Ask Tony: Did the Pope Declare Liturgical Reform “Irreversible”?

liturgy, reform

liturgy, reform

Is liturgical reform “irreversible”? And what does that mean in practical terms? Pope Francis’ August 24 address to the participants of the 68th Italian Liturgical Week included a phrase that has predictably stirred up concern and ire among his traditionalist and conservative critics. As is also predictable of controversies surrounding Francis, it’s “much ado about nothing”, a non-story about a non-issue generated by the “progressive pope” narrative.

Context Matters

Francis’ critics—and even some of his supporters—deplore the Pope’s tendency towards hyperbole and impulsiveness, especially in press conferences and interviews. But in most cases, Francis’ statements are torn away from their contexts and left to stand in isolation, where one can attach to them whatever substantive content one wishes. So let’s look at the offending phrase in the context where it occurs, courtesy of the Zenit translation provided by Virginia Forrester:

… The reformed books, following the norm of the decrees of Vatican II, have implanted a process that requires time, faithful reception, practical obedience, wise celebratory implementation on the part, first of all, of ordained ministers, but also of the other ministers, the cantors, and all those that take part in the liturgy. In truth, we know it, the liturgical education of Pastors and faithful is a challenge to address always again. …

And there is still work to do today in this direction, 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. After this magisterium, after this long journey we can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible [italics mine.—ASL].

There is another element to context: time and place. We here at Catholic Stand have said before, and will most likely say again, that not every word that falls out of the reigning pope’s mouth or onto a sheet of parchment is infallible. As an extension of that principle, not every word he utters in every time and place constitutes a legislative or executive action. An allocution in front of a liturgical conference is important as a teaching moment, but it doesn’t rise to the same level of action as a motu proprio or an apostolic letter.

Once we look at the statement in context, we realize that Pope Francis was not declaring the process of reform completed. In fact, he takes care to mention “unfounded and superficial readings”, as well as “disfiguring practices”. None of the popes since Bl. Paul VI have ever used the “royal we” in any official declaration, and I should hardly think Francis would be the one to reinstitute it. We can also challenge the translation: not “After this magisterium”, but rather “After this teaching”, or “After this mastery”. That is, “Once we have all the foregoing mastered, then we can call the reform irreversible.”

Getting It Wrong

However, various outlets, such as Vatican Insider (La Stampa), Crux Now, and the National Catholic Register have given an unwarranted prominence to that one sentence, leading others to interpret it according to their own lights. Wrote Inés San Martin in Crux Now, “By ‘liturgical reform,’ Pope Francis meant the changes in Catholic rituals and modes of worship which followed from Vatican II, the most immediately visible elements of which included Mass facing the congregation, the use of vernacular languages, and a stronger emphasis on the ‘full, conscious and active’ participation of the people.” Comments Andrea Tornielli:

Pope Francis was also clear about another point. He said, “It is not about rethinking the reform by reviewing its choices, but about knowing better the underlying reasons, even through historical documentation, how to internalize its inspirational principles and observe the discipline that governs it.” In this way, even without mentioning it directly, he is saying no to a liturgical “reform of the reform”, as some ecclesial branches have long been hoping for.

So also Phil Lawler in Catholic Culture:

Pope Francis is notoriously unsympathetic to calls for the “reform of the reform.” But the logic of his August 24 speech points unavoidably in that direction. If we have not yet achieved the goals of the reform, and those goals were established more than 100 years ago when the process began, we need to examine where, how, and why things have gone awry.

Dependably, Rorate Caeli put the sentence in the worst light possible:

Francis’ remarks ironically read like a Quo Primum for the Novus Ordo. Pope St. Pius V’s Quo Primum (1570), which has never been revoked or abolished by any pope, decreed that the Traditional Latin Mass, which the saintly pontiff promulgated in accord with the directives of the Council of Trent, would be “valid henceforth, now, and forever” and “cannot be revoked or modified, but remain always valid and retain its full force.” Furthermore, St. Pius V warned that if anyone, including any future pope (by implication), would alter his missal, they would “incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul”. …

For Francis, however, not the Traditional Latin Mass, but the reforms that deformed it are what are truly “irreversible” [some italics omitted.—ASL].

Quo Primum and Canon Law

However, notwithstanding Pope St. Pius V’s imprecations, the liturgy is a discipline, not a dogma, and is subject to reform at the discretion of the Pope or an Ecumenical Council. In fact, the Tridentine Mass has been revised several times in the last 447 years. Granted, none of the revisions were as drastic as those reflected in the Mass of Paul VI. Nevertheless, if we take St. Pius’ V’s words at face value, even the smallest of changes was forbidden. That Quo Primum was “never revoked nor abolished” is irrelevant: In matters of discipline, reigning popes don’t have the right to tie future popes’ and Councils’ hands.

