Pope Paul VI on Liturgical Reform: Restoring Dignity, Beauty, Simplicity and Good Taste

paulvi2Pope Paul VI was beatified today. To mark the beatification, Pray Tell is running statements from Paul VI on the liturgical reform carried out at his mandate after the Second Vatican Council.

In April of 1964, Paul VI addressed a plenary assembly of Italian bishops. Below are a few excerpts from his remarks.

The first point clearly is religion in life. This must be our dominant interest, taking precedence over every merely civil issue, however relevant, of our nation’s life. “Seek first the kingdom of God.” The liturgical reform provides us with an excellent opportunity in this regard: it calls us back to the theological view of human destiny that the action of grace, and thus of the life of the sacraments and prayer, has primacy. The liturgical reform opens up to us a way to reeducate our people in their religion, to purify and revitalize their forms of worship and devotion, to restore dignity, beauty, simplicity, and good taste to our religious ceremonies.

Without such inward and outward renewal there can be little hope for any widespread survival of religious living in today’s changed conditions. We take it on ourself to make but two pertinent recommendations. The first is that you take the greatest pains over the sanctifying of days of precept, devoting all your energies to the end that the celebration of the Sunday and holyday Mass with the word of God and the participation of the people will be an occasion of the most intense involvement for all.

The second is that you promote sacred song, the religious, congregational singing of the people. Remember, if the faithful sing they do not leave the Church; if they do not leave the Church, they keep the faith and live as Christians.


  1. I did not detect any ambiguity in the Pope’s call for the intense involvement of the people in praying and singing the Mass. My beef with the tradition”alists”, is their at least implied rejection of the ecclesiology of Vatican II as reflected in the reform of the liturgical rites.
    That they prefer the unreformed rite for whatever reason is one thing, to imply that it somehow comports with SC and the other teachings of VII is quite another. While this division has already reached schismatic proportions as regards SSPX, my observation is that it may be headed in that direction for devotees of the EF. There should be only one Latin Rite, notwithstanding the miniscule exceptions for things like the Ambrosian variation. Not trying to start a battle, but just stating my convictions with boldness and passion.

    1. The problem is that most parochial celebrations of the Novus Ordo Missae that I have experienced do not reflect the “dignity, beauty, simplicity, and good taste” that Paul VI spoke of. I have throughout my life encountered all types of banal music, music adapted from pop culture such as barbershop quartets etc. Also on occasion I have experienced priests acting out the gospel instead of reading it. In my opinion the mass has become more about celebrating personal human creativity rather than the worship of God. It has become in most cases a gross anthropocentric act.

      1. Lee,
        You raise a good point. We have a long way to go yet in fully implementing Vatican II. (As Pope Francis has said, we’ve implemented half of Vatican II and now must implement the other half.) My hope is that the whole church can recommit to Vatican II – both its vision and teaching of what communal worship is, and its reformed rite, and come to see the power of the reformed rites.

        It’s odd, in a way, that some people accuse the Catholic liturgy of being anthropocentric rather then theocentric. Most every text, from beginning to end, is focussed on God – from the Sign of the Cross (trinitarian) to the penitential rite (addressed to the Lord) to the Gloria (praise of God) to the opening prayer (addressed to the Father). So where does this odd accusation come from? The accuastion is a gross misunderstanding of the Mass, suggesting that people aren’t hearing and understanding and appropriating the texts right in front of them, right there in their own language. If there are ways we can improve our celebration to make that clear, then I hope people like you will join in the task. We need a better spirituality of what the liturgy is doing.

        I wouldn’t oppose God and humans, though, as if it’s one or the other. In the Catholic faith, because of the incarnation, it’s both. Vatican II has it exactly right, the liturgy is for the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithul. And this isn’t a zero-sum game: the more one happens, the more the other does too.

        Creativity has been going on for 2,000 years now. Otherwise we wouldn’t have vestments, statues, Gregorian chant, Palestrina, etc. Creativity a good thing! Let’s talk about what kind of creativity glorifies God and sanctifies the faithful. If a creative acting out of the Gospel does that, that’s a good thing. (Liturgical drama from the 9th century on acted out gospel passages in the liturgy, btw.)


      2. The accusation that the liturgy is anthroprocentric comes from the hymnody rather than the texts from the Missal as hymns (for a variety of reasons) tend to leave a bigger impact. Ideally the hymns chosen would follow the same pattern as the missal and address God in the second person. A good example of a post conciliar hymn that is worthy of liturgical inclusion (regardless of personal preference or taste) is Haugen’s Shepherd Me O God where the refrain and most of the lyrics are addressed to God. Such hymns should be the primary backbone of any parish repertoire.

