by Andrea Grillo
The combination of three little events, only tangentially connected, have in recent days marked out an important moment for the Catholic liturgy. These events are, in order: a statement issued by the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) on June 29, a talk delivered at a conference by the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship on July 5, and a statement from the Holy See Press Office on July 11. The sequence of these three events leads us to a conclusion that, while unexpected, is also completely fitting.
But let’s go in order.
The Three Events in Succession
In an SSPX communique, superior general Bishop Fellay marks a change of seasons, saying that he now awaits a successor of Pope Francis. Efforts at reconciliation, which had begun under John Paul II and received new impetus with Pope Benedict, seem to have reached a standstill. In reality, the SSPX’s demands were always too high and their recognitions of Vatican II ever more vague.
A few days later, at Cardinal Sarah’s conference talk in London, came a nod toward themes that have characterized the process of “opening” toward the Lefebvrists. The desire for deeper communion in the church – a highly desirable thing – merged with the call for a “reform of the reform.” It has been hoped by some that the rapprochement with Lefebvre might lead to “normalizing” the post-conciliar liturgy (and church). Cardinal Sarah’s imprudent words express the intention to reorient ad orientem all altars (and all priests), starting this coming Advent. Never, at the official level, has the effort to contradict the conciliar program been so clear.
Lastly, in the Press Office statement, three decisive principles are affirmed. First, the desire to safeguard the value of the Eucharist must proceed according to what was established by the Council and by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which foresees “altars detached from the wall.” Second, this must be the ordinary pastoral practice of the church, which cannot be considered replaced by the “extraordinary form.” And third, the statement further notes that “it is better to avoid using the expression ‘the reform of the reform,’ referring to the liturgy, given that this has sometimes been the source of misunderstanding.” These three assertions represent the final blow to the self-referential dream of a church that wished to immunize itself from the Second Vatican Council and that was living it out with unconcealed discomfort.
A Brief History with a Happy Ending
It is good to recall that this expression, “reform of the reform,” has identified one side of the ecclesial debate, which has been led by figures on the periphery but encouraged by some at the center, and whose aim has been openly to oppose the liturgical reform. Several official documents, without ever using the expression, offered support to the self-referential “reform of the reform” project. Liturgiam authenticam (2001), Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), and Summorum Pontificum (2007) are each links in a chain that sought to mitigate and sometimes to contradict the conciliar thrust toward “actuosa participatio.”
To be sure, none of these documents used the expression “reform of the reform,” but they essentially pretended to create a new “translation of the tradition,” to return to an approach to the Eucharist that gives pride of place to the abuse rather than the use, and to create a dangerous parallelism between the ordinary rite and extraordinary rite, with highly problematic ecclesial, pastoral, and formational consequences.
In each of these documents – it must be openly acknowledged – one sees evidence of the longa manus [“long hand” – ed.] of Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. And we must not forget that many of the articles and books that subsequently interpreted them in terms of a “reform of the reform” were accompanied, supported, blessed, or introduced by prefaces or reviews by Ratzinger himself. Suffice it to mention works by Aidan Nichols, Nicola Bux, Uwe Michael Lang, and Alcuin Reid.
With the July 11 statement, all of this has reached a conclusion. Finally we see a clear statement on the whole question. I would like to point out that the “symbol” of this final triumph can be found in a potent parallelism between two statements. While in 2004, Redemptionis Sacramentum, dedicated to squelching the liturgical abuses, insisted that “terms such as ‘celebrating community’ or ‘celebrating assembly’ … should not be used injudiciously” (42) – thus giving official support to a common assertion of the supporters of the reform of the reform – this week’s note warns against the use of the expression “reform of the reform.”
The circle closes. The conciliar journey can resume. The efforts at a “reform of the reform,” as an aggressive idealization of a self-referential church immunized from history and experience, has finally been censured at an official level.
The Ecclesial Consequences: Bishops and Curia
What will follow? I believe that the logic that established the “reform of the reform” project in the late 1990s has tried progressively to sidestep episcopal oversight, reaching its apex with the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. That document effectively deprived the bishops of their power in liturgical matters.
The recovery of episcopal jurisdiction – which finds a central place in the pontificate of Pope Francis – must be made clearly normative, leaving behind the “exceptional” status introduced by Summorum Pontificum. This includes jurisdiction in translations, on the uses and abuses, and on the use of the extraordinary form.
With the restoration of the bishops’ power to govern even liturgical matters in their own their dioceses, it is inevitable that the Commission Ecclesia Dei will lose much of the power that was handed to it by Summorum Pontificum.
It can be said, then, that the decentralization of the curia is proceeding apace in the realm of liturgy.
A helpful observation on this point, with inevitable repercussions in the Roman Curia and its jurisdictions, came from the theologian and journalist Fr. Lorenzo Prezzi, who wrote aptly with regard to Bishop Fellay’s statement: “What Fellay and his associates fail to understand is that their concerns were, for a time, central, but they are now peripheral. Yesterday, their return might have impacted the church. Today and tomorrow it will affect only their own biographies.”
It would not be too risky to extend these assessments also to some members of the Roman Curia. They might find comfort in writing or signing some anti-modernist pamphlet.
Andrea Grillo teaches liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome. This article is reprinted with permission from Munera. Rivista Europa di Cultura. Translated by Barry Hudock.