Five reasons Pope Francis embraces the Vatican II liturgy

Pope Francis speaks as he celebrates Mass with about 50 cardinals in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican June 27. The Mass marked the pope's 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano) Pope Francis speaks as he celebrates Mass with about 50 cardinals in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican June 27. The Mass marked the pope's 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

It is not news that the liturgy has been a contested field in Catholic life over the past few decades. Opposition to liturgical reform began even before the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, and increased from 1964 onward, when reforms like the use of English and the practice of the priest facing the people while presiding at the Eucharist began to be implemented.

In its most extreme form this rejection of Vatican II’s reform found a base in the traditionalist movement founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, which eventually split off in schism from the Catholic Church after he ordained bishops on his own. Part of that movement remained within the church and was greatly encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum” ten years ago, which greatly liberalized permission to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass, now called the “Extraordinary Form.”

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The opposition was not limited to this extreme, however. Another group characterized as the “Reform of the Reform” advocated modifications of the post-Vatican II reforms, such as a return to one Eucharistic Prayer (Prayer I, the Roman Canon) recited in Latin and in a low voice with the priest and people facing in the same direction (ad orientem). That movement’s most notable champion was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, but it had supporters among at least the past four prefects of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments : Cardinals Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez, Francis Arinze, Antonio Cañizares and (currently) Robert Sarah. These opposition movements also found support among some younger Catholics searching for a more transcendent experience of liturgy than they customarily experienced.

Pope Francis has definitively and unequivocally put his weight behind a liturgical movement.

In the meantime, various attempts at moving the reform forward, like proposed translations of the Psalter and the Roman Missal in the mid-90s by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy, were stalled or outright rejected by the Vatican. In addition, the Vatican also published a new document on translation (“Liturgiam Authenticam,”2001) that reversed the 1969 instruction on translation in a very traditional direction.

This restorationist movement in liturgy is being reversed by Pope Francis. A year ago the Vatican issued a rebuttal of opinions in favor of the “Reform of the Reform” put forward by Cardinal Sarah. Just this past year Francis established a commission to review “Liturgiam Authenticam.”(The outcome of their work has not yet been published.) The pope also replaced a good number of more traditional consultors to the Congregation for Divine Worship with individuals much more sympathetic to the Vatican II-inspired reforms.

And now, in a remarkably frank address to participants in National Italian Liturgical Week, Pope Francis has definitively and unequivocally put his weight behind a liturgical movement by declaring: “We can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” His use of the very strong phrase “magisterial authority” cannot be construed as casual. The paragraph with which his strong affirmation ends begins with the following:

And there is still work to do today in this direction [the reform begun by Pope Paul VI], in particular, rediscovering the reasons for the decisions taken with the liturgical reform, surmounting unfounded and superficial readings, partial reception and practices that disfigure it. It’s not about rethinking the reform by looking again at the choices, but of knowing better the underlying reasons, also through historical documentation, as well as to internalize the inspirational principles and observing the discipline that regulate it” [emphasis mine].

Certainly Pope Francis is no fan of irresponsible experimentation or sloppy adaptation of the liturgy (as he witnesses strongly in his sober and simple celebrational style and choice of vestments), and there is nothing that is really new in this talk.

But its importance can be found in the various aspects of the liturgical reform that Francis emphasizes. Let me name five.

First, he clearly affirms the importance of active participation in the liturgy, a participation that rejects participants assisting as “strangers and silent spectators” (“Sacrosanctum Concilium,” No. 48).

Second, he espouses the council’s own careful balance between respect of healthy tradition and legitimate progress (No. 23).

Third, he reiterates the necessity of long-term and patient liturgical education for both pastors and people.

Fourth, and this is a particularly significant theological emphasis, he speaks of the liturgy as the living presence of Christ, a presence that is manifested in multiple ways: the Eucharistic elements, the priest himself, the word proclaimed and the assembly gathered (No. 7). Francis’ emphasis on the multiple modes of the presence of Christ in the liturgy is particularly important because it leads him to say that the altar is “the center toward which our attention converges…the gaze of the praying people, priest and faithful, is oriented to the altar, convoked for the assembly around it [my emphasis].” I doubt very much that the pope was speaking loosely when he said “around” the altar. In other words I think it was a comment, albeit oblique, on those who want the priest to face “east.”

Finally, and certainly consistent with the fourth emphasis is Francis’ insistence that the liturgy is an action (“for the people, but also of the people” [emphasis in original]). He refers to his own homilies to drive home the insight that liturgy is not so much about doctrine in some abstract sense but about putting Christian life into action. The Eucharist in particular is not so much an act of private piety as it is the formation of the people of God.

