Sacrosanctum Concilium Turns 60

Above: one of the televised sessions of Vatican II. The liturgical reform document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was promulgated sixty years ago today on December 4th, 1963.


Turning 60 can be traumatic: all of a sudden retirement looms on the horizon, less than optimal physical fitness or even the prospect of bad heath beckons—if it has not already caught up with us in one way or another. Our busy lives may still be filled with activity, but turning sixty raises the inevitable question: for how much longer?

But what of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium—the much-vaunted first-born child of the Council, as it were, and certainly the one which has had the greatest impact on the lives of Roman-rite Catholics the world over? How is its health? Is there any sign of its coming retirement?

Alas, it has to be said frankly that Sacrosanctum Concilium does not celebrate its sixtieth birthday as tranquilly as we might ourselves hope to do, for the shocking fact is that it has been battered, beaten and abused for decades since its infancy. Sixty sees it staggering across the line without, frankly, much hope of lasting very much longer—despite the ingenious and valiant attempts throughout the different stages of its life of popes, prelates and scholars to prop it up, heal its wounds and get it back on its feet.

How can this be? The reformed liturgy is in place—indeed, it is very, very carefully guarded in our day. Liturgical abuses are certainly much less frequent occurrences than they were decades ago. Things seem relatively settled in respect of the modern liturgy promulgated after the Council—it just needs to be celebrated properly, many would say. How can one say that Sacrosanctum Concilium has been abused for decades and is now probably on its last legs?

I shall make good these audacious claims, but the reader must bear with me. There is so much obfuscation if not downright falsehood in discussions of the liturgical reform called for by the Second Vatican Council, and in respect of their implementation—including (especially it seems!) by present hierarchs—as well as no small amount of emotion invested in them, that clear thinking can appear to be practically impossible. We must identify the facts and be able to make the appropriate distinctions if we are to understand exactly what the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is, and what has happened to it since is promulgation sixty years ago.

What the Council was Not

The first fact that we must accept is that the Second Vatican Council was not in any sense whatsoever intended to be the Church’s “Woodstock” after which she could never be the same again. As I explained earlier in the year in my article “The One Thread from which the Council Hangs,” Vatican II was a legitimate Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church “which occupied itself with pastoral aims—principally how the Church could more effectively preach the Gospel in the modern age—and [which] defined no dogmas and decreed no anathemas, but outlined policies which were judged to be expedient at the time and which were to be interpreted in a hermeneutic of continuity with the Church’s Tradition, including the dogmatic definitions of the other twenty Ecumenical Councils of the Church.”

Vatican II was about pastoral policy. Period. It was not called in order radically to change (i.e. to throw away what was used in the past and to start out completely anew, tabula rasa) the Church’s teaching or her Sacred Liturgy or anything else. It was called to find ways all the better for modern man to participate in and to connect with these saving realities in order that souls may be saved.

We can argue about what amount of change is proportionate and possible in order to achieve this pastoral goal, certainly, and we can recognise some legitimate developments and insights in respect of the faith and worship of the Church that came from the Council. But we all know that if we start pruning a tree at the base of its trunk and continue by digging out its roots we have rather disastrously overstepped the mark and defeated our original purpose. The tree will die and it will have to be replaced by something else.

Hence, in the name of fidelity to the Popes and Fathers (bishops) of the Council we must definitively reject the super-dogma so often proffered in its name whereby “Vatican II changed all of that, radically, irreversibly,” where “that” stands for any previous liturgical, doctrinal, moral, or pastoral teaching or practice that is deemed inapplicable (read “inconvenient”) to contemporary man.” It didn’t. It called for proportionate reform and for profound renewal. Nothing more. (That, surely was more than sufficient a goal!) It gave no license to tear up either the catechism or the missal and to start anew.

If you disagree or have been told otherwise, study the documents themselves, carefully (and beware the spin that abounds in later commentaries on them). Then go to the discussions held on the Council floor when they were being redacted. It is there that we will find the Second Vatican Council, rather than the Council desired and promoted by agenda-driven opportunists in its aftermath, or what Pope Benedict XVI famously called the “virtual Council” and “the Council of the media.” (Address, 14 February 2013) And it is in doing precisely this that we can learn just what Sacrosanctum Concilium is—and is not.

The Constitution ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’ Itself

The Sacred Liturgy encompasses the rites of the Sacraments, the Divine Office, the Blessings and Processions, funerals and much more. But at its centre is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and of course it is the Mass which is the beating heart at the very centre of our life of prayer and worship. For many Catholics, the Mass is almost the only liturgical encounter they have. That Catholics should participate in it fully and fruitfully is essential—as Sacrosanctum Concilium n. 14 rightly insists.

It is impossible to review the Council’s discussions of all the liturgical rites here. Given its fundamental importance, however, the Council’s discussion of the reform of the rite of Mass will serve to illustrate the point. What did the Council Fathers intend in saying that: “The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, may be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved”? (n. 50) Let us visit the Council floor, as it were.

On 29 October 1962 the Fathers of the Council began their discussion of the second chapter of the draft Constitution (called the Schema Constitutionis De Sacra Liturgia).  This included (the then) article 37 on the reform of the Ordo Missae. It proposed: “The Order of Mass is to be reviewed, either in general or in its individual parts, so that it may be more clearly understood and so that it may render the actual participation of the people easier.”[1]

The article generated considerable discussion. Some Fathers saw these words as a licence for revolution and protested strongly: the interventions of Francis Cardinal Spellman,[2] and of Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani,[3] are noteworthy for their criticisms. Those of Archbishop Frederico Melendro SJ,[4] and Bishop George Patrick Dwyer,[5] called for the article’s clarification. Bishop Alberto Devoto argued that “the renewal of the Order of Mass without doubt is at this moment of great importance; on account of this, this article lacks the requisite precision.”[6] The Coadjutor Bishop of Strasbourg, Léon-Arthur Elchinger, sought a solution: “I propose that the entire text of this article be conserved but that it may be clarified by the publication of the complete declaratio prepared by the preparatory commission under this article. So as to ‘calm the spirits’ of those who fear a complete revolution of the Order of Mass and the death of the Roman rite. This declaratio does not propose for us a revolution but only an evolution—a pastoral evolution—something sound and prudent.”[7]

The Declarationes were the explanatory notes that had accompanied articles of the Schema in the various stages of redaction so as to specify the drafters’ intentions. Whilst they formed part of the drafts tabled in the work of the preparatory commission, they were not included with the text of the Schema distributed to the Council Fathers. The resultant lack of specificity contributed to the anxiety of some Fathers and fuelled the calls for clarification by others.

In the next session Bishop Henri Jenny intervened. A member of the liturgical preparatory and conciliar commissions, Bishop Jenny set forth the content of the declaratio on the reform of the Order of Mass asked for by Bishop Elchinger. Before outlining the specific reforms, the assurance was given that: “Hodiernus Ordo Missæ, qui decursu saeculorum succrevit, certe retinendus est.” (“The current Ordo Missæ, which has grown up in the course of the centuries, certainly is to be retained.”)[8] The word “certainly” was emphasised. The French Dominican peritus Yves Congar noted in his Council diary that Jenny “was listened to very attentively.”[9]

I have published a detailed study of the ensuing discussion,[10] and it is perfectly clear that the Fathers did not envisage or authorise a revolution in the Order of Mass, but an evolution, along the lines of the guiding principle of article 23 of the Constitution: “…there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.”

The most radical change in the Mass envisaged at the Council was the widespread use of the vernacular languages in the first part of the Mass, then known as the “Mass of the Catechumens” and now as the “Liturgy of the Word,” celebrated with the direct involvement of the people from the sedilia. Even Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre thought this appropriate.[11] An expanded lectionary and the introduction of prayers of the faithful were also envisaged.

It is important to note, however, that the Council Fathers were practically unanimous that from the Offertory onward the Mass should be at the altar and in Latin. The possibility of celebrating this part of the Mass ‘facing the people’ was not envisaged – let alone mandated. Thus, appropriately modified (in the Mass of the Catechumens) for the pastoral good of the people, the Order of Mass that had developed in the course of the centuries was nevertheless to be retained.

This is Sacrosanctum Concilium as it was born – as it was voted on and authoritatively promulgated 60 years ago. Nothing more. Nothing less. One could repeat such a study for the other liturgical rites, but here we shall have to suffice with the rite of the Mass.

The Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium

It would be some six years before what came to be known as the “New Order of Mass” would come into force on the first Sunday of Advent in 1969 and in terms of liturgical history they are a very interesting six years indeed. What can be said of Sacrosanctum Concilium and its provisions in respect of the Mass in this period?

Putting it quite bluntly, Sacrosanctum Concilium was like a newborn child left out in the cold and ignored whilst people stole its authority to advance their own liturgical agendas. “Fortune favours the brave,” Archbishop Annibale Bugnini—the Secretary of the Consilium charged with implementing the Council’s Constitution—boasted in his memoirs.[12] Indeed, there is clear evidence that he planned to leave the stipulations of the Constitution aside—rendering the work of the Council itself quite meaningless and raising serious questions about his respect for the reality and authority of an Ecumenical Council. For as early as at a meeting of the liturgical commission in the preparatory phase of the Council in November 1961, the then Father Bugnini would say plainly that:

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 made in an acceptable manner (modo acceptabile), or, in my opinion, formulated in such a way that much is said without seeming to say anything: let many things be said in embryo (in nuce) 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, even what is straightforward and harmless (ingenua et innocentia). We must proceed discreetly. Not everything is to be asked or demanded from the Council—but the essentials, the fundamental principles [are].[13]

Hence the offertory rite would be completely scrapped and replaced (the Orate Fratres’ prayer with its overtly sacrificial language was retained only on the ‘intransigent’ insistence of Paul VI himself); the Roman Canon narrowly escaped abolition in fact but was more or less abolished in reality by the stark and unprecedented novelty of the invention and authorisation of new eucharistic prayers—something simply unthinkable on the Council floor; various rites and gestures were radically simplified (something which had been envisaged, certainly, but not to such a drastic extent); the private prayers of the priest were severely reduced and—psychologically crucially—official ‘encouragement’ was given for the Mass (from the offertory onward) to be celebrated facing the people. So too, indults (permissions) were rapidly given for the reception of Holy Communion in the hand, standing—profoundly changing the perception of the Mass and of the nature of the Blessed Eucharist (intentionally or not). Neither for the priest nor for the lay man or woman could it be said that the Mass was the same. It had been radically changed.

