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Making sense of Pope Francis’ statement about “the liturgical reform”

The Holy Father is focusing his (and our) attention on the rational substance of the reform process.

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 23. (CNS/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

If you are an Anglophone and you follow the affairs of the Catholic Church, you likely heard something about Pope Francis’ remarks to a society of liturgical experts on Thursday. A good deal of hay has been made with the Pope’s words already, and much ink spilt in the effort to understand what it could possibly mean to say that “the liturgical reform is irreversible,” and more to understand what it could mean to say it, “with magisterial authority.”

The really interesting thing about the Holy Father’s speech, though, is the light it sheds on the way he intends to use the powers of his office.

One of the complaints we heard early and often about Pope Francis is that he had no real understanding of what Papal power really is, let alone how to use it.

Anyone persisting in that opinion will need to account for the Pope’s actual use of that power, which has been – almost from day one – more frank and confident than such an opinion would appear to allow.

After all, this is a Pope who has been perfectly happy to canonize his favorite confrère as a birthday present to himself: who is content to govern outside the constitutional structure provided him; who appears perfectly willing to let the men supposed to be his closest advisors say what they will about his leadership, while keeping his own counsel when it comes to decision-making; and who understands, without either a shadow of doubt or a smither of ambiguity, that he is in charge.

In a word: Pope Francis is the decider.

In any case, and in despite of the breathless claims that Pope Francis did, indeed, assert with magisterial authority the irreversibility of the liturgical reform, the plain fact of the matter is that an assertion of just such a thing is precisely what Pope Francis did not make. Rather, the Pope said that he can make such an assertion: that is a very different thing from actually asserting it.

Make no mistake: the Pope’s precise formulation does tell us that he believes the reform to be in some sense irreversible, and that he is willing in principle to make that assertion with magisterial authority.

Therefore, Francis’ assertion of magisterial authority to say that the post-Conciliar liturgical reform is irreversible – which actually calls attention to his not saying it – tells us more about his estimation of the scope of his powers as Pope and about the manner in which he intends to use the powers he does not doubt he has, than it does about his personal opinion regarding the state and direction of the Church’s liturgical life.

At bottom, the Church’s “journey” of reform in the post-Conciliar era is a fact of history. History happens, and once it does happen, it cannot be undone. In this sense, the reform that has gone before us is irreversible. Nevertheless, we are still very much in the process – Francis often prefers to say that we are on the journey – of reform: a process “that requires time, faithful reception, practical obedience, wise implementation…” This reform, moreover, begins with the books, but ultimately must speak to “the mentality of the people” which “must be reformed as well.”

Francis, in short, understands that he presides with direct, immediate, and supreme authority over the whole Church and all the faithful – in other words, that he is the Roman Pontiff – and that the purpose he has set for himself in the exercise of the powers that inhere in the office he holds is the precise direction of the process of reform.

This is work – the work of reform, hence the work of directing it – the Holy Father believes far from finished.

“There is still work to do in this direction,” Pope Francis said in his remarks on Thursday, “in particular,” the work of, “rediscovering the reasons for the decisions made with the liturgical reform, overcoming unfounded and superficial readings, partial receptions, and practices that disfigure it.”

With the announcement of the common task of the Church – the hierarchical leadership and the faithful together – as one of seeking anew the reasons in view of which specific reforms have been undertaken, Pope Francis is focusing his (and our) attention on the rational substance of the reform process.

The specific choices made along the way remain in place – including, presumably, the significant contributions of Benedict XVI, especially though by no means exclusively Benedict’s choice in Summorum Pontificum to liberalize the use of the 1962 liturgical books. Those choices, however, are to be understood in light of a common understanding of the animating principles of the Church’s whole liturgical life, which – again, presumably – are those so ably and eloquently outlined and detailed in Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Here, it is worth our while to pause for a moment to reflect on the polyvalence of the word, “partial” which the Holy Father deployed to modify “receptions” in the remark quoted above.

Even in English, but more so in Italian, “partial” can indicate something less than complete or perfect, and a commitment to or preference for one side of thing – say, an argument. If one is offered five propositions, and assents to three, one’s acceptance of the propositions may be said to be partial. Given a pair of options, one might say, “I am partial to the former,” or the latter.

Pope Francis’ insistence on both the irreversibility of the reform, and the need for rediscovery of the reasons of the reform, itself, strongly suggest that he believes we must reject receptions that are partial in both senses: we cannot take the reform of the liturgy in a piecemeal fashion; nor can we use the process as an opportunity to hijack the institutional power of the Church at any level to impose our own liturgical preferences on those who do not share them.

