Liturgical Reform Did Not Start with Vatican II

March 2011By Arthur C. Sippo

Arthur C. Sippo, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is a physician and specialist in aerospace medicine who has written and lectured as a Catholic apologist for over thirty years. He writes from southern Illinois.

The Development of the Liturgical Reform: As Seen by Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli from 1948 to 1970.  By Nicola Giampietro. Roman Catholic Books. 348 pages. $33.75.



Based on the doctoral dissertation of Fr. Nicola Giampietro, an official in the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, The Development of the Liturgical Reform offers an incisive history of the liturgical reforms before, during, and after Vatican II. Giampietro’s dissertation is based on the memoirs of the late Ferdinando Cardinal Antonelli, who was intimately involved in the liturgical-reform process initiated by Pope Pius XII in 1948, which culminated in the promulgation of a new missal by Paul VI in 1970. It is a standard academic work that the casual reader might find daunting, but it contains priceless information about the official liturgical reforms in the Catholic Church over the past century.

To people who have taken a keen interest in liturgical reform and have read about it both from the perspective of those who support it and those who do not, this volume helps put everything into perspective, separating the wheat from the chaff. This is especially true with regard to the claims of “radical traditionalists,” who allege that the 1970 missal represented a Protestantization of the liturgy and a wholesale break with tradition, and that the 1570 missal was an organic outgrowth of the Church’s life. Cardinal Antonelli’s memoirs show that this was not the case, and that, for good or for ill, the reform basically achieved what it set out to do, although many of the changes went far beyond what most of the liturgical experts in the pre-Vatican II era would have expected or desired.

The liturgy is the daily life of the Church and cannot remain unchanged or unchanging. There may be some missteps along the way that will require correction, but this is not a failure of the process of reform. It is the realistic consequence of a living, dynamic community in worship.

The twentieth century was the stage for major changes in the Catholic Church, the most profound of which were the liturgical reforms that culminated in the New Order of the Mass. The Novus Ordo Missae has been referred to mistakenly as one of the “fruits of the Second Vatican Council.” In fact, the history of liturgical reform that led to the promulgation of the New Mass predated Vatican II by several decades. Improved historical scholarship and the pa­tristic renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had given birth to a new consciousness of the liturgy as a dynamic participation of the faithful in the prayers and rites of the Church.

During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church had to respond to the vulgarizing of study and worship among Protestants, among whom vernacular texts and prayers were considered normative. The Church’s initial response was to circle the wagons and defend past practices. The tremendous confusion in Western Christendom played into the hands of the Protestants, who pointed to pre-existing local variations as justification for further diversity. The problem was that this further diversity was heretical and in discontinuity with the Catholic Church’s traditional praxis and doxis. Sadly, the controversy set up dialectical opposition, which led to extremes of conservatism and liberalism in the opposing camps.

In 1570, in the wake of the Coun­cil of Trent, Pope St. Pius V pro­­mulgated a common missal based on the practices in the Roman Church, which he intended to be the norm throughout the Latin rite. He permitted requests for the preservation of some older rites, but the Holy See’s desire was to establish full conformity with the 1570 missal in the West. This missal emphasized the solemn aspects of the Mass as a sacred ritual and as a re-presentation of the fruits of Calvary on the altar. The rubrics were from an age when royal courts had highly stylized rules, and it seemed only right that similar pomp and circumstance be used in the most sacred of all religious rituals.

With the rise of the Baroque over the next century, the rituals became even more solemn and distant from the people, so that the words of the priest and acolytes could no longer even be heard by the congregation. The liturgy effectively became cleri­calized, with the people practically excluded from active outward participation. They were relegated to spectators who often practiced private devotions unrelated to the ceremonies occurring on the altar. This is not some concocted liberal myth; it is a historical fact. The only time the congregation focused on the altar was at the consecration, which was signified by a series of bells to get their attention, and at communion.

By the 1950s, when I trained as an altar boy, the Mass was celebrated pretty much as it had been for the previous three hundred years. We no longer said the prayers of the Mass in Latin — we said them in mumbles and very fast. The congregation prayed rosaries or novenas, read religious books, or practiced other devotions in total silence. We did have what were called “Dialogue Masses,” in which someone from the congregation would lead the people in saying some of the prayers from the missal in English, but it was always independent of what was going on at the altar and stopped with the bells at the consecration. This was something new in the U.S. at the time and was a foreshadowing of what was to come in the next decade.