Even on paper in Latin (before the bad vernacular translations and enthusiastic abuses kicked in, as they already had in many places) the Order of Mass promulgated by Paul VI in April 1969 and contained in his edition of the Missale Romanum of 1970 can hardly be said to be that which had developed in the course of the centuries. The fact is that it had not been retained as had been promised. Sacrosanctum Concilium had been systematically and thoroughly abused—and the Council made to look foolish—by an adeptly orchestrated Consilum intent on its own modernising liturgical agenda, which had the good fortune of having a pope who would authoritatively sign off its proposals.

The concerns of those who, in the discussion of this reform at the Council in 1962 feared a complete revolution of the Order of Mass and the death of the Roman rite were, it seems, not without foundation. Yet they had voted for Sacrosantum Concilium having been assured there was no such danger. But the reality, as Father Joseph Gellineau, by no means an opponent of the reform, would write with candour but a few years later, was that the Order of Mass promulgated by Paul VI is “in fact it is a different liturgy of the Mass. We must say it plainly: the Roman rite as we knew it exists no longer. It is destroyed (détruit). Some walls of the structure have fallen, others have been altered; we can look at it as a ruin or the partial foundation of a new building.”[14]

This was the sad, neglected and abused state of Sacrosanctum Concilium as it turned but seven years old.

Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI[15] reigned during the immediate post-conciliar years and personally followed the liturgical reform in great detail. As noted above, he put the brakes on the Consilium occasionally (he himself insisted on the retention of the sign of the cross at the beginning of Mass, the Confiteor in what is called the “Penitential Rite” and the Roman Canon). He did, however, personally approve the other details of the reform and authoritatively promulgate them.

Before the first Sunday of Advent 1969 he spoke of the reform in two famous General Audience addresses (19 & 26 November 1969). In the first he said:

This change has something astonishing about it, something extraordinary. This is because the Mass is regarded as the traditional and untouchable expression of our religious worship and the authenticity of our faith. We ask ourselves, how could such a change be made? What effect will it have on those who attend Holy Mass?…

How could such a change be made? Answer: It is due to the will expressed by the Ecumenical Council held not long ago…

The reform which is about to be brought into being is therefore a response to an authoritative mandate from the Church. It is an act of obedience. It is an act of coherence of the Church with herself. It is a step forward for her authentic tradition. It is a demonstration of fidelity and vitality, to which we all must give prompt assent.

It is not an arbitrary act. It is not a transitory or optional experiment. It is not some dilettante’s improvisation. It is a law. It has been thought out by authoritative experts of Sacred Liturgy; it has been discussed and meditated upon for a long time. We shall do well to accept it with joyful interest and put it into practice punctually, unanimously and carefully.

Reading this decades later one is struck by the lack of assertion that this is a proportionate and necessary development of the liturgical Tradition as called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium, but that it is a positive act of authority (“a law”) “to which we all must give prompt assent.”

“What will be the results of this innovation?” the Pope asked:

The results expected, or rather desired, are that the faithful will participate in the liturgical mystery with more understanding, in a more practical, a more enjoyable and a more sanctifying way. That is, they will hear the Word of God, which lives and echoes down the centuries and in our individual souls; and they will likewise share in the mystical reality of Christ’s sacramental and propitiatory sacrifice.

“So let us not talk about ‘the new Mass,’ he concluded. “Let us rather speak of the ‘new epoch’ in the Church’s life.”

The following week the Pope would speak about the “many-sided inconvenience” of the reform, explaining that:

It is the kind of upset caused by every novelty that breaks in on our habits. We shall notice that pious persons are disturbed most, because they have their own respectable way of hearing Mass, and they will feel shaken out of their usual thoughts and obliged to follow those of others. Even priests may feel some annoyance in this respect.

“We must prepare ourselves,” Paul VI warned. “This novelty is no small thing. We should not let ourselves be surprised by the nature, or even the nuisance, of its exterior forms…” he counselled. “We shall do well to take into account the motives for this grave change,” he advised, explaining that “the first [motive] is obedience to the Council,” adding that “that obedience now implies obedience to the bishops, who interpret the Council’s prescription and put them into practice.”

The jump here from obedience to the Council (to Sacrosanctum Concilium) to obedience to the bishops’ interpretation of it some years later is subtle but significant. But if this insistence on the positive will of bishops was not enough, the Pope went further insisting that this reform “is Christ’s will, it is the breath of the Holy Spirit which calls the Church to make this change. A prophetic moment is occurring in the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church. This moment is shaking the Church, arousing it, obliging it to renew the mysterious art of its prayer.”

It is no wonder that the new order of Mass and, in due course, the 1970 missal of Paul VI, were widely accepted and implemented in a spirit of obedience as prompt as it was blind: uncritical obedience to ecclesiastical authority was a prime virtue of mid-twentieth century Catholicism, most particularly to the commands of the successor of Saint Peter. That the Pope insisted that the liturgical changes were the direct will of Almighty God more or less sealed the matter. The fact that Sacrosanctum Concilium had been ignored and surpassed seemed not to have been noticed, except by very few. It sat out in the cold as the neglected child whilst the newborn construct of the Consilium enjoyed its own infant years.

