Who Cares about Liturgy?

When Pope Francis first began his pontificate, many people said he just didn’t care very much about liturgy, or that liturgy “isn’t his thing.” When he appointed Cardinal Robert Sarah – a man with no liturgy background, and leanings and tastes far different from the Pope himself – to head the Congregation for Divine Worship, that assumption was reinforced.

Over the past year, however, a series of events has challenged this assumption. First, Francis called Sarah on the carpet after the speech in London in which he urged priests to start celebrating Mass ad orientem. Second, he appointed a large group of new members to the Congregation for Divine Worship. These appear to be carefully chosen to work in sync with Francis’s leadership. Third, he has set up a commission to effectively repeal Liturgiam authenticam, the problematic Fifth Instruction on the Right Interpretation of Sacrosanctum Concilium which has guided liturgical translations – and caused no end of discord – over the past fifteen years.

I think this notion that “Pope Francis doesn’t care about liturgy” needs to be revised. He cares; he just has not acted in the way many people expect a person who “cares about liturgy” to act. What looked like neglect was (perhaps) instead the assumption that interference was not needed. He tried to be pastor to all. He did not stake out an ideological position on contentious liturgical issues.

For Francis, liturgy has been neither the focus of praise or blame in his analysis of what ails the Church today. The reforms of Vatican II have never been something he wanted to re-litigate. He takes them for granted as a healthy development. And just as a person in good health does not spend time going to doctors, so the liturgy has been “let run.” A lack of interference, however, should not be interpreted as a sign that someone doesn’t care.

What do we mean when we say someone does or doesn’t “care about liturgy”? Unfortunately, it seems to me that we too easily equate “caring about liturgy” with an ideological approach and a militant agenda. Caring about the liturgy translates into having grand plans, based on critical thinking.

Yet don’t many pastors “care about liturgy” in the same way that Francis does? They care about celebrating it prayerfully (as do their parishioners). They observe the rubrics with intelligent pastoral adaptations. They draw on the liturgy for their own spirituality and catechetics. When something threatens, they move in to remove the threat. But otherwise, they let it run. They trust it will do what it is intended to do. Sometimes the best way to care for the liturgy is just to get out of the way.

Over the past year, however, it seems to me that we have seen Pope Francis begin to act more assertively in the liturgical realm. It would be hard to interpret this in any other way than as a judgment call: the “reform of the reform” and its signature achievement, the instruction on translations, are not the way forward, and Francis has seen fit to step in and change direction.

So in addition to the laid-back approach from Francis, we may now be seeing more of the assertive approach. Francis’s new roster of members of the CDW is a very interesting and diverse group. I look forward to seeing what they will do, together with him. The bishops’ conferences also will probably have a bigger role in liturgical regulation under Francis, as Vatican II envisioned. This will be an interesting development to watch.


  1. Rita – good analysis, and I agree.

    I thought John Paul II showed grew more assertive about worship as his pontificate progressed, too.

    On the other hand, when Benedict was elected, I half-expected a hailstorm of edicts and mandates on liturgy, as clearly it was a major personal interest of his, but that never materialized either.

  2. Give the conferences of bishops full authority to approve liturgical translations, with appeals to the Holy See allowed only on points of doctrine.

  3. Franz Karl Prassl

    Good observations!
    The care about liturgy one may also see in the musical settings of papal liturgies in Rome.
    Compare a mass 3 years befoer and now: more italian, more congregational hymns, but together with the Cappella Sistina and not against it.
    There are small sympathic changes.

  4. Considering that Liturgy is the heart and soul of the Church, the center of our being as Christians, this abysmal slide into rubricism and so called ‘authentic translations’ has to be held up for judgement. Vatican II called for worship ‘in the language of the people’ and all it beauty and simplicity, but under Benedict a committee chose to flaunt Vatican II and drag us into some form of anglicized Latin reversion. I still feel that the 2010 Sacramentary (or do we now have to call it a ‘missal’) robbed liturgy of its vibrancy. Many spoke out but were disregarded. I recently attended Liturgy in the Cities, where a cluster of parishes are still using the 1975 texts and it was a breath of fresh air for me. Rather than being a sign of conservatism (I am the last person on this planet who could be accused of this), I felt once again in touch with my mother tongue. Francis in his wisdom may not fully appreciate the ramifications which 2010 imposed on the English tongue. The Germans certainly resisted the tampering of their time-honored texts. If Francis is advocating decentralization, then it should be left to national conference of bishops to determine translations, as was the practice of Vatican II. ICEL, despite its critics, was at the cutting edge of honoring the vision of the Council. Restore it to its post-Vatican prestige, allow it to continue with national conferences throughout the Anglophonic world, and put an end to Roman interference and imposition. In these days of re-evaluation of Martin Luther, perhaps Henry VIII was not too far off base with ‘the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this land’. All power to Henry and to Martin, whom history today is seeing in a different, non parochial, light.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        Were there Protestant nonconformists under Henry VIII? Strict Calvinists perhaps?

        English Protestant nonconformists were as often persecuted as Catholic recusants in the 16th and 17th centuries. The persecutions are a reminder that liturgy enforced by law, whether civil or ecclesiastical, cannot contain the liturgical aspirations of all in the realm. When Rita notes that prudent deviations from the missal are sometimes warranted, she correctly captures the necessity for liturgical flexibility as a way to keep assemblies coherent.

      2. @Jordan Zarembo:
        Yep. No less than Queen Catherine Parr came razor close to edge of it. Henry VIII’s reformation religious policy (if it could be called that) was a lethal, shape-shifting thing. Roughly 50 alone were put to grisly deaths after the enactment of the Act of Supremacy, for Protestant heresies, and countless others subjected to less.

        The one person in highest places who had the savvy to survive well the shifting sands was none other than The King’s Beloved Sister: Anne of Cleves. She outlived all of Henry’s wives by several years, was given an ample estate in her annulment settlement (giving her the financial independence to avoid having to go back and be a pawn of her brother the Duke of Cleves in the Continental marriage market), and lived to be given a place of honour at the coronation of Queen Mary I. She died quietly in 1557, as a Catholic. (I imagine Henry’s other wives would have given her a standing ovation for that performance.)

  5. Ah, but “flexibility” on the rubrics can run both ways. If “flexibility” is really what you want then it should be fine if ad orientem celebrations multiply as long as it’s a change that happens at the grass roots level. Although one could argue for greater flexibility to offer the Mass in a more culturally centered way; one could never forbid Mass to be offered in a more Roman fashion being that we belong to the Roman Rite.

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