No restoration of the liturgy without true determination

Par Philippe Maxence

Français, italiano

There’s no possible restoration of the Church, without considering a time of liturgical transition. Apart from the fact that it will have for effect an improvement of the liturgy, it will also have consequences over a reappropriation by the Christian people of Catholic doctrine and morals. It won’t happen with a wave of a magic wand, but by a permanent impregnation. Lex orandi, lex credendi. It remains that this liturgical effort which inscribes itself in the wider plan of a true reform of the Church, needs men in order to bring it to maturity. Priests, bishops, a pope! And even still, only if the craftsmen of this “return” are truly determined, despite the obstacles they will meet.

So, what do we see? For a little bit more than forty years, this determination has been lacking among Church men, exactly at the time they could have initiated this “return” and were even discussing it. More exactly, they satisfied themselves only with wanting – not too strongly – a control of the reform. Benedict XVI has theorized this tentative, applied to liturgy, by calling it “hermeneutic of the reform in the continuity”, which we could also called hermeneutic of conservation of what was gained in the Council, in line with a moderate perspective.

The new liturgy rectified in accordance with John Paul II

It is clear that John Paul II, powerfully aided by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wanted to impose a third way between the traditionalist response and the forward moves of the progressives. in regards to the liturgy, it consisted in implementing an interpretation of the liturgical reform by trying to place it, in a certain way, in keeping with the liturgical tradition. The official stand consisted then in affirming that the liturgical reform represented the last step of an organic reform of the Roman liturgy, in the line of the previous reforms of saint Pius X, Pius XII or John XXIII. An official stand which had some difficulties, however, to make its way through to the minds so great was to any honest observer the gap between the traditional liturgy and the new, no matter which one of the two liturgies one favored.

In truth, the difficulty did not come only from the intellectual understanding of these liturgies but from the practice itself of the new liturgy. Hence the multiplication of pontifical texts to, at the same time, celebrate the liturgical reform born of the Council and correct its bad interpretations.

However, this desire to correct the abuse and to provide a proper interpretation of the “true liturgy” born of the Council, met its initial limitation with the liturgical practice of the pope himself, notably John Paul II. Despite everything, maybe under the influence of his very Bugninian Master of Ceremonies, Mgr Piero Marini, the Pope of the “restoration”, who was also the Pope of Assisi, presided over Eucharistic celebrations that the least we can say is they were not in harmony with the interpretation the same pope and responsible curial offices tried to convey. In the same way, the first celebration of a so called Zairean Rite in Saint Peter’s Basilica did not take place under the pontificate of Pope Francis but under John Paul II. It is true to say that John Paul II, with his undeniable acting talent, was completely at ease in the new liturgy where the dimension of the “act” of the celebrant plays such an active role.

This distortion between words and actions already signalizes an initial failure to inscribe the reformed liturgy – some would say “revolutionized” liturgy – in Tradition.

The new liturgy traditionalized, as Benedict XVI dreamed of it

The interest shown by Benedict XVI for the liturgy and his personal piety more sensible to the beauty expressed in the liturgy could have modified the outcome in the long run. His Motu proprio Summorum Pontificum was giving a new visibility to the traditional liturgy as well as affirming it had never been forbidden. Even if later he did not actively support his document so that the bishops would leave the parish priests free to implement it, the traditional liturgy still benefited from it, as the number of traditional masses celebrated in the world between 2007 and 2017 simply doubled.

Yet, in creating the notion of two forms – one ordinary; one extraordinary – of the same Roman Rite, Benedict XVI was still trying to inscribe the reformed liturgy in the wake of the former liturgical books, at the same time recognizing the subsistence of two forms. No one was duped of the tactic used to help with the recognition of a right for the old liturgy to exist.

In fact, the intention of the pope was that this coexistence of both forms was to incidentally allow for a correction of one by the other, something called “mutual enrichment”, which was to give way to a “reform of the reform” in order to return to a single liturgical form, completely and truly inscribed in Tradition. Like the Count of Chambord declaring that the movement of reform stopped in 1789 should be taken on again, Benedict XVI obviously intended to take on the course of the organic reforms, not addressing, though not denying, years of liturgical transgressions. The result of this scheme was no more successful than the intent of the successor of the French kings.

