A Brief Thought on ‘Irreversible’ Liturgical Reform

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This morning, during a speech given for the Italian National Liturgical Week, Pope Francis commented on the liturgical reform called for by Vatican II. In that statement, Francis is quoted as having said that, “the reform of the liturgy is irreversible.” The Holy Father continued to speak of the long path toward liturgical reform that the Church has been on since the pontificate of Pope St. Pius X.

Of course, the Catholic blogosphere and Twitterverse has responded to Pope Francis’ words in a number of ways. Fr. James Martin took to Twitter stating, “Why is the Pope making this statement invoking the teaching authority of the church and his office? Because some who favor the ‘reform of the reform’ have been working against the full implementation of the liturgical reforms of the Council, trying to turn back the clock liturgically and even trying to delegitimize some of the reforms (Mass in the vernacular e.g.).”

This raises a number of interesting questions, not the least of which regards the true intention of the council fathers concerning liturgical renewal. Sacrosanctum concilium calls for the preservation of Latin (both spoken and sung), and Pope St. John Paul II spoke of the role of Latin even among liturgical renewal stating, “The Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin, the splendid language of ancient Rome, and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself,” (Dominicae Cenae §10).

The question of priestly orientation (that is, ad orientem or versus populum) in the Novus Ordo Missae remains hotly contested, with vastly different interpretations of the GIRM. Cardinal Ratzinger himself has questioned the necessity of versus populi orientation.

I do not wish to get into liturgical details here but merely to cite the above as a simple illustration; while many agree that liturgical renewal ought to follow the lines set out by the conciliar fathers, there is far from a consensus as to what those lines are. What precisely is irreversible? The spirit of the reform? Ministerial orientation? The usage of the vernacular? Pope Francis’ speech today once again raises all of these questions. While pundits and theologians alike are using Francis’ statement to defend this or that liturgical practice, the fact of the matter is that there is certainly not a uniformity in liturgical practice in the Latin Rite, and I think that that exposes a confusion at the level of liturgical law.

With that being said, I believe that there is something even more important than a consideration of the extension and scope of Francis’ remark. One is left wondering how liturgical reform can be called ‘irreversible’ in the first place. The very concept of reform presupposes that we are speaking of a practice over which the Magisterium has jurisdiction. We do not speak of Magisterial jurisdiction over scriptural truths, for example, because these are not created or modified by the Magisterium; they are simply interpreted as aspects of divine revelation.

However, discipline is subject to rule and regulation. Reform of discipline is often a response to radical shifts in culture so as to more efficiently and prudently spread the Gospel, distribute the sacraments, and lead souls to Christ. The very basis of the liturgical renewal begun by Pius X, confirmed by Pius XII, ratified at Vatican II, and encouraged today by Pope Francis presupposes that discipline be mutable, the precise opposite of ‘irreversible’.

So what does Pope Francis mean? Of course, we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt. We ought also to be patient for clarification. The most intelligible interpretation is that Pope Francis thinks that the post-conciliar liturgical renewal will not be going anywhere soon, that is, it is irreversible in the Latin Rite at this time in history. This would mean that he intends ‘irreversible’ to pertain only to a certain context and not to be taken absolutely or too literally.

Such an interpretation would allow us to maintain a hermeneutic of continuity with the liturgical tradition. We ought to be wary of any view which insinuates that the liturgical renewal of Vatican II is a movement from the bad or ineffective to the good or effective, as if the Church is just now getting participation in Christ’s mysteries and the official prayer of His Church straightened out. Beneath organic development of discipline remain certain unchanging sacramental and liturgical truths which bind us universally not just across geographic location but across time itself, a bridge to the past.

If, however, we are to uphold the catholicity of the liturgy, we must maintain that none of the licit variations across times or rites are themselves immutable or irreversible. This seems to be the most sensible reading  of today’s comments. In short, only those things which are not subject to renewal, reformation, or variety are truly and completely irreversible in the liturgy.

 

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