Dominus mihi adjutor

The Magisterium and Nostalgia: Pope Francis on Liturgy

It had not been in mind to comment on the latest chapter of papagate, in which Pope Francis has declared, we are told, that the liturgical reform is irreversible. Many commentators have weighed on the papal address, not least Frs Z and Hunwicke, Christopher Altieri at Catholic World Report and Phil Lawler at Catholic Culture. Though they share the same general interpretation of the papal speech they are not identical in their approach to liturgy; so reading them together makes for a balanced orthodox approach to the situation. (Feel free to add others you have found in the comments’ section below.)

However I followed one link to the infamous Pray Tell blog, and a commentary by Fr Anthony Ruff OSB of that monastic bastion of modernism modernity, Collegeville. He approached the papal address in a rather canny way, by examining its sources. He gives a running score of the sources cited in both the text proper and its footnotes. His tally is tabulated thus:In the text:

In the footnotes:

Apart from the Council documents—though note the majority are not from the decree on the liturgy—the single source Pope Francis cites most often is himself. Fr Ruff makes no reference to this but it seems very illustrative of the papal approach to matters: Pope Francis is very much his own authority.

What Fr Ruff does conclude from these citations is,

By his choice of what sources to use, and also what sources not to use, Pope Francis has given renewed strength to the narrative which has guided mainline liturgical reform and renewal in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council…

In this mainline narrative, which Francis has affirmed and strengthened, the task in the present day is simply to affirm the Council, to affirm the reformed liturgy, and to penetrate more deeply into the spirit of the reformed liturgy in the ongoing (and never-ending) effort to implement more faithfully what the Council intended.

It is obvious just what, and who, is omitted by Pope Francis in today’s major address.

In part his conclusion seems sound, though he will not come right out and say it in plain words. Pope Francis has carefully avoided citing the most recent magisterial teacher on the liturgy: Pope Benedict XVI. Thus, Fr Ruff implies, the discounting by Pope Francis of Benedict XVI as a source inevitably entails discounting all of Benedict XVI’s teaching on the liturgy, not least Summorum Pontificum.

Fr Anthony Ruff OSB

With that discounted, Fr Ruff says we can see clearly that the pope wants to strengthen “mainline liturgical reform and renewal”—by which he clearly means himself and his crew—and to “implement more fully what the Council intended”. The intention of the Council, or any assembly, would normally be divined from its officially promulgated documents and decrees. However Sacrosanctum Concilium is not very useful for the “mainline” reformers, just as it was not particularly useful for Pope Francis in his speech, as it offers little justification for the mainline reform agenda. Thus we find that the Council is interpreted as an event, ongoing and unfinished, and that we must look beyond the texts to the “spirit of the reformed liturgy”. And how malleable that spirit has proved these last few decades. It is very much in the eye of the beholder; which is why, as a principle for reform and decision, it is useless, being meaningless.

On a side note, it was amusing to see Fr Ruff describe his tribe’s cause as “mainline liturgical reform”. In the States they speak of “mainline Protestantism”—Episcopalians (ie Anglicans), Evangelical Lutherans, United Methodists, Presbyterians and some Baptists. This establishment stream in American Christianity is now clearly in free-fall decline. An honest assessment of the Catholic Church would reach a similar conclusion: that the mainline stream within the Church, with its commitment to the reformed liturgy as inflicted by pastors and liturgists in the dim light of its nebulous spirit, is in free-fall decline, with ageing congregations in increasingly empty churches and religious houses and a dearth of clergy. Just keep the healthiness or otherwise of “mainline” Christianity in the back of your mind.

In reality, however, what the mainline reformers mean when they interpret Pope Francis in this way is that they have been affirmed in their vision of reform by the Pope Francis, just as Pope Benedict did not affirm them, and indeed was a potent threat to their “mainline” reform agenda. This is the “spirit” of Pope Francis’ talk they invoke; does the actual text support such a spirit?