Comments canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters:

… I think it can be confusing to the faithful for any prelate to “affirm with certainty” and/or with “magisterial authority” that liturgical reform is “irreversible” precisely because such language connotes in Catholic minds the exercise of a charism given not to underscore the importance of what is being asserted, but rather, to identify certainly and without error either what is divinely revealed and thus to be believed or what is required to safeguard reverently the deposit of faith and thus to be definitely held.

But I think it’s even more confusing to the faithful when such statements are presented with a definiteness not intended by the prelate, when remarks that condition the meaning of the statement are left behind in the rush to claim a victory (or bewail a defeat) in intra-ecclesial battles. Andrea Tornielli’s conclusion that Francis is “saying no to a liturgical ‘reform of the reform’” reads more into the Pope’s words than they can support.

A “Reform of the Reform”?

Moving on to the practicalities:

No Vatican document has ever mandated the removal of altar rails, the celebration of the Mass versus populum, the elimination of polyphony or Gregorian chant, or the reception of the Eucharist in the hand. Contrary to San Martin’s implication, Francis’ speech doesn’t make these changes permanent, or mandatory, or even necessary. In fact, although he doesn’t celebrate the EF—at least, I can’t find an example—every now and again the Pope does celebrate Mass in Latin and ad orientem. Only Americans treat these variations as if Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963) made them obligatory, or even advisable.

In a letter to the bishops accompanying Summorum Pontificum, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated, “It is not appropriate to speak of [the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms] as if they were ‘two Rites’.  Rather, it is a matter of a twofold use of one and the same rite.” Although the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cdl. Robert Sarah, is often presented as a traditionalist, in a written speech sent to the 18th Cologne International Liturgical Conference, he rejected efforts to set the two forms in opposition to one another.

Having said all that, the Mass of Paul VI isn’t going to go away. Neither is Sacrosanctum Concilium or anything else from Vatican II. In that sense, the reform is indeed irreversible. The usus antiquior isn’t going away either, but may still receive periodic facelifts as it has before. Cdl. Sarah doesn’t even speak of a “reform of the reform”, but rather of “mutual enrichment”; in his letter to the bishops, Benedict suggested that “new Saints and some of the new Prefaces can and should be inserted in the old Missal.” Nevertheless, no amount of traditionalist foot-stamping will undo the last 55 years.

“Nothing to See Here”

By now, even journalists should know better than to hang too much meaning on one phrase in a papal speech or interview, especially when the pope is Francis. However, the chatterati seem to be slow learners; either that or they’re so used to the Pope’s fondness for hyperbole that, when he doesn’t exaggerate, they feel they must exaggerate on his behalf. But just as often as Francis says more than he ought, he also says less than many folks either want or fear. The “progressive pope” myth wasn’t his creation; therefore, it’s not his obligation to support it.

In the next three weeks, Catholic Stand will publish a couple of interviews with Eastern Catholic priests about the Latin-rite liturgy, as well as a reflection on Vatican II and the rise of the “liturgy wars”. Nothing happened on Thursday to make those articles outdated or irrelevant. It may take some time, however, to convince the rest of the Blogisterium that nothing happened.

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19 thoughts on “Ask Tony: Did the Pope Declare Liturgical Reform “Irreversible”?”


  2. This pope has little interest in clarity. He is doomed to his own jesuit-speak which can mean anything to everybody.
    This is not the message of a leader. It is the babbling of a front-man.

  3. Suellen Ann Brewster

    Thank you for this clear and helpful explanation. I was avoiding reading about the whole thing until someone calm and detached wrote something. So thankful it was you, at Catholic Stand, Anthony.

  4. This statement of this pope is not infallible so you can disagree with it.

    Learn from somebody intelligent INSTEAD like Pope Benedict XVI who said the liturgy
    has ‘disintegrated’ since Vatican 2. The word he wrote was ‘disintegrated’.

    pope Francis Bergoglio is an heretic anyway. AL is pure sacrilegious nonsense.
    This pope knows nothing about liturgy. He knows nothing about anything, actually.

  5. I have said it before and I will say it again. The existence of this site and indeed the existence of the “Catholic media” and the micro-analysis of every word uttered by the Pope and by various cardinals, and the endless go-nowhere arguments about altar rails and methods of receiving communion and blah-blah-blah… do NOTHING to enhance the quality of my faith. Not one thing. Please reflect on that.

