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.
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.