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How much of the postconciliar liturgical reform truly reflects Sacrosanctum Concilium , the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy? This is a question that has been debated in ecclesial circles ever since the Consilium ad Exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia, the group charged with implementing Vatican II’s changes, finished its work in 1970. The question has been debated with even greater intensity in the last few decades. And while some have argued that what was done by the Consilium was indeed in line with that great document Sacrosanctum Concilium , others have disagreed.

In the search for an answer, we must take into account the turbulent mood of the years that immediately followed the council. In his decision to convoke the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII wished the Church to be prepared for the new world that was emerging in the aftermath of the disastrous events of the Second World War. He prophetically foresaw the emergence of a strong current of materialism and secularism from the core orientations of the preceding era, which had been marked by the spirit of the Enlightenment and in which the traditional values of the old worldview had already begun to be shaken.

The Industrial Revolution—along with its strongly anthropocentric and subjectivist philosophical trends, especially those resulting from the influences of Kant, Hume, and Hegel—led to the emergence of Marxism and positivism. It also led to the ascendance of biblical criticism (relativizing, to a certain extent, the Holy Scriptures), which in turn had negative influences on theology, generating a questioning attitude about the objectivity of established truth and the usefulness of defending ecclesial traditions and institutions. Some schools of theology were bold enough even to question basic doctrines of the Church. It is against this background that John XXIII felt that more convincing answers needed to be found.

The call for aggiornamento by the pope thus assumed the character of a search for a fortification of the faith in order to render the mission of the Church more effective and more able to respond to modern challenges convincingly. It was certainly not a call to go along with the spirit of the times, a sort of drifting passively along, nor was it a call to effect a new start to the Church. It was a call to render the message of the gospel even more responsive to the difficult questions mankind would face in the new era. The pope explained what lay behind his decision when he stated:

Today the Church is witnessing a crisis under way within society. While humanity is on the edge of a new era, tasks of immense gravity and amplitude await the Church, as in the most tragic periods of its history. It is a question in fact of bringing the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the gospel . . . . In the face of this twofold spectacle—a world which reveals a grave state of spiritual poverty and the Church of Christ, which is still so vibrant with vitality—we . . . have felt immediately the urgency of the duty to call our sons together to give the Church the possibility to contribute more efficaciously to the solution of the problems of the modern age.

Indeed, the pope went on, “the forthcoming council will meet therefore at a moment in which the Church finds very alive the desire to fortify its faith and to contemplate itself in its own awe-inspiring unity. In the same way, it feels the urgent duty to give greater efficiency to its sound vitality and to promote the sanctification of its members, the diffusion of revealed truth, the consolidation of its agencies.”

Underlying these words was the sense of appreciation the pope felt toward what the Church already was. The words “vibrant with vitality,” used by John XXIII to define the status of the Church at that moment, surely do not betray any sense of pessimism, as though he looked down on the past or what the Church had achieved until then. One cannot justifiably think that, with the council, the pope called for a new beginning. Neither was it a call to the Church to declassify itself, changing or giving up its age-old traditions so it might be absorbed into the reality of the world around. In no way was change to be made for the sake of change but only to make the Church stronger and better prepared to face new challenges. In short, the council was never to be an aimless adventure. It was intended to be a truly pentecostal experience.

Yet, however much the popes who guided this event insisted on the need for a true spirit of reform, faithful to the essential nature of the Church, and even if the council itself produced such beautiful theological and pastoral reflections as Lumen Gentium , Dei Verbum , Gaudium et Spes , and Sacrosanctum Concilium , what happened outside the council—especially within the society at large and the circle of its philosophical and cultural leadership—began to influence it negatively, creating tendencies that were harmful to its life and mission.

These tendencies, which at times were even more virulently represented by certain circles within the Church, were not necessarily connected to the orientations or recommendations of the documents of Vatican II. Yet they were able to shake the foundations of ecclesial teaching and faith to a surprising extent. Society’s fascination with an exaggerated sense of individual freedom—and its penchant for the rejection of anything permanent, absolute, or otherworldly—had its influence on the Church and often was justified in the name of the council.

This view also relativized tradition, the veracity of evolved doctrine, and it tended to idolize anything new. It contained within itself strong tendencies favorable to relativism and religious syncretism, which saw the council as a sort of new beginning for the Church, because the past had overrun its course. Such basic concepts and themes as sacrifice and redemption, mission, proclamation and conversion, adoration as an integral element of communion, and the need of the Church for salvation—all were sidelined, while dialogue, inculturation, ecumenism, Eucharist as banquet, and evangelization as witness became more important. Absolute values were disdained.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had this to say on the ever increasing spirit of relativism: “Already during its sessions and then increasingly in the subsequent period, [the true council] was opposed by a self-styled “Spirit of the Council,’ which in reality is a true “anti-spirit’ of the council. According to this pernicious anti-spirit, everything that is “new’ . . . is always and in every case better than what has been or what is. It is the anti-spirit according to which the history of the Church would first begin with Vatican II, viewed as a kind of point zero.”

“Vatican II surely did not want “to change’ the faith,” he wrote, “but to represent it in a more effective way.” And he affirmed that, in fact, “the council did not take the turn that John XXIII had expected.” He further stated, “It must also be admitted that, in respect to the whole Church, the prayer of Pope John that the council signify a new leap forward for the Church, to renewed life and unity, has not—at least not yet—been granted.”

