Introduction to A Critical Study of the Novus Ordo Missae "The Ottaviani Intervention"

This is a preface that I did a few years ago for a new translation of the Ottaviani Intervention published by The Angelus Press. For those still attending the Novus Ordo please consider the issues raised here for the good of your own souls and for the souls of those that are dear to you. The opening quotation cited below is critical for every Catholic to keep in the forefront of their minds.

It is evident that the Novus Ordo has no intention of presenting the faith as taught by the Council of Trent, to which, nonetheless, the Catholic conscience is bound forever. With the promulgation of the Novus Ordo, the loyal Catholic is thus faced with a most tragic alternative.

This statement, made with absolute and definitive clarity, from Section VI of the Ottaviani Intervention, was made in response to what might be considered one of the most critical moments in the history of  the Catholic Church since the original Pentecost Sunday, the traditional worship of the Roman Church  was about  to be replaced.

The issue of the ongoing liturgical revolution in the Catholic Church became critical on April 28, 1969 when Paul VI announced the Novus Ordo Missae. It was the last chance for action within the traditional channels of ecclesiastical authority. Somehow the pope had to be dissuaded from implementing this substitute for the traditional Catholic Mass of the Roman Rite. This attempt, ultimately unsuccessful, was done in The Critical Study of the New Order of the Mass (in the original Italian --- Breve Esame Critico del Novus Ordo Missae) or what has become known as the “Ottaviani Intervention.” In a story little known even within traditional Catholic circles, it all began on account of the initiative of two Italian women, Cristina Campo, a writer, poet, and instigator of Una Voce Roma and Emilia Pediconi, her friend, who gathered together 5 or 6 priests, including Msgr. Renato Pozzi (a member of the Congregation for Catholic Education and a former peritus at the Council), Msgr. Gerrino Milani (a member of the Congregation for Catholic Education), and Msgr. Domenico Celada (a renowned liturgist). The compilation of their findings was entrusted to Fr. Michel Louis Guérard des Lauriers, a Dominican, professor at the Lateran University in Rome and former confessor of Pope Pius XII (1954-1955).[1] It was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who had brought Fr. Guèrard des Lauriers into the project.[2]

Rightly gaining the title of “author” of the Critical Study, Fr. Guérard des Lauriers dictated a text to Cristina Campo who put it into the final Italian. It was dated June 5, 1969. Advanced with the encouragement of Archbishop Lefebvre,[3] the two ladies from Una Voce attempted to gain some prestigious signatures for this document. At one point 15 cardinals had indicated that they would sign the introductory letter to the Critical Study. Dr. Elizabeth Gerstner from Germany and Msgr. Pozzi played the most active part in the effort to obtain these signatures between May and September 1969. Cardinal Larraona, Prefect for the Congregation of Rites, even said that he would sign the Intervention if Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci signed first.[4] Apparently this was the attitude that characterized the other potential signers. Cardinal Ottaviani, himself often thought to be author of the Critical Study, finally provided the critical first signature on the introductory letter on September 13, 1969. Cardinal Ottaviani had spent several days examining the Critical Study before he would sign it. After his reading of the Study, he had a long conversation with Msgr. Pozzi during which he stated, “It is rather strong to claim that the  New Mass is contrary  to Trent but, displeasing as it is (per quanto dispiace), it is true (è vero).”[5]

The disaster struck on October 15th, 1969 when the French traditionalist priest, Abbè des Nantes published the Critical Study in his journal without consulting anyone. Des Nantes had been provided with the text by Dr. Gerstner with the proviso that it not be published for at least a month after Paul VI had received it so as to give Paul time to have a change of heart, without making it appear that he was giving way to pressure. With the text being published before Paul VI had even seen it, the position of the signature organizers was completely undermined. Courageously enough, Cardinal Bacci added his signature to that of Cardinal Ottaviani and the Study was presented to Paul VI on October 21, 1969.[6]