But this construct proved to be an unruly child with manifold abuses continuing to appear: the liturgical books were often used more as resources for so-called liturgical “creativity” than as containing rites faithfully to be celebrated. There is no doubt that this distressed Paul VI: it seems that he simply could not see why this was occurring—a testimony, surely, to his own discipline and orthodoxy, but also a witness to his naiveté. Neither the world nor the Church were the same as they were a decade ago: a profound cultural devolution was in progress where objective authority was rapidly set aside in favour of subjective preference. Unwittingly, the promulgation of radically new liturgical rites accelerated the spread of this malaise in the most crucial area of the life of the Church: her worship of Almighty God. If the Church’s rites could change so radically so quickly, so could everything else, including in matters of faith and morals.

In the face of this, the “divided pope” as Yves Chiron would call him (Pope John XXIII had referred to him as the “Hamlet Cardinal”), would lament the disorder and continue to call the Church to obedience. In the face of the small but significant and growing resistance to the liturgical reform (and those who therefore continued to use the unreformed rites) Paul VI manifested a steely authoritarianism, insisting on uncritical obedience and acceptance of the liturgical reform before anything else. There was no room for dialogue, even if an exceptional concession was made to English Catholics in what came to be known as the “Agatha Christie indult.” Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his followers were left out in the cold. Thus, positions hardened on either side of the obedience demanded by the Pope.

At the end of the reign of the Paul VI, approaching its fifteenth birthday the neglected teenager that Sacrosanctum Concilium had become was still no closer to living the life the Council Fathers had intended to give it. Obedience had well and truly cemented the Consilium’s own abusive product in place.

Pope John Paul II

The initial years of the pontificate of John Paul II saw a reassertion of discipline in many areas of the life of a Church in disarray. Questions of liturgical reform were not high on his agenda, though in his first Encyclical he reasserted the “duty to carry out rigorously the liturgical rules.” (Redemptor Hominis, 4 March 1979, n. 20) Uncritical obedience was, seemingly, still the order of the day.

Yet it was under John Paul II that a crack appeared in the wall of obedience built to protect the new rites of Paul VI. The Pope requested a commission of Cardinals to study the question of whether the older liturgical rites had been abolished and whether or not there was any value in their being permitted again. Certainly, the increasingly organised resistance of the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, and others, prompted such a study.[16] One may speculate that so too did a growing awareness that the reformed rites were not entirely in accordance with the Council’s demands. Some were beginning to look at Sacrosanctum Concilium out of the corner of their eye with sympathy.

The 3 October 1984 Indult Quattuor abhinc annos which permitted the use of the 1962 Missale Romanum at the discretion of the diocesan bishop (outside of parish churches) was indeed seen as a fissure in the edifice that was the postconciliar reform—to the delight of some and to the disgust of others. All of a sudden the uncritical acceptance of the new rites demanded by Paul VI had seemingly been dispensed. Many bishops disregarded the Indult, of course, maintaining the intransigence of former days, but the fact remained that the Holy See itself had admitted that the older use of the Roman rite (the usus antiquior) could have some legitimate place in the life of the postconciliar Church.

This did not of itself do anything for our poor, neglected Sacrosanctum Concilium. At least not directly. But one of the Cardinals on the Commission that resulted in the 1984 Indult, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, called to Rome in 1981 by John Paul II to head the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, had been keeping an eye on the Council’s liturgical Constitution for quite some time. He was, in fact, one of the earliest liturgical realists after the Council, not fearing to critique the liturgical reform according to the principles espoused by the Council of which he was himself a young peritus.

Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger would go so far as to speak of the desirability of a reform of the liturgical reform—of revising the reformed rites in the light of the provisions of Sacrosanctum Concilium and of the experience of postconciliar years. To the partisans of the liturgy of Paul VI, who sometimes even spoke of the need for the “organic progression” of the liturgy (that is, that the liturgy needed further to evolve in ways that the Council would have wanted), a conservative reform of the liturgical reform was pure heresy. It allowed the work of the Consilium to be called into question—something to which its late Secretary, Archbishop Bugnini, contributed significantly by publishing his memoirs (The Reform of the Liturgy: 1948-1975) which more than adequately demonstrate the systematic neglect and abuse of Sacrosanctum Concilium that occurred under his watchful eyes following the Council.

