Thomas Merton on Liturgical Reform

This piece on Thomas Merton on liturgical reform is really interesting and really good. Which is to say, it agrees with me! Or rather, I agree, broadly speaking, with Thomas Merton on the topic at hand,liturgical reform. As the following excerpt shows, Merton supported the liturgical reform, but not the unfortunate (though probably inevitable) mistakes that would be made, especially at first, in throwing good things away.

“Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand, and replace them with mediocre forms which seem to us to be more meaningful and which in fact are only trite. I am very much afraid that when all the dust clears we will be left with no better than we deserve, a rather silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date series of liturgical forms that have lost the dignity and the meaning of the old ones.”However, despite his concerns about where the liturgical reform might lead, Merton was convinced of the need for renewal on ecclesiological grounds, as he makes clear in his talks to the novices on Sacrosanctum Concilium. Telling the novices that the liturgy is “theology-lived,” he argues that the liturgy is supposed to manifest the “true nature of the church” both to those within and outside the church. This does not always happen, however:

“Does it manifest the true nature of the church if you have one guy in a corner mumbling, and an altar boy kidding around with another altar boy and there’s a bunch of nonsense going on, and nobody knows what’s happening, and there’s just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo going on in the corner?”

The author, Gregory K. Hillis, nicely summarizes Merton’s position:

Merton’s example of liturgical openness rooted in tradition and an ecclesiology of communion is as relevant today as it was in the years following Sacrosanctum Concilium. As he wrote in a 1965 letter, he was “deeply attracted” to “austere, traditional Latin liturgy,” and his journals and letters from 1963 to his death are replete with lamentation about the shape of the liturgical reform and particularly the loss of Latin and Gregorian chant. But his love for the traditional liturgy did not blind him to the problematic ecclesiology often associated with it, and it was for this reason that Merton advocates for a liturgical reform focused on greater lay participation that would enact a new spirit more in line with an ecclesiology of communion.

And this:

Merton’s exhortation to love, and even more importantly, his example of liturgical openness to others rooted in an ecclesiology of communion, remains important today as we continue to squabble about the liturgy…

Do go read the piece, “Communion of Love: Thomas Merton and Liturgical Reform.”



  1. For Merton, then, the important thing isn’t so much whether the Church practices an ‘austere Latin rite’ or a reformed rite; rather, it’s the seriousness and dignity with which any rite is performed that matters.
    I’m sure that altar boys “(kidded) around with each other..and there was just a bunch of mumbo jumbo happening in a corner” during the old Latin rite, just as it can happen today.

  2. It’s funny, but I came away with a rather different sense. Perhaps others don’t see it this way, but the article doesn’t seem like it would be that off putting to those of us with a “traditionalist/ROTR” line of thinking, which also tends to stress adherence to SC by retaining the old forms, but celebrating them in a participatory way. This can be summed up with “‘It is not the old forms that must go,’ Merton argued, ‘so much as the old spirit'” and the fact that he held up a well celebrated Solemn High Mass from 1938 as the benchmark. The first Latin Mass I ever attended was also intensely participatory, and I was impressed by the flow and naturalness of it. It stands in stark contrast to the one “silent Low Mass” I experienced – which likely would have turned me off to the EF entirely had it been my first experience of the old rite. I saw the exact same rite at both, but the spirit (or ecclesiology) of the two were radically different.

    It’s difficult to really gauge what Merton would have thought of the overall liturgical reform, though, because he never experienced it. He passed away before the Novus Ordo. Many of the older traditionalists I know today have told me many times that they were actually very positive and open towards the initial reforms because they took place within the framework of the traditional liturgy.

    1. @Jack Wayne:
      Jack, my sense from reading a number of Merton’s letters and essays, and hearing conferences on SC that he gave to his novices, was that he never became ‘militant’ about the liturgical reform in the manner of many subsequent commentators, both progressive and conservative. What is more, he may have been more sanguine about it given that the Cistercians had, at the time, a distinct rite of their own; I believe they subsequently decided to adopt the reformed Roman rite.

