As the current “Short of History of the Roman Mass” has shown, liturgical life is never static. Even in the period of unprecedented standardization between the promulgation of the Tridentine missal in 1570 and the mid-20th-century reforms, social, cultural, and artistic transformations shaped the actual celebration of Mass in a universal Church. As Joseph Ratzinger observed, “A liturgy in an Upper Bavarian village looks very different from High Mass in a French cathedral, which in turn seems quite unlike Mass in a southern Italian parish, and again that looks different from what you find in a mountain village in the Andes, and so on.”
However, since “the most extensive renewal of the Roman Rite ever known” (i.e., the Missal of 1969/70), elements of discontinuity and rupture with the liturgical tradition are undeniable, whether they are evaluated positively or negatively. The liturgy has in fact become a highly sensitive and controversial topic in the Church today. In this predicament, I will offer an overview of the different paths of ongoing liturgical renewal indicated by Pope Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis.
Pontificate of Benedict XVI (2005–2013)
As a theologian and cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger wrote extensively on the liturgy and encouraged scholars and practitioners alike to articulate their unease about the present state of Catholic worship. He called for a “reform of the reform” and a review of those elements that clearly disconnect contemporary practice from the received form of the Roman Rite, above all “the disappearance of Latin and the turning of the altars toward the people.” However, his election as pope confronted him with a dilemma, since he was keenly aware that liturgy cannot be constructed on a writing desk and authentic renewal “does not come about through regulation.” Hence, Benedict XVI did not take the initiative to introduce liturgical legislation to that effect and there was no new editio typica of any liturgical book during his pontificate. The pontiff wanted to lead by example in his own celebrations, for instance, by extending the use of Latin, by placing a prominent crucifix in the center of the altar, and by distributing Holy Communion to the faithful kneeling and directly on the tongue.
At the same time, Benedict offered an important impulse in his momentous discourse to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005 when he contrasted “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” in interpreting the Second Vatican Council with a “hermeneutic of reform,” which he explained as “renewal in the continuity of the one subject [that is, the] Church which the Lord has given to us.” A key instance of such a renewal in continuity was the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum of July 7, 2007, by which Benedict lifted previous restrictions on the use of the pre-conciliar liturgical books and made them into the “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman Rite, while the renewed liturgical books remain normative for its “Ordinary Form.” These two usages of the one Roman Rite have sometimes been seen as manifestations of fundamentally different and, in the end, incompatible theological positions, especially regarding ecclesiology. However, the first article of Summorum Pontificum explicitly rejects such an interpretation when it defines the two missals as expressions of the same lex orandi (“rule of prayer”) and hence of the same lex credendi (“rule of faith”).
Nonetheless, the phenomenological contrast between liturgical celebrations in the Ordinary and in the Extraordinary Form make it appear difficult to speak of two forms of the same rite. Such differences are less pronounced when, for instance, the Ordinary Form is celebrated in Latin and at an altar facing east instead of facing the people, but the differences still remain: in the prayers and readings of the Mass, in many ritual elements, and in the structure of the liturgical year. In my reading, Benedict had in mind a slow and gradual process that was meant to begin with Summorum Pontificum and would eventually result in a “mutual enrichment” of the two forms.
In the meantime, it is worth recalling the same Paschal Mystery is expressed in different—but by no means contrary or contradictory—ways in the Roman Rite, other Western Rites (e.g., Ambrosian and Mozarabic), and in the many Eastern Rites—and yet all of them have their place in the Catholic Church. The generous liturgical provision Divine Worship for the Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans, created after the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (November 4, 2009), is another example of such legitimate diversity. The missal promulgated in 2015 follows the essential structure of the Roman Rite, but at the same time enriches it with a “patrimony” that is partly derived from the wider medieval tradition (for instance, in the introductory and offertory rites) and partly derived from a characteristically Anglican style of prayer, brought into harmony with Catholic doctrine where necessary.
Pontificate of Francis (2013–)
While Pope Francis’s personal style of celebration is certainly different from Pope Benedict’s, he did not focus on liturgical questions in the initial years of his reign. At the same time, he has made clear on many occasions that he sees the reforms of Vatican II as a fait accompli and there should be no going back. Thus, he called it mistaken to speak of a “reform of the reform.”
With his Motu Proprio Magnum Principium of September 3, 2017, Pope Francis largely placed the responsibility for translating the normative Latin liturgical books of the Roman Rite into the hands of bishops’ conferences. This decision substantially altered the provisions of the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam of March 28, 2001, which gave the Roman Congregation for Divine Worship (and ultimately the Pope/Holy See) an active and leading role in the process. With Liturgiam authenticam, John Paul II had initiated and Benedict XVI continued a major revision of the post-conciliar translations of liturgical books, which brought fruit above all, but not only, in the English-speaking world.
The most significant decision of this pontificate in liturgical matters so far is the Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes of July 16, 2021, which not only abrogates the provisions of Summorum Pontificum, but also states that the post-conciliar liturgical books “are the unique (unica) expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” Pope Francis has closely restricted the use of the 1962 missal under the centralized supervision of the Dicastery for Divine Worship, with the clear intention that such use should gradually be phased out and the faithful attached to it should be brought to “a unitary form of celebration.” At the same time, it would appear that permission for the use of the pre-conciliar liturgical books is given generously for pastoral reasons, and the pope himself has decreed the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (which celebrates the preconciliar liturgy exclusively) exempt from Traditionis Custodes. If there is indeed a single expression of the “law of belief” in the Roman Rite, which is found only in the post-conciliar liturgical books, then there will be need for some clarification about the status of the older liturgical forms, which continue to be celebrated and nourish the spiritual lives of many faithful.
