Phenomenology of Two Masses: Part 1

Fr. Robert Sokolowski has developed a form of theology he calls “Theology of Disclosure”. It is a way of practicing theology informed by the discipline of philosophical phenomenology.

Phenomenology is not “descriptive” analysis. It involves a difficult “change of approach” or viewpoint, one that requires us to think being in terms of how it is manifested to us, and correlatively to think of the different ways in which we approach being. Things are as they manifest themselves; they manifest themselves as they are. There are essential structures of manifestation. All of this is very difficult to get one’s mind around. Indeed, one might take solace in knowing that the founder of phenomenology realized the difficulty and sometimes stated that what he had taken to be a phenomenological analysis was really only descriptive analysis.

That said, we can really get somewhere with at least an attempt to see the various ways in which being manifests itself and, correlatively, the ways in which we approach being, and vice versa.

Sokolowski made this application, among other realms, in the arena of liturgical and sacramental theology. I wish not simply to report his achievements but to follow out some further explorations in this area. If the endeavor is not successful entirely because not truly a child of the phenomenological reduction (as this change of viewpoint is called), it may perhaps be stabbing in the right direction.

Briefly, then, let us look at the opening of Two Masses, the Extraordinary Form and the Ordinary Form.


We notice immediately distinct beginnings, after the sign of the Cross:


Extraordinary Form Novus Ordo
Priest kisses the altar.
“I will go in to the altar of God.” The server responds, “To God who giveth joy to my youth.” The priest then beseeches God to consider him set apart from sinful heathen. Priest and server alternate exclamations and exhortations. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Or another a similar alternative formula.
Then Priest Confesses to Almighty God his sins, beseeching forgiveness. Everyone, including priest, confess sins together.
Then server (and the people actively and interiorly) confess their sins.
Priest prays that the congregation’s sins be forgiven. Priest prays that everyone’s sins (his included with the congregation’s) be forgiven.
Then the priest grants everyone absolution.
Finally, priest goes in to the altar and kisses it.
More prayers beseeching God’s mercy for sins of everyone.
Then there is an Introit.
Kyrie Kyrie (unless it was said in lieu of confession)


What “ways of being” are manifested in each liturgy? The extraordinary form brings out Mass as Sacrifice. Correlatively, we are to gear our approach as that to sacrifice, being offered by a sacred minister, through whom we offer our prayers and participate in our distinct way. It is a service to God. Whereas, the Novus Ordo approaches liturgy in the context of fellowship. Now, as a matter of fact, the Mass is primarily a sacrificial event. This is a matter of doctrine, not opinion. See Pius XII Mediator Dei and the constant Tradition. So, the EF gears its participants for this mode of targeting the event (approaching the “being of the Mass) better.

On the other hand, at first sight we see a more Trinitarian element to the NO (absolutely no pejorative intent or implication here; I am saving time by abbreviation). There is an explicitly Trinitarian ring to the NO. This is not suggested in words at this point in the EF. Nonetheless, there is the suggestion in the deeds. How? Because the EF involves one precise direction: Towards the altar. To whom is the sacrifice made? Ultimately, to the Father. This Trinitarian implication of the gesture is brought out explicitly throughout the Canon. The People approach the Father through the Son, who is represented distinctly by the Sacred Minister. Hence, the very structure of the entire worship is “ontologically / gesticularly” Trinitarian. In the NO, it is standard practice for the priest to “face the people” from behind the altar (during the canon) or from near the “chair.” This is not mandated in the rubrics, so far as I can tell, but it is what almost invariably happens. The altar, then, really becomes a “table”. What is stressed is not sacrifice but communion (reception of the Eucharist). Pius XII teaches that the essence of the Mass is sacrifice, and that reception of the Eucharist is most highly encouraged – but it is not mandated for an integral Mass. (Only the participation of the priest is so required.)

If we simply stop here: It is no wonder that so few Catholics really recall that the Mass is a Sacrifice to honor God and appease his righteous anger for the sins of the world (and our sins). Those who do are heroic, for they exegete the NO through the lens of sound doctrine. However, the sacrificial character of the Mass is not as it were signaled so clearly as to call the participants to approach the event in this manner. In short, in order to comport ourselves in the right way for a particular manifestation of being, we must have some clues. These clues should be embedded in the very event, rather than foisted onto the event from afar. For instance, cherished family portraits are framed well and placed beautifully; or they are collected in a handsome album. In this way, those who approach are invited to approach with a proper respect and nostalgia for their loved ones. The EF does this with the placement of the altar, the priest’s approach thereto, and the Trinitarian structure of the worship. The NO does not exhibit the Trinitarian structure in its (typical) action and does not bring out the sacrificial character (not yet at this point of the liturgy), with the exception of the initial kiss of the altar. But note: That initial kiss begins straight away, without preparation. Such a procedure can lead to a certain familiarity. The lengthy preparation to ascend to the altar in the EF calls for a “fear of the Lord”, not a terror of servility, but an honoring that recognizes Magnificence.


