Engaging the Opposition

Book cover
Reforming the Liturgyby By John F. BaldovinLiturgical Press. 192p $29.95

The last decade has been an uneasy one for those committed to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. It opened with the Congregation for Divine Worship’s rejection, in 2001, of a new English translation of the Roman Missal more than 20 years in the making. In 2007, two years after his election, Pope Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum, which allowed for wider use of the preconciliar Roman Missal of 1962. Most recently, on Jan. 24 of this year, the pope lifted the excommunications of four bishops from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, known for their ardent opposition to the reformed liturgy.

These actions at the highest levels of the church have found an echo at the grass roots in a movement calling for a “reform of the reform.” While supporters of the movement remain a minority among Catholics, they often make up in persistence and commitment what they lack in numbers. Over the last 10 years, a number of books have appeared that take issue with aspects of the reform, including Alcuin Reed’s The Organic Development of the Liturgy, Uwe Michael Lang’s Turning Toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer and, of course, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy.


John Baldovin’s new book, Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics, attempts to assess this body of criticism. A liturgical historian who has trained a generation of seminarians and lay ministers, Baldovin, who is a Jesuit priest, is well poised to make a contribution to the debate. More than merely a “response,” his book is an excellent field guide, providing an introduction to the best known critics and an in-depth review of the disputed issues.

The material in the book is roughly divided into two parts. In the first, Baldovin provides an introduction to the principal critics of the reformed liturgy, organized by discipline. These include, among others, the philosophers Catherine Pickstock and Jonathan Robinson, the historians Klaus Gamber and Alcuin Reid, and the anthropologists Victor Turner and David Torvell. Baldovin also devotes an entire chapter to the liturgical theology of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The last is particularly useful given Benedict’s obvious centrality in the contemporary debate over the liturgy.

In the second half of the book, Baldovin looks at the issues at the center of contemporary debates over the liturgy. He provides an assessment of the specific changes sought by many of those seeking to “reform the reform,” such as a preference for worship ad orientem, a return to the exclusive use of the Roman Canon, a retrieval of many of the prayers of the 1962 Roman Missal and an end to distributing Communion in the hand. Baldovin strives to be evenhanded in his treatment of these topics and grants the critics a number of points. Overall, though, he holds that many of the proposed cures are worse than the disease.

As a liturgical historian, Baldovin is strongest when addressing the ways in which critics of the reformed liturgy use (and sometimes misuse) history. He argues well and persuasively that the liturgical reforms implemented after the Second Vatican Council reflected the will of the council and were strongly supported by Pope Paul VI and the overwhelming majority of the world’s bishops. He also criticizes the view—popular among traditionalists—that the reforms departed from certain principles of “organic development” that had governed liturgical reform prior to Vatican II. While conceding that the council’s reforms did represent dramatic change, Baldovin questions whether the Roman Rite has ever had the degree of unchanging stability that many critics of the reform seem to assume. He ultimately turns the metaphor of an “organic” liturgical tradition back upon the critics, asking, “Is it not possible or necessary that broken limbs must be reset to become useful again to the whole organism?”

The book is somewhat weaker in dealing with criticisms of the reformed liturgy that come from the perspective of anthropology and ritual studies. Baldovin offers, for example, a strong challenge to the anthropologist Victor Turner’s idealization of the pre-conciliar Mass, but he is less successful in challenging Turner’s claim that the celebration of the reformed rites often lacks the sense of liminality proper to ritual worship.

While he is critical of the positions taken by many of the authors he reviews, Baldovin is sympathetic to some of their concerns. He concedes the point that the reformed liturgy can suffer from a surplus of words and poverty of gesture. Baldovin is also skeptical about recent trends in church architecture, commenting with some obvious frustration that “we need to stop designing churches that look like slightly out of date living rooms.” More fundamentally, he argues that we must “combat the narcissistic notion that liturgy exists primarily for us to ‘get something out of it,’” and recapture the notion that it is first and foremost God’s gift and God’s action.

These are welcome and necessary words. To the extent that the movement to “reform the reform” is gaining adherents, it is probably less because they are convinced of the timeless value of the 1962 missal and more because of negative experiences with the current rites. Defenders of the reformed liturgy may need to recover the spirit of the late Aidan Kavanaugh, O.S.B., who combined an uncompromising defense of the reformed liturgy with withering criticism of incompetence in its celebration. Baldovin may lack Kavanaugh’s rhetorical edge, but his book remains an important step in the right direction.

