Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reforming the Irreformable?

IT COULD BE evidence of exemplary patience on the part of NLM editor Jeffrey Tucker that I am still counted among the contributors to this blog. More than two years have passed since I posted anything relative to the ‘reform of the reform’. Although I consider myself a capable writer, I am not a fast one, which impairment makes the demands of parish ministry even less favorable to the task of unpacking my liturgical ruminations for those who might care to know them. But that only partly explains the hiatus.

I have the impression that whatever can be said in general terms about the ‘reform of the reform’—its origin and aims, its scope and methodology, the various proposals advanced in its interest (if not in its name), its proponents and critics—has pretty much already been said.1 Although the movement is difficult to define (Is it synonymous with the ‘new liturgical movement’ or but one stage of it?),2 its overall aim was nicely summed a few years ago by the Ceylonese prelate who stated that the time has come when we must “identify and correct the erroneous orientations and decisions made, appreciate the liturgical tradition of the past courageously, and ensure that the Church is made to rediscover the true roots of its spiritual wealth and grandeur even if that means reforming the reform itself…”3

Long before Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he was critically evaluating the reform of the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council, identifying those aspects of the reform which have little or no justification in the Council’s liturgical Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) and which undermine the true spirit of the liturgy.4  As pope it was in his power to remedy the deficiencies—the “erroneous orientations and decisions”—of the reform on a universal scale not only by his teaching and personal liturgical example but also by legislation. He accentuated the liturgy’s beauty, promoted the liturgical and musical treasures of the Western Church (including of course the usus antiquior of the Roman rite), and introduced more tangible continuity with tradition in the manner of papal celebrations (e.g., the ‘Benedictine’ altar arrangement, offering Mass ad orientem in the Sistine and other papal chapels, administering Holy Communion to the faithful on their tongues as they knelt). His successor, Pope Francis, is a different man with a different personality and style, and his priorities clearly lie with other aspects of the Church’s life. I am not holding my breath in anticipation of further official progress along the lines marked out by Pope Benedict, who has deservedly been dubbed the “Father of the new liturgical movement.”5

But let us suppose, practically speaking and perhaps per impossibile, that the ‘reform of the reform’ were to receive substantive institutional support. Even so, I doubt the endeavor would be feasible—if we take that term to mean the reform of the present order of liturgy so as to bring it substantially back into line with the slowly developed tradition it widely displaced. It is not sour grapes about last year’s papal abdication that prompts my saying so. Like any movement, the ‘reform of the reform’ stands or falls on its own principles, not on any one pope or partisan. No: the ‘reform of the reform’ is not realizable because the material discontinuity between the two forms of the Roman rite presently in use is much broader and much deeper than I had first imagined. In the decade that has elapsed since the publication of my book, The Reform of the Reform? A Liturgical Debate (Ignatius Press, 2003), which concerns almost exclusively the rite of Mass, a number of important scholarly studies, most notably those of László Dobszay (†2011)6 and Lauren Pristas,7 have opened my eyes to the hack-job inflicted by Pope Paul VI’s Consilium on the whole liturgical edifice of the Latin Church: the Mass; the Divine Office; the rites of the sacraments, sacramentals, blessings and other services of the Roman Ritual; and so forth.8 Whatever else might be said of the reformed liturgy—its pastoral benefits, its legitimacy, its rootedness in theological ressourcement, its hegemonic status, etc.—the fact remains: it does not represent an organic development of the liturgy which Vatican II (and, four centuries earlier, the Council of Trent) inherited... (continued)


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