Pope Paul VI on Liturgical Reform: The Sublime Reality

paul_VI5Pope Paul VI will be beatified today in Rome. To mark the occasion, Pray Tell is running statements from Paul VI on the liturgical reform carried out at his mandate after the Second Vatican Council.

On March 27, 1966, Paul VI presided at Mass at the Parish of Mary Immaculate in Rome. What follows are excerpts from his homily delivered on that day.

A second understanding of the Council is the reform of the liturgy, and in a most beautiful and fruitful direction. The Council has taken the fundamental position that the faithful have to understand what the priest is saying and to share in the liturgy; to be not just passive spectators at Mass but souls alive; to be the people of God responsive to him and forming a community gathered as one around the celebrant.

Look at the altar, placed now for dialogue with the assembly; consider the remarkable sacrifice of Latin, the priceless repository of the Church’s treasure. The repository has been opened up, as the people’s own spoken language now becomes part of their prayer. Lips that have often been still, sealed as it were, now at last begin to move, as the whole assembly can speak its part in the colloquy with the priest, at least during the preparatory and dismissal rites of the Mass. No longer do we have the sad phenomenon of people being conversant and vocal about every human subject yet silent and apathetic in the house of God. How sublime it is to hear during Mass the communal recitation of the Our Father!

In this way the Sunday Mass is not just an obligation but a pleasure, not just fulfilled as a duty, but claimed as a right. To be entitled to go to Mass, to rest from work on Sunday, to devote at least one hour a week to the aspirations of the spirit is an inalienable possession: the capacity to speak to God of one’s sorrows, hopes, toil, of every anxiety; it is to bring to God the experiences of the week with its daily trials and to offer all to him. At Mass the Lord transforms them all into himself, becoming in the Eucharist our food and drink, as the bread and wine are symbols of all human strivings. In the Eucharist, then, the Lord transforms our human existence into one that is divine.

Be then, fervent at the Sunday Mass; hold on to it jealously; endeavor to fill every corner of your parish church, to be part of a host of people surrounding the altar. Say to your priests: make us understand; open the book to us. And learn to sing. A Mass celebrated with the song of the people makes for the full rising up of the spirit. St. Ambrose—one of the first bishops to introduce sacred singing into the Christian community—expressed this striking thought: “When I hear an entire assembly sing with one voice ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God’ my spirit is flooded with happiness; nothing in the world can possess such grandeur and majesty.”

This is the sublime reality; humanity reaches the heights; it speaks to God and makes itself heard in heaven with the voices of all: of children, of men and women, of the suffering. Humanity sings a hymn to the glory of God “in the highest,” and asks for and receives “peace to his people on earth.”


  1. What a WONDERFUL statement, one I’d have ever known if you hadn’t posted it here. Thank you, Editor. I’m using this for sacramental theology class next Wednesday . . . and for the rest of my life.

  2. All fine and good but how does ad orientem prevent dialog? The very few times there’s dialog at the altar, the celebrant can turn around. With the universal use of microphones now in large churches, there’s no need to worry about not hearing the priest ad orientem either. I understand the advantages of vernacular, more scripture, hymns, etc. but I just can’t see the advantage of versus populum in the OF. It’s not like the Liturgy of the Word would be done ad orientem in the OF.

  3. Thanks so much for posting this! Lyrical, beautiful, and a testimony to his own faith and the joy of so many in seeing the liturgical reform come into being.

  4. Paul VI: “No longer do we have the sad phenomenon of people being conversant and vocal about every human subject yet silent and apathetic in the house of God.

    “yet silent and apathetic in the house of God.” What then is the silence of contemplative religious? What then is the silence of persons who cannot speak because of physical challenges? What then is the silence of persons who are on the autism spectrum? I should not forget that “active participation” is curved to a mean, the periphery an afterthought.

    Silence is not necessarily apathy. I am perplexed that Paul VI would presume this to be the rule. For many silence is the forge of personal piety, the crucible of the comprehension of complex thoughts, the strength for fidelity to the Gospel.

    The clacking rosaries Paul VI despised were often moved by hands in turn actuated by minds in near silent awe of the Sacrifice before them. Who better to guide the faithful to this sacrifice but Our Lady? And yet, I suspect that for Pope Paul those who moved their lips and beads were ignorant and in need of intellectual liberation. Perhaps instead this level of near-silent participation contributed to great level of holiness.

    Pope Paul VI’s Achilles heel was his near absolute reliance on intellect and ideology at the near absolute expense of a heartfelt, simple, trusting, and most of all quiet piety.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #5:
      It seems clear to me that Paul VI was referring to “silent AND apathetic” persons, and not to “silent BUT NOT apathetic” participants. The commentator himself says, “Silence is not necessarily apathy.” Why would he think Paul VI did not hold the same view?

