The Holy Eucharist: History of the Mass, part three Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Mar. 07, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

By Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB

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This is the third of a four-part series on the Eucharist.
Council of Trent (1545-1563)

The Council of Trent was called not primarily to look at the liturgy, but rather to counter the attack on the doctrine and practice of the Church by the reformers. The Reformation in northern Europe had devastated the Church. The Council wanted to restore it to full theological orthodoxy in the face of attacks on Catholic beliefs, and to renew the vigor of the life of Catholics.

Interested in learning more about the Mass?

Abbot Marcel Rooney's DVD series, “Reflections on Holy Mass” may be ordered through the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music, and Art via the institute’s Web site at or by phone at 608-203-6735.

Holy Mass, for example, as embodied in the Roman Missal of Pope St. Pius V, actually was a continuation of the medieval changes and developments that had occurred in the last centuries. There was little or no change in the structure and the prayers which had been used in the Eucharistic celebration during the medieval period.

Following the Council, there was a vast development in music and art —Masses were composed which demanded extraordinary talent in the choirs required to perform them. The verb here was chosen on purpose: very often, these were more a performance to be listened to rather than a celebration involving full participation by all.

No doubt, much of this music was magnificent, and it often had the ability to lift the spirits of the listeners to soaring heights.In this, it had (and still has) the possibility to dispose the listener for a more deeply spiritual union with God — which is what Holy Mass is really all about, not a merely aesthetic experience.

As regards art, there was an explosion in this field also, with churches being decorated with sacred art which provided a visual view of what the Scriptures and the Church’s tradition (especially the lives of the saints) had always taught. In this, sacred art became a kind of substitute catechesis, since so little catechesis of the people had been done for many centuries.

The Council did try to remedy this lack of catechesis: it decreed the first Catechism, which became the basis for national catechisms for centuries. But as regards Holy Mass itself, we should be aware that reception of Holy Communion continued to be very rare. In fact, the emphasis in liturgy — given the lack of catechesis until the Council’s decrees really took effect, and the lack of active participation in Holy Mass itself — came to be placed on rubrics; that is, on just how to perform Holy Mass in a perfectly correct way.

This emphasis did not always lead to a deeper spirituality of prayer and union with God, but it did attempt to assure that Holy Mass would be celebrated reverently, if the rubrics were observed with care. But much of this did not affect the Catholic people so much as it did the ministers: lacking active participation at Holy Mass, because of the lack of knowledge of Latin, and the lack of catechesis to explain and urge such participation, most Catholics chose to fill the time at Holy Mass with private prayer, such as the rosary.

19th Century

As the renewal of the Church after the Council of Trent began to take effect more widely, it was paralleled by a longing for renewal of the practice of the Holy Eucharist. The first efforts toward such renewal were rebuffed. Some Church officials were still reacting to the Protestants: any change must be heretical!

But little by little, it was seen that such was not the case. Rather, genuinely Catholic and holy men and women were being moved by the Holy Spirit to bring new life and vigor to the sacred liturgy.

In the 19th century, this was expressed first in a theological movement in the field of ecclesiology — the study of the nature of the Church and its proper expressions and fields of activity. Then came movements to restore knowledge of the Bible.

It was not long before attention also was being devoted to the liturgy. Especially important for those who wanted renewal was the desire to return again to genuine participation of the people in Holy Mass. That is, the leaders for renewal wanted not merely attendance at the Eucharist by the faithful, more or less as mute spectators, but real and active participation in Holy Mass. The goal was that Holy Mass, in its texts and gestures, would be formative of Catholic spirituality. This effort came to be called “the Liturgical Movement.” It would bear fruit in the 20th century.

Abbot Marcel Rooney, O.S.B., is president of the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music and Art, resident in the Madison Diocese. The Institute is devoted to helping people understand more and pray better the sacred liturgy.