Developments in the Church’s Sacred Liturgy: Highlights of the Last Decade

DECADE IN REVIEW: Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have provided the Church with guiding documents on the Latin liturgy in the last 10 years.

Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila celebrates Mass at SLS20 in Phoenix. The Fellowship of Catholic University Students event was held Dec. 30-Jan. 3 and focused on the call to be missionary disciples for Christ.
Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila celebrates Mass at SLS20 in Phoenix. The Fellowship of Catholic University Students event was held Dec. 30-Jan. 3 and focused on the call to be missionary disciples for Christ. (photo: Photo courtesy of FOCUS)

This new year marks the end of a decade in liturgical developments for the Latin Church under the watch of the decade’s two popes: Pope Benedict XVI, whose papacy stretched across the first third of the decade, and Pope Francis, whose papacy has taken us into the new decade with the dawning of 2020.

At the other end of the decade, in 2010, Pope Benedict promulgated what many consider to be the great liturgical event of that decade: the new English translation of the ordinary form of the Mass, as reflected in the third edition of both the Roman Missal and General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) — a user’s guide for properly celebrating Mass.

Also of importance to the liturgical life of the Church during the past decade has been the growing devotion to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, the rite celebrated according to the Roman Missal of 1962. This increased interest ties directly back to Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which not only allowed for the greater use of the older rite but also established once and for all that it had not been suppressed, thereby in large part resolving the controversy and perceived stigma associated with celebration of the ancient form of the Roman Rite.

During Pope Francis’ papacy, as well, there have been a number of liturgical developments that have had an impact on the way the faithful encounter the liturgy.

With Pope Francis’ approval, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments promulgated Paternas Vices, which decreed that the name of St. Joseph be included in Eucharistic Prayers II, III and IV — following after Pope John XXIII, who had inserted the saint’s name into the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) in a similar decree in 1962. Likewise, in 2016, Pope Francis issued the decree In Missa in Cena Domini, which revised the rubrics on foot washing at Mass during Holy Thursday, allowing for women to be included in the ritual along with men.

Perhaps the most momentous development related to the liturgy during Pope Francis’ reign has been his motu proprio Magnum Principium, which gave greater authority to local bishops’ conferences in the translation of liturgical texts.

According to liturgical experts interviewed for this story, all of these developments in one way or another seek to strike a balance between the unity of the faith and the diversity of its expression in the world.


New Translation

A case in point in striving for this balance is the premiere liturgical moment in the last decade: the promulgation of the third edition of the Roman Missal.

Christopher Carstens, editor of the liturgical periodical Adoremus Bulletin and an associate professor at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, told the Register that the new translation is a significant step forward in the Second Vatican Council’s vision for the liturgy.

“What the Council was trying to do,” he said, “and I would say, what any pastoral council has always tried to do — and what Christ has tried to do — is achieve a balance between the substantial unity, integrity and fullness of the faith and an appropriate accommodation to the needs of the people, especially by engaging the accessibility or participation of the people in the liturgy.”

According to Carstens, the perennial challenge of the Church has been to strike the right balance between these two needs, and the new translation of the Mass has met this challenge with great success.

“In my opinion, the new translation achieves this balance better than the old translation, which seemed to be anemic in expressing the fullness of the faith, even though it was apparently very accommodating to the people,” he said. “The Council wanted to take the pre-conciliar liturgy, which in its Latin language very integrally contained and conveyed the substance of the faith; yet for most people, it was too difficult to access and engage in. The new translation achieves the better balance.”

According to Father Thomas Kocik, author of Singing His Song: A Short Introduction to the Liturgical Movement, the new translation has also helped the faithful in the past 10 years see the Church as being in the world but not of the world.

“At a time when Western society is bereft of a sense of the sacred,” he said, “it is all the more urgent to reclaim a deferential tone when addressing the all-holy God who is fearsome even as he establishes us in his love. The liturgy should help us to acquire a deeper perception of the Mystery that is its heart and that, through beauty, speaks to our hearts and draws us into the priestly action of Christ.”


Encounter With Christ

Over the past decade, the new translation also brought with it an opportunity for a renewed understanding of the Mass for priests in their work from the pulpit, said Father Denis Gill, director of the Office for Divine Worship of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and professor of sacred liturgy at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia.

“Once there was the more faithful translation of the Latin text, not only did it change the sound of the prayer, but it also brought forward the theology of the prayer more completely — and that has had an impact on the way people are praying and preaching.”

Pointing to the Collects offered during Christmas and Epiphany — such as the Collect for Mass on Christmas Day: “O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity” — Father Gill noted that the precision of the translation provides pastors an opportunity to explicate the prayer for the benefit of the faithful.

“All throughout this past Christmastime,” Father Gill said, “we heard in the Collects about the divine exchange that’s happened, with Jesus taking on our humanity and sharing with us his divinity.”

For the faithful, too, Father Gill noted, the refined text of the Mass has provided over the past decade special points of emphasis missing in the older translations.

