The reform of the reform, a process to think the future

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano

Cardinal Sarah’s resignation as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, last month, was without a doubt, for many, the occasion to recall the fruits of his efforts during his years as head of the Congregation. Certainly, among a few, a sort of disappointment came tarnishing the memories: probably, the aborted tentative to reintroduce massively the celebration of the mass ad orientem is the better example of this. Whatever his record shows, the resignation of the cardinal (and even more so the identity of his successor) can be seen as the last action in a series of which the resignation of Benedict XVI has been the principal element, series which invites us to a couple of conclusions:
– the results of the reform of the liturgical reform are quite fragile;
– it will not come from the top hierarchy, as came the liturgical reform initiated by the Vatican II Council and especially by Pope Paul VI.

A fragile approach to making the liturgy traditional again

But first, what is the reform of the reform? The expression covers two parallel perspectives which meet on a variety of positions (like the manner of administering the Eucharistic communion or the use of Latin) but do not agree on the causes of the present situation nor the goal that is to be reached. For some, thus, the liturgical reform has been diverted from its original intentions, either by practical and widespread abuses, or by the unfortunate introduction of elements (the multiplicity of Eucharistic prayers for example or, more recently, the access of women to ministries of lector an acolyte) which do not call into question the reform in itself. For others, it is the reform itself which is cause of the situation, and the rites of the mass and of baptism being its most symptomatic elements.

It doesn’t seem like there has been an intention to reform the liturgical books of Paul VI and it is well understood that, to the light of what was just said, the reform of the reform is a practical reform. This leads us to suggest, with prudence and confidence, that whatever the disagreement between the two perspectives (liturgical reform applied in a traditionally minded way; liturgical reform amended in a traditionally minded way), they can act together, eventually help each other eventually, first of all avoid criticizing each other harshly, in a common endeavor of strengthening and spreading good practices and understanding of the faith and piety which sustain them.

This reform of the reform has seen its bright days worldwide during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. We can point out its principle characteristics: the distribution of communion on the tongue with the example given by the supreme pontiff himself; the recommendation for the use of Latin in most of the mass during international gatherings (post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum caritatis, 22 February 2007, n.62); the liberalization of what was to become the extraordinary form of the Roman rite and the invitation made to a mutual enrichment of the two liturgical forms, in a motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (7 July 2007). What reinforced the intention of the reform of the reform: the invitation to enrich the lesser form[1].

The results are fragile, we said, and indeed the renunciation of Benedict XVI and more recently the sanitary crisis with its strict instructions issued by almost all of the episcopate was enough to see communion in the hand becoming again the quasi exclusive way of receiving the Holy Eucharist. Some priests and some faithful have gone back on the more traditional habits they had adopted which maybe they believed more deeply anchored in them. This step back thus predicts a wavering state of things depending on circumstances (good example no longer comes from the top, society and State appear to put pressure on the form of worship) which yet,  objectively do not impede invincibly with these practices which therefore could have been kept. The proof is in the communities where the extraordinary form is celebrated and where communion on the tongue has continued. This situation also raises the issue of what was most likely a lack of formation, as well as a lack of conviction of mind and heart, when there should have been one direction of thinking with no turning back. Proof that the “good press”, if we may say, still has much work to do.

A process from the lower level of the Church remains possible

This reform of the reform – this is the second element and without a doubt the main one – will not come from the top, at least not in the present situation. Truly, it could have been a possibility looking at the decisions we talked about but, the fact these decisions did not establish themselves in time[2] shows us we cannot have much expectation on that side. However, much can be undertaken already, at the diocesan level or even locally.

The first focus is definitely the introduction of elements one would qualify of traditional, not that these elements would necessarily have to do with the traditional missal. The initial question is this: among the options found in the missal of Paul VI, what option celebrates more the sacrificial and the sacred dimensions of the mass? Regarding the sacrificial dimension, the clearest path would be in favoring, and later in using exclusively, the Eucharistic prayer n.1 (the Roman canon). Certainly, the addition (as a private prayer) of the words of the offertory prayer of the traditional missal would be profitable. As to the sacred dimension, there are more possibilities in that particular domain: the celebration ad orientem and the reception of communion on the tongue are definitely to be preferred. To this, we could add the use of the sacred language and silence: we mean, obviously, the use of Latin, and as it currently used in hymns it would be beneficial if Gregorian melodies explicitly composed for it were used for accompaniment. Regarding the silence, though it is experienced in the ordinary form, it is often  found only in between actions (Gospel, communion) opening to personal meditation; it is not exactly the sacred silence which accompanies the action and forms as an acoustic iconostasis. The moments of the offertory and communion clearly provide this opportunity. How could it find its place during the canon? Do the current rubrics allow?

The constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium had called for the rites to demonstrate a noble simplicity (n.34). From the vestments to the service of the mass, from the sacred vessels to the order of processions, etc., all which will contribute to the dignity of the liturgy will truly pertains to this reform of the reform… as long as for that, and the other items we just discussed, the formation in what regards faith and piety offers a solid foundation and ensures a lasting effect to changes.

A broader scope for the reform of the reform

The reform of the reform is also a matter of people involved (cf. note 2 for example). We could even consider, along with the same process of concrete advances, a reform of the reform with a broader scope that would not be only liturgical but also pastoral. Particularly, its fate would depend on the integration of priests from the traditional institutes in the dioceses. Few bishops, today, take advantage or dare or want to make the most of the lively forces they have called into their diocese. There are ministries that could be entrusted to these priests on the basis of chaplaincy positions (health institutions, prisons, schools), in catechesis and catechumenate, as well as in funeral and marriage pastoral care: the question of the rite is not an issue, or only a secondary one. But we should consider even more involvement, so we believe, that is the responsibility of parishes along with their activities. To entrust parishes to priests devoted to the extraordinary form would not be without raising questions, on both sides, without requesting some provisions; is it so insurmountable[3]? Are the rite of the liturgy, or even some aspects of it which do not depend on the rite (those we mentioned earlier), simply a relevant subject, especially considering the vast domaine of evangelization? Many priests would say that those who come knock on the door of the presbytery, those we meet in the village square or in the local shops never have any questions about these matters. Likewise, many could share testimonies of people moved by the “noble simplicity” of the Latin rite, a dignity that they felt rather in the opportunity given to them to enter a church but, especially, in the care the Church had shown them by taking into consideration their demands, their realities.

The Church must win back, before God and men, the Veritatis splendor of her teaching and of her liturgy[4]. This is what the reform of the reform is all about.

Fr. Jean-Marie Perrot

[1] See next footnote.
[2] The possible Roman decisions that are to come concerning the use of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite or having a possible impact on the institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life which gather most of the priest who celebrate the EF, seem crucial for the future of the reform of the reform, devised as a traditional improvement of the 1969 missal. it is important to note these words of Benedict XVI, from the Letter to the Bishops that accompanied the Motu proprio Summorum pontificum, in regards to the influence of the extraordinary form over the ordinary one he thought desirable: “The celebration of the Mass according to the Missal of Paul VI will be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage.” The extraordinary form, the theology and the spirituality it carries, are like points of reference for the ordinary form. Suppressing them would be totally inopportune in regards to the ars celebrandi of the ordinary form. On the other hand, we see in the assessment of the recent report on the application of Summorum Pontificum from the French Conference of bishops: seminaries have conscientiously guarded themselves off a diffusion of the extraordinary form in their curriculum. But everyone recognizes that it is not true for seminarians who, on their side, have manifested an interest and a definite attraction to the traditional rite. If the reference became more difficult to obtain, what would they have left?
[3] Maybe we ought to duly note, simply as a fact, that the location of the Sunday mass is, in many situations, already a matter of choice and not of territory. It is certainly the case for the faithful of the extraordinary form, but it is also the case in “ordinary” parishes in cities; surely less the case in the country side. And why wouldn’t it be normalized? A parish priest celebrating in the extraordinary form in a particular church attended by parishioners from other parishes, and vice versa, parishioners from the ordinary form having to go to a different church. A situation not previously unseen and not scandalous in itself, as long as everyone has been peacefully instructed on the idea.
[4] Veritatis splendor is evidently the title of the moral encyclical of John Paul II; it is also the way Benedict XVI qualified the liturgy: “Like the rest of Christian Revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty: it is veritatis splendor (Sacramentum caritatis, n.35).