The Reform of the Roman Rite
When I am in Rome, I hear very little these days about the ‘reform of the reform’ – it just isn’t within the arena of most people’s awareness. In matters liturgical, if anything, we see something of a polarization and many people seem to have a vested interest in promoting this. Happily, not everyone is of this view and I would like this evening to concentrate on one such person whose view, fortunately for us, will be decisive. I refer to the Holy Father. Just ten days ago, he addressed these thoughts to those gathered in Dublin for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress:
The Congress also occurs at a time when the Church throughout the world is preparing to celebrate the Year of Faith to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council, an event which launched the most extensive renewal of the Roman Rite ever known. Based upon a deepening appreciation of the sources of the liturgy, the Council promoted the full and active participation of the faithful in the Eucharistic sacrifice. At our distance today from the Council Fathers’ expressed desires regarding liturgical renewal, and in the light of the universal Church’s experience in the intervening period, it is clear that a great deal has been achieved; but it is equally clear that there have been many misunderstandings and irregularities. The renewal of external forms, desired by the Council Fathers, was intended to make it easier to enter into the inner depth of the mystery. Its true purpose was to lead people to a personal encounter with the Lord, present in the Eucharist, and thus with the living God, so that through this contact with Christ’s love, the love of his brothers and sisters for one another might also grow. Yet not infrequently, the revision of liturgical forms has remained at an external level, and "active participation" has been confused with external activity. Hence much still remains to be done on the path of real liturgical renewal.
[Pope Benedict XVI – Video Message at the Closing Mass of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, Dublin June 17th, 2012]
During our brief time together, I propose to reflect with you on a few themes taken from this single recent utterance of the Holy Father, as I believe it is highly representative of his thought in relation to this all-important consideration. The Holy Father said that:
1. “the Second Vatican Council, an event which launched the most extensive renewal of the Roman Rite ever known
Very few people could have foreseen the wholesale revision of the liturgy which would come in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and certainly few could foresee that the unifiying experience of a Latin liturgy would become entirely alien to most Catholics born in the last third of the twentieth century. The unchangeable nature of this characteristic of the Liturgy was a view largely shared by Blessed John Henry Newman, Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, Mgr Ronald Knox and, until the liturgical reform happened, also by Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Commentators such as Fr Joseph Gelineau SJ, composer of the famous psalm tones, went as far as to say “the Roman Rite, as we knew it, has been destroyed”!
The factors which fed into the liturgical reform after the Council were complex and in some ways, not entirely contemporary. I think we must admit that until relatively recently there has been very little scholarship that is able to accurately identify the sources of the liturgical reform. In some cases, the scholarly opinions upon which some decisions were based does not stand the test of time. We must hope that scholarly commentary which unravels some of the mystery surrounding the making of the new liturgy becomes more readily available in the near future.
Whether or not we have any scholarly insight, many of us have lived in the Church through this period and have thereby accumulated a vast reservoir of experiences which for good or ill shape our perceptions in relation to the liturgy and guide our expectations when we consider what we would hope to find when we come to worship God in the liturgy. While there is a sort of commonality to these observations across a wide spectrum of liturgical preference, it goes without saying that whether something is considered desirable or not will largely depend on your view of what the liturgy is meant to achieve. I have come to the view that there is little agreement in this important matter and many people proceed on what is essentially a privatized view of something which is by definition common property.
In his address to the Eucharistic Congress, the Holy Father said:
2. “a great deal has been achieved”
Obviously, there have been some very positive developments in the wake of the liturgical reforms that followed Vatican II. Among them, I would cite:
- The liturgies of the Sacred Triduum, largely unknown to a previous generation, have now become the liturgical heart of the year for most Catholics.
- The Liturgy of the Hours, previously largely limited to the clergy, has become more genuinely the Prayer of the Church in the experience of both religious and lay people.
- A wider selection of lections in the Mass and all the Sacramental Rites has strengthened the idea that Scripture is part of the primitive liturgical κήρυγμα.
- In those places where the principles of the liturgical movement have been applied to music, there is a greater appreciation of the various functions of music in different elements of the liturgy.
- The revision of the rites of Christian Initiation has led to a greater understanding of Baptism as the foundational fact of our ecclesial identity.
- Where provision has been made for individual Confession, there has been a return to the centrality of the Sacrament of Penance in the personal journey of conversion.
