Pope Francis: Liturgical Reform is ‘Irreversible’

The Holy Father invokes magisterial authority to say the path of liturgical reform cannot be turned back. He also says more work needs to be done in implementing the reforms, and a change of mentality is needed.

(photo: Ethika Politika)

Pope Francis today invoked his “magisterial authority” to say the liturgical reform since the Second Vatican Council is “irreversible” and that more work needs to be done to implement it, including ensuring that the “mentality of the people” is reformed.

In a significant address to participants of the 68th Italian National Liturgical Week at the Vatican, the Pope stressed that the liturgical reform did not “flourish suddenly” but was the result of a long preparation.

He recalled how Pope St. Pius X first made changes that included ordering a reorganization of sacred music and the establishment of a commission to make general reforms of the liturgy.

That project, he continued, was then taken up by Pope Pius XII with his encyclical Mediator Dei that resulted in, among other reforms, the attenuation of the Eucharistic fast, the use of contemporary language, and major changes to the Easter Vigil and Holy Week liturgies.

The reforms, the Pope continued, were then “brought to maturity, as good fruit of the tree of the Church” by the Second Vatican Council with the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. In that document, the lines of general reform “respond to real needs and to the concrete hope of a renewal,” Francis said. “It desired a living liturgy for a Church completely vivified by the mysteries celebrated.”

The liturgy, the Pope went on, quoting the Vatican Council document, should not be such that the faithful are there “as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration.”

The direction marked out by the Council, the Pope continued, found expression in the revised liturgical books promulgated by Blessed Paul VI. But “it is not enough to reform the liturgical books,” Francis said. “The mentality of the people must be reformed as well.”

The changes to liturgical books amounted to the first step in a process “that requires time, faithful reception, practical obedience, wise implementation” on the part first of the ordained ministers, but also of the other ministers and all who take part in the liturgy, he said.

“In truth, we know, the liturgical education of pastors and faithful is a challenge to be confronted again and again,” he said.

The Pope further noted that more work still needs to be done, “in particular rediscovering the reasons for decisions made by the liturgical reform, surpassing unfounded and superficial readings, partial receptions, and practices that disfigure it.”  

He said this is not a question of “rethinking the reform by reviewing its choices, but better knowing the underlying reasons, also through historical documentation, so to internalize its inspirational principles and observe the discipline that governs it.”

The Pope then insisted that following on from this magisterium of liturgical reform and its “long journey,” it is possible to say “with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.”

Reflecting on the theme of this year’s Liturgy Week – “A living Liturgy for a living Church” – Pope Francis dwelt on three points, according to Vatican Radio:

* The liturgy is “living” in virtue of the living presence of Christ; Christ is at the heart of the liturgical action.

* The liturgy is life through the whole people of God. By its nature, the liturgy is “popular” rather than clerical; it is an action for the people, but also by the people.

* The liturgy is life, and not an idea to be understood. It brings us to live an initiatory experience, a transformative experience that changes how we think and act; it is not simply a means of enriching our own set of ideas about God.

The Church, Pope Francis said, “is truly living if, forming one single living being with Christ, it is a bearer of life, it is maternal, it is missionary, going out to encounter the neighbour, careful to serve without pursuing worldly powers that render it sterile.”

The Holy Father concluded by noting that the Church in prayer, insofar as it is Catholic, “goes beyond the Roman Rite” which, although it is the largest, is by no means the only Rite within the Church.

“The harmony of the ritual traditions, of the East and of the West,” by means of the same Spirit, gives voice to the one only Church praying through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, to the glory of the Father, and for the salvation of the world.”

The Pope’s message was a forceful commitment and encouragement to bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful to continuing implementing the reforms.


Resistance to Changes

His words come as resistance to many of these changes has grown in recent years, with increasing interest, especially among young people, in the Mass celebrated before the Second Vatican Council, known as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, or the Tridentine Mass.

A major reason for this relates to liturgical abuses committed and innovations introduced over the past 50 years.

In March this year, Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, decried what has transpired since the Council.

“Certainly, some fine initiatives were taken” to promote “greater active participation” and to bring about “progress day by day in the Christian life of the faithful,” he said in a speech given in Germany.

But he added that we “cannot close our eyes to the disaster, the devastation and the schism that the modern promoters of a living liturgy caused by remodeling the Church’s liturgy according to their ideas.

“They forgot that the liturgical act is not just a prayer, but also and above all a mystery in which something is accomplished for us that we cannot fully understand but that we must accept and receive in faith, love, obedience and adoring silence,” he said.

The cardinal called for a recognition of “the serious and profound crisis” which, since the Council, has affected the liturgy by placing man and not God at the center of worship.

Last year, Cardinal Sarah asked all priests to return “as soon as possible” to celebrating Mass ad orientem, facing east rather than towards the congregation, as Mass was celebrated before the Council reforms.

He said such a reversion would be more faithful to Sacrosanctum Concilium and achieve what the Council desired.