Léon Gromier: Liturgical Reform Between Rupture and Continuity

Msgr Léon Gromier (1879-1965)

Up until a few years ago, any peep of concern about the 1970 Missal of Paul VI was adduced as evidence of schism and obscurantism.  Klaus Gamber’s The Reform of the Liturgy, first published in 1981 in Germany and in English translation in 1993, changed all that.  Likewise, in traditionalist circles, peeps of concern about the 1962 Missal of John XXIII were squelched.  Today, however, searching questions about the Pauline Reform are being asked out loud from the halls of the Vatican to blogs with a readership of 2, and questions about the liturgical reforms of both John XXIII and Pius XII are beginning to be taken seriously.  Now, there are still some quarters where the very mention of such criticism is laughed at.  Those who suggest a closer analysis of the pre-Vatican II liturgical reform are often accused of wanting to found a Society of Pope Pius II.5, since X and V already exist, and they are rejected as hopelessly wedded to “older is better” in the face of scholarship and common sense.
Yet, there are thinkers in the Church who are earnestly trying to understand where a hermeneutic of rupture has been applied to various aspects of the Church’s life, and just how continuity is or is not reform.  The only approved form of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is the 1962 Missal and its associated books.  But the provision in Universae ecclesiae 52 allowing religious orders to use their proper rites may give hope to some that a further liberalization to employ previous editions of the Roman Missal, such as those pre-dating the 1955 Pian Reform of Holy Week, is possible. 
But why should we even bother looking at the pre-Vatican II liturgical reform?  The Church’s current liturgical law only allows the 1962 Missal and most EF enthusiasts seem perfectly content using it.  But if we are to discern, under the Church’s authority, where a hermeneutic of rupture has been applied to the liturgical life of the Church, it seems nonsensical to stop at an arbitrary date or edition of the Missal such as 1970, 1962, 1955, or even 1570.  Is every abridgement, replacement or omission evidence of rupture, or can they be seen as little pieces of thread in the larger tapestry of liturgical reform?  I should like to argue that a closer look needs to be paid to the pre-Vatican II liturgical reform.
Recently I came across a name that I had never heard before, and I would bet that even the most seasoned of Chant Café readers are unlikely to be familiar with him either.  Léon Gromier (1879-1965) is best known as one of the Ceremonieri of Pius XII’s papal liturgy.   But this priest of Autun had been in Rome since his ordination in 1902 and was a consultor on matters liturgical from the time of St Pius X.  As early as 1936, he expressed loud reservations about the trajectory of liturgical discussions, such as that of restoring the Easter Vigil to celebration during the night.  With characteristic aplomb, he made his opinions loud and clear, and did not rise in an ecclesiastical career, but his knowledge was such that even those who disagreed with him still respected him. 
You can find some information on Gromier and excerpts of his works in Italian and French here.  He is best known for his commentary on the old Caeremoniale Episcoporum, which I have tried in vain to obtain.  But what struck me as the most interesting was a conference Gromier gave in Paris in 1960.  You can read it in its original French or in its English translation by the always interesting-to-read Anthony Chadwick. 
This conference makes for interesting, if difficult, reading.  As the transcription of a talk, it often reads, especially in its translation, not very linearly.  One must be patient with editorializing and the occasional shot across the bow at his liturgical adversaries.  But there is also much here that I find fascinating.
An impression that I have gotten from studying the successive series of texts of the Holy Week ceremonies, as well as their accompanying rubrics, is of a certain amount of “cut and paste.”  Anyone who is familiar with the Breviary of St Pius X who has then switched to that of John XXIII knows of those awkward moments where et reliqua is preceded by a mental ma da dov’é abbiamo cominciato qua?  Gromier in this talk often points out where the “cut and paste” mentality has produced some very difficult to explain things in the liturgical reform up to 1960.  One wonders if these were things which Evelyn Waugh found so irksome in his letters to Cardinal Heenan.
But before we look at what some of those things are, there is an observation in order.  Before we cut anything, it behooves us to really understand why what was there, was there in the first place.  Often, we invent a reason why something should be changed or removed, which does not respect the reason for its existence and also does not foresee unintended consequences.  This is true in many aspects of our life, and, as Gromier points out, is also true in the liturgy. 