      I don’t agree that he would not have experienced the liturgical reform. In the conferences I mentioned, he and the novices speak of liturgy in the vernacular, priests facing the people, and the like. To be sure, these were not yet official, but he takes the reforms back many decades, mentioning, as just one example, Mediator Dei (1947).

      It simply is a myth that nothing changed between the end of the Council of Trent and the moment in which the evil Bugnini waved a wand and suddenly altered everything. The reforms were already under way. Merton presents SC as confirming them, making them a matter of faith.

      I will try to do a separate post on the conferences.

      1. @Jonathan Day:
        I’ve never heard of the myth you speak of. I felt that my post implied that there were many changes between the council and the implementation of the Novus Ordo, so I apologize if it didn’t come off that way – Merton never experienced the *overall* reform – he only experienced the old Mass in the vernacular and facing the people with some rubrical changes and additions, and these are things the older traditionalists I spoke of also initially didn’t have that big of a problem with.

        I think it depends on what one considers the biggest, or most integral, aspects of the liturgical reform – was it the externals like language and posture, or the extensive changes to the rite itself (words, rubrics, calendar, etc)?

  3. It should be kept in mind that Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk who in his latter years lived as a hermit — within the monastic grounds. And that also he had lived in Europe for some years and was converted by his experience there. He had tremendous influence via his prolific writings and his ‘job’ as novice master at Gethsemane Abbey. He was certainly at home in the austerity of the Trappist life and monastic liturgical style — and the silence of daily life. Ordinary ‘parish liturgy’ was unusual for him even before the reforms after Vatican II.

  4. I should have been clearer that you weren’t promulgating the myth of an abrupt change. This certainly has been a theme in some traditionalist writing.

    You raise good questions: what did changes Merton actually experience, and what changes would he have considered highly significant? I’ll try to touch on both of these in a post on his conferences on SC.

    While we are on Merton, and just to get this out of the way, there’s a fragment from one of his letters to Bob Lax that George Weigel has often quoted:

    I am truly spry and full of fun, but am pursued by the vilifications of progressed Catholics. Mark my word man there is no uglier species on the face of the earth than progressed Catholics, mean, frivol, ungainly, inarticulate, venomous, and bursting at the seams with progress into the secular cities and Teilhardian subways. The Ottavianis was bad but these are infinitely worse. You wait and see.

    Weigel doesn’t usually source the paragraph; as best I can tell, it appears only in Michael Mott’s 1984 biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton.

    The fragment is sometimes cited as a “gotcha” to show that Merton would have become a neoconservative (Weigel’s view) rather than a progressive, had he lived longer.

    1. @Jonathan Day:
      “The myth of an abrupt change”?

      How interesting. We go from little little changes over a long period to sudden and massive changes in a few years. How is this a myth? Somehow I feel the meaning of language slip-slidin’ away…

      1. @Peter Kwasniewski:
        I think both you and Jonathan are right!

        It is certainly true that liturgical reforms had been under discussion long before the Second Vatican Council had even been thought of. Whether you go back to Mediator Dei, Tra le Sollicitudini, Gueranger, the Pseudo-Synod of Pistoia or beyond, the period between Trent and Vatican II, far from being a period of liturgical stagnation, was a period of almost ceaseless discussion of the topic. However, for the most part, the discussion was confined to a very restricted circle, and had little impact as far as the ordinary parishioner was concerned. He/She might have noticed that the priest wore green vestments on Sunday more often following 1903 than he had done beforehand, but his or/her experience of the mass was basically the same. The 1951-55 reforms to Holy Week would have had a greater impact at the parish level, but the constant changes to the breviary, and the principles underlying them, for example, would have gone over most people’s head and would not have concerned them, Consequently, the almost complete abandonment of Latin in the 1960s (to give just one example) would have come as a greater shock to most people than the “experts”, who had been talking about doing this for years beforehand, might have expected. I only became a Catholic in 1980, so my first experience of the liturgy was of the Missal of Paul VI. It was only when I was asked to play the organ for a Missa Cantata in 1986, that I encountered the Missal of St John XXIII, and got a sense of what had been lost. Now, as a priest, I celebrate both forms of Mass and am convinced that they can happily live alongside each other, Benedict XVI’s concept of “mutual enrichment” is a very fruitful one and I think shows the way forward.

  5. Merton was not always a particularly consistent thinker, but one of his great strengths was that he recognized his own inconsistency—recognized that in the midst of life things don’t always line up neatly (see his famous, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going…” prayer).

    Witness these remarks from 1966:

    Dan Berrigan arrived by surprise Tuesday – I was not expecting him until the end of the week. We concelebrated twice – once in the regular present rite, and today, with a new Mass he found somewhere which is very fine and simple. I don’t know how legal we were. It was a very moving simple English text (Canon and all). I think it was composed by Anglicans and has been used by them. Contrast to the Mass I said for Jacques [Maritain], old style, last week. That was very sober, austere, solemn, intense. This very open, simple, even casual, but very moving and real. Somehow I think the new is really better – and is far from anything we will be permitted here for a long time. I have nothing against the old. (Learning to Love, p. 149)

  6. “Does it manifest the true nature of the church if you have one guy in a corner mumbling, and an altar boy kidding around with another altar boy and there’s a bunch of nonsense going on, and nobody knows what’s happening, and there’s just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo going on in the corner?”

    This is a pathetic caricature. It’s no better than if I were to say: “Does it manifest the true nature of the church if you have a priest in a clown-suit spouting mumbo-jumbo about the oh-so-fluffy People of God while red balloons are handed out by liturgical dancers in leotards?” The fact is, the old Mass was (and still is) celebrated with great reverence in countless places, just as the Novus Ordo is celebrated with at least some level of decency and decorum in countless places. Resorting to caricature is the sign of a weak argument.

    1. @Peter Kwasniewski:
      Merton certainly knew the old liturgy celebrated in its finest form, and wrote on numerous occasions of how the liturgy as celebrated at Corpus Christi in NYC had a profound effect on him. And nothing in what is quoted says that that what you call “pathetic caricature” was the only way that liturgy was celebrated before the council. But what reason do we have to believe that Merton was lying when he said that the liturgy was sometimes celebrated in this way?

  7. Peter, you have taken a few of my words out of context, perhaps without reading through the conversation.

    Jack said that Thomas Merton would not have experienced the liturgical reforms because he died before the Novus Ordo Missal was promulgated.

    I pointed out that many of the frequently-discussed changes, such as vernacular language, priest facing the people, etc., started to appear in various places even before the second Vatican Council first convened. Therefore, I suggested, Merton would have seen them; Fritz’s quote from 1966 confirms this, as do comments he made in his conferences for novices.

    1. @Jonathan Day:
      A point of correction – I said Merton would not have experienced the *overall* reform because he didn’t experience the Novus Ordo, but I also stated that he would have seen changes like vernacular and versus populum. You seem to be saying that we are in disagreement regarding this, but we aren’t. Perhaps I could have choses a better word, like the “fullness” of the reform.

      It really boils down to how important the Novus Ordo itself is in defining the liturgical reform. What is truly at the heart of the reform? If a person never experienced the new Mass, but instead experienced experimental variations on the old Mass, then did he really experience the most important and defining aspect of the reform? I would argue that whether or not a person lived to see the new Mass is very important when looking at how that person reacted to the early changes, because the promulgation of the new Mass closed the door on the ability to celebrate Mass as it had been celebrated for centuries and forced people to no longer look at the reform as being in continuity with what had come before. I know many people for whom this was a major game-changer in how they eventually came to regard the reform.

      1. @Jack Wayne:
        Generally when I talk to people who lived through the liturgical reforms, they focus on the vernacular and versus populum. I don’t get the impression that many of them are even aware that a new rite of Mass was introduced in 1969. Liturgy geeks like us may focus on the introduction of new Eucharistic Prayers or the abandoning of the old sequence of collects, but I don’t think this was really a “game changer” for many people.

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