QUAERITUR: Distinction of Masses, TLM and NO

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.


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  1. Ottaviani says:

    The way we (English) distinguish between “High” mass and “sung” mass is by the number of ministers present. If you say “Sung Mass” to a Catholic here, they will usually think you mean one with just one minister who sings everything, unlike “High Mass” where there is the deacon and sub-deacon as well.

  2. Daniel Muller says:

    Here is a good discussion of Musicam Sacram and its distinctions, admittedly universally ignored, between “solemn, sung, and read” Mass. MS states that the Missa in cantu “is to be preferred as much as possible, even several times on the same day.”

  3. Daniel Muller says:

    Actually, the article I cited above is really about the contrast between Musicam Sacram and “Music in Catholic Worship” and the breakdown between distinctions from a musical point of view. Still, I find it an excellent article for brevity, clarity, and accuracy.

  4. Did anyone else pick up the story about Abp Murphy’sConfrimation in the Extraordinary Form?


  5. xpihs says:

    Indeed, Musicam Sacram is greatly ignored. Solemn, sung and read Mass, today we generally only get a read Mass at which, some people sing hymns.

  6. david andrew says:

    ISTM that the whole concept of “progressive solemnity” as described in the post-conciliar documents was and remains a feeble attempt at retaining the various “degrees” of solemnity naturally present in the EF. Rather than specific aspects of ritual, numbers of sacred ministers and varying uses of liturgical equipment, along with either the presence or absence of music (that is, the appointed chants) dictating the type of Mass, we (those of us in liturgical and musical direction) are given odd distinctions and instructed to “make” the solemnities more progressive through the employment of subjective judgment with respect to the types of music and instrumentation as well as what has become a parish-by-parish development of “customaries” for ceremonials.

    In my experience as a music director in several typical suburban parishes, not only has no real distinction been observed, but there is often a complete misunderstanding of how true distinctions exist between, for instance, a Sunday Mass, a daily Mass celebrated for the benefit of the attached school, or a “special” Mass for a particular group or event. “Progressive solemnity” becomes more an issue of “how important” the celebration is to the people in attendance rather than being dictated by the calendar and rubrics.

  7. Geoffrey says:

    The book “Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite” by Msgr. Peter Elliot makes the distinction between Simple Mass and Solemn Mass in the Ordinary Form. The rules are not as strict as in the Extraordinary Form, and some Masses can be somewhat in between the simple and solemn. I recommend this book. It gave me a new respect for what the Ordinary Form could and should be!

  8. A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a priest who teaches at a seminary north of beautiful Kansas City and telling him about how the Extraordinary Rite was a major part of me returning to the Church. He seemed fairly disinterested and gave me all the usual nostalgia stuff (dude, I’m 29. It’s not nostalgia for me!), and then noted how he saw a news story about Bishop Finn offering the Low Mass at the Cathedral in Kansas City (on WDTPRS at https://wdtprs.com/2007/09/2189/) and thought that this was the highest Low Mass that he’d ever seen and that it was so extravagant tha Father Murphy of this priest’s youth would have just lit all 6 candles and called it a High Mass anyway.

    It was a disappointing conversation to find out that this seminary was so dismissive of the Old Mass. Incidently, the conversations I had with some other lay retreatants proved the opposite. One guy, from Saint Louis, had nothing but praise for the work that Abp. Burke has done for the Extraordinary Form in his Archdiocese. Another man from Atlantic City was amazed to hear that the Old Mass even still existed anymore. He sat back and his eyes glazed a bit, saying “that’s when people really knew what it meant to be Catholic, it seems so long ago…”

    Is it nostalgia for that guy? I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t care. I just know that even the lowest Low Mass is a higher form of worship than what I get at the noon Mass in my round suburban spaceship parish!

  9. Prof. Basto says:

    I also tought that there were still a few formal distinctions in the N.O.

    For instance, there is reference in the NO liturgical books to “Stational Mass”, and, if I’m not mistaken, there is still somewhere in the Books mention of that “Solemn Mass” is the Mass assisted by a deacon.

    Also, there are rules about placing tapestry in front of the altar (on the floor of the presbyterium) on certain ocasions, etc.

  10. Gavin says:

    I would propose, in response to David, that the issue is that “progressive solemnity” winds up very haphazard and random. Which canon is the priest using today? What Mass ordinary? How much chant will be used? We wind up with either no distinction OR insignificant distinctions. For example, many parishes don’t even vary from the 45 minute Mass on Easter. Others only make the change of adding brass. Of course, at neither would the priest think to use the Roman Canon or the Confiteor! Indeed, even for the priest eager to use progressive solemnity, it can be a confusing task: is a sung Pater more or less solemn than EPI? Is using the confiteor too much for Sundays of Easter? Musicians face this same problem; do we use Lux et Origo or a polyphonic Mass? And that’s if you have the resources for either!

