Archbishop Marini on the liturgy wars

Those seeking insight into the ideas that shaped the Missal of Paul VI, the revised breviary, and other facets of the Church’s post-Vatican II liturgy will have to look elsewhere than A Challenging Reform by Archbishop Piero Marini, Master of Pontifical Liturgical Ceremonies from 1987 until 2007 (Liturgical Press).

Oddly, coming from a man of strong convictions, Marini’s tale is bureaucratic rather than substantive – a lumbering walk through the maneuvers by which the “Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (an entity created by Pope Paul VI) wrested control of the reform process from the Curia’s Congregation for Rites and held the bit in its teeth for a crucial five-year period, 1964-1969. By the end of that half-decade, the Consilium’s de facto leader, the energetic Italian Vincentian Annibale Bugnini, had achieved a lot of his ambition to re-cast the Roman Rite in a dramatic way.

Bugnini’s star eventually began to fade, though, and in 1975 he was exiled to the ecclesiastical Siberia of the Vatican nunciature in Tehran. There, he wrote an apologia in the form of an enormous book, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975. Its most memorable moment is Bugnini’s description of using a stopwatch to time the performance of several experimental revisions of the Mass, conducted before Paul VI in the Matilde Chapel of the apostolic palace.

Alas, even as a tale of Vatican intrigue, A Challenging Reform is dull, duller, dullest. The excruciating detail of who-went-to-what-meeting is one problem. Another, and worse, is that Marini’s characters are cartoons: good reformers, wicked reactionaries, all seemingly devoid of ideas and arguments. Not only does Marini fail to give an account of the so-called reactionaries’ ideas; he doesn’t explore the ideas and personalities of the reformers, the party in which he was then a junior subaltern. Moreover, at the end of the day we’re still in the dark about the two crucial questions emerging from this drama: What accounts for Annibale Bugnini’s hold on Paul VI from 1964 until at least 1972, when he was ordained bishop by the pope? And what explains Archbishop Bugnini’s subsequent fall from favor and his exile to the Persian hinterlands? Marini gently suggests that his mentor and hero may have overreached at a time when the pope was becoming exhausted. But how does that square with Paul VI’s evidently high regard for Bugnini in the crucial period 1964-69?

Archbishop Marini’s filial piety toward Bugnini and his commitment to Bugnini’s cause lead him to claims that will strike some readers as contradictory. He insists that Bugnini achieved a historical reform “that was an answer to the needs of the whole Church rather than simply an expression of its central bureaucracy.” Yet he also argues that “it was…necessary to change the attitudes of both the clergy and the lay faithful to enable them to grasp the purposes of the reform.” Huh? The “clergy and lay faithful” were unable, unaided, to “grasp the purpose” of a reform that was “an answer to the needs of the whole Church”?

Certain Curial elements, having lost the debate on the floor of the Council, undoubtedly tried to block bureaucratically what the bishops of Vatican II had strongly endorsed: a reform of the Roman Rite. The fundamental flaw in Marini’s account, however, lies in his unexamined assumption that a reformed liturgy devised abstractly by “experts” (a recurring noun in the book) would necessarily respond to “the needs of the whole Church” (even if a considerable chunk of the “whole Church” would have to be, er, re-educated, in order to appreciate that their spiritual needs were now being met). The mental image of Bugnini and his stopwatch is hard to erase: this was organic, developmental reform, building on the achievements of the liturgical movement throughout the 20th century?

I am no nostalgic in the matter of the pre-conciliar liturgy. The point today is to reform the reform, not effect a liturgical Thermidor in a futile attempt to recapture an often mis-remembered past. Surely, however, the “challenging reform” of the 21st century requires an account of 1964-69 that’s something more than cowboys-and-Indians, Vatican-style.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash