...the various commissions and advisers at the Council of Trent found,
there were serious abuses in the liturgy. They could not have made them
up! The study of liturgy was in its infancy at that time, which is
putting it mildly. Many mistakes were made in pruning the old Roman
liturgy, though fewer than the Protestants. I have become increasingly
aware over the years that the 1570 Roman Rite is far from perfect, and
there are frustrating incoherences here and there. No liturgy is
perfect, and the more it is tampered with, the more frustrating it
...(The Council of Trent call) a general congregation of
the 20th July 1562 appointed a Commission of seven prelates to look into the problem of abuses in the eucharistic celebration. It met in six sessions.
The abuses they listed were in six categories: the Mass, the
celebrant and ministers, the vestments and material requisites, the
place of worship, the time of Mass, and connected with the lay
Liturgical abuses in particular
Concerning abuses in the Mass in itself, the Commission reported that many apocryphal texts: introits, prefaces and prayers, had crept into the Mass. The prelates found confusion in the rubrics, and desired uniformity in the question of rites. Significantly, they observed that, at the offertory, the non-consecrated bread and wine were respectively called a holy and immaculate host and the chalice of salvation. They objected to the multiplied signs of the cross over the consecrated elements,
which are not in fact an abusive practice, but long established in
liturgical tradition. The practice of farcing was considered an abuse. They warned of the custom of deploying a specified numbers of candles for certain feasts.
We now come to those abuses arising from avarice on the part of the clergy. Some priests took several stipends for one Mass,
or even worse, took the money and failed to celebrate the Mass. Parish
priests were not celebrating Mass in their churches on Sundays and Feast
Days, for they were celebrating Votive or Requiem Masses elsewhere. The prelates reported on the problem of missæ siccæ and Mass celebrated several times a day. The Commission disapproved of the practice of celebrating several successive Masses or of celebrating private Masses while a Solemn Mass was being sung in the same church.
It was observed that bodies of the deceased in a state of advanced
putrefaction, lying in chapels of repose under the church, were a
disturbance to people at High Mass. All kinds of suggestions were made
to abolish pecuniary abuses and to avoid offences against Christian
modesty and decency, such as licentiousness and drunkenness at the
occasions of processions and first Masses of newly ordained priests.
The seven prelates recommended that priests were to celebrate Mass
with devotion and due preparation, in order that the Sacrifice is
fruitful and that scandal is avoided, lest religion be brought into
disrepute. Priests were also to respect the rubrics and liturgical
They added their own improvised prayers to the official texts of the
Mass and made ridiculous gesticulations. Priests bowed their heads when
elevating the Host, and ran the risk of spilling the chalice when
holding it over their heads as they genuflected or bowed. Liturgical
gestures were grossly exaggerated and indecent, such as licking the
paten after communion. The practice of elevating the host during the Pater noster was not unknown, Some priests left the altar during Mass without just cause.
The Commission recommended that clerics, priests in particular,
should be correctly dressed in a cassock and the prescribed vestments,
and to shave their beards and tonsures. Only clerics were to assist the
priest in the sanctuary, and were to wear the surplice. They were to
learn Latin and pronounce it correctly. The mention of all this
indicates that discipline was very slack in the late middle ages. All
occasion of scandal was to be avoided, thus drunkards and public sinners
were to be excluded from the church. The prelates noted every detail
from their observations, to the point of remarking the bare feet and
legs of Franciscan priests.
The altar linen was frequently dirty, and vestments were ill maintained.
The Commission recommended that chalices should be made only of
precious metal. Masses were being celebrated in profane places, and
fetid and semi-putrid bodies of the dead were being brought to church
for burial. Churches were turned to profane use and parodies of the Mass
were performed on occasions. Churches were becoming places of ridiculous spectacles.
It had been a long tradition in the Church that Mass was not to be
celebrated before dawn or in the afternoon or evening. This prescription
was not always observed. Priests were marrying couples at the wrong
times of the year.