“There is a more precise and careful translation from Latin to English, where you have repetitive phrases — such as ‘Through my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault’ — in the Confiteor, and in the Eucharistic Prayer — especially the first one — ‘This pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim.’”

“Those things emphasize a theological point,” Father Gill added, “and help people grasp through the repetition a certain seriousness or largeness of what is being said, and it helps people better understand what is taking place.”


Summorum Pontificum

Pope Benedict also sought to bring greater balance to the Church’s liturgy through a revitalization of the Mass according to the Rite of 1962 in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which, by freeing up the older rite, sought to achieve a certain mutual enrichment between the two forms of the rite.

Although Summorum Pontificum had been promulgated in 2007, its fruits were realized in concrete terms during this past decade with the growing devotion among the faithful to the extraordinary form of the Mass. As one indication of this increased interest, this past October, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which celebrates the extraordinary form as a central part of its apostolate, noted remarkable growth among its parishes in its annual census report.

“Halfway through the FSSP’s annual October census, Fraternity parishes and chapels around the country report major increases in Sunday Mass attendance compared with last year,” the FSSP report stated. The report also noted in particular the ballooning numbers over the past decade in Los Angeles and San Diego parishes.

“St. Anne parish, our apostolate in San Diego, for example, was established in 2008, and despite having a small church that can seat approximately 200 adults, had reached more than 800 parishioners by 2018, with three priests offering five Sunday Masses. Now, they are averaging over 1,000.”

According to Father Kocik, the rising interest in the extraordinary form speaks volumes about the faithful’s understanding of and love for the liturgy.

“People seek out the traditional liturgy because they are looking for ‘more,’ for greater decorum and for a deeper sense of the transcendent, of manifestly God-centered worship, which is greatly facilitated by ad orientem celebration,” he said. 

The document has also had an effect on the rising generation of the faithful. In the last 10 years, Liturgical Institute professor Lynn Boughton has seen Summorum Pontificum have a profound influence on the seminarians, laity and clergy in her classroom.

“As a teacher,” she said, “what I've found is that students recognize and understand more fruitfully the structure of the newer form by seeing how it derives from the traditional form.”

Father Gill noted that his students at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary “are more conversant about both forms of the rite today than they were even five years ago,” and they discuss the extraordinary form, he added, “without any kind of stigma — and that’s healthy.”

In the last decade and a half since Summorum Pontificum was promulgated, Father Gill said, “there’s a greater peace insofar as there are within the Roman Rite two forms. That’s come about because people have become more familiar with using the older form and recognizing that it’s not breaking down the reform of the liturgy in any way. In the end, it will help support what is strong in the reform and assist what is weak.”


Magnum Principium

While pastoral and ecological concerns have more clearly defined Pope Francis’ papacy in the last half of the previous decade, near the close of that same decade, the Holy Father issued what many consider a major liturgical document, the 2017 motu proprio Magnum Principium, which revised canon law to reflect a greater role for local bishops’ conferences in translating liturgical texts.

 “What Magnum Principium tried to do was give the conferences of bishops a primary role in the translation of the text,” Father Gill said, “with the Holy See confirming the translation.”

Magnum Principium is consistent with Pope Francis’ efforts to decentralize the Church, at least in its administrative capacity. Indeed, according to Carstens, the document’s allowances to local bishops cut against the grain of what has traditionally been a main feature of the Latin Church: its perennial emphasis on the Western Church’s organizational unity.

“Consider the one self-governing form of the Church in the West compared to the 23 self-governing forms of the Church in the East,” he said. “There has always been a high priority on unity in the Western Church. It’s part of our patrimony, our history and our tradition.”

Like Father Gill, Carstens sees nothing inherently out of place about the decree, but he does see some potential risks in how it might be interpreted.

“Allowing too much diversity to local circumstances and cultures could very possibly wound the unity of the Church by placing too much value on local diversity,” he told the Register, “whether that local diversity is tending toward tradition or progressive, left or right. That’s the potential risk.”

With the English translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal promulgated before Magnum Principium, Carstens said, the decree has so far had minimal impact on the Church in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. But in other countries, such as most recently, France, the French bishops have translated the Roman Missal under the aegis of the revisions to Church law called for by Magnum Principium.

According to a Nov. 6, 2019, report by La Croix International, in early November, Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, confirmed the decree approving the new French translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal. According to Bishop Guy de Kermimel of Grenoble-Vienna, president of the Episcopal Commission for Liturgy and Sacramental Pastor Care for the Church in France, the new French-language missal will be ready by Advent 2020 and become mandatory in parishes in France on May 24, 2021, the feast of Mary, Help of Christians.

In the La Croix report, Bishop de Kermimel said that the new translation will help the faithful to better encounter Christ in the liturgy.

“This change will be beneficial if it helps us to better understand what we are saying,” he said, quoted by La Croix, “if it allows us to rediscover the meaning of the Eucharistic liturgy, while being aware that it will always be difficult to articulate the mystery of God with our words.”

Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.