Can liturgical 'reform' be reformed?

Can liturgical 'reform' be reformed?

Simon Matthews

The 'new Mass' of the Roman Rite, formally promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970, has continued to be the focus of criticism by some Catholics for being more a revolutionary break with the past than an orderly, organic development of the rite as required by Vatican II.

The recent publication of English translations of two key books, one by the architect of the new Mass, Archbishop Bugnini, and the other by a critic, Msgr Gamber, has lent weight to this criticism.

Simon Matthews, an Australian teacher and journalist now living in London, with a special interest in liturgy, examines the significance of the two books.

A great deal has been said about the changes ("reforms') made to the Catholic liturgy in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Both those who have accepted the changes, (and indeed those who have used them as a springboard towards a perception of liturgy as "ever-changing"), and those who reject the changes out-of-hand, have at times been passionate in their condemnation of each other. There has been little dispassionate debate.

Unfortunately, much of the literature that is needed to inform such debate has been unavailable to the English-speaking world. However, two recent publications open the possibility of a detailed study of the principles and events behind the most radical change in the liturgy of the Roman Rite in the history of the Church.

The first is Matthew O'Donnell's translation of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini's book The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 (Liturgical Press, 1990). This enormous book of 974 pages contains a wealth of information, presented by a man who was personally involved in the work of bringing about the new liturgy for all but a brief period during the years mentioned in the title. No-one seriously interested in the history of the changes in the liturgy can afford to ignore Bugnini's presentation of the facts.

The second title, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: its Problems and Background (Una Voce Press & Foundation for Catholic Reform, 1993), is a translation of two German books by Monsignor Klaus Gamber, whom Cardinal Ratzinger has described as "the great German liturgist" (see AD2000, September 1993).

Both authors owe much to the liturgical movement of the first half of this century. Undoubtedly this movement, growing from the work of continental Benedictine Abbeys in the 19th century, enjoyed the blessing and indeed the encouragement of the Church. Pope St Pius X, a pastoral priest, may be said to have launched the liturgical movement by his restoration of the pre-eminence of Gregorian chant and of the frequent reception of Holy Communion, as well as at a much earlier age.

Subsequent decades saw much research, writing, discussion and even experimentation under the banner of the liturgical movement. Pius XII's encyclical letter Mediator Dei is a clear and authoritative statement that the aims of the movement were central to the mind of the Church.

What aims? Primarily, the liturgical movement sought to reinstate a liturgical spirituality in the Church. That is, it sought to nourish once again the spiritual lives of the faithful from the riches of liturgy. The most practical example of this was the publication of Latin/vernacular people's missals so that the liturgical rites could be followed and understood as they were celebrated. People were encouraged to participate actively in the worship of God by following the rites and prayers of the liturgy with mind and heart. The liturgical movement was certainly not a hankering for a wholesale change of the Roman Rite. It simply sought to open the riches already present to all members of the Church.

This desire raised the legitimate question of whether some liturgical reform was appropriate. Pius XII asked the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Rites to study the possibility of a general reform to the liturgy in 1946. The study Memoria Sulla Riforma Liturgica, published in 1948, outlines three principles by which any reform ought proceed: (i) a balance should be kept between the tendency simply to innovate and the tendency simply to conserve; (ii) that because the liturgy is the worship of Almighty God, the cult of the saints should be subordinated to the temporal and ferial cycles in the liturgical calendar; and (iii) that in keeping with the fact that the liturgy is an organic unity, reform should be similarly unitive and organic.


These principles formed the basis of the commission for liturgical reform in 1948. Father Annibale Bugnini was a member of this commission, and it is at this point that his book The Reform of the Liturgy opens.

The first thing that must be said about Bugnini's book is that it is full of primary source material for the period that it covers. The narrative is rich in historical detail. Who did what, when, and how is related in chapter after chapter. Detailed footnotes list documents and relate details of significant meetings and conversations. An appendix contains a complete list of all personnel associated with the Commissions, the post-Conciliar Consilium and the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship.

The second thing about the book is that it is Bugnini's Apologia pro vita sua. It was written in response to attacks on Bugnini himself, and on the liturgical changes. Bugnini seeks to answer his critics by documenting the steady path of the change of the liturgy from the principles outlined above to the day of his unexpected dismissal from the position of Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1975.

Bugnini clearly holds that he was a privileged participant in returning the liturgy of the Roman Rite from a dark age of non-participative unintelligibility to "worship in spirit and truth" (p.283). This is no small claim. Made in 1969, in response to the criticism of the changes by the noted historian Fr Hubert Jedin, it asserts (at best) that the changes made are the legitimate fulfilment of the aims of the liturgical movement. But over twenty years later, few would identify the noble aims of the liturgical movement with the all too common banal celebrations of the new liturgy, or the frequent abuse of the same.

Perhaps the best way to evaluate Bugnini's claim, and indeed to begin to evaluate the changes made to the liturgy before they even get to the stage of banal or abusive celebration, is via the principles enunciated in 1948. The first principle (to keep a balance between conservation and innovation), says very little. Written as it was in a secret consultative document, one may suggest that it was included to calm any fears, and to reassure consultants that the soothing balm of "balance" would prevail.

About the second principle (that multiple feasts of saints should not clutter up every day of the Church's year), there can be little disagreement. Pope St Pius V's Missal of 1570 radically reduced the number of saints' feasts in the calendar. However, he did not arbitrarily change the dates of feast days (as did the Consilium of which Bugnini was secretary).