When the official presentation of the Critical Study was made, rather than consider the theological arguments involved, Paul VI took it as a personal attack on his own prestige and an attack on a liturgical revolution that he had invested his entire reputation in. On account of the authority behind the two cardinals’signatures, Paul sent the General Instruction --- meant merely to introduce the New Mass --- back for minor revisions. The Novus Ordo Missae itself, however, was not revised; it was rather vehemently defended. In two addresses, given in November 1969, Paul VI defended his new revolutionary liturgy by justifying it in the name of “obedience to the Council.” This “orthodox” liturgy   would be made “obligatory” in Italy in 10 days. It was in his second address, on November 26, 1969, that he expressed his true feelings for the liturgical revolution he was personally sanctioning. He said that substituting a New Mass for the venerable Old Mass was, “a very great sacrifice” but “understanding the prayers is more important than the worn-out silk vestments with which [the old liturgy] was bedecked; what is also more important is that people nowadays take part: they want to be spoken to clearly and in a way that is understandable and can be translated into their everyday language.” So the liturgy is now a speaking to man. What about liturgy being a speaking to God? But, Paul insisted on conformity to his will.[7] The force of the Ottaviani Intervention was thus thrust aside as the sentiments of those who liked “worn-out silk vestments” and a mumbled, unintelligible language. Language, vestments, but not doctrine was involved in the substitution of new for old. 

When we consider the introductory letter --- the part which bears the signatures of both Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci --- it is clear that it is precisely the doctrinal issues which are at the heart of the concern of the two cardinals, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Fr. Guèrard des Lauriers, and the Roman theologians who considered the question of the New Mass. The term “striking departure” is not used for a case of mild reservations. Yet, it was exactly the term that the Cardinals used in their final judgment on the Novus Ordo Missae: “The Novus Ordo represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Sessions XXII of the Council of Trent. The “canons” of the rite definitely fixed at that time provided an insurmountable barrier to any heresy directed against the integrity of the Mystery.”[8] It was the theology behind the Novus Ordo as articulated by that new liturgy, which presented such a “grave break” with the dogmatically defined doctrine on the Mass canonized by the Council of Trent. The change in the composition and structure of the Mass was an attack on the “insurmountable barriers” to any heresy that would threaten the integrity of the Holy Sacrifice itself. In other words, the Church, and the Holy Ghost inspiring the Church, had structured the Holy Sacrifice in such a way that the intention of the priest could not but be in accordance with the traditional mind of the Church. The purity of doctrine exhibited by the prayers of the traditional Roman Rite and the priestly intention attendant upon those prayers ensured that the faithful were worshipping the true God in the true way which He had ordained. Since the theology expressed by the Novus Ordo Missae is compromised and, yet, since the Catholic Soul is “bound forever” by the theology defined by the Council of Trent, the Cardinals beseech Paul VI to  ensure  that the faithful are not subject to  a crisis of conscience, by allowing them continued recourse to the “fruitful integrity of that Missale Romanum of St. Pius V.”[9]

 If the Catholic Church was to tear down the barriers to heresy and corruption that existed in the traditional Roman Mass, this unprecedented action must have been prompted by an overwhelming outcry of the Catholic hierarchy, clergy, and people shouting to Rome that the Old Mass was no longer intelligible to Modern Man and must be changed if Catholic worship in our Age was to continue. What the Roman Theologians bluntly state, however, at the very beginning of the official text of the Critical Study is that absolutely no such outcry and demand existed --- especially in mission countries where some such demand might be expected;[10]  all the evidence points to the very opposite being the case. With regard to the laity, most of whom, as opposed to the clergy, would not have studied Latin, the authors’ state, “The people never on any account asked for the liturgy to be changed or mutilated so as to understand it better. They asked for a better understanding of a changeless liturgy, and one which they would never have wanted changed. The Roman Missal of St. Pius V was religiously venerated and most dear to Catholics, both priest and laity. One fails to see how its use, together with suitable catechesis, could have hindered a fuller participation in, and greater knowledge of, the Sacred Liturgy.”[11]

