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A biography of Bugnini paints a startling picture

Many facts once dismissed as conspiracy theories are shown to be historically accurate

For Christmas I was given a copy of the newly translated biography of Annibale Bugnini, architect of the Novus Ordo Mass – and hero or éminence grise of the Council’s liturgical reforms, depending on your viewpoint. It is difficult not to tend towards the latter, though I don’t think the author intends it so.

Startling things emerge: many facts once dismissed as conspiracy theories because they were originally reported by those who opposed some reforms are here held to be historically accurate, perhaps the most notorious being the revelation that Eucharistic Prayer II was substantially composed in a Roman trattoria, since its authors were given only 24 hours for the task.

The tenuous thesis that the liturgical landscape of today is a direct outcome of the Council Fathers’ deliberations doesn’t survive a reading of this book. I suppose it is possible that the Holy Spirit, who blows where He wills, can work through the manipulations of committees, but it seems it is to such manipulations that we owe much of the reform. Consider the following facts recounted in the text.

When Pope John called the Council he set up an ante-preparatory commission to survey the world’s bishops. The replies to this committee (of which Mgr Bugnini was the secretary) reveal a desire to reform the liturgy. In what sense? Out of 2,109 responses from bishops, just three expressed the desire to restore Communion under both kinds. There was a sizeable demand for limited use of the vernacular, but only one French bishop wanted the entire Mass in French. Cardinal Montini (later Pope Paul VI) argued forcibly for “an extended use” of the vernacular, saying that “unless we do so the faithful will leave the churches.’’

In fact the limited use of the vernacular (because the Fathers naively thought that’s what they would get) was so uncontroversial that even a French missionary bishop, Marcel Lefevbre, voted for it. How has this filtered down as the mantra that the Council “did away with” Latin?

And how did we end up with a pastoral reality that in so many ways contradicts what the Constitution of the Ecumenical Council says, or guards with rubricist rigidity things never sanctioned by the liturgical reforms? And why the continuing attempts to marginalise anyone or anything having recourse to the directives of the Council’s Liturgical Constitution?

For example, I recently visited a religious house where I was told that plainchant is banned. The Constitution says it is to occupy “pride of place” in the Roman liturgy, but if you suggested reintroducing it you would be accused of wanting to “turn the clock back”. Yes, to the very point at which the Church said reform begins.

Ask for how to get to somewhere in rural Ireland and your interlocutor will reply, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.” It is clear that the approach of the committees responsible for preparing and implementing the liturgical Constitution took a similar approach. Many of their minutes record discussion of radical innovations like Bugnini’s own unauthorised experiments from the 1940s, and several practices which would subsequently be introduced in the name of the Council. The discussion is followed by the request to omit them from the preparatory schema for the Council or postpone specifying details until afterwards, precisely because the measures were too radical to be agreed by the bishops.

Reading this makes me angry. Perhaps Lefebvre had a point inasmuch as he realised that when it came to the liturgy, the Council was sold a pup.