Liturgical reforms were valid, but defective

by Michael Houser

“The Roman Rite as we knew it no longer exists. It has been destroyed.” -Fr. Joseph Gelineau, SJ

I wish in this article to bring up an area of liturgical controversy often left untouched at FUS and other places that rightly pride themselves on orthodoxy. I mean the liturgical reform itself, which was mandated in some form by Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, and carried out in the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. I wish to raise the question of whether this reform has truly benefited the Church.

First, let me clearly distance myself from any who would impugn the legitimacy of the recent pontificates, the orthodoxy of Vatican II, or the validity of the Novus Ordo as a true rite of the Mass which can be of great benefit to those who partake in it. I am sincerely convinced that Vatican II was a gift to the Church. Who could not rejoice in its beautiful theology of the Church as people of God and Body of Christ; in its vision of the liturgy; in its teaching on Divine Revelation, including doctrinal development; in its appropriation of religious liberty into the Catholic patrimony; in the unprecedented overtures made towards principled ecumenical contact with Orthodox, Protestants and Jews; in the new emphasis on the dignity of the laity and their apostolate; and finally in the Christian humanism and vision of society propounded by Gaudium et Spes, which has been the inspiration for the pontificate of our beloved Pope John Paul the Great?

Nonetheless, as the history of the Church can testify, most reforms bring about consequences which are not always salutary. If the pre-Conciliar church had its problems, who could deny that the post-Conciliar church has at least as many? The Novus Ordo liturgy has been profoundly formative of my generation of Catholics, and so I propose that, in our appraisal of the Church today, we look at its origin in contrast with what came before. I do this in the firm conviction that we must avoid the idea of an “infallibility of the party line.” The Church is protected from teaching error, but there is no guarantee that all of her policies will always be best. The Council itself was made of many different people, with many different agendas, and we should not be surprised if many changes inspired by the Council were not in fact necessary or beneficial. Nor should we despise as disloyal or reactionary any suggestion that the Church has taken some steps in the wrong direction. The Church would never have had a liturgical reform if there hadn’t been criticisms made of the old liturgy; why is it guaranteed that the reform got everything right?

If we look at both East and West, we see that one of the most important qualities of all approaches to the liturgy is continuity and organic development. The liturgy has always been regarded as something to be treated with the utmost respect, and even minor changes are a significant matter. It is interesting that in his brief account of the life of Pope St. Gregory the Great, the Venerable Bede mentions the fact that he added to the Canon of the Mass the phrases we translate as “grant us your peace in this life, save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen.” As far as I can tell, this (around 600 AD) is the last modification made to the Eucharistic prayer for over 1000 years, until the 1970’s, when the choosy pastor was given an option of four Eucharistic prayers, plus the supplement in the back of the Sacramentary which includes more Eucharistic prayers than even most of us would guess existed: all of them composed by a small commission of liturgists, entrusted with a power to remake what had remained in the Church untouched throughout the age of the great Scholastics and the Council of Trent. Suddenly, this important feature of the liturgy was at the mercy of a handful of scholars.

I am far from suggesting that change is in itself a bad word in the liturgy. The Roman Rite itself received new features through its contact, for instance, with the Gallican Rite in the early middle ages. New devotions and styles of artistic expression arose over time. The Romanesque gave way to the Gothic, which gave way to the Baroque, and the Church was the richer for it. Yet never was a liturgical revolution a la 1960’s ever considered. In 1570, Pope St. Pius V met the challenge of the Protestant heresy by making the rite of the Church of Rome mandatory all over the West, and publishing an authoritative version of the Missal. This Missal, however, was emphatically not a new rite, devised by a committee. It was simply the old rite put in a definitive book form.

While Pius’s action brought unity to a Church attacked by Protestantism, it also put an end to any developments within the rite. The liturgy came to be looked on in an increasingly legalistic and often minimalistic way. We all have heard the stories of how in the years before the council, Catholics would pray the rosary or other private devotions during Mass. It is safe to say that the true spirit of the Liturgy was obscured. But in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Liturgical Movement began in an effort to recover much of the beauty of the Liturgy, and its centrality for Catholic life. This movement, characterized by people such as Dom Gueranger and Pius Parsch, aimed primarily not at adapting the ancient rite to modernity, but at recovering a sometimes obscured tradition. It was this movement which we have to thank for the revival of Gregorian chant. And it was some of the leaders of this movement, such as the late Msgr. Klaus Gamber, who were most appalled by what happened after the Council.