Whereas the people and the common clergy were never consulted at all concerning the substitution of another fabricated ritual for the traditional Catholic Mass, the Critical Study points out that when the “normative Mass” was presented to the Episcopal Synod called in Rome in October 1967, it was rejected explicitly. The Novus Ordo Missae, being “identical in substance” with the “Normative Mass,” was never submitted in the two intervening years to the consideration of the National Episcopal Conferences. Neither Vatican II, the bishops, the priests, nor the clergy asked for this change.  As the Critical Study states, “As no popular demand exists to support this reform, it appears devoid of logical grounds to justify it and make it acceptable to the Catholic people.”[12] What we have here is truly a revolution in papal tiara and cope. 

It is in Section II of the Critical Study that we find an analysis of the Institutio Generalis (General Instruction) of the Novus Ordo Missae. In this “general instruction” there was inserted a definition of the Mass itself. Now a definition, by its very nature, is meant to both express the essential nature of something ---- what it is in its core nature and meaning --- and distinguish it from what it is not. As the Critical Study clearly points out, the definition given of the “Mass” does not in any way express the essential elements of what the Church has taken the Mass to be as these elements were clearly expressed at the Council of Trent. In fact, rather than the definition expressing the essential core of what the Catholic Mass is, the definition given in the Institutio Generalis (General Instruction) rather seems to identify the Catholic Mass with the Protestant liturgies that the dogmatic definitions of Trent were precisely trying to distinguish the Catholic Mass from. In response to the Institutio Generalis giving the definition of the Mass as, “The Lord’s   Supper or Mass is a sacred meeting or assembly of the People of God, met together under the presidency of the priest, to celebrate the memorial of the Lord,” the Critical Study states, “The definition of the Mass is thus limited to that of a ‘supper,’ and this term is found constantly repeated. This ‘supper’ is further characterized as an assembly presided over by the priest and held as a memorial of the Lord, recalling what he did on the first Maundy Thursday. None of this in the least implies either the Real Presence or the reality of the sacrifice, or the Sacramental function of the consecrating priest, or the intrinsic value of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, independently of the people’s presence. It does not, in a word, imply any of the essential dogmatic values of the Mass which together provided its true definition.”[13] Drawing the necessary, but stark, conclusion, the Critical Study states, “Here, the deliberate omission of these dogmatic values amounts…to their denial.”[14]

What is missing from the Novus Ordo’s presentation of “the Lord’s Supper” is a clear mention of the Mass’ character as a propitiatory sacrifice, the Real and Permanent Presence of Christ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, along with the Mass as an act of transubstantiation. Without these referenced, the Mass, in its essence, cannot be understood by either officiating clergy or participating laity. Instead of putting emphasis on the remission of sins produced by the sacrifice, the New Mass lays the emphasis on the “nourishment” of those present. This revaluation of the Eucharist is an inversion of the proper order of the ends of the Mass itself. As the Critical Study recalls, the self-immolation of the Victim happens antecedent to the eating of the Victim. By emphasizing the “nourishment” of the faithful, the full redemptive value of the immolation of the Victim, in the Consecration, renders superfluous the intrinsic value of the sacrifice along with the value of Private Masses said without the Faithful’s attendance. Again, the authors of the Critical Study are crystal clear as to the motive behind these revolutionary innovations, “The reason for this non-explicitness concerning the Sacrifice is quite simply that the Real Presence had been removed from the central position which it occupied so resplendently in the former Eucharistic liturgy. The Real and Permanent Presence of Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the transubstantiated Species is never alluded to. The word ‘transubstantiation’ is totally ignored.”[15]

