I was initially delighted that at long last the lawful authorities in Holy Mother Church had noticed a glaring omission in the modern Roman Missal – the absence of any Votive Mass in Time of Mortality (that is, by Pestilence and Plague) – and had issued a new Mass in Time of Pandemic, for the professed purpose of "implor[ing] God to bring an end to this pandemic" (A peste perambulante, Decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship, 30th March 2020).
This Mass proper may be used on all days not solemnities or of equivalent rank, so it may replace even Feasts of Our Lord, his Mother, his Apostles, and the Saints, as well as Sundays of Ordinary Time (no great loss, that), and both Sundays of Christmastide and Days within the Octave of Christmas!
There are only 47 days of the year when it may not be used! These are the Sundays of Advent, Lent and Eastertide (including Pentecost Sunday of course); Ash Wednesday, all the days of Holy Week, the Easter Triduum, the Easter Octave, the Ascension of Our Lord, and Trinity Sunday; and also the Solemnities of Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart, and Christ the King – all these being "movable feasts", amounting to 36 days – and moreover 11 solemnities that occur on fixed dates: those of Christmas, Mary the Mother of God, the Epiphany, St Joseph, the Annunciation, the Nativity of St John Baptist, Saints Peter & Paul, the Assumption, All Saints, All Souls, and the Immaculate Conception.
However, and most unfortunately, the prayers of this new formulary are disappointingly banal, insipid and uninspiring. I trust the good Lord will bear with such limp and timid effusions, for he knows mankind all too well; but we must acknowledge that this is a jejune and feeble production of the CDW, unworthy of the sacred liturgy. Compare this to the EF Votive Mass in Time of Mortality, drawn up by Clement VI in 1348 at the onrush of the Black Death! The comparison is extremely telling.
To begin with, in the Novus Ordo the readings are usually taken from those of the ferial day, but if desired, a selection (itself extracted from those For Any Necessity) is proposed for use with these appointed prayers – yet none of these readings actually mentions plague, disease, pestilence or illness!
To be fair, the suggested Epistle is the magnificent ending of Romans chapter 8 (verses 31b-39), but while a most uplifting passage, it is not explicitly ad rem. The alternative Lesson (Lamentations 3:17-26) is also pleasant enough, but not directly concerned with epidemics or universal contagion. The same can be said of the two alternative responsorial psalms – abbreviated from Psalms 79(80) and 122(123) – and the Gospel Acclamation (2 Cor. 1: 3b-4a): they are by their very nature as inspired Scripture written for our edification, but they do not directly address the matter at hand. The Gospel pericope, even more peculiarly, is not one of the many in which Our Lord heals the sick, but rather concerns him stilling the wind and the waves (Mark 4:35-41), when the disciples cry out in fear.
What of the EF Mass from the days of the Black Death? Its Lesson speaks of the Davidic Plague and its averting by God's mercy, when he relented at the prayer of the repentant King, and restrained the destroying angel he had sent, in his wrath at David's sin, to inflict the punishment of pestilence. The Gradual recalls that the Lord sent his word, and he healed and saved men from death. The Gospel relates how Christ in his days on earth healed the sick and drove out demons. The Offertory refers to Aaron's propitiatory offering of incense (cf. Numbers 16:46-48), which appeased the anger of God and stilled the plague he had sent to punish rebellious Israel. But such themes are evidently strong meat, despite being truths taught explicitly in the Bible, and would be too, too much for effete, delicate moderns who can bear only the milk of a milk-and-water religion.
To return to this new OF proper Mass, the appointed Entrance and Communion Antiphons are well-known, indeed beloved texts offering consolation (Is 53:4; Mt 11:28), but have no direct reference to a pandemic. By contrast, the Introit and Communion of the EF Mass pro vitanda mortalitate (to use its older title) are much more relevant: the former refers directly to the Davidic Plague (as does the Lesson), while the latter refers to Our Lord's healing of the sick.
Now, to the prayers of the just-published Mass in Time of Pandemic, which include the special Lenten feature of a Prayer over the People after the Prayer after Communion:
Omnípotens sempitérne Deus, in omni perículo singuláre præsídium, qui fílios tuos in tribulatióne fide supplicántes exáudis, nobis propitiáre benígnus, et præsta, quǽsumus, defúnctis réquiem ætérnam, solámen plorántibus, salútem infírmis, moriéntibus pacem, operántibus pro fratrum sanitáte robur, spíritum sapiéntiæ illis qui nos in potestáte moderántur, et ánimum ad omnes benévole accedéndi ut cuncti nomen sanctum tuum glorificáre valeámus. Per Dóminum.