The Council itself clearly mandated some liturgical reform. It spoke much about the active participation of the faithful in the liturgy (a goal of the liturgical movement), and said that “the rite of Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts…may be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation of the faithful may be more easily achieved.”

This is rather ambiguous in itself, but it seems clear to me that what the Fathers thought they were voting for was a revision of the existing Roman Rite. Few would have dreamed that in fact, the Roman Rite everyone had known would be altered beyond recognition.

A rite that had stood unchanged since 1570, and virtually unchanged since sometime in the first millennium, was suddenly entrusted to a commission led by Archbishop Annibale Bugnini to reform it. But anyone who has seen both the old and the new rites will agree that what we got was in fact basically a new rite, devised by the Archbishop Bugnini’s commission in accord with their conjectures of what ancient liturgy had been like, and their ideas of what was necessary for “modern man.” Most obvious to everyone, of course, is that the Latin language, which the Council document clearly did not envision disappearing, did in fact disappear for all practical purposes. But it’s not just the language. Look at other things. The Canon of the Mass, no longer silent, but spoken aloud; the priest’s lovely prayers at the foot of the altar eliminated, the offertory prayers almost completely re-written. Most significant of all, to my mind, the orientation of the altar is changed such that Mass is now celebrated facing the congregation.

Here, the reader will probably accuse me of the very rigidity which I earlier tried to disclaim. But I deny this. I am not saying that nothing should change. But I would point out that in fact, everything that an observer first notices has practically changed. And I don’t think it was generally for the better. Take some little things, like the prayers at the foot of the altar. These are a clear indication that something wondrous and awesome is about to take place, something which urgently requires purification of heart before even entering the sanctuary. The silent Eucharistic Prayer: there is no better way to show honor to the holiness of the mystery taking place than by deep interior and exterior silence,the pregnant silence that speaks louder than the greatest music, if one is attentive (and if one isn’t, then even a spoken Eucharistic prayer is easily daydreamed through.) Above all, the fact that before, as is still done in the eastern rites, the priest faced the same direction as the worshippers, “toward the East,” toward the Lord who is coming, who alone is worthy of our attention in this act of worship, while now he faces the congregation throughout. Don’t get me wrong; plenty of priests can say Mass very reverently this way. Yet it is undeniable that this shift in direction has allowed the Mass in many places to become spontaneous, casual, and conversational.

This is further a problem because of the many options and opportunities for “improv” the new rite offers. And may I protest at the absurdity of having the priest follow the solemn postcommunion prayer with a series of banal announcements about bulletin items before giving the final blessing? There is no better example of how the modern Mass loses the character of a sacred service and takes on that of an informal prayer meeting.

These are some of the specific problems I see in the changes that were made. But beyond all the particulars, I am disturbed by the fact that the reformers had such a high opinion of their competence. The silent Roman canon had developed over centuries and remained unchanged for centuries. Now a few bureaucrats decided to totally change the way this central part of the Mass would look. The priest “with his back to the people” had been there from time immemorial, now all of a sudden this custom is dismissed as some remnant of the Dark Ages. Fifteen hundred years of saints and sinners had attended Mass in Latin, even in Germanic countries where Latin was never spoken: suddenly this mark of Catholic culture becomes almost suspect in most of the Church. We may make arguments in favor of what the reformers did. But I think the fact that many of these changes can seem so unproblematic to us should suggest that we have a highly inadequate appreciation of the role of liturgical tradition in forming our consciousness. “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” and it is no coincidence that the reforms occurred at a time when the authority of the Church began to be disregarded by many Catholics, when the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist began to be widely disbelieved, when the very nature of the priesthood became obscured by the claims of radical feminists (not to mention the proliferation of “extra-ordinary” ministers of the Eucharist). As Fr. John Parsons puts it, “While it may be possible logically to believe in a Church which is an infallible guidein doctrines of faith and morals but which, for most of the time since its foundation, has promoted, in Archbishop Bugnini’s striking phrase, ‘lack of understanding, ignorance and dark night’ in the worship of God, it is not possible psychologically to carry out a mental juggling act of this sort for very long, or on a scale that involves any great number of people.”1 The Eastern Churches, which would almost as soon adopt a different creed as a different liturgy, can be a good model to us in appreciating the importance of our traditions—even when our “Enlightened” modern rationalism can’t fully understand them. The beauty of the organic development of the liturgy was largely the fact that it was pregnant with symbolism, and the way in which Bugnini’s commission single-handedly rewrote the Mass does much to make it closer to a desymbolized Protestant service. Fr. Joseph Gelineau, who collaborated in the making of the new mass, put it best: “The Roman Rite as we knew it no longer exists. It has been destroyed.”2

