Jun 15, 2009

The True Development and Reform of the Liturgy

Online Edition: June – July 2009

Vol. XV, No. 4

The True Development and Reform of the Liturgy

by Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith

Archbishop Ranjith is Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Following is the archbishop’s foreword to True Development of the Liturgy: Cardinal Ferdinado Antonelli and the Liturgical Reform from 1948 to 1970, by Monsignor Nicola Giampietro, to be published in English by Roman Catholic Books in the autumn of 2009.


How much of the post–conciliar liturgical reform truly reflects Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, is a question that has often been debated in ecclesial circles ever since the Consilium ad Exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia [the commission to implement the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] finished its work in 1970. It has been debated with even greater intensity in the last couple of decades. And while some have argued that what was done by the Consilium was indeed in line with that great document, others have totally disagreed.

In the search for an answer to this question we ought to take into account the turbulent mood of the years that immediately followed the Council. In his decision to convoke the Council, Pope John XXIII had wished the Church to be prepared for the new world that was emerging in the aftermath of the disastrous events of the Second World War. He would have prophetically foreseen the emergence of a strong current of materialism and secularism from the core orientations of the preceding era, which had been marked by the spirit of the enlightenment, and in which the traditional values of the old world view had already begun to be shaken.

The Industrial Revolution — along with its strongly anthropocentric and subjectivist philosophical trends, especially those resulting from the influences of Kant, Hume and Hegel — led to the emergence also of Marxism and positivism. It also led to the ascendance of biblical criticism, relativizing, to a certain extent, the veracity of the Holy Scriptures, which in turn had its negative influences on theology, generating a questioning attitude vis-à-vis the objectivity of established truth and of the usefulness of defending ecclesial traditions and institutions.

Some schools of theology were bold enough even to question basic doctrines of the Church. In fact, Modernism had earlier been seen as a source of danger for the faith. It is within this background that Pope John XXIII had felt that more convincing answers needed to be found.

The call for aggiornamento [updating] by the pope thus assumed the character of a search for a fortification of the faith in order to render the mission of the Church more effective, and able to respond to these challenges convincingly. It was certainly not a call to go along with the spirit of the times, a sort of drifting passively along; nor was it a call to effect a new start to the Church as much as it was to render the message of the Gospel even more responsive to the difficult questions mankind would face in the post-modern era.

The pope explained the ethos behind his decision when he stated,

Today the Church is witnessing a crisis under way within society. While humanity is on the edge of a new era, tasks of immense gravity and amplitude await the Church, as in the most tragic periods of its history. It is a question in fact of bringing the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the Gospel … in the face of this twofold spectacle — a world which reveals a grave state of spiritual poverty and the Church of Christ, which is still so vibrant with vitality — we … have felt immediately the urgency of the duty to call our sons together to give the Church the possibility to contribute more efficaciously to the solution of the problems of the modern age. (Apostolic Constitution Humanae Salutis of 25th Dec. 1961)

The pope went on, “the forthcoming Council will meet therefore at a moment in which the Church finds very alive the desire to fortify its faith, and to contemplate itself in its own awe-inspiring unity. In the same way, it feels urgent the duty to give greater efficiency to its sound vitality and to promote the sanctification of its members, the diffusion of revealed truth, the consolidation of its agencies” (ibid).

Thus the Council was basically a call for a fortification of the Church from within in order to make it better prepared for its mission amidst the realities of the modern world.

Underlying these words was also the sense of appreciation Pope John felt toward what the Church indeed already was. The words “vibrant with vitality”, used by the pope to define the status of the Church at that moment, surely do not betray any sense of pessimism, as though the pope looked down upon the past or what the Church had achieved up until then. Hence one cannot justifiably think that with the Council the pope called for a new beginning. Neither was it a call to the Church to “de-classify” itself, changing or giving up totally its age-old traditions getting itself, so to say, absorbed into the reality of the world around.

In no way was change to be made for the sake of change but only in order to make the Church stronger and better prepared to face new challenges. In short, the Council was never to be an aimless adventure. It was intended to be a truly pentecostal experience.

Yet, however much the popes who guided this event insisted upon the need for a true spirit of reform, faithful to the essential nature of the Church; and even if the Council itself had produced such beautiful theological and pastoral reflections as Lumen Gentium, Dei Verbum, Gaudium et Spes and Sacrosanctum Concilium, what happened outside the Council — especially both within the society at large and within the circle of its philosophical and cultural leadership — began to influence it negatively, creating tendencies that were harmful to its life and mission.

These tendencies, which at times were even more virulently represented by certain circles within the Church, were not necessarily connected to the orientations or recommendations of the documents of Vatican II. Yet they were able to shake the foundations of ecclesial teaching and faith to a surprising extent. Society’s fascination with an exaggerated sense of individual freedom — and its penchant for the rejection of anything permanent, absolute or other-worldly — had its influence on the Church, and often was justified in the name of the Council.

