I have read and re-read Pope Francis’s speech on the liturgical reform delivered on August 24, 2017, on the occasion of the 68th Italian National Liturgical Week. Christopher Altieri, Fr. Robert Imbelli, Phil Lawler, Edward Peters, and others have written eloquent commentaries about and explanations of pope’s speech. However, the last paragraph in the pope’s speech struck me in a particular way as it addresses the Christian East. Francis re-iterates the importance of other liturgical rites, which have co-existed for centuries side by side with the Roman rite. The last paragraph suggests a continued appreciation on the part of Rome for the East and the Eastern liturgical traditions, but also a sense of equal treatment of the Roman rite, which is obviously the largest, and the Eastern rites, as both Roman and Eastern celebrate differently but harmoniously the same Catholic faith. Francis talked of congruence between the two:
The harmony of the ritual traditions, of the East and of the West, by means of the same Spirit, gives voice to the one only Church praying through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, to the glory of the Father, and for the salvation of the world.
How, exactly, can Eastern and Western Churches be in liturgical and ritual harmony? Vatican II provides the answer: revive the ancestral traditions of the united Church of the first Christian millennium. So, by turning, revamping, and building organically on the ancient liturgical tradition, East and West will be in harmony.
Vatican II’s Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern rite, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, called on all members of the Eastern Catholic Churches to preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their “established way of life.” Moreover, Orientalium Ecclesiarum recommended a recovery and recuperation, warning that the Eastern rites “may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement.” The Council recommended a reform going backward or revisiting the ancestral traditions: “in case they have fallen short owing to contingencies of times and persons, they should take steps to return to their ancestral traditions” (6). Hermeneutics of continuity and fidelity to Sacred Tradition are in place here.
For the Roman rite, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, required that “the rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition, and that they be given new vigor to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times” (4). As was the case with the Eastern Catholic Churches, for the Western Catholic Church, the Council understood the organic growth of the liturgy going hand in hand with re-visiting or revamping Church’s ancient tradition. Sacrosanctum Concilium was not in favor of a break with ancient traditions. Moreover, the Council specified that any new forms adopted in the liturgy should grow organically from forms already existing, warning that what must be avoided at all costs is that eagerness for the “new” exceed due measure, resulting in insufficient regard for—or entire disregard of—the patrimony of the liturgy handed on.
If Pope Francis’s August 24 speech was about organic development and the hermeneutics of continuity with tradition, then an “irrevocable reform” will not only be beneficial for the liturgy and the Church in the West, but also for the relations between East and West. So, it would benefit modern ecumenism.
However, Vatican II’s recommendations for integral growth are not followed in many (or even most0 Western rite Catholic parishes, at least in the ones I have attended. As Phil Lawler indicates, the liturgical “norms really aren’t norms at all; they are something closer to aspirations” that did not find application. In the West, it seems that the reverence, mystery, and contemplative nature of the liturgy have been lost along the way, and novelty and experimentation has exceeded due measure in many parishes, both here and abroad. The liturgy often appears to be more about the celebrant and his performance.
What about the Eastern Catholic Churches? Coincidentally, on August 17, 2017, Marco Tosatii published in Stilum Curiae an open letter from the Italo-Albanian Byzantine Catholic faithful of Piana degli Albanesi of Sicily to Pope Francis. A good part of the Byzantine Catholics of Sicily are either suffering or are “communities in distress,” so much in distress to write an open letter to Pope Francis, “after a two-year long recourse to the Congregation of the Oriental Churches, after humiliating silence received by the Congregation, and after appealing to other dicasteries of the Holy See, without ever having received any response.” The letter is a protest against the Bishop of Piana degli Albanesi who “looks down upon and humiliates the tradition of the Eastern Church.” “It is a Catholicity that is endangered by the Catholics themselves,” the letter continues, arguing against the Latinization of the Greek Liturgical tradition and novelties introduced by the bishop. If Pope Francis meant this type of reform which went astray, or the hermeneutics of discontinuity with the ancient tradition to be “irrevocable,” then this is highly problematic and will bring ritual disharmony between East and West within the Catholic Church and a potential estrangement between the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Francis’s August 24 speech does not mention Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Letter, Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum on the liturgy prior to the 1970 reform, delivered on July 7, 2007, and the accompanying letter directed to the bishops on that occasion delivered on the same day. With the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum,Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the right of priests of the Roman rite to celebrate Mass using the Roman Missal of 1962 or the Traditional Latin Mass to be used in forma extraordinaria, clarifying that the forma ordinaria and extraordinaria is a two-fold use of the same Roman rite. Benedict XVI was continuing in the footsteps of John Paul II’s special Indult Quattuor Abhinc Annos which authorized the Traditional Latin Mass of the Roman Rite to be offered with approval of the local bishop in 1984. Four years later in 1988, John Paul II with the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei gave bishops the opportunity to make general use of the Traditional Latin Mass of the Roman Rite on behalf of all the faithful who sought it.
Article 1 of Summorum Pontificum states:
The Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI is the ordinary expression of the lex orandi (rule of prayer) of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite. The Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V and revised by Blessed John XXIII is nonetheless to be considered an extraordinary expression of the same lex orandi of the Church and duly honored for its venerable and ancient usage. These two expressions of the Church’s lex orandi will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s lex credendi (rule of faith); for they are two usages of the one Roman rite.
It is important to note that Summorum Pontificum took effect and was observed beginning on September 14, 2007, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is celebrated by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox alike. The then Patriarch of Moscow Alexei II received positively Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum and in a way the hermeneutics of continuity with the tradition which unites East and West and harmonizes their rituals. Unlike the Latin rite, the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches for the most part follow the ancient tradition of facing East while celebrating the Divine Liturgy. In an interview with the Italian Il Giornale in August 2007, the Patriarch said:
The recovery and valuing of the ancient liturgical tradition is a fact that we greet positively. We care a great deal about the tradition. Without the faithful custody of liturgical tradition, the Russian Orthodox Church would have not been able to survive the persecution between 1920s and 1930s.
Besides giving Roman Catholic faithful who were attached to the old liturgy the possibility to celebrate the ancient Roman rite, Summorum Pontificum was an important ecumenical move as it builds a bridge with Eastern Orthodoxy.
In not mentioning Summorum Pontificum in his address,Pope Francis adds to the ambiguity of his statement regarding the “irrevocable reform.” Will the liturgical reform promulgated by Vatican II, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI continue irrevocably or will it irrevocably be halted? Which are we heading toward: hermeneutics of continuity with tradition, or hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture with tradition?
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!