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The Sacrificial Nature of the Mass in the Usus Antiquior

The claim is often made that the traditional Roman Rite brings out more clearly than the Novus Ordo does that the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice—the unbloody re-presentation of the bloody sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. As this dogmatic truth is a point of central importance for living the Catholic Faith and passing it on, we ought to ask how and why this is the case. Can we identify the features of the traditional Latin Mass that convey so clearly its sacrificial nature? With a healthy fear of omissions, I suggest the following as a start. I do not list these features in any particular order of importance, as I believe they are all important, working together to produce a cumulative and overwhelming effect.

The Ad Orientem Stance

In every traditional liturgy, Christians face the East, the rising sun, symbol of Christ coming in glory, and of the inextinguishable light of God. At the Catholic Mass, when the priest comes to the altar, stands facing east with us, and offers the holy gifts, it is obvious that he is doing something for us, as our mediator with God and as the image of the one Mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus. He is busy with the work of the altar, with the Lamb of God who takes away our sins – there can be no illusion that it’s all about us, in the sense of the “self-enclosed circle” about which Joseph Ratzinger speaks.

Now, we can always point out that versus populum was never mandated by Vatican II or subsequent documents and that ad orientem is perfectly “permissible” in the Novus Ordo, but as the years go on and we see, on the one hand, Cardinal Sarah slammed by the Vatican for endorsing ad orientem and, on the other, Cardinal Cupich outlawing it ultra vires, we can safely say there will never be a general return to the eastward posture in the Novus Ordo context. If it didn’t happen under Pope Benedict XVI who was deeply favorable to it, it seems unlikely to do so in the future, when a combination of institutional inertia and a renewed neo-modernist agenda will probably nip most attempts at liturgical reform in the tender bud.

In truth, the traditional orientation returns whenever and wherever the traditional liturgy returns. The “psychology” of the new Mass as it was imposed and inculturated is wrapped up with the horizontalist mentality Ratzinger critiques, and it will be much harder to budge this error than to re-introduce the usus antiquior as something new and different, already in possession of a consistent set of harmonizing traits.

Preparation at the Foot of the Altar

Psalm 42, which speaks of going unto the altar of God, of being led by His light and His truth to the holy mountain and the tabernacles of the Lord, of giving praise unto salvation (think of how the Mass is referred to in the Roman Canon as the “sacrificium laudis”), makes an ideal entry into the Mass. This Psalm is shot through with the language of offering, sacrifice, suffering, the hope of redemption – all of which highlight the forthcoming mystical re-presentation of the Passion of our Lord.

The extensive penitential rite emphasizes that we are setting about a serious work, not something to take lightly. The human psyche cannot help but wonder: “What’s it all about? What are we preparing to do?” The fairly substantial delay between the opening Sign of the Cross and the commencement of the Mass proper with the Introit affords the much-needed opportunity to orient oneself toward the forthcoming sacrifice, to express sorrow for sins, and to beg for mercy.

Separation of Priest from People

There are many ways in which the old rite clearly distinguishes between the priest and the people – they are not lumped together, as in the modern rite, but are treated in accordance with their ontological distinction. For example, the priest recites the Confiteor first, for himself, and then the servers recite the Confiteor for themselves and the people. At High Mass, he and he alone intones the Gloria and the Creed, and then continues to recite them separately, while the people or the choir sing. In the Offertory, the Suscipe, Sancte Pater strongly brings out the priest’s role as mediator, as well as his personal sinfulness:

Accept, O holy Father, almighty and eternal God, this unspotted host, which I, Thy unworthy servant, offer unto Thee, my living and true God, for my innumerable sins, offenses, and negligences, and for all here present: as also for all faithful Christians, both living and dead, that it may avail both me and them for salvation unto life everlasting. Amen.

The priest receives holy communion first, in order to complete the sacrifice, and only then offers it to the people. He says the “Domine, non sum dignus” three times, and only afterwards do the servers or the people say it three times. The Placeat tibi once again brings out the special role of the priest:

May the performance of my homage be pleasing to Thee, O holy Trinity: and grant that the Sacrifice which I, though unworthy, have offered up in the sight of Thy Majesty, may be acceptable to Thee, and through Thy mercy, be a propitiation for me, and for all those for whom I have offered it.

Such is not the prayer of a mere “presider” or “president of the assembly.”

How is such distinction and separation pertinent to our theme? Consider the doctrine of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb. 5:1; cf. 2:17. 8:3). This is the definition of a priest: the one who, as a mediator, offers sacrifices for sins. Anything that detracts from or mutes the clear expression of the priestly office is detracting from the sacrificial quality of his actions. The priest at the altar truly acts in persona Christi, in a way qualitatively different from the ways in which the laity or subordinate clergy participate, and the old Mass brings this out with total clarity. Surely this is part of the reason why the priesthood is viewed and treated with more esteem and respect in communities centered on the traditional Mass, and why vocations from them will always be more numerous.