- The renewal of the Rite of the Worship of the Blessed Eucharist outside Mass has facilitated (if not quite inspired) the widespread adoption of Eucharistic Adoration as a standard element of parish life and as an important means of engendering private prayer.
On this recent occasion, the Holy Father
3. ‘it is equally clear that there have been many misunderstandings and irregularities”
- A sense of the communion of the Church has become limited to local communities that are in many ways self-selecting – many Catholics have a poor understanding of what it means to belong to the Universal Church but a highly developed understanding of what it means to belong to a self-selecting parish community of people like themselves.
- Any notion of the shape of the Liturgical year has been greatly lessened by an ironing-out of those features which characterized the distinctive seasons of the year.
- The universal tendency to ignore sung propers and to substitute non-liturgical alternatives.
- The transference of Solemnities which are holydays of obligation to Sundays destroys the internal dynamics of the liturgical cycle e.g. The Epiphany and The Ascension.
- The frequent tendency to gloss or paraphrase the liturgical texts, supplying continuous commentary, has contributed to an improvised or spontaneous character in much liturgical celebration.
- The multiplication of liturgical ‘ministries’ has led to considerable confusion and error concerning the relationship between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the baptized.
- The liturgy often seems to have the quality of a performance with the priest and liturgical ministers cast in the roles of performers and behaving accordingly. Consequently, congregations are often expecting to be ‘entertained’ rather as spectators might be at a theatre.
- The manner of the distribution and reception of Holy Communion (including the appropriateness of one’s reception of Communion at a particular Mass) has led to a casual disregard for this great Sacrament.
- A proliferation of Communion Services presided over by lay people has resulted in a lessening of the sense of the importance of the Eucharistic sacrifice.
- The appalling banality of much liturgical music and the lack of any true liturgical spirit in the use of music in the liturgy has been a primary generating force in anti-liturgical culture.
The Holy Father then went on to say that:
4. “not infrequently, the revision of liturgical forms has remained at an external level, and "active participation" has been confused with external activity”
In my view, this is the very crux of the matter and I would like to illustrate it with reference to the Mass at which Pope Benedict’s remarks were heard – the closing Mass of the recent Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. The improvements in liturgical culture and particularly the improvements in liturgical music, that have become increasingly evident throughout this papacy, particularly in large-scale celebrations were sadly almost entirely absent from this occasion, giving the event a sort of ‘eighties’ feel to it. More specifically:
- the entire liturgy had a ‘performance’ quality to it, with the assembly as the principal focus. This was borne out by the fact that musicial items were frequently greeted with applause.
- There was a frequent disregard for the provisions of the GIRM. This was particularly evident with reference to music:
+ None of the antiphons of the proper were sung for the entrance, offertory and communion processions (cf GIRM #40)
+ Gregorian Chant was conspicuous by its absence (cf GIRM #41). None of the Missal chants was used for the people’s parts of the Order of Mass (with the single exceptions of the gospel and preface dialogues), even though the liturgy was predominantly in English and these chants would have been known by most people present.
+ In the Profession of Faith, after the Cardinal celebrant had intoned Credo III, lectors read the Apostles’ Creed (which has a different intonation to the Nicene Creed) in a variety of languages, spoken paragraphs were punctuated by the sung response ‘Credo, Amen!” This is not recognizably one of the modes for the Creed described in the GIRM (cf GIRM #48).
+ Much music did not ‘correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action’ [GIRM #41] such as the celebrity spot during the distribution of Holy Communion of 3 clerical tenors, ‘The Priests’, singing the impossibly sentimental song “May the road rise up to meet you”. I feel like asking, just what is wrong with the Communion antiphon and psalm?
+ Despite the international character of the occasion, the use of Latin in the people’s sung parts was almost non-existant (cf GIRM #41).
The depressing cumulative effect of the disregard for all these principles in a major liturgy, celebrated by a papal legate, and broadcast throughout the world, is hard to underestimate. If I were given to conspiracy theories, I would almost feel persuaded that this was a deliberately calculated attempt to broadcast a different message and to oppose the better liturgical spirit of recent times. But surely it cannot be so?
I think we have to ask such questions and indeed to surmise that the influence of former barons of the liturgical establishment has found a new and conspicuous arena of activity in which to model their example of poor liturgy. There can be no talk of the reform of the Roman Rite until the GIRM is enforced as the minimum requirement. If it remains a largely fantasy text at the beginning of our altar missals then ‘the rebuilding of the broken down city’ will take a very long time.