The Pope is willing to use his power to steer the course of the process, while leaving the question of substance open to free discussion and debate among all the faithful – and this is a potentially fruitful tack to take, albeit a risky one.

The risk in such an approach is that an attempt to implement it might give new impetus to the so-called “liturgy wars” that ravaged the ecclesiastical landscape in the decades that immediately followed the close of the II Vatican Council, and that have given way for the moment to an often hard and bitter peace.

Whatever his motivations, that is a risk Pope Francis appears willing to take: si pacem vis, paras bellum.

Whether or not the Pope’s bid to establish a firm foundation for the peace of the Church does result in a renewal of hostilities will depend in large part on the generous and charitable response of all the faithful in every state of life.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 178 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. To hear this Pope say things are irreversible is amusing.

    He has no qualms about “reversing” the commands of Jesus about marriage.

    The word arrogant comes to mind…

  2. I would have expected to see this sort of sycophancy in the National So-Called Catholic Reporter, not CWR. This man who occupies the See of Peter has made it crystal clear by word and deed that he despises the traditions of the Church and anyone who holds to them in the face of the Modernist revolt of the past 60-plus years. There really is nothing more of which to “make sense” in this pontificate. I pray daily for his conversion of heart.

  3. This is an extremely charitable reading of Pope Francis’ motivations compared to, say, Phil Lawler, whom I believe to be the greater realist here…

    In writing “nor can we use the process as an opportunity to hijack the institutional power of the Church at any level to impose our own liturgical preferences on those who do not share them”, perhaps Mr. Altieri is as frustrated as many of us when we experience Father’s own liturgical preferences imposed upon us at virtually every experience of the Ordinary Form.

    • What you write in your last sentence is quite true, but that same phrase of Mr. Altieri can also be applied to those commenters (we see them on CWR, certainly, but also on Crisis, First Things, Church Militant, and OnePeterFive) who call for a complete suppression of the Ordinary Form (Missale Romanum) in the Roman Catholic Church, that only the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is to remain.

      To be completely fair, that same phrase of Mr. Altieri’s can also be applied to the current push among the heterodox within the hierarchy, clergy, deacons, male religious, female religious, and laity in the U.S. and in other English-speaking countries to suppress the current prayerful, worshipful, and accurate English translation of the Mass and to restore the 1969-2011 abominable, inaccurate, un-prayerful, un-worshipful translation which we had to suffer through – or, worse still, to “modify” that translation so as to satisfy all of their heterodox teachings and beliefs.

      • Sure, Dominic but the unrealistic proposal to suppress the Ordinary Form is just that–a proposal that Pope Francis just said is off the table. However, I fear the ubiquitous liturgical abuses Mr. Altieri cautions against are here to stay.

        For example, regarding your second paragraph, at a recent Mass of the Assumption my newly appointed pastor had just finished with the Prayer After Communion, when he drew laughter by referring to “whoever came up with the new translation” as providing us with “some real tongue-twisters”.

        More often than not I am at the Ordinary Form because I want to worship with my family, but my heart is usually with Dr. Kwasniewski…

  4. I was an altar boy trained in the Mass that before what is called the Novus Ordo (NO).

    Obviously – when the NO was implemented all priests and seminarians were ordered to eliminate the use of The Roman Canon (what the NO calls Eucharistic Prayer #1).

    I can only conclude that given the near universal suppression of The Roman Canon, that most Bishops and priests disbelieve some of the theology in The Roman Canon.

    This evidence completely undermines the claim of authentic reform made by the promoters of the NO liturgy, which Laszlo Dobszay calls the Bugnini Mass – a liturgy that has no cultural connection to the Roman Rite – but is merely “Roman” because it was ordered by the Pope.

    Our current pontiff is so impoverished of faith and reason because his entire “formation” was under this new and impoverished cult of “formlessness.”

  5. Are you serious? This is as convoluted as “it depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is…” As for history being irreversible, that’s like saying you can’t reverse Obamacare. What you mean is we won’t reverse it, not that we can’t. Hence so many of our present woes. Clerics and academics think too much.

  6. Well, Mr. Altieri, that is your interpretation of what the Pope said. As we have come to find out, every person who reads what he said will come away with a different interpretation. Some on the left are claiming that since he did not refer to Benedicts numerous writings on the subject, therefore what he meant was to IGNORE everything that Benedict said, and that the clown masses may resume. Some on the right took heart from his acknowledgment that some things had gone wrong, so they are encouraged, hoping that this means the Pope wants to roll back some of the excesses. Some on the left believe that this means that all of the Protestantization of the American Mass is fine and dandy. The possiblities of interpretation of this gobbledegook are infinite.

    Once again, we are presented with a Papal statement that says everything and nothing at the same time. Perhaps the Pope wanted to just give a speech and not make any news so he said everything and nothing. What exactly is irreversible? No one knows. But as the Pope says, not everything needs to be decided in Rome, so everyone go out to your dioceses and YOU decide what is irreversible. No need for a Pope, then is there?

    The weirdness of proclaiming the irreversibility of something that you do not define is overpowering. This is the everything and nothing Pope. The merciful and authoritarian, insulter pope. This is the Rohrsach Pope.

  7. Let’s be frank: Mr Altieri doesn’t know what the Pope meant. He panders in meliorism in such a way that the deliberate ambiguity of Bergoglio’s comments becomes even less coherent.

    So let’s clear some of this up: Bergoglio has had to maintain Cardinal Sarah as the prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship for a variety of reasons beyond his control. But he has undermined and contramandes him several times. These comments are first and foremost pointed against the good Cardinal’s attempt to introduce reforms in the current crazy-quilt disciplines for the liturgy. Ad Orientem, remarks on Holy Thursday foot washing, reintroduction of prayers at the foot of the altar, etc, had some progressive liturgiologists shaking with rage, that liturgical reforms of Vatican II were being undone. This was the proximate target of Bergolio’s remarks. Other more distant targets may have been Benedict’s theology of the liturgy and even Summun Pontificorum, but that’s unclear.

    Alteri gets one thing right: this Pope behaves like a autocrat, not like a Pastor. He acts as if his patron, rather than being a Christian saint, is Juan Peron.

  8. Perhaps I’m just really dense, but your assertion that what he said proves just the opposite, struck me the same way his statement did, “HUH”?

  9. The foregoing comments by other readers demonstrate how fatuous, ignorant, and obtuse this most recent statement of Pope Bergoglio is. I do not wish to belabor these aspects further. What I would point out, however, is that Pope Bergoglio’s claim of the supposed irreversibility of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II constitutes a “magisterial” act or declaration requires antecedently that the Vatican II liturgical reforms are either part of the divinely revealed deposit of the Faith or are required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith (see CIC s. 750). The absurdity of such a claim is self-evident when understood in proper theological and canonical and serves only to underline the fatuity, ignorance, and obtuseness of Pope Bergoglio’s claim.

  10. the Jesuit Order is the LEAST LITURGICAL ORDER IN THE ENTIRE 2000 YRS OF THE CHURCH. Until Vat II the Jesuits NEVER, AND I MEAN NEVER GATHERED TOGETHER DAILY PRAYING THE LITURGY OF THE HOURS OR HAD A COMMUNITY MASS. They ONLY got together on Sat evening to pray the Litany of the BVM. Each priest or deacon said his breviary privately at his own chosen time and anywhere he chose. St Ignatius took the MILITARY MODEL OF A STRICT TOP DOWN CHAIN OF COMMAND so that the practical work of the individual would NOT be burdened by time consuming attendance at common liturgy. I attended a Jesuit U from 1961-65 (which still was male attendance only, and had us minor in Cath. philosophy (even non catholics) AND theology (if one was a baptized Cath. EVERY SEMESTER. NO EXCEPTIONS if you were going for a degree. It was a very good education; STILL orthodox with daily Mass and confession available.
    So you could have a Jesuit residence with dozens of priests NEVER PRAYING TOGETHER THE LITURGY OF THE CHURCH, EXCEPT THAT SAT. EVENING LITANY, if they were on campus.
    Moreover, the Provincial was top dog of the Provence and the Superior General was the Black Pope of the Order AND every Jesuit who makes solemn vows (a minority does not) ADDS AVOW OF PERSONAL OBEDIENCE TO THE PERSON OF THE POPE.
    This is just like the regular military, so that the soldier has to accept the superiors ‘ orders WITHOUT QUESTION (” MINE IS NOT TO QUESTION WHY; MINE IS TO DO OR DIE). The Jesuit Fr. Pacwa, featured prominently on EWTN, when asked about the Pope’s statements, often
    replies “that’s a management issue; I’m in sales”. Exactly.
    Now, of course, Pope Francis is going to act like a Black Pope over the whole Church. His sense of his authority is Jesuit; his sense of obedience is Jesuit: e.g. to the German Cardinal until recently head of CDF as to why the Pope removed three excellent priests without even talking to the Cardinal was: “the pope does not have to explain why”.
    Ambiguity is personally his own way of communicating. That’s not Jesuit, cf. St Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church, the clearest of teachers. I guess that is his way of actually making the pope a true Black Pope in being IN CONTROL. He’s the Boss, to use a blue collar frase.