Most Catholics did not know that for almost thirty years a revolution had been brewing among scholars that has come to be known as the Liturgical Movement. These scholars found that the modern state of the liturgy did not conform to either the form or the spirit of worship from the patristic and early medieval Church.

By the 1940s the movement had made an impression on Pope Pius XII, and he explored their work informally. In 1948 he convened the Commission for the Reform of the Liturgy with the intention of using the new scholarship to investigate a reformation of the liturgy. Its first true accomplishment was a reformation of the Holy Week liturgy, which was im­ple­mented in 1955. Contrary to the claims of radical traditionalists, this was not a mere evolutionary development. As Giampietro makes clear, the commission recognized that the Easter vigil as practiced at that time occurred during the daytime on Holy Saturday when many of the faithful had to work. To increase the laity’s ability to attend, the vigil was moved to the evening. The commission also thought that the lighting of the new fire was more symbolic when done in a darkened church at midnight than in a daytime ritual. These were actually restorations of the patristic practices that had been defunct for nearly a millennium. They also restructured the ceremony to make it more accessible and relevant to twentieth-century Catholics and permitted reception of Communion on Good Friday, which until that time had not been permitted.

The exact details of the com­mission’s work had not been made public before now. When Archbishop Annibale Bugnini wrote his book La Riforma Liturgica (1948-1970) in 1980, he devoted only eight pages to the entire pre-Vatican II liturgical reform, from 1948 to 1960, which reformed not only the Holy Week liturgy but the Divine Office and the Psalter as well.

In short, the pre-Vatican II reforms were no mere organic development but a carefully constructed reform that tried to create a relevant modern liturgy and consciously used elements of the Church’s past practices. Giampietro makes clear that serious liturgical reform did not start with Vatican II, but long before it. It is also clear that Pope Pius XII took the Liturgical Movement very seriously and clearly understood that the liturgy of the Catholic Church, as beautiful as it was, needed reformation in certain respects to meet the changing needs and lifestyles of the faithful. So radical traditionalists’ portrayal of Pius XII as a defender of the liturgical status quo is inaccurate. He was much more forward-thinking and open to change, albeit a more deliberate and slow-paced change than what would happen in the decades following his death.

Giampietro, through Cardinal Antonelli, documents in detail the events before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council with regard to the ongoing liturgical reform. The cardinal’s memoirs show that the enthusiasm for aggiornamento, which the Council encouraged, led many of the periti (experts) assigned to the liturgical project to call for far too rapid changes, in his opinion. Antonelli singles out Archbishop Bugnini as the prime example of this tendency. It greatly disturbed the cardinal that many decisions that previously had been openly and minutely evaluated and discussed were often farmed out to “committees” — and often to what appeared to be committees of one — by Bugnini and then implemented without full-scale discussion or voting by the entire group. Many documents and directives were promulgated in this manner, especially those representative of progressive sentiments, with little concern for opposing views.

But Bugnini was seen as a man who “got things done,” and in the heady days after the Council he was the man of the hour. Cardinal Anto­nelli was somewhat bitter about this. He thought that some of the changes had not been as carefully wrought as those of the Easter vigil in the previous decade. This left him convinced that the changes to the liturgy in the wake of Vatican II would not be definitive but that further work would be required.

Years afterward, in 1975, Bugni­ni — who had been a rising star in the curia — ended his days as the papal pro-nuncio to Iran. He remained at that post until his death in 1982. His fall from grace has never been fully explained. For a former Vatican insider, this was an obvious demotion, if not a humiliation. From that point onward, he would have no further influence on the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

Despite his misgivings about the outcome of the post-conciliar liturgical reforms, Cardinal Antonelli did believe that they were a positive step forward. Furthermore, while more conservative churchmen — Al­fredo Cardinal Ottaviani, for example — questioned the orthodoxy of some of the changes, the meticulous and scholarly Antonelli insisted that they were in fact orthodox. He and other like-minded experts fought very hard in those later meetings to make sure of this.

In the end, Cardinal Antonelli was fondly remembered by those who worked with him as a scholar whose profound love for the Catholic Church and her liturgy was reflected in his service to the cause of liturgical reform over a period of thirty years. His meticulous memoirs allow us to see into the workings of Catholic liturgical reform from its inception in the 1940s until its ultimate fruition in the 1970s. It shows that true liturgical reform was not an innovation proposed by Vatican II but an ongoing project that preceded the Council and was moved forward more rapidly thanks to the impetus of the Council. Even more important, we find that true liturgical scholarship, and not merely some unbridled desire for change for change’s sake, lay behind the reforms.

