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What Bugnini Was Thinking When He Destroyed the Catholic Mass

In G.K. Chesterton’s story “The Queer Feet,” Father Brown says:

A crime is like any other work of art. Don’t look surprised; crimes are by no means the only works of art that come from an infernal workshop. But every work of art, divine or diabolic, has one indispensable mark — I mean, that the centre of it is simple, however much the fulfilment may be complicated. Thus, in Hamlet, let us say, the grotesqueness of the grave-digger, the flowers of the mad girl, the fantastic finery of Osric, the pallor of the ghost and the grin of the skull are all oddities in a sort of tangled wreath round one plain tragic figure of a man in black. [i]

This passage came to my mind when reading the newly translated recent biography Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy (Angelico Press, 2018) by the prolific and well respected French historian Yves Chiron. The wide-ranging liturgical reform that took place in the Catholic Church predominantly between the years 1950 and 1975 was, indeed, like Hamlet, a complicated business, involving hundreds of bishops and experts, several popes, an ecumenical council, and countless publications, but at the center of it stood “one plain tragic figure of a man in black” — or perhaps we might say black with red piping: Msgr. (later Archbishop) Annibale Bugnini, a Vincentian priest who was one of the few men who had a hand in this quarter-century reform from its beginning nearly to its end.

Those who have heard of Annibale Bugnini (1912–1982) tend to think of him either as an evil schemer bent on the destruction of the Catholic Faith or as a talented bureaucrat who smoothly guided a complex liturgical reform to its happy conclusion. This book, which is well researched yet mercifully compact for a modern biography, portrays a more complex and human figure. That he was totally convinced of and consistently acted upon various rationalist and pastoral theories about how liturgy “ought to be” is indisputable, and this book provides copious documentation of it, but not all of his ideas were welcomed by those in authority, and he did eventually run afoul of the pope to whose itching ear and promulgating pen he had enjoyed such uninhibited access.

Through Chiron’s book we become acquainted with the life of a man who was singularly influential in marshaling the forces necessary for an unprecedented revision of Roman Catholic worship. One sees how it came about, step by step, pope by pope, committee by committee, book by book. It is truly one of the most astonishing stories in the history of Catholicism, and one about which Henry Sire rightly quips: “The story of how the liturgical revolution was put through is one that hampers the historian by its very enormity; he would wish, for his own sake, to have a less unbelievable tale to tell.”[ii] With Chiron patiently taking the reader through the phases of Bugnini’s life and activity, the tale becomes a little less unbelievable, albeit no less an enormity, as each daring maneuver leads to a new opening, a new opportunity, and new changes [iii].

Was Bugnini a mastermind, one of those rare Faustian individuals who singlehandedly change the course of history, or was he a small-minded ideologue and opportunist? The evidence presented in this biography tends to support the latter. Additional evidence not discussed by Chiron lends support to the same interpretation. In a memorable address in Montreal, Canada in 1982, Archbishop Lefebvre shared the story of a meeting he attended with other superiors general in Rome in the mid-1960s:

I had the occasion to see for myself what influence Fr. Bugnini had. One wonders how such a thing as this could have happened at Rome. At that time immediately after the Council, I was Superior General of the Congregation of the Fathers of the Holy Ghost and we had a meeting of the Superiors General at Rome. We had asked Fr. Bugnini to explain to us what his New Mass was, for this was not at all a small event. Immediately after the Council talk was heard of the ‘Normative Mass’, the ‘New Mass’, the ‘Novus Ordo’. What did all this mean? …

Fr. Bugnini, with much confidence, explained what the Normative Mass would be; this will be changed, that will be changed and we will put in place another Offertory. We will be able to reduce the communion prayers. We will be able to have several different formats for the beginning of Mass. We will be able to say the Mass in the vernacular tongue. …

Personally I was myself so stunned that I remained mute, although I generally speak freely when it is a question of opposing those with whom I am not in agreement. I could not utter a word. How could it be possible for this man before me to be entrusted with the entire reform of the Catholic Liturgy, the entire reform of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, of the sacraments, of the Breviary, and of all our prayers? Where are we going? Where is the Church going?