So what am I proposing that we do? First, we should cease to view those who love and preserve the Tridentine Mass as reactionaries who can’t stop living in the past. To be a Catholic is to live mainly in the past. We’d be pretty impoverished if our theological tradition had to begin again in 1965. Why can’t we admit that those who use the 1500 year old liturgy may have an advantage over us with our 30 year old rite? This means, I would suggest, a serious effort by the Church to reach out to those who followed Archbishop Lefebvre in his tragic schism. The fact that Lefebvre died outside the Church, like Luther and Savonarola centuries ago, doesn’t mean that he did not, like them, make some valid criticisms of what the Church was doing at the time. And for an example of a perfectly faithful 20th century Catholic who espoused many of the views I have been arguing, we need look no further than The Devastated Vineyard, by Dietrich von Hildebrand, whose philosophical works have influenced many of us at FUS and AMC.

Further, John Paul II’s 1988 indult by which bishops can make the Tridentine Mass available to the faithful who desire it should be much more fully applied. It is simply a tragedy that one of the few things which some dioceses will not permit is the ability of some of their most faithful people to attend the rite which was the sustenance of Gregory, Anselm, Francis, Dominic, Aquinas, Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross, Alphonsus Liguori, John Vianney, the Little Flower, and Padre Pio. And I believe that those of us who may not have any appreciation for the Old Rite should make the effort to acquire it. It is our heritage, and we should not let it pass into oblivion. The Council Fathers didn’t want it to, and if the Pope is to be believed in his 1988 letter Ecclesia Dei, he doesn’t want it to either.

I am not suggesting that the Novus Ordo be abolished. Such a thing is impossible, short of a miracle, and would probably lead to worse problems. I agree more with Aidan Nichols, OP, who suggests letting the old and new rites coexist. Surely our much-vaunted liturgical pluralism can accommodate this? And I further believe that if we stop treating the Old Rite as if it is some kind of taboo, it will exercise a beneficent influence on many of the less desirable elements of the new rite which I have mentioned. To quote Fr. Parsons again, “It seems appropriate to record here what an Australian bishop said to me when I told him I thought it was reasonable to create a new rite of Mass, if desired, but unreasonable to forbid the celebration of the traditional form. His words were: ‘Oh, but if they hadn’t banned the old rite, nobody would have gone to the new!’”3

I must close. Let me once again beg not to be understood as in any way advocating disobedience to the Church’s hierarchy. Whatever their faults, whatever their questionable decisions at times throughout history, they are our God-given shepherds. We must obey them, even if we disagree on matters of liturgical policy. More than that, we must love them, and above all, love our Holy Father, seeing our first duty not as one of rebellious critique, but of willing collaboration with the new evangelization. If at times this love requires us to speak out on behalf of a forgotten tradition, let us not let any rancor enter our hearts. And above all, I would proclaim that I rejoice to receive my Lord and God in the Eucharist, even when I feel the rite is less than ideal. However strongly felt, the paragraphs above are but my opinions, and a hope that a truly fruitful discussion may begin at our institutions on these issues. n

Michael Houser is a senior theology major at FUS, and Contributing Editor of the Concourse.

  1. Fr. John Parsons, “Reform of the Reform?”, in Sacred Music, vol.129, no.2, Summer 2002, p. 10 ↑
  2. Cf.Michael Davies, “Liturgical Shipwreck”, TAN Books, 1995. (I don’t agree with Davies on everything, but he has many good points, especially about the role Protestant sensibilities played in the Reform.) ↑
  3. Parsons, p.16 Readers who want to find more good traditionalist titles might look for Klaus Gamber’s “The Reform of the Roman Liturgy” and Aidan Nichols’“Looking at the Liturgy.” The latter may be found in the liturgy section of the FUS bookstore. “The Spirit of the Liturgy” by Cardinal Ratzinger is also well worth anyone’s time, and can likewise be bought in the FUS bookstore. ↑