      Reading things into the Holy Father’s words which he never said, the commentator’s own words are rather distasteful.

      1. @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #6:

        I will readily admit that I am not a fan of many of Paul VI’s decisions. Today is his beatification day; perhaps I should refrain from cutting him down needlessly.

        I should not, as you have pointed out, presume that his statement applies to all people. It is true that one cannot presume that Pope Paul means that all people who are silent are apathetic. With regard to apathy, perhaps Pope Paul is speaking of a minority who took Mass for granted, or perhaps attended Mass only to fulfill the Sunday obligation. Pope Paul does not elaborate on this point.

        Even so, I sense in his sermon a deprecation of silence, and implicitly the silence often found in the EF. Perhaps my instincts are wrong. Even so, I maintain that Paul VI was focused on the notion of active participation to the neglect of a studied, even holy, silence. It is here Pope Paul and I disagree. I consider this disagreement to be civil and not distasteful.

      2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #8:
        Context is crucial. Will silence when standing among the saints and angels in heaven be a good option? Does not Matthew 6:6 not apply to our inner rooms? Is there not a place for contemplation, and another or rejoicing and praise?

        Perhaps the silence of the TLM is just … plain … wrong. If I were to say that at a gathering of TLM enthusiasts would I be considered civil, or would I be silenced out of the room?

      3. @Todd Flowerday – comment #9:

        Perhaps the silence of the TLM is just … plain … wrong. If I were to say that at a gathering of TLM enthusiasts would I be considered civil, or would I be silenced out of the room?

        Traditionalists are often very chatty and sociable outside Mass. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that many of us are quite happy in disposition and not glum at all.

        A difference between traditionalists and worshipers in the modern church is in the approach to the interplay between silence and vocal performance. Traditionalists cultivate silence not as a refutation or even denigration of sung prayer, but rather because we value choral singing (for example) not only as a beautiful performance but also as the source of didactic information that often (but not always) requires internal contemplation. I know that those who worship in the modern liturgy also value internal contemplation of sung prayer. With traditionalists, however, the accent is more on internal reception rather than vocal expression.

      4. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #11:
        Thanks for the reply, Jordan. I know traditionalists and traditionalist-leaning Catholics. I suppose what I’m trying to ask is this: would they value my silence on the need for liturgical reform.

        I think silence at Mass has a place, but not as an overall philosophy. I’m skeptical of the urge for one-stop shopping I see in many Catholics, possibly including traditionalists, that the time at Mass must serve as the coherent whole of my prayer life. When I hear people complain about chatting before or after Mass, I often wonder to myself if they come for visits during the week when it is silent (sometimes they do) or if they pray in their room at home (sometimes they do) and why the expression of joy in community should be muted.

        I encourage vocal expression as essential to a number of liturgical and quasi-liturgical practices: when I coach students in lectio divina, when I coach lectors on preparing for the reading. There is a new, sometimes deeper level engaged when the words of Scripture are coming from our own mouths rather than just someone else’s. And the silence is often well-taken after the moment, rather than during.

        But to each their own. I see people declining to engage vocally as their loss, ignoring a whole other level of encounter with Christ.

      5. @Todd Flowerday – comment #12:

        I guess it would still be good to consider the asymmetries that can be involved. A person trying to perform spiritual acts of mercy (for example, praying indulgenced prayers that must be performed in church or in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament) for others may not have the same freedom to go to the vestibule that someone who wishes to chat has.

    2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #5:
      I would say that as an outside observer of religious communities, the silence of contemplatives has a context. For some monastics, the silence accompanies aspects of the Rule of Benedict: community, hospitality to visitors, and such. When I go to a monastery for liturgy, the contemplatives are hardly silent. Their voices ring pure and true in chapels. And even when they are not singing or speaking a single word.

      I think it is fitting to nudge or even urge those who are intimidated into silence to give voice to the words of the Scriptures, the songs of the Church, and the dialogue at Mass that prepares us for the dialogue with God. The silence of the bullied is not reverent, even if it might be convenient.

      As for the few who might feel a spiritual superiority for keeping silent in Church, I don’t know what to say to that, other than it is possible to live out Luke 18:9-14 without uttering a single word.

      Liturgy is a locus of challenge, is it not? Introverts don’t need to be prisoners of their personality. Pharisees need not be chained to their expectations. The full voice of a choir of Christendom can give praise. Can they not?

      Fr Ron’s distinction between “and” and “but not” is well-taken. Its oversight might suggest searching for animosity where there is none.

  5. How gratifying to see Pope Paul VI talking about “a host of people surrounding the altar”! This confirms for me that the moving of the altar was not simply about dialog with the priest celebrant, but also about the sign value of all gathering around the altar. I think that detail often gets missed when people start talking about “versus populum.” Perhaps we need to find a term that indicates that all are together around the altar rather than standing in opposition, as it were.

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