These are hard words indeed, yet, I would say, very true, for that spirit of exaggerated theological freedom hijacked the council away from its declared goals. The Consilium ad Exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia too was not exempt from being influenced by this overwhelming tidal wave of a so-called desire for change and openness. Possibly some of the relativizing tendencies influenced the liturgy too, undermining the centrality, the sacredness, the sense of mystery, as well as the value of what the continuous action of the Holy Spirit in the bimillennial history of the Church had helped ecclesial liturgical life to grow into.

An exaggerated sense of antiquarianism, anthropologism, confusion of roles between the ordained and the nonordained, a limitless provision of space for experimentation—and, indeed, the tendency to look down on some aspects of the development of the liturgy in the second millennium—were increasingly visible among certain liturgical schools. Liturgists had also tended to pick and choose sections of Sacrosanctum Concilium that seemed to be more accommodating to change or novelty, while ignoring others. Besides, there was a great sense of hurry to effect and legalize changes. Much space tended to be provided for a rather horizontalist way of looking at the liturgy. Norms of the council that tended to restrict such creativity or that were favorable to the traditional way seemed to be ignored.

Worse still, some practices that Sacrosanctum Concilium had never contemplated were allowed into the liturgy, such as saying the Mass versus populum , Holy Communion on the hand, altogether giving up on Latin and Gregorian Chant in favor of the vernacular and songs and hymns without much space for God, and extension beyond any reasonable limits of the faculty to concelebrate at Holy Mass. There was also the gross misinterpretation
of the principle of “active participation” ( actuosa participatio ).

All of this had its effect on the work of the Consilium. Those who guided the process of change both within the Consilium and later in the Sacred Congregation of Rites were certainly influenced by these novel tendencies. Not everything they introduced was negative. Much of the work was praiseworthy. But much room was also left for experimentation and arbitrary interpretation. These freedoms were exploited to their fullest extent by some liturgical experts, leading to much confusion.

Cardinal Ratzinger explains how “one shudders at the lackluster face of the postconciliar liturgy as it has become, or one is bored with its banality and its lack of artistic standards.” This is not to lay the responsibility for what happened solely on the members of the Consilium. But some of their approaches were weak. There indeed was a general spirit of uncritical giving in on certain matters to the rabble-rousing spirit of the era, even within the Church (most visibly in some sectors and geographic regions). Some of those in authority at the level of the Sacred Congregation of Rites also showed signs of weakness in this matter. Too many indults were given on certain requirements of the norms.

Naturally the “spirit of freedom” that some of these powerful sectors within the Church unleashed in the name of the council, even causing the important decision makers to vacillate, led to much disorder and confusion, something that neither the council nor the popes who guided it ever intended. The sad comment made by Paul VI during the troubled 1970s that “the smoke of Satan has entered the Church,” and his comment on the excuses made by some to impede evangelization “on the basis of such and such a teaching of the council,” show how this anti-spirit of the council rendered his labors most painful.

In the light of all this, and of some of the troublesome consequences for the Church today, it is necessary to find out how the postconciliar liturgical reform did emerge and which figures or attitudes caused the present situation. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger analyzed the situation thus: “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy . . . . When the community of faith, the worldwide unity of the Church and her history and the mystery of the living Christ are no longer visible in the liturgy, where else, then, is the Church to become visible in her spiritual essence? Then the community is celebrating only itself, an activity that is utterly fruitless.”

Certain weaknesses of those responsible and the stormy atmosphere of theological relativism—coupled with the sense of fascination with novelty, change, man-centeredness, and accent on subjectivity and moral relativism as well as on individual freedom, all of which characterized the society at large—undermined the fixed values of the faith and caused this slide into liturgical anarchy.

The role played in the reform movement by Ferdinando Cardinal Antonelli, one of the most eminent and closely involved members of the Consilium who supervised the reform process, seems to have been largely unknown until Monsignor Nicola Giampietro came across his personal agenda notes and decided to present them in a study. The publication in English of this interesting study will, I am sure, contribute greatly to the ongoing debate on the postconciliar liturgical reforms.

What is most clear to any reader of Giampietro’s True Development of the Liturgy is that, as Cardinal Ratzinger stated, “the true time of Vatican II has not yet come.” The reform has to go on. The immediate need seems to be that of a reform of the Missal of 1969, for quite a number of changes originating within the postconciliar reform seem to have been introduced somewhat hastily and unreflectively, as Cardinal Antonelli himself repeatedly stated. The change must be made to fall in line with Sacrosanctum Concilium itself, and it must indeed go even further, keeping with the spirit of our own times.

What urges such changes is not merely a desire to correct past mistakes but much more the need to be true to what liturgy in fact is and means to us and what the council defined it to be. What we need today is not only to engage ourselves in an honest appraisal of what happened but also to take bold and courageous steps in moving the process along. We need to identify and correct the erroneous orientations and decisions, appreciate the liturgical tradition of the past courageously, and ensure that the Church rediscovers the true roots of its spiritual wealth and grandeur, even if that means reforming the reform itself, thereby ensuring that liturgy truly becomes what Pope Benedict called the “sublime expression of God’s glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth.”

Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith is secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome. This essay is adapted from his foreword to Nicola Giampietro’s True Development of the Liturgy , published by Roman Catholic Books .