Paul VI on liturgical reform Part 4

In view of the canonization of Pope Paul VI, the pope of liturgical reform, in October, Pray Tell is occasionally  publishing some of his most significant statements on liturgical reform. This helps us understand the Church’s understanding of liturgy, and also reflect on how far we have to go in implementing the teaching more fully!

1. It is unavoidable that at the beginning there should be some confusion and uneasiness. It is simply normal that a spiritual and practical reform that affects ingrained and devoutly observed religious practices should cause confusion and that it should not always please everyone.  2. But a bit of explanation, preparation, assistance kindly given have quickly quieted uneasiness and made people understand and like the new order of things.  3. We should not think that after a while there can be a return to the former, undisturbed devotion or apathy. No, the new way of doing things will have to be different; it will have to prevent and to shake up the passivity of the people present at Mass. Before, it was enough to assist; now, it is necessary to take part. Before, being there was enough; now, attention and activity are required. Before, everyone could doze or perhaps even chatter; now all must listen and pray. We are hopeful that soon celebrants and people can have the new liturgical books and that their literary and typographical quality will be no less worthy than that of the former books. The assembly becomes alive and active; taking part means allowing the soul to become attentive, to enter into the dialogue, to sing, to act. The unity of a community action, consisting not only of outward gestures but also of an inner movement of faith and devotion, invests the rite with a special power and beauty. The rite thereby becomes a chorus, a concert; it takes on the rhythm of giant wings, soaring toward the heights of joy and of the divine mysteries.

(General Audience, March 17, 1965)


  1. Very powerful words. But how can we do this effectively?
    After all these years some are still assisting rather than participating. While there is no magic bullet I’d like to hear about ways people have helped facilitate the transition to full, active, conscious participation.

  2. These words are so stirring! I think doing it well means that it is not the sensibility of the Priest, or the Music Director, or the liturgy director that counts, but that of the people who participate. This takes a sustained effort at assessment: are the homilies touching people? Is the music engaging them, not just entertaining them? Do they feel a part of the rites? Finding this out is not easy at all–much easier to plan, and then see if it went off without a hitch, rather than discover, even if carried off perfectly, was this destined to be a dud? This is the crux: whom to ask and how? And it calls for patience as well, especially for musicians. A music director will rehearse a piece with the musicians during the week, brush it up Sunday morning, and then hear it a couple of times Sunday during liturgies. That’s five times as often as the person in the pew heard it…assuming you get weekly attendance. How then to keep music fresh for the musicians, without constant change the puts the people in spectator mode? Finally it takes commitment. It means not telling people what things “mean”. A beautiful post-communion meditation simply sends the wrong message: it says “Now listen up! Here’s what you are to make of all this.” Sorry: that’s for them to decide! Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Paul VI!

  3. There are different levels of participation, and different levels of comfort.
    When I was a kid, I just hated it when people were bullied by the parochial brass to move forward, sing louder, hold hands etc…… It was mortifying to deal with.
    Sometimes, attentive presence is quite enough. A response sung sotto voce may be more meaningful than blared out reflexively.
    Invite, don’t intimidate.

  4. Too bad his words here don’t correspond to any celebration of the Novus Ordo I’ve ever attended (and I’ve attended a lot of them). But they could apply well to the Solemn High Mass of our Roman Catholic tradition, which Paul VI said goodbye to.

    1. Peter, let me re-state the mission of Pray Tell: to support and advance the vision of the Second Vatican Council and the liturgy of the Catholic Church as reformed in accord with the Council under Paul VI.

      If you support that mission and wish to help all of us better put Vatican II into practice, your contribution is welcomed. There is certainly much work to be done in implementing the Church’s teachings on liturgy – we’re not there yet.

      But if you do not support this mission and write from a position of rejection of Vatican II and the liturgy of Paul VI, your comments are not welcome. We’ve all heard all those arguments before and really have no desire to hear them yet again.


  5. The first Masses I encountered that seemed truly to embody the vision and spirit that Pope Paul VI sets out in this citation were in Palo Alto, California, at the Stanford Newman Center: a very modern church, the people very close to the altar, the priest facing the people, a relaxed style, though reverent and in many ways formal – with incense, for example. It was done entirely in Latin, with heavenly chant and polyphony from a choir led by Prof William Mahrt. The preaching each Sunday was wide-ranging, often bringing Thomas Aquinas and Teilhard de Chardin into the same homily.

    Most of all, it seemed natural and unforced, not at all a “show”, not a militant protest against other ways of celebrating Mass.

    Then, in London, the same Mass of Paul VI, in many different churches: slightly less formal at St Mary’s Cadogan Street, more so at the Oratory, somewhere in between at Farm Street and at Westminster Cathedral. There are others.

    Latin, glorious music, incense, and a spirit of quiet and reverence, with the people actively engaged, singing their responses and celebrating with the priest. As an elderly priest at Farm Street told me, they had celebrated the Missa Normativa there, in Latin, since the day it was promulgated by Paul VI. It was simply what they did. And when Pope Benedict XVI came to the Cathedral to celebrate on his visit to London, there was no substantive difference: yes, more pomp, and we certainly don’t get new music by Sir James MacMillan every Sunday, and the 6-candle arrangement that Pope Benedict preferred in front of the altar. Similarly when he came to Birmingham for the beatification of John Henry Newman. Similarly in Masses that I have seen Popes St John Paul II and Francis celebrate: the same Mass, celebrated in the same way; and with the spirit of reverent participation that Paul VI sets out so well here.

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