Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Pope St. Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae (On Human Life).”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of an equally important part of his legacy. In November 1969, the first Sunday of Advent, the Novus Ordo Mass was first officially celebrated. To this point, the New Mass has had a greater effect on Catholic life than “Humanae Vitae,” which is more honored in the breach than in the observance. “Humanae Vitae” is a doctrine that requires the will of the faithful to live out, but the New Order of the Mass is the experience of most Catholics, regardless.

For English readers, a new translation of the engrossing book Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy (Angelico Press, Brooklyn, 2018), is now available. Yves Chiron chronicles the influential liturgist’s life, showing the power struggles behind the Second Vatican Council and how Fr. Bugnini went from a priest in a poor Roman parish to become a secretary of the Consilium (Committee for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). From that post, he was able to manage the reformation of the liturgy of the Latin Mass.

Chiron has authored biographies of Popes Pius IX, Pius X, Pius XI and Paul VI, so his biography of the lesser-known Bugnini fits within his lengthy papal chronicles. He is a French author well-versed in the study of religion who makes a surprisingly unbiased biography of a divisive person. He depicts Bugnini neither as a heroic reformer nor a comic-book villain, but as a human being and man of his time. It is a fraught subject he handles skillfully.

Though Fr. Bugnini served as a secretary, lacking the status of a cardinal, he wielded power in his own way. Chiron illustrates what was called the “Bugnini method” — having select groups work on restricted subjects, vote rarely at plenary meetings, and delay bold proposals until later. As Fr. Bugnini himself put it in an October meeting at the Domus Mariae, “Let the door remain open to legitimate and possible postconciliar deductions and applications: let nothing be said that suggests excessive novelty and might invalidate all the rest, even what is straightforward and harmless. We must proceed discreetly.” Discretion, for Fr. Bugnini, was the better part of valor. Evidently, his previous work as a participant in the reforms of Holy Week and Pentecost under Pius XII in the 1950s had been successful. It seems he honed his management skills to revolutionize worship. So issues considered controversial at the time — concelebration, Communion in the hand, Mass in the vernacular facing the people — were shelved until later.

Throughout his book, Chiron shows that Fr. Bugnini was hardly alone in his quest to “reform” the liturgy. He found a willing collaborator in Pope St. Paul VI who, as Archbishop of Milan, considered Latin an obstacle to evangelization. In the Wednesday audience, “Changes in Mass for Greater Apostolate” (November 1969), he said, “If the divine Latin language kept us apart from the children, from youth, from the world of labor and of affairs, if it were a dark screen, not a clear window, would it be right for us fishers of souls to maintain it as the exclusive language of prayer and religious intercourse?”

For Fr. Bugnini as well, “active” participation was a priority, beginning in his parish days in Rome. For him, active participation was neither interior nor spiritual. It meant engaging in “call and response” with the liturgy.

In his memoirs he wrote, “I suddenly wondered: how could I have this people, with their elementary religious instruction, participate in the Mass? Above all, how could I make the children participate?” He detailed his method of using Latin and Italian signposts as cues. He concluded, “I knew that I had found the formula: the people willingly followed the Mass. The ‘inert and mute’ assembly had been transformed into a living and prayerful assembly.”

The concept of “living and prayerful assembly” looks tragic in retrospect; it led to a collapse on every front. And soon after the “New Mass” was promulgated, a 1971 petition in the London Times, signed by high-profile personalities such as Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene and Yehudi Menuhin, called for the survival of the Tridentine Mass. The response of intellectuals and artists is forgotten now, but at the time, it must have stung the reformers. The exile of the average laity, however, seems to have never given the reformers a second’s remorse; it you didn’t “get it,” you didn’t deserve to be in the club.

Chiron’s book also explains particular quirks of the New Mass, such as the removal of saints from the canon, the excision of the Last Gospel, and why there is a three-year cycle of Scriptural readings. He goes into detail about various “experimental” Masses, surveys and consultation with periti (experts) — the Mass, like a movie, had test screenings. There is the story of Fr. Louis Bouyer and Dom Botte, given a 24-hour deadline to compose the Second Eucharistic Prayer, hastily writing it up in a Roman café. It is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.

Paul VI declared it necessary to sacrifice Latin for the sake of evangelization, but was aghast when people engaged in novelties with the Mass. He endorsed the New Mass, which put the highest prayer of the Church in the hands of committees, but again was shocked when people engaged in liturgical abuses.

Perhaps fearful of his success, Fr. Bugnini intervened on behalf of the so-called “Agatha Christie indult,” so Catholics in Great Britain could still have their immemorial Mass. And he defended the SSPX, when Paul VI seemed to be on the verge of outlawing the Tridentine Mass outright. A total prohibition was a bridge too far; it obviously raised the issue of the Church’s wisdom until the epiphany of the 1960s. Bugnini, apparently, was sensitive to the possibility of backlash, and wanted the reforms to be seen as “restorations” and moderate.

Nonetheless, the “New Mass” was a seismic shift. For those who witnessed it, it was as if their Church changed overnight. In a General Audience in November 1969, Paul VI declared, “It (Novus Ordo) is intended to interest each one of those present, to draw them out of their customary personal devotions or their usual torpor. We must be prepared for this many-sided inconvenience. It is the kind of upset caused by every novelty that breaks in on our habits. We shall notice that pious persons are disturbed most, because they have their own respectable way of hearing Mass, and they will feel shaken out of their usual thoughts and obliged to follow those of others.” Some were so shaken they left the Church as a result. If the Mass wasn’t sacred, what was?

At the time, the “defection” of so many, lay and religious alike, was blamed on their own lack of faith and loyalty. If they didn’t appreciate the New Mass, they lacked true understanding, real reverence and the virtue of religion; it was their fault. And good riddance! A half-century on, it looks more like blaming the victims.

At the time, it seemed to those who didn’t appreciate the changes that the liturgy wasn’t being taken seriously; worship was no longer a sacred gift from God, organically developing over the ages, but a tool for other projects like catechesis, evangelization, “community.” Making the Mass “relevant” to “modern man” came across as a desperate attempt to be “cool.”

The book does not discuss the aftermath of Bugnini’s efforts in detail, but strictly focuses on his life and work. His tombstone in Rome speaks of his love for the liturgy and service to the Church. Chiron paints him as an average man with a particular vision of a “participatory” Church who found himself in the extraordinary circumstance of leadership at a critical time. His genius seems to have been the management of proud academic experts, a great manipulator.

One is left wondering if Bugnini was simply a banal Vatican bureaucrat, or whether his motives were less than holy. Nonetheless, Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy is a compelling, thought-provoking book. Readers get a sense of how the “source and summit” of our faith has come to its present state, and that this situation was by no means inevitable.

Fifty years on, we have the perspective of time. This book inspires profound reflection on the state of worship in our Church today. Bugnini and his colleagues have left us an inheritance that leads one to think of Our Lord’s warning: “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16).