Next, the EF presents two distinct confessions of sins, the priest’s and the server’s (and people’s). The priest is set apart. He is not the congregation; the congregation is not he. He has a sacred role to perform. They assist him in this: They are present with him, in their place and in their role. His service is primarily for the honor and worship of God; secondarily for the nourishment of the faithful. Is this neglect of the good of the congregation? Do they feel lonely? Do they need accompaniment and fellowship? Affirmation? Emphatically, this is not abandonment of the people. This is not neglect. To honor God above all is man’s highest activity. Man’s happiness is only in reaching out. In total “self-gift” as John Paul put it. Performing the liturgy precisely as an act of service to almighty God is the lifting out of self that makes man happy. By the lifting of my hands to God, I come to myself. Further, the community is built up most in this mode. Why? Because we have a greater union with one another through our union with God. If each person is united with God, each will be more concerned for the other than if each is thrust upon each as a focus of attention. After all, you cannot meet my need. Not even the Sacred Minister can, as man, meet my need. He can do so only as Christ’s representative. When he stands their behind the altar affirming me, he gives me human help. This is good, but not good enough. I need divine help. I must be brought outside myself. When I encounter only human others, I am left in my agony (or my passing pleasures). When I encounter God, I am taken up into ecstasy.

In the NO, priest and people together confess their sins. (Unless of course another option is used. And frequently enough, we see other options used. These are all well and good, but they do not involve that very important formula.) Similarly, in the NO, the priest only offers one prayer for everyone, beseeching God’s forgiveness. In the EF, he offers a prayer for himself and a distinct one for others and finally, absolution to everyone. There is no absolution in the NO. The distinction between priest and people is brought forth; they are each called to act according to their distinct gifts and place. This is not competition. It is order, actuality, being; for order is brought about through distinction.

There is no question of validity here. There is no question of liceity here. Both Masses are valid and licit. Both conduce to salvation. However, one is more apt to call the people to the attitude of sacrifice, which is precisely what the Mass essentially and primordially is. It is not secondly, it is not even “equiprimordially” sacrifice and fellowship / communion. It is primarily sacrifice, worship of God. One is more apt to bring out the distinction of roles of laity and priest. One is more apt gesticularly to invoke the Trinitarian structure of worship, although the opening of the NO brings this out explicitly and, with the exception of the sign of the Cross (which both share), the EF does not at this point.

19 thoughts on “Phenomenology of Two Masses: Part 1

  1. The extraordinary form also, though, brings out the Trinitarian aspect in words in the beginning of the Mass. After all, the very first thing said at the foot of the altar is the sign of the cross. And the “Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” is also said at the foot of the altar immediately before the second “I will go in unto the altar of God…” as well as (oftentimes) in the Introit. So actually it seems that the extraordinary form is more Trinitarian even in words up to this point in the liturgy.

    1. It has the correct form of consecration, right? Therefore it is valid.

      It was approved by the Pope for the use of the Church, right? Therefore it is licit.

      1. Yes. But I can’t get over how it got there as opposed to it’s here so accept it. That is, you can place the “correct form of consecration” in any prayer thus it is valid and the pope has the “power” to approve any prayer with the correct form of consecration in it which makes it licit.

      2. It is important to keep in mind two principles. The papal authority promulgating the NO (a friend made the suggestion I use OF, which I will do in what follows) makes it the prayer of the Church. We must respect this. At the same time, we may, respectfully, ask whether it is as adequate a prayer as the EF. Michael Davies is one of my inspirations in all this. He is quite respectful, and yet responsibly critical. And of course we may be critical, respectfully. After all, the entire enterprise that tried to get, and did get, the OF approved was critical of the Mass of Ages. As it is, then, there are firmer grounds for calling into question the adequacy of the Reform. Both with respect to the dictates of Vatican II and w/ respect to the Tradition.

  2. I know. BUT, if the authority is abused, do you still respect it and, more, follow it? It is one thing to point out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. It is another to to knock him off the horse to stop the scandal from continuing.

    1. Two points in response.
      1. If the pope is indeed the pope, then insofar as he teaches or decides with authority, we submit or obey.

      2. But we of course distinguish papal words (which are authoritative) from words of a pope (which are not). E.g., “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” was “words of a pope”. So was “Jesus” by Benedict. So are recent papal interviews. We must indeed distinguish.

      3. As I have incessantly stated, we must also ABOVE ALL know the dogmas. And not even papal words, were they to the contrary of dogma, should be heeded.

      But in the case of the OF, we are dealing with an authoritatively promulgated Mass. To praise the EF does not demand that one condemn the OF as invalid or illicit.

      A good friend of mine said that many OF priests are so moved when the contact the EF, that when they ever celebrate the OF again, they celebrate it with profoundly greater reverence than before. Let us pray.

      1. Yes, I understand your points. However, as to saying the OF reverently, the old saying comes to mind: you can put lip stick on a pig but it’s still a pig.

