March 2024 Print

Questions and Answers

By Fr. Paul Robinson, SSPX

Did Joan of Arc attend the Traditional Mass as I know it, before Vatican II?

Traditional Catholics make the claim that the Mass that we love and hold onto is essentially the same Mass as that known by Latin rite Catholics going back to the earliest centuries of the Church. Fr. Palko, for instance, made that case in his article “From Peter to Gregory” in the May-June 2023 issue of The Angelus.

When discussing this question, it is important to note two things:

  1. While the 1962 missal is essentially the “Mass of all time,” as Archbishop Lefebvre called it, there have yet been many accidental differences in the Mass throughout time, according to period and location. These accidental differences include small additions to the ordinary of the Mass, variations in the propers, different local emphases on certain feast days, more complexity in the chant and staging of the Mass, and different architectural elements such as rood screens, retables, and before the fifteenth century, often a lack of pews.
  2. The differences between the New Mass and every permutation of the Latin rite are orders of magnitude beyond the accidental differences of #1. This is because the text of the Ordinary of the Mass of the Roman rite remains recognizable and substantially unchanged across these earlier rites, but is recognizably and substantially changed in the New Mass. A modern attendee of the 1962 rite, attending a medieval Mass, would find himself at home; a medieval observer would say the same, were he able to travel forward in time. The New Mass, on the other hand, would be foreign to him.

We may rightly ask ourselves why it took the Church so long to standardize the Latin rite, something that only took place in 1571 with St. Pius V’s Quo Primum. The centuries of delay in doing this allowed for many accidental differences throughout the centuries. There are several important reasons for the delay.

Firstly, the main effort of Catholics in the first centuries was to extend the teachings of Our Lord to all nations, not to standardize the rituals of the Church. Our Lord gave the Apostles His teachings and the sacraments. The missionaries spread belief in Our Lord as God and administered the sacraments to sanctify the new converts. But there were variations in the way that the sacraments were performed. This is why many different rites of the Mass developed, some of them surviving to this day. The controversies in the early Church were not about variations in rites, but about major doctrinal issues concerning the divinity of Our Lord and the Trinity. Rites, meanwhile, were extremely localized and so quite diverse.

The Church has always rightly respected the diversity of her rites. Two early local rites that developed alongside the Roman rite were the Ambrosian rite in Milan and the Visigothic rite in Spain. In addition to this diversity of rites, which sometimes have differing calendars, lectionaries, and ordinaries, there are also a diversity of what are called “uses” in the Roman rite itself. These usually have slightly different arrangements or minor truncations of the Roman Ordinary of the Mass. Among these are the Dominican use and the Carmelite use. In the Dominican use, for example, the priest says slightly different prayers at the foot of the altar and offers the chalice and host at the same time during the prayer Suscipe Sancta Trinitas.

It has become common now to also refer to these different uses as “rites.” Such variations abounded prior to the Council of Trent; at the Council, it was ruled that all rites and uses older than two hundred years would be preserved, which is why it is still possible today to attend traditional Dominican and Carmelite rite Masses.

One of the major factors that led to the spread and eventual standardization of the Roman rite as we know it today was the activity of Charlemagne. For both pious and political reasons, he was desirous that the Masses in his realm conform to the ritual for the celebration of the Mass in Rome. His efforts caused the Roman rite to spread throughout Europe and so make the celebration of Mass much more uniform, while still not being standardized.

Even if the Church had wanted to standardize in the first millennium, it would have been nearly impossible because of difficulties of communication and production of liturgical books. The spread of the Western Church quickly outstripped Rome’s ability to communicate disciplinary decisions in a universal way. If Rome had attempted to standardize the Latin rite before Pope St. Pius V, how feasible would it have been to have all of the monks of Christendom crank out hand-copied liturgical books for every parish, chapel, and priest? It is striking how much focus Pius V puts on the printers in Quo Primum, commanding them not to deviate one jot or tittle from the missal he has issued. Such a decree is hard to imagine in a world where the printing press has not been invented.

Besides, the missal did not exist as such until the printing press was invented, because it was impossible to produce a single book with all of the texts necessary for Mass without the aid of mechanical means. Until the printing press came along, the texts were split up into lectionaries (readings), sacramentaries (blessings/rituale), antiphonaries (chant for the antiphons), and so on.

We can see the hand of Divine Providence in the fact that the need for a single book for Mass arose almost at the same time that producing such a book was made possible by the invention of the printing press. The mendicant orders were founded in the 13th century and had the practice of traveling throughout Europe to preach. They were not attached to any particular diocese but were directly under the Pope. Their independence from the dioceses in which they traveled meant that they followed the Mass as celebrated at Rome, and their mobility in travel demanded that they not be hauling around with them a library of liturgical books. This would be especially unfitting at a time when books were extremely expensive and the mendicants were under vows of poverty! What was the solution for their predicament? The missal, a single book, containing all of the texts needed for the celebration of the Roman rite. What was necessary to produce it? The printing press, a machine capable of producing pages of text far faster than the human hand, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1436.

The printing press made the missal possible, but also made it easy to propagate variations in the Mass with great rapidity. As such, one of the measures mandated by the Council of Trent was the revision and re-editing—yes, the standardization—of the Catechism, the Missal, and the Breviary. St. Pius V undertook and completed this work, and put all his authority behind the results, commanding that any printers who deviated from the missal he promulgated would have their missals confiscated and be fined 100 ducats.

The purpose of this historical background1 is meant to give context to the question posed and show why it is justified. It is justified because the “Mass of all time” was not standardized until 1571 and because there were many accidental differences in each locale, as well as accidental additions throughout the centuries.

That being said, we are blessed to have the resources necessary to know with great certainty the Mass that St. Joan of Arc attended and compare it with the 1962 missal. She lived in the first third of the fifteenth century in northeast France and traveled extensively throughout France during her participation in the Hundred Years’ War. We still have missals from this time period and region, many of which can now be perused free online at the website for the Bibliothèque nationale de France. One of these is from the diocese of Tulle (yes, the same diocese for which Abp. Lefebvre was the ordinary for six months in 1962). In the images below, you can recognize the ordinary of the Mass beginning with the prayers at the foot of the altar (“Et introibo ad altare Dei”) and, about a page2 later, the text for the prayer at the offertory (“Suscipe, sancte Trinitas”). Perhaps you’re familiar, too, with the chant notation on the right-hand side of our second image for “Per omnia saecula saeculorum,” and below—we still sing the same notes every Sunday.

There were some little differences in the Mass that St. Joan attended. Many more sequences appeared in the liturgical year than there are today. There was greater complexity in the form of more singing of chant, more processions, and more distinct roles for those in minor orders. Yet, given the relative triviality of these differences, we can certainly affirm that St. Joan attended the “Mass of All Time,” as we do today.


1 I would like to thank our Assistant Editor Esther Jermann for providing me with the rich historical research that made this answer possible, as well as the images accompanying the answer.

2 In medieval manuscripts, each whole page, back and front, is called a folio, and is counted as one unit (whereas, for us, the front counts as one, and the back counts as two). The front side of it is called the “recto” side, and the back, “verso.” The images you see here are from folio 96 verso (96v) and 97 recto (97r).