An Introduction to the Extraordinary Form from a Wedding Program

The following is an introduction to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite for a wedding at which many of the guests had never previously experienced the older form.


Dear guest, with gratitude and joy I welcome you to the wedding of Andreas and Blaise. The Marriage Rite and the Nuptial Mass will be celebrated in the so-called ‘Extraordinary Form’ of the Roman Rite. This older form of the ceremonies is not familiar to everyone, and some explanation is therefore in order.

The Wealth of Sacramental Forms in the Church

The Sacraments of the New Testament are sacred signs established by our Lord Jesus Christ to signify the Salvation that He attained for us through the Mystery of His Death and Resurrection. These signs are instruments through which Christ causes us to participate in His grace. The essential form of the Sacraments was given to the Apostles by Christ Himself, and faithfully passed on by them to their successors. The inexhaustible riches of Divine grace signified and effected by the Sacraments, however, have given rise to a wealth of ritual expressions at different times and in different places, showing us, as it were, different views of the same realities.

In the early centuries of the Church three main ‘rites’ developed, each with its own characteristic approach to the mysteries: the Roman, Antiochian, and Alexandrian rites. In the course of the centuries these original rites developed in many ways giving rise to a wonderful variety of ceremonies, which nevertheless maintain a fundamental unity.

The Roman Rite reached its classical form at the end of the sixth century, when Pope St. Gregory the Great clarified and defined the Roman form in order pass it on to Barbarian tribes to the North and West, who were then accepting the faith. A thousand years later, after the council of Trent, Pope St. Pius V published new liturgical books ‘restored’ in accordance with the Gregorian form, but also incorporating some of the wealth of development of the centuries since St. Gregory. These ‘Tridentine’ books remained in use (with minor changes) till after Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

After Vatican II, Pope St. Paul VI revised the liturgical books in order to make the ceremonies simpler and easier to understand. This emphasis on simplicity and intelligibility, led naturally to less emphasis on formality, solemnity, and mystery. There was therefore a desire among some Catholics to have permission to celebrate the older form of the liturgy, in order to have an expression of those elements of the liturgical tradition. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI gave general permission for the ‘Tridentine’ liturgical books to be used as an Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, in addition to the Ordinary Form laid down in the liturgical books of St. Paul VI.

The Character of the Extraordinary Form

The Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is marked by ritual formality. All the movements and words of the celebrant are exactly defined. During Mass, the priest only rarely turns to greet the congregation (with lowered eyes). This formalism can seem cramped and artificial at first, but it helps to emphasize the objectivity of the sacraments in which the priest is only an instrument of Christ.

The nuptial Mass today will be celebrated as a ‘High Mass,’ meaning that the priest will be assisted by a deacon and a subdeacon. The elaborate ceremonies of the High Mass are reminiscent of court ritual, with the celebrant representing the sovereign, and the deacon and subdeacon constantly bowing to him. This is meant to signify that the liturgy is a participation in the splendor of the Heavenly Court, with the celebrant representing Christ the King and High Priest.

Perhaps the most noticeable differences between the older and newer forms of the Roman rite are the language of celebration and the direction in which the priest faces. The older form is always celebrated in Latin, whereas the newer form is usually celebrated in a modern language (such as English). In the older form the priest stands in front of the altar facing towards the altar, in the same direction as the people (this is called ad orientem, toward the East), whereas in the newer form it has become customary for the priest to stand behind the altar, facing the people (versus populum). These differences are not actually determined by the rubrics; the newer form can be celebrated in Latin and ad orientem, and the older form can be celebrated versus populum. But the widespread difference in custom corresponds to a difference in emphasis; the newer form emphasizes intelligibility and transparency— the congregation can easily understand what is being said, and see what is going on— whereas the older form emphasizes mystery. What takes place in the sacraments always exceeds our understanding, and the older form draws attention to this essentially mysterious nature of the action by ‘veiling’ it, as it were behind an archaic language, and by hiding part of the action through having the priest stand between the people and the altar. The sense of mystery is increased by overlapping prayers: while the choir is singing one prayer, for example, the priest will be praying a number of other prayers silently. The sense of mystery reaches a highpoint at the Consecration, which takes place in complete silence, the priest barely whispering the words of Christ, through which bread and wine are changed into the substance of His body and blood.

The Rite of Matrimony

Marriage or Matrimony is a covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a common life, ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. Christ raised this covenant to the dignity of a Sacrament, a sacred sign that signifies the love between Him and His Church. The reality to which Marriage points—Christ’s union with His bride the Church—is already taking place in the Mass, where Christ’s sacrificial gift of Himself for His bride is made present, and He is united to Her through the Sacrament of Holy Communion, in which the members of His Bride receive His body. There is therefore a close connection between the Marriage Rite and the Nuptial Mass. In the older form this is signified by having the Marriage Rite take place immediately before Mass— the sign before the reality signified.

The covenant of Matrimony is constituted by the consent which bride and groom give to each other in their vows. After the vows have been made the priest, who acts as witness on the part of the Church, binds the hands of bride and groom together in his stole, signifying the Marriage Bond which now unites them. After this short ceremony the priest immediately begins with the Mass.

The Nuptial Mass

The first part of Mass in the Extraordinary Form is called The Mass of Catechumens, since in late antiquity this was the part that catechumens were allowed to attend. It begins with preparatory prayers which the priest prayers at the foot of the altar, while the choir is singing the entrance antiphon. The priest then ascends the altar to begin the Mass proper. After the Gloria the priest greets the Heavenly Church by kissing the altar stone, which contains relics of the martyrs. He then greets the pilgrim Church on earth by turning to the congregation and chanting Dominus Vobiscum (the Lord be with you). He then turns back to the altar and chants the Collect, which expresses the main intention of the Mass.

The epistle is sung by the subdeacon, facing the East. The Gospel is sung facing the North (where the pagans, who needed to hear the Gospel used to live) by the Deacon.

After the Gospel the priest begins the Mass of the Faithful (so-called because only the baptized used to be allowed to take part). The Mass of the Faithful is very similar in structure to the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form, but many of the prayers are said in silence. After the Our Father the nuptial blessing is prayed over bride and groom. Signifying that the grace of Christ, really present on the altar, is applied to the bride and groom—but especially to the bride, who signifies the Church.

This booklet contains the entire text of the Rite of Matrimony and of the Nuptial Mass in Latin and English. So that, if you like, you can follow along. In any case, I invite you to open your heart during these ceremonies. Even if you cannot understand everything that is happening, you can unite your heart to Christ, and pray that His grace be poured out over Blaise and Andreas.


Header Image: Bridgette MacDonald

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