Two Superiors General had the courage to speak out. One of them asked Fr. Bugnini: “Is this an active participation, that is a bodily participation, that is to say with vocal prayers, or is it a spiritual participation? In any case you have spoken so much of the participation of the faithful that it seems you can no longer justify Mass celebrated without the faithful. Your entire Mass has been fabricated around the participation of the faithful. We Benedictines celebrate our Masses without the assistance of the faithful. Does this mean that we must discontinue our private Masses, since we do not have faithful to participate in them?”

I repeat to you exactly that which Fr. Bugnini said. I have it still in my ears, so much did it strike me: “To speak truthfully, we didn’t think of that,” he said!

Afterwards another arose and said: “Reverend Father, you have said that we will suppress this and we will suppress that, that we will replace this thing by that and always by shorter prayers. I have the impression that your new Mass could be said in ten or twelve minutes or at the most a quarter of an hour. This is not reasonable. This is not respectful towards such an act of the Church.” Well, this is what he replied: “We can always add something.” Is this for real? I heard it myself. If somebody had told me the story I would perhaps have doubted it, but I heard it myself. [iv]

When we read an account like this, we are tempted to think it an exaggeration. Chiron’s careful, almost surgical examination of original documents proves that it is nothing of the kind. While studiously avoiding romanticization or caricature, Chiron paints a portrait of his protagonist that harmonizes with such accounts as Lefebvre’s, or that of Bouyer in his Memoirs. Bugnini was indeed an adroit manager, manipulator, massager, and messenger. He knew how to gather an “all-star” team that would work in the direction he thought best. He knew how to win over the pope to his ideas. He knew when to speak up and when to keep silent. To take one example, he urged the preconciliar preparatory commission on liturgy not to put forth too many radical ideas lest their entire project of reform be shot down; it was enough, Bugnini said, to offer general innocuous-sounding indications and to fill out the details later in committee work.

The term “Machiavellian” might have to be excluded only because there is no smoking-gun evidence of malice. Rather, Bugnini is that oddest of odd figures: the seemingly well intentioned Machiavellian who stifles his opponents because they are obviously wrong and he is obviously right.

In his delightful novella Rasselas, Samuel Johnson places on the lips of one of his characters advice that could have been custom-made for Bugnini: “Do not therefore, in thy administration of the year, indulge thy pride by innovation; do not please thyself with thinking that thou canst make thyself renowned to all future ages by disordering the seasons. The memory of mischief is no desirable fame.”

In this swift-moving biography, which is rich with details but never gets bogged down in minutiae, Chiron shows us what made Bugnini “tick”: a one-track obsession with “active participation,” understood as rational comprehension of verbal data, and, as a corollary, the need for a radical simplification of liturgical forms to meet the straightforward, efficient modern Western man. To this goal, everything else was to be subordinated: all ecclesiastical traditions were so much flotsam and jetsam compared to the pastoral urgency of immediate conveyance of Vatican II-flavored content. This explains why Latin had to give way to vernacular, why complex language had to be broken down into bite-sized chunks, why elaborate prayers and ceremonies had to be abbreviated or abolished, why the priest should interact familiarly with the people rather than fulfilling a distinct hieratic role, why Gregorian chant had to be sidelined in favor of popular songs, and so forth.

In a way, it all “makes sense,” just as Cartesianism “makes sense” to one who rejects the possibility of knowing any reality other than the mind, or as Freudianism “makes sense” to one who is already disposed to evaluating situations for their sexual exploitability, or as deconstructionism “makes sense” to one who rejects the possibility of meaning.

