From Trent to Vatican II

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) met largely to counter the various Protestant heresies. It came at a pivotal moment in world, European and Christian history, and in a sense marked the end of mediaeval theology with its certainties and the beginning of modernity.

The Fathers of the Council of Trent regarded the Eucharist as one of the most important topics. But on the basis of mediaeval theology, they did not speak of the Eucharist in a unified way – de sacra liturgia – but in different ways.

The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

In its thirteenth session, the Council adopted its Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist.

Reformation theology, with its emphasis on faith and Scripture, attacked Catholic Eucharistic theology, in particular the doctrine of transubstantiation. The theological issue for Catholics was never that Christ was present in the Eucharist but how that presence can be explained. It is a question that was never treated with systematic fashion until 1215, when the Fourth Lateran Ecumenical Council used the term ‘transubstantiation’; utilising terminology deriving from the philosophy of Aristotle, it argues that every reality has something which makes it what it is and not something else (e.g., the treeness of trees) – its substance. The substance also has accidents, which differentiate it from other substances. This was rejected by Luther, Zwingli and Calvin – and their theologies were rejected by Trent.

The language of the Fathers and their use and interpretation of the Scriptures was, as it always is, typical of its time. But at its core is the fundamental affirmation of the true and genuine presence of Jesus Christ in the celebration and sacrament of the Eucharist.

The Sacrifice of the Mass

In its twenty-second session, the Council adopted its Decree on the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The key aspects of the Council’s teaching on this are contained in four of its canons:

• The Mass is a real sacrifice offered to God – it is not just that God offers us Christ in the form of bread and wine.

• By his words ‘Do this in memory of me’, Christ established the Apostles as priests of the New Covenant, ordering them to offer this sacrifice.

• The sacrifice of the Mass is not merely an offering of sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Nor is it a simple commemoration of the sacrifice accomplished by Christ on the Cross. Rather, it is what the Fathers call a propritiatory sacrifice, benefitting those who offer it and take part in it; it is offered for the living and the dead, for sins, punishments, satisfaction and other necessities.

• The sacrifice of the Mass is not a contradiction to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

The Fathers emphasised the unity of the Church and, within her, the unity of various theological elements: there is a unity between the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the sacrifice of the Mass; there is an identity between the sacrificing priest and the sacrificial gift; the sacrifice of the Mass is a representation – or making present – of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and is thus neither a repetition of that sacrifice or a new sacrifice.

The Missale Romanum of 1570

The two most important books to come out of the conciliar reforms were theCatechesimus Romanus (1566) and the Missale Romanum (1570). Standardisation was required in matters of doctrine and worship in order to prevent the introduction of Protestant ideas in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.

Pius V accordingly imposed uniformity by law in 1570 with the Bull Quo Primum, which ordered the use of the Roman Missal as revised by him – the so-called Tridentine Mass, or Mass of the Council of Trent. He allowed rites older than 200 years to survive the promulgation of this Missal. Several of the rites that remained in existence were progressively abandoned, though the Ambrosian rite survived in Milan, as did the Mozarbic rite in Toledo. The Carmelite, Carthusian and Dominican orders kept their rites until the second half of the twentieth century. Beginning in the late 17th century, France and parts of Germany, saw a flurry of independent missals published by bishops influenced by Gallicanism and Jansenism.

The promulgation of this Missal was probably the most important event in the liturgical life of the Church since Gregory the Great ‘fixed’ the Canon of the Mass (the Roman Canon, which appears in our missals as Eucharistic Prayer I) during his ‘recasting’ of the sacred liturgy; it is arguably true that, were he or she to be transported to sixth-century Rome, a Catholic living in the early half of the twentieth century would recognise the Mass without any difficulty – it is for this reason that some call the Mass in the extraordinary form the ‘Gregorian Mass’.

The 1570 Missal underwent numerous revisions until it was abrogated in 1970, when Paul VI, in the Bull Missale Romanum inaugurated a new Roman Missal. It is the editio typical of 1562 which is used in celebrations of the Mass in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite today.

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This blog is a forum for discussion of ideas from a faith-based perspective. The views expressed on it are those of the authors and cannot be held to represent those of the Diocese of Nottingham or the University of Nottingham Catholic Chaplaincy.

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