It can be made to do so, and such a malleability in any official text is always a weakness. Historically when popes and councils speak officially, and magisterially, they do so precisely in order to be clear, not ambiguous. Until 1962, that is…

Nevertheless, the papal speech is not quite the unequivocal endorsement of the “mainline” reformers that Fr Ruff makes it out to be, nor does it offer them a carte blanche for their future efforts in reform. The speech gives a potted history of 20th century liturgical reform up to the Council. Regarding the Council’s liturgical decree Pope Francis puts things rather well:

It was about expressing in a renewed way, the perennial vitality of the Church at prayer, being eager “so that the faithful do not assist as strangers and silent spectators to this mystery of faith, but, understanding well through rites and prayers, participate in the sacred action knowingly, piously, actively” (SC , 48)

Indeed, the heart of the Liturgical Movement was not centred in changing the liturgy and its rites at all, but in changing those who took part in it, that the people could draw as much as they could from it and so be nourished, strengthened, enlightened, and encouraged even more than they were already. In effect, by including this explicit quote from the Council, Pope Francis is validating the authentic reform agenda of the Liturgical Movement, in seeking to change people not rituals.

Coming to the present day, Pope Francis maintains that our liturgical task today is

rediscovering the reasons for the decisions taken with the liturgical reform, surmounting unfounded and superficial readings, partial reception and practices that disfigure it.

Could there be a better mission statement for the Reform of the Reform? We have such so many recent studies which reveal the deceptions and machinations of the Consilium and its major officials, the regret some of the reformers now feel for their work, a return to the sources in the documents of Vatican II the better to interpret it and to unmask the many false and tendentious interpretations and practices that have prevailed for so long—all of which have impeded the reception in the Church of the reforms actually mandated by the Council Fathers. The Pope is spot on.

It is his conclusion this paragraph that has sparked so much attention:

After this magisterium, after this long journey we can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.

To me at least, this is not saying as much as many are reading into it. “This magisterium” seems, in the context, to refer to the entire trajectory of papally-approved reforms from Pius X to the present. That must necessarily include, by implication, the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, and thus also Summorum Pontificum. This reform he declares to be “irreversible” and he declares it so with the invocation of “magisterial authority”. This, it has to be admitted, is remarkable.

Dr Ed Peters explains with canonical clarity why this cannot be an invocation of papal infallibility, because liturgical reform is not a proper object of infallibility. An ongoing process cannot be clothed with infallibility. Only concrete and finished doctrines and teachings can be. So, it is infallibly taught that the bread and wine in Mass become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ; but it is not infallibly taught that the Mass of Paul VI, any more than the Mass of Pius V, is the perfect and only way for the Eucharistic Mystery to be accomplished. Thus, no liturgical rite is irreversible.

When Pope Francis says that the liturgical reform is irreversible he can only mean, within an authentic and justifiable context, that the process of reform initiated under Pius X and continuing to the present cannot be reversed because it is a fact, and because clearly it comes from the authority of the Church. What Pope Francis is not saying, and he cannot say, is that there is one particular expression of the reform that is irreversibly fixed.

Just as the Mass of Pius V was a reform of the previous Roman liturgy, and this Mass was itself many times adjusted and refined over the centuries leading up to the Second Vatican Council, so too the Mass of Paul VI is not fixed in stone but can, and must, be adjusted in the light of doctrinal and pastoral reflection and experience. Pope Francis says as much, as we have seen above.


Really this speech of Pope Francis is, despite its lack of clarity and bungled invocation of authority, substantially unremarkable. Let us move on.

What is remarkable is the nostalgia that lies so close to the surface in so many commentators in the mainline reform movement. Seeing in the eyes of traditionalists the mote of a nostalgia for a golden age that never was, they fail to see the beam of the same in their own eyes.

Fr Ruff gives the game away in his own article referenced above:

In this mainline narrative, which Francis has affirmed and strengthened, the task in the present day is simply to affirm the Council, to affirm the reformed liturgy, and to penetrate more deeply into the spirit of the reformed liturgy in the ongoing (and never-ending) effort to implement more faithfully what the Council intended.