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9 years 4 months ago
"The squeaky wheel gets the oil".  These conservatives and trads are a tiny minority in the church but, like any angry group with access to the internet, they are most vociferous while the rest of us Catholics who are happy w/ the present progressive church are resting on our laurels. It's about time that we "strike back"  with the truth and catechize these misinformed trads. I do not tend to give their movement much credence of survival.  Even when they seem to gathering steam the "space egg" cathedral in Oakland still got built!  They don't have much influence.
William Bagley
9 years 4 months ago
No Mr Nixon, I think that they are persuaded to the value of the 1962 missal.  Their's is a mission to turn back the clock, to take a step that they believe will bring a return of a vital church.  They are (if well intended) sadly mistaken.  Worse yet, a generation of bright young Catholics, too smart to want to return to an era they never knew, will be bewildered by the changes.  I have no quarrel with those who, in their own worship, want to claim a Tridentine past, but please, please, don't impose it on the rest of us.  No Mr Nixon, I think the risks, the threats, are greater...
9 years 4 months ago
Towards the end of his review of Reforming the Liturgy (9/14), J. Peter Nixon quotes author John F. Baldovin as insisting that we " combat the narcissistic notion that the liturgy exists primarily for us to ' get something out of it'". Having served on my parish liturgy committee for many years, I have heard similar remarks and I have come to believe that this is a false interpretation of the genuine anguish of those Catholics who still faithfully attend the Sunday liturgy but wonder why. Ironically, a correct interpretation is hinted at in Nixon's next words: [ the liturgy ] is first and foremost God's gift and God's action". Those who admit to not getting anything out of the liturgy are not narcissistic but bewildered and disappointed: the gift from God that they were expecting never arrives for them; the action of God they were hoping for never reaches the pews.
My conviction about this was formed years ago when I was a member of a Catholic Worker community in Detroit. I met a woman there who volunteered at our soup kitchen on Saturdays. She was often accompanied by some of her parish's young people who were fulfilling their preconfirmation service requirement by serving soup and sandwiches to the poor. One Saturday morning, she remarked that she would attend mass the next day, as she had all her life. She said that her pastor always seemed to be thoroughly absorbed as the presider of the liturgy, especially at the offeratory. That the liturgy enriched his faith was obvious. She assumed, then, that there was something important going on at the altar, but what that might be or how that might feel she did not understand. She continued to attend the liturgy every Sunday nevertheless, riding on the coattails of the priest. 
Given her commitment to the poor and to her parish's young people, it would be wrong to characterize this woman as narcissistic.Whether it was inadequate formation, suboptimal preaching or something else, no one had ever helped this woman make the connection between the moment of " do this in memory of me" and the hours she spent taking, breaking and giving bread to the poor. By the way, her pastor was my classmate in the seminary and I know him to be a prayerful and dedicated priest. That he gets something out of the liturgy is wonderful. But not to translate that liturgical experience into terms familiar to the lives of lay Catholics is tragic. 
9 years 4 months ago
"More fundamentally, he argues that we must “combat the narcissistic notion that liturgy exists primarily for us to ‘get something out of it,’” and recapture the notion that it is first and foremost God’s gift and God’s action."
The reform does not say that Peter even if that is a popular take of it. Criticizing excesses of the reform in no way diminishes its value. If anyone was narcissistic it was Augustine of Hippo who used his rhetorical skills to pontificate about everything without any real backup. There is nothing wrong with people wanting to put themselves into the liturgy. Sure there were and are intolerant people in the reform. You are right that no one wants the 1962 liturgy. But in your comment you are giving too much credence to those who are for "reform of the reform" merely catering to offhand critical soundbites.
9 years 3 months ago
We have not sufficiently treasured our liturgy to rise to the challenge of Vatican II's call for creative, inculturated liturgies that would give free play to the artistic talents of our time.
The remedies proposed often worsen the problem, for instance the forthcoming new English translations, which are inaccurate and slovenly.
I propose the we turn to our sister churches and ask them how to do it right - learning from their scriptural culture, homiletic earnestness, musical and linguistic artistry.


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