Liturgical Reform: The Council and the ‘Consilium’

The Vatican’s new liturgy chief, the Englishman (and now Cardinal) Arthur Roche, told journalists recently that those who worship in the Tridentine rite need to ask themselves whether they wish to be Catholic or Protestant. That question, of course, is a curious one, since so many Catholic saints over so many centuries have worshiped in the rite of St. Pius V.

Furthermore, had these recent converts so desired, they could well have joined a Protestant denomination. In addition, exposure to the Traditional Latin Mass encouraged the American actor Shia LaBeouf to convert to Catholicism. The actor found in it a depth of experience. Roche’s reaction was to say that he would like to speak to the actor, the subtext being that admiration for the old rite is a poor reason for joining the Catholic fold.

Roche’s frustrations with the current liturgical disputes are, of course, the source of his outbursts. He is innocent of learning, for if he really knew how the Novus ordo got crafted, he might have a bit more patience and charity. Or, maybe not.

Vatican II promulgated Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) in December 1963. Pope St Paul VI subsequently entrusted the work of crafting a reformed Mass to Fr. Annibale Bugnini, who had long been interested in precisely such a reformation. He was given supervision over the panel charged with a broader implementation of liturgical reform that also included the Divine Office, in addition to the Mass, (the Consilium ad exsequendam constitutionem sacra liturgia: the Council to execute the constitution of the Sacred Liturgy).

Over the next several years, Bugnini and his colleagues drew up a reformed liturgy with almost no contributions from the pope. By 1967, they had devised an “experimental” liturgy, which was celebrated in the Sistine Chapel before a number of hierarchs of the church. This liturgy united elements of the vernacular (Italian, in that case) and Latin.

According to Bugnini himself (in his The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1975, published in 1983), this preliminary reformed liturgy fell flat:

The experiment was not a success, and it even had an effect contrary to the one intended and played a part in the negative vote that followed. Few of the Fathers were disposed and ready for the experiment; this was even more true of those who had grasped the value and essential character of the normative Mass.

For his part, Bugnini admitted that “the celebration must therefore have left many of the Fathers with the impression of something artificial,” an observation that Benedict XVI was to echo decades later. Bugnini, however, believed that the rite’s poor reception owed more to the setting – in the Sistine Chapel – than any clumsiness with the rite itself. He would make excuses for the Consilium’s productions again and again. Never mind that any liturgy described as “experimental” is – to a sober eye – already in trouble.

Annibale Bugnini and St. Pope Paul VI

The Consilium went back to the drawing board. The pope continued to encourage Bugnini and his colleagues without, however, offering any substantive assistance. Pope Paul merely told the Consilium that the Church now had entered a “historical moment” in her liturgical history and that the members had the privilege of offering their “critical judgment” as the process continued.

In November 1967, the pope underwent an operation for a prostate condition, which, for a time, limited his involvement and oversight of the Consilium’s work.

What to do next? In Bugnini’s version of the story at this point influence from the Dutch Catholic church became critical. In Holland, a movement towards a fully vernacular Mass had gained a good deal of momentum, despite the express desire of the Council Fathers at Vatican II that the reformed liturgy continue to have Latin elements.

Members of the Consilium seem to have decided that a completely vernacular liturgy should be the end product of the call for reform, on the one hand, and the clumsiness of the “experimental” Mass with both Latin and the vernacular, on the other.

To put this plainly: It was some members of the Consilium (or was it Bugnini himself?) who decided that since part of the liturgy was to be in the vernacular, all the liturgy had to be in the vernacular!

By the end of 1969, an entirely vernacular Mass had been crafted.

In recalling the Consilium’s work during these years, Bugnini admitted that he and his colleagues had given Sacrosanctum concilium such a “broad interpretation” that he had to rationalize what they had done.

Bugnini openly admitted that they had not adopted this approach out of “a desire to take risks, or from an itch for novelty; it was adopted after deliberation, with the approval of competent authority, and in line with the spirit of the conciliar decrees.”

It was Bugnini who thus invoked the spirit of Vatican II to justify what the Council had not promulgated. As far as he was concerned, what the Consilium had done in no way contradicted the wishes of the Council, but rather it had implemented the Council’s teaching.

While the Consilium was at work, one of Pope Paul’s periti (“experts”), Bishop Carlo Colombo, mused: “It is difficult to appraise the pastoral and spiritual import of the revised order of Mass: a liturgical text reveals its true value only after lenghty experience of it. A great deal will depend, moreover, on how the new order is implemented.” Indeed.

In ignoring the Council’s expressed program of reform, did the Consilium express deep faithfulness and achieve a vibrant reformed liturgy – or did it encourage the flatness and wide range of liturgical abuses that have afflicted Catholic worship ever since?


You may also enjoy:

Professor Saffern’s The Mass According to Vatican II

Howard Kainz’s Reflections on the Novus Ordo Mass

Robert W. Shaffern is a professor of medieval history at the University of Scranton. Dr. Shaffern also teaches courses in ancient and Byzantine civilization, as well as the Italian Renaissance and the Reformation. He is the author of The Penitents’ Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom, 1175-1375.