The idea of the mutual enrichment was not completely new with Benedict XVI. He had already expressed this idea when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, during the Liturgical Symposium which took place in Fontgombault, France (2001). He then had triggered the reaction of his friend Robert Spaeman who did not see at all in what way or how the old liturgy could be enriched. In reality, it is essentially the new liturgy that Benedict XVI wanted to “enrich”, that is to say transform, but without having to admit it, and particularly having to impose it by some acts of government…

In any case, during the time of his short pontificate, if Benedict XVI did put back into practice some old liturgical objects, yet he never celebrated, not even on the feast day of saint Pius V, the usus antiquior, though he did give it back its place of honor, nor put into practice some of the elements he used to put forward regarding the “reform of the reform”. He did little more than give communion on the tongue during the celebrations over which he presided.

Once again – and in a manner more deceiving than during John Paul II, because the aim was more clear and the circumstances more favorable -, the distortion between words and actions has been one of the mark of his pontificate and indicate in a way the failure (how else call it?) of liturgical conservatism, the latter term being understood as the desire to maintain the liturgical reform while at the same time keeping as much as possible the idea of a liturgical continuity, consubstantial to any true reform, to desire without really desiring, to say without doing. The least we could say is that Francis has radically made a difference and that he has, for his part, put in conformity words and actions.

Cardinal Sarah’s missed opportunity

Today, Cardinal Sarah seems to be one of the best representatives of this movement wanting to accommodate the new and the old. A man of great piety, an all traditional piety for that matter, having courageously passed through the Caudine forks of a persecuting power, though a self-declared Ratzingerian, he has been appointed to the Congregation for Divine Worship in the first part of Francis’ pontificate, even if it is true that he was surrounded by collaborators who have systematically curbed all his tentatives to correct the reform.

He thus worked in complete fidelity to both the reigning pope and Benedict’s idea of a conciliation between the old and new rite. He therefore continues to defend the necessity to respect liturgical norms, put back in its place of honor the sacred and find again this true sense of the liturgy which consists in, first and foremost, giving God worship rather than expressing the variant states of an assembly, may it be a Eucharistic assembly. How not recognize him for his genuine concern, his call to remind us of so many true and just things, especially from a prelate who often has powerful words and who is certainly a true saint?

Of course, Cardinal Sarah, as did even more often Joseph Ratzinger when he was cardinal, has celebrated the usus antiquior several times, adding his notoriety and exemplary piety to the cause of rehabilitation of the traditional mass.

But, his failed tentative to invite to a return to the celebration towards the Lord has been particularly deceiving, in the sense that he initiated it and then did nothing to maintain it or support it.

During the Sacra Liturgia Congress which took place in London in April 2016, Cardinal Sarah, then Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship, in presence of Mgr Rey, Bishop of Fréjus-Toulon, called for a massive return to the celebration ad orientem, by suggesting to priests who wished it to do so starting as soon as the first Sunday in Advent, 2016.

But so it happened he was immediately contradicted by the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Nichols, who wrote to the priests of his diocese to advise them not to celebrate ad orientem. Followed a communication from the Director of the Press office of the Vatican, on 11 July 2016, explaining that “no new liturgical directives were to be expected”. Then followed a summons of the Pope to the Cardinal to a meeting during which, it seems, the subject was barely discussed, but which was considered by the media as a warning from the Pope to the Cardinal.

Obviously, disheartened by the difficulties he met, though as predictable as they may have been, the Cardinal avoided putting into practice the invitation he had himself given the priests: in his numerous travels, including in circumstances where it could have been done without difficulties (in Lourdes, where Mgr Brouwet expected such move; more recently, in a Parisian church, surrounded by mostly conservative clerics who were hoping for his encouragement), he celebrated and continues to do so invariably facing the people. Here, again, words but no actions.

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What history holds as the Gregorian Reform, borrowing from the name of saint Gregory (VII), is in fact the result of the action of several pontiffs, before and after Gregory, even if he definitely played a major role. It remains that it was carried out by men who wanted to reform the Church and who have acted accordingly so to make sure it would actually happen. To exit the auto-blocking system, represented by the liturgical reform with effects larger than the simple liturgical domain, the bishops must and can lay down the first step, the most visible, most talkative, most symbolic of all: the celebration facing God. In doing so, they would not only lay down the first act of a reform, they would honor God as they should.

Philippe Maxence