The Novus Ordo: A Timely Emphasis upon Mercy

Dom Philippe Jobert OSB FAITH Magazine May-June 2007

Blessed John XXIII, realising that a gulf was widening between the static Church and the rapidly developing world, decided to call the Second Vatican Council in order to give the Church the means of reaching out to the world, to communicate salvation to it. He prophesied a new Pentecost. Indeed a new pouring out of the Holy Spirit in the Church was necessary in order to reach those who had no knowledge of salvation, and also those who, knowing about it, had rejected it. For the evolution of the world was tending in the direction of secularisation, that is to say separation from God. Mankind was living and acting more and more as if it was independent of God, as if God did not exist.

Now, just like the material world, men are created by God from nothing, and depend entirely on him for their being, their lives and activities. The Church’s mission is to remind them of this dependence. Being sinners they need to be saved from eternal death. The Church has to go to meet them, to announce to them and propose the way to salvation that Our Lord Jesus Christ has realised for them, by taking away their sins, and by communicating to them his eternal life.

Vatican II had no other purpose but to proclaim this proposition of salvation. For this reason it promulgated documents conveying the unchangeable message of Christ so that the men of today might understand it. Amongst these were the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the decrees on ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, and the declaration on religious liberty. I would suggest that the common denominator of all these documents is the theme of mercy.

Mercy and Sacrifice

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit spread the love of God in the Church (Rom 5,5). This means that God, who is love (1Jn 4,8), loves all men as himself, and wishes to give himself to them as the object of their knowledge and love. Being infinite, Divine Charity cannot increase, nor give more than itself. Yet it may surpass itself in its effects, by becoming Mercy. Etymologically mercy means that one is unhappy on account of someone else’s unhappiness. That is affective mercy. Going even further in doing good the merciful person can relieve still more the wretchedness of someone else. Wretchedness consists in being deprived of what one ought to have. It is relieved by effective mercy, which gives to the unhappy person the necessary good that he lacks. Perfect mercy consists intaking on oneself the wretchedness of another, to deliver him from it. Such is the Divine Mercy of the Son of God, who becomes a man, assuming the wretchedness of sinful humanity, sin excepted, in order to deliver it from death and eternal damnation.

This is the Mercy of Christ that John XXIII invited the Church to propagate in our time by means of the Vatican Council[1] . A fresh effusion of the Holy Spirit was necessary in the Church so that her love might be extended in mercy towards modern men, following the example of Christ who came to save the poor sinners that we are. This mercy has, however, been misunderstood by many members of the Church.

Equation of Mercy and Secularization

Some saw in it a solely humanitarian intention to struggle against the many wretched features of our contemporary societies, by exclusively social means, and by coming down to the level of the most deprived. Anxious only for social progress, they called themselves ‘progressives’, and left on one side the proper mission of the Church which is to transform people into children of God. Seduced by the ideologies of democracy, Marxism, etc., they were assimilated into those whom they should have been evangelising. In a word, they became secular. Others committed the same mistake, but their reaction was entirely opposite: not only did they refuse to follow the general flow towards secularisation – in which they were right – but they rejected the Mercy of the Church, which theyconfused with an abandonment of its divine mission. For them the ecumenical dialogue is a heresy assimilating the Catholic faith to the errors condemned by previous councils. Inter-religious dialogue would appear in their eyes to be getting close to treating all religions as equivalent. Religious freedom, that resides in the natural faculty to be freely engaged in the quest for man’s destiny, anterior to any question of religious truth, and independent of any exterior constraint, was confused by them with the liberalism condemned by 19th Century popes. Subjective freedom, which is what religious freedom is, the freedom of the person to reckon about his final destiny, has nothing to do with liberalism, where the object of freedom would be adherence to Christian truth. These people calledthemselves ‘traditionalists’.

These divergent Christians, progressives and traditionalists, who similarly confuse Mercy with secularisation, indifferentism or liberalism, have not understood that Mercy implies love of persons, whilst not sharing their false ideas. Christ died on the Cross to save all men : not just Catholics, but Orthodox, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, Marxists, and so on. He loves them all, and in consequence by following him, the Church has to love them all too. This love includes respect for their religious freedom, but does not imply any adherence to the object of their erroneous convictions. On the contrary, because this love comes from God, the truth of this love tends to lead them to recognise the truth of God, which can save them through Jesus Christ in the CatholicChurch. This love is Mercy, precisely because it tends to deliver from the wretchedness of their error those who are its victims.

