In his work on Baptism Tertullian contrasts the simplicity (simplicitas) of the rite of Baptism accompanied by few words (inter pauca verba) with its power (potestas) and wonderful effect (magnificentia in effectu) as sacrament. It receives its whole power (omnis virtus), he insists, not from the simple actions and words but from its cause (causam): God1. This is in decided contrast in the thought of Tertullian to the pagan Roman emphasis in worship on solemn ceremonies and mysterious rites (sollemnia uel arcana). Pagan cult gains credence and prestige by its ornate ceremonial (pompa) and its pretentious display (apparatus)2. Christianity on the other hand with its simple and sober bodily gestures and words in its worship manifests most clearly the truly wondrous spiritual effects that come about in the sacraments3.
The remarks of Tertullian anticipate the classical description of the “genius” of the Roman rite from the pen of Edmund Bishop: “The genius of the native Roman rite is marked by simplicity, practicality, a great sobriety and self-control, gravity and dignity, but there it stops”4.
Reading Tertullian with the first year students in Liturgy at the PIL, I was struck by the appropriateness of his words even for today. Many of the arguments in contrasting the novus ordo of Pope Paul VI to the “extraordinary form” of the Mass or the inverse seem to fall into an emphasis on the external aspects alone. It is the “mystery” or “sacredness” that is seen to be lacking or one form is more mystic and sacred than the other. It sometimes seems that the most important thing is the solemnity and mysteriousness of the rites, their ceremonial and gestures. In fact the mode of celebrating is often enough deficient, but this is equally true of both forms – ordinary and extraordinary. I remember well as a youth serving as an acolyte in my local parish the unfortunately frequent twelve minute Mass from prayers at the foot of the altar to the end of the last Gospel. I sill fail to find a great deal of mystery or sacredness in that type of celebration. I have also participated in recent celebrations of the extraordinary form by priests who obviously were not proficient in Latin and not familiar with the rubrics of the Missale Romanum of 1962. The ordinary form has also been subject to abuse in celebrating as Instructions from the Congregation of Divine Worship have clearly noted.
The need of more formation in the proper “ars celebrandi” of both of the two forms is a pressing need for clergy, ministers at the altar and the faithful. When I have asked who has read the Praenotanda of any of the editions of the Missale Romanum (1970, 1975, 2002) of Pope Paul VI, my experience has been that many if not the majority of priests and deacons have not done so. This is equally true of the rituals for the sacraments produced after Vatican Council II. The same lack seems to be true in regard to the “Rubricae generales” and “Rubricae generales Missalis romani” promulgated by Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1960 and printed at the beginning of the Missale romanum of 1962, the approved Missal of the “extraordinary form”. The “art” of celebrating the Roman rite, sober and terse as it is in words and gestures, is not generally known or practiced.
The other problem that the comments of Tertullian bring to the fore is an overemphasis on the external ritual – words and gestures. The fitting “ars celebrandi” is vital for the liturgy, but the core is rather the interior, spiritual effect of the rites. The cause is God, not the external words and actions as such. Both forms have “mystery” and “sacredness” because both bring the faithful into contact with God and God’s saving grace won for us all in the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ. It is not the external aspects that create the Holy Mysteries, their holiness comes from within! Too much of the recent polemic (and unfortunately it has been that) about the ordinary and extraordinary forms has only touched surface realities, perfect or less perfect in the realization of ritual actions and words. It is time to move below the surface to acknowledge the spiritual reality that is at the core of our celebrations. God, not the humanly imperfect participation of clergy or faithful, is at work and is the guarantee of our liturgies and their true effect for us all.


1 Q.S.F. Tertullianus, De baptismo 2,1-3, ed. J.G.P. Borleffs (Corpus christianorum series latina [=CCL] 1), Brepols, Turnhout 1954, 277-278.

2 Tertullianus, De baptismo 2,1-2, ed Borleffs (CCL 1), 277. For the sense in a ritual context of the words used, see Oxford Latin Dictionary, ed. P.G.W. Glare, [At the] Clarendon Press, Oxford 1982, 162: “arcanus” – (of rites) “esoteric, mysterious, magical, mystic”; 1784: “sollemnia” – “solemn observances, ritual offerings”.

3 Tertullianus, De baptismo 7,1, ed Borleffs (CCL 1), 282.

4 E. Bishop, Liturgica Historica, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1918, 12.