Since the primary purpose of the priest is to offer sacrifice for the living and the dead, any attack on or expunging of the centrality of the act of sacrifice will both trivialize the position of the priest and cause him to merge with the general body of the faithful. The Critical Study puts it thus, “The priest’s position is minimized, changed, and falsified. Firstly, in relation to the people for whom he is, for the most part a mere president or brother instead of the consecrated minister celebrating in persona Christi.”[16]

The way in which the Novus Ordo Missae “levels” the priest to the position of the laity are multiple and doctrinally significant. In the “penitential rite,” there is no longer a double Confiteor for priest and people respectively, “In the Confiteor he is no longer judge, witness and intercessor with God; so it is logical that he is no longer empowered to give absolution, which has been suppressed. He is integrated with the fratres. Even the server addresses him as such in the Confiteor of the “Missa sine populo. Not a word do we now find as to the priest’s power to sacrifice, or about his act of consecration, the bringing about through him of the Eucharistic Presence.” Conclusion: “He now appears as nothing more than a Protestant minister.”[17] “Appears” is a fitting word here since, “The disappearance…of many sacred vestments --- in certain cases the alb and the stole are sufficient --- obliterate even more the original conformity with Christ: the priest is no more clothed with all  His virtues, becoming merely a “non-commissioned officer” whom one or  two signs may distinguish from the mass of people.”[18]

Perhaps what is most troubling about the “Ottaviani Intervention” is not only the stark choice that it presents to the Catholic conscience, but the fact that it was endorsed by only 2 cardinals, had to be initiated by a few Italian laywomen, and ultimately did not move Paul VI to halt the imposition of the New Mass nor even delay the action. What could have been the state of things in the Catholic Church in the 60s that would so mute the response to the replacement of the perfect expression of the Catholic Faith and the “most beautiful thing this side of Heaven” with a ceremony which induced boredom and near disgust from the moment that it was introduced? Let us recall the fact, also, that the Ottaviani Intervention treated the New Mass in its original form and in the Latin. It is true that the Catholic clergy and populace had become accustomed to liturgical change during the Vatican Council. But what was missed by the Catholic World was precisely the point emphasized by the Critical Study: What was being attacked by the Novus Ordo Missae was the very Faith itself. The Faith was under attack, threatened to be replaced by a Modernist creed. This is what we must remember when we reread the Ottaviani Intervention again or, perhaps, read it for the first time. The rally for the traditional rites of the Church, which happened after, and to a great extent because of the Intervention, is part and parcel of the Catholic People’s perennial warfare to preserve the Faith and to defeat its intellectual and spiritual enemies.

[1] “A Fertile Soil: Catholic Tradition in France Prior to the SSPX (1958-1976) ,” published in Cor Unum, the internal bulletin of the Society of St. Pius X. Reprinted in The Angelus (September 2008) with permission from Bishop Bernard Fellay.
[2] Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre, trans. Brian Sudlow (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 2004), pp. 396-397.
[3] Letter from Fr. Guérard des Lauriers to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, December 1978 on 
[4] Michael Davies, Pope Paul’s New Mass, Part III of Liturgical Revolution (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 1980), p. 483.
[5] Ibid., pp. 483-484.
[6] Ibid., p. 484.  Michael Davies indicates that an account of the series of events leading up  to  the publication of the Critical Study was provided to him by Dr. Elizabeth Gerstner herself. Cf. Mallerais, p. 397 for these corrections of dating errors found in Davies’ text.
[7] Mallerais, pp. 401-402.
[8] A Critical Study of the New Order of the Mass (Novus Ordo Missae) (Brisbane, Australia: Toowoomba Catholic Research Center, N.D.), Introductory Letter.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., sec. I.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid. 
[13] Ibid., Section II.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., Section. IV.
[16] Ibid., Section V.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.


  1. Is there any known reason why Archbishop Lefebvre did not add his signature? I was under the impression that it was not only cardinals they were seeking out, but bishops as well?


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