The abuse, concerning the laity, against which the Commission spoke
the most severely was the non-observance of silence at Mass; people
talked among themselves and walked around the church
during the ceremonies. Vagrants begged in churches, and the prelates
suggested that they should be made to remain outside the doors of the
church. Some people came to church indecently dressed and allowed
animals to wander into the sanctuary. The Commission wished to see the
ancient discipline restored concerning the unbaptised and
excommunicated. They should be allowed to assist only at the Mass of the
Catechumens. They desired also that people should attend services in
their own parish churches and cathedrals.
Deliberations of the Fathers concerning remedies
From this long list of abuses, the prelates drew up a Compendium abusuum circa sacrificium missæ.
The most salient point of this new document is the first paragraph that
calls for a reform of the Roman Missal in order to assure the
uniformity of the eucharistic celebration. All that was abusive was to
be abolished. The rest was to be continued and propagated by all
priests, regular and secular,
The rest of the Compendium draws up the previously mentioned abuses in a
more concise form, but no longer in the form of observations, but of
proposals for reform.
On the l0th September 1562, nine canons on abuses in the Mass were submitted to the Fathers for examination, The first one of these proposes to abolish profani lucri et sordida cupiditas and to root out fraudulent practices in regard to stipends. The second calls for an end to missæ siccæ.
Canon 3 desired that priests should celebrate no more than one Mass a
day, unless pastoral need necessitated it, on pain of suspension. The fourth called for a restricted use of Votive Masses, and that these were not to be celebrated on Sundays and Feast Days. The fifth concerns the Mass of the Dead and the right occasions for its celebration,
Canon 6 expresses a desire, out of respect for the Holy Mysteries, to
abolish the celebration of Mass anywhere but in a consecrated building.
In cases of necessity, priests would have to consult their Ordinary, Canons 7 and 8 concern the care of liturgical material and the way of saying and singing the Mass, The final canon (9) recommends the exclusion from churches of the excommunicated and public sinners.
The abuses that headed the list for condemnation was the question of Mass-stipends:
“The local ordinaries shall be zealously concerned and be bound
to prohibit and abolish all those things which either covetousness,
which is a serving of idols, or irreverence, which can scarcely be
separated from ungodliness, or superstition, a false imitation of true
piety, have introduced. They shall in the first place, as regards
avarice, absolutely forbid conditions of compensations of whatever kind,
bargains, and whatever is given for the celebration of new masses; also
those importunate and unbecoming demands, rather than requests, for
alms and other things of this kind which border on simoniacal taint or
certainly savour of filthy lucre”.
The Fathers were unanimous in declaring:
“that irreverence may be avoided, each in his own diocese shall
forbid that any wandering or unknown priest be permitted to celebrate
mass. Furthermore, they shall permit no one who is publicly and
notoriously wicked either to minister at the altar or to be present at
the sacred services; nor suffer the holy sacrifice to be celebrated by
any seculars and regulars whatsoever in private houses or entirely
outside the church and the oratories dedicated solely to divine worship”.
The question of unsuitable music comes up, as does that of the conduct of those assisting at Mass:
“They shall also banish from the churches all such music which,
whether by the organ or in the singing, contains things that are
lascivious or impure; likewise all worldly conduct, vain and profane
conversations, wandering around, noise and clamour, so that the house of
God may be seen to be and may be truly called a house of prayer”.
The Fathers imposed discipline and condemned once and for all the use of unlawful “liturgical” texts and superstitious customs:
“Finally, that no room may be given to superstition, they shall
by ordinance and prescribed penalties provide that priests do not
celebrate at other than proper hours; or make use of rites and
ceremonies and prayers in the celebration of masses other than those
that have been approved by the Church and have been received through
frequent and praiseworthy usage. They shall completely banish from the
Church the practice of any fixed number of masses and candles, which has
its origin in superstitious worship rather than in true religion; and
they shall instruct the people”.
Some Fathers wished for slight amendments on doctrinal grounds. One
Father, Lavellinus, desired to abolish the use of portable altars. Nevertheless, the decree was promulgated. It was certainly in the light of this that the Roman Missal was to be reformed.