An uncomfortable ‘dialogue’ ensued, sometimes scholarly, sometimes reactionary, often referred to as the “liturgy wars,” wherein increasingly it became clear that what the Council intended had not in fact been delivered in the liturgical books promulgated by Paul VI. Whilst more simply took refuge in the unreformed rites (the availability of which grew following the episcopal consecrations carried out by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1988 and Pope John Paul II’s Moto Proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta), others persisted in inviting Sacrosanctum Concilium itself to the table and allowing it to speak. Those who had abused it and who had cast it aside as an infant were unsettled by the presence of this young adult, for if it was allowed to speak it would in all likelihood show the reform of Paul VI to be what Cardinal Ratzinger would describe at the end of the 1980s as “fabricated liturgy” substituted “in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development.” He would go further: “We left the living process of growth and development to enter the realm of fabrication. There was no longer a desire to continue developing and maturing, as the centuries passed and so this was replaced—as if it were a technical production—with a construction, a banal on-the-spot product.”[17]

Nothing official happened in respect of a possible reform of the liturgical reform under John Paul II: various documents continued to insist on obedience to the liturgical books (Inaestimabile Donum, 1980; Vicesimus Quintus Annus, 1988; Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 2003; Redemptionis Sacramentum, 2004). Yet Cardinal Ratzinger continued writing and speaking; in 2000 published a significant theological and practical reflection The Spirit of the Liturgy, and in 2001 presided over a seminal conference in France which fuelled the discussion of a reform of the reform and, indeed, of the role of the usus antiquior, increasingly celebrated by and in the apostolates of what came to be known as the “Ecclesia Dei” communities.

The present author first met Cardinal Ratzinger in person when presenting him with a copy of the 2003 English edition of the proceedings of this conference (Looking Again at the Question of the Liturgy with Cardinal Ratzinger) which I had edited. A conversation about the liturgy naturally ensued. He spoke about a forthcoming document (it would be published the following year as Redemptionis Sacramentum) which His Eminence strongly hoped would reassert the long-lost liturgical discipline so constantly called for. I expressed the opinion that whilst many young priests would welcome and accept the document’s measures, many older ones would simply ignore them. I then asked: “Your Eminence: could you please tell me which bishops will enforce its provisions?” The Cardinal, who by that stage had met most if not all of them in ad limina visits over more than twenty years, and whose Congregation had dealt with them in various ways, sighed and replied, “Ah, yes, the bishops. They are a very great problem.”

Which of course, liturgically, on the whole, they were. Whilst academics and even curial cardinals could talk about the rehabilitation of Sacrosanctum Concilium through a reform of the reform and whilst the usus antiquior gained footholds in more places around the world (attracting the younger generation and generating vocations), the mechanisms of episcopal conferences and their liturgical bureaucracies served to preserve and defend the liturgical status quo, whilst individual diocesan bishops frequently blocked any but the most minimal use of the older liturgical rites. The crack in the edifice opened by John Paul II was widening, but ever so slowly. Sacrosanctum Concilium turned forty with renewed but still unrealised hopes of finally being heard.

Pope Benedict XVI

Sacrosanctum Concilium’s best chance of finally having the impact on the life of the Church that the Council Fathers desired came with the 2005 election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. He knew the Council from within and loved the liturgy as one who believes (even though, as the London Tablet would remark acerbically in July 2007, he was “not a trained liturgist”).

In respect of the reforms following the Council (and not only the liturgical ones) Pope Benedict attempted a sanatio in radice—a fundamental healing or remedying of what was lacking or wrong—through his crucial 22 December 2005 address to the Roman Curia. “Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?” he asked. His response is, today, almost twenty years later, worth revisiting:

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

These innovations alone were supposed to represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from and in conformity with them, it would be possible to move ahead. Precisely because the texts would only imperfectly reflect the true spirit of the Council and its newness, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts and make room for the newness in which the Council’s deepest intention would be expressed, even if it were still vague.

In a word:  it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim.

The nature of a Council as such is therefore basically misunderstood. In this way, it is considered as a sort of constituent that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one.

One could almost hear Sacrosanctum Concilium cheering these words as they were pronounced, for the diagnosis of Benedict XVI was (and remains) perfectly accurate in respect of the liturgical reform of the Council. The Conciliar text was only followed “in spirit” leaving open a vast margin of interpretation that did indeed make room for every whim—and a lot more besides!

The liturgical acts of Benedict XVI’s pontificate flowed from his desire to be true to the Council and to ensure that continuity which he knew had been so grievously ruptured by the liturgical books of Paul VI. His 22 February 2007 Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis is an exemplar in this respect—one which deserves revisiting often by those who seek to celebrate the usus recentior in greater continuity with received liturgical Tradition.

Regrettably, in the eight years of his pontificate Benedict XVI did not enact any concrete measures in respect of the reform of the liturgical reform of which he had spoken as a Cardinal. Whilst some worked on proposals for this with his blessing, the liturgical Congregation in the Roman Curia was jealously guarded by a watchdog who barked fiercely, forbidding even the mention of a reform of the reform, despite his superiors’ clear sympathies with it. Sacrosanctum Concilium may have rejoiced at the principles outlined in December 2005, but the door of the Congregation for Divine Worship remained closed. That the Pope himself did not kick it open remains one of the enigmas of his pontificate.

Benedict XVI did, however, open a door to the usus antiquior. The crack in the wall protecting the rites of Paul VI made under John Paul and parsimoniously applied by many diocesan bishops was widened and a new door installed and opened to all who wished to pass through it—without the need for any permission—through the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum of 7 July 2007. The prospect of this new law provoked much indignation on the part of the bishops which the Pope personally faced down. Its promulgation pushed the liturgical elite into apoplexy. How could a Pope repudiate the Council and its liturgical reform in such a way, they cried!

