Paul VI and the Liturgical Reform: An Overwhelming Responsibility

November 28, 2018

The name of Paul VI is forever associated with the liturgical reform. Beginning in February 1964, under the direction of Annibale Bugnini, a Consilium for the Execution of the Liturgical Reform undertook to apply the conciliar Constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, promulgated on December 4, 1963.

An avalanche of decrees began to modify the traditional liturgy; between 1965 and 1969, the Latin was replaced, the altars were turned around, concelebrations were introduced, three Eucharistic Canons were composed, Communion in the hand spread and the prayers at the foot of the altar, the Leonine prayers, the Offertory and the Last Gospel were eliminated. The Mass of Paul VI was first and foremost a liturgy in a state of permanent reformation.

At last, a new composition incorporating all these changes was promulgated on April 3, 1969, and the Novus Ordo Missae (NOM) was born. This is what we now call “the Mass of Paul VI”, in its completed and obligatory form.

What role did Paul VI play in this reform?

“Pope Paul VI said the Mass of St. Pius V every day in his private oratory.” Today, the naivety of such a claim seems obvious, but it was not so obvious to those who repeated it in the 70’s, preferring to believe the pope was being manipulated by the secretary of the Consilium. Besides, according to Archbishop Lefebvre, Amleto Cicognani, Secretary of State in 1969, exclaimed one day: “Fr. Bugnini can go into the Holy Father’s office and make him sign whatever he wants!” A proof that the pope may have been manipulated?

It would seem not. In fact, Paul VI followed the work of the Consilium very closely: he gave his opinion, commented on the projects, voiced his preferences. He gladly promulgated all the liturgical decrees and in the presence of the cardinals gathered for a consistory on May 24, 1976, in the thick of the “battle of the Mass” (Jean Madiran), the pope forbade the missal of St. Pius V, allowing only the new liturgy. The “Mass of Paul VI” was indeed his Mass.

Two Characteristics of the New Liturgical Practice

Cardinal Cicognani’s comments are very enlightening. He saw the reforms as being so far from the liturgical letter and spirit of the Church that he concluded that the pope could not truly and freely desire them. In this, he shared the “naïve” popular opinion of the pope shunning the Novus Ordo. And we must admit that objectively, the daily practice of the Mass of Paul VI really is astounding. Two constants can be observed in the post-conciliar liturgical practice:

  • The differences between the “customizable” celebrations: priests, liturgical animators, and simple faithful reinvented the Mass with constant modifications to the texts and rites, so much so that Paul VI concluded during an audience on September 3, 1969, “We can no longer speak of pluralism (…) but of divergences, some of which are not only liturgical but substantial (…), disorder, seeds of confusion and weakness.”
  • The disappearance of the sacred and the extinction of the religious spirit, a true “secularization”, according to Jacques Maritain; the ungarnished table for an altar, ordinary bread, readers and animators, commenters and altar girls without liturgical garments, priests ambling around the nave, the universal hubbub of testimonies, chatter, non-religious songs accompanied by (sometimes electric) guitars, tom-toms and percussion instruments, sound systems with the latest pop songs, the congregation sitting or standing but rarely kneeling, hugs and embraces just before the distribution of Communion by laymen, hastily and in the hand…

How can any of this be appropriate for the most sublime act of the virtue of religion in which Jesus Christ sacrifices Himself on the altar as He once did on the Cross? In the decrees signed by Paul VI, did Amleto Cicognani foresee these spectacles that have become habitual in Catholic churches? If so, then his alarm is very understandable.

Simple Abuse or the Consequence of the Dynamics That Made up the New Rite?

“They are abusive and excessive interpretations,” some say, “that have nothing to do with the textbook edition, the only one promulgated by the pope.” Admittedly. However, we must point out that these abusive and excessive interpretations spread universally, as a property of the Novus Ordo, as if the “Mass of Paul VI”, by its very nature, encouraged these disorders. They thus seem to belong to the direction and the dynamics of the liturgy of Paul VI. 

