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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