Nov 15, 2009

The Liturgical Revolution, The Recovery of the Sacred – Chapter One

Online Edition:
November 2009
Vol. XV, No. 8

The Recovery of the Sacred – Chapter One
The Liturgical Revolution

"Change" was the only word that liturgists heard: Confusion was the result"

by James Hitchcock

“The Liturgical Revolution” is the first chapter of Recovery of the Sacred, by James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The author’s analysis of the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council, originally published in 1974, remains both pertinent and timely.

In the preface to the 1995 edition, Dr. Hitchcock wrote,

This is a book the author wishes would never have to be reprinted. It was first written less than a decade after the Second Vatican Council to call attention to certain liturgical trends which seemed unwise and even destructive. But the book had no perceptible effect on the course of liturgical development, so that the analysis remains as relevant today as it was more than twenty years ago.

Now, more than four decades after the Council, the problems so cogently examined in this book have been recognized at the highest levels in the Church, and much progress has been made toward liturgical “recovery”. Yet many problems remain. Despite landmark Vatican documents such as Liturgiam authenticam, on translation, and Redemptionis Sacramentum, on liturgical abuses, and the urgency with which Pope Benedict XVI has pursued authentic reform, liturgical divisions and confusion have by no means disappeared. The influence of “experts” formed in another era persists, and resistance to “Vatican interference” in the liturgy has continued to hinder corrective actions.

Thus, we present, with the author’s permission, the first chapter of Recovery of the Sacred (now again out of print). Dr. Hitchcock provides insight into the history and dynamic of the liturgical reform, which can give valuable perspective to a new generation of Catholics who did not experience these events.

In liturgy, as in most things, the year 1966 marked a crucial change in attitude on the part of many in the reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church. They had won what appeared to be a nearly complete victory over their opponents in the great arena of the Second Vatican Council. Liturgical reform was now mandated by the highest Church authorities and was being speedily, if not always enthusiastically, implemented in the parishes.

The liturgists, after many decades when they had been contemptuously tolerated as harmless cranks or held in suspicion as probable heretics, had gained everything they had fought for, and more besides. They were to have not merely a partially vernacular Mass as a permissible option but a wholly vernacular Mass imposed practically as an obligation. In most churches the altars were turned to permit the celebrant to face the congregation during Mass. The weight of clerical authority was placed behind ceaseless exhortations to the people to pray together, sing together, “participate”. Extra-liturgical devotions were in effect suppressed in many parishes. Bolder liturgists, having heard amid all the reverberating words of the Council only a single one — “change” — set to work devising new liturgies which had greater or less degrees of connection with the old. But having tasted the fruits of victory after a war which had been long and often cold and lonely, they discovered that these were at best only mildly sweet, in fact nearly tasteless.

During its classic phase, which stretched from the great German and French Benedictine liturgical pioneers of the nineteenth century to the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the Liturgical Movement tried scrupulously to maintain a delicate balance of disparate (but not necessarily conflicting) elements: simplification but not at the expense of drama and ritual, closeness to the people but not so as to obscure mystery, reform but not to the extent of losing touch with tradition, correction of distorted popular beliefs but only to bring them into harmony with genuine orthodoxy.

A powerful and influential statement was the exposition of The Mystery of Christian Worship by the German monk Odo Casel, who argued that superficial liturgical changes would be ineffective without a profound reawakening within the Church of a sense of divine mystery — that in worship the believer is joined to Christ in sacramental union, an occurrence inexplicable in human terms and only dimly glimpsed by the subtlest theologians.

Dom Casel was sometimes criticized for his romanticism, and more cautious liturgists tempered his ideas with the Jesuit Josef Jungmann’s Mass of the Roman Rite, a monument of scholarship which more than any other work both previewed the liturgical changes which the Council would decree and helped to bring them about. Jungmann demonstrated painstakingly the numerous accretions which had built up in the liturgy over the centuries and, more important, the numerous misunderstandings which had attached themselves to various parts of public worship, to the point where the original meanings were all but lost. Overall, however, Jungmann’s purpose was to suggest paths of reform which might restore the worshipers’ sense of the Mass as sacrifice, as the offering of Christ by the whole Church.

