From Where Comes “Novus Ordo”?

I do not recall hearing the phrase “Novus Ordo” used to describe the editions of the Missale Romanum of Pope Paul VI until rather recently and yet, within the past few years, I have heard it used quite frequently, not only by those who wish to critique this Missal but even by those who defend it. As one who teaches liturgical history I find this development rather interesting and my question, then, is, simply, from where did this designation arise? It is certainly not the official term for the Missale Romanum, which by the way, is the official term for what Paul VI promulgated, the third edition of which appeared during the pontificate of John Paul II and under his authority. The term does not appear in any version of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, and I am unaware of it appearing anywhere in any official Roman document. If anyone can produce such a document I for one would find that most helpful in my teaching.

From where, then, does the term “Novus Ordo” come as a description for what is now the Ordinary Form – forma ordinaria – of the Roman Rite? The only place I know where the term appears in any document is in a 1976 address by Pope Paul VI himself to new cardinals in Rome, where he simply refers to the recent Missal as that decreed and commanded by Vatican II ( “Novus Ordo promulgatus est, ut in locum veteris substitueretur post maturam deliberationem, atque ad exsequendas normas quae a Concilio Vaticano II impertitae sunt”). But other than this reference, which is little more than what anyone might say in passing about a “new” hymnal, “new” worship book, etc., the term is not an “official title” and if anyone would take the time to compare the Ordo Missae of the Missal of Paul VI and the Ordo Missae of the seventh-century, “Gregorian” and papal Ordo Romanus Primus, it would be very hard to use the word Novus at all as a descriptive modifier of Ordo today. Indeed, for those who wish to use ‘The Gregorian Rite” as a way to describe the “Novus Ordo” or new Missal of the Council of Trent, which by the way, according to Pius V’s Quo primum of 1570 made use of liturgical “experts” to produce (“Quare eruditis delectis viris onus hoc demandandum duximus”), the Missal of Paul VI actually merits that title more clearly. But I digress.

The widespread use of the term Novus Ordo represents far more than a description of the Missal of Paul VI. Especially by critics, the term implies much more than liturgy, though liturgy is the starting point. In fact, we have all heard that the “Novus Ordo Service, “ not even called the Mass, of course, has a “Protestant-Masonic-Pagan Nature,” which in turn, has led to a “Novus Ordo Church,” which is no longer Catholic but has basically sold out Catholicism in order to be more favorable to Protestantism (e.g., less emphasis on the sacrificial nature of the Mass to be replaced by a meal emphasis), and, which, of course, really has Masonic roots.

How anyone can make that claim after reading the sacrificial language in all of the Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite, especially the anamnesis of Eucharistic Prayer IV, is beyond me.

The use of Novus Ordo, which even some Catholic parishes now use in their bulletins to designate a Latin Mass in the forma ordinaria, is a term probably best to be avoided by all of us, given its implications. Though innocent enough when Paul VI used it in 1976, the term brings with it all kinds of baggage, associated with particular attitudes and agendas, both political and ecclesiastical, which others unwittingly acknowledge by the use of such terminology. I suspect that just as there is no Novus Ordo Catholic Church, there is also no such thing as a real Novus Ordo Mass on which to base it. There is only the Roman Rite, whatever form of that which is used. Please, if someone knows something different than this and can find it in official Church documents and teaching, please let me know. For the time being, if you like to use Latin phrases in your speech, and we liturgiologists love to do so with things like “lex orandi,” “lex credendi,” and “Novus Ordo” so easily rolling off our tongues, maybe you might be saying much more than you intend to say.

15 thoughts on “From Where Comes “Novus Ordo”?

  1. From Cardinal Ottaviano’s letter to the Holy Father in September, 1969:

    Most Holy Father,

    Having carefully examined, and presented for the scrutiny of others, the Novus Ordo Missae prepared by the experts of the Consilium ad exequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia, and after lengthy prayer and reflection, we feel it to be our bounder duty in the sight of God and towards Your Holiness, to put before you the following considerations:”

    Throughout the letter, he consistently uses the term Novus Ordo Missae. The complete letter can be read at

    And so in a way, yes, from the beginning this term was used in a negative context given Cardinal Ottaviano’s concerns.

    I recall hearing this term as far back as 1977 as a student organist who played for both NO and what was then called the “Tridentine Mass” at our parish. The Pastor called the former the “Novus Ordo” Mass.

    I would agree though that it maqintains a negative connotation, more akin to the “Newfangled Mass” or something like that. The Holy Father has wisely indicated for us to use Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form.

  2. How anyone can make that claim after reading the sacrificial language in all of the Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite

    Not all. The notion of sacrifice is conspicuously absent from EP II. And that is the one used the most, at least where I live.

    I don’t believe the 1969 rite is Masonic, and there are even a couple of its features I like (EP IV is actually quite nice, though it is very rarely used). But it does not take a degree in liturgiology, nor even an elementary school diploma, to notice that it is based on very different priniciples than any other rite in use in the Catholic or Orthodox Church. It represented, for example, an intentional and very principled purging of the Roman Rite of features such as Scriptural verses and on the other hand an odd interjection of prayers based on Jewish meal blessings which are in all probability much younger than Scripture. It also introduces the – in traditional Christian liturgical terms – completely novel idea of a wide range of options for prayers that are left solely to the discretion of the celebrant (in other rites that have multiple options for prayers, mostly anaphoras, the use of these is strictly regulated by liturgical law).