Of course, he knew he wasn’t going back on the Council itself: “this fear is unfounded,” he insisted in a letter to the bishops (7 July 2007). Rather, he was seeking “an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church,” by insisting that:

In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture.  What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.  It behoves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.

He also raised the possibility that “the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching,” foreshadowing a dynamic that many clergy and laity would discover—that familiarity with the usus antiquior positively informs one’s ability fruitfully to celebrate and participate in the usus recentior.

Was this Pope Benedict’s ‘reform of the reform,’ his practical sanatio in radice—to enable the older liturgical rites to inform if not to ‘convert’ the new ones at grass roots level? Had he realised that whilst an official reform of the reform may be desirable, it would not be realistic given the entrenched nature of the products so vigorously defended by the “trained liturgists”? We do not know. What we do know is that the most liturgical pope of modern times did judge it necessary, for the good of the Church and for the salvation of souls, to end the paranoid parsimony of diocesan bishops by underlining the right to free access to the older rites that in fact had never been abrogated. (cf. Summorum Pontificum, art. 1)

It is somewhat ironic that Sacrosanctum Concilium’s fundamental aim, “that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and actual participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy,” (n. 14) is frequently achieved in contemporary celebrations of the unreformed liturgy. Certainly, some such celebrations before the Council left much to be desired (as do many celebrations of the newer rites today). But generations formed in the expectation of conscious participation in the Sacred Liturgy, when introduced to the riches of the usus antiquior celebrated fully and beautifully, rejoice in plumbing its riches. The fruits of this encounter are evident for all with eyes to see: large numbers of young people who are joyfully faithful, good Christian marriages and numerous vocations to the priesthood and religious life—fruits that the Fathers of the Council had expected would follow the liturgical reform many decades earlier.

As Pope Benedict drafted the address announcing his abdication, Sacrosanctum Concilium had found new life, having been granted entrance through a side door as it were. It approached it fiftieth birthday with some consolation, even if the rites that had abused it remained unreformed and largely in control.

Pope Francis

The current pontificate seemed to begin with little concern for liturgical matters and the 2014 appointment of the reluctant Robert Cardinal Sarah (whose previous post was soon to be abolished by a reorganisation) as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. He revealed that when appointing him the Holy Father asked him “to continue the good work in the liturgy begun by Pope Benedict XVI.” It seems that Cardinal Sarah took Pope Francis at his word, for the Guinean Cardinal who had protested to the pope that he had no expertise in the Sacred Liturgy (another non-trained liturgist!) and who accepted the appointment purely out of filial obedience has certainly become a standard bearer of the liturgical peace in legitimate diversity achieved by Benedict XVI.

But something changed. Whilst the supernaturally motivated Prefect of the Congregation sought to do exactly what Pope Francis had asked him, it seems that the partisans of the rites of Paul VI organised themselves and used every political means possible to gain control once again. Perhaps the most telling example was the reception given to Cardinal Sarah’s famous address at Sacra Liturgia 2016 in London, England, “Towards an Authentic Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium”[18]—the very title of which indicates a Ratzingerian intent—in which, amongst many other practical proposals, he advocated a gradual and prepared return to the celebration of the Mass ad orientem (with the celebrant and the faithful facing liturgical East from the Offertory onward).

Even though this was something that Cardinal Sarah has proposed at least twice before (including in the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano), on this occasion it captured the attention of the liturgical world, bringing joy to disciples of Benedict XVI and striking terror into the liturgical establishment, including some bishops who were quick to disavow his suggestion (for it was no more than that). Such was the enthusiasm with which his proposal was received (which is surely an indicator of the profound and widespread reception of the liturgical teaching of Benedict XVI) that even the Vatican disavowed the Cardinal’s words (disingenuously, of course).

His 2016 address remains pertinent for all who would seek authentically to implement Sacrosanctum Concilium, but the reaction to it—which included diocesan bishops formally banning celebration ad orientem, forbidding the use of Latin in the modern liturgy and mandating the reception of Holy Communion in the hand only (none of which they have the authority to do)—indicates how frightened, indeed paranoid, many bishops and liturgists are about any possibility of re-reading Sacrosanctum Concilium and allowing it to critique the liturgical status quo, not to mention the continued celebration of the usus antiquior.

Pope Francis seemed not to be personally concerned about these questions, reportedly dismissing moves by Italian bishops at the beginning of his pontificate to abrogate Summorum Pontificum, etc. But Cardinals and others around him seem eventually to have been able to convince him to execute quietly orchestrated manoeuvres that have sent the aging Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium out into the cold once again.

Indeed, Sacrosanctum Concilium would seem to have been once and for all locked out, for in an address to Italian liturgists (24 August 2017) Pope Francis declared: “We can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” This is an extraordinary statement in many ways, not the least for its use of “magisterial authority” in a mere address and in respect of the prudential decisions of one of his predecessors (Paul VI). But it does accurately convey the policy pursued by this pontificate since, in which the postconciliar rites are regarded as irreformable and are guarded rigidly in all their Pauline paucity, almost as an idol of those halcyon days of liturgical reform of the mid-twentieth century.

