From the Wires: Does the Reformed Mass betray Vatican II?

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Liturgy: Does the Reformed Mass betray Vatican II?
By Mike Lewis

OCTOBER 17, 2022. One of the difficulties in responding to critics of the Vatican II liturgy is that they are attempting to resurrect a debate that was effectively finished in the 1960s and 1970s. This was long before the internet made it possible to digitize and store content. After the implementation of the reformed liturgical rites was completed in the 1970s, most mainstream liturgical scholars considered questions over their legitimacy settled. By the time use of the internet became widespread in the 1990s, very few people were likely motivated to publish 10- or 20-year-old apologias on “why it is preferable to celebrate Mass facing the people” or “10 reasons why the Last Gospel should have been removed from the Mass.”

On the other hand, Catholics who opposed the liturgical reforms remained highly motivated to continue to promote their arguments and seek to win support for their ideas. Therefore, it isn’t difficult to find articles with titles like “Mass ‘Facing the People’ as Counter-Catechesis and Irreligion” or “What We Lost When We Lost the Last Gospel” when searching for commentary on these topics. Responses from the pro-reform camp are most often written as rebuttals to arguments — both recycled and novel — from restorationists, such as Paul Ford’s 2012 defense of Mass facing the people in the PrayTell Blog (one of the few sites on the internet that regularly explains and defends the liturgical reform). Near the beginning of his article, Ford writes, “Some of our friends continue to assert that we regular celebrators of the [Vatican II liturgy] are laboring under a massive misunderstanding of the implementation documents of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.”

Retracing old ground is painstaking and often frustrating to do when only one side of the story is easily available on the internet. I have learned this the hard way. Thankfully, more and more Catholics who accept the conciliar reforms are taking notice of the dominance of traditionalist narratives on the web and are beginning to respond.

This narrative came together in the years after the council, constructed by clergy, liturgists, and theologians who opposed many of the liturgical changes. This story likely picked up steam after years of liturgical abuses and because many of the faithful perceived a lack of reverence and beauty in the typical parish liturgy in the West. One of the pioneers of this movement was the German liturgist and author Klaus Gamber, whose Die Reform der römischen Liturgie (published in English as The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background) challenged many of the liturgical reforms that followed the Council. As Alcuin Reid put it in his review of the book, “Gamber is clear and unequivocal: a large mistake has been made with regard to the liturgy, unprecedented in the Church’s history.”

Gamber’s quibbles are many. They range from a lengthy addendum about a single word — his view that “pro multis” in the words of consecration should translate to “for many” (rather than the then-more common “for all” in vernacular translations) — to much larger concerns, such as his pages and pages of historical documentation and arguments in favor of “turning to the East” (ad orientem) in liturgical worship. In this lengthy section he manages to present a rebuttal to almost every thinkable argument that dares to suggest there is any historical precedent for the priest to say Mass facing the people, even if an ancient church’s architecture would have forced the entire congregation to turn away from the altar during the Eucharistic prayer — “With little physical effort, the faithful were able to turn their bodies in the direction of the East, towards the church entrance” (p. 159).

Gamber also presents some arguments that are repeated ad nauseum by traditionalists today. The fourth chapter, provocatively titled, “Does the Pope Have the Authority
to Change the Rite?” presents an argument against papal authority that is part Cardinal Burke’s 2018 speech about the limits of power and part “Is the Mass of Paul VI licit?” — a treatise from earlier this year written by John Lamont, one of the dissidents who signed the latest open letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy. Gamber makes his case (“the liturgical reforms of Pope Paul VI created a de facto new rite”), but pulls up short of making the accusation:

“Since there is no document that specifically assigns to the Apostolic See the authority to change, let alone to abolish the traditional liturgical rite; and since, furthermore, it can be shown that not a single predecessor of Pope Paul VI has ever introduced major changes to the Roman liturgy, the assertion that the Holy See has the authority to change the liturgical rite would appear to be debatable, to say the least” (p. 39).

By leaps and bounds, the most important of Gamber’s disciples was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger provided a preface to the 1991 French edition, in which he wrote perhaps his harshest words about the liturgical reform:

“What happened after the Council was something else entirely: in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it—as in a manufacturing process—with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.”

Many of Gamber’s ideas were incorporated into Ratzinger’s later work, including The Spirit of the Liturgy. Remarkably (or perhaps providentially) his reforms to the normative Roman liturgy as pope were relatively minor, such as the addition of St. Joseph’s name to Eucharistic Prayers II-IV and an instruction that future translations render pro multis as “for many.” Additionally, it seems likely that Gamber’s theories played a role in Benedict’s notion that opening up permission for the older rite would lead to “mutual enrichment” of the liturgy and — somehow — foster “organic development.”

The “Reform of the Reform” movement picked up some momentum as time passed and the Vatican II generation faded away. Theories began to congeal, such as: the liturgical changes don’t reflect Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Council’s constitution on the liturgy), the Consilium (the committee appointed to carry out the reforms) was hijacked by six Protestants and a freemason, and the idea that the “true” Missal of Vatican II was the so-called Missal of 1965 — a hastily slapped-together, typo-ridden English sacramentary based on the 1962 Missal (with some early changes) that was used temporarily until the new reformed edition was promulgated. There’s a wide-open field to advance ideologically one-sided versions of events because only one side is effectively advancing their version of the story on the internet.

Episode 2 of Mass of the Ages advanced a narrative of the liturgical reform based on several of these theories, and focuses its argument on the notion that the reforms don’t align with Sacrosanctum Concilium. They’ve filled in the gaps with a story that suits their ideology. Their narrative is primarily based on two passages in the 130-paragraph document. One is about Gregorian chant — “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (116). Last year, I wrote about the history of Gregorian Chant in recent centuries, and noted that it had more or less died by the beginning of the 20th century. Since St. Pius X, popes have been encouraging a revival of Gregorian chant with very limited success.

The second passage is “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (36.1). The document then suggests that certain prayers of the Mass could be translated into the vernacular. Clearly, the Mass that most of us experience is entirely in the language of the people. So what’s the story?

Here is where I hand the baton to by John Cavadini, Mary Healy, Thomas Weinandy, who wrote about this topic in a new article for Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal:

Here it is evident that the postconciliar implementation went further than what the Council decreed. As we have seen, the Council Fathers desired that the Latin language be preserved, especially in the people’s responses, although they readily acknowledged that the vernacular was frequently advantageous to the people. What they did not anticipate was the enthusiasm with which the vernacular was accepted by clergy and laity alike. Bishops’ conferences around the world voted to expand the use of the vernacular and requested and received permission to do so from Rome. So widespread was the use of the vernacular that the Vatican decreed in its 1970 General Instruction on the Roman Missal, Cenam Paschalem:

Since no Catholic would now deny the legitimacy and efficacy of a liturgical rite celebrated in Latin, the Council could now concede that “the use of the mother tongue can frequently be of great advantage to the people” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 36), and it gave permission for such use. The enthusiastic welcome given in every country to this permission has in fact led to the situation in which, under the guidance of the bishops and of the Holy See, all liturgical functions in which the people take part may now be celebrated in the vernacular so that the mystery being celebrated may be the better understood (§12).

The vox populi had spoken and had been affirmed by the Church—vernacular it would be. This ecclesial affirmation undercuts one of the most common arguments against the Novus Ordo: that the wholesale adoption of the vernacular, and the reformed liturgy more broadly, is illegitimate because it went beyond what the Council intended. What this fails to note is that Church’s magisterium, in the persons of Paul VI and John Paul II, confirmed these developments, judging them to be authentic liturgical developments that were in accord with the aims of the Council, even if the Council had not explicitly called for them.

Read it all. In fact, read the whole series. I believe they plan a total of eight installments. I’m grateful for the work they have done to present the Church’s side of the story.


  1. Thanks for re-posting this. I have found that series in Church Life Journal interesting myself, for the reasons given – it is hard to find positive explanations of the reform which engage with the criticisms. I look forward to the rest of the series.

    Something which interests me is that Bugnini and his associates are sometimes reported as believing that in time the Church would move away from having a fixed liturgy entirely, and would instead develop a sort of sandbox approach in which parishes and communities would put together their own liturgies from approved elements. That idea has now died a death: the Church still presents the liturgy as something objective and fixed, which celebrants and laity should conform themselves to, and in that sense much of Pope Francis’s latest liturgy document could have been written before the reform.

    Now, as a layman I find it hard to treat the liturgy as an objective thing when I know that much of what I experience is the result of subjective choices made by the priest or by other, more influential members of the congregation rather than being handed down by the Church. I wonder therefore if at some point there will be a move to codify the current missal more strictly. An obvious thing might be mandating the use of Gregorian chant at points where it is currently an option (e.g. singing the common of the Mass and the Creed, using Missa De Angelis or what have you). Recovering Gregorian was a big part of the liturgical movement and has been recommended heartily by many popes, so I could well imagine future moves for its restoration. My local cathedral (Westminster in London) is big on Gregorian chant but nobody suspects it of being part of a traditionalist counter-revolution or anything: it’s vert centrist.

    1. I have celebrated and continue to celebrate the Modern Roman Missal in a variety of ways, with Gregorian Chant or contemporary music, facing the nave or the apse, higher and lower. I love the Modern Mass. However, what we progressives fail to recognize is the alienation the subjective celebration of the Modern Mass has created moving a significant number of Catholics to reject many if not most of the reforms. When they say that only 5% to 20% of Catholics bother with the Modern Mass, meaning 80% to 95% don’t, that should be alarming for everyone. The reason traditionalists prefer the TLM is because it is predictable, very few options and not dependent on the personality and skills of the priest or congregation. The Modern Missal is so diverse in quality and style, depending completely on the priest or congregation, that it is often described as a box of chocolates, “you never know what you are going to get” to quote that famous philosopher, Forest Gump.

      1. I will push back somewhat on this characterization in terms of implied cause-effect relationship. If the TLM were tomorrow to become the universal practice in the USA, I suspect there would still be a high degree of dependence on the personality and style of the priest and congregation. True, there would be fewer explicit “options”, but those explicit options do not exhaust the many ways personalities are brought most saliently to bear on liturgical praxis and experience. The Missals are not magic, they are not silver bullets.

        I do appreciate being able to worship in a cathedral community where the rotation of presiding priests (and cardinal archbishop) are notably devoid of false-ego neediness in liturgical praxis. (The ones of which this is less true in this particular case list towards the traditionalist side of barque, but they are not frequent on the schedule; I’ve certainly beheld many ego-needy priest-celebrants across the spectrum in my decades.)

    2. Something which interests me is that Bugnini and his associates are sometimes reported as believing that in time the Church would move away from having a fixed liturgy entirely, and would instead develop a sort of sandbox approach in which parishes and communities would put together their own liturgies from approved elements. That idea has now died a death.

      Far from it. GIRM 20 is very clear, and has consistently said the following since 1969:

      Since […] the celebration of the Eucharist, like the entire Liturgy, is carried out by means of perceptible signs by which the faith is nourished, strengthened, and expressed, the greatest care is to be taken that those forms and elements proposed by the Church are chosen and arranged [sic], which, given the circumstances of persons and places, more effectively foster active and full participation and more aptly respond to the spiritual needs of the faithful.

      This does mean precisely that for pastoral reasons the community will “put together their own liturgies from approved elements”. The trick, though, is knowing which elements are essential and which are not, and which are changeable and which are not, so as to remain in communion with the generality of the Roman Rite. Most of us are still woefully ill-formed in matters liturgical. We still celebrate in the liturgical straitjacket that you would like to see preserved, and have not fully embraced what the post-conciliar reforms were asking us to do, which was to be far more flexible in our approach, always for solid pastoral reasons.

      The liturgy is an organic, living thing, not a museum piece. In the same way that it has changed and developed across the centuries, it must continue to do so in our time. We have moved beyond the four hundred or so years of stagnation that followed Trent. Yes, the catching-up process has been hard for some, but it can now afford to slow down a little, though certainly not stop altogether. Those who think that by revising the liturgical books we have accomplished all that the liturgical reform asked of us, and that we can now sit back and live happily ever after, are mistaken. The reforms have only just begun. They need to be taken a lot further. The problem is that many people do not know how, and are fearful of change.

      1. But… what about the pastoral needs of people who respond best to a stable liturgy which acts as a fixed point in their lives? I daresay there are some people who would find a variable, flexible approach to liturgy more compelling, but I don’t think they can be assumed to be the majority.

      2. When priests and laity come to the conclusion it is the liturgy or the theology of the liturgy that we are worshipping, when the focus is on the liturgy and reinventing it anew in different ways, then people will drift away to Christian communions who focus on Christ and following Him. Or they lose their faith and become non-Christians or nones. The draw of the TLM for those who are formed in it is that the focus is on Christ and the vertical, the vertical perhaps to a fault, but Christ, the same, yesterday, today and tomorow, is at the center. When we talk about the modern liturgy as though it is God, or the horizontal becomes the center, both then become an idol, Christ is no longer at the center, liturgy and its theology is.

      3. “Christ is no longer at the center, liturgy and its theology is.”

        And thus we have the need for Traditionis Custodes.

        I also found the “term” laityism amusing. There is only one “ism” in the sacramental life. Baptism. A better expression of and living out of this “ism” is what the earthly manifestation of the liturgy is about. When things get in the way, wise guides make changes. When a pilgrimage encounters a body of water, canoes will come in handy. When the group moves forward, it is no longer effective to paddle through a forest or a grassy plain. We’re grateful for the boats, useful in their time. A different means is needed for use to move along from the second shore of the lake.

  2. If Pope Francis would be as severe and authoritarian with those who have deformed the reformed Mass, as he has been with traditionalists and their “rigidity” perhaps the alienation of those who prefer the TLM would be lessened and there would be more liturgical peace in the Church with the 5% to 20% (maybe more) of Catholics who bother with any form of the Mass.

    1. I think you might be right. And I think (though I tremble somewhat to write it) that it would be good for the Church to mandate more of the currently optional things even if the mandates went against my own preference: the stability of the rite is of value in itself.

      I have a (perhaps fanciful) idea that the versus populum/ad orientem dispute could be resolved by mandating ad orientem during Lent and Advent, say, to symbolise our anticipation of Christ (“O come o come Emmanuel!”), and versus populum the rest of the time to represent Christ in our midst. An exemption for churches with architecturally important high altars would seem wise but as a rule I wonder if that would enrich the liturgy all-round.

  3. I must take issue with the author’s contention that the “debate that was effectively finished in the 1960s and 1970s.” First, the reforms were always contentious. Although they may have been in the minority, there were always voices against some or all of the reforms. The only way that this debate could be considered “finished” is that those who temporarily had control of liturgical matters imposed their authority on others and would not allow any dissent.

    More importantly, however, is the idea that the Vatican II generation had a special and unique charism in the Church, that they could overturn centuries of liturgical practice but that their own decisions are beyond criticism. As Pope Francis leads the Church in synodal direction, it is time to listen to the voices of traditionally minded Catholics who have been ignored and marginalized for so long.

  4. “The draw of the TLM for those who are formed in it is that the focus is on Christ and the vertical, the vertical perhaps to a fault, but Christ, the same, yesterday, today and tomorow,”

    Christ didn’t speak Latin.
    For heaven’s sake. If Christ is among us–and He is–then He dwells in a world of historical change. The English language was not in existence 2,000 years ago, or only in an unrecognizable form. In our times, slavery is no longer a legal institution. Women can vote. Societies change, and our language as well; we accept the germ model of disease transmission. And so on. Yes, Christ remains the same, and too His message: but that’s always being shared among us here in the historical world. That message is always being revealed in new ways, in the world at large even as it does in our own prayer lives over the years.
    Sharing with the world is the whole point of the Eucharist. Christ offers his body to share among ourselves. This sharing involves Christ, priests and laity. The Word is seeking to communicate Himself to all. “Christ the same, now and forever” doesn’t mean we should celebrate Mass in Aramaic. It means that Christ communicates Himself today and always. Clearly, this communication goes past the language each one of us speaks.
    Yes, we muddle along. Christ’s reality is always ahead of us. Even at the moment of HIs Crucifixion.

    1. Your use of my quote has nothing to do with the language of the Mass as I fully support a vernacular Mass and a little Latin goes a long way with me, but rather the quote has to do with the Mass and I might add any form of it, when it becomes the object of worship, manipulation and reinvention depending on the priest or congregation, clericalism or “laityism”. Christ is the center. I am all in favor with any form of the Mass being celebrated with this cliche: “read the black and do the red” in a human and divine way.

  5. Only Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and it is our living and evolving relationship with him that is expressed in our communal worship. Christ is the rock of our faith, not one version of the Eucharist that is roughly 500 years old and reflects more the various pieties of the mediaeval period than our deep tradition.

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