In fact, diversity is one of the parameters of the desired reform. Vatican Council II planned to incorporate into the liturgy “the genius [ornamenta] and talents of the various races and peoples”, and also the “legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands,” based on “the traditions and culture of individual peoples” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, § 37-40). It decided to make up different “rituals adapted to the needs of the different regions” (§63), “common prayers” and “prayers of the faithful” (§53) that would be universal and composed and invented at each Mass. The Council also granted the episcopal conferences and simple diocesan bishops the power of adapting the rituals to the local cultures and trying experiments if need be (§22, 40, 57…). The Novus Ordo Missae itself had four canons until a fifth one was added in 1975 and offers celebrants a choice for other prayers and rituals.

A Desacralized Liturgy

As for the loss of the sense of the sacred, it, too, is a part of Paul VI’s Ordo Missae. The Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, for example, is literally obliterated by the elimination of all the acts of adoration (genuflections for priests and faithful; there remain only three), the optional purification of the ciborium, chalice, paten and fingers that have touched the Body of Christ, the absence of gold in the sacred vessels, the disappearance of the Communion paten, of the obligation to kneel for Communion and the thanksgiving, of a prescribed course of action if a Host falls on the ground or the Precious Blood is spilled, the permission to use normal bread that is not unleavened, the absence of a blessing for the vestments and sacred linens, etc. Everything helps make the liturgy popular and erase its sacred nature.

Paul VI wanted to simplify the rites in order to make them clearer. In so doing, he completely disregarded the liturgical principle recalled by the Catechism of the Council of Trent (Ch. 20, §9):

Of these rites and ceremonies let none be deemed useless or superfluous: all on the contrary tend to display the majesty of this august sacrifice, and to excite the faithful, by the celebration of these saving mysteries, to the contemplation of the divine things which lie concealed in the Eucharistic sacrifice.

The result points to an extreme lack of prudence and a tragic incoherence at the very least. 

We are forced to conclude that the excessive and abusive interpretations are only the consequence of a disregard for liturgical principles and of the intrinsic dynamics of the modern practice of the liturgy. Their foundations are the prescriptions contained in the Novus Ordo Missae. But there is more.

The Heart of the Mass Attacked

An examination of the rite of Paul VI shows a severe attack on the essence of the Mass.

First of all, the first edition of the Institutio Generalis (introduction to the new missal) defines the Mass as a “sacred synaxis [meal] or assembly of the people of God met together under the presidency of the priest to celebrate the memorial of the Lord” (§7). This definition includes:

  • A double omission: 1) the identification of the Cross with the Mass, the renewal of Christ’s death in an unbloody manner; 2) the sacrificial nature of the Mass, realized by the sacramental separation of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the two consecrations pronounced by the priest. The Council of Trent says that the Mass is “truly and properly” a sacrifice that applies the merits of the Cross for four ends, in particular, the glory of God and the effacing of men’s sins (propitiation). The Mass thus shows that the death of Christ is the one and only sacrifice that saves men. These two omissions are very grave.
  • A double affirmation: the Mass is 1) a meal and 2) a memorial, which is a contradiction of the notion of a sacramental sacrifice. First of all because a memorial supposes the real absence of the person being commemorated whereas a sacrament is the efficacious sign that produces a person or a thing truly active and present. Secondly, because the Mass is not a meal; even Communion, in which the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ are consumed, has no more than a distant resemblance to a meal, since the Communion is the accomplishment of the sacrifice through the destruction of the victim by eating it. When the liturgy speaks of a sacred banquet, it is not to reduce the Mass to a simple meal.

This erroneous definition by the Institutio Generalis is extremely grave. By its omissions and contradictions, the new Mass renders what the priest is doing at the altar incomprehensible. And every aberration becomes possible.

A False Definition Incarnated in the Novus Ordo

This false definition of the Mass is perfectly applied in the rites of the Novus Ordo Missae.

Indeed, any precise allusion to sacrifice has disappeared. Beginning with the disappearance of the first part despite the fact that it is an essential element of the sacrifice: the Offertory, that places the victim at God’s disposal before sacrificing Him to Him. The new rite has replaced the Offertory with simple praises of God for His benefits, using expressions of blessing used in synagogues. This disappearance presents an undeniable theological problem.

