50 years on, a fascinating glimpse of how liturgical reform became a juggernaut

A Mass facing the people, with the tabernacle attached to the altar:

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium, signed by both the Prefect of the soon-to-be abolished Sacred Congregation of Rites, and the President of the Concilium, the temporary institution in charge of the liturgical reform. It now represents a fascinating snapshot of a fast-moving action sequence.

In 1967 the Novus Ordo Missae, the New Order of Mass, did not yet exist, although a thoroughgoing reform had been promised since the 1955 Holy Week reforms. Eucharisticum Mysterium is one of a long series of documents making preparatory tweaks to how Mass should be celebrated, in preparation for the big day when the new Mass would be revealed to the world.

Accordingly, some passages refer to transitional arrangements which would strike Catholics today (and also, perhaps, at the time) as downright absurd, such as allowing the celebration of Mass “facing the people” at altars with a tabernacle fixed to them, “provided this is small yet adequate” (54). This was an attempt to square Pope Pius XII’s impassioned defence of the union of altar and tabernacle, as recently as 1956, with the fashion for celebration “facing the people” – which, although not even mentioned by Vatican II, was permitted and encouraged in official documents before the Council was concluded, in 1964 (Inter Oecumenici). By 1967, Pius XII was a fading memory, and a separate “Blessed Sacrament Chapel” is given as the preferred option.

A major concern of the document is with concelebration. Vatican II’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctam Concilium, permitted it in a series of rather limited cases (in section 57), but in Eucharisticum Mysterium it seems almost mandatory whenever two priests are in the same place at the same time (47):

Concelebration both symbolises and strengthens the brotherly bond of the priesthood, because “by virtue of the ordination to the priesthood which they have in common, all are bound together in an intimate brotherhood.” The competent superiors should, therefore, facilitate and indeed positively encourage concelebration, whenever pastoral needs or other reasonable motives do not prevent it.

As well as the argument about the “brotherly bond of the priesthood”, which is mentioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium, concelebration is seen as a way of enabling priests to act specifically as priests in a Mass they are attending (43), and to prevent what the document deplores – the simultaneous celebration of different Masses in the same church – on the grounds that it might be “distracting”.

In this way was excluded the beautiful example of priests assisting each other’s celebration of Mass, acting as deacon or subdeacon at High Mass, assisting “in choir”, or even serving each other’s private Masses, which once demonstrated the brotherhood of the priesthood in a somewhat different way. Ended, also, was the sight of priests in parishes and communities celebrating Low Masses at side altars, offering a contrasting, intimate liturgical experience for early risers and, of course, for altar boys, to the main, more solemn Mass of the day, once such a marked feature of Catholic spirituality.

The Second Vatican Council’s claim that concelebration “has remained in use to this day in the Church both in the East and in the West” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 57) is an example of a claim of historical fact in no way guaranteed by the gift of infallibility. Even so sympathetic a historian as Archdale King, whose Concelebration in the Christian Church was published in 1966, was able to provide only the most limited historical examples of real, sacramental concelebration in the West, and these always involved the Pope as principal celebrant. In either West or East, concelebration by priests without a bishop must be recognised for what it is: a complete innovation.

Concelebration also seems to conflict with another concern of Eucharisticum Mysterium, that of countering the attack by liturgical progressives on Masses celebrated without the faithful. It notes that priests are strongly encouraged to celebrate Mass every day (44), and that (3 d):

…no Mass, indeed no liturgical action, is a purely private action, but rather a celebration of the Church as a society composed of different orders and ministries…

The sense that there is no point in a priest celebrating Mass if there is no pastoral need for it is encouraged by the practice of concelebration, when only one Mass is celebrated by a whole group of priests.

This is not the only rearguard action against fashionable ideas in the document. It goes to considerable lengths to defend Eucharistic adoration (3 f), even though it forbids the long-standing practice of the celebration of Mass in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed (61); while discussing the re-ordering of churches, it makes the forlorn plea that “care will be taken not to destroy treasures of sacred art” (24); and it places the sacrificial nature of the Mass first, before its description as a “memorial” and as a “sacred banquet” (3 a).

The problem, in all these cases, is that the speed of change by 1967 was so great, with one set of detailed instructions being replaced by another every two or three years, that the direction in which they appeared to be heading took on greater significance than their precise contents. It is hardly surprising that this process led to a breakdown of liturgical discipline: once started, the juggernaut of change could not so easily be stopped.

Joseph Shaw is Chairman of the Latin Mass Society