The Holy Father then concluded by stating that:
5. “much still remains to be done on the path of real liturgical renewal”
We must conclude by agreeing with the Holy Father – there is much to be done and happily a week like this one is a prophetic sign of the new liturgical road map – where we are going and how we are going to do it! In an attempt to engender on-going improvement in the quality of our liturgy, and in the hope that Catholics will be able to encounter a liturgy that is self-evidently expressive of our liturgical tradition and conveys a sense of something larger than the purely local, in a highly personal view, I would identify the following as desirable characteristics of the liturgy of the future:
- A sense of reverence for the text: the unity of the Roman Rite is now essentially a textual unity. The Church permits a certain latitude in the interpretation of the norms that govern the celebration of the liturgy and hence our unity is essentially textual: we use the same prayers and meditate on the same Scriptures. This is more clearly evident now with a single English text for universal use.
- A greater willingness to heed Sacrosanctum concilium rather than continual recourse to the rather nebulous concept of the ‘spirit of the Council’ which generally attempts to legitimize liturgical abuses rather than correct them. Currently, these teachings are more likely to be evidenced in a well prepared presentation of the Extraordinary Form than in most Ordinary Form celebrations. It need not be so.
- In relation to both forms of the Roman Rite, a careful attention to the demands of the calendar and the norms which govern the celebration of the liturgy, not assuming that it is possible or acceptable to depart from these norms.
- A re-reading of the encyclical Mediator Dei of Pope Pius XII in conjunction with more recent Magisterial documents. In this way, the light of tradition might be perceived to shine on all our liturgical celebrations.
- The widespread cultivation of a dignified and reverent liturgy that evidences careful preparation and respect for its constituent elements in accordance with the liturgical norms.
- A recovery of the Latin tradition of the Roman Rite that enables us to continue to present elements of our liturgical patrimony from the earliest centuries with understanding. This necessarily requires a far more enthusiastic and widespread commitment to the teaching and learning of Latin in order that the linguistic culture required for interpreting our texts and chants may be more widely experienced and our patrimony enjoy a wider constituency.
- We should seek to see the exclusion of all music from the Liturgy which does not a ‘liturgical voice’, regardless of style.
- The exclusion from the liturgy of music which only expresses secular culture and which is ill-suited to the demands of the liturgy. A renaissance of interest in and use of chant in both Latin and English as a recognition that this form of music should enjoy ‘first place’ in our liturgy and all other musical forms are suitable for liturgical use to the extent that they share in the characteristics of chant.
- An avoidance of the idea that music is the sole consideration in the liturgy, the music is a vehicle for the liturgy not the other way around!
- A commitment to the celebration and teaching of the ars celebrandi of both forms of the Roman Rite, so that all priests can perceive more readily how the light of tradition shines on our liturgical life and how this might be communicated more effectively to our people.
- A clearer distinction between devotions, non-liturgical forms of prayer and the Sacred Liturgy. A lack of any proper liturgical sense has led to a proliferation of devotions as an alternative vehicle for popular fervour. This was a widespread criticism of the liturgy before the Council and we now have to ask ourselves why the same lacuna has been identified in the newer liturgical forms.
- A far greater commitment to silence before, during and after the Liturgy is needed.
Having travelled the English-speaking world very widely in preparation for the implementation of the English translation of the third typical edition of the Missale Romanum, and having experienced the liturgy in a wide variety of circumstances and styles, I would conclude that I have generally encountered a great desire for change, although not always among those who are directly responsible for the liturgy. I think we are currently well placed to respond to this desire and this is evidenced by the fact that many things which were indicated fifty years ago, such as the singing of the Mass, and more particularly the singing of the proper texts rather than the endless substitution of songs and hymns, are only now being seriously considered and implemented. It is earnestly to be desired that such developments continue to flourish and that an improved liturgical culture is accessible to everyone in the Church.
Crucial to this peaceful revolution has been the leadership and example of the present Holy Father who has consistently studied and written about the liturgy in a long life of scholarship which now informs his governance of the Church’s liturgical life. Much that he commends was already evident in aspects of liturgical scholarship from the early twentieth century onwards. In our own time, however, it is finally being received with the joy and enthusiasm that it merits. A new generation of Catholics eagerly awaits a greater experience of the basic truth that the liturgy is always a gift which we receive from the Church rather than make for ourselves. The Church Music Association of America and all those who identify with its initiatives and benefit from its prophetic lead have a very serious and a highly significant contribution to make to this process. May God bless us all as we share in his work.