Pope Strongly Affirms Vatican II Liturgy, Calls for Improved Liturgical Formation

In an audience with members of the Congregation for Divine Worship today, Pope Francis reaffirmed the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on liturgy, including the nature and purpose of the liturgy as reformed in accord with the council. The occasion was a CDW plenary assembly on liturgical formation of the People of God.

Francis noted that Pope St. Paul VI founded the CDW 50 years ago, on May 8, 1969, to publish liturgical books “according to the criteria and decisions of the council fathers.” He stated, “The praying tradition of the Church needed renewed expressions, without losing anything of its millennial wealth, even rediscovering the treasures of its origins.”

Noting the issuance of the reformed calendar, missal, and rites for baptism, marriage, and funerals, he said that these were “the first steps of a journey, to be continued with wise constancy.”

The pope described the relationship between the Holy See and bishops’ conferences as one of “cooperation, dialogue, and synodality.” In a clear move away from the centralism in liturgical matters which grew under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis has followed the Second Vatican Council in giving authority back to bishops’ conferences. He cited his motu proprio Magnum principium, which restores authority in liturgical translations to bishops’ conferences. He intended the motu proprio “to promote…a constant collaboration filled with mutual trust, vigilant and creative, between the Episcopal Conferences and the dicastery of the Apostolic See.”

“The Holy See does not replace the bishops,” the pope said, “but works with them.” He said, “It is a question of harmony.”

Addressing polarization in the church about liturgy, Francis recalled that “the liturgy is life that forms, not an idea to be learned.” Quoting his exhortation Evangelii gaudium, he stated that “reality is more important than the idea.”

In a seeming reference to liturgical traditionalists, Francis opposed “sterile ideological polarizations which often arise when, considering our own ideas valid for all contexts, we tend to adopt an attitude of perennial dialectic towards who does not share them.” Some authors have characterized fundamentalism as a response to trauma. While Francis did not cite such sources, he said something similar: “Starting perhaps from the desire to react to some insecurities in the current context, we risk then falling back into a past that no longer exists or of escaping into a presumed future.”

The pope spoke of the importance of maintaining ecclesial communion, of accepting the liturgy with docility and not giving in to “tastes, recipes and currents.”

Returning to the issue of liturgical traditionalism, Francis used strong words in stating: “When we look back to nostalgic past tendencies or wish to impose them again, there is the risk of placing the part before the whole, the ‘I’ before the People of God, the abstract before the concrete, ideology before communion and, fundamentally, the worldly before the spiritual.”

Turning to the topic of the CDW meeting, the pope stated that liturgical formation is not simply about offering knowledge or promoting “dutiful fulfilment of ritual discipline.” There must be attention to “symbolic language, including art, song and music in the service of the mystery celebrated, even silence.”

The pope called for ongoing formation of clergy and laity, especially liturgical ministers.

Echoing the liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, which taught that the liturgy is the font and summit of all the Church’s life, Pope Francis told the assembly that “the liturgy is in fact the main road through which Christian life passes through every phase of its growth. You therefore have before you a great and beautiful task: to work so that the People of God may rediscover the beauty of meeting the Lord in the celebration of His mysteries.”



  1. I am not sure why the Pope’s statement about “sterile ideological polarizations which often arise when, considering our own ideas valid for all contexts, we tend to adopt an attitude of perennial dialectic towards who does not share them” is supposed to be particularly directed to traditionalists. True, he does speak of the risk of “falling back into a past that no longer exists,” but he equally addresses the risk of “escaping into a presumed future.” I don’t see liturgical traditionalists as more prone to ideological polarization than liturgical progressives—after all, you need two poles in order to have polarization.

    1. I could also see the “past that no longer exists” being used to refer to liturgical progressives looking back to the years soon after Vatican II and the “presumed future” being related to an assumption on the part of some litutgical traditionalists who think that all will end up in Latin by default of the passage of time. I doubt that those statements are meant in those ways, but they can be applied according to them.

    2. Fritz, you make a good point. I guess I read the statement as a whole as being a strong affirmation of Vatican II/Paul VI and a rejection of traditionalism, but the Pope does also address the “other side.” I get the impression that the pope wants us all to unite in a center ground that is good, responsible Paul VI liturgy – not Tridentine, and not crazy, loopy, silly things people were doing 40 or 50 years ago (or more recently) in some places. I’m with him on that.