This view also relativized Tradition, the veracity of evolved doctrine, and tended to idolize anything new. It contained within itself strong tendencies favorable to relativism and religious syncretism. For them the Council had to be a sort of a new beginning for the Church. The past had overrun its course.

Basic concepts and themes such as sacrifice and redemption, mission, proclamation and conversion, adoration as an integral element of Communion, and the need of the Church for salvation — all were sidelined, while dialogue, inculturation, ecumenism, Eucharist-as-banquet, evangelization-as-witness, etc., became more important. Absolute values were disdained.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had this to say on this ever-increasing spirit of relativism:

[The Council] already during its sessions and then increasingly in the subsequent period, was opposed by a self-styled “Spirit of the Council”, which in reality is a true “anti-spirit” of the Council. According to this pernicious anti-spirit [Konzils–Ungeist in German], everything that is “new” … is always and in every case better than what has been or what is. It is the anti-spirit according to which the history of the Church would first begin with Vatican II, viewed as a kind of point zero. (The Ratzinger Report, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1985 pp. 34-35)

Cardinal Ratzinger discounted this view as untrue, for “Vatican II surely did not want ‘to change’ the faith but to represent it in a more effective way” (ibid). He affirmed that in fact “the Council did not take the turn that John XXIII had expected”. He further stated “It must also be admitted that, in respect to the whole Church, the prayer of Pope John that the Council signify a new leap forward for the Church, to renewed life and unity, has not — at least not yet — been granted” (ibid. p. 42).

These are hard words indeed, yet I would say, very true, for that spirit of exaggerated theological freedom indeed hijacked, so to say, the very Council itself away from its declared goals.

The Consilium, too, in implementing the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, was not exempt from being influenced by this overwhelming tidal wave of a so-called desire for “change” and “openness”. Possibly some of the above-mentioned relativizing tendencies influenced the liturgy too, undermining the centrality, the sacredness, sense of mystery as well as the value of what the continuous action of the Holy Spirit in the bi-millennial history of the Church had helped ecclesial liturgical life to grow into.

An exaggerated sense of antiquarianism, anthropologism, confusion of roles between the ordained and the non-ordained, a limitless provision of space for experimentation — and, indeed, the tendency to look down upon some aspects of the development of the liturgy in the second millennium — were increasingly visible among certain liturgical schools. Liturgists had also tended to pick and choose sections of Sacrosanctum Concilium that seemed to be more accommodating to change or novelty while ignoring others.

Besides, there was a great sense of hurry to effect and legalize changes. Much space tended to be provided for a rather horizontalist way of looking at the liturgy. Norms of the Council that tended to restrict such creativity or were favorable to “the traditional way” seemed to be ignored.

Worse still, some practices which Sacrosanctum Concilium had never even contemplated were allowed into the liturgy, like Mass “versus populum” (facing the people), Holy Communion on the hand, altogether giving up on the Latin and Gregorian chant in favor of vernacular and songs and hymns without much space for God, and extending beyond any reasonable limits the faculty to concelebrate at Holy Mass. There was also the gross misinterpretation of the principle of “active participation” (actuosa participatio).

All of that had its effect on the work of the Consilium. Those who guided the process of change both within the Consilium, and later in the Sacred Congregation of Rites, were certainly being influenced by all these novel tendencies. Not everything they introduced was negative. Much of the work done was praiseworthy. But much room was also left for experimentation and arbitrary interpretation. These “freedoms” were exploited to their fullest extent by some liturgical “experts”, leading to much confusion.

Cardinal Ratzinger explains how “one shudders at the lackluster face of the post-conciliar liturgy as it has become, or one is bored with its banality and its lack of artistic standards….” (The Feast of Faith, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1986, p. 100).

This is not to lay the responsibility for what happened solely on the members of the Consilium. But some of their approaches were weak. There indeed was a general spirit of uncritical giving in, on certain matters, to the rabble-rousing spirit of the era even within the Church, most visibly in some sectors and geographic regions. Some of those in authority at the level of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, too, did show signs of weakness in this matter. Too many indults had been given [to release] certain requirements of the norms.

Naturally the “spirit of freedom” which some of these powerful sectors within the Church unleashed in the name of the Council, even leading the important decision-makers to vacillate, led to much disorder and confusion — something the Council never intended, nor did the popes who guided it.

The sad comment made by Pope Paul VI during the troubled Seventies that “the smoke of Satan has entered the Church” (Homily on June 29, 1972, Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul), or his comment on the excuses made by some to impede evangelization “on the basis of such and such a teaching of the Council” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 80), show how this anti-spirit of the Council rendered his labors most painful.

