Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reasons for the Reform of the Roman Rite Finale: Conclusions and IdeasGoing Forward

In the finale of our series on the reasons that the twentieth century reform of the Roman liturgy came to pass we shall succinctly re-state our findings, derive a conclusion, and contemplate some ideas going forward to deal with these matters, which, over a century after the Liturgical Movement began to make headway, are still largely un-addressed.

I: Summary and Thesis

The beginning of last century found the Roman rite liturgy in an uncongenial state with no apparent way out. Too many major feasts blurred the importance of feasts and obscured the temporal cycle of the Church's year. Clergy and laity alike were indifferent to matters liturgical and had been for a long time. The Counter-Reformation emphasis on doctrine and teaching captured the focus of clergy, from the country curate right to the very top. Likewise, the laity found their substitute for the liturgy in Devotionalism and private prayer. The Roman liturgy became so distinct and separate from parish life and the Church at large that when the Liturgical Movement began to call for reforms and changes the Roman authorities found themselves unable to react. The Roman authorities eventually came under the influence of several players in the Liturgical Movement who, with the positive enabling of the highest Churchmen of the era, enacted a radical overhaul of a liturgy with which most people were very unfamiliar and came to regard as a matter for positive law.

The above might come across as a concatenation of statements with very little relation to each other, so I will re-iterate in one sentence: the Roman rite of the Catholic Church failed to appreciate the depth and power of its liturgy for several centuries and so God allowed it to be replaced with something else.

At the heart of this transition was the loss of the sense of the Christian as a fundamentally liturgical person, as a person who re-lives and re-visits Christ's earthly work and life through the rites of the Church, which have been fashioned at a local level with the rites of the City of Roman used as a basic formula. The liturgy, which has both a local and a catholic sense, became the product of legislation rather than prayer and custom—not to delude ourselves into thinking all pre-Tridentine custom was pristine. The desire on the part of the reformers to simplify and to re-introduce a communal understanding of the celebration of the Eucharist was done from the top and imposed upon a laity un-accustomed to having the clergy talking at them during Mass. Indeed, the reform was an entirely clerical undertaking with little concern for the pastoral needs and the non-extant liturgical formation of the laity of the post-Tridentine era. Combined with a warped communitarianism, this aspect of the reform, specifically in the Mass, has been at best troublesome and at worst has warped the Church's understanding of the role of all persons present at the celebration of the Eucharist.

Some reform to the calendar system was necessary before Pius X's revision of the Divine Office, but very little was internally problematic in the old liturgy. What was truly necessary was a revitalization of practice of the complete Roman liturgy, to include more high Masses, fewer low Masses in well-equipped parishes on Sundays, and more sung observance of the Divine Office. This would have been best-achieved through as local a means as possible, ideally at the instigation of the diocesan bishop. However, most clergy, both a century ago and now, are not liturgy inclined nor do they want to be. As long as this is the case the Roman rite will be ossified until a new archaeologist dusts off some purported golden liturgical age and "restores" it, as happened numerous times last century.

I will conclude this section by drawing attention to an omission in this series: the theology and ideas of the reformers who actually wrote the new liturgy in the 1950s and 1960s. Examining the beliefs and intentions of these men was not my intention, so I ignored such an undertaking. The point of this series was to describe six reasons why the eventual reforms took place, that is, what conditions and problems in the Church made a drastic reform possible. Certainly the Pauline Mass and Office were not inevitable, but I think some sort of dramatic change was, given the perception of the holistic liturgy held by all gradations of people in the era and the poor liturgical practice associated with it. I hope we have accomplished at least that much.

II: Ideas Going Forward

A major issue traditionally-minded Roman Catholics will face in the coming decades is the usability of the older form of the Roman rite and its benefit for the laity. Indeed, this was a problem in the Roman Church long before the Second Vatican Council convened and little has changed in this regard. Had the laity, or clergy, been very attached for their spiritual life in 1960, the more visible changes of 1964-1975 would not have been accepted. Similarly, how do we imbue a local and pastoral character in the traditional rite without going down the same road we did in the 1960s? This is an important topic. Rome has been very willing to permit elements from the 1965 liturgy and the Pauline Mass to be imported into the 1962 rites, but has discouraged and even rejected the use of anything that pre-dates 1962 (except the Confiteor at communion) or the use of 1962 practices in the rites of Paul VI.

In short, both a revival of practice in the old rites and the return to older practices, not well represented in the Johannine liturgy, will have to occur on a micro scale. It cannot be imposed. In a previous post a commentator, likely frustrated with my morose tone concerning the 1962 rites, asked what sort of liturgy I would like to see. The instinct was to reply along the lines of "pre-Pius XII" or "pre-Pius X," but we must admit that there is no going back and that no liturgy is perfect. If we went back to before Pius XII, we would still have the Pian (X) psalter and rubrics. Before that? Overload of feasts. Back a few more centuries? Urban VIII's paganized hymns. Trent? It is a curial Missal, ill-suited for parishes and communal settings. Local medieval rites? Now we are six centuries removed from present day....