What he is saying is that we are meant to affirm the period 1962-70. If ever there was a group stuck in a rut of nostalgia it is the mainline liturgical reformers. They have not seen that the world, and the Church, have moved on from the heady days of hippies, free love, the brotherhood of man and revolution in everything that marked, indeed scarred, the 60s. The mainline liturgical reformers have failed in their express intention of producing a liturgy that engages modern people actively, a failure proved by the precipitous decline in Mass attendance since the reform was introduced.

Blaming social change and militant secularism is just passing of the buck and does not stand much scrutiny. It was precisely such a changed and more secular society that the reformers sought to accommodate liturgically. What they gave us was a newly-fabricated liturgy that answered the reformers’ assessment of 1960s society. 50 years later that liturgy, at least as celebrated in the majority of places still, does not meet the needs of those born after the reforms. The world has changed, and will go on changing, as it always has. The one constant until the 1960s was the liturgy, which was a stable rock that gave sure footing in times of immense, often violent, change. Since it was not the fabrication of any one age, it was not married to any one age, and transcended them all.

The mainline reformers gave us a liturgy that was wed to the 1960s, and the young of today, and yesterday in fact, find it largely unsatisfying. Occasionally they find it celebrated in a manner that draws from the organic stream of Catholic tradition and life, and to this they find an attraction. Yet it cannot be denied that so many young people, the sort who go to Mass of their own accord and desire, and who think seriously of a religious of priestly vocation; these young find in the pre-conciliar Mass, the Mass that had grown organically and recognisably over a millennium and half, something that rings true as worship of God rather than celebration of man. They are not nostalgists, for they cannot feel nostalgia for a time they did not know. But they can see that if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, feels like a duck and smells like a duck, then it must be a duck. Replace “duck” as appropriate.

The real nostalgists are the mainline reformers, so many of whom have never left the 60s, still fight battles that are no longer relevant, and still root their Catholic identity in a time of flux and confusion half a century ago. Moreover, the reformed liturgy itself was drafted by mainline reformers harbouring a futile nostalgia for a golden liturgical age in the early Church, an age that never existed in the shape and colour they depicted it in. This archaeologism, which Pius XII warned us of, is little more than an intellectualised nostalgia that ignores the growth and development, the reality, of the Church over the centuries and seeks to return us to a golden age that never was and never can be again. They risk making the Church a ghetto of ageing nostalgists; the young will not join them.

Ironically, or maybe not, the traditionalists show themselves far more open to reform, the legitimate and authentic reform the Council decreed. Some of its most fervent supporters of my acquaintance will readily concede that the 1962 liturgy is not perfect, and that it has been mandated by Summorum Pontificum because Archbishop Lefebvre chose the 1962 Missal in order to establish some consistency and liturgical unity to his movement. He signed the conciliar decree on the liturgy. He would have found the 1964/5 Missal acceptable as an expression of the conciliar reforms, and indeed a couple of traditional monasteries have been known to use the 1965 liturgy. Traditionalists on the whole see the need for reform of the 1962 liturgy, and for them also this need is irreversible. Which is why I have said before we need to revisit the liturgy of 1965 to find a faithful enactment of the conciliar reforms that would be acceptable to most traditionalists and reassuring to those who fear some sort of undoing of the Council.

In short, the mainline reformers are not the best advocates of the liturgical reform enjoined by Vatican II; in fact, they are its worst. We must ensure that we, and the liturgy, have survived intact when they die, as very soon they will. The Church’s work must be to bring as many along as possible along the path of authentic reform; otherwise we must leave the dead to bury their dead.

To conclude, some photos (courtesy of the Sacra Liturgia Summer School Facebook page—click to see larger) from the pontifical Mass at the Sacra Liturgia Summer School on the Assumption this year. Young people everywhere; I was one of the oldest present, and I am not even 50. Just saying…