The reformed liturgy, 50 years later

George Weigel

Fifty years ago, on November 30, 1969, the Catholic Church marked the First Sunday of Advent with the universal implementation of the revised Roman Rite of the Mass, approved by Pope Paul VI in response to the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

And the liturgy wars broke out in earnest.

They have not abated since. If anything, they’ve intensified in recent years.

As these debates continue, it will be helpful to remember that the Liturgical Movement of the mid-20th century, which led to “the changes” approved by Pope Pius XII before it led to “the changes” approved by Pope Paul VI, believed that the renewal of the Church’s worship would foster both sanctity and mission, including the Church’s social witness. For leading liturgical reformers like Father Virgil Michel, OSB, of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, liturgical renewal, evangelical zeal and a commitment to living Catholic social doctrine went hand-in-hand. The bishops of Vatican II (who adopted the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy by a vote of 2,174 to 4) agreed.  If I may quote myself in a passage from my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History:

“…the Council, building on and developing the teaching of Pius XII’s encyclical, Mediator Dei, sought to recover an understanding of the liturgy as the entire Church’s participation in the mystery of God’s presence through the sacraments, after a period in which ‘liturgy’ meant, primarily, the performance of rites at which the laity were spectators who attend because of legal obligation. That participation, both the Liturgical Movement and the Council fathers hoped, would be an energizer of mission, for at the center of the liturgy is Christ, and it is Christ who sends his people out as heralds of the Gospel. Or, as the Council fathers began [the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy], ‘the sacred Council has set out to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful…[and] to strengthen whatever can help call mankind into the Church’s fold’.”

That was the intention; the results, to date, have been decidedly mixed.

It’s a basic error of logic to think that everything that happened after Vatican II happened because of Vatican II. But even proponents of the reformed liturgy, among whom I count myself, must posit some sort of connection between what happened 50 years ago and two disturbing phenomena: decreasing weekly Mass attendance, and a lack of conviction that, in the Eucharist, Catholics encounter the real presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity. Perhaps it was inevitable that the cultural acids of late modernity would cause too many 21st-century Catholics to think of Sunday Mass as a weekend recreational option rather than a privileged moment of encounter with the Lord, in which worship equips us spiritually for mission. But even if that’s true, proponents of the reformed liturgy must concede that “the changes” did not stem the Catholic exodus from Sunday worship. Nor did they mitigate Catholic ignorance of the reality of the Eucharist.

But then there’s the other side of the coin. I grew up with the pre-conciliar liturgy. It was not a Mozart Missa Brevis and sonorous Latin every Sunday; it was more often badly pronounced (and often mumbled) Latin, and execrable, pietistic music (when there was any). Of course, there were dignified, beautiful celebrations of what we now know as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, and living in a cathedral parish, I was privileged to participate in them as an altar boy and choirboy. But they were hardly the norm in American Catholicism. Nostalgia for an imaginary past is not a reliable guide to the future.

A few weeks ago, I was discussing the latest twists and turns in the liturgy wars with a wise observer of Christian affairs in the United States, a convert to Catholicism from confessional Lutheranism. When I asked her what she thought millennial traditionalists were seeking in the “old Mass,” she immediately replied, “the awe.” That’s likely true. It’s also true that the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite can be celebrated so that the awe and wonder of the divine presence is palpable.

For an example, go to smcgvl.org and click on “Mass Video” to experience the beauty of the reformed liturgy at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina: a parish that is also a thriving example of the New Evangelization, embodying the hope that the liturgical reform, reformed, can energize mission and empower missionary disciples.

COMING UP: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

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When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!