In the light of all of this, and of some of their troublesome consequences for the Church today, it is necessary to find out how the post-conciliar liturgical reform did emerge, and which figures or attitudes caused the present situation. It is a need that, in the name of truth, we cannot abandon.

Cardinal Ratzinger analyzed the situation thus:

I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy … when the community of faith, the worldwide unity of the Church and her history and the mystery of the living Christ are no longer visible in the liturgy, where else, then is the Church to become visible in her spiritual essence? Then the community is celebrating only itself, an activity that is utterly fruitless. (Milestones, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1998 pp. 148 – 149).

As we saw above, certain weaknesses of those responsible and the stormy atmosphere of theological relativism — coupled with that sense of fascination with novelty, change, man-centeredness, accent on subjectivity and moral relativism, as well as on individual freedom, which characterized the society at large — undermined the fixed values of the faith and caused this slide into liturgical anarchy about which Cardinal Ratzinger spoke.

Thus, the penned notes of Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli [the subject of Monsignor Nicola Giampietro’s new book] take on new significance. One of the most eminent and closely involved members of the Consilium that supervised the reform process, Cardinal Antonelli can help us to understand the inner polarizations that influenced the different decisions of the liturgical reform, and help us to be courageous in improving or changing that which was erroneously introduced and which appears to be incompatible with the true dignity of the liturgy.

Father Antonelli was already a member of the Pontifical Commission for Liturgical Reform appointed by Pope Pius XII on May 28, 1948. It was this commission that worked on the reform of the Liturgy of Holy Week and of the Easter Vigil, which reforms were handled with much care. That very commission was then re-constituted by Pope John XXIII in May 1960, and, later on, Father Antonelli was also part of the inner group that worked on the redaction of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Thus he indeed was very closely involved in the work of the reform from its very inception.

Yet, his role in the liturgical reform movement seems to have been largely unknown until the author of this book, Monsignor Giampietro, had come across his personal agenda notes and decided to present them in a study. This study, which was also the doctoral dissertation of Monsignor Giampietro at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of San Anselmo in Rome, helps us to understand the complex inner workings of the liturgical reform prior to and immediately following the Council.

Cardinal Antonelli’s notes reveal a great man of faith, and of the Church struggling to come to terms with some of the inner currents which influenced the work involving the Consilium. What he wrote in these diaries reveals quite candidly his feelings of joy as well as of sorrow, and at times of fear, at the way things were being made to move along; the attitudes of some of the key players; and the sense of adventurism that had characterized some of the changes that had been introduced.

The book is well done. Indeed, it has also been quoted by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger himself in an article he wrote in the well-known liturgical review La Maison-Dieu, entitled “Réponse du Cardinal Ratzinger au Père Gy” (La Maison-Dieu, 230, 2002/2, p. 116).

[Note: An English translation of Cardinal Ratzinger’s response appeared in Antiphon, Vol. 11, pp. 97-102 — online:

www.liturgysociety.org/JOURNAL/Volume11/Ratzinger_Gy.pdf – Ed.]

Above all it is a timely study which would help us to see another side of the otherwise over-euphoric presentations of the post-conciliar liturgical reform by other contemporary authors.

The publication in English of this interesting study will, I am sure, contribute greatly to the ongoing debate on the post-conciliar liturgical reforms. What is most clear to any reader of this study is that, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stated, “the true time of Vatican II has not yet come” (The Ratzinger Report, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1985 p. 40). The reform has to go on.

The immediate need seems to be that of a reform of the reformed Missal of 1969, for, quite a number of changes originating within the post-conciliar reform seem to have been introduced somewhat hastily and unreflectively, as Cardinal Antonelli himself repeatedly stated. One needs to correct the direction so that changes are indeed made to fall in line with Sacrosanctum Concilium itself — and it must indeed go even further, keeping along with the spirit of our own times. And what urges such changes is not merely a desire to correct past mistakes but much more the need to be true to what liturgy in fact is and means to us, and what the Council itself defined it to be. For, indeed, as Cardinal Ratzinger stated: “the question of liturgy is not peripheral: the Council itself reminded us that we are dealing here with the very core of Christian faith” (ibid. p. 120).

What we need today is to not only engage ourselves in an honest appraisal of what happened but also to take bold and courageous decisions in moving the process along. We need to identify and correct the erroneous orientations and decisions made, appreciate the liturgical tradition of the past courageously, and insure that the Church is made to re-discover the true roots of its spiritual wealth and grandeur even if that means reforming the reform itself, thereby insuring, as Pope Benedict wrote in his 2007 post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (35), that the liturgy truly becomes the “sublime expression of God’s glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on Earth”.

Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith
Secretary, CCDDS
8th December 2008
Feast of the Immaculate Conception



Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith