What Did Paul VI Think of the Liturgical Reform?

by Fr. Matias Augé CMF

On April 19, 2018 at his blog Settimo cielo, Sandro Magister, published a post titled “Paul VI and the Liturgical Reform. He Approved it, But Didn’t Like It Much.” In this post, Magister reports on some comments made confidentially by Paul VI to the one who was the master of pontifical ceremonies, Virgilio Noè, who later became a cardinal. The source for these confidential comments is the “Personal Diaries” written by Noè.

For now, I dwell on the first confidential comment: on June 3, 1971, after the commemoration of the death of John XXIII, Paul VI said: “How on earth in the liturgy for the dead should there be no more mention of sin and expiation? There is a complete absence of imploring the Lord’s mercy. This morning too, for the Mass celebrated in the [Vatican] tombs, although the texts were beautiful they were still lacking in the sense of sin and the sense of mercy. But we need this! And when my final hour comes, ask for mercy for me from the Lord, because I have such need of it!”

We do not know what form of Mass was used on this occasion. Since it was the eighth anniversary of the death of Pope John, we must assume that he used any of the forms In anniversario extra tempus paschale, which the 1970 Misssale Romanum assigns to pp. 857-859 (forms A and B) and pp. 860-861 (forms D and E). Or more probably one of the three forms “Pro Papa ” was used (pp. 869-871).

In Form A, the Prayer over the Offerings asks that the deceased, “cleansed by heavenly remedies (remediis purgatus caelestibus),” may be “ever alive and blessed in your glory.” The Prayer after Communion asks God that the deceased be “cleansed from all offenses” (a delictis omnibus emendatus) and attain “for all eternity the precious gift of the resurrection.”

In form B the Collect asks the Lord to “send down…the lasting dew of your mercy (rorem misericordiae tuae perennem infunda) on your servant.” The Prayer over the Offerings speaks of “this sacrifice of conciliation” (sacrificium propitiationis). The Prayer after Communion asks, “if any stain of sin has clung to him (her), may it be wiped away by your merciful forgiveness” (si quae ei maculae peccati adhaeserunt, remissionis tuae misericordiae deleantur).

In form D the Collect asks that the Lord grant “the forgiveness for his (her) sins he (she) always desired” (remissionem, quam semper optavit, peccatorum). The Prayer after Communion asks that the deceased be “cleansed from all sins” (ab omnibus peccatis emundatus).

In Form E the Collect invokes the “God of all forgiveness” (Deus indulgentiarum). The Prayer after Communion asks that the deceased be “cleansed of all sins” (a peccatis omnibus expiatus).

These are basic facts, laid out in a list, that should be examined within the entirety of the liturgical texts. But I believe that they suffice to allow me to affirm that these formulas speak of sin, expiation, and the redemptive power of the Sacrifice of the Mass, and invoke the mercy of God. If we examine the other formulas and prayers in the “Masses for the Dead” section of the Missal (pp. 851-886), this doctrine is confirmed and enriched. It is true, however, that in the three formulas Pro Papa (pp. 869-871), not analyzed here, the theme of sin is only indirectly explicated, inasmuch as the deceased Pope is commended – repeatedly – to the mercy of God in the three formulas.

To claim, on the basis of the aforesaid confidential comments, that Paul VI approved the liturgical reform “but did not like it very much,” we would need a more extensive and documented analysis of Pope Paul’s thinking on the various liturgical books, especially the Ordo Missae. I hope someone will do this.

Fr. Matias Augé CMF is a veteran professor of liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome and former consultant to the Congregation for Divine Worship. Reprinted with permission from Munus: Liturgia e Dintorni.”  Tr. awr.


  1. Anyone who compares the texts of the old Requiem and the new Masses for the Dead will see the radical difference. It’s not about finding one or two words here and there. It’s a tectonic shift in mentality, which of course PT readers will celebrate as a liberation from medieval gloom and doom, while the trads will see it as one more example of a modernity-accommodating softening of the tough message of Scripture about the Four Last Things.

  2. Some sleight of hand here.

    Father details references in texts he admits were probably not used (indeed, one imagines the texts employed must have been those “Pro Papa”); only at the end does he admit that the texts likeliest to have been employed only indirectly refer to the concepts the pope is quoted as mentioning.

    Were one to examine the corresponding texts in the traditional Missal, one would see the startling contrast to which the pope was referring in fuller light.

  3. I agree. Most Catholic funerals have become de facto canonizations, whether in the eulogy or in the comments from the presider. I’ve heard statements like this in countless funeral homilies: “The funeral is not for the deceased, they are already in heaven with God. The funeral is to comfort those of us left behind.” I only wish I were kidding or exaggerating.

    With that understanding, is it any wonder why more and more people opt to skip the funeral Mass in church and just have a simple service at the funeral home, if any at all? Everyone can go to the bar and raise a glass if all you need is a comforting ritual.

  4. So, the liturgy doesn’t scare the hell out of people anymore. Is this a thing?

    My reading of biographies of saints of all ages was that their faith was grounded in a relationship that inspired them to great heroism. Mother Teresa didn’t go to Kolkata because she was afraid of another place. Maybe a mature Christianity suggests we shouldn’t worry about the monster under the bed if we don’t fall asleep and behave ourselves, but readily embrace good behavior because of what beckons tomorrow morning.

    1. One reason to talk about sin at a funeral might be to scare the hell out of people. But another reason might be to praise God’s mercy all the more. I do sometimes get the impression at funerals that God didn’t need to be all that merciful because the deceased was on the whole a great guy.

  5. We have at least three issues here, all important.
    1. Is the reformed funeral liturgy more deeply Catholic and Christian, reformed according to the principles of the Second Vatican Council? I believe it is – it is faithful to the “tectonic shift” of the Council. I’m sure not everyone agrees with me, and I think we’ve probably heard all the arguments on this and there isn’t a lot new to say.
    2. Have the Catholic faithful grasped the spirit of the reformed liturgy, and is it the spiritual foundation of their lives? Do they live from the texts and symbols of the reformed liturgy? I think not. I agree with Pope Francis – we’ve only implemented half of the Council and now we must implement the other half. The structures of the reformed liturgy are great, and now we have to learn how to experience them meaningfully. (Our failure to do this is one of the causes for the rise of the Tridentine liturgy, which is a major detour in our efforts to appropriate the reformed liturgy, and the existence of this movement is a pastoral disaster which will have to be overcome someday – but that’s a post for another day.) Specific to the topic of this post, the Catholic faithful (and clergy) do turn funerals into canonizations, which is missing the point of the reformed liturgy. There should be a spirit of devout prayer for the dead for the forgiveness of sins, in the context of fuller expression of Paschal hope as the Council decreed.
    3. What did Pope Paul VI think of the reformed liturgy? Let’s look at all the evidence, not just a few anecdotes. The evidence will show that he supported it very strongly. I expect that truth will eventually emerge, and efforts to argue otherwise between now and his canonization will collapse under the weight of evidence.

    1. Fr Ruff

      Regarding your second point, a couple of observations:

      1. One reason I grown to appreciate the choice of violet vestments for funerals is that, as a vestment color in the conciliar liturgy, it has been given an additional layer of meaning in Advent, that of hopeful expectation in reference to the three comings of the Lord, as well as for the forgiveness of sins, and that is well joined to the purposes of the funeral liturgy.

      2. It’s not yet clear to me, outside places like France, that the permission for the preconciliar is a major detour or pastoral disaster. It’s very noticeable in the virtual Catholic world, to be sure, but on the pastoral ground, not nearly as much. If anything, it can be turned into an opportunity for those of us who promote the conciliar reforms to be more self-critical about how persuasive our promotion of the reforms have been in real enduring terms, to revisit the evidence for our arguments now that a half century of it has been gathered, and modulate our promotion (and, perhaps, consider how reform should continue). Perhaps that’s what could be Providential about it?

      1. KLS,
        I agree very much on purple. I used purple for the funeral of an aunt and it seemed very right. I sort of wish the permission for white and for black would go away, and we’d all agree that purple is the color. But I know there is a good case some have made for a gray that is sort of a mix of black and white.
        And I very much like your more hopeful reading of what the Tridentine movement will offer the church. May it be so, please Lord!

      2. White, purple, black: why not all three? White vestment with purple and black orphrey. If I were a designer, I’d go for that. If we want to present a vestment as “sad,” I’d vote for polyester of any color: they’re most often cheap and quite a lament when used.