Súscipe, Dómine, múnera quæ, in hodiérnis perículis, tibi offérimus, et fac, quǽsumus, ut, omnipoténtia tua, in fontem sanitátis pacísque convertántur. Per Christum.
Deus, a quo recépimus vitæ ætérnæ medicínam, concéde, quǽsumus, ut, per hoc sacramentum de cæléstis remédii plenitúdine gloriémur. Per Christum.
Protéctor in te sperántium, Deus, bénedic pópulum tuum, salva, tuére, dispóne, ut, a peccátis liber, ab hoste secúrus, in tuo semper amóre persevéret. Per Christum.
What can be said of the immensely long, almost wearisome Collect? If divided up, as I am about to demonstrate using its official English version, it would be better as a series of petitions in the Universal Prayer:
Almighty and eternal God, our refuge in every danger, to whom we turn in our distress; in faith we pray[:]
(1) look with compassion on the afflicted,
(2) eternal rest to the dead,
(3) comfort to mourners,
(4) healing to the sick,
(5) peace to the dying,
(6) strength to healthcare workers,
(7) wisdom to our leaders and
(8) [to us] the courage to reach out to all in love,
so that together we may give glory to your holy name. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.
Note carefully: petitions 1 and 2 ask for what cannot be seen (God's compassionate eye cast upon the afflicted, and eternal rest granted to the dead); petitions 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8 ask for good emotional and intellectual states of mind; and petition 4 alone actually asks for a visible benefit (healing for the sick) that, frankly, will come to most anyway (since only a small percentage die of this disease). Certainly God is our refuge in danger and distress; certainly we ought pray for all these benefits; but where is the prayer that this pandemic cease? Isn't that the professed purpose of this whole Mass? So why does it nowhere ask for it?
Do the author(s) and those who have promulgated this formulary perhaps not believe that God can bring this pandemic to an end, whensoever and howsoever he has decided in his all-wise providence?
The new Orationes super oblata, post communionem and super populum are reasonable, but could be used generally as they contain hardly anything more than vague references – the first refers to "the perils of these days" ("this time of peril" in the official translation), and prays that the offered bread and wine become a source of healing, but nothing more than that, which many such offertory prayers express in similar terms; the second is even more general, even as regards its allusions to Holy Communion as medicine and a heavenly remedy (which expressions are again commonly used in such prayers); the third of these is much the best, as it asks God, the Protector of those who hope in him, to bless, save, protect and dispose them to persevere, but I don't think that we generally regard this present pandemic as an "enemy", and the prayer – of course – has to end with an embarrassingly glib reference to "love".
Those prayers of the almost-seven-centuries-old Missa in tempore mortalitatis, on the other hand, are most explicit in their insistence that pestilence is the just punishment due on account of our sins, and so we must repent and cry to God for mercy:
Deus, qui non mortem, sed pænitentiam desideras peccatorum: populum tuum ad te revertentem propitius respice; ut, dum tibi devotus exsistit, iracundiæ tuæ flagella ab eo clementer amoveas. Per.
Subveniat nobis, quæsumus, Domine, sacrificii præsentis oblatio: quæ nos et ab erroribus universis potenter absolvat, et a totius eripiat perditionis incursu. Per.
Exaudi nos, Deus salutaris noster: et populum tuum ab iracundiæ tuæ terroribus liberum, et misericordiæ tuæ fac largitate securum. Per.
In the Collect, the first oration above, God is confessed as desiring not the death, but the repentance of sinners, such that he is implored graciously to regard his people turning back to him, that he may mercifully remove from us the scourges of his wrath.
Likewise, in the Secret of this traditional formulary, we beg the Lord that the offering of this present sacrifice may both powerfully absolve us from all errors, and deliver us from every incursion of perdition; and in the Postcommunion, God our health and salvation is asked to hear us, that his people be freed from the terrors of his wrath, and made secure in the gracious gift of his mercy.
How much more concise and to the point these prayers are.
Luckily, given that worldwide Masses are more and more said only in private, and less and less in public – how annoying to proud modern liturgists! – it is more and more the case that priests, unfettered by any de facto constraints on their free choice, are able to offer Mass according to the Vetus Ordo, and thus may sensibly choose the older of these two opposed propers, for "the old is better" (Luke 5:39).