Questioning ADOREMUS: Father Fessio Responds
Jul 6, 2024

Questioning ADOREMUS: Father Fessio Responds

At the recent Catholic Family Conference in Long Beach, you spoke regarding Adoremus. Your talk raised some questions in my mind.

First, if the bishops in union with the Holy Father are responsible for the liturgy, why is it necessary, or even appropriate, for the laity to take the lead in the “authentic renewal of the reform of the liturgy?”

I am particularly perplexed since Cardinal Ratzinger is so supportive of these efforts. As prefect of perhaps the most prestigious and important curial Congregation, he presumably reflects the mind of the Pope. If so, why does Rome not take the lead here? If there is “reform” to be accomplished, should it not proceed from Rome? Is this a political movement that needs “grassroots” support? I do not understand.

Second, both your talk and the letter regarding Adoremus emphasize that you are not advocating, and in fact oppose, a return to the “preconciliar” Mass. Yet, my understanding is that the Council Fathers in Sacrosanctum Concilium did not intend to “revolutionize” that Mass in existence at the time of the Council. The preconciliar Mass organically developed from ancient times under the Church’s careful eye (changing little since Pope St. Pius V).

As I understand it, the Council Fathers, presaged by Pius XII’s Mediator Dei, intended to solemnize certain elements of the so-called “liturgical movement” expounded by Louis Bouyer, among others…. [Bouyer] does not speak of revolutionizing the Mass, of returning to so-called primitive rites, of wholesale removal of portions, complete eradication of Latin in favor of the vernacular, etc. Yet, this is what has happened.

(Indeed, it seems to me that the Council Fathers were more concerned with improving the faithful’s conscious, active participation in the liturgy and making some minor modifications—removing unnecessary accretions and restoring certain parts—rather than with radical revision of the Roman rite.)

If there is a need to rid the current liturgy of innovations instigated not by the Council Fathers but by liturgical “experts” run amok, then what better starting place than the preconciliar Mass? If the Holy Spirit intends the Church to “renew” that preconciliar Mass, is it not logical to return to that Mass and then renew it, but this time correctly? When the “living memory” of that centuries-old Mass has been systematically erased from an entire generation of Catholics, how can a true “reform” of it be accomplished without first re-instilling the current generation with the spirit of and love for that liturgy? Ever since I became aware that there was a “preconciliar” Mass, I have found it intriguing that there was a perceived need to suppress it in favor of the current liturgy.

Finally, you mentioned Gregorian Chant. I agree that it is very beautiful and certainly it is the mind of the Church that it be given “pride of place.” However, it was unnerving to hear you, an orthodox priest and theologian quite aware of the troubles in the Church, talk as though you had just discovered some marvelous new thing. After 18 years as a Catholic (I converted at age 18), it is no news to me that the Mass as celebrated in most parishes uses mundane ditties for music and that the liturgy as a whole reflects little of the solemnity and majesty of the Sacrifice, of the Paschal Mystery, taking place. It is no news to me that the “reforms” carried out in the last 30 years in the name of the Council bear little resemblance to Sacrosanctum Concilium. And I must again ask my first question.

—Erich B. Riedel, San Diego, CA

Fr. Fessio Responds:

This is an excellent question, though to answer it satisfactorily would require much more than the brief outline of an answer I give here.

1. Historically, reforming movements in the Church do not originate with the hierarchy. It is only the hierarchy which can approve and officially implement reforms, but they usually exercise an authoritative gift of discernment on what the Holy Spirit has aroused in the faithful. For example:

a. John (Love) outraces Peter (Authority) to the empty tomb (which the laity—the faithful women—had discovered first). But John waits for Peter to enter first, observe, and then make an “official” statement. (John, of course, is part of the “college of bishops” and so part of the original “hierarchy.” But he is a symbol for the “Church of Love” in relation to the “Church of Authority.”)

b. The great reforms of Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Dominic, and Ignatius Loyola began as “grassroots” renewal initiated by the laity or priests—and later approved by Church authority.

c. The great reforming Pope, St. Pius X (whose motto was “to restore all things in Christ”), called for a reform of sacred music. But he was essentially sanctioning a movement to re-vitalize Gregorian chant, begun by Dom Prosper Gueranger, the Abbot of Solesmnes, in 1835.

d. Pius XII in Mediator Dei and the Second Vatican Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium only initiated reform in the sense of giving official approval (after exercising the necessary discernment) to the results of the Liturgical Movement which had been active for at least a half a century.

2. Practically, we are not in a situation where a united Church is carrying out a reform mandated by an ecumenical council. There is division among the laity, among priests, among bishops, and even among members of the Roman curia about what constitutes the reform intended by Vatican II. There is enormous political pressure being exercised by a huge bureaucracy for further changes in the Mass and even for the institutionalization of continuous change. But Sacrosanctum Concilium decreed that “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them” (§23). It is therefore important for the faithful to make it clear to legitimate authority that they consider many proposed changes pastorally harmful, and that their desire is for a liturgy clearly in continuity with the Church’s Tradition.

3. According to the new Code of Canon Law, “The Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescriptions of their own rite approved by the legitimate pastors of the Church” (c. 214). As more and more options are added for the “American Church,” as these options become de rigeur in many (if not most) parishes, as ICEL’s proposed translations depart more markedly from the Latin original of the Missale Romanum, a point is reached where the faithful have begun to ask whether their right to worship according to the universal Roman Rite is being violated. For the sake of the Church—and particularly for the Church of the future represented by their children—the laity have, I believe, an obligation to vindicate this right.

4. Perhaps I was not clear enough in my talk or in the letter I wrote on behalf of Adoremus’s Board of Advisors. Adoremus is convinced that the Council intended precisely what you have just described. The preconciliar Mass was not to be “revolutionized” but renewed, with the explicit requirement that any changes were to “grow organically from forms already existing” (ibid.). Therefore, we must go back and begin with the pre-conciliar Mass. But to seek that as a final goal would be to oppose the renewal legitimately mandated by the Council.

5. Mea culpa! I confess publicly that while I knew Sacrosanctum Concilium had reaffirmed the pre-eminence of Gregorian chant, I did not realize that the principle of “active participation by all the people” which the Council declared to be “the aim to be considered before all else” (SC § 14) had been equated by St. Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII with the congregational singing of the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei in Gregorian chant. That was, for me, a discovery.

Father Joseph Fessio, SJ