  2. His Holiness is right, “the reality is more important than the idea.”

    This is why many people I know, not particularly nostalgic or versed in liturgical antiquity, began explore and then attend, for instance, FSSP apostolates.

    They saw a stable liturgy of striking beauty that invited them to prayerful participation and a robust community life, and heard preaching that challenged them to lead lives of greater holiness and intimacy with our Lord.

    For them, the reality of what they had seen and experienced was far more important than the idea of going to a normal Mass, or of a particular mode of participation.

    These people I’m thinking of aren’t aesthetes or snobs, either. I’m actually amazed at how blue-collar these communities can be. I’m usually one of only a handful of Latin speakers with an appreciation for classical metre in them. One particularly avid new attendee told me that he loved the EF, and would never go back to worshipping regularly in the OF if given the legitimate choice not to, but he really missed the experience of belting out On Eagle’s Wings, as if one could find a more vilified hymn than that.

    It wasn’t hatred of the other thing that led him there, but an experience of liturgy as prayer so palpably different and compelling, that he took it like a pearl of great price, and bought the field.

    I’ve personally experienced this even more viscerally in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. And I’ve often wondered, if I should not have bought that field for that pearl. Not because it’s pretty, but because I can reach out and touch the angels hovering there. And I would want my own children to have that kairos each week.

    Because it’s about prayer as a reality, an intimate affair of the heart, and the reality of a worshipping community in which to bring up your family.

    It’s a provocative example, I know, and it happens in the other direction as well, I am sure. But it is what goes through my head as a father of three when I hear the phrase, “reality is more important than the idea.” Yes, the reality of my family’s spiritual life here and now.

    1. Sean, your comment is very helpful. Beyond theoretical disputes, there are people with concrete feelings and experiences who are drawn to the old Mass. If – as I believe but I gather you do not – the Second Vatican Council intended the old Mass no longer to exist in its then-form because it doesn’t express adequately the nature of the church, the nature of the community as liturgical agent, the right relationship between liturgy and culture, etc., then comments like yours will be very helpful as we explore how to address people’s feelings and experiences in our celebration of the Vatican II Mass, and how we bring to that Mass everything that can be from your experience.

      I have the impression – this involves a bit of speculation (and perhaps projection) but I think is based on the available evidence – that Pope Francis wants us all to unite around a good, worthy, spiritual celebration of the reformed V2 rites of the church. I doubt that he ever would have issued SP. If I’m right, and if the Catholic Church is to united around the official reformed rites, it will be important to think deeply about how the sentiments expressed by Sean Connolly (and felt by many others) will be incorporated into this forward-looking unity plan.

      This won’t be easy, and in fact seems nearly impossible to me at this point. But the Spirit is mighty powerful, and maybe there is a win-win future ahead of us that will be very deep and rich.


      1. Thanks for the reply, Father!

        Generally, I’m pretty congregationalist for a Catholic, but I think Vatican II was in certain respects, as well. As a major example, the Eastern rites were no longer expected to mime the Tridentine Mass, but were encouraged to recover and express their own traditions.

        This certainly worked against the “unity” of doing the exact same thing everywhere in liturgy, but works toward a more robust unity in diversity.

        However, what is often missed, in my opinion, in the discussion of diversity, of flexibility, and of liturgical change, is that this is a big picture, bird’s-eye kind of view. The need in the pew is felt, more often than not, for stability, for security, and for a sense not only of home, but of a space that facilitates a divine encounter by these virtues, enabling old and young, smart and stupid, to find a place together in the same room and worship together.

        Thus, when traditionalist commentators write of the “superiority” of the EF, I find it possible to ignore that loaded word and to think of the points made as I would consider points made by a Byzantine arguing for the preservation of his own traditions of prayer against change imposed according to outside principles, for instance Latinization.

        While there are communities for whose sake I am glad the reformed rites exist, there are likewise communities well-nourished by the older liturgy.

        I feel as though His Holiness is not a stranger to these thoughts, either. Consider his statement from the Motu Proprio suppressing PCED:

        “constatando che gli Istituti e le Comunità religiose che celebrano abitualmente nella forma straordinaria, hanno trovato oggi una propria stabilità di numero e di vita;”

        To me, this does not read like the language of imminent suppression. Perhaps he does look bemusedly at this obvious historical accident, and wonders where it will go, but I perceive no desire on his part to suppress growing community life beyond pruning.