    What was needed all along is, by custom or fiat, a distinction. I’d even say EPIII is just peachy if it came with a notice “only to be used for daily Mass”. We have the customs for the Gregorian chant Masses, with Mass I used in Easter, Mass XVIII used for requiems, etc. So why can no such customs develop for the various celebrant options in the Mass?

    What I recommend to both priests and musicians is to sit down and draw up a chart of WHAT you use WHEN. Priests, think out “I’ll use the Roman Canon for all Easter and Christmas season Masses, all Holy Days of Obligation, Palm Sunday. EP II will be used all other days, EP III for weekday Masses….” Musicians, think out “Easter I’ll try to have all the propers sung, through Lent we will use a vernacular ordinary, in Advent we will use a very simple Kyrie…” And PRIESTS, MEET WITH YOUR MUSICIANS and plan out “on these sorts of feasts, we will chant the entire Mass; on this sort we will chant the Pater, Preface, and Dismissal; during Lent we will only chant the penitential rite….”

    Progressive solemnity can be VERY effective, but only if it actually MEANS something and isn’t a haphazard “what do I feel like doing today?”

  11. Jason says:

    Out of curiosity, is there a distinction between a priest and an archpriest? I’ve heard rumblings as well of an ‘archdeacon’ in reading about Catholic things in the Middle Ages… Is there a link? Could someone explain the usage a little better to me?

    The ‘arch’ here seems to be somewhat different than how an ‘archbishop’ is commonly used (as a bishop of a diocese, but also overseeing several other diocese as well… aka another term for a Metropolitan (Bishop)).

  12. Jason,

    An Archpriest in the early Church and mediaeval times would have been first among the priests in a diocese. Eventually the Archpriest became the head of a grouping of parishes, and so is roughly comparable to a Dean in our own times.

    Liturgically, the Archpriest, vested in a cope, would assist newly-ordained priests at their Solemn Masses.


  13. A good place to start on the level of solemnity in the Ordinary Form would be to look at the day itself. Is it a Solemnity, a Feast, a Memorial, or a ferial day.
    I would also say there is a bit of a difference in a Mass with a bishop or abbot present, as there are additional rubrics when a prelate is present.

    As a general rule, I’d say it’s safe to treat Solemnities and Feasts a bit “more special” than a Memorial or a ferial day.

    Father does make a good point about doing Masses the same way. I’ve been in situations where the priest wanted every Mass to be as solemn as possible, and it got to the point where the solemnity was just banalized and the Mass became rather onerous.

    Of course part of the problem is that an average parish’s “solemn” Masses are not very solemn as much as they are just more circus-like than usual. I think this is one reason why people prefer a simpler unsung Mass on Sundays, rather than have to listen to recycled 70’s music.

    Thankfully, with the motu proprio, I think there is starting to be more influcnce on the Ordinary Form in that there are some places that are trying to integrate more chant and follow the rubrics as the Church intends them to be carried out.

    At my own parish, we often will sing the Commons in Latin and use incense on Solemnities and Feasts on weekdays. It’s not perfect, but it does help distinguish the day.

  14. John P says:

    The archpriest also assists the bishop at a Pontifical High Mass.

  15. The terms High Mass and Solemn Mass sometimes get mixed up.

    This has to do with British v. American usage. British usage has become popular here.

    British: Low Mass, Sung Mass, High Mass.

    American: Low Mass, High Mass, Solemn Mass.

    One need only compare Fortescue’s Ceremonies (one of the older editions) and the American translation of Mueller’s Handbook. Oddly, The Baltimore Ceremonial uses the terms ‘High Mass’ and ‘High Mass without Deacon & Sub-deacon’.

  16. Even at my typical suburban parish with a rather new round church — octagonal, actually, with an octagonal “altar”, yet — we generally hear only the Roman Canon on solemnities (including the octaves of Easter and Pentecost), and EP II only on weekdays that are not solemnities or feast days. I believe that EP III is most common on Sundays when EP I is not being used; EP IV occasionally on weekdays, but never (I believe) on Sundays.

    I’ve heard it claimed that Eucharistic Prayers II and IV, which have their own Prefaces, are not supposed to used on any day that has its own proper Preface, which would seem (as I understand it) to exclude all solemnities, feast days, and Sundays.

  17. Gavin says:

    More on topic, I might suggest (since the only purpose for such minutiae I can think of is bulletins or advertising) that Masses be labeled according to the distinction: “Choral Mass”, “Concelebrated Mass”, “Pontifical Mass”, “Recited Mass”, “Mass with Deacon”, etc.

  18. Tom says:

    Re: “parishes with an Irish background…”

    Could we stop this ‘oh-the-Irish-and-their-lowest-of-low-Masses’ thing? I can’t wait until we have a Motu Proprio on the Irish contribution to the Church – what was great and holy in the past is great and holy for us too.