Gromier makes a distinction between what he sees as the true Roman liturgical spirit embodied in the texts, rubrics and ceremonial traditions of the Roman liturgical books, and a very different spirit animating those he calls les pastoraux, what we might call the “pastoral liturgists” one assumes were imbued with Liturgical Movement ideas more akin to Guardini than Guéranger. 
He begins his talk with the indication that the proposed restoration of Holy Week was to commence with the timing of the service.  Fifty years out from Sacrosanctum concilium, many priests and lay faithful are shocked to hear that, up until the middle of the last century, centuries had gone by with the Triduum services celebrated in the morning.  The usual quips about the “Mass of the Lord’s Breakfast” and the flame of the paschal candle not being able to be seen because of light bathing the church usually come up.  Most liturgists just dismissed the idea of having services at those times as an inexplicable anachronism tied to some idea that Mass was not supposed to be celebrated after noon.  But Gromier points out that the timing was intimately connected with the Church’s ancient discipline of fasting, which of course had been significantly relaxed. 
He talks about the renaming of the services.  He asks why the ancient name of Good Friday as In Parasceve had to be replaced by the Passion and Death of the Lord, when passion as a concept included death, and if so, why not call the Passion Gospel the Passion and Death Gospel?  He talks about why the Passion and the Gospel were two distinct things, which were then in 1955 melded into one history.   Gromier also complains of the fact that in the 1955 Holy Week, Vespers is omitted in Holy Thursday and Good Friday and Compline on each day of the Triduum. 
One of the more interesting parts of the talk is when he takes issue with the adjective solemn as applied in the 1955 Reform.  He writes, “The solemnity of liturgical services is not an optional decoration; it is of the nature of the service . . . Outside of this, so-called solemnity is not an amplifying enticement, to impress and score the goal .  . . we made a prodigious use of the word solemn even for necessarily or intrinsically solemn acts.  We use words, believing that we can put more solemnity into the Procession of Palms than into that of Candlemas, more solemnity into the Procession of Maundy Thursday than that of Good Friday (abolished as we shall see).  Always on the same slippery slope, we learn that the Passion of Good Friday is sung solemnly, as if it could be sung in another fashion.”
Here Gromier identifies a crucial characteristic of the Reformed Liturgy that I had never been able to put into words.  Theologians often talk about the svolta antropologica, a man-centered volte-face of theology after Rahner.  Here we have a clear liturgical complement.  Solemnity no longer arises from the nature of the Christological mystery being celebrated, but of how we go about celebrating it, and what we do to celebrate it.  The Eucharistic Processions of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were solemn before because of their reference to Christ being carried to and from the Sepulchre.  After 1955, Maundy Thursday remains solemn because incense and song and candles accompany the Procession.  Good Friday ceases to be so because those things that we do are omitted.  I think this is a point worthy of further reflection.  How often in our parishes, basilicas and papal liturgies have we seen attempts at solemnization of the liturgy interpreted as our use of Latin, candles and incense rather than the solemn nature of certain ceremonies rising from their intrinsic Christological import? 
Our French liturgist here also speaks at length about blessings being done no longer on the altar or as close to the altar as possible (ashes, palms, candles, oils) but on a table in front of the people.  He also points out that, after placing these blessings in front of the people so they could ostensibly see what was going on, the rites were so drastically simplified so that there was not much left to see.     
He blames the pastoral liturgists for creating a situation which introduced several ambiguities and contradictions within the ceremonies themselves.  He points out the fact that the clergy are instructed to no longer hold palms on Palm Sunday during the Passion, forgetting that the reason the clergy held the palms was in deference to a reference to St Augustine, whose homily was read that day in Matins.
Often the changes in rubrics belie confusion as to their origin.  The change of color in the Palm Sunday liturgy is an example.  In the pre-Pian liturgy, Gromier, claims the Roman color was always purple (and black in Paris and red in Milan).  In 1955, the Procession is in red and the Mass is in purple, stemming from the introduction of the idea of red and triumphant, and downplaying the predominant theme of Passion in the Palm Sunday liturgy.  Now, of course, Palm Sunday and Good Friday in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite are entirely in red, a sign of the capitulation of the Roman liturgy to the idea of triumph which, arguably for Gromier at least, is not a properly Roman liturgical idea.