The Benedictine Gregory Dix traced the shape of the liturgy in the Church of England to its historic roots, analyzing with care and balance the tension between ritualism and puritanism in the Church, struggling like Jungmann to lay bare the essential core of the mystery — the oblation of Christ and union with Him by worshipers in deep faith.1

As the Second Vatican Council was beginning, the French theologian Louis Bouyer was analyzing rites and man, arguing that both an unrestrained embrace of the ethos of the sacred — rites, mysteries, sacraments — and a severe puritanism are heretical from the standpoint of the Catholic tradition, pointing out the opposed dangers of regarding the words of worship as meaningless in themselves and hence as magic or merely as means for conveying doctrinal teaching. Christian ritual is saved from magic and from paganism by the persistent awareness that in the act of worship Christ is come among His people and the ritual is in fact the act of God.2

In America the German refugee priest H. A. Reinhold, discussing the American parish and the Roman liturgy, attempted to apply the central insights of the Continental liturgists to the United States. He pointed out the degree to which the Latin language was a major barrier to comprehension and hoped for the adoption of the vernacular. At the same time he celebrated the stately austerity of the traditional liturgy and urged that the major liturgical task was to awaken the worshipers’ sensitivity to sacred symbols, which in turn would give them access to the heavenly mysteries.3 On the eve of the Council he talked about bringing the Mass to the people and wrote with optimism and assurance that this could be done without great difficulty, provided the basic spirit of the Roman liturgy — magnanimity, sobriety, solemnity, warmth — was retained.4

The Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was a document infused with the classic spirit of the Liturgical Movement. Like nearly all the Council’s decrees, it took pains to preserve the essential traditions even while allowing for change.

Among its pronouncements were:

For it is through the liturgy, especially the divine Eucharistic Sacrifice, that “the work of our redemption is exercised.” The liturgy is thus the outstanding means by which the faithful can express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church (Preamble, 2).

He [Christ] is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same one now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered Himself on the cross”, but especially under the Eucharistic species (I,7).

In the earthly liturgy, by way of foretaste, we share in that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, and in which Christ is sitting at the right hand of God … (I, 8).

Popular devotions of the Christian people are warmly recommended, provided they are in accord with the laws and norms of the Church. Such is especially the case with devotions called for by the Apostolic See (I, 13).

Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop (III, 22, §1).

Therefore, absolutely no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority (III, 22, §3).

The saints have been traditionally honored in the Church and their authentic relics and images held in veneration. For the feasts of the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ in His servants, and display to the faithful fitting examples for their imitation (V, III).

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as proper to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services (VI, 116).

In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument, and one that adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to heavenly things (VI, 120).

Ordinaries must be very careful to see that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or allowed to deteriorate; for they are the ornaments of the house of God (VII, 126).5

Cautious departures from standard customs were permitted in the document, but even in dealing with the question of the vernacular liturgy the Council fathers seemed to envision translation as exceptional, Latin as normal (III, 36, §3).

The great paradox of Catholic reform in the 1960s was that those who were least happy with the changes, and who became most disaffected from the Church, were those who had striven hardest to bring the changes about.

Less than two years after the Council ended, one of the leading American liturgists, the Benedictine Godfrey Diekmann, for many years editor of Worship, asked, “Are we too late?” Citing the opinions of the liberal Baptist theologian Harvey Cox, the liberal Anglican bishop John Robinson, and the popular folksinger Joan Baez, he speculated that even the reformed liturgy had little meaning for contemporary man. Perhaps the changes had been to no avail.6

Harvey Cox’s work The Secular City, probably the most influential religious book of the decade, had appeared in 1965, and liturgists and theologians were not slow in assimilating its thesis — that contemporary man is content to live in a secularized world, in accordance with a pragmatic ethic, unconcerned about “ultimate reality”, interested only in improving the world. In such a context liturgy could obviously have little meaning unless drastically revised.

Rather precociously, a lay woman, Mary Perkins Ryan, had already, several years before, pointed out certain problems which liturgical reformers acknowledged only dimly — that much of the liturgy is archaic and dependent on a sacramental sense of nature and the cosmos which modern man either does not possess or can acquire only with difficulty. Liturgists, she suggested, were trying to build worship on an attitude toward the universe which is largely foreign to modern man. The priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley responded that modern man’s sense of transcendence and apprehension of the sacred are stronger than Mary Perkins Ryan recognized, that man would in fact keep returning to his need for ritual and worship.7 The debate ended temporarily, only to burst out in full force soon after the liturgical reforms of the Council had been implemented.

As the Council opened, Louis Bouyer had warned against two dangers besetting the liturgists: taking refuge in an immobile traditionalism, in which liturgy would petrify; and rejecting altogether the domain of the sacred, the force of tradition, and the sense of reverence, in the name of a spurious purity.8 The actions of the Council rendered the former impossible, except among small groups which soon became openly schismatic. The uncertainties of the time, however, guaranteed that the latter course would have strong appeal. What was surprising was that it encountered so little opposition, except among relatively untutored and unsophisticated people.

