Pope Francis’s recent address on the liturgy – about which he has hitherto said little – was striking for its conventionality. In almost every respect, the Pope’s speech hews to the official, post-Vatican II line. It emphasises the continuity of the post-conciliar reform with the efforts of Pius X and XII; it praises the reform for its “vitality”; it condemns liturgical abuses (“deformations”); and it calls for an end to liturgical conflict.
But it has raised eyebrows for its rejection of the possibility of revisiting the “decisions” of the reform in light of its “inspirational principles”: an explicit rejection of the “Reform of the Reform” project, which seeks to go back to the Council documents and do the reform again, better. This should be no surprise. In the official mindset, the reform was perfect and was marred only by liturgical abuses. Liturgical progressives should note that the account of the liturgy which follows is entirely traditional, focusing on the altar, the Sacrifice of the Mass, and the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, not even mentioning the Last Supper, the Mass as a shared meal or the liturgy as an affirmation of community.
Pope Francis quotes, and makes his own, Pope Paul VI’s 1977 plea for liturgical bickering to stop. Forty years on, the squabbling has not not gone away, and it is doubtful that official affirmations that no changes are necessary are going to be sufficient to quieten it, as both sides of the argument seem to be winning, in the terms they most care about.
The progressives’ campaign of liturgical abuses has scored victory after victory, as rules have been changed to correspond with practice: highlights include Communion in the hand (1969), female servers (1992) and the washing of women’s feet on Maundy Thursday (2016).
On the other hand, the official reform was justified by reference to historical and liturgical principles, and conservative scholars have won a series of arguments undermining those. No one can seriously claim today, for example, that celebration “facing the people” was near universal in the early Church. Again, the assumption that earlier historical forms of a rite are invariably simpler than later forms has long passed out of fashion.
The process of questioning the scholarship behind official reforms had, in fact, begun even before 1969. Vatican II itself implicitly rejected Pius XII’s new Latin Psalter, and the new Holy Week reversed the 1955 cutting of the number of readings in the Easter Vigil from 12 to four. Pope Francis acknowledges the role of liturgical scholarship in his address, but its conclusions don’t always align with past official decisions.
As the gap between everyday liturgical reality and what can be justified historically and theologically has widened, the case for a “Reform of the Reform” has seemed ever more attractive. But just as Paul VI tried to draw a line under the liturgical upheavals of the preceding 20 years in 1977, Pope Francis has no intention of ushering in another such period today.
Rather than throw every parish into confusion with a new top-down reform, it is better to foster the existing liturgical pluralism, which includes the reformed Roman Rite, the Ordinariate Use, the growing presence of Eastern Catholic Rites, and the pre-conciliar Latin liturgy, now widely available once more. Among these, surely, we have something for everyone.
Pope Francis’s claim that the reform can be made “irreversible” by papal fiat is a strange one: if one pope can change the liturgy, so can a later one. But the tone of urgency is understandable. The liturgy should not be a battlefield: it is a table at which the Catholic soul is nourished.