Much water has passed under the liturgical bridge over the last 50 years. Some currents, I suspect, find their source in the heart of Christ. Other trends, perhaps, don’t carry the volume of grace as fully as our Pontifex would wish. But such mixed blessings are not the unique possession of today’s Missal, now 50 years old, but are also the domain of any and every chapter of the Church’s liturgical books.
This most recent installment of the Church’s much longer liturgical story began with Sacrosanctum Concilium on December 4, 1963. After promulgating this first of the Council’s 16 documents, the Latin Church’s liturgical books were reformed and revised until, at last, parts of the Missal were ready for use on November 30, 1969.
The six years between 1963 and 1969 were hardly a calm sea upon which the Barque of Peter would revise her liturgy. In looking back at that span of time, Pope Benedict XVI invoked St. Basil the Great and his comparison of life in the post-Nicaean Church of the 4th century: “he compares her situation to a naval battle in the darkness of the storm, saying among other things: ‘The raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamoring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith…’” (December 22, 2005 address to the Roman Curia). During the years leading up to the new Missal, difficult sailing was the order of the day.
For example, during this time the secular culture endured the height of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, student riots in Europe and America, shootings at Kent State University, and the street brawl between police and protesters occurring outside the Chicago Democratic Convention. In the Church, the period is most remembered for Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, on the natural regulation of birth. The Missal emerged from truly troubling times.
Since then, the first complete and approved English-language edition was published in July 1974—only to be followed by the promulgation of the second Latin edition of the Novus Ordo Missal the following year, in March 1975. Other liturgical books for the remaining sacraments and sacramentals also began to be used.
Pope John Paul II, who had been a Council Father, became the third of 1978’s three popes, and over the course of his 27-year papacy steered the Church toward greater ecclesial and liturgical stability, authentic ritual reform, and ongoing renewal. But even here, liturgy wars and translation battles were pitched and frequent. Assisting Pope John Paul as aide de camp was his trusted prefect for the Congregation of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
As Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger encouraged the Church to view the post-Conciliar years—including her liturgy—with the long view of tradition. Only when seen in the context of the Church’s longer life and history could the liturgy be understood after the mind of the Council and according to its authentic spirit. His 2001 book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, remains essential reading for any who wish to understand the liturgy after the mind of the Church—yesterday and today. To further cement the sense of tradition among the faithful regarding the liturgy, in 2007, Benedict issued his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which declared that the Missal of 1962 was free to be celebrated by every priest in the world. By encouraging through this document a more regular use of the usus antiquior, Benedict XVI hoped that the post-conciliar Missal might learn a few things from her older sister, especially the Mass of 1962’s sacrality, which had been too often lacking in the reformed rites. But perhaps Benedict’s most important achievement in the liturgy during his pontificate was the new translation of the Mass of Paul VI. The Third Edition of the Roman Missal in English, promulgated in 2011, was guided in its translation by the mature and authentic principles of the Vatican’s instruction on translation, Liturgiam Authenticam.
The post-conciliar liturgical narrative took another turn under Pope Francis, whose motu proprio Magnum Principium returned the onus of approving liturgical texts to the local body of bishops. This same trend of Roman decentralization appears to be the case in other matters, too, as the recently-completed Amazon Synod and its deference to local cultural features suggests.
In short, the liturgical script over the past 50 years has proceeded with remarkable twists and turns, included Popes of differing liturgical perspectives, and presented liturgical celebrations that adhered with varying degrees of fidelity to the Council. Yet, despite the good, the bad, and the ugly in the liturgical life since 1969, the Church’s books, at least, appear to have achieved a certain stability.
In addition to the Missal’s anniversary, Adoremus is also marking a milestone of its own. Adoremus Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, celebrating its silver anniversary this year, was founded a quarter of a century ago in June 1995 by Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of Ignatius Press, Father Jerry Pokorsky, a priest and pastor serving in the Diocese of Arlington, VA, and the late Helen Hull Hitchcock, a writer and editor (inter alia) of tremendous talent. It has played its own small part in fostering authentic liturgical renewal—and plans to continue doing so for years to come. Enjoy Joseph O’Brien’s story on the first 25 years of Adoremus, a story that in many ways is yours, too.
What will the next 50 years of praying the Missal of Paul VI bring? Will it be marked with more tumultuous times—“incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamoring”? Or will it flower and grow as Pope John Paul II hoped it would: “The seed was sown; it has known the rigors of winter, but the seed has sprouted, and become a tree. It is a matter of the organic growth of a tree becoming ever stronger the deeper it sinks its roots into the soil of tradition” (Vicesimus Quintus Annus, 23).
If the Novus Ordo is to flourish and grow, it will not do so on its own, any more than an uncultivated plant reaches perfection—or a ship reaches its port—without the help of many hands—and God’s grace. Indeed, only by God’s design and the faithful, joyful, and tireless work of the Church and her members will the Roman Missal lead us to holiness and, in the end, God himself.
Thanks be to God for the good fruits of the Second Vatican Council found in today’s Roman Missal, now 50 years old! And thanks, too, for all those in the Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, who have made Adoremus a success over these last 25 years. May Christ the Great Bridge-builder be pleased with our labors, and nourish our work for years to come.