Early in the fateful year 1966 a Benedictine monk articulated the new spirit: worship was to be characterized above all by spontaneity; he suggested that a successful Mass might be one which generated “the fun of a successful cocktail party”.9 A Lutheran architect, taking his inspiration from the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, urged that designers of churches “deal unabashedly with the finite, the ordinary, the secular, the everyday, the contemporary, the particular. And he ought to avoid … all those temptations to make of a church something different, special, or ‘religious’”.10 A Jesuit characterized traditional liturgy as a breeding ground for atheism, because it seemed to make God irrelevant to life.11 A retreat master proclaimed that “the retreat is no time for long faces and frowning concentration”.12 A future archbishop of Milwaukee suggested that worship is no longer to convey “a feeling of infinity or eternity or the world beyond — an experience of man approaching God that is unique to that moment”, which would lead to “a new archaism and a neo-archaeologism”, but “is to be primarily the communal sensitivity that I am one with my brother next to me and that our song is our common twentieth-century situation….” He urged that sacred music “deny her exalted position of being a ‘telephone to the beyond’”.13

At the 1966 Liturgical Week in Houston, Texas, a Jesuit theologian expounded with conviction Harvey Cox’s thesis about secularity and warned that worship could be a form of escape from the demands of social justice. Mary Perkins Ryan lamented that the Eucharist was still not fully recognizable for what it is — a community meal. Cautiously she suggested that other elements besides bread and wine might be used. A parish priest on the board of the Liturgical Conference said he found the exuberance of amateur skaters at Rockefeller Center more truly liturgical than Mass in a nearby church. He noted, however, that the spirit of celebration cannot be sustained indefinitely and pointed to the bullfight as an outstanding ritual celebration.14

Although such ideas represented a radical departure from the spirit and goals of the Liturgical Movement prior to the Council, they were not much debated and by the end of 1966 seem to have compelled general assent among liturgists, although there were commanders and foot soldiers from the earlier wars who saw that the new conflict was not theirs and dropped out.

By early 1967 a new editor of Worship admitted that the relationship of the sacred and the secular was a crucial one for the liturgy but thought it could be dealt with by recognizing that “contemporary man does not deny the transcendental, but he seeks it within the life of this world…. There is no hope for a liturgical reform which would equate the secular with the profane”. He was appalled at the state of the religious arts and thought most theaters and museums were better expressions of the sacred than contemporary church buildings.15

A British composer urged that all music of the past be banished from the churches and relegated to the concert halls,16 and the future archbishop of Milwaukee complained that the Divine Office was too “God-centered and vertical”.17

The editor of Worship wondered why liturgists could not learn from American civic pageantry how to construct relevant liturgies; the president, for example, does not wear special vestments at his inauguration, and chanting is clearly out of place in American culture. Since the rest of the world seems destined to become Americanized, he thought liturgies built on the American model would gradually come to have wide usefulness.18

In 1969 the General Secretariat of Concilium, an influential group of European theologians that published a periodical, Concilium, rejected the “‘mythical’ symbols which lend a magic superstitious character to public prayer and devotion, the unhealthy climate of escapist dreams”. They called for “the symbols of a freedom which creates its own forms, its own interhuman dialogue where man represents God and finds his image of God”.

A Spanish Benedictine, writing in a Concilium volume on liturgy, contemptuously dismissed all the “archaic” and “meaningless” trappings of worship and warned that it created the “practicing type” of Catholic rather than the “believing type”. The former was characterized as living in fear, unfree, compulsively searching for security, guilty of “the sin of magic”, while the latter type seeks by free and personal efforts to create “a more just world”. In the same volume, an Italian composer heaped praises on the youth Masses in which “one expresses oneself and realizes oneself” and dismissed the organ as expressive of “a decidedly senile spirituality”. Concerning traditional worship he said that “Only a god of the dead could be pleased with such glacial homage and the faithful who do not rebel on seeing the communitary [sic] enclosed in such a funereal apparatus probably believe not in the God of rites but in the rites themselves”.19

Against all this, relatively few authoritative voices were raised. One of the most eloquent was the Anglican theologian John Macquarrie, who recognized a great crisis of faith and not simply a controversy over the forms of worship.20 Dietrich von Hildebrand, a layman who had written perceptively about liturgy for many years, warned about the Trojan horse in the City of God.21 Jacques Maritain, the principal intellectual mentor of two generations of Catholic reformers, expressed profound misgivings in The Peasant of the Garonne. Louis Bouyer dissected the decomposition of Catholicism.22

For the most part, however, such attitudes were dismissed as merely reactionary. Little effort was made to extract what was valid from these critiques.