  3. It hard to see how the NO mass can be licit and valid for one main reason: it’s intrinsic modernist nature. We know from Pope Saint Pius the X of Holy Memory, that Modernism is the sum of all the heresies. In other words, all the deviations from catholic orthodoxy in both doctrine and liturgy as well as all the inclusions of false doctrines and false liturgy practices are encompassed under the umbrella of Modernism. Hence, how a ritual like the NO which allows all kinds of abominations (last one I hear a funeral mass for a chihuahua dog in Belgium) not only can be valid and licit but also appreciated in God’s eyes? The problem is that since CVII several generations of novus ordo hierarchy and clergy have been shoving this abomination down the throat that we grew numb of all this nonsense. Keep in mind, that the current pope was organizing masses in stadiums with dancers, clowns and balloons for children. Let’s just pause for a moment and think one moment on this: a Can this be Catholic? Can this be pleasing in God’s eyes? Is this why OLJC secured the Faith in Peter for?

    1. Rex, I think we have to distinguish what we mean by “NO” (=Novus Ordo, =ordinary form). It can mean the official liturgical text, or it can mean a particular offering of the Holy Sacrifice which uses the official text. In the former sense, it should be obvious that it is valid and licit. But in the latter sense, it is possible for it to not be licit (e.g., if the priest disregards the rubrics) or even sacrilegious (e.g., perhaps the abuses you mention) or even not valid (e.g., if the priest doesn’t have the proper intention, etc.).

      1. Hi John,

        If I understand correctly what you are saying, the NO Mass has no defect and is valid and licit as per how it is described and proposed in the canon of the church. However, it can be regarded as not licit and even sacrilegious due to deviations and abuses as the ones I related. Am I correct?

    2. Again, distinguish abuse from use. Distinguish the Typical Missal from the way rebel priests celebrate it. Now, we can respectfully ask whether having sundry options has really been beneficial. I would argue, as you clearly would, the answer is, “No, it has not been helpful overall.”

      How infrequently, e.g., do we ever hear the Roman Canon in the OF?

  4. Rex,

    Yes, that’s what I mean–though I would have to ask first what you mean by “no defect”. Certainly I would say that in its official text it has no defect that is positively harmful to souls, but one could hold this and still argue that the official text could be improved or that the reform went too far or that the extraordinary form is better.

    1. Thanks for your reply John. The problem that I see is that the Novus Ordo Liturgy facilities in itself the occasion of sin and scandal. It certainly does not prescribe it but it allows it and once allowed there’s not going back. It’s a downhill from which to pedal back becomes so hard that actually runs counter it. It’s exactly the opposite of what St. Pius X prescribed about approaching the non catholic: “for one step he makes we should make two towards him”. Here in the novus Ordo liturgy for one step taken to refrain from its abuses, more abuses are being provided under the protector umbrella of the hierarchy that is OK with it. You can say that the NO liturgy is valid and licit although not its abuses, but the thing is that you have several generations of hierarchy that actually understood those abuses as the way to rightfully interpret the NO liturgy. Examples are many. For the sake of this comment, let’s keep in mind the one earlier related with Pope Francis when Bishop of Buenos Aires, given the children mass.
      And for me this question still remains: How is it possible that the Holy Ghost could have handled to us the NO liturgy? It’s basic catholic principle that the Church is the ark of salvation and that its liturgy, dogmas and disciplines have the purpose and ultimate end to nourish the souls of the faithful to lead them to salvation. How then is it possible that Almighthy God could have given to us such liturgy? To me it seems that the NO liturgy has the footprint of Men but not God. It can mention God here and there but it is all surrounded by and idea that is diametrically opposed to the holy mass of all ages: that mass is made to entertain men not to give honor and glory to God.

      1. Yes, I think you are correct. It doesn’t matter if it is valid and licit. It is wrong. It is man centered. It is not God centered. You can say it as reverent as you want but it does not change the foundation of why it was created. You want a Mass that the people can understand? Say the 1962 TLM in the vernacular then. You want a Mass that the people can hear? Have the priest say out loud all he says during the 1962 TLM. You want a Mass that the people can say things back to the priest during the Mass? Have the people respond with the altar boys in those parts in the 1962 TLM. Oh, wait. They had that already. It was called the dialogue Mass. Okay, but now do it in the vernacular. The question remains, what was their purpose in changing the Mass to one about and for God to one about and for man? The NO Mass, and all things associated with it, has had a devastating effect on the Catholic Church since its beginning.

  5. I agree with you Woody. In fact, it is my personal experience that in order to truly appreciate the traditional liturgy and hence to pray and believe as the Church has always done you have to somehow “detox” from the paradigms the NO liturgy inculcates on you. The most noticeable to me is the need to feel “entertain” and “participant”. Both elements clearly of “Protestant inspiration” define the event (NO Mass) as circuling around Man not God. Hence, the NO intends to please Man not God which tells me the difficulty to present this as a work inspired by the Holy Ghost regardless if it followed all the canonical procedures by the VII hierarchy.

Comments are closed.