    It is hard to escape the conclusion that the 1969 rite presents something fundamentally new in Christendom, or at least in Catholicism, and that this was moreover the exact intention of its crafters.

    1. The notion of sacrifice is not absent from Eucharistic Prayer II. Sacrifice and offering are interrelated concepts; thus the line “we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread, this saving cup,” following shortly upon the Memorial Acclamation, embodies the sacrificial thrust of this anaphora.

      I do not like making blanket statements of ubiquity with respect to matters liturgical: liturgy is a particular, contextual thing. But I’ll risk it in this case: there is nothing in the mass liturgy of the Missal of Pope Paul VI that represents something “fundamentally new” in Christendom. Every prayer, every gesture, and even the notion of text development and intervention being left solely to the informed discretion of the presiding priest-celebrant, has some precedent in the liturgical tradition of the Western Church prior to the sixteenth century.

      1. What tosh. When I ‘offer’ a visiting friend a glass of whisky, I am not performing a sacrifice. At any rate, even though you may be smart enough to make the connection, it doesn’t mean all are. What happened to making the liturgy more ‘comprehensible’?

        EP II is notoriously ambiguous. Not only that, but it is very spiritually unfulfilling in that it leaves no time to delve into the mystery of Golgotha before the Consecration is over and done with.

  3. Thanks for this. I use the termNovus Ordo quite a lot to refer to the recent form of the mass having picked up the habit from Roman Catholics from a wide spectrum of the liturgical scale. I use it as a neutral designation rather than a polemical one, but I certainly see your point.

  4. While there is no doubt that the expression “Novus Ordo” can be used in a pejorative manner, this is clearly not always the case. In fact, Pope Paul VI, who promulgated the revised Order of Mass, used the term himself in a consistorial address on the occasion of the creation of new cardinals:

    This was some seven years after His Eminence Cardinal Ottaviani’s letter, so the term was not one necessarily associated with polemics or controversy, at least originally.

  5. In response to Paul Goings: Yes, I know. In fact, that’s the very text I refer to and quote from in my piece above.

  6. Look carefully at the orthography. In the phrase, “Usus novi Ordinis Missae,” the capitalization (and italics) make it clear that the word “novus” is not part of the name in Paul VI’s mind. In other words, what we have is, “The use of the new ‘Order of Mass’.” The next sentence, Novus is therefore presumably capitalized not because Novus Ordo is a proper noun but because Novus is the first word of the sentence, and Ordo is a proper noun with the word Missae to be understood.

  7. In South Africa the term “Novus Ordo” is almost completely unknown to Catholics. When I have seen it (I have never yet heard it) used, it is almost always been pejorative. Most Catholics here when making a distinction would commonly use the terms “Mass” or “Vatican II Mass” versus “Tridentine Mass” or “Latin Mass”.

    Personally, I think we do a great disservice to the memory of Pope Paul VI and all the bishops and experts who put so much good effort into the renewed post-Conciliar rites by using a label specifically coined or used to disparage them, their work, their motives and the rites themselves. It seems that the term NO for many in the “push back” crowd has been embraced for what it implies: new = novelty = break from tradition = not Catholic = not from God.

    I think we need another term to describe what we think NO describes.

  8. Mr. Ertner, isn’t sacrifice the offering of something to God? If not, what is it?

    I would say, at least on the surface, “NO”…
    There could certainly be a theological argument made that this is the case, but the English language doesn’t convey it very well. Offering and Sacrifice are distinct concepts to most. And this doesn’t even address the confusion that arises between “Christ’s sacrifice” in the form of the un-bloody sacrifice of the Eucharist or “Our sacrifice” as represented by the gifts brought forward.

    But this is off track for this thread.

  9. Graham said –

    “I think we need another term to describe what we think NO describes”

    And hence, in 2007 we were given the term “Ordinary Form”. In most conversations prior to 2007, the terms “NO” and “TLM” were used to make distinctions between the two forms of the Mass. Since that time, the terms “OF/EF” have become the common terminology.

    I think it’s a mistake though to assume bad will on the part of those who still use Novus Ordo to describe the Missal of Paul VI. Old habits die hard. Even here, in 2010 I see the Extraordinary Form referred to as the “former Mass” , “Latin Mass” (as thought the OF is not a Latin Mass?) and even ” Old form of the Mass”. I’m certain that such designations weren’t meant to imply that the Extraordinary Form Mass is either obsolete (former), obscure (Latin) or nostalgic (Old form..), but rather I would guess that these are simply outdated terms that the individuals use out of habit…

  10. Thank you Max, for a thought-provoking post. I am going to avoid using this term in the future, now that you’ve drawn my attention to its negative frame of reference.

    Graham’s comment also reminds me of a qualifier that is loaded, namely calling the rites that predate the liturgy promulgated by Paul VI, the “traditional” liturgy. As if the liturgy that followed Vatican II was not traditional. No, I agree with what Cody says above, and I know that the people who revised the rites labored intensively to have them reflect the best of the tradition, while adhering to the principles enunciated at Vatican II.

    This having been said, I must also note that everybody is flummoxed over what to call these rites. When I write for general interest magazines, I am always at odds with editors who say (and they are probably right) that nobody knows what these terms mean. Extraordinary form? Ordinary form? You’ve already lost your readers. It’s a mess.

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