If you walk into a Catholic Church these days, what you see is different than what you would have seen if you walked into a Catholic Church 100 years ago, 500 years ago, or 1,000 years ago. The Mass itself underwent significant reforms in the 1960s and 1970s, and continues to change even to the present day. The architecture of the buildings themselves (if they were built during or after the 1960s) is different. The language and words have changed drastically. Many of the rules and rubrics of Catholic ceremonies have changed a lot. And the whole feel of the Church and the Mass are vastly different than they used to be.
Before the 1960s, almost all Catholic Masses were said in Latin. The thinking behind this was that, since Latin is a dead language, the meanings of Latin words and phrases were unchanging. In spoken language, certain words change meaning over time. For example, the word “gay” used to only refer to the state of being happy. In contemporary times, it’s almost exclusively used to refer to homosexuality. Latin words and phrases are frozen in time, because the language itself is no longer in use for day-to-day conversation. And since the Catholic Church (and to a smaller degree, the scientific community) has walked hand-in-hand with Latin throughout the ages, every time we hear Latin, most of us just assume we’re hearing a Catholic prayer of some sort. Since the ’60s, however, Mass has been said in the vernacular, that is, the native tongue of the region in which the church is located. In the United States, Mass is said in either English or Spanish, with few exceptions.
The order of prayers and actions done by the priest during Mass, or during another rite such as baptism, comprise the rubrics of the Mass. The biggest rubrics difference between the old and new Mass is that the priest now faces the congregation (ad populum). Historically, throughout most of the history of the Catholic Church, the priest would face the altar (ad orientem) along with the congregation. This originated from a time when all altars in Christian churches would face the East, symbolically awaiting the second coming of Christ. The general feel of the Mass was different when the priest faced in the same direction as everyone else. In facing the altar, the priest was putting himself on a more equal standing to the lay men and women attending Mass. Nobody was above facing the altar while worshiping. Nowadays, though, the priest faces the congregation, making the atmosphere more like that of an entertaining performance or a seminar than that of a Catholic Mass. Also concerning rubrics, since each church now adapts itself more and more to the surrounding community, the actions of priests and altar servers during the Mass are vastly different from one church to another. The old Latin Mass was almost completely identical in every parish, no matter where on Earth the parish was located; an Italian could attend a Mass in Spain and still feel at home..
Traditionally, most church buildings were designed to look like a cross from above. If you do a Google image search for old church buildings, you will see that the vast majority of ancient cathedrals were built this way. Inside these old buildings, the altar almost always faced East and was positioned front and center in front of the congregation. The tabernacle, which is the box in which consecrated hosts (bread) are kept, was always placed in the center of the altar and the priest (facing the altar, not the people) would say the Mass directly to the tabernacle and the crucifix hanging above it. In the more modern churches, however, buildings are more rounded, sometimes so much so as to create a “theater-in-the-round” environment withing the building. The tabernacle is rarely found on the altar anymore; more often than not, is positioned in its own side room set off from the main church area. Old churches also tended to employ the use of communion rails, along which the congregation would kneel in order to receive their Communion on their outstretched tongues. Today, communion rails are rarely used..
The language used by the priest when consecrating the bread and wine during what is called the Canon of the Mass, is slightly different in a way that makes a huge difference in meaning. In the old, Latin rite the priest would say, “which has been shed for you and for many,” while consecrating the wine with the same words used by Christ in the Bible during the Last Supper. Now the priest says, “which has been shed for you and for all.” The difference in meaning here is obvious. Also, Communion used to be distributed by the priest only, and only onto the tongues of kneeling people, as only the priest was allowed to have physical contact with a consecrated host. The modern Catholic Church allows for certain lay men and women to be Eucharistic ministers, who are laypeople designated to hand out communion to other laypeople. These Eucharistic ministers will place the host into the open hands of their fellow laypeople, typically from a standing position. The difference in the overall feeling in the room during the distribution of communion between the old Church and the new Church is quite noticeable.
The sacrament of Confession has also changed a lot over the past half-century. In the old days, confessional booths were popular. Most people are familiar with the way it used to be done thanks to confession scenes in countless Hollywood movies and TV shows. The priest would sit in a small, closet-sized room attached to another equally small room. A screened “window” with a sliding divider separated the two; the confessing person would kneel next to the screen in the other room and confess their sins. This method made each confession more or less anonymous, as the priest could hear, but not see the person who was confessing. Newer churches have gotten rid of the confessional “booth” in favor of a more personal approach, in which the priest and confessing man or woman sit next to each other in the same room. As far as penance goes, most priests for the past several hundred years only give the now-familiar penances of “Say so many Hail Marys and so many Our Father prayers.” During the Renaissance and Medieval eras, it wasn’t uncommon to see someone holding the church doors open for people on their hands and knees as penance for confessed sins.
There’s no denying that the Mass you’ll find in most modern Catholic churches is wholly different than the Mass you would have seen in the older churches just 60 or 70 years ago. The reasons for the changes are up for debate. The Second Vatican Council, which took place in the early 1960s, seems to be the event which set all of these changes into motion. There are a few parishes which continue to offer the traditional Latin Mass according to the Tridentine Rite (named after the 16th century Council of Trent). These traditional parishes are usually not connected to any particular diocese, and most of them argue that the Vatican has left the Catholic faith almost entirely. However, in these small churches, there is an air of old-fashioned solemnity and reverence that is difficult to find in the newer churches. Although some people would disagree with the sentiment, there’s something about the old, Latin Mass that connects a person to the past in a comforting way.