        A decent pre conciliar hymn is “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”, which has God as the subject. Less ideally though, God is addressed in the 3rd person. These hymns can be used less often along with hymns that has God addressing the congregation directly or implicitly via quoting scripture. Think “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” or “Blest Are They”

        The hymn “All Are Welcome” is literally the congregation addressing itself. (“City of God” is also in the same vain.) Certainly God is implicit but not the main focus and should be avoided. If one is tempted to use “All Are Welcome”, a better replacement would be “Gather Us In/Here in this Place” where the second of half of each verse is at least addressed to God.

      3. Yet my impression and memory of the pre Vat 2 Mass is that it was heavily cleric-centric and demonstrated many of the characteristics of a performance where the focus was on what the celebrant was wearing and doing. This was even more the case when it came to pontifical celebrations where the focus of the ceremonial was very much on the bishop.

  2. Like Fr Jack I cannot see why there should be two rites of the Latin Church. When Pope St John XXIII made his changes to the missal they were intended to be provisional until the Council had had its deliberations on the Liturgy.
    I am old enough to have been brought up in the pre-vatican II Mass and possibly fortunate to have been a parishioner of a cathedral parish where the liturgy was celebrated perhaps better than in some of the parishes in the diocese. However, at the sung Mass on Sundays at noon only the altar servers received communion. When a particular priest who though better educated than the others sung the liturgy but could not put two notes together it was execrable. When the Easter vigil was re-introduced and our bishop was mixing the various additions to the baptismal water in what looked like a large cauldron he did it with such gusto my mother thought he was making polenta! Blessed Paul VI must have been well aware that the bishops at the Council in the revision of the liturgy wanted the people to participate and understand. (not that we didn’t participate in the Latin by responding at the appropriate places and being encouraged to sing the Missa de Angelis but I wonder if everyone understood despite having missals). I really cannot understand why anyone would wish to go back to the old ways particularly if they are younger and have not experienced the Mass before the changes following Council.

  3. We have 2 retired priests living in the parish who lived through and experienced what Louie said above. Both of them (who are by far not one would call liberal) say they would never want to go back.

    Maybe the younger crowd like it because they HAVEN’T lived through that era. So they may not know what it was really like. We had the 15 seminarians from the diocesan seminary here this weekend. They were quoting philosophers and theologians. They really didn’t know what they were talking about.

    I can say I did the same. I didn’t know what priesthood was like then. So…maybe the younger sort have a rose colored perception. Looking at what they are going through, I think to myself that they don’t really know what seminary was. By listening to the stories of the two retirees, *I* didn’t know what seminary was like in the old days. If they want the old stuff, I say give them the FULL experience, with seminary, a bastard of a pastor, very low pay, etc. Let’s see if they really want to step back in time.

  4. Maybe it’s not that the younger crowd want to go back to something they never lived through, but that they are unsatisfied with the way things have turned out and they are finding sustenance in the older forms (God forbid!). There is a similar movement in the protestant world returning to more ancient practices. I think this is happening because the world is in such flux and people long for stability and authentic ancient rites that can feed the modern soul. They have tried the modern and found it wanting.

    1. @Steve Sanchez – comment #4:
      In terms of world history, the Missal of Pius V, a.k.a. the Tridentine mass is hardly an “ancient” rite. In many ways it is distinctly modern, with its emphasis (at least, in the way it has been practiced) on individual piety and inwardness. The rites of the ancient Christians were more communal and in the vernacular, even when they became more formal and majestic.

      The EF has a sense of “otherness” about it, and I do understand how and why it is attractive to many in that regard.

      I find it ironic that the Incarnation, a core tenet of Christianity, is in some ways ithe most difficult to grasp, let alone live. God is Emmanuel, God for us, God with us, and in Jesus Christ God becomes human and enters human history and embraces it in all its messiness. God “became sin” for us, embracing all the messiness that we are. I think that for some, it just doesn’t seem like a “Real Presence” unless it’s the majesty and mystery of God as Other. God is certainly Other, but — as Jesus seemed to live it — God’s Other-ness is the ability to understand and embrace the messiness of our humanity more than we ourselves do.

  5. I also find it odd the notion that people who attend the EF are somehow nostalgic or want to relive an idealized past, and they wouldn’t want it if they had really lived back then. The problem is that assumes the EF is somehow tied to the culture of the 1950s and cannot be divorced from it.

    It’s like saying the OF can only be celebrated with 1970s folk music and culture if you want the authentic experience.

    As for the quote about restoring dignity, beauty, etc – those words apply to the OF just as much today as they applied to the Latin Mass back then. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  6. “The liturgical reform opens up to us a way to reeducate our people in their religion, to purify and revitalize their forms of worship and devotion, to restore dignity, beauty, simplicity, and good taste to our religious ceremonies.”