How very different, indeed contrary, to the postconciliar project of building the first liturgy of moderns, by moderns, for moderns, is the attitude we meet in the memoirs of Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking of his youthful discovery of the riches of the liturgy:

It was a riveting adventure to move by degrees into the mysterious world of the liturgy, which was being enacted before us and for us there on the altar. It was becoming more and more clear to me that here I was encountering a reality that no one had simply thought up, a reality that no official authority or great individual had created. This mysterious fabric of texts and actions had grown from the faith of the Church over the centuries. It bore the whole weight of history within itself, and yet, at the same time, it was much more than the product of human history. Every century had left its mark upon it. … Not everything was logical. Things sometimes got complicated, and it was not always easy to find one’s way. But precisely this is what made the whole edifice wonderful, like one’s own home. [v]

* * *

I would like to comment here on the conspiracy theory that will forever cling to Bugnini — namely, that he was a Freemason, and that the liturgical reform was a Masonic plot to undermine the Church from within. With the patient precision of the historian, Chiron looks at every piece of available evidence and reaches the conclusion that it is impossible to say with certainty whether Bugnini was or was not a Freemason; evidence adequate to a conviction is wanting. He mentions that the accusation arose from someone “highly placed” in the Church’s hierarchy; he quotes Bugnini’s indignant testimonies that he never had, nor dreamt of having, anything to do with a secret society, and there it stands, a classic case of contrary assertions with no way (yet) of proving one side or the other right [vi]. Some readers will, perhaps, be disappointed, as they might have expected research to return a definite verdict. But there are two things to be said about this matter.

First, in the intriguing foreword, we learn of a 1996 interview in which Dom Alcuin Reid asked Cardinal Stickler if he believed that Bugnini was a Freemason and if this was the reason Paul VI dismissed him. “No,” the cardinal replied, “it was something far worse.” But His Eminence declined to reveal what the “far worse” was — and, frankly, the concept of something “far worse” than a Freemason opens frightening vistas of imagination.

Second, let us assume for the sake of argument that Bugnini was just who he said he was, and just as he appears from the historical record — a “lover and cultivator of the liturgy,” as it seemed to him. In some ways, this is the most depressing of all scenarios. One might almost have more respect for Bugnini if he had operated by some grand plan to demolish the liturgy of the ages and replace it with a mechanism brilliantly contrived to undermine Catholicism, if he had been an apostate infiltrator whose only goal was wreaking havoc on the central nervous system of the Church. We are looking for a Professor Moriarty who orchestrates the underworld. But if it turns out that he was an earnest, hardworking, small-minded man, won over by the rhetoric of the Liturgical Movement, incapable of self-doubt in the wee hours of the night, utterly blind to the world-shifting implications of what he was doing, a diligent functionary with half-baked ideas and the stubbornness to push them along at every opportunity, then we enter into the soulless gray world of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” [vii]. We are looking at the equivalent of the SS officer who killed Jews in concentration camps because it seemed like the conscientious fulfillment of his duty to the State, under lawful commands from above.

Perhaps, in the end, the irrepressible urge to make Bugnini a Freemason, with or without sufficient evidence (“surely he must have been…”), is a defense mechanism against having to face up to the possibility that he was sincerely service-oriented as he went about dismantling twenty centuries of organically developed liturgy. That is not to say he always used pure means; he was adroit and clever at getting his way and willing to bend the truth. But he always felt he was in the right, that such a great and difficult end justified whatever means it took to reach it, and that someday everyone would come around to his point of view.

Few managers in the history of bureaucracies have ever been so mistaken. Baptized Catholics today fall into three groups: the majority, who are fallen away and attend no liturgy, or who would lightly skip a Mass to attend sonny’s soccer game; practicing Catholics, who, aware of no alternative, dutifully attend the Bugnini Mass, taking the scraps that fall from the table of plenty; and a sizeable minority who, despite differences among themselves, adhere energetically to the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy. This is not the future Bugnini dreamt of — if, indeed, he permitted himself the luxury of dreaming, in the midst of journals, conferences, meetings, audiences, and correspondence.

