On August 24, 2017, the Holy Father declared that he “can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible”.
Pope Francis gave an important speech on August 24, 2017, during his audience with the participants in the National Liturgical Week in Italy. The assembly was held in Rome for the 70th anniversary of the creation of the Liturgical Action Centre.
In his allocution, the Holy Father declared that he “can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible”. This was more than enough to stir people up: some see it as another dig at the “traditionalists”, others as a call to take even further the taste for innovation which for several decades has been digging a grave for the spirit of the liturgy.
To explain his words, the pope added that
it is not a matter of rethinking the reform by reviewing the choices in its regard, but of knowing better the underlying reasons, through historical documentation, as well as of internalizing its inspirational principles and of observing the discipline that governs it.
Vaticanist Andrea Tornielli points out in La Stampa that “even without mentioning it directly, [the pope] is saying no to a liturgical ‘reform of the reform’, as some ecclesial branches have long been hoping for” – in the wake of several works published by Cardinal Ratzinger when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
This is nothing new: already last November, in an interview with Antonio Spadaro – director of La Civilta Cattolica – the pope had declared, as reported by the newspaper La Croix in its November 20, 2016 issue, that it is “a mistake to talk of a reform of the reform”.
With this statement, the pope openly disavowed the prefect of the Liturgy, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who a few months earlier, in July 2016, had said the Sovereign Pontiff had entrusted him with the mission “to study the question of a reform of a reform and of how to enrich the two forms of the Roman rite”.
In response to this statement, the Vatican had issued its own statement saying that “some of [Cardinal Sarah’s] expressions were misinterpreted” and that there would be no changes.
A Reversal from Pope Benedict's Statements?
According to Francis, the liberation of the traditional Mass by his predecessor in July 2007 should be interpreted “a minima”, as a “magnanimous” and “fair gesture” to address “a certain mentality of some groups and people who had nostalgia and were walking away. But it is an exception.” Such were his words to the director of La Civilta Cattolica.
Pope Francis visibly distanced himself from one of the intentions formulated by the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum:
to serve as a mutual enrichment between the two forms of the rite, enhancing on the one hand the sacredness and the verticality of the pre-conciliar form, and on the other, highlighting the richness of the scriptures and the participation of the faithful of the post-conciliar form.
Italian Vaticanist Andrea Tonielli goes so far as to believe that Benedict XVI’s project for re-founding the liturgy failed partly due to certain dogged “traditionalists” who refused any change whatsoever in the liturgy, and partly due to those who placed too many restrictions on a large and generous offer of the “usus antiquor” desired by the pope emeritus.
Without denying the reality of a liturgical reform that is often undermined by “practices that disfigure” it , to quote his exact words, the Holy Father sees the abuses rather as the result of a failure to understand and incorporate the two great principles that he believes guide the liturgical reform: “the real presence of the mystery of Christ” and the fact that the liturgy “is in fact ‘popular’ because it is an action ‘for’ the people but also ‘of’ the people,” emphasizing that the liturgy must be careful to include the practices of “popular piety.”
These principles, spelled out by Francis, naturally raise other questions that would have been worth asking during the National Liturgical Week in Italy: do not the faithful of the old rite – known as “St. Pius V” – a rite that in fact has always been open to a number of developments so long as they remained homogenous, from St. Gregory the Great to John XXIII, experience very deeply the principle of the “real presence of the mystery of Christ” recalled by the pope?
The same faithful, through music, chant, and liturgical service in the broad sense – the altar, the layout of the sanctuary, the sacristy, the flowers, or even simply by the various gestures made while simply attending Mass: do they not have a high degree of active participation in a truly popular liturgy, made popular by centuries of Tradition?
Moreover, one might wonder whether the old rite, rather than being reduced to a custom granted to a retrograde minority, should not be first considered, studied, and lived as a privileged means of grasping the profound nature of the spirit of the liturgy.
As for whether or not the liturgical reform is “irreversible”, nothing is less certain given the Roman spirit; “lovers of change”, wrote Sallust over twenty centuries ago! When we recall the way the liturgical reform was imposed on the Catholic universe, so forcefully that the traditional Mass was thought to be definitively forbidden and doomed to disappear, it seems wise to remain prudent and not make any hasty claims…
Already in Rome, the Prefect of the Liturgy, Cardinal Sarah did not hesitate to write in his book The Power of Silence:
God willing, when He wills and as He wills, the reform of the reform will take place in the liturgy. Despite the gnashing of teeth, it will happen, for the future of the Church is at stake.
Be that as it may, between the reform and the reform of the reform, the traditional rite or the Mass of St. Pius V remains the surest way of rendering to God the worship due to Him in all justice, in a spirit of adoration and truth