On June 29, 2022, Pope Francis published the Apostolic Letter “On the Liturgical Formation of the People of God,” Desiderio Desideravi. The document opens with a profound theological exposition that has much in common with the thought of Benedict XVI (even though he is not referenced), and the sections on liturgical formation contains many practical insights. While reiterating his conviction that “we cannot go back to that ritual form which the Council fathers, cum Petro et sub Petro, felt the need to reform,” I find it significant that Pope Francis above all calls us “continually to rediscover the richness of the general principles exposed in the first numbers of Sacrosanctum Concilium.”
This teaching on the nature of the liturgy and its celebration commands the highest authority in a way that instructions for practical renewal, while binding on the Church, do not. Even if the concrete implementation of the conciliar constitution was overseen with the authority of holy popes, it does not engage the infallibility of the Church as in matters of faith and morals—neither does the liturgical reform of St. Pius V after the Council of Trent. In an important contribution of 2003, Joseph Ratzinger argued that the framework set by the broad directives of Sacrosanctum Concilium allows for “different realizations,” and he cautioned: “Someone who does not think that everything in this reform turned out well and considers many things…in need of revision is not therefore an opponent of the ‘Council.’” In the present moment, it would seem that Pope Francis’s call to return to the general principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium offers the best perspective for future directions of liturgical renewal.
The final instalment of this series will look back at the liturgical development I have sketched in this series and explore how this historical awareness can help us to celebrate Holy Mass today.
For previous instalments of Father Lang’s Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass series, see:
- Part I: Introduction: The Last Supper—The First Eucharist
- Part II: Questions in the Quest for the Origins of the Eucharist
- Part III: The Third Century between Peaceful Growth and Persecution
- Part IV: Early Eucharistic Prayers: Oral Improvisation and Sacred Language
- Part V: After the Peace of the Church: Liturgy in a Christian Empire
- Part VI: The Formative Period of Latin Liturgy
- Part VII: Papal Stational Liturgy
- Part VIII: The Codification of Liturgical Books
- Part IX: The Frankish Adoption and Adaptation of the Roman Rite
- Part X: Monastic Life and Imperial Patronage
- Part XI: Reform Papacy and Liturgical Unification
- Part XII: The Impact of the Franciscans on the Roman Mass
- Part XIII: Eucharistic Devotion of the High Middle Ages
- Part XIV: The Later Middle Ages: All Decay and Decline?
- Part XV: The Rite of Mass at the Eve of the Protestant Reformation
- Part XVI: The Shape of the “Tridentine Mass”
- Part XVII: From the Tridentine Period to the Liturgical Movement
- Part XVIII: The Second Vatican Council and the Reform of the Rite of Mass
Father Uwe Michael Lang, a native of Nuremberg, Germany, is a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and teaches Church history at Mater Ecclesiae College, St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Allen Hall Seminary, London. He is an associate staff member at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, and on the Visiting Faculty of the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, IL. He is a Corresponding Member of the Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger / Papst Benedikt XVI, a Member of the Council of the Henry Bradshaw Society, a Board Member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and Editor of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.
Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, in Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence, Joseph Ratzinger Collected Works 11, ed. Michael J. Miller, trans. John Saward, Kenneth Baker, S.J., Henry Taylor, et. al. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 127 (first published in 2000). ↑
Benedict XVI, Video Message for the Closing of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin (June 17, 2012). ↑
Joseph Ratzinger, “Assessment and Future Prospects,” in Theology of the Liturgy, 565 (first published in 2003). ↑
Joseph Ratzinger, “Foreword to Uwe Michael Lang, Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer,” in Theology of the Liturgy, 393 (first published in 2004). ↑
Joseph Ratzinger, “Change and Permanence in Liturgy: Questions to Joseph Ratzinger,”, in Theology of the Liturgy, 52 (first published in 1977). ↑
Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia Offering them His Christmas Greetings (December 22, 2005). ↑
Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter Given Motu Proprio on the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970 Summorum Pontificum (July 7, 2007), art. 1. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002), no. 6 states that “the two Roman Missals [of 1570 and of 1970], although four centuries have intervened, embrace one and the same tradition.” ↑
Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio Data” Summorum Pontificum on the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970 Con Grande Fiducia (July 7, 2007). ↑
See Gerard O’Connell, “Pope Francis: There will be no ‘reform of the reform’ of the liturgy,” in America: The Jesuit Review (December 06, 2016), at https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2016/12/06/pope-francis-there-will-be-no-reform-reform-liturgy. ↑
Maurizio Barba, “The Motu Proprio Magnum Principium on the Edition of Liturgical Books in the Vernacular Languages,” in Antiphon 21 (2017), 201–227. ↑
Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter Issued Motu Proprio on the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970 Traditionis Custodes (July 16, 2021), art. 1. ↑
Pope Francis, Letter to the Bishops that Accompanies the Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Data Traditionis Custodes (July 16, 2021). ↑
“Decree of Pope Francis Confirming the Use of the 1962 Liturgical Books,” at https://www.fssp.org/en/decree-of-pope-francis-confirming-the-use-of-the-1962-liturgical-books/ ↑
Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter on the Liturgical Formation of the People of God Desiderio Desideravi (29 June 2022), no. 61. ↑
Joseph Ratzinger, “Fortieth Anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: A Look Back and a Look Forward,” in Theology of the Liturgy, 576 (first published in 2003). ↑Image Source: AB/Lawrence OP on Flickr