The liturgical revolution which occurred with such remarkable speed in a year’s time left liturgists in an anomalous situation, however. Once the principle had been accepted that liturgy should be relevant in a secular way, cutting itself off from the world in no significant manner, deliberately modern, and as far as possible spontaneous and expressive of personal feelings, it was clear that the established liturgy, even as reformed by the Council and assuming further changes in the proximate future, was not very usable. All inheritances from the past, all set prayers and gestures, all prescribed forms were more or less arbitrary, and insofar as they still had relevance, that relevance had to be tested in each case. In a sense the official liturgy was to be considered guilty until proved innocent.

The editor of Worship asserted that nothing in the liturgy was necessarily fixed, including the words of Institution or Consecration, “if the liturgy is normally self-expression of the Christian community….” When reports circulated about unauthorized experiments conducted in hotel rooms at the Houston Liturgical Week of 1966, he pointed out that they were not sponsored by the Liturgical Conference, but also warned that more such experiments would be forthcoming unless official reforms were sufficiently “radical (in the good sense) to make the liturgy fully relevant for today”.

By 1968 the Liturgical Conference had largely cut its ties to Church authorities and conducted the Washington Liturgical Week on the subject of “revolution”, with a succession of speakers on economic and political topics. Worship’s attitude remained mildly approving.23

The search for relevant liturgy, however, soon began to suffer from the Harvey Cox syndrome — a fundamental uncertainty about precisely who “secular man” is and for what he is searching. The complacently pragmatic and optimistic spirit of the New Frontier and the Great Society began to give way to more frequent and more obvious manifestations of angst, identity problems, and the search for meaning, all of which seemed to lead away from pragmatism and politics and back into the soul, to the spiritual life, to metaphysics, even to ritual. The Harvey Cox who in 1965 had considered “technopolitan man” perhaps the highest achievement of civilization was longing by 1971 to be “like the Cheyenne — in touch with the seasons and the animals in the sky…. But it is beyond our grasp, perhaps forever…. And now we sit, if not quite in the funeral parlor, then in the sterilized geriatric ward, remembering-and wishing it could have been different”.24 Professor Cox did not remain despairing for long, however, and soon countered The Secular City with Feast of Fools.

The counter-culture emerged as an infatuation with fantasy, play, ritual, archaic roots, even hallucination, in full retreat from the disciplined, almost puritanical political activism of the middle 1960s. The problems of creating relevant liturgy in such confused and unstable times became almost insurmountable, although heroic efforts were made by numerous individuals.

In the process, not surprisingly, some of those most intimately involved in the struggle concluded that the effort was fruitless and essentially meaningless. The lay executive secretary of the Liturgical Conference, who had put forward a rather conservative and balanced program in 1963, revealed a decade later, “I couldn’t care less. The urgent cause of liturgical reform which meant so much to me then means nothing to me now. Since the summer’s end of 1967, the church has faded from my consciousness much as my years in the Army have”. He had discovered, he wrote, that Christianity is not unique and that at the heart of all religions are a few humanistic concepts, beside which “the supernatural elements become less interesting”. And furthermore: “The demythologized core of religion turns out to be human nature. The God of my youth was created by men”.25

His successor at the Liturgical Conference, also a layman, urged while in office that “Worship is a word religion should try to forget” and “the entire meaning of the liturgy can be summed up with precision in one word — empathy”. After leaving the Conference he became an advisor to Gamemasters Inc. on the marketing of the “Jesus deck”, a card game similar to gin rummy in which the winner shouts, “Witness!” and reads an inspirational quote from the cards.26

The Liturgical Weeks, held since 1940 and at their peak capable of attracting twenty thousand people to St. Louis in 1964, were canceled following the Milwaukee week of 1969. The program had become more and more radical and secular, and there was a drastic falling off in attendance.

Still, many persons of great sincerity, learning, and energy remained interested in liturgy, trying a variety of approaches toward constructing “a worship for modern man”. The Liturgical Movement had, however, for better or for worse entered a new phase which was not simply an extension or advance on its previous character but, in certain crucial ways, a denial and a repudiation of its earlier self, the self which had inspired and brought to fruition such notable changes in the Church’s manner of worship. Among the principal differences were:

(1) Rather than a desire to change the liturgy in order to show forth the “sacred mysteries” more effectively, it manifested deep suspicion of the mystical character of worship as a distraction from human problems.

(2) Rather than emphasizing the timeless and perennially valid forms of the liturgy, it sought to bring it as much as possible into conformity with contemporary culture.

(3) From a relationship of fundamental respect and obedience to Church authorities, it began to conceive its role increasingly as one of divergence from officially prescribed forms.