Of course, this new policy leaves little room for “the good work in the liturgy begun by Pope Benedict XVI” or its propagators. Cardinal Sarah, whose spiritual profundity convinced him of its rightness and pastoral value, became an embarrassment—most particularly when his eyes were opened wide to the good that the celebration of the usus antiquior was bringing about, especially amongst the young—and was increasingly sidelined by his disingenuous and ambitious Secretary, Archbishop Roche. Upon reaching the age of 75 Cardinal Sarah’s resignation was accepted unusually promptly for the Roman Curia and he was quickly replaced by Roche.

As Prefect Archbishop Roche (created Cardinal in 2022) has become the public face of the return of a new liturgical rigidity and of the steely authoritarianism of former days. Pope Francis’ 2021 Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodis, abolishing the generous measures established by Benedict XVI (a measure that reportedly “broke his heart”) and insisting that all must ‘return’ to the reformed liturgical rites (some have never known them!) has both reignited the liturgy wars and has given much credence to the critics of all those who laboured for decades within the structures of the Church for a reform of the reform, as well as to those who broke with those structures decades ago to ensure their own liturgical, doctrinal and pastoral integrity. Roche’s further measures have underlined the determination of him and his cronies to extinguish as much as they can of Benedict XVI’s good work, serving only to further division in the name of unnecessary uniformity. One wonders if the Holy Father truly appreciates the extent of the damage that is being done thereby.

Yet the brutal imposition of ideological diktats has convinced no one where the reasoned and truly pastoral arguments of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah long since did. Many good priests thus formed—and a number of bishops also—are simply not able to support such oppressive and divisive measures that are predicated on gross falsehoods. They may be forced into external obedience in their parishes and dioceses (in some cases causing great harm and suffering and damage to souls) whilst Ratzingerians who are young enough yet to be ambitious may hide in the shadows, but the argument has not been won. Sacrosanctum Concilium has now been joined in exile by Summorum Pontificum, but their integrity has never successfully been impugned.


Are we to celebrate Sacrosanctum Concilium’s 60th birthday? That hardly seems possible. It is surely a moment for sombre recollection—of remembrance of its noble aims and sound principles, certainly, but also of realistic recognition of the abuse and distortion and banishment it has suffered since its infancy at the hands of those who were charged faithfully to implement it.

Will the Council’s liturgical Constitution live to see its vindication? It is hard to say, but the signs at present are not good. For the liturgical divisions that have been recently reinforced result in an either-or situation where Sacrosanctum Concilium itself is left behind by the idolisation of the new rites that abused it, just as they leave no room for it to inform a reform of the reform in that hermeneutic of continuity desired by Benedict XVI. Those of us who have worked to promote the latter know only too well that this is the only way in which the Constitution can achieve the aims that the Fathers of the Council desired. Without this, it will die, for, as the decades following the Council have demonstrated (statistically and in many other ways) the liturgical springtime and new and pastorally fruitful era in the Church’s history that the reforms were supposed to usher in have simply not arrived. And after more than five decades of waiting, I do not think that it is premature to say that they are not going to.

Indeed, if the policies of the present liturgical regime achieve their stated ends those Council Fathers “who fear[ed] a complete revolution of the Order of Mass and the death of the Roman rite,” will have been proved not to be without reason in their anxieties. Sacrosanctum Concilium will be shrouded in the lip service paid by footnotes, side by side with the seemingly equally unfortunate foray that was Summorum Pontificum.

Yet, as this survey of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s sixty years has demonstrated, popes and prelates come and go and official policies change. The Providence of Almighty God may yet have something different in store.

In 1968 Louis Bouyer, a personal friend of Paul VI, a member of the Consilium and an enthusiastic promoter of liturgical renewal made a most astonishing claim:

There is practically no liturgy worthy of the name today in the Catholic Church. Yesterday’s liturgy was hardly more than an embalmed cadaver. What people call liturgy today is little more than this same cadaver decomposed[19] Perhaps in no other area is there a greater distance (and even formal opposition) between what the Council worked out and what we actually have. Under the pretext of ‘adapting’ the liturgy, people have simply forgotten that it can only be the traditional expression of the Christian mystery in all its spring-like fullness. I have perhaps spent the greater part of my priestly life in attempting to explain it. But now I have the impression, and I am not alone, that those who took it upon themselves to apply (?) the Council’s directives on this point have turned their backs deliberately on what Beauduin, Casel and Pius Parsch had set out to do, and to which I had tried vainly to add some small contribution…[20]

Bouyer continued with a suggestion that may provide a route to a true sanatio in radice. “When one has thrown everything out, people will have to return to these sources,” he said.[21]

Sacrosanctum Concilium may well have been thrown out once again. It may eventually even die due to decades of abuse and sheer neglect. But its sources are sound and true and remain so. They can guide future generations towards what Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger described as “a movement toward the Liturgy and toward the right way of celebrating the Liturgy, inwardly and outwardly,”[22] if only they dare to consult and them and come to know these sources from within, as it were, as friends, and only if they have the courage and determination to implement all that such an encounter will demand.


[1]Ordo Missae ita recognoscatur, sive in generali dispositione sive in singulis partibus, ut clarius percipiatur et actuosam fidelium participationem faciliorem reddat.”