It has been said that Francis is the first real Vatican II pope, having been ordained after the council concluded. He is showing that today by his strong affirmation of the way forward according to the liturgical reform that comprised such a significant element in that council’s outcome.

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Luis Gutierrez
4 weeks ago

The Vatican II liturgy still needs to be liberated from patriarchal phallogocentrism.

Henry George
3 weeks 5 days ago

Sorry Luis,
Evidently the Pope has put his Magisterial Authority behind the Vatican II Liturgy.
You are going to have to wait for a new Pope or a New Council.

Kenneth Wolfe
4 weeks ago

Interesting points. The larger question should be how does any of that differ from the massive failure that resulted following the Second Vatican Council. In other words, how will codifying the novus ordo liturgy as some sort of dogma help turn around plummeting Mass attendance around the world? It is an odd sword to die on.

KEVIN IRWIN
4 weeks ago

An excellent and typically insightful piece by Fr. Baldovin. Those who criticize the reformed liturgy for the decline in Mass attendance neglect that the liturgical reforms coincided with the social upheaval of the late 1960's. Also there is the deepening culture of narcissism and individualism that plagues American society. The mediating structures of American society from the 1950's have eroded (civic associations, attendance at PTA meetings, labor unions etc.) and " The Bells of St. Mary's" have stopped ringing. To be Catholic means that we are in this together and that the altar is where it all happens. Liturgical reform was and is meant to foster church renewal. Yesterday's prayer over the gifts asked for the "unity and peace" of the church. The reformed liturgy also emphasizes concern for others and living the gospel when the Mass has ended. Does fussing with liturgical externals mask an unwillingness to live the gospel on the church's terms (not to say the Roman pontiff) than on one's own?
Msgr. Kevin Irwin, The Catholic University of America

Kenneth Wolfe
3 weeks 6 days ago

Sorry, but the social upheaval of the late 1960s cannot be the continued excuse and repeated crutch of 60 years of failed liturgical experiments. The culture got more conservative in the 1980s, while the liturgy continued to drift to the left. Did the novus ordo have some sort of renaissance during this time? At some point, defenders of the Second Vatican Council and its liturgical revolution need to come to terms with the fact that the liberalizations have not worked. It is almost as if the liturgical left refuses to acknowledge many younger Catholics prefer Gregorian chant to typical sappy parish music, prefer beautiful Roman vestments to typical plain polyester ones, and prefer many other older traditions to post-Vatican II ones. Is the Baby Boomer generation really willing to stubbornly die on the table-altar of the novus ordo, rather than restore centuries of liturgical tradition?

Henry George
3 weeks 5 days ago

Thank You Kenneth.
If only the insipid songs sung mainly by the folk groups in the Sanctuary and not the congregations
were eliminated that would be a major step.
Then if the Priests would slowly celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist...

Michael Barberi
4 weeks ago

I was an alter boy during the 1950s and can still remember many of the Latin prayers. When Vatican II came along in the 1960s, I welcomed it. However for me the Mass was a time to thank God, tell him you were sorry for offending Him, receive the Eucharist and ask for His grace to be the person He wishes us to be. I accepted that going to weekly Mass was part of your obligation as a Catholic.

Fast forward to the 1980s and early 1990s and I longed for a better message from homilies. Even though homilies continue to be approximately 10 minutes, I remember them to be about what we should be doing, what we are not doing, and the guilt associated with it. It was not about feeling good because the Holy Spirit will help us regardless of our weaknesses, so be happy and glad, not sad and guilty. Unfortunately, I still long for this message.

The Catholic Mass is much different from Protestant Masses. I listened to about 30 or more of some Protestant sermons and found them more 'uplifting' because the minister was spending much more time on the Gospel's message and it relevance in our lives today. This does not mean I think the Catholic liturgy and homilies should be replaced by the Protestant liturgy and sermons, but I wonder how the Catholic message (which most parishioners get during weekly Mass) can be more effective and attract more young people.

I don't think if every parish instituted one Latin Mass every week, that this will do anything. People go to Mass to worship God, to be with Jesus Christ for 1 hour and receive his body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist.

As to claims about our individualistic and narcissistic culture, I think these are nice talking points. Perhaps homilies can focus on helping people understand the frequency and relevance of individualism, relativism, consumerism and liberalism by examples. By examples, I don't mean general, abstract and extreme examples like: Doing whatever the individual desires versus what God wants us to do; Being 'selfish' versus being selfless, etc. Most Catholics don't think such examples apply to them. Most don't believe they are compulsively selfish (save for the being inadvertently or infrequently selfish), nor do they believe they do whatever they want and ignore the Gospel. How are we to understand the prevalence of individualism? When is 'individualism' a sin? What percent of Catholics are guilty of 'individualism'; what percent of weekly Mass attendees are guilty of 'individualism'? Are we all partially guilty of this? I hope you get the picture here.

