Paul VI’s Mass Revisions

A look at liturgical changes in the Mass after Vatican II - Part 5


Faith The Papacy

The Novus Ordo brought a number of reforms besides celebrating in the vernacular. In his Apostolic Constitution of 1969, Pope St. Paul VI approvingly referred to Pius XII’s restoration in 1951 and 1955 of the Easter Vigil and the Rite of Holy Week, respectively. He also cited the desire of the Vatican Council Fathers to add a rite of concelebration. Concelebration of the Mass has become so common that the celebration of private Masses by priests at side-by-side altars in seminaries and cathedrals, with which I was familiar from the 1960s, are rare. (They continue to be allowed, however, under Canon 902.)

Paul VI stated, in his Apostolic Constitution, that the new Missal reflected the discovery of “very ancient liturgical sources” and examination of the liturgies of the Eastern Church. He wanted “these doctrinal and spiritual riches not [to] lie in the darkness of archives, but rather be brought out into the light to enlighten and nourish the minds and spirits of Christians.” Accordingly, he approved a revision to the introductory Penitential Rite, emphasized the Homily, and added the Prayer of the Faithful. There would also be three processions, two of them with processional crosses (Paragraph 274) — the entrance, offertory, and recessional — (Paras. 44, 74, 117, 119, 120-122), the Rite (or Kiss) of Peace (Paras. 82, 154), and multiple Eucharistic Prayers (“Canons” of the Mass).

Paul VI stated that the Council wanted to open “more abundantly” the “treasures of the Bible.” Paul VI restored the “Responsorial Psalm, which Saint Augustine and Saint Leo the Great often mention…” He instituted a three-year cycle of Scriptural readings which included the addition of a third reading at Mass to the existing two readings “so as to arouse more and more among Christ’s faithful…hunger for the Word of God.” He expressed his confidence that it would strengthen unity “by means of which, in the variety of so many languages, one and the same prayer of all will rise up, more fragrant than any incense, to the heavenly Father, through our High Priest Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit.” The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) discusses the honor to be shown to the Book of the Gospels in the entrance procession and placement on the altar (Paras. 117, 122).

In a statistical sense, how much more of the Bible did Paul VI open to the faithful through the liturgy? One analysis, linked here, details that the number of verses from the Old Testament (not counting the Psalms) in the pre-Council Lectionary grew from 1% to 13.5% in the post-Council Lectionary. The number of verses from the New Testament grew from 16.5% to a whopping 71.5% (Felix Just, S.J., “Lectionary Statistics,” The Catholic Lectionary Website,

The options in the Lectionary that now enrich our worship when Mass is celebrated in the Ordinary Form include the following:

  • 10 modes of expression for the “Penitential Act”
  • at least 51 Prefaces to the Canon
  • nine Eucharistic Prayers (including Masses for Reconciliation and Masses for Various Needs)
  • three forms of the anamnesis (the remembrance in the Mystery of Faith after the Consecration), and
  • at least 48 blessings or “Prayers Over the People” at the end of Mass.

Alas and alack, this large number of options has not been enough for many priests. Many put on their own show. Masses became known as “Father Jack’s Mass” or “Father Leroy’s Mass.” We will discuss the subject of liturgical abuses in Part 6.


***For Part 4 in this series, click here


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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