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A Challenging Reform: ­Realizing the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal, 1963-1975

by Piero Marini

Liturgical Press, 205 pages, $15.95


To young people today, Vatican II reposes in a haze with Nicaea II and Lateran II. Their guileless ignorance at least frees them from the animus of some aging liturgists who thought that the Second Vatican Council defined a whole new anthropological stage in the history of man. The prolix optimism of many interpreters of that council has now taken on a ­patina”not that of fine bronze but more like the discoloration of a Bauhaus building. Reflective minds, ever grateful for the more important contributions of Vatican II, have had to reconcile a declaration (on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium ) that the vast majority of the faithful enthusiastically have welcomed liturgical changes with subsequent pontifical acts of reparation for liturgical confusion.

In his new book, A Challenging Reform , Archbishop Piero Marini has done historians a service in tracing the development of the modern liturgy. The result is a highly revealing account of the intentions of prominent players, and the author shows a genuine innocence in his assumption that readers will share his preference for theory over practice. His polemical tone will agitate those whom Marini calls “reaction-aries” to think that their misgivings about the events of 1963 to 1975 were not totally hallucinatory.

Marini worked in the secretariat of the Consilium ad Exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia with Annibale Bugnini, who started as a modest bureaucrat and gradually shaped the advisory committee into a rival of”and, eventually, a replacement of”the Congregation for Rites. The Consilium was suppressed in a latter period of the Pauline pontificate, which, Marini implies, was not as good as the pontificate of John XXIII. The talented author began as secretary to the hero of his narrative as a young priest, but, like a son of Noah, he never mentions that Bugnini eventually was relieved of his curial post and went on to write what may be the definitive history of Catholicism in Iran.

A more disinterested remembrancer of those heady days would not have had such access to the intricate workings of the Consilium, and this thin, even epistemologically anorexic, book will long be of interest to ecclesiologists as they study its awkward ballet of resentments and vindications of the sort commonly found in youthful diaries that were not burned in maturity. There are no grays in the book: Champions like Lercaro, Giobbe, and Larraone were “brilliant” and “charismatic” and “progressive,” while anonymous members of the Congregation for Rites were “anchored in the past” and often “overplayed their hand.”

Bugnini was indefatigable in his work and followed the path of his namesake Hannibal crossing the Alps: “We will either find a way, or make one.” The “progressives” promoted an ineffable “spirit of the council” and “knew that the path would not be easy.” Their project was bold: “The liturgy inspired by the council needed to leave behind Tridentine forms in order to embrace the genuine expression of the faith of the whole church.” This involved a malleable treatment of tradition, by which reform became rupture and development meant invention, with little regard for the sensibilities of others, including the Eastern ­churches.

Not disdaining the machinations of politics, the Consilium even assumed some of the work of what is now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Prescinding from the claim that the liturgists did their preparatory work “patiently and humbly since October 1963 with the pope’s support” in order to be “more pastoral,” Marini fuels the suspicions of conspiracy theorists by admitting: “Unlike the reform after Trent,” the liturgical reform after Vatican II “was all the greater because it also dealt with doctrine.” On May 24, 1964, the pope instituted “an innovation in the administrative structure of the Curia” when he instructed the Congregation for Rites to grant juridical approval to the changes proposed by the ­Consilium.

Marini is not a slave to the principle of noncontradiction. The Consilium was “to reflect the hopes and needs of local churches throughout the world,” but two sentences later Holy Mother Church becomes something of a nanny: “In order to renew the liturgy, it was not enough to issue new directives; it was also necessary to change the attitudes of both the clergy and the lay faithful to enable them to grasp the purpose of the reform.” In case the people thought something was being done to them instead of for them, various means of social communication would be required “in preparing the faithful to welcome the reform.”

The result was implemented on March 7, 1965, with the instruction Inter Oecumenici . Busy hands then set to work in their laboratory to introduce the “broad innovations” that the author says were desired by the council. Some of these matched propositions of the 1786 Synod of Pistoia that Pius VI condemned for its Jansenism. These included vernacularism, elimination of side altars, didactic ceremonial, and astringency of symbols. The versus populum ­posture of the celebrant was taken for granted in the romantic archeologism that Pius XII warned against in Mediator Dei . Translation of the ­lectionary gradually expanded to a practical neglect of Latin. Regrettably, the author seems to take an unedifying satisfaction in how the Congregation for Rites was “marginalized” and “now had to submit to the authority of the Consilium and accept its reform unconditionally.”

