This question came in via e-mail:
Father, a brief question.
In the TLM, there is a clear distinction between the Low Mass, the High Mass, the Pontifical Mass, etc. Is there such a distinction in the Novus Ordo? I mean, what do we call the Mass usually celebrated on weekdays, without incense and a full complement of servers? On the other hand, how should we call the Mass celebrated with incense, perhaps a Book of the Gospels, a full complement of servers, etc.?
In our parish, we are discouraged to call the former "Low Mass" and the latter a "High Mass." Is it more proper to call the latter a "Solemn Mass"–but shouldn’t all Masses be solemn?
It is true that when we use the older form of Mass, call it TLM or "Gregorian" or what you will, we make distinctions. A Low Mass is spoken only, with one or two servers. A Sung Mass, sometimes called High Mass, is mostly sung and there can be more servers. A Solemn Mass is sung and there are deacon and subdeacon, perhaps also an archpriest. The terms High Mass and Solemn Mass sometimes get mixed up. Pontifical Masses have a bishop or abbot as celebrant. You also get picky and distinguish Pontifical Masses at the throne or at the faldstool, etc.
It often happens that people get all riled up about Low Mass and High Mass distinctions. Some folks think that the Low Mass is actually the Shangri-la, the El Dorado, of Masses. It may be that some of this comes from older people who were from parishes with an Irish background. For so very long, Catholics were oppressed in Ireland. Thus, they didn’t develop a deep tradition of sacred choral music and choirs, or church architecture with large choir lofts such as German had. Also, some people just don’t want to be bothered with a Mass that is longer than, say, 45 minutes on a Sunday and 3O minutes on a weekday. Therefore, the Low Mass becomes their favorite and, subsequently, it is promoted to their personal norm for the Universal Church.
But getting back to your question:
In the Novus Ordo there is no official distinction between Masses celebrated with different levels of solemnity. That said, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t use the same terminology in a parish setting along the lines you suggest. The terms seem very useful to me.
Should all Masses be solemn?
Well, yes and no.
The standard or paradigmatic Mass for every rite is its higher level of solemn celebration. Many people think that the Low Mass is the norm or standard for the Roman Rite. It is not. Or rather, it may be the norm or standard when considering merely the frequency of celebration. Low Mass is admittedly more common (in both senses of the word). However, Low Mass is not the norm, where norm means the measuring stick by which Masses are considered. The Solemn Mass, even Pontifical Mass is really the standard. The Low Mass and the Sung Mass are scaled down from the Solemn Mass. That is to say that things were taken away from Low Mass and Sung Mass rather than things added to the Solemn Mass. See?
Now we get into the psychology of our worship, which is something I believe the post-Conciliar reforms never considered.
Lo those many years ago when I worked in theater, we had a phrase: Everything is nothing. That is to say, if a set is entirely red it rapidly becomes uninteresting. If the lights are also bright, the lighting is boring. If an actor’s volume is always loud or never varies from a high pitch, he is extremely dull. There must be variation. You can’t keep going at a fevered pitch forever and expect that people will keep you tuned it. There must be highs and lows, contrasts, ups and downs.
The Church’s calendar does this perfectly. Our level of solemnity should match the psychology of the calendar.
So, that is the "no" part of the question. Not every Mass should have all the stops pulled out, to use a term applicable to the Church’s favored musical instrument.
But, at the same time, I can say "yes", Mass should always be solemn. That is to say, solemn in proportion to the occasion you are observing. What is solemn on Easter is not the same as what is solemn on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, which is not the same as a ferial day during the week after the 6th Sunday of Pentecost. Mass should be solemnly, that is reverently and carefully, with great attention from all those involved, at whatever level of liturgical solemnity the occasion requires. So, using the world "solemnly" equivocally, a garden variety Low Mass can be celebrated with the solemnity appropriate to it.