While Gromier derides the symbolic and liturgical value of the changes, he also indicates the practical ramifications of the changes.  The celebrant having to walk around sprinkling palms everywhere in the church, introducing laymen into the sanctuary for the Mandatum, the lack of instructions as to the veiling of the processional cross or the altar for Palm Sunday, the removal of the Cross from the altar just to be brought back to it on Good Friday, the changes of the vestments on Good Friday, carrying a large and heavy paschal candle, etc. 
It is common nowadays to hear that the central focus of the liturgical action is the altar.  Some argue that the tabernacle should not even reside on or near the altar because it “distracts” from the Action during Mass.  Everyone is taught that the altar is the symbol of Christ and is worthy of respect with a bow.  But Gromier states, “The Roman Pontifical teaches us that we do not greet a new altar before having placed its cross.  The altar itself is not the object of veneration, but the cross that dominates it, and to which all prayers are addressed.  The altar without a cross, if it is worthy of being kissed, has no right to a bow or genuflection . . . for an altar is not invoked.”  Common practice today is for the Cross to not be on the altar at all, and for the altar as table to occupy much of the attention in reverence.  One wonders what Gromier would say about the later rubric which directs the Celebrant at the Oremus for the collects to bow towards the book and no longer towards the cross.  Today, the altar and the cross have been separated as if they no longer belong together, much as altar and tabernacle have been separated (malgré Pius XII’s admonition against it).  Pope Benedict XVI’s custom of having the Cross on the Altar, referred to as the Benedictine arrangementalthough it is perhaps more accurately referred to as the Roman basilica arrangement, has restored the unity between Cross and Altar and re-oriented liturgical prayer towards the Cross and away from the Celebrant at the Altar.  I have no idea if Josef Ratzinger, developing this idea in The Spirit of the Liturgy was aware of Gromier’s critique on this point or not, but it is a happy phenomenon that clergy are imitating the papal liturgy in this fashion and giving priority to the cross as a focus of liturgical action, no longer separated from the altar. 
The confusion of symbolism in the 1955 Holy Week led to some oddities that Gromier criticizes.  “The procession of Maundy Thursday, definitively instituted by Sixtus IV (+1484), and that of Good Friday, instituted by John XXII (+1334), therefore by the same authority, have the same object, same purpose, same solemnity, except the festive character of the first and the mourning of the second.  Why abolish one and keep the other?”  He asks why, when fonts, baptismal water and baptisms go together, they are separated out during the Vigil: “the pastorals make baptismal water and baptize in a basin, and in this container they carry it to the font, singing the song of a thirsty deer, which has already drunk, and which is going towards a dry font.”  Why is the renewal of baptismal vows from the custom of First Communion of children inserted into the Vigil after baptisms have already been done, and if so, why not renew the marriage vows of all present at a wedding?
It may be easy to surmise in reading Gromier’s talk that the man was just a curmudgeon opposed in principle to all novelty.  Yet he does not argue entirely against the reform of the times of the Triduum, even as he protests against the removal of them from the context of their fasting discipline and Breviary accompaniment.  He does not argue against the distribution of Communion at the Good Friday Liturgy of the Presanctified, even as he lambastes the rubric of eating the Host without also drinking the ablutions associated with it, as if anyone ever ate without drinking.  The impression that comes across is that Gromier issues a pointed challenge to the pastorals to provide better theological, historical and practical rationales for all they accomplished during the reform.               
As Gromier declares, “Certain modifications of tradition, so well-known, are just as dishonest as they are daring.”  It is a lapidary statement, meant to provoke.  Fifty-two years after he made it, these words still provoke strong reactions.  If we are to explore how Vatican II is an exercise in continuity with the tradition, and to see how the liturgy can be reformed and still be in conformity with the tradition, we must go back to the sources.  Far from accepting tout court the accepted history of the liturgical reform and Vatican II as proffered by the Bologna School and the Liturgical Establishment, we have an opportunity for true ressourcement.  We need not discard the words of criticism of the liturgical reform, whether it be Léon Gromier’s often acerbic analysis of the changes in the liturgy in the pre-Vatican II period, or the linguistic observations of those who express reservations against the new English translation of the third editio typica of the Pauline Missale Romanum.  All of these critiques should be entertained, not out of a sense of ideological protest or loyal dissent, but in an effort to serenely ascertain what has happened, why it happened, and how to recover the spirit of the liturgy, ever ancient and ever new, for today and tomorrow.