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: A last chance for Australian justice

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My late parents loved Cardinal George Pell, whom they knew for decades. So I found it a happy coincidence that, on November 12 (which would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary), a two-judge panel of Australia’s High Court referred to the entire Court the cardinal’s request for “special leave” to appeal his incomprehensible conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse,” and the even-more-incomprehensible denial of his appeal against that manifestly unsafe verdict.

Thus in 2020 the highest judicial authority in Australia will review the Pell case, which gives the High Court the opportunity to reverse a gross injustice and acquit the cardinal of a hideous crime: a “crime” that Pell insists never happened; a “crime” for which not a shred of corroborating evidence has yet been produced; a “crime” that simply could not have happened in the circumstances and under the conditions it was alleged to have been committed.

Since Cardinal Pell’s original appeal was denied in August by two of three judges on an appellate panel in the State of Victoria, the majority decision to uphold Pell’s conviction has come under withering criticism for relying primarily on the credibility of the alleged victim. As the judge who voted to sustain the cardinal’s appeal pointed out (in a dissent that one distinguished Australian attorney described as the most important legal document in that country’s history), witness credibility – a thoroughly subjective judgment-call – is a very shaky standard by which to find someone guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It has also been noted by fair-minded people that the dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, is the most respected criminal jurist in Australia, while his two colleagues on the appellate panel had little or no criminal law experience. Weinberg’s lengthy and devastating critique of his two colleagues’ shallow arguments seemed intended to signal the High Court that something was seriously awry here and that the reputation of Australian justice – as well as the fate of an innocent man – was at stake.

Other recent straws in the wind Down Under have given hope to the cardinal’s supporters that justice may yet be done in his case.

Andrew Bolt, a television journalist with a nationwide audience, walked himself through the alleged series of events at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, within the timeframe in which they were supposed to have occurred, and concluded that the prosecution’s case, and the decisions by both the convicting jury and the majority of the appeal panel, simply made no sense. What was supposed to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did.

Australians willing to ignore the vicious anti-Pell polemics that have fouled their country’s public life for years also heard from two former workers at the cathedral, who stated categorically that what was alleged to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did, because they were a few yards away from Cardinal Pell at the precise time he was alleged to have abused two choirboys.

Then there was Anthony Charles Smith, a veteran criminal attorney (and not a Catholic), who wrote in Annals Australasia that the Pell verdict and the denial of his appeal “curdles my stomach.” How, he asked, could a guilty verdict be rendered on “evidence….so weak and bordering on the preposterous?” The only plausible answer, he suggested, was that Pell’s “guilt” was assumed by many, thanks to “an avalanche of adverse publicity” ginned up by “a mob baying for Pell’s blood” and influencing “a media [that] should always be skeptical.”

Even more strikingly, the left-leaning Saturday Paper, no friend of Cardinal Pell or the Catholic Church, published an article in which Russell Marks – a one-time research assistant on an anti-Pell book – argued that the two judges on the appellate panel who voted to uphold the cardinal’s conviction “effectively allowed no possible defense for Pell: there was nothing his lawyers could have said or done, because the judges appeared to argue it was enough to simply believe the complainant on the basis of his performance under cross examination.”

The Australian criminal justice system has stumbled or failed at every stage of this case. The High Court of Australia can break that losing streak, free an innocent man, and restore the reputation of Australian justice in the world. Whatever the subsequent fallout from the rabid Pell-haters, friends of justice must hope that that is what happens when the High Court hears the cardinal’s case – Australia’s Dreyfus Case – next year.

Photo: CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images