[2] 29 October 1962. See: Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, vol. I part I, (Vatican City: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis 1970) pp. 598-99; Gil Hellín, Concilii Vaticani II Synopsis, pp. 541-42. English translation: Vincent A. Yzermans (ed.) American Participation at Vatican II, (New York: Sheed & Ward 1967) pp. 155-56. Yzermans’ book erroneously titles the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy as a “Dogmatic” Constitution.

[3] 30 October 1962. See: Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, vol. I part II, (Vatican City: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis 1970) pp. 18-20; Gil Hellín, ibid., pp. 552-55.

[4] 30 October 1962. See: Acta Synodalia, ibid., pp. 30-32; Gil Hellín, ibid., pp. 561-63. Melendro is not opposed to a reform of the Order of Mass, but wishes to specify what this would mean in practice.

[5] 30 October 1962. See: Acta Synodalia, ibid., pp. 37-39; Gil Hellín, ibid., pp. 602-603.

[6] 31 October 1962. “Instauratio Ordinis Missae est sine dubio res magni momenti, propterea hoc articulum debita precisione indiget.” Acta Synodalia, ibid., pp. 71-73; Gil Hellín, ibid., pp. 617-19.

[7] 31 October 1962. “Propono ut textus huis numeri omnino servetur sed ut clarificetur publicatione integrae declarationis a commissione praeparatoria sub isto numero elaboratae. Ita mente reficerentur qui timent universam Ordinis Missæ revolutionem et mortem ritus romani. Haec declaratio etenim nobis proponit non revolutionem sed tantum evolutionem—evolutionem pastoralem—et quidam sanam et prudentem.” Acta Synodalia, ibid., p. 80; Gil Hellín, ibid., p. 624.

[8] 5 November 1962. Acta Synodalia, vol. I part II, p. 121; Gil Hellín, Concilii Vaticani II Synopsis, p. 653. The Council’s press bulletin for that day states: “The need was again stressed of using caution in revising words, gestures and prayers which have acquired great nobility in the passing of the centuries without losing anything of their original significance. It is considered, therefore, that the order of the Mass be retained in its substance, while admitting partial changes for the purpose of making the active participation of the faithful in the individual Rites [sic] easier…it was insisted that the Canon of the Mass especially should remain intact because of its solemnity and for literary, liturgical, historic and juridical reasons known to all.” Floyd Anderson (ed.) Council Daybook—Vatican II: Session 1, Oct 11 to Dec 8 1962, Session 2, Sept 29 to Dec. 4 1963 (Washington DC: National Catholic Welfare Committee 1965) p. 63.

[9] Yves Congar, Denis Minns (ed.) My Journal of the Council (Collegeville, Liturgical Press 2012) p. 147.

[10] From which the preceding paragraphs are drawn. See: Alcuin Reid, “On the Council Floor: the Council Fathers’ Debate on the Schema on the Sacred Liturgy” (Address to the International Sacra Liturgia Conference, London, UK, 6 July 2016) in: U.M. Lang (ed.) Authentic Liturgical Renewal in Contemporary Perspective (London, Bloomsbury 2017) pp. 125-143.

[11] See: Un Évêque parle [A Bishop Speaks], DMM 1974, pp. 57-58; reproduced from Itinéraires no. 95, July-August 1965, pp. 78-79.

[12] Annibale Bugnini CM, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1990) p. 11. Bugnini was speaking directly about an earlier endeavour, but his triumphant tone is clear.

[13] Yves Chiron, Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy, (Brooklyn, NY, Angelico Press, 2018) p. 82.

[14] Joseph Gelineau SJ, The Liturgy Today and Tomorrow (London, New York & Toronto: Darton, Longmann & Todd, Paulist Press & Ramsey, 1978) p. 11. Translation corrected to accord with the original: Demain La Liturgie (Paris: Cerf, 1977) p. 10.

[15] For the sake of simplicity the popes will be addressed in this paper with the titles they had in their lifetimes. This does not imply any judgement on the part of the author in respect of their later canonisations.

[16] For further historical detail on this and other developments of the period see: Alcuin Reid, (ed.) T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy (Bloomsbury: London, 2015) chs. 21 & 14.

[17] The original text is in Theologisches 20.2 (February 1990): 103–4, quoting Ratzinger’s work in the book Simandron—Der Wachklopfer. Gedenkschrift für Klaus Gamber (1919-1989) <>. For a history of this quotation, see Sharon Kabel, “Catholic fact check: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the fabricated liturgy,” (June 19, 2021) <>, accessed October 19, 2021.

[18] The Address is widely available on the internet and is published in U.M. Lang (ed.) Authentic Liturgical Renewal in Contemporary Perspective (Bloomsbury: London, 2017) ch. 2.

[19] Emphasis added. “La liturgie catholique n’était plus guère qu’un cadavre embaumé. Ce qu’on appelle aujourd’hui « la liturgie » n’est pas plus de ce cadavre décomposé.” Cited in Louis Bouyer, Le métier de théologien, Ad Solem, Geneva 2005, p. 63.

[20] Louis Bouyer, The Decomposition of Catholicism, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago 1969, p. 105..

[21] Ibid, p. 105.

[22] The Spirit of the Liturgy, (Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 2000) pp. 8-9.

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