Saturday, May 16, 2015

Liturgical reform and missed opportunities.

When one makes the effort to digest the array of authors who propelled the liturgical movement, one comes to the unavoidable conclusion: liturgical reform was inevitable. Most everyone agreed that some degree of liturgical reform was desirable. When Pius X began the first movements to modernize the Roman Rite, almost everyone knew further steps in the process were ahead.

The end result, the Pauline liturgy, was disputed. The authors who lived to see the reform of the Roman liturgy brought to its conclusion were not all as a group enthusiastic for the reform. Indeed, many were sorely disappointed.

When time has given us more perspective, we will ultimately be able to appreciate what the liturgical movement was working towards and possibly even revisit the large catalog of work left behind and relatively untouched. There can then be critical analysis of the manner in which the liturgical movement was eventually applied by official channels of liturgical reform.

Invariably, it will be asked whether or not the liturgical reforms of the 20th century adequately reflected the intention of the liturgical movement. The Pauline liturgy will be an object of particular scrutiny. It will be asked if the liturgical movement envisioned recasting what was, practically speaking, the classic form of the Western liturgy. At this point, there may be an honest evaluation.

There will always be a question about what would have happened if the old (and practically classic) Western liturgy had just been put into the vernacular and let be. Was it necessary to go so far as the reform did? Should a liturgy that had come to be regarded as the perennial expression of the Latin Christianity have been so recast so as to have been effectively displaced?

What if the breaks had been put on the process of reform? It is not as though there wasn't an exemplar to work off of. The "Latin Mass" had, for all intents and purposes, been permitted a largely vernacular celebration beginning in 1965, more so in 1967. Was it genuinely necessary to go much further?

I have occasionally heard accounts of those "transitional liturgies." Most every account I've heard presents a moment of dynamism rarely seen among more established forms of Christianity. The "transitional liturgies" were redolent with reverence and stirred the excitement for the sweeping reform. How much of this is nostalgia for a time that actually never was versus a factual account of history? One can only guess, barring critical research into that era.

When the subject of liturgy comes up, it is always possible to collect a number of very specialized critiques. Eventually, however, one has to focus on the practical reality. It is easy enough, as some of the more stalwart Traditionalists have done, to find every proof of theoretical problems with the Missal of 1965. Practically speaking, however, the Missal of 1965 was a missed opportunity. It represents a moment when the old liturgy was permitted a vernacular celebration. At that moment, the law of faith the old liturgy's prayers contained was transmitted into the living language. For a church that had so long resisted the vernacular, this was a watershed moment. The law of faith was taken from the confines of a dead language thoroughly comprehended by a few, into a living language used by all. Specifically, the worldview encapsulated in that particular composition of prayers was provided a living template upon which to operate.

It would only last for five years. One wonders if anyone ever stops to ask if cutting things off after such a brief duration was a mistake. It seems to imply that a thorough recasting of the Roman liturgy had already been decided upon and there was no changing course.

I have yet to discover a satisfactory proposal as to why the old liturgy in the vernacular (essentially the Missal of 1965) was not a practical option. It is simply an accident of history. Like the liturgical movement itself, the transitional missal is an event that other historical circumstances brought to conclusion. There is no way to reconstitute it. Yet, any well stocked theological library is filled with a stinging reminder of a missed opportunity.

Missed opportunities rarely present themselves a second time.


  1. Well, I guess SSPX and FSSP will never give up Latin in which case they'll always be on the fringes.

    1. I tend to think the SSPX will eventually go their own way.

  2. Interested readers might find it profitable (and at times amusing and at other times sad) to compare the views on the "liturgical reform" advanced in the memoirs of Dom Bernard Botte (*From Silence to Participation: An Insider's View of Liturgical Renewal;* The Pastoral Press, Washington, D. C., 1988; ISBN: 0-912405-54-6) and Fr. Louis Bouyer (*Memoires;* Les Editions du Cerf, Paris, 2014; ISBN: 978-2-204-09875-5). Fr. Bouyer describes how he and Dom Bernard revised what became EP II in the Pauline Missal during lunch in a Trastevere trattoria in order to make it less "radical." The two men differ both on their overall evaluation of "the Reform," and in their view of Annibale Bugnini, whom Botte regards with admiration and Bouyer with contempt.