The Reform of the Roman Rite by Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth
When I am in Rome, I hear very little these days about the ‘reform of the reform’ – it
just isn’t within the arena of most people’s awareness. In matters liturgical, if anything,
we see something of a polarization and many people seem to have a vested interest in
promoting this. Happily, not everyone is of this view and I would like this evening to
concentrate on one such person whose view, fortunately for us, will be decisive. I refer
to the Holy Father. Just ten days ago, he addressed these thoughts to those gathered in
Dublin for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress:
The Congress also occurs at a time when the Church throughout the world is preparing
to celebrate the Year of Faith to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Second
Vatican Council, an event which launched the most extensive renewal of the Roman Rite
ever known. Based upon a deepening appreciation of the sources of the liturgy, the
Council promoted the full and active participation of the faithful in the Eucharistic
sacrifice. At our distance today from the Council Fathers’ expressed desires regarding
liturgical renewal, and in the light of the universal Church’s experience in the
intervening period, it is clear that a great deal has been achieved; but it is equally clear
that there have been many misunderstandings and irregularities. The renewal of
external forms, desired by the Council Fathers, was intended to make it easier to enter
into the inner depth of the mystery. Its true purpose was to lead people to a personal
encounter with the Lord, present in the Eucharist, and thus with the living God, so that
through this contact with Christ’s love, the love of his brothers and sisters for one
another might also grow. Yet not infrequently, the revision of liturgical forms has
remained at an external level, and “active participation” has been confused with
external activity. Hence much still remains to be done on the path of real liturgical
[Pope Benedict XVI – Video Message at the Closing Mass of the 50th International
Eucharistic Congress, Dublin June 17th, 2012]
During our brief time together, I propose to reflect with you on a few themes taken from
this single recent utterance of the Holy Father, as I believe it is highly representative of
his thought in relation to this all-important consideration. The Holy Father said that:
1. “the Second Vatican Council, an event which launched the most extensive
renewal of the Roman Rite ever known”
Very few people could have foreseen the wholesale revision of the liturgy which would
come in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and certainly few could foresee that
the unifiying experience of a Latin liturgy would become entirely alien to most Catholics
born in the last third of the twentieth century. The unchangeable nature of this
characteristic of the Liturgy was a view largely shared by Blessed John Henry Newman,
Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, Mgr Ronald Knox and, until the liturgical reform happened,
also by Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Commentators such as Fr Joseph Gelineau SJ,
composer of the famous psalm tones, went as far as to say “the Roman Rite, as we knew
it, has been destroyed”!
The factors which fed into the liturgical reform after the Council were complex and in
some ways, not entirely contemporary. I think we must admit that until relatively
recently there has been very little scholarship that is able to accurately identify the
sources of the liturgical reform. In some cases, the scholarly opinions upon which some
decisions were based does not stand the test of time. We must hope that scholarly
commentary which unravels some of the mystery surrounding the making of the new
liturgy becomes more readily available in the near future.
Whether or not we have any scholarly insight, many of us have lived in the Church
through this period and have thereby accumulated a vast reservoir of experiences which
for good or ill shape our perceptions in relation to the liturgy and guide our expectations
when we consider what we would hope to find when we come to worship God in the
liturgy. While there is a sort of commonality to these observations across a wide
spectrum of liturgical preference, it goes without saying that whether something is
considered desirable or not will largely depend on your view of what the liturgy is meant
to achieve. I have come to the view that there is little agreement in this important matter
and many people proceed on what is essentially a privatized view of something which is
by definition common property.
In his address to the Eucharistic Congress, the Holy Father said:
2. “a great deal has been achieved”
Obviously, there have been some very positive developments in the wake of the
liturgical reforms that followed Vatican II. Among them, I would cite:
– The liturgies of the Sacred Triduum, largely unknown to a previous
generation, have now become the liturgical heart of the year for most Catholics.
– The Liturgy of the Hours, previously largely limited to the clergy, has
become more genuinely the Prayer of the Church in the experience of both
religious and lay people.
– A wider selection of lections in the Mass and all the Sacramental Rites has
strengthened the idea that Scripture is part of the primitive liturgical κήρυγμα.
– In those places where the principles of the liturgical movement have been
applied to music, there is a greater appreciation of the various functions of music
in different elements of the liturgy.
– The revision of the rites of Christian Initiation has led to a greater
understanding of Baptism as the foundational fact of our ecclesial identity.
– Where provision has been made for individual Confession, there has been a
return to the centrality of the Sacrament of Penance in the personal journey of
– The renewal of the Rite of the Worship of the Blessed Eucharist outside
Mass has facilitated (if not quite inspired) the widespread adoption of Eucharistic
Adoration as a standard element of parish life and as an important means of
engendering private prayer.