A clever poet has written:

In Rome they should have known him by his name:
the enemy descending with his brutes.
But to our guardians’ eternal shame,
the harried faithful know him by his fruits. [viii]

When I finished Chiron’s Bugnini, I leaned back in my chair and thought wistfully about the momentous period its pages brought before my eyes — how outdated, how stale, how empty it all seems today, when it lives on in a legacy that stimulates about the same level of enthusiasm as Victorian sentimental kitsch. Bugnini’s life had been spent in a sleepless effort to bring the Church “up to date,” to make her an equal partner with modernity at last, in a bid to conquer the culture — and now look at the smoking remains, the boarded up churches, the indifferent and ignorant laity, the infant-slaying Cuomos and Pelosis, the liturgy that bores to tears, the pope afflicted with heretical logorrhea. It is not the Church that engaged modernity, but modernity that colonized the Church, reducing her to a state of vassalage. Without explicitly intending to do so in this book, Chiron helps us to see why Catholic traditionalism (or traditional Catholicism, if you prefer) is, in fact, the only way forward out of this pit of despair.

What the modern liturgists who fawn on Bugnini don’t get — and really need to have spelled out for them like little children — is this:

We do not welcome the postconciliar liturgical reforms, and we will never sing their praises. You cannot force us to like them; you cannot even force us to celebrate them. We think they were the project of an insane arrogance, acting on faulty principles and yielding shameful results. We distrust the people who ran the Consilium, especially Bugnini, and no matter how many purple-faced prelates stand up and haughtily proclaim: “It was the will of the Holy Spirit” or “It was the dictate of the Second Vatican Council” or “It was promulgated by Paul VI,” we will always hold to the great liturgical tradition that developed organically from St. Peter, St. Damasus, St. Gregory the Great to the twentieth century, and our numbers will continue to grow, even as dioceses consolidate parishes, sell off churches, and bleed out legal damages. The enthusiastic liturgists of the ’60s and ’70s are the aging nostalgics of today, as the Church increasingly splits into those who take established dogma, tradition, and liturgy seriously and those who would modernize them to the point of dissipation.

Readers are in Chiron’s debt — and readers of English, in John Pepino’s debt — for such a polished and professional biography of a key figure in the corporate remodeling of the Church of Today. This biography does not temper our instinctive revulsion, but rather feeds and focuses it.

To Bugnini, we say again, Bugni-no.

[i] G. K. Chesterton, “The Queer Feet,” in The Complete Father Brown (New York: Penguin, 1981), 51.

[ii] H. J. A. Sire, Phoenix from the Ashes (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015), 251. I have said it before and I will say it again: the chapter “The Destruction of the Mass” in this book, pp. 226–86, is simply the best concise account I have seen anywhere of what was done to the Mass in the liturgical reform, why, and how.

[iii] In my opinion, the one who comes off as the worst villain in the story is Paul VI. Chiron has written a biography of Paul VI, too, which is currently being translated into English.

[iv] From a conference given by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1982. The full text may be found at

[v] Milestones: Memoirs 1927–1977, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 19–20.

[vi] Chiron notes that there are some private journals and papers that are still jealously guarded by Bugnini’s literary executors. One wonders if such texts will ever come to light.

[vii] Arendt says this about Eichmann: “Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the entire enterprise [of his trial], and was also rather hard to sustain in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused to millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed and almost never reported” (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil [New York: Penguin Classics, 2006], 54).

[viii] Mark Amorose, City under Siege: Sonnets and Other Verse (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2017), 34. This little book of lovely and witty poems deserves to be better known.

5 thoughts on “What Bugnini Was Thinking When He Destroyed the Catholic Mass”

  1. Yes, Bugnini was a Freemason. Apparently, the author did not cite the Italian Police records that were published by Father James Wathan in “Who Shall Ascend?” (Volume II)
    Of course, if Yves Chiron cited such sources, he would be immediately excommunicated from the club, excoriated as a “conspiracy theorist” and “anti-semite”- you know the drill…
    The only question: Was Archbishop Lefebvre a Freemason?
    You do have to admit: a group of Freemasonic Conspirators could harly have done a better job fracturing Catholic Tradition than the SSPX, while all the while supposedly acting to uphold it.


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