if he could extend to his peoples who were also of the Slavic race the dispensation John VII had granted for Moravia. Gregory firmly refused: ‘As for what you have requested,’ he wrote to this prince in a letter in the year 1080, ‘desiring our consent to celebrate the divine office in the Slavonic language in your country, know that we can in no way grant this request[.] … It is no excuse to say that certain religious men (St. Cyril and St. Methodius) graciously submitted to the desires of a people full of simplicity or did not see fit to remedy them; for the primitive Church herself assimilated many things that the holy Fathers corrected after submitting them to a serious examination.’”

As for the rite itself, the contrast is evident. When dealing with mystery, one uses signs, for mystery is supernatural. In the New Mass, simplicity reigns supreme. With Paul VI, the rite is simplified, everything that surrounds it and all the repetitions are abandoned so that the rite can be understood without any preparation. Away with the trappings of the old rite that surrounded the faithful with a magnificent decor in a church whose architecture uplifted the soul. For all of that entertained in man the sentiment that he is not able to understand what is happening under his eyes. Paul VI completely disregarded this liturgical principle recalled by the Catechism of the Council of Trent (Ch. 20, 9): “Of these rites and ceremonies let none be deemed useless or superfluous; all on the contrary tend to display the majesty of this august sacrifice, and to excite the faithful, by the celebration of these saving mysteries, to the contemplation of the divine things which lie concealed in the eucharistic sacrifice.”

Third Reason: Free Will, Anarchy, and Creativity

With the New Mass, human freedom is magnified. And in the first place, the standards are drastically reduced. With the old Mass, the 270 liturgical gestures had to be learned very exactly and woe to anyone who strayed from the ritual. Everything was codified by the Church. In our days, this goes against human dignity, and therefore the standards have been drastically suppressed. Today, it is very easy to learn to say Mass, something I can hardly recommend!

We also have to mention the liturgical creativity and anarchy of which Benedict XVI complained 40 years later: “In many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. I am speaking from experience, since I too lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusion. And I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church” (Benedict XVI, Letter to the bishops on the occasion of the publication of the Motu Proprio “Summorum Pontificum”).

Indeed, in the 1960s, the differences between various celebrations were such that Paul VI was forced to conclude in an audience on September 3, 1969: “But this reform is not without its dangers, in particular that of arbitrary choices that could disintegrate the spiritual unity of the Church as well as the beauty of prayer and the beauty of the liturgy. The Church, while allowing the use of spoken languages, certain adaptations to local desires, novelties in the rites, does not wish it to be believed that there no longer exists any common, set and obligatory rule in the prayer of the Church, and that each can organize or disorganize it at will.”

Some will object that these were abuses and excesses that were not in keeping with the model edition, the only edition promulgated by the pope. This is true, without a doubt. And yet, we must point out that these abuses and excesses spread universally, as a property of the Novus Ordo, as if the “Mass of Paul VI” lent itself, by its very nature, to these disorders. They belong to a dynamism which seem to go along the very lines of the liturgy of Paul VI.


In order to understand the new rite, it is not enough to analyze the texts, one also has to observe it. That is when one discovers this effort to make friends with modernity. I am not saying that the Mass of Paul VI is modern in the strong sense of the word. If it was, it would be an agnostic and atheistic Mass, a Mass that denies the supernatural and miracles, a truly libertarian Mass. But, in his effort to reconcile with modernity that was pursued at Vatican II, Paul VI took this effort all the way by creating a liturgy from scratch.

It is necessarily modern. It has nothing to do with an ancient Mass, for modernity dates back to the 16th century! In fact, it has sufficiently incorporated humanism with the reign of reason, intelligibility, simplicity, and freedom in multiple aspects that we can say it has ceased to be Catholic. And to say that a Mass is close enough to modernity that it is no longer worthy to be called Catholic means that it deserves to be qualified as modern.