Liturgical Reform in the Catholic Church and the Second Vatican Council

COMMENTARY: Reflections on Bishop James Conley and the Vatican’s recent document on the sacraments, liturgical renewal and the Eucharistic revival.

Bishop James Conley leads a eucharistic procession outside Lincoln's Cathedral of the Risen Christ, one of the passport pilgrimage sites.
Bishop James Conley leads a eucharistic procession outside Lincoln's Cathedral of the Risen Christ, one of the passport pilgrimage sites. (photo: Diocese of Lincoln / Diocese of Lincoln)

A document recently published by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (Gestis Verbisque), which deals with the proper celebration of the sacraments, has raised yet again the problem of liturgical abuses in the Church.

It has also renewed the seemingly endless debates about the wisdom of the post-Vatican II liturgical renewal — a renewal that has its fervent adherents and its fevered opponents. How fortuitous it was then that I had already scheduled an interview on my podcast concerning the Eucharistic liturgy with Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska. As usual, Bishop Conley offered some wonderful insights and suggestions.

I should point out that Bishop Conley has been a friend of mine dating back to our days in the seminary together. We were both concerned about the crisis of faith in the post-conciliar Church and shared a common love for the Church’s sacred traditions concerning the liturgy. It was only natural therefore that in setting up this interview, we both agreed that the topic should focus on the ongoing need for a “reform of the reform” of the liturgy.

A convert to Catholicism from Protestantism, Bishop Conley discovered the beauty of the faith while a student at the University of Kansas in the late ’70s participating in the renowned “Integrated Humanities Program” run by John Senior (along with Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick). It was central to the mission of that program to reinvigorate the poetic imagination and sense of deep wonder in students as a kind of praeambula fidei wherein a proper sense of the beauty and order of creation was restored. This sense included the importance of worship as the terminal and highest act of a rational mind that is seeking the truth about existence.

It is no accident therefore that Bishop Conley has believed steadfastly since those days that the Catholic Mass is the most noble act imaginable, since it is the fulfillment of the natural human desire to worship God “in spirit and in truth.”

The Mass is “true worship” and is part of God’s gift to us in Christ and cannot therefore be reduced to a mere human construct or as just one of many mythopoetic projections of the human mind. It is grounded in Revelation and is the primary post-baptismal sacramental action by which Christ is made truly contemporaneous to each era. Therefore, all mediocrity in its celebration in the name of some kind of “populism” is to be rejected tout court.

Therefore, the Mass should incorporate the best sacred art, architecture and music that the Church has to offer. To that end, the Church should avail itself of its own rich liturgical patrimony and not treat traditional forms of art and music as an allergy to be overcome with shoddy ersatz novelties in the name of “being relevant to the times.” Because, when it comes to the eternal truth liturgy is meant to convey, nothing is more irrelevant than the breathless attempts at relevance so common over the past 60 years. Nor, I would add, is there anything quite so pathetic. It is like your 50-something parents trying to act “cool” for your friends by taking on the trappings of adolescence in cringe-worthy ways.

And as we saw with the liturgical innovations through which Bishop Conley and I lived, the saddest thing of all is that in attempting to “keep up with the times” the Church always seems 30 years too late. The liturgy must be about that which is “ever ancient and ever new,” and it can achieve the latter only by grounding itself in the former. The “new” cannot be the fugacious “newness” of fad and fashion. It must instead be “new” as every sunrise is new and expressive of the freshness of the God whose eternity is for us an evergreen temporality. It is eternity in time, blessing and elevating time, and which writes into the transitoriness of our temporality that point of contact with the divine that only Christ can bring.

Along these lines, Bishop Conley links together the need for beautiful and sacred liturgy with the much-ballyhooed and now a bit shopworn notion of “the new evangelization.” Bishop Conley makes it clear in the interview that there can be no true evangelization, and therefore there can be no true “Eucharistic revival,” absent a rejuvenation of the liturgy and its restoration to the center point of absolutely everything we do as Catholics. And for him, this is a non-negotiable truth.

He goes on to emphasize that this liturgical renewal must keep in view that evangelization today cannot be about “maintaining” the status quo Catholicism that is so much in decline. It must be “missional” and unafraid to proclaim the full truth about the Eucharistic liturgy without apology or attenuation. He points out that the axiom, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith) is still our guiding norm and a shoddiness in the liturgy is not just a symptom of a lukewarm faith but is also the generator of great corruptions in the Church that extend beyond the liturgy.

In his analysis of the reforms of Vatican II, Bishop Conley notes that there were two main themes that the Council fathers sought to develop: active participation and simplification. He agrees that there was a need to involve the faithful more actively in the liturgy beyond silent contemplation, although he thinks we have now erred too far in the opposite direction. And he further agrees that there was a need for some simplification of the Mass since the rubrics had become too “thick” in an obtrusive way.

But even here he acknowledges that this thickness was perhaps to be preferred over the freewheeling “creativity” so often on display in modern liturgies. In short, he agrees that a reform of the liturgy was needed but thinks that the reform that we got is itself in need of a further reform that would include a return to many elements of the traditional liturgy.

He laments the fact that too many today ignore the century-long liturgical movement that led up to the Council as the most proper context for interpreting its wishes. And he views this movement as stretching back into the 19th century with such noteworthy figures as Dom Prosper Guéranger, who reinvigorated Benedictine monasticism in France after the revolution had wiped it out and whose promotion of the liturgy, beginning at Solesmes and spreading out across France, combined the venerable traditional liturgy with a few noteworthy changes.

Viewed in the light of such theological moorings, the Council becomes more understandable and the post-conciliar reform a bit less. While sincerely and strongly affirming the full legitimacy of the Mass of Paul VI, and of our need to obey Holy Mother Church in matters of liturgical discipline, he acknowledges that there are things that would be better if changed.

For example, whenever it is possible, Bishop Conley says Mass (the Novus Ordo) facing the same direction as the people (ad orientem) which he thinks makes the liturgy less “clericalistic,” in the bad sense of that term, by emphasizing that the priest is leading the people “up the mountain” to God. It is therefore simply more eschatological and explicitly Christological to adopt an ad orientem posture. He has also mandated that all new churches built in the diocese must have altar rails, and any older church that is being renovated must include new altar rails.

He goes on to say that we need to recover the use of more Latin in the liturgy, Communion on the tongue while kneeling, and bells and incense, and to restore the rich musical patrimony of the Church. In this regard, he has specific praise for the work being done by the Benedict XVI Institute and the founder and CEO of “Source and Summit,” Adam Bartlett, whose work is second to none at restoring the Church’s musical traditions.

Let’s all continue to pray for a Eucharistic revival, for liturgical renewal, and for Bishop James Conley and his pastoral efforts in the Diocese of Lincoln.