    1. Laurence Charles Ringo

      Wow, Larry….congratulations! Sounds like you’ve realized that the endless nonsensical complexities of the Roman Catholic religious system has shown itself to be…well, inane drivel.I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Our Savior didn’t invite us to anyone’s “–ism”; He invited us to HIMSELF. ?.

    2. on the contrary, I am struck by the nonsensical complexities of the thousands of Protestants sects, all bickering with each other over tedious points of biblical interpretation, each insisting their way is the only way, splitting and resplitting and then splitting again. One man insists his goofy interpretation is right, the next insists his is right. Ha! Talk about idiotic divisiveness, and different liturgical practices. Now, many Protestant denominations have turned Sunday into Hollywood Showtime, where it is all about the show that is put on, or it is a business concern, where Starbucks coffee is served to attract people. Or, its all about selling the latest book by the pastor, etc etc. isn’t there something in the bible about the beam in your own eye?

    3. There’s some justice to your complaint. It would be nice if we Catholics were all on the same page, possessed of equal confidence in the guidance of the Church by the Holy Spirit. Then we could all focus on the practicalities of living the faith. However, there are some who don’t possess that confidence and must distract our attention by making a fuss over every slight clue that the Church isn’t being run the way they want it to be run (or that the Vatican has been enlightened and are changing things to the way they ought to be run). Even St. Paul had to treat current events and inter-Church issues in his letters. If you’re looking only for material that treats spiritual issues, we do offer articles along those lines.

    4. I think you are missing my point. Your article is a fine example of unnecessary distraction. The internet and the invention of “Catholic media” has made it possible for every Catholic to see and hear every word of the pope. Is this a good thing? Obviously not, since most of you have a bizarre desire to twist his words to suit your particular preferences, fueling endless go-nowhere arguments. One commenter wrote with pride about his “internet activism” and I’m sorry, that just ridiculous.

    5. Then why did you click on the link in the first place? I didn’t hide the subject matter at all. If you believe I personally twisted Pope Francis’ words, then don’t be shy about saying so. If, however, your only complaint is that I and the rest of the Catholic commentariat are bad people who are harshing your mellow with our incessant wranglng and that we need to shut up, then good gravy, man, read something else! We have plenty of non-controversial, non-commentary articles for your edification. Leave articles like mine to people who like to read such things.

    6. I think it’s high time that reasonable people put a foot down and say “no more” to this endless bickering. It reflects badly on all Catholics. This basic point seems to be lost on you. Yes, to use your own words, you do “need to shut up”.

      Articles like this only encourage commenters that imagine themselves as part of a “liturgical reform”. Lay people have absolutely no influence in this area. It is a topic not worthy of discussion.

    7. Since you bothered to quote me, it appears I didn’t miss your point at all … unless the only acknowledgement you’ll accept is, “Okay, I’ll shut up now.” Don’t hold your breath on that one, or for all the “reasonable people” putting their foot down. Arguments have been part of Church life since before the Council of Jerusalem. But you don’t have to participate. Go read something else. This is my final statement on the matter. Pax tecum.

    8. You seem to want to make this a personal argument and I won’t stoop to that level. I’ve made my points. You folks can write articles about liturgical reform and your personal preferences and parse whatever the popes may have to say on the topic… and it will make absolutely no difference. Because that’s not your role in the Church. No one is obligated to care what you think. And meanwhile, it reflects badly on Catholics as a whole, it gives the impression that we are all a bunch of whiners when the truth is that only a tiny ineffective minority cares about this topic at all.

      I have no idea what “Pax tecum.” means but I suppose it’s a fancy form of “pfhthpth”. So that ends this discussion.

    9. It took me about three seconds to discover that “Pax tecum” means “Peace be with you.” If you’re not even willing to do that much work to find out someone was saying *directly* to you, then yeah, you probably won’t benefit from further discussion.

    10. Larry, dude.
      We all have better things to do than to waste heartbeats reflecting on stuff you find bothersome.
      It’s called….having a life.
      If this website is so troubling, well, spend your time on other things.

    11. Another personal attack. I just won’t go there. Nice try, though.

      As far as I know, anyone may comment on the articles here for any reason, or for no reason at all.

  6. Nice article, well documented and explained. Those who seek liturgical beauty should attend an Anglican Usage Mass–to bask in the beauty of the language of the Book of Common Prayer, to hear hymns that are not banal, without guitars or drums, to kneel at the altar rail and receive the intincted Host from the hands of a priest… We should remember that the beauty of the liturgy is a prime tool of evangelization.

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