The Many Kissings of the Altar

When first introduced to traditional Catholic worship in my twenties, I remember my delight at noticing how much more often the priest in the old rite kisses the altar than in the new rite, where he does so only twice—at the start and at the finish of Mass. What a desperate relinquishment of meaning, beauty, and affection this change represents! The many kisses in the usus antiquior draw our attention to the altar again and again throughout Mass, putting our focus there, at the place of sacrifice, for which the priest has been ordained, to which he continually ascends, with which he is intimately united as one of the chosen friends of Our Lord. Since the altar represents Christ, these kisses are genuine tokens of love, service, and devotion to Him. It is one more of those small but poignant ways in which the traditional Mass keeps one’s mind and heart fixed on the Lord and on the immensity of His love for us – expressed above all in His Passion – and how its symbols prompt in us a desire to return love for love.

The Prayers Themselves

The traditional Offertory prayers, the Roman Canon, and the Placeat tibi express to absolute perfection the doctrine of the Mass as a true, proper, expiatory, impetratory sacrifice for the living and for the dead – a doctrine given its consummate formulation by the Council of Trent and surrounded with a sturdy hedge of anathemas.

The Offertory rite is one of the Mass’s medieval gems, present across all of Europe in every rite and variation and use. It was stripped away and discarded as a “medieval accretion” by the puritanical reformers of both the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries. The Roman Canon, which some of the more zealous Modernists of Paul VI’s era wanted to expunge altogether from their avant-garde Missal, is always used in the traditional Latin Mass – no surprise, since it is the defining feature of the Roman Rite. Lump the entire committee-created smorgasbord of Eucharistic Prayers together, and it will still not succeed in expressing the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass as lucidly and devoutly as the Roman Canon does all by itself. At their best, they are novelties free from doctrinal errors; at their worst, they seem to dance around doctrine, for fear of excluding Lutherans from the table of plenty.

The Silence of the Canon

The silence that falls upon the church during the Roman Canon is one of the most beautiful features of the usus antiquior. You can be at the most glorious Mass in the world, with organs and choirs to vie with the angels – but when it comes time for the great miracle, everyone falls silent and adores. The elevations are like visual thunder in the midst of this inaudible storm of prayer. Bells erupt into a hushed space, heightening our awareness still further, so that every sense is strained, and yet the heart is at peace. The cavernous silence makes it obvious, again, just like the ad orientem posture, that the priest is focused on the great work of our redemption, something obviously from God and for God; it isn’t about you – at least, not immediately; it is about Christ, Head of the Mystical Body, and therefore about us inasmuch as we are His members.

Elevations within Double Genuflections

The fact that the priest is instructed in the Novus Ordo to elevate the host or the chalice first and only afterwards to genuflect before the Lord is clearly a change of which nothing good can be said, even by papal maximalists. The purpose of elevating the host and chalice is to give the faithful an opportunity to adore the Blessed Sacrament after the priest has first adored It; the host and chalice must be raised up because the priest is facing eastwards and his body is blocking our view of the consecrated gifts. To the miracle of transubstantiation, there is no more natural, obvious, correct, and pious reaction than to drop down on one’s knee in adoration. The double genuflection of the usus antiquior – that is, both before the elevation and after it – conveys the humble awe and fitting homage of the servant before his Master, the creature before his Creator. This unmistakeable emphasis on the reality of the divine Victim, like so many other details, serves to underline the Mass as a true sacrifice, not merely a symbolic one.

Moreover, with the lifting of the chasuble, the repeated ringing of bells, and often clouds of incense, the elevation at a traditional Latin Mass is a far more emphatic moment, feeding multiple senses with a richer symbolism. As William Mahrt writes:

When the Mass is celebrated facing the altar (facing God and not just turning his back on the people), the sacrament is consecrated in an aura of mystery and wonder, and when it is elevated for the people’s adoration, they see it as something to be worshipped. When the Mass is celebrated at the altar facing the people, they see every action of the priest, after which the elevation is not as great a climax.[1]

The elevation is the visual high point of the Mass, a gesture which reminds us of the offering of the Son to the Father, the spotless Lamb to the eternal Trinity, for us men and for our salvation. No one who is paying the slightest attention can fail to see that something dramatic is happening at this moment. In evoking the raising up of Christ on the Cross, it rightly draws our minds to Good Friday, the redemptive Passion, and the generosity by which Our Lord makes this gift of Himself present in our midst, lavishing upon us the same attentive charity that He showed on Calvary to His most holy Mother and His beloved disciple St. John. Knowing, as we do, that the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice – the very sacrifice of Calvary, a dogma of the Catholic Faith as established at Trent – it ought to be offered in a way that does not look like the passover meal of Holy Thursday, which was done in anticipation of the redemptive sacrifice yet to come.