        Some beloved children began as “accidents.”…

      2. And when I hear liturgical Protestants sigh that, at least their children go to church, though it is informal, scripture-impoverished, and essentially non-sacramental (but still within their denomonational and synodal lines), I am reminded how happy it is that the farthest one can go afield within Catholicism still involves accountability to a fixed Lectionary, the historic structure of the Eucharistic liturgy, and is centered around the celebration of the Sacraments.

  3. “Starting perhaps from the desire to react to some insecurities in the current context, we risk then falling back into a past that no longer exists or of escaping into a presumed future.”

    If one reads Teresa Berger’s and Bryan Spinks’s book “Liturgy’s Imagined Past/s: Methodologies and Materials in the Writing of Liturgical History Today” it becomes evident that it is not only a past that no longer exists, but a past that never existed.


    1. I hesitate to add anything to the dialogue above between Mr. Connolly and Fr. Ruff, but from my interactions with many attached to the “traditional” form of the Roman Rite, while there are certainly those who may be nostalgic for the past and a few who may delude themselves that they are recreating a bygone era, I think a larger portion than you might presume will be quick to agree that their communities and liturgies as they exist today never really existed in the past. (At the very most they might posit that they are trying to celebrate the traditional rites in ways that were not practically attained during its obligatory existence.) I find it hard to believe the argument that this significant portion are driven by nostalgia for the past, as those I know live quite modern and full secular lives, yet this form of the liturgy still speaks to them in ways they clearly find ever-new and relevant.

      1. Regarding modern and full secular lives, I repeat what the late Pierre Jounel, one of the principal ‘laborers in the vineyard’ on the postconciliar reforms, said in an interview in 1994:

        What would you say to those people who don’t want to know the Missal of Paul VI, and to those who, while respecting it, regret that it was imposed to the exclusion of the Tridentine Missal?

        I would say to them that they use computers, that they live with the instruments of the culture of their time, and that they have no reason to get stuck on the 1570 date when the Missal of Pius V was promulgated. Why should the liturgy be frozen then, when it had been periodically renewed up to that date? These people lack historical knowledge. Msgr Lefebvre was absolutely convinced that the ancient formula for Confirmation goes back to the time of the apostles, when in fact it only dates back to the 13th century.

        [Jounel then goes on to demonstrate how Paul VI followed exactly the same procedure with his Missal as Pius V had with the Missal and Breviary in 1570, Clement VIII in 1595 with the Roman Pontifical, Pius X with the psalter of the Breviary in 1911, and Pius XII with the Holy Week rites in 1955. In all these cases, the previous usage was abrogated and replaced by the new. “This is the Church’s constant practice.”]

      2. With respect to that position, Mr Inwood, that still sounds an awful lot like putting the idea ahead of the reality.

        The fact remains that, with full permission, and occasional encouragement, of the postconciliar hierarchy, sometimes thriving communities of Christians have established stable modes of life around a particular expression of the Roman Rite, tolerated, and even granted greater liberty by more recent Pontiffs.

        They could be mocked, I guess, for being stuck in the 1570s. Some of them might characterize other Christians as being stuck in the 1960s. Every liturgical expression has historical provenance and a certain degree of historical baggage, but finding an expression that is historically rooted to remain relevant today, and wishing it to remain unaltered, or at least altered with profound sensitivity and restraint (I know few traditionalists who are categorically opposed to any change in liturgy post 1570), is no evidence of being stuck in the past.

        It’s no different to the fact that neither you nor I are 1st century Palestinians. Even though I live outside the context of the examples used in Christ’s parables, I still find the parables deeply relevant. And I would be loathe to change a word of them, to modernize them, because I would always wonder if the updated circumstances would be as good analogies as Christ’s own, and I would lose a sense of direct historical continuity with past Christians, whose writings and experiences are made more relevant to me by the alignment of our experience in reading the same very words of Our Lord.

        I suppose a man could sell his car to buy a rare, vintage vinyl album mostly full of terrible, forgotten garbage, but with the single greatest song ever recorded by his favorite band on it. But he could also buy a field to get a pearl.