The same is true of the other parts of the rite from which many expressions of the sacrifice have disappeared: the altar crucifix, the Signs of the Cross, the words “host”, “victim”, “blood shed”, etc. It is because of this silence imposed upon the sacrificial nature of the Mass that Brother Thurian of Taizé (a Protestant community in Burgundy) was able to say that there was no longer anything to keep Catholics and Protestants from celebrating together (La Croix, May 30, 1969). The Novus Ordo Missae favors ecumenism, which is one of its essential dimensions[1].

We can understand, therefore, the conclusion given by Cardinals Ottaviani and Baci in 1969 in their Brief Critical Study of the New Mass:

If we consider the innovations implied or taken for granted, which may of course be evaluated in different ways, the Novus Ordo represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent.

The Roman liturgy was reformed by Pius V in order to expose the dogmas defined in Trent; the council and the Mass were intrinsically connected by the principle Lex orandi lex credendi: the rule of belief dictates the rule of prayer. Attacking the rite of the ancient Roman Mass can only corrupt the Faith of the Church…

The Principle behind the Vatican II Liturgical Reform

It remains to be seen why such a reform was undertaken. The answer is given by Vatican Council II, quoted by the constitution Missale Romanum that instituted the New Mass: “The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that devout and active participation by the faithful can be more easily accomplished” (Sacrosanctum Concilium § 14). Hence the use of the vernacular that all can understand, and of simplified rites that “express more clearly the holy things which they signify”, the multiplication of readings from the Bible (§21), etc. The reform was undertaken in the name of an “active participation of the faithful”. What does this expression mean?

It is not just the multiplication of the canticles and prayers recited by the faithful. That is only the outer shell. It is really a truly proper activity:

The faithful form a Holy People (…) so that they may give thanks to God and offer the spotless Victim” (Institutio Generalis, § 95), and the priest is no longer anything more than the president of the assembly. This is a complete reversal: the faithful no longer unite themselves to the priestly sacrifice; instead, the priest presents to God the cult offered by the baptized (Sacrosanctum Concilium, § 48). The Council speaks of the “common priesthood” of the faithful who “participate in the unique priesthood of Christ

(Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, § 10).

The liturgy of Paul VI is adapted to the theology of the Council that sees the cult as emanating from the heart of the faithful and the hierarchy as being no more than a sort of monitor to supervise the organization of the cult while adapting to the culture of the believers and to the initiatives of the laymen “living their Faith”. That is the theological reason for the liturgical upheaval.

Paul VI made this theology his own from the very beginning of his vocation, in 1913, with the Benedictines of Chiari. In 1931 and 1932, he simplified the Holy Week liturgy to encourage the “active participation” of the students of the Italian Catholic University Federation (FUCI). He adhered to the liturgical movement of Dom Beauduin and chose for his confessor and master Fr. Giulio Bevilacqua (1881-1965) one of his propagators, whom he later made member of the Consilium and one of the major artisans of the reforms shortly before his death. During the Council, on November 11, 1962, the future Paul VI’s only contribution was to approve the draft on the liturgy…

And even when in 1966 he noticed the alarming liturgical chaos into which the Church had been plunged, he never once questioned the principles that had caused it. How could he have? They were none other than his very own principles, the principles of the “cult of man” and of “full humanism”[2] that are identical to the principles of the new liturgy.

- Fr. Nicolas Portail


Le Rôle de G. B. Montini-Paul VI dans la réforme liturgique, Instituto Paolo VI, Brescia-Rome, 1987, XI-86 pages.

La messe en question. Autour du problème de la réforme liturgiqueActes du Ve congrès théologique de Si si No no, Paris, 2002, 505 pages (on the major problems of the NOM).

SSPX, Le problème de la réforme liturgique. La messe de Vatican II et de Paul VI, s. l., 2001, 125 pages (on the new theology of the Mass).

Cardinals Ottaviani et Bacci, Brief Critical Study of the New Mass (first analysis that gives the details of the modifications to the rite; multiple editions since 1971).

Yves Chiron, Paul VI, Paris, 2008, 325 pages (for the historical elements).

Philippe Chenaux, Paul VI, le souverain éclaté, Paris, 2015, 346 pages (written in view of his canonization).

[1] Cf. Grégoire Celier, La dimension œcuménique de la réforme liturgique, Fideliter, 1987.

[2] Paul VI, closing speech for the Council, December 8, 1965; Encyclical Populorum Progressio, 1967.