The third principle, that the liturgy is an organic unity, and that organic development is the rule for reform of the liturgy, is crucial. Was this principle - observed throughout the history of the Church - respected between 1948 and 1975? It was certainly the mind of Pius XII and of the Second Vatican Council, according to the official pronouncements of the same. But Archbishop Bugnini's Apologia tells another story.

Speaking of the origins of the modern changes, he writes: "It is clear today that the reform was the fruit of a long period of maturation, a fruit produced by the thought and prayer of Žlite minds and then gradually shared with ever widening circles of the faithful" (p.13, emphases added). Such production is hardly organic development.

Reading through Bugnini's history of the changes to the rites of Holy Week in the 1950s, the preparations for the Second Vatican Council, and the implementation of its Constitution on the Liturgy, one finds more or less this same group of "Žlite minds" in key positions producing their fruits at an accelerating pace. Cardinals, and even Pope Paul VI, are deprecated by Bugnini when they fail to share the vision of this group (Pope Paul had, apparently, an 'excessive' attachment to the sign of the cross at the beginning of Mass, the Confiteor, and the Orate Fratres, all of which were to have been abolished).

Perhaps the clearest indication that the changes were anything but an organic development is given when Bugnini speaks of the formation of the Consilium charged with carrying out the directives of the Council in 1964: "On April 17,1964, a sturdy, powerful machinery was set in motion that in five years' time would bring the 'new' Mass" (p.341).

The detailed and often astounding workings of this machinery make fascinating reading: the novelty of having extra Eucharistic Prayers was the bright idea of one consultant (and certainly nothing to do with Vatican II); it was felt necessary to give the Council's recommendation for a limited use of the vernacular a "broad interpretation"; the Consilium paid scant regard to the overwhelming rejection by the 1967 Synod of Bishops of the proposed new order of Mass, etc.

Papal authority

Whilst it is clear that the changes were sanctioned by Papal authority, from the evidence Bugnini presents, one cannot say that the 'new Mass' is an organic development from the old. This is the independent thesis of the second author, Msgr Klaus Gamber.

Gamber's English volume comprises, as mentioned, two books. The first examines the overall work of the changes made to the liturgy. He too sees the question of whether or not the changes were an organic development as crucial. Gamber's conclusions speak for themselves: "Obviously, the reformers wanted a completely new liturgy, a liturgy that differed from the traditional one in spirit as well as in form; and in no way a liturgy that represented what the Council Fathers had envisioned, i.e., a liturgy that would meet the pastoral needs of the faithful" (p. 100). Gamber is clear and unequivocal: a large mistake has been made with regard to the liturgy, unprecedented in the Church's history.

However, it would be wrong to align Gamber with traditionalists who draw a line at 1962, 1955, or even earlier, beyond which all change is anathema. Gamber is a critical liturgical historian, as shown by his precise and detailed discussion of the question of which way the liturgy should be celebrated, which comprises the second part of the English volume. It is this critical 'traditionalism' that gives such importance to his writing. His theses are well documented, and his research is impressive. One hopes more of his writings will be made available in translation.

Gamber's concerns are historical, doctrinal and pastoral. He readily accepts the appropriateness of vernacular readings, and of the pruning of some of the later accretions to the Traditional Roman Rite (Psalm 42 from the prayers at the foot of the altar, the Offertory prayers, the last Gospel). But he staunchly defends traditions integral to the Roman Rite throughout its history, e.g., facing eastwards and the Roman Canon, and deprecates "the cold breath of realism [that] now pervades our worship" (p.13).

Gamber speaks frankly of the destruction of the Roman Rite after the Council, the last example of which can be found in the rite promulgated in 1965 as the reform called for by the Council. Significantly, Bugnini dismisses this 1965 rite as insufficient because its alterations were merely "peripheral", insisting that "radical" changes were what was needed (p.115).

After reading Gamber, and indeed Bugnini, it is difficult if not impossible to maintain an uncritical acceptance of the new liturgy, even when it is celebrated devoutly and with the right intention. When we recall the doctrinal importance of the liturgy (lex orandi, lex credendi), we realise that the question of how we worship is central to our faith. What then is to be done?

"What we need today ... [are] bishops like those who in the fourth century courageously fought against Arianism when almost the whole of Christendom had succumbed to the heresy. We need saints today who can unite those whose faith has remained firm so that we might fight error and rouse the weak and vacillating from their apathy," writes Gamber (p.113). Cardinal Ratzinger has commended Gamber as one such person.

It is clear from the evidence now available that a re-examination of what has been done to the liturgy in the name of 'reform' is needed. With groups such as ICEL working for the expansion of the boundaries of the new rite even further, a reform of the 'reform' is a matter of urgency.

"The liturgical movement," wrote Dom Oliver Rousseau in the 1940s, "while continuously advancing and developing, should ever have a sense of tradition, without which, sooner or later, it is destined to failure." It would appear that precisely this sense of tradition was ignored at a crucial time after the Council. In the work of reasserting the Church's true liturgical tradition we may take heart from the new Catechism of the Catholic Church which teaches: "... no sacramental rite is able to be modified according to the preference of the minister or the community. Even the Supreme Authority in the Church cannot change the liturgy according to his taste, but only in obedience of faith, and in religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy" (n.1125).

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.