  4. “I am reminded how happy it is that the farthest one can go afield within Catholicism still involves accountability to a fixed Lectionary, the historic structure of the Eucharistic liturgy, and is centered around the celebration of the Sacraments.”

    By those standards Peter was Protestant.

    In any case Sean you paint Protestants with a broad worn brush. I think the reality is often quite different.

    1. Thanks for the reply.

      Don’t misunderstand my point as being made on the basis of vague generalities. I am not actually even trying to comment on Protestantism as such.

      My point of reference is that of a particular, specific example within synodal Lutheranism, a family known to me personally. The father is very committed to a Sunday celebration of liturgical worship centered on the Sacrament, the Lord’s Supper. The son and his family attend a church in the same denomination, same synod, which often celebrates a Sunday service without celebration of the Eucharist, and dispenses with a lectionary except for a single reading.

      My point isn’t trying to say, “How horrid is that!” Nor am I unaware, as you seem to imply, of the historical development of liturgy.

      I just mean to say that, structurally, Catholic consensus about what the Sunday celebration is and ought to be, despite broad aesthetic and even textual differences, remains pretty tight, and we shouldn’t overlook that fact or take it for granted, as the situation is different for some of our close ecclesiological relatives.

      In other words, Catholics, even at wildly opposite poles, are often far more united in our concept of what worship is and does than we give ourselves credit for. And this becomes especially plain when taken in the context of denominations where the very core structure of the Eucharistic liturgy, or the centrality of the Sacraments, is called into question.

      1. Hesitating to enter this discussion….oh, no I am not,,,,I identify with Sean’s comments as a Pastor in the LCMS. Before I retired, I celebrated the Eucharist at every service with full vestments, and my parish gradually got used to it and enjoyed it. When I retired, my wife got to choose our parish church as she had to listen to me every Sunday for all of those years. While serving as an Interim Pastor, she chose a very “alive” congregation, but for some reason I still don’t fathom, our Pastor (now a friend as well) insists that presiding sans vestments, or even a clerical collar, is somehow more inviting to those who aren’t used to liturgical worship. While we do that abhorrent Eucharist every other week, in the most informal service we celebrate Holy Communion every week. So, shortly after my arrival there I was asked to preach and preside, I felt naked up there in “street clothes”, but am learning to adapt. A nice thing about being retired is that I am not in charge of anything, and every now and then I do altar and pulpit supply in another congregation, with the caveat that I charge double if there is no Holy Communion. There’s more than one way to get something done….

  5. From the address:
    Therefore, “we”, and not “I”, resounds in prayers and gestures; the real community, not the ideal subject. When we look back to nostalgic past tendencies or wish to impose them again, there is the risk of placing the part before the whole, the “I” before the People of God, the abstract before the concrete, ideology before communion and, fundamentally, the worldly before the spiritual.

    Every time we profess the creed at Sunday Mass, I regret the loss of the second person plural subject. Saying “We believe” was a source of strength for me, and a touchstone for the very point that Pope Francis is making.

    Because of this quote, in addition to the one in the post that has been discussed above, there is no doubt that Francis is leading the church away from the tendency of breaking into splinter groups (even “approved” splinter groups!) that set themselves apart from the mainstream, expressed in the liturgy as it was reformed after the Second Vatican Council.

    “Do it yourself” comes in many forms, of course. There is no question of that. But where is this all going? If we don’t pull together, and approach the reformed liturgy with humility rather than standing in judgment of it — whether by rejecting it in favor of older forms, or crafting ideosyncratic versions that serve only a small, break off group — we lose something precious of the “we” that liturgy calls us to.

    1. While I had no issue with “We” in the Creed, and I believe the “I” proponents fetishized that issue, I would not want to engage in reaction-formation to that and consequently also believe the first person singular works – especially if the Apostles Creed is used, as that usage hearkens to our baptism, in which instance the profession is made for or by us in the first person singular, something all the baptized faithful share and that catechumens will, God willing, share.

      Were I responding to Pope Francis in person, I would suggest that taking critical inventory of “I/me” is even more important in preaching/homilies than prayers (the bulk of which are pre-scripted in Catholic liturgical contexts anyway – and here is a great instance of why that can be a good thing, the Creed issue notwithstanding) or gestures. (Prolepsis note: I am not homilizing here, just a combox comment, which is not suitable for a homily.)

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