    When the English wore wode, the Irish brought the Faith back to most of Europe. When the Germans were cosying up to the local shrubbery, they were actually rather grateful of the Irish way of doing things. When the French were still struggling with a poorly pronounced, provincial dialect of Latin, Ireland was the Island of Saints and Scholars and the Irish were sailing the seas for Christ.

    While the Germans were rebelling, the English conforming and the French wavering, the Irish were SUFFERING for the Faith and preserving it in spite of dungeon, fire and sword.

    This isn’t a competition. It certainly doesn’t have to be but why is it that litur-geists, and self-appointed experts always have to dis the Irish when it comes to Low Masses. There were so many Low Masses because you can’t have a Solemn Mass or a High Mass unless there’s something less solemn or less high – indeed, to always go for the highest form possible, as some traditionalist communities (most) do, would be (a) impractical in the real world of a daily schedule of Latin Masses and (b) undesirable because it destroys hierarchy and modulation of significance and solemnity for one feast over another.

    ‘The end is easily foretold, when every blessed thing you hold,
    Is made of silver, or of gold, you long for simple pewter.’

    This ‘oh-the-Irish’ attitude reminds me of Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne at the reception for the newly arrived Nuncio, Archbishop Panico, who had obviously come to put a halt to the Irish Ecclesiastical Empire. The Nuncio got off the plane and praised the great strides made by the Church in Australia, expressing the hope that, one day, all the prelates would be native-born.

    Mannix replied, welcoming the Nuncio, praising the representative of the Holy Father and expressing the hope that, one day, all the Nuncios would be native-born too!

    Just remember, the Irish had a role in the ways of Providence and what was holy and great in the past remains holy and great for us too.

  19. Re: “parishes with an Irish background…”

    Actually, I suspect that the prevalence of low Masses in pre-Vatican II urban parishes in the U.S. had little to do with national backgrounds, and much to do with simple arithmetic.

    For instance, in the early 20th century St. John Cantius Parish in Chicago had over 23 thousand members, the great majority of whom attended Mass every single Sunday in those halcyon days of faith and liturgy. The church seated maybe 2 thousand, and all Sunday Masses were scheduled between roughly 6 am and noon, there being no vigil or afternoon Masses then.

    Do the arithmetic for yourself. How many high Masses lasting over an hour or so each do you think this almost exclusively Polish parish was able to schedule each Sunday morning?

  20. Your “Everything is nothing” phrase reminds me of the classic exchange on Deep Purple’s live album, when the sound man is doing the sound check. Someone wants the guitar louder, then someone wants the bass louder. Finally they happy tell the sound man, “We want everything louder than everything else.”

  21. Jrny says:

    I think it is possible to maintain levels of distinction even with having Daily Sung or High Masses. The reason I say this is because the Chants themselves have varying levels of ornamentation. Consider the following:

    1. There are 18 Kyriales (Settings for the Ordinary chants). The first setting is devoted to Eastertide. Then, beginning with Mass 2 (Fons Bonitatis),which is prescribed for First Class Feasts, the Chants go from being very ornate and melodic to very simple and monosyllabic so thgat by the time you reach Mass XVIII, the simple setting makes sense for a Ferial DFay in Lent/

    2. The Chants for the Propers have somewhat of a level of distinction, but this is not copnsistent and entirely evident all the time.

    3. The Chants for the Prefaces have three different settings (i.e. Ferial Tone, Solemn Tone, & the Tonus Solemnior ad libitum in the back of the Missal). The Ferial Term is prescribed for all Ferial Days of whatever rank (hence, Ash Wednesday qualifies here), and all Days of the 4th.; Class. The Solemn Tone, which the tone most usually heard and sung,is prescribed for Sundays and all Feasts of the Third Class and higher. The Tonus Solemnior, which is optional, may be employed on any day the Solemn Tone is used, but this tone is usually (and rightfully) used sparingly on the most important Feast Days alone.

    4. The Tone for the Pater Noster also has a Ferial and Solemn Tone, according to the same distinction for the Prefaces.

    So, from a strictly chant perspective, I would argue that there is plenty of distinction from more Solemn to less Solemn, even if a Sung or High Mass is celebrated daily. The Mass setting s for a Ferial in Lent would render even a High Mass to be finished in 40-45 minutes, because of the simple tones and, of course, the lack of the Gloria and Credo.

    Consider also that the Eastern Liturgies only have what is equalivent to our High Mass. There is no such thing as a “Low Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom”.


    3. The Chants prescribed for the Prefaces

  22. Maureen says:

    The Irish did develop a choral tradition. In fact, one of the first known pieces of medieval polyphony was Irish, and it was way early medieval. The monasteries, male and female, all chanted from extremely early on. We have a good few pieces of medieval Irish church music, and it’s all choral. But that all ended, thanks to the English and the Penal Laws.

    There’s a difference between “no tradition” and “violently murdered tradition”.

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