(4) From seeking forms of worship valid for the whole Church, it came to a preoccupation with liturgies usable only by special groups and an eager acceptance of the notion of “liturgical pluralism”. ?

Additional chapters of Recovery of the Sacred are planned for future issues.


1 Gregory Dix, DD, The Shape of the Liturgy (London, 1945).

2 Louis Bouyer, CO, Rite and Man: Natural Sacredness and Christian Liturgy, trans. M. Joseph Costelloe, SJ (Notre Dame, 1963).

3 H. A. Reinhold, The American Parish and the Roman Liturgy: An Essay in Seven Chapters (New York, 1958).

4 Reinhold, Bringing the Mass to the People (Baltimore, 1960).

5 All quotations from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy are from the translation of Monsignor Joseph Gallagher in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, SJ (New York, 1966), pp. 137-78.

6 Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, “The Reform of Catholic Liturgy: Are We Too Late?” Worship, XLI, 3 (March 1967), pp. 142-51.

7 Mary Perkins Ryan, “The Problem of God in the World Today”, Worship, XXXIV, 1 (December 1959), pp. 9-19, and “The Psychology of Worship: Another Approach”, Worship, XXXIV, 7 (June-July 1960), pp. 380-6. Andrew Greeley, “Psychology of Worship”, Worship, XXXIV, 4 (March 1960), pp. 188-95.

8 Bouyer, “Two Temptations”, Worship, XXXVII, 1 (December 1962), pp. 11-21.

9 Colman Grabert, OSB, “Toward the Development of an Authentic English Sung Mass”, Worship, XL, 2 (February 1966), pp. 80-90.

10 Edward A. Sovick, “The Architecture of Kerygma”, Worship, XL, 4 (April 1966), pp. 196-208.

11 John J. Gallen, SJ, “Liturgical Atheism”, Worship, XL, 7 (August-September 1966), pp. 430-36.

12 David B. Wadhams, SM, “Towards a Renewed Retreat Theology”, Worship, XL, 9 (November 1966), pp. 584-88.

13 Rembert Weakland, OSB, “Music as Art in Liturgy”, Worship, XLI, 1 (January 1967), pp. 5-15.

14 Daniel O’Hanlon, SJ, Mary Perkins Ryan, and John DeWitt in Worship in the City of Man (The Liturgical Conference, 1966), pp. 16-38, 50-58.

15 Aelred Tegels, OSB, Worship, XLI, 2 (February 1967), p. II7.

16 Anthony Milner, “The Instruction on Sacred Music”, Worship, XLI, 6 (May 1967), pp. 322-33.

17 Weakland, “The Divine Office and Contemporary Man”, Worship, XLIII, 4 (April 1969), pp. 214-18.

18 Tegels, “Liturgy and Culture: Adaptation or Symbiosis?” Worship, XLI, 6 (June-July 1967), pp. 364-72.

19 Concilium General Secretariat, Evangelista Vilanova, OSB, and Gino Stefani in The Crisis of Liturgical Reform (Concilium, XLII -1969), pp. 6-19, 71-86, 174-80.

20 John Macquarrie, “Subjectivity and Objectivity in Theology and Worship”, Worship, XLI, 3 (March 1967), pp. 152-60.

21 Dietrich von Hildebrand, Trojan Horse in the City of God (Chicago, 1967).

22 Bouyer, The Decomposition of Catholicism, trans. Charles Underhill Quinn (Chicago, 1969).

23 Tegels, “Liturgy and Culture”, p. 366; Worship, XL, 9 (November 1966), p. 589, and XLII, 8 (October 1968), p. 502.

24 Harvey Cox, “Jack Crabb — Antiheroic Everyman”, The National Catholic Reporter, March 18, 1971, p. II.

25 John B. Mannion, “The Making of a Dissident”, Commonweal, January 19, 1973, pp. 344-46.

26 James Colaianni, The Catholic Left (Philadelphia, 1968), pp. 26-27. Colaianni’s connection with the “Jesus deck” is reported by John Deedy, Commonweal, March 23, 1973, p. 50.

Copyright © James Hitchcock. All rights reserved.
Online edition published with permission.

Preface — 1995 Edition

Preface to the First Edition – 1974 Edition

Chapter 1 – The Liturgical Revolution — Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, November 2009

Chapter 2 The Chimera of Relevance

Chapter 3 – The Cult of Spontaneity

Chapter 4 – The Loss of History — Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, June 2006

Chapter 5 – The Death of Community

Chapter 6 – Folk Religion

Chapter 7 – The Reformed Liturgy — Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, April 1996

Chapter 8 – The Recovery of the Sacred



James F. Hitchcock