Earlier this month I spent a weekend with a group of permanent deacons as part of their continuing education. There were a few younger men in the group, but most of the deacons were in their 60s and 70s. We talked about a number of theological issues, and eventually our conversation drifted toward the liturgy.
When I mentioned that I have a number of undergraduate students who love the Extraordinary Form, many of the deacons were shocked. Particularly incredulous were those who lived through the pre-Vatican II liturgy. They did not experience the liturgy as beautiful. They experienced it as boring and incomprehensible and felt distant from what was taking place at the altar. That anyone, let alone young people, could find the Extraordinary Form attractive left them bewildered. These were men who had found life in the liturgical reforms under Pope Paul VI. Why would anyone want to go back?
The students who have found a liturgical home in the Extraordinary Form represent a vibrant and vocal group of people, young and old, who prefer the old Latin liturgy to the Novus Ordo. Many of these people had only experienced the fruits of post-Vatican II liturgical reforms prior to discovering the Extraordinary Form. When they experienced the Latin liturgy in its beauty and solemnity, many felt like they had discovered a hidden treasure and wondered how and why the church ever reformed something so profound.
In an address last week on the liturgy, Pope Francis drew attention when he asserted “with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” Reaction focused almost entirely on this one sentence to the neglect of the rest of the address, much of which contained important comments on liturgical renewal.
In the address, Pope Francis provided the historical background to liturgical reform, emphasizing that many Catholics, from laypeople to bishops, were discontent with the liturgy and understood that renewal needed to occur. He noted that the liturgical movement predated Vatican II and that popes prior to the council were compelled to respond “to the hardships perceived in ecclesial prayer.” There was a sense that the liturgy was not “a living liturgy” and that the church’s prayer lacked full and active participation of all the faithful. In short, the pre-Vatican II liturgical landscape was not the utopia that some traditionalists seem to assume it was.
Reform was necessary, which appears to be his point when referring to the irreversibility of that reform. However, the address demonstrates that Pope Francis does not view the irreversibility of liturgical reform to mean that the post-Vatican II changes are final and complete. He states that the council “responded to the real needs and the concrete hope of a renewal” in its constitution on the liturgy, “Sacrosanctum Concilium.” But this constitution was only the beginning of the renewal. Indicating that he understands the current state of the liturgy to require further reform and renewal, Pope Francis argued that the process of reform takes time and that it is necessary to address more fully the “liturgical education” of all the faithful. By this he means that all the faithful need to understand what the liturgical movement endeavored to accomplish, why it advocated for renewal and how Vatican II sought to address the movement’s concerns.
Underlying Francis’ reminder that the reform continues and his call for liturgical education is, it seems to me, a recognition of the shortcomings of the renewal movement. That is, even while reminding them that the process of liturgical reform is irreversible given the deep discontent that was the impetus for this reform, Pope Francis seems to take seriously the liturgical dissatisfaction of those like my students and others.
Few can read “Sacrosanctum Concilium” and fail to see the disjunction between the renewal as sought by the council fathers and the shape that renewal took in the decades after Vatican II. Not only are questions raised about the aesthetic impoverishment of the liturgy, but many wonder whether the reform truly led to the full and active participation desired by the council. And it is more than just traditionalists who raise such questions.
In his address on the liturgy, Pope Francis seemed to acknowledge this dissatisfaction, and so urged the church as a whole to return to the sources of the renewal, focusing particularly on the writings of those in the liturgical movement and the clarion call for renewal of “Sacrosanctum Concilium.”
It is unfair to see Pope Francis' address as a smackdown of traditionalists and their concerns.
While it is clear that Francis does not see a return to the Tridentine Mass as providing the answer to the church’s liturgical renewal, it is unfair to see his address as a smackdown of traditionalists and their concerns. I would argue that the pope’s address was primarily a call for a renewed reform faithful to the sources of the liturgical movement. Far from being words that should tear us apart, his exhortation to renewal should be welcomed by all.