On this recent occasion, the Holy Father
3. ‘it is equally clear that there have been many misunderstandings and
– A sense of the communion of the Church has become limited to local
communities that are in many ways self-selecting – many Catholics have a poor
understanding of what it means to belong to the Universal Church but a highly
developed understanding of what it means to belong to a self-selecting parish
community of people like themselves.
– Any notion of the shape of the Liturgical year has been greatly lessened by
an ironing-out of those features which characterized the distinctive seasons of the
– The universal tendency to ignore sung propers and to substitute nonliturgical
– The transference of Solemnities which are holydays of obligation to
Sundays destroys the internal dynamics of the liturgical cycle e.g. The Epiphany
and The Ascension.
– The frequent tendency to gloss or paraphrase the liturgical texts, supplying
continuous commentary, has contributed to an improvised or spontaneous
character in much liturgical celebration.
– The multiplication of liturgical ‘ministries’ has led to considerable
confusion and error concerning the relationship between the ministerial priesthood
and the common priesthood of the baptized.
– The liturgy often seems to have the quality of a performance with the priest
and liturgical ministers cast in the roles of performers and behaving accordingly.
Consequently, congregations are often expecting to be ‘entertained’ rather as
spectators might be at a theatre.
– The manner of the distribution and reception of Holy Communion
(including the appropriateness of one’s reception of Communion at a particular
Mass) has led to a casual disregard for this great Sacrament.
– A proliferation of Communion Services presided over by lay people has
resulted in a lessening of the sense of the importance of the Eucharistic sacrifice.
– The appalling banality of much liturgical music and the lack of any true
liturgical spirit in the use of music in the liturgy has been a primary generating
force in anti-liturgical culture.
The Holy Father then went on to say that:
4. “not infrequently, the revision of liturgical forms has remained at an external
level, and “active participation” has been confused with external activity”
In my view, this is the very crux of the matter and I would like to illustrate it with
reference to the Mass at which Pope Benedict’s remarks were heard – the closing Mass
of the recent Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. The improvements in liturgical culture and
particularly the improvements in liturgical music, that have become increasingly evident
throughout this papacy, particularly in large-scale celebrations were sadly almost
entirely absent from this occasion, giving the event a sort of ‘eighties’ feel to it. More
– the entire liturgy had a ‘performance’ quality to it, with the assembly as the
principal focus. This was borne out by the fact that musicial items were frequently
greeted with applause.
– There was a frequent disregard for the provisions of the GIRM. This was
particularly evident with reference to music:
+ None of the antiphons of the proper were sung for the entrance, offertory and
communion processions (cf GIRM #40)
+ Gregorian Chant was conspicuous by its absence (cf GIRM #41). None of the
Missal chants was used for the people’s parts of the Order of Mass (with the single
exceptions of the gospel and preface dialogues), even though the liturgy was
predominantly in English and these chants would have been known by most people
+ In the Profession of Faith, after the Cardinal celebrant had intoned Credo III,
lectors read the Apostles’ Creed (which has a different intonation to the Nicene
Creed) in a variety of languages, spoken paragraphs were punctuated by the sung
response ‘Credo, Amen!” This is not recognizably one of the modes for the Creed
described in the GIRM (cf GIRM #48).
+ Much music did not ‘correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action’ [GIRM #41]
such as the celebrity spot during the distribution of Holy Communion of 3 clerical
tenors, ‘The Priests’, singing the impossibly sentimental song “May the road rise up
to meet you”. I feel like asking, just what is wrong with the Communion antiphon
+ Despite the international character of the occasion, the use of Latin in the people’s
sung parts was almost non-existant (cf GIRM #41).
The depressing cumulative effect of the disregard for all these principles in a major
liturgy, celebrated by a papal legate, and broadcast throughout the world, is hard to
underestimate. If I were given to conspiracy theories, I would almost feel persuaded
that this was a deliberately calculated attempt to broadcast a different message and to
oppose the better liturgical spirit of recent times. But surely it cannot be so?
I think we have to ask such questions and indeed to surmise that the influence of
former barons of the liturgical establishment has found a new and conspicuous arena
of activity in which to model their example of poor liturgy. There can be no talk of
the reform of the Roman Rite until the GIRM is enforced as the minimum
requirement. If it remains a largely fantasy text at the beginning of our altar missals
then ‘the rebuilding of the broken down city’ will take a very long time.