Does the Church believe that the rationale for their moral norms rings true to the deepest levels of our minds, hearts and souls (e.g., Humanae Vitae; In Vitro Fertilization for those who have severe fertility problems; Terminating a pregnancy to save the life of the mother in circumstances where both will die with certainty after all is done to save both, but one can be saved)?

Maybe such things are more important than reforming the liturgy of the Mass when it comes to bringing back to the Church those that do not feel welcomed or those who have lost confidence in Church leaders (e.g., the young, the LGBT community and the divorced and remarried).

Steve D.
3 weeks 5 days ago

With All due Respect Father,

The reality is, young people (that few of us that still hold the Faith) are drawn to the Sacred, the Beautiful, the Timeless, and the Full Truth, in Sacred Liturgy, Devotion, and Family Life. The 60's/70s' revolution (or "demolition") has born no fruit, except for a boomer generation that does not know their Catholic Faith and a millennial generation that did not see the Faith lived by their parents and thus, ...never-had-a-chance.

The tide is changing now, authentic Catholicism is taking root in Sacred Tradition and Magisterium thanks to the Sacrifices of; Mother Angelica, EWTN, Cardinal Burke, Canons Regular SJC, FSSP, ICKSP, Cardinal Sarah, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, and many, many-more all working towards the same end. Restoration.

We have a lot of work ahead of us (- Thanks -) but the angry aging revolutionaries can not change that momentum now. This is something worth Sacrificing for, in fact we have, we are, and we will continue, :- ) God is bringing His People back through my generation, I just pray I live long enough to see the Authentic Catholic Faith in it's glory again in the lives of my children and grandchildren. : )

Henry George
3 weeks 5 days ago

Having lived through Vatican II and being in Rome when it was going on
I wish I had been able to speak to Paul VI, no great liturgist he.
I would have just asked that since we are now, formally, "the People of God"
that we have the freedom to attend the "Old Mass" in Latin or the Vernacular and the "New Mass" in Latin or the Vernacular and as time goes by the Bishop does his best to meet the needs of the People of God
who choose to attend those Masses.

The greatest failure of Vatican II was that it forced upon the
"People of God" a change in the liturgy that many did not seek or understand and came too suddenly and which were too drastic.

There are a hundred hymns in the Protestant Tradition that are clearly better than almost anything produced after Vatican II, yet they rarely
show up in our song books...why ?

If I wish to worship as my Parents did and my Grandparents and
Great Grandparents did - who is to tell me that I cannot kneel
for communion as they did at the communion rails they paid and built for
- in the church they build and paid for ?

Rudolph Koser
3 weeks 5 days ago

The reforms of Vatican II were a call to active participation in the Faith to the best of one's ability whether in prayer or daily life. The old liturgy which I grew up with, was beautiful in many respects, but was very passive. We attended Mass, much like a lecture or concert. I could do my devotional prayers while in the presence of the priest who was celebrating Mass or follow along with my missal. Preaching in many cases was optional, certainly not a central element. Drop in Church attendance has little to do with the Liturgy (The word by the way means work of the people) and more with social and cultural changes. Those who long for the old (and that music, etc can still be used) idealize a past that never existed and look for a certainty in life which never has been black and white. I want to live and worship in a living community not a museum.

Henry George
3 weeks 4 days ago

Rudolph,
Last Sunday I noted that the Folk Group performed 11 songs, silence is just not permitted during the Liturgy in their view,
the congregation sang one song fairly well, stumbled through another one and barely sang two others, otherwise they
did not sing.

Where is the active participation ?

Nothing prohibited you from saying the prayers during the "Old Mass" that were proper to the people.
You could, at least, sing along with the hymns, rather than sit there while the lead singer of the folk group
sings in octaves few in the parish can reach.
I heard far better sermons than I have heard homilies.
And frankly, given the poor quality of the homilies I hear these days, I rather have a few minutes of silence
after the reading of the Gospel than her the Priest talk about who knows what or the Folk Group starting singing
again lest the Congregation have a minute or two of silence to ponder the mystery of God. Vatican II was mean to bring the Church into the Modern Age. Granted the Bishops had no idea of the Society Changes that the 60's/70's would bring,
but it is hard to imagine the Churches being less empty because the "Old Mass" in Latin/Vernacular was offered along
the "New Mass" in Latin and the Vernacular. Why not allow the People of God a little variety in how they liked to attend to
the Liturgy ? Perhaps you idealise a present that does not exist.

As for worshipping in a Living Community, did you think people all died when they attended the Old Mass ?

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