    1) Did the form of worship handed down need to be “purified”? If so, what does this say about the Church that gave it to us?
    2) Were dignity, etc., absent, such that they had to be restored?
    3) Has Pope Paul’s wish been fulfilled? For an answer, I suggest visiting an FSSP parish to see the dignity, beauty, good taste — and yes, in a manner of speaking, the simplicity of a worship totally ordered to glorifying God and sanctifying the people.

    1. @Peter Kwasniewski – comment #6:
      To answer your questions,

      1) Yes. That the Church is in some aspects human, flawed, and in need of reform.
      2) Probably yes. I remember a pastor from my youth who was trained in the Low Mass ethic. 22-minute Sunday Masses. I’m sure his ethic was borrowed from before the Council.
      3) Will it ever be? It’s a very high bar that requires attention to detail, artistry, and a commitment of parish resources. What did we inherit from American Catholic culture? Invest in schools. And don’t forget the computers and sports programs.

  7. Here’s my answers:
    1. No.
    2. No.
    3. Who knows what he really wanted, or why he did what he did to the liturgy. What’s concerning is how few bishops stood up to him–2, that I know of. Which tells me the appointment of bishops needs to be reformed and freed up from Rome.

    What’s most concerning is the point of view expressed in post like no.1 and no.2–‘there should only be 1 Roman rite!’, that old ‘everyone must worship my way!’ attitude, and the stubborn refusal to admit that the EF is far closer to what Sacr. Cons. describes than the OF.

    What V2 could have provided for was a number of options to portions of the mass, without abolishing it wholesale. It could have opened things up to different ways of doing things, perhaps omitting a bit here and there, while preserving the option of the old. Instead of optionality, however, the same monolithic, controlling mindset continued–‘you must do it this way.’

    1. @Tony Phillips – comment #8:
      Tony, the 1970 kept a lot of things, mostly all major, and some minor.

      If some Catholics want to worship in historical architecture, with choral music or plainsong, and with a high degree of ceremony, they don’t need the 1962 Missal to do it.

      The problem really seems to be ecclesiological, unless there’s some objection to saints beatified after 1962, or the St Michael prayer which anybody can say after Mass, or even the imposition of a pseudo-contemplative spirit masquerading as silence.

      Maybe the question is this: why can’t traditionalists respect authority? Why must it be a conspiracy theory that duped 2,000 bishops?

      By the way, the Mass was changed, not ended.

  8. Good point Todd. These revisionist Old Mass people think the Church was bamboozled by John and Paul, but most of John Paul 2 and especially Benedict were truly right on target. It’s funny (sort of) how many on the right do like to lob at others the term “cafeteria catholic” yet they are just as guilty. They latch on to the few clerics who espouse their misguided view and get upset at us who are faithful and obedient to Mother Church through her glorious Second Vatican Council. The aforementioned is anything but complete and we have much work to do – yet now we are held back by folks who believe all those thousands of priests/bishops/lay/sister faiths, guided by two popes, were wrong. I’m sure the devil is rejoicing as a result.

    1. @Sean Whelan – comment #10:

      Would you please refrain from such generalizations?

      Bl. Pope Paul VI spoke several times that he regretted the sacrifice of the Latin linguistic heritage in the Roman church. I am convinced that he did not lie when he said that he lamented the inevitable loss of Latin in the center of the liturgical life of the Church. I am certain that he derived great spiritual strength and comfort from the heritage of the Latin language, as I do and many other Catholics still do as well.

      Even so, the near absolute destruction of the holy treasure of the Latin heritage in the practical life of the Church did very little to stem the creeping postchristianity which Bl. Pope Paul ardently desired to reverse with the new liturgical books. So why did he make this solomonic sacrifice? I believe that at the time he felt that he had no choice in order to save souls and protect the Christian life. Even the most well-intentioned decisions often bear grave collateral damage.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #11:
        If there is a destruction of Latin heritage, it is likely due in part to people letting it go. And if people let it go, it probably wasn’t that deeply a part of their faith to begin with.

        I think there are deeper essentials of the faith. One person’s treasure is another’s burden.

      2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #11:

        Then please refrain from such hyperbole. Destruction of latin heritage? Please. The way that people overwhelmingly and quickly abandoned latin is a clear sign that it was of little value to them. If it brings comfort to you, fine, but it does not to the clear vast majority of Catholics worldwide.

  9. From Blessed Paul VI’s address:
    “The liturgical reform opens up to us a way to reeducate our people in their religion, to purify and revitalize their forms of worship and devotion, to restore dignity, beauty, simplicity, and good taste to our religious ceremonies.”

    I am struck by the aesthetic point of view, exemplified by words and phrases such as dignity, beauty, simplicity and good taste. Perhaps the verb “purify” in the previous sentence may arise from an aesthetic judgment.

    Making the revised liturgy more aesthetically pleasing is not a motive that I frequently come across as an impetus for the liturgical reform – I usually hear it positioned as a way to bring about full, conscious and active participation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.