On one occasion a ‘traditionalist’ magazine entitled its first page with the headline “Let Us Forget Gaudium et Spes.” They had quite misunderstood it. For them this Pastoral Constitution was the expression of a starry-eyed humanism, a product of optimism following the horrors of the world war. This was to forget that Vatican II coincided with the period of the extension of communism throughout the world and the confrontation of international blocks in the ‘cold war’. Above all it was a complete misunderstanding of the Divine Mercy which inspired the Council. To an unhappy humanity, for whom profound changes were obscuring the landmarks of the natural law, the Church was extending a helping hand. The Church was attempting anew to show modern Man the personal, family and socialvalues which follow from his being in the image of God, and his divine vocation which is revealed and restored by Christ’s dying and rising for all mankind.

This mystery of Mercy, which is the key to the interpretation of the Council, found its ultimate expression in the liturgical reform and the promulgation of a renewed rite of the Roman Mass by Paul VI in 1969. We must not be surprised at this, since the Mass is the synthesis of the whole Christian mystery.

 There are few material modifications that distinguish the new rite from the old. To illustrate this let me quote the case of a journalist and his wife who were bitterly opposed to the liturgical reform, which he attacked weekly in a periodical now defunct. They came to Solesmes and having attended our Mass, solemnly celebrated in Latin in the new rite, the lady said to the monk: Father, what a pleasure it is for us to have been present at a good Mass!” In the French traditionalist jargon of the time ‘a good Mass’ signified the rite of St Pius V. The difference in the two rites is not to be found in such or such a detail of the celebration, but in their general orientation.

The old Roman Rite, which emerged from a long tradition, was understood as the sacramental offering by the priest, acting in the Person of Christ, which He offered on the Cross to his Father in expiation for the sins of the world. This was through his Divine and human love of Justice before his Father. God is offended by mankind’s disobedience in preferring created things. Jesus obeyed his Father by sacrificing his life at the time of his Passion. This justified Mankind in the sight of God. The Council of Trent teaches that Our Lord Jesus Christ “By his most Holy Passion on the wood of the Cross has merited for us justification, and has made satisfaction for us to God the Father.” (Dz 1528) Merit and satisfaction are the works of justice. One can say that the old rite is celebrated in thecontext, primarily, of Justice. Did not Jesus himself say to John the Baptist at his baptism in the Jordan river, symbol of his Passion: “It is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” (Mt. 3.15) This emphasis of being under Divine Justice is liturgically expressed in the priest facing East, that is towards God, and in the use of a sacred language, Latin, to address Him.

In the renewed Roman rite, the priest faces the people and the liturgy uses language that they understand. The altar is situated between the priest and the people. The congregation are more obviously in contact with the sacrifice. The priest acting in persona Christi, simultaneously offers the sacrifice to God as an act of justice, and for the people as a mercy, uniting them in Christ’s death and resurrection. The unity of the “to God” and the “for many” of this sacred mystery is more clearly expressed. The priest acts in the Person of Christ in so far as He exercises His Mercy towards men by offering Himself to the Father in sacrifice for the expiation for their sins.

A Developed Understanding of Mercy

The conception of the new rite is therefore to be seen in the context of our modern need for mercy. Indeed the whole mystery of Christ and his mission of salvation might be summed up under the theme of ‘Mercy’. He once said: “I have compassion on the crowd.” (Mt. 15.32) And again: “I desire mercy not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” (Mt.9.13.,Hos.6.6) Must there be a contradiction between mercy and sacrifice? No, because in quoting Hosea 6.6 Jesus shows that he prefers mercy to sacrifice, and mercy to justice. In the same way James writes: “Mercy triumphs over Judgment,” (Ja. 2.13) God is both infinite Justice and infinite Mercy, but in their effects mercy wins over justice. According to our human way of conceiving divine mysteries, it is Divine Mercy thatmoved Christ to accomplish a just satisfaction for the sins of mankind. The Council of Trent teaches (Dz. 1529) that the efficient cause of the justification of sinners is Divine Mercy.

From these comparisons we may see the new rite as an inspired development upon the former one. It expresses a progress in the understanding of the mystery of the Mass, since it makes explicit the inclusion of sacrificial Justice in the mystery of Mercy, that was implicit in the old rite. Unfortunately this mystery of Mercy has been inadequately explained to the faithful, and a number of them have interpreted the renewed rite erroneously.

Some have neglected the sacrificial aspect to emphasise a human conviviality surrounding the Eucharist, a kind of selfcelebration of the liturgical assembly. They have made the celebration banal, losing the sense of the sacred and have reduced its quality in an almost profane way, instead of adoring the Divine Mercy offered for them and to them. Others have rejected the renewed rite because they were attached to former habits, and imagined that the old rite answered their desire for justice towards God. This was particularly true of France where Jansenism originated, which emphasised the connection of justice with God; and it was the Jansenist mentality that underlay traditionalism, blinding it to the mystery of Mercy manifested by the renewed rite.

A Merciful Instinct

Millions of the faithful throughout the world have spontaneously adhered to the liturgical reform, because they recognise, as poor sinners, their need for the Infinite Mercy of Jesus’s Heart which comes to meet them in the renewed rite. Just a few tens of thousands of Christians have formally separated themselves from the Church in order to remain attached to the old rite. This smacks of a lack of awareness of their need of Divine Mercy. They may have failed to see the mystery of Mercy as a crucial interpretive key of the Second Vatican Council. They have missed the emphasis upon this sacramental mystery within the new rite. If this understanding is correct a deeper humility arising from a deeper awareness of the misery of sin might bring traditionalists back to theliturgical unity of the Church.

It is not only on the Friday following the feast of Corpus Christi, as in the old rite, but in every celebration of the Mass in the renewed rite that we should celebrate the Sacred Heart. Just as in the 19th Century devotion to the Sacred Heart triumphed over the Jansensism of the two previous centuries, partly due to Dom Gueranger who led the dioceses of France to the unity of the Roman Liturgy, so, one believes, the Heart of Jesus will reunite all Catholics in the unity of the renewed rite.

The consecration of the world to the Sacred Heart at the dawn of the 20th Century by Leo XIII found its fulfilment in the intervention of Blessed John XXIII, whose forecast of a New Pentecost (of Love) made Vatican II the Council of Divine Mercy for the world separated from the Church. The liturgical cult of the Sacred Heart, inaugurated by St Jean Eudes, had received a decisive impulse from the revelations of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to St Margaret-Mary. It finds its further development in the renewed rite of the Roman Mass. From now on the liturgical reign of the Sacred Heart is universal, thanks to the reform willed by Vatican II.

At the end of his pontificate, John Paul II focussed his teaching on Divine Mercy. The encyclical letter Dives in Misericordia, the canonisation of St Faustina, the institution of the feast of Divine Mercy on the second Sunday of Easter, the consecration of the basilica of Divine Mercy in Kracow during his last visit to Poland are all signs of the times for the Church of the 21st Century. It must be the Church of Divine Mercy, truly present in the renewed rite of the Eucharist.


The present crisis is not only a superficial quarrel between the partisans of solemnity and those preferring conviviality, nor yet an episode in the controversy between tradition and progress, which is always with us. It is a deep division between two mentalities that reflect those of the characters in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15.11). On one hand is the immense crowd of sinners, the prodigal sons, whom the Father of Mercy goes out to meet, and who offers them the feast of Lamb in the new rite. On the other hand there are the small traditionalist groups who, like the elder son, refuse to take part in the same feast, and want to celebrate with their friends. When the traditionalists, who believe in the Gospel, can loyally recognise themselves in the elder son ofthe parable, they will humbly rejoin the prodigals in sharing the Sacrifice of Mercy in the renewed Roman Rite. Then there will be no more liturgical crisis.  

[1]See for example his opening speech, 11th October 1962 where he emphasized the need “to use the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity

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