      And yet it was the “St. Louis Jesuits” that imposed upon us the most revolting pop songs to fill the void left by Gregorian chant when the Vetus Ordo was suppressed. Sad.

  11. I have never had any problems understanding clearly the writings of St.Pope Pius X. He didn’t require that there be surrogates available (daily) to explain what he meant, reminiscent of those with barrels and brooms trailing at the end of a 1800s parade. I think a new gauge of true, faithful Catholics ought to be whether or not they are fed up with being told what Jorge Bergoglio really meant on any given day.

  12. “The Pope is willing to use his power to steer the course of the process, while leaving the question of substance open to free discussion and debate among all the faithful” -Yet in our diocese because of the influence of the Pope Francis’ liturgical sense upon our bishop, the faithful and their parish pastors cannot even get permission to build (or even repair!) altar rails in their churches. It would be nice if this so-called process was truly about allowing for a natural development of the (say, Eucharistic) spirit of parishes; but this reform is a process of “forced” development by a whole team of non-impartial developers.

  13. Ultramontanism will never die!

    “the Church’s “journey” of reform in the post-Conciliar era”
    Not the Church Universal, but the patriarchate of Rome.

  14. As others have responded already, I think that Altieri’s is another attempt to find a thread of orthodoxy or benign intent in Francis’ ramblings. This is a project that is doomed to failure.
    Francis said a long time ago that talk of or action on a reform of the reform should cease. In effect he has said that the reform is irreformable. What his purported “magisterial” pronouncement adds is simply belligerence in the form of a kind of “l’Eglise c’est moi” assertion.
    It is cut out of the same cloth as his refusal to answer the dubia which merely ask him to settle some disputed questions on important doctrinal/moral issues arising from Amoris Laetitia. He claims that doctrine doesn’t change, but that practice can change according to principles of proportionalism, consequentialism and gradualism. His God, what’s more, like the Moslem god, can make evil good.
    Francis is no bumbler. He knows what he’s doing: taking the edifice of Church doctrine/practice down, brick by brick. The time for tortured rationalizations of his words and works in the name of reconciling them with traditional Church teaching is long since past.

  15. “Making sense of Pope Francis’ statement about…” Just supply your own completion to the title. Every topic broached by this Pope requires an article “making sense of” it. We are living through, quite literally, the most nonsensical papacy in history.

  16. The bottom line is that this pope is still the pope. He is Peter and he speaks for the Church. We have have autocratic popes before, popes who made very bad decisions for which the Church paid a heavy price [the sacking of Rome in 1527 as a result of the policies of Clement VII somes to mind]. All of the popes, beginning with John XXXIII have some degree of responsibility in failing to follow through on Pope Saint Pius X’s program to protect the Church against modernist teachings. The results are self-evident in Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, and Switzerland. Popes come and go, but the Mystical Body of Christ, suffering self-inflicted wounds by those who should know better, always continues doing the saving work of Jesus Christ and will to the end of time. Read through the 40 volume of Pastor’s History of the Popes. It gives a very comforting historical perspective on the papacy.,

  17. JMJ Another typical VII statement interpret as you want but not in a traditional way!

    It will only end when enough of us are praying thr Rosary.

  18. “Rather, the Pope said that he can make such an assertion: that is a very different thing from actually asserting it.”

    So it was a threat? The Pope threatens with the full force of his magisterial authority if there’s even a thought of reversing the Novus Ordo Liturgy?

    Get out of here, Mr. Altieri.

    • Perhaps because they don’t have a completely closed hierarchical structure with a Pope on top of it. In order to maintain unity in the absence of a strict hierarchy one has the emphasize Tradition. All renewal is risky because there’s no final authority which can enforce it. Therefore things are best left as they are in the Eastern orthodox churches. Conservatism is their principle of unity. And perhaps the Eastern churches which are united with Rome don’t want to get out of line, for fear of losing their typical Eastern characteristics.

  19. We pray as (what) we believe.

    Has this liturgical war changed our belief? Was the point of the liturgical change to change what we believe – if only subtlety and over time?

    Did the (quite sudden) fad for puppet masses change our belief (perform a task, do ts “working”)?

  20. How do you experiment with something upon which people’s salvation depends!!!! For sixty years!!!!! The arrogance, (talk about elitism). And after 60 years of failure how do you justify continuing to experiment!!!!

    Are all those souls that lost the faith because of your experiments with clown masses etc just collateral damage? I shudder to think of these people on judgment day!

    • And by the way, it takes an awfully big ….. nerve to try to blame the guitar music and clown masses on Pius X or even Pius Xii, either one of which would have fled the average NO celebration in disgust.

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