In the Novus Ordo context, we end up with neither a straight-out sacrificial setting nor a straight-out social meal setting but an incongruous blend of the two that makes the result neither fish nor fowl. For this reason, the new liturgy will never satisfy either the progressives or the conservatives, and that is why its ars celebrandi has been a tug-of-war for close to fifty years. The old liturgy is not a tug-of-war in this way, because it enjoys the privilege of being simply itself, timeless and perpetually youthful, and does not seek to be relevant or up-to-date, with invariably embarrassing or incoherent results.

The Priest’s Communion and Ablutions

As with the preparation at the foot of the altar, the seriousness with which the priest receives Communion in the usus antiquior – the greater number and amplitude of the prayers, the reciting of verses from the psalms, the more deliberate handling of the chalice (making the sign of the cross with it), etc. – reinforces the solemnity of the moment, the fact that he is indeed partaking of the holy, awesome, immortal and life-giving mysteries of Christ. The ablutions, more ample in their prayers and in their thoroughness, involving the washing of forefinger, thumb, and chalice with wine and water, underline the same truth, and prevent the priest from incurring the enormous guilt of treating the Son of God carelessly. The communion rite and the ablutions together emphasize the reality of the sacrificial Victim made present in our midst by the consecration, once again showing that what we do around the consecration, before and after, is by no means negligible to the overall understanding of what is happening in the Mass.

In the Novus Ordo most of these prayers and ablutions were abolished, with horrifying results witnessed by countless sacristans, servers, and attendees. The simplification of these elements of the Mass have not favored the holding of orthodox faith in the Holy Eucharist as the true Body and Blood of Christ or the Mass as His true and proper sacrifice.

The Last Gospel

The almost-daily recitation of the Prologue of the Gospel of Saint John reinforces that the drama at which we have been present is a kind of continuation of the mystery of the Incarnation itself. It was the knowledge of this awesome reality that sustained Catholics who, for whatever reason, could not receive Communion at a given Mass; they were there because the Mass was, in and of itself, the ultimate act of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, and supplication – not because it was a glorified communion service.


As regards the so-called “Reform of the Reform,” one might note the sobering fact that the Novus Ordo as it now stands, even with its cornucopia of options, can emulate only a few of the features described above, and only in hothouse circumstances. Most of these elements are so far from its ethos and rubrics that the new rite would have to be significantly overhauled to accommodate them. Let’s face it: the architects of the new rite wanted to get rid of the sacrificial emphasis. That is why they went through the old rite deliberately removing nearly everything listed above.

If one is a moderately catechized Catholic, it is not possible to attend the traditional Latin Mass and not, at some level, experience it as a ritual of sacrifice, as the offering of the Son of God in His human nature to the Most Holy Trinity. The above-mentioned features, which are part and parcel of the very rite and cannot be omitted, plainly teach and demonstrate this. Conversely, even a catechized Catholic will find it more difficult to see the truth about the Mass in the new rite. Because the reformers introduced a new focus on the community and its active participation, the sacrificial prayers and ceremonies – most of them the province of the priest and the other ministers in the sanctuary – had to be reduced or eliminated. This new populist or congregational direction conflicts with a heightened awareness of the immediate and proper meaning of the mysteries being enacted.

It is true that once we have understood that the Mass is the sacrifice of Christ, the head of the Mystical Body, it then becomes possible for us to understand it as our sacrifice, the ultimate act of charity that unites us as members of the same Body. But the horizontal depends utterly on the vertical, the human on the divine, the community on the priesthood of Christ and His sacrifice.

Another way of putting this is to say that once a Catholic profoundly embraces the truth that the principal purpose of the Mass is to offer up the one and only all-pleasing sacrifice to God for the life of the world and to receive its spiritual fruits, it will be difficult or impossible for that Catholic to tolerate the Novus Ordo as it is celebrated in all but the most rarefied of environments. He will begin the search for a Mass that “looks” like what the Mass actually is, where the clergy and laity act, and receive, as if they know what it is. Once he encounters the traditional Latin Mass, he will recognize deep within that this is the Catholic Mass, the liturgy that embodies the Faith of the Church.



[1] Sacred Music 142.2 [Summer 2015], 4.

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