The best and most likely solutions seems to be a return to older practices and elements, rather than a return to any magical liturgical year. So here are some constructive ideas that can be implemented going forward:
  • Use the older ceremonial at solemn Mass.
  • Commemorate superseded feast days with orations and, when necessary, proper Last Gospels. Use votive prayers on semi-double and simple days. Give the Mass and Office a sense of depth in its celebration.
  • Use the liturgy as a source of meditation and of learning. A revival in liturgical theology has certainly taken place in the last decade, although who can say whether or not it will last? The liturgy is our on-going conversation with the Divine, and so it ought to inform our conception of the mysteries of the faith. We could easily read the Old Testament sacrifices through the ordinary of the Mass. The orations and reading selections, particularly for feasts and vigils that existed in the first millennium, are a source of tremendous insight into our Lord's work. Moreover, these prayers can illuminate the belief of the Church and the nature of the Christian community throughout the centuries. Another set of under-appreciated gifts is the selection of antiphons for major feasts. We need more reflection on the liturgy by the laity and the clergy alike.
  • The old Holy Week. Just do it.
  • The old psalter and rubrics. The Office may have been better in theory before St. Pius X, but I am not convinced that in 1910 it was better in practice. A good restoration of the psalter would have to involve a major revision of the calendar, which no parish priest is qualified to undertake. Such a restoration is probably most plausible in religious communities and monasteries. Let us hope a few become interested.
    Crucifer and thurifer vested for Christmas Mass according to
    the medieval praxis
  • Ditch the polyphonic Mass settings and utilize the vast array of chants. These are very singable and easy for people to memorize and internalize.
  • Hold more regular celebrations of the Divine Office in the parish setting. The little hours (Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Compline) are the most feasible for this idea. Moreover, the little hours could be celebrated without a priest present, as no incensing is required. The laity could sing Terce before Mass or Compline on weekday nights with very little trouble.
  • Come up with simpler tones for singing the Office in a parish setting. Most of the psalm tones seem simple, but lay persons without a strong interest in memorizing them may become disillusioned very quickly. The very simple psalm tones of the monastic uses take little effort to learn and might offer a solution.
  • Make major feast days special. The medieval practice of having "rulers" of the choir in the sanctuary, leading the propers of the Mass denote both the uniqueness of the day and the importance of music as prayer in liturgical action. This would also recall the strongly monastic features of the old Mass and Office. Another nice "touch" might be the wearing of the tunicle by the crucifer, thurifer, and acolytes on feasts. These practices are very well grounded in tradition and offer a visible indication that the servers act as minor ministers at the Mass and suggest the significance of the feast.
  • Integrate singing into low Mass. When low Mass first came to be, it was sung and remained so until recent centuries. Although not strictly a high Mass, I so not see why singing of the actual texts (as opposed to the "four hymn sandwich") could not be revived, not necessarily because of its historicity, but because the Mass ought to be as sung as possible. Ferial tones could be used the greetings, dialogue, lessons, and Gospel. What of the propers at a low Mass? Perhaps they could be sung in a monotone. After all, eventually the entire low Mass was sung in a monotone. Point is, singing ought to be the liturgical norm, and this would be a very easy way of making that happen.
  • Re-consider the vernacular. For a very long time, European parishes did the epistle and Gospel in vernacular at low and sung Masses, but did Latin at solemn Masses. This is interesting and maybe useful. The repetition of the readings in vernacular before the sermon is less than elegant and separates the sacramental aspect of the readings from the instructional. The French practice of a lector reading the epistle in vernacular while the priest privately reads the Latin text is a reasonable balance for parish Masses. Solemn Masses ought still be entirely in Latin, so as to emphasize the fullness of each of the levels of Holy Orders.
No priest or lay person would have to adapt all these ideas, or even most of them. Perhaps the use of even a few of these points among traditionalists would re-ignite discussion about how the liturgy should be done and by whom it needs to be governed. Use of these points would not be the beginning of the end of the restoration of the liturgy, but only the end of the beginning.

Final Word

I thank you all for following this series. I have enjoyed writing it and found it a very beneficial learning experience. While these posts might seem pessimistic or disconsolate, I see no real cause for this. The liturgy is in the hands of the faithful and it is their charge to maintain it. While peering through an old breviary might be occasion for despair, lamenting the ignorance of the wealth of spiritual riches compiled in that book over the centuries, we should have some confidence and trust in our Lord looking forward.

I will leave you with some words of Evelyn Waugh, who, in the epilogue of his Brideshead Revisited was writing of a house, gives us a lesson immanently applicable to the Roman rite:
"The chapel showed no ill-effects of its long neglect; the art-nouveau paint was as fresh and bright as ever; the art-nouveau lamp burned once more before the altar. I said a prayer, an ancient, newly-learned form of words, and left, turning towards the camp; and as I walked back, and the cook-house bugle sounded ahead of me, I thought:
'The builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend; they made a new house with the stones of the old castle; year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended it; year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness; until, in sudden frost, came the age of Hooper; the place was desolate and the work all brought to nothing; Quomodo sedet sola civitas. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
'And yet,' I thought... 'and yet that is not the last word; it is not even an apt word; it is a dead word from ten years back.
'Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre of Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.' "

On the feast of Ss. Philip and James.


  1. Thank you for this series of posts. I am curious if you have any idea how much discussion there is about these ideas in the traditional institutes.

    1. Mercier, thank you for reading! A lot of these ideas are being discussed in traditional groups in Europe, less so in my area (the USA). Some individual monasteries have been returning, or considering a return, to their older psalters and switching to the older rite of Mass. I would say consideration of these ideas is probably most prevalent in diocesan clergy, as they do not have the "1962 police" hovering over their shoulders. I have even heard of a few cases of members of the Roman Curia using some older features, such as the Pentecost Vigil!

  2. I believe that Una Voce in the UK organized a very big and prominent Vigil of Pentecost according to the pre-55 books some years ago. The ICRSS pretty much exclusively used the pre-55 Missal until they acquired Pontifical Status a few years ago; one of the conditions of that was moving forward a few years in their Missal. They, however, now use an "ICRSS blend" of sorts, incorporating such things as proper Last Gospels and Orations for the Supreme Pontiff, and a decent bit of pre-55 Holy Week ceremonial. But there is definitely a sense with them of the "1962 police" as you put it.

  3. Simply amazing series here. Bravo!