As a Millennial who was weaned on the Novus Ordo Missae, I have been inescapably molded by its main architect, Abp. Annibale Bugnini. Yet there is so much that I didn’t know about Bugnini and his revolution of the liturgy.
I didn’t know, growing up, that a man infamously alleged to have been a Freemason or “something far worse” was behind the freewheeling liturgy of my youth. I didn’t know that the Roman Canon was supposed to be shrouded in the silence of the Cross — or that my pastor’s altar theatrics were but the logical extension of abandoning ad orientem worship. I lacked a context to process the various haywire liturgies before me.
I didn’t know that Bugnini allegedly used “subterfuge” to obtain what his “handlers” passed through him, to quote Fr. Louis Bouyer’s Memoirs. Notably, as secretary of Vatican II’s preparatory commission on the liturgy, Bugnini explained to some peers that they needed to strategically say things “in embryo” to foment postconciliar changes. As he put it:
It would be most inconvenient for the articles of our Constitution to be rejected by the Central Commission or by the Council itself. That is why we must tread carefully and discreetly. Carefully, so that proposals be…formulated in such a way that much is said without seeming to say anything: let many things be said in embryo and in this way let the door remain open to legitimate and possible postconciliar deductions and applications: let nothing be said that suggests excessive novelty and might invalidate all the rest … [i]
It was a bald admission of a plan to load council texts with “liturgical time bombs” — ambiguous passages later subversively interpreted by Bugnini’s implementation committee. I didn’t grasp that I had been caught in the explosions, left with the rubble and ruin.
I didn’t know that, in March 1965, Pope Paul VI celebrated a Mass almost exclusively in Italian, facing the people, to help validate the escalating liturgical upheaval. Two years later, Bugnini was pushing the Holy Mass to morph, Proteus-like, into increasingly unrecognizable forms. At a 1967 synod, he celebrated a “normative Mass” in Italian, ad populum, with three readings, reduced genuflections, more hymns, an altered Offertory, and a new Eucharistic Prayer III. I had no idea that Eucharistic Prayer II was brainstormed on a café terrace — on a twenty-four-hour deadline.
I didn’t know that the bishops voted against unreservedly embracing this revolutionary Mass, in what Yves Chiron calls a “public disavowal” of Bugnini’s work. Pope Paul VI still assured Bugnini of his “complete confidence,” and two years later — exactly fifty years ago this month — the rejected 1967 “normative Mass” was “reintroduced and imposed” as the Novus Ordo Missae. I didn’t know that Paul VI’s apologias for this new Mass “calmly noted that Latin and Gregorian chant would disappear,” as Dr. Peter Kwasniewski puts it.
No, I didn’t know just how much had been burned in the fires of aggiornamento. Bugnini’s writings patronize the “mute and inert” assembly of the past; his slogan is “active participation” via incinerated mystery. In the 1940s, Bugnini was already experimenting with a “paraphrased” Mass, in which a reader made the people say aloud Italian paraphrases of the Latin liturgy. I didn’t grasp that Latin was the great obstacle to the revolution’s time bombs — a veritable “arsenal of orthodoxy,” as Dom Prosper Guéranger puts it.[ii] I didn’t grasp that this sacred language was an inviolable “veil over the whole sacrifice” and liturgical silence was “a single great canticle” to God — to quote the marvelous Nothing Superfluous.
I didn’t truly grasp the transcendence of Gregorian chant—its preternatural ability to awaken the soul’s deepest aches for God. Growing up, I loved hymns like “Gather Us In”; now I cringe at the narcissistic kitschiness of lyrics such as “We have been sung throughout all of history.” I never realized that this new cult of man was the logical consequence of turning away from facing God—or that Bugnini’s team loaded the new Mass with an Enlightenment aggrandizement of the people [iii]. Now I ache at all the liturgy’s discarded sublimity, cast off like so much meaningless detritus.
I didn’t know that, against Bugnini’s iconoclastic impulse to “simplify” the Holy Mass, the Council of Trent taught that the Church’s rites “contain nothing unnecessary or superfluous.” For instance, the Tridentine Mass’s nine Kyries evoke the nine choirs of angels and nine kinds of sin; its prolific signs of the cross symbolize everything from the selling of Our Lord to His physical and mental sufferings.[iv] Nonchalantly, Bugnini suppressed — among other things — numerous genuflections, kisses of the altar, and signs of the cross because they allegedly caused “incomprehension and weariness.” I had no idea that he once said we must “strip” from the liturgy all that can be a “stumbling block” for Protestants — and called his revolution a “major conquest of the Roman Catholic Church.”
But above all, I didn’t know how impoverished my understanding of the Holy Mass truly was. I still have a lingering image of my childhood priest, surrounded by extraordinary ministers, holding up the Eucharist and theatrically inviting us to the “Supper of the Lamb,” like a showman; I more or less deduced, from this dramatic climax, that we were at a celebratory communal “meal.” I had no idea that the Ottaviani Intervention had strongly criticized the new Mass for “obsessively” defining itself as a “supper” instead of emphasizing “the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary.” The definition of the Mass in the Institutio Generalis was soon amended, yet the intervention’s underlying criticism still rings true. “The mystery of the Cross is no longer explicitly expressed. It is only there obscurely, veiled, imperceptible for the people,” the intervention lamented.
Then I assisted at an unforgettable Tridentine Mass after reading Nothing Superfluous. The priest faced East, alone — save for the presence of a server — and I suddenly saw the embodiment of a line from Ven. Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ: “The high priest must offer the sacrifice alone.” The priest solemnly said the Offertory, bowed at the altar, and turned and said, “Orate, fratres” (“Pray, brethren”) — and we were somehow present at Gethsemane, watching the high priest bend from sin’s heaviness and beckon us to prayer. Then a profound, mysterious silence enveloped the chapel, broken by speech exactly seven times from the “Orate, fratres” to the priest’s Communion. The eternal high priest was offering the sacrifice — Himself — alone.
Then I knew that Calvary’s mystery had irrupted into that place; this was the silence of the Cross, pierced intermittently by Our Lord’s Seven Last Words.[v] Then I knew how to adore the sacrificial Victim spontaneously, unhindered by priestly histrionics, liturgical verbosity, or the chatty sign of peace. Then I knew, dimly, why the blessed ceaselessly fall down and worship the Lamb in the ethereal heavenly liturgy (cf. Rev. 7:11).
Then I knew just how much I had lost in the Bugninian coup.
[i] Quoted in Ives Chiron’s Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy. Unless otherwise indicated, all subsequent facts about Bugnini, Pope Paul VI, and the Novus Ordo Missae come from this work.
[ii] See Michael Davies’s Liturgical Time Bombs for this quotation and point.
[iii] See Peter Kwasniewski’s Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis.
[iv] See Fr. James Jackson’s Nothing Superfluous.
[v] Nothing Superfluous points out that medieval commentators saw Christ’s Seven Last Words “expressed liturgically” in the seven times the priest speaks distinctly from the “Orate, fratres” to his Communion.
Julia Meloni is the author of The St. Gallen Mafia (TAN, 2021). She writes from the Pacific Northwest. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale and a master’s degree in English from Harvard.