In 2011 we are on the eve of a new phase in the reform of the liturgy mandated by Vatican II. After forty years of the Pauline missal, we will be soon using a new Roman missal that will try to return the literary majesty to the Mass that the earlier reform had abandoned in favor of more colloquial and contemporary language. Cardinal Antonelli certainly would be pleased with this new stage in the ongoing reform. It is because of the work of men like him that such a new development is possible.



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Whose draft document became Sacrosanctum concillium? Who was removed from Vatican II by Pope John XXIII for ties with the Masons and brought back by Pope Paul VI to write the Novus ordo of 1970? If not for intervention by Cardinal Ottaviani and others we would not have a Tridentine Mass for Pope Benedict XVI to re-authorize, it would have been thrown out. Lex orendi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. Posted by: dfrevert@woh.rr.com
March 18, 2011 01:04 PM EDT
It is said that "passion blinds the intellect" and this axiom is nowhere better illustrated than here, in Dr, Sippo's article.

The truth is that if you actually read Pope Pius XII there is no way to prove continuity between His teachings on the Liturgical Movement and the present Ordinary Rite. It seems likely that Dr. Sippo's disdain for "radical traditionalists" has prevented his eyes from coming into contact with MEDIATOR DEI (Pius XII, 1947), or PASCENDI DOMINICI GREGIS(Pius X, 1907) for that Matter.

Please try again Dr. Sippo, this attempt at helping the cause of the
"Hermeneutic of Continuity" didn't work.
Thankfully Faith still does not require a Ph.D., and water for Baptism, along with common sense, are still accessible to the humble masses. Pun intended!
Posted by: acdaveball
March 28, 2011 01:37 PM EDT
Hopefully Dr. Sippo knows more about aerospace medicine than he does the history of the 20th Century Liturgical Movement, otherwise I feel very sorry for pilots with colds. He may amputate their arms. Posted by: escarenofamilia
May 08, 2011 09:55 PM EDT

As a theologian and life-long student of liturgy, I can say it was nice for once to read a balanced and nuanced presentation on the Western liturgical reform. Kudos to Dr. Sippo!

I am so tired of the conspiracy theories about Archbishop Bugnini (whom I strongly disagree on a number of issues) as a Freemasonic infiltrator, etc. Who cares, and what difference does it make, especially nearly a half century later!? The issue has been over since the First Sunday of Advent of 1969 and the Missal promulgated that day is without doubt the most scholarly, objective and universally tested liturgy every produced in history—even with some flaws. And like it or not, this form of the Mass will be with us at least another 4-5 centuries.

Really…despite the fact that some areas that could be textually critiqued, what is really wrong with the Mass of Paul VI/John Paul II, when done “by the book”? Could not the “new” Mass be celebrated facing the altar, using Gregorian Chant, polyphony or some high-quality modern settings (and there a quite a few), in English or Latin, with the gradual and chanted readings, two deacons in dalmatics, no female altar servers, etc.? If this could be an established standard, why isn’t it good enough?

Please, folks, can’t we finally put to rest the revisionist history which claims that liturgical reform didn’t exist before the Council (yes, even if there were some contradictions on either side of 1963) or that it was hijacked by one man who foisted his will on the entire Roman Church, or that all the problems that developed are to be laid at the feet of the Council Fathers? Indeed, much of the reform took shape not because of Bugnini or the Concilium, but because of the direct and personal intervention and initiative of the Servant of God, Pope Paul VI, himself. And I think on the whole he did a great job! I am a traditionally-oriented Catholic, and I find at the end of the day that post-Conciliar typical editions, when done "by the book" provide a positive, edifying experience of the sacred liturgy. This is given quantum support by the new ICEL English translation.

The unpleasant truth for many is that the reform was mandated by an Ecumenical Council, and the items of this mandate could not be fulfilled without a structural and textual alteration, more or less resulting in the 1969 Mass—if you disagree, I humbly recommend a re-reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium to confirm this, the whole constitution, not selected sections. Can it be refined? Certainly. But the 1962 usage is not the ultimate answer—indeed, how could it be, since only a fraction of the reform (e.g. revised Holy Week and the simplification of the calendar) was reflected in it, and clearly could not have and does not meet the mandate of the Council Fathers…nearly 3,000 of them.
Posted by: John Frazier York
November 29, 2012 11:39 PM EST
Vatican II said this in it's Constitution Dei Verbum:
"Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence."

Vatican II showed that traditions should be kept with loyalty. Not thrown away unlike some try to fake.
Posted by: Nake
February 12, 2013 03:07 PM EST
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