    2. I suspect that, as with most people when it comes to questions of prudential judgment, there were things about the new Mass that Pope Paul VI liked and things that he did not like. To take one incident or another and say that he liked, or disliked, every aspect of the reform would most likely be false. I do not have to eat the whole cow to like a good steak.

    3. We were recently in Rome to assist a dear friend and spent time in the Addolorata Hospital whilst she was consulting with her doctor and then receiving a blood transfusion. She told us to go for a coffee, to visit the chapel, and just to walk around the grounds.

      The chapel there opens onto the main floor and all can’t help but look in. I noticed a few people standing at a podium behind the last pew. After I finished the best coronetto con crema that I’ve ever had I moseyed over to the chapel to see what those folks were reading. I was much edified to learn that they were reading the proper lections for the day from the official Italian Lectionary.

      I suspect that this was not a singular experience because the pages seemed well-thumbed.

      Perhaps this is a small indication that at least some of the faithful derive spiritual nourishment from the reformed liturgy.

  6. Perhaps the reason papal masses in the reformed liturgy don’t mention expiation as much is because the popes don’t need it. I mean we are 3 for 3 for saintly deceased VII popes.

    Joking aside many of the prayers do mention mercy, purification, and intercession. Just some are more opaque than others. I am generally happy with the mass as is in the reformed rite. That said, one of the thing I would change would be to prune some of the plethora of options from the rite. So many options make it difficult to internalize the reform. And I would nominate the expiation lite prayers from the commeration of the dead as the first to go.

  7. One of the most impressive books I have read is “Accompany Them with Singing,” by Thomas G. Long, available at several public libraries in my county. The author understands the issues and presents his insights well.

    Having been around for the Dies Irae and the Libera eas de ore leonis funerals, I can appreciate the confidence and trust in Our Lord presumed in the reformed Liturgy.

    My beef is more with friends who proclaim their knowledge of the deceased. Even in the funeral parlor that is presumptive. Yes, accompany them with singing.

  8. If the chasuble is black or violet then what color is the funeral pall?
    And why did they wear red at John Paul’s funeral?

    1. The Cardinals who concelebrated St John Paul II’s funeral Mass wore red vestments because red is the liturgical colour of the apostles and Peter is sometimes referred to as the ‘Prince of the Apostles’

      1. Red is the color for apostle-martyrs, not all the apostles. The color worn for St. John the Divine is always white. I’d could be proved wrong, but think that it’s a stretch to say that’s why they wore red for that funeral. More likely someone was wanting to be cool and imported a “byzantinization” into it by suggesting they wearing dark red like Greek Catholics do for funerals. Don’t forget, there was also a Greek Catholic panakida (memorial service) at the end before the took the body to bury it, so that wouldn’t have been the only byzantinization inserted in that Roman rite Mass.

  9. Let me offer a reference to help (I hope) the discussion:

    Robert J. Hoeffner, “A Pastoral Evaluation of the Rite of Funerals,” Worship, v. 55 (Nov 1981), pp 482ff.

    The author speaks to the various “levels” (ages) of theology reflected in the texts, as well as the American context (including individualism). He also addresses the practices of other rites preceding death and their convoluted history.

    Unless one realizes that the current collection of liturgical texts expresses various theologies of what happens after death (and how we should prepare for death), it may be difficult to evaluate the texts we now have in the Missal, the Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying, and the Order of Christian Funerals.

  10. Was there more than one person who put those words in Paul VI’s mouth? It is pretty clear that the old pre-conciliar rite did have lots of acknowledgement of sins and requests for mercy and that the new rite dropped the sentiment although there are still plenty of refernces to the deceased’s sinfulness.

    I believe that when Paul VI died, he was surrounded by people that probably spoke much of mercy. His favorite nephew, etc but the heart attack at the Castel Gandolfo probably cut short those words, maybe not. I hope he heard them..

    I find purple an interesting color choice but if making everyone seem great has eliminated people from coming to funerals, I think that a preoccupation with sin may drive other people away. I think families, in my pastoral experience, say no thank you to the Church because of the Church’s need to control the prayer in a highly vulnerable time of grief and pain.

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