To resolve questions between ­plenary meetings, seven bishops of “Consilium Presidentiae” were elected: They were “among the most open-minded and supportive of the Consilium’s role. None of them belonged to the Roman Curia.” In fact, there seem to have been few if any among the reformers who had been pastors. Prelacy was not lost in the move toward “noble simplicity.” Eventually, the author himself was made a titular archbishop while remaining Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations, and he fulfilled his duties diligently, but it was a clerical arrangement in tension with the council’s description in Christus Dominus of a pastoral and evangelical episcopacy.

In 1969, the apostolic constitution Sacra Rituum Congregatio divided the Congregation for Rites into a Congregation for Divine Worship and a Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and, “although Pope Paul VI founded the Congregation for Divine Worship, the idea was conceived and carried out by Bugnini. He was undoubtedly responsible for the appointment of the gentle, collaborative Cardinal Benno Gut.” This halcyon arrangement ended in 1974 with the formation of a Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which was “probably one of the first signs of a tendency to return to a preconciliar mindset that has for years now characterized the Curia’s approach. As more and more time passes since the Second Vatican Council, an event charged with such hope and desire for renewal, its distinctive contributions seem to be increasingly questioned.” These events were “witnesses to the prophetic vision as well as the limitations of [Paul VI’s] pontificate.”

Considerable erudition was at work in those years, but too often its populism overruled the people. It was like Le Corbusier sketching a new metallic Paris. Marini complains about “a certain nostalgia for the old rites.” In doing so, he contradicts Pope Benedict’s distinction between rites and uses, and he also fails to explain why nostalgia for the 1560s is inferior to nostalgia for the 1960s, except for the dentistry.

The editors of Marini’s A Challenging Reform explain that their aim is to “keep alive” the “vision” of the Consilium, but their diction is a voice in a bunker, embittered by the failure of people to be grateful. If an organism is truly healthy, it does not need a life-support system. Before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger said plainly: “We abandoned the organic living process of growth and development over the centuries, and replaced it, as in a manufacturing process, with a process, with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.” In consequence, the fragile construction must be pumped up by multiple Gnostic-Docetic innovations such as dancing (referred to in a prescriptive text as “pious undulations”). Hula dancers at the beatification of Father Damien in 1995 hardly gave a sense of verisimilitude in Brussels. The papal flabella and burning flax having been eliminated as the detritus of imperial Rome, it was even more anachronistic to trumpet the Great Jubilee in modern Rome with costumed men affecting familiarity with the art of blowing elephant tusks.

For all its proponents’ goodness of intention, this kind of thing confuses universality with internationalism, treats the awesome as picturesque, suburbanizes the City of God, and patronizes nations and races. Explaining the ceremonial invented for the papal visit to the people of Mexico in 2002, Marini spoke of “respect for the indigenous” and told an interviewer: “Just as we use holy water, which for us recalls the waters of baptism, forgiveness of sin, and the resurrection, so for them this element of smoke can have a sense of liberation and forgiveness.”

Acts deracinated from the Divine Drama risk becoming the sort of baroque theatre Louis Bouyer disdained in the operatics of an earlier century. As Ratzinger said, “It is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.” Cult becomes cabaret and applause usurps amen.

Perhaps greater contact with pastoral reality would have anticipated the chaos that comes when ardent but misbegotten theories are imposed on the people of God who do not regularly read Notitiae . The blithe obliviousness of many experts to damage all around them is, nonetheless, breathtaking. At times in various lands it is like watching a venerable procession of Alcuin, Ivo of Chartres, Gueranger, Fortescue, and Jungmann and finding, at the end Inspector Clouseau.

Those entrusted with so great a project as the Second Vatican Council would have done better had they not felt obliged to act with such haste. One problem in the frantic rush for deadlines was the inconvenience of the Italian postal system. There will never be another ecumenical council without email.

Rev. George W. Rutler is pastor of the Church of Our Saviour in New York City and the author of Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections.