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What does Pope Francis mean by ‘irreversible’ liturgical reform?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 24, 2017

Liturgical reform is “irreversible,” Pope Francis says. If he means that history cannot be undone—we can’t rewind the tape—his point is beyond dispute. But surely he does not mean that we are stuck forever with the status quo.

It is noteworthy that in speaking on the liturgical reform, Pope Francis invoked his magisterial authority: something that he has been reluctant to do when he speaks on doctrinal matters. But it is also profoundly confusing. What does it mean to speak with magisterial authority about a process?

Insofar as he is saying that the Church is committed to the process that began with Vatican II (or actually, as he rightly observes, began much earlier and reached a watershed at the Council), he is only reinforcing what Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI taught us. The only real questions involve whether, and how, the process should continue.

Virtually every Catholic, from the crustiest traditionalist to the most iconoclastic radical, will agree that something should be done to the liturgy. Is there anyone satisfied with the current state of liturgical affairs in the Catholic Church? I doubt it. If you are reasonably happy with the liturgy in your own parish, you need only take a short trip—to another parish, another town, possibly another diocese—to experience something that you find appalling. So the process of reform should continue. But in what direction?

The success of liturgical reform, the Holy Father tells us, requires “time, faithful reception, practical obedience, wise implementation.” Surely by now, 50 years after the Council, we’ve had enough time. But faithful reception and practical obedience have been in short supply, at least in my experience.

Personally I am not a traditionalist. I love the Latin Mass, and attend it occasionally, but I do not seek it out. Ideally I would like to see the Ordinary Form enriched by adding some elements of the older ritual (and vice versa), as Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah have recommended. But for now I would be content to worship regularly in a parish where the liturgical norms of the Ordinary Form are followed faithfully, and Mass is celebrated with reverence. Yet in 50 years I have never lived in such a parish. In the healthiest parishes that I have found, some priests show a “practical obedience” to the liturgical norms; others improvise freely. So the norms really aren’t “norms” at all; they are something closer to aspirations.

(Pope Francis also says that the reformed liturgy must be the action of the people—that is should be “popular” rather than “clerical.” So can I safely assume that the Holy Father sympathizes with my plight? Would he agree that priests should not change the liturgy on their own initiative, to suit their own personal preferences?)

Pope Francis urges us to guard against “unfounded and superficial interpretations” of Vatican II teachings and “practices that disfigure” the Council’s vision. So our challenge today is to understand the Council’s teaching, in the light of a process that was already underway before Vatican II was convened.

In his address to Italy’s National Liturgical Week, Pope Francis reminded his audience that movement to reform the liturgy began with a commission created by St. Pius X, and continued with the encyclical Mediator Dei by Pope Pius XII. And that process is “irreversible,” he now definitively states. Those two Pontiffs blazed the trail, and we should still be following it. So if abuses have cropped up—liturgical novelties that “reverse” the direction set by Mediator Dei,” say, or practices that are demonstrably counter to the instructions of Sacrosanctum Concilium, they should be treated as aberrations and rooted out.

Pope Francis is notoriously unsympathetic to calls for the “reform of the reform.” But the logic of his August 24 speech points unavoidably in that direction. If we have not yet achieved the goals of the reform, and those goals were established more than 100 years ago when the process began, we need to examine where, how, and why things have gone awry.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Sep. 18, 2017 8:15 PM ET USA

    Actually, I fear that Pope Francis does very much mean that "we are stuck forever with the status quo." I see no signs that he's fundamentally dissatisfied with the way the Mass is now offered, fifty years on from the end of the Council. His remarks about "unfounded and superficial interpretations" is non-specific, and the freight train of 1970's ugliness will keep on chugging through the huge gap created by such vagueness.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Aug. 26, 2017 9:26 AM ET USA

    Interesting spin on his (misleading, IMHO) remark about the people & their action. Perhaps at Mass we should remember that we are participators, not inventors. I call myself traditional, not Traditionalist. (I fear the Pope rigidly opposes the latter.) At St. Mary's in Kalamazoo, we are blessed to be able to try to do both rites ad gloriam Dei.

  • Posted by: feedback - Aug. 26, 2017 2:54 AM ET USA

    It needs to be established whether a liturgical reform has been taking place according to the trajectory set by "Sacrosanctum Concilium." In the Western parts of the Catholic world it seems that many priests give strong preference to their "pastoral feelings" rather than liturgical norms, in which case the 50-year old "reform" is ready for a reform: irreversible and rigid. Pope Francis invoking his magisterial authority could indicate that he expects opposition to his plans, whatever they are.

  • Posted by: jackbene3651 - Aug. 24, 2017 10:34 PM ET USA

    If Pope Francis wants the faithful to respect his 'Magisterial Authority' he has to respect that of his predecessors. Questioning the infallible pronouncement by Pope St John Paul II that only men can be ordained priests is not a good way to do that.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Aug. 24, 2017 5:47 PM ET USA

    You have to wonder when the reforms mandated by the Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium were ever really implemented. Many people seem to think that only the reforms mandated by the dubious "spirit" of the Council were the ones that have been implemented in the last fifty years.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 24, 2017 4:02 PM ET USA

    Pope St. Pius X was dealing with Modernists in his time as his enduring encyclical, Pascendi, attests. He was not dealing with an inconsequential bunch; they continued to work. By the 1960s, Modernism was all the more potent. If one had to find a word to describe the liturgy in the second half of the 20th century, one that fits well is "departure.' Things will go awry until there can be a return. Then, moving forward well-grounded might just prove a viable endeavor. The status quo is not.