The Holy Father then concluded by stating that:
5. “much still remains to be done on the path of real liturgical renewal”
We must conclude by agreeing with the Holy Father – there is much to be done and
happily a week like this one is a prophetic sign of the new liturgical road map – where
we are going and how we are going to do it! In an attempt to engender on-going
improvement in the quality of our liturgy, and in the hope that Catholics will be able to
encounter a liturgy that is self-evidently expressive of our liturgical tradition and
conveys a sense of something larger than the purely local, in a highly personal view, I
would identify the following as desirable characteristics of the liturgy of the future:
– A sense of reverence for the text: the unity of the Roman Rite is now
essentially a textual unity. The Church permits a certain latitude in the
interpretation of the norms that govern the celebration of the liturgy and hence our
unity is essentially textual: we use the same prayers and meditate on the same
Scriptures. This is more clearly evident now with a single English text for
– A greater willingness to heed Sacrosanctum concilium rather than continual
recourse to the rather nebulous concept of the ‘spirit of the Council’ which
generally attempts to legitimize liturgical abuses rather than correct them.
Currently, these teachings are more likely to be evidenced in a well prepared
presentation of the Extraordinary Form than in most Ordinary Form celebrations.
It need not be so.
– In relation to both forms of the Roman Rite, a careful attention to the
demands of the calendar and the norms which govern the celebration of the
liturgy, not assuming that it is possible or acceptable to depart from these norms.
– A re-reading of the encyclical Mediator Dei of Pope Pius XII in conjunction
with more recent Magisterial documents. In this way, the light of tradition might
be perceived to shine on all our liturgical celebrations.
– The widespread cultivation of a dignified and reverent liturgy that
evidences careful preparation and respect for its constituent elements in
accordance with the liturgical norms.
– A recovery of the Latin tradition of the Roman Rite that enables us to
continue to present elements of our liturgical patrimony from the earliest centuries
with understanding. This necessarily requires a far more enthusiastic and
widespread commitment to the teaching and learning of Latin in order that the
linguistic culture required for interpreting our texts and chants may be more
widely experienced and our patrimony enjoy a wider constituency.
– We should seek to see the exclusion of all music from the Liturgy which
does not a ‘liturgical voice’, regardless of style.
– The exclusion from the liturgy of music which only expresses secular
culture and which is ill-suited to the demands of the liturgy. A renaissance of
interest in and use of chant in both Latin and English as a recognition that this
form of music should enjoy ‘first place’ in our liturgy and all other musical forms
are suitable for liturgical use to the extent that they share in the characteristics of
– An avoidance of the idea that music is the sole consideration in the liturgy,
the music is a vehicle for the liturgy not the other way around!
– A commitment to the celebration and teaching of the ars celebrandi of both
forms of the Roman Rite, so that all priests can perceive more readily how the
light of tradition shines on our liturgical life and how this might be communicated
more effectively to our people.
– A clearer distinction between devotions, non-liturgical forms of prayer and
the Sacred Liturgy. A lack of any proper liturgical sense has led to a proliferation
of devotions as an alternative vehicle for popular fervour. This was a widespread
criticism of the liturgy before the Council and we now have to ask ourselves why
the same lacuna has been identified in the newer liturgical forms.
– A far greater commitment to silence before, during and after the Liturgy is
Having travelled the English-speaking world very widely in preparation for the
implementation of the English translation of the third typical edition of the Missale
Romanum, and having experienced the liturgy in a wide variety of circumstances and
styles, I would conclude that I have generally encountered a great desire for change,
although not always among those who are directly responsible for the liturgy. I think we
are currently well placed to respond to this desire and this is evidenced by the fact that
many things which were indicated fifty years ago, such as the singing of the Mass, and
more particularly the singing of the proper texts rather than the endless substitution of
songs and hymns, are only now being seriously considered and implemented. It is
earnestly to be desired that such developments continue to flourish and that an improved
liturgical culture is accessible to everyone in the Church.
Crucial to this peaceful revolution has been the leadership and example of the present
Holy Father who has consistently studied and written about the liturgy in a long life of
scholarship which now informs his governance of the Church’s liturgical life. Much that
he commends was already evident in aspects of liturgical scholarship from the early
twentieth century onwards. In our own time, however, it is finally being received with
the joy and enthusiasm that it merits. A new generation of Catholics eagerly awaits a
greater experience of the basic truth that the liturgy is always a gift which we receive
from the Church rather than make for ourselves. The Church Music Association of
America and all those who identify with its initiatives and benefit from its prophetic lead
have a very serious and a highly significant contribution to make to this process. May
God bless us all as we share in his work