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Eastern and Western liturgy: Natural harmony or unnatural dissonance?

Pope Francis’ speech on the liturgical reform delivered on August 24, 2017 raises questions about both liturgy and ecumenism.

The Chapel of the Holy Trinity in Lublin, Poland, showcases a unique mix of Eastern and Western architecture and art. The chapel was built in under King Casimir the Great in the 14th century and decorated with Byzantine-Ruthenian frescos. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

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?

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About Ines Angeli Murzaku 30 Articles
Ines Angeli Murzaku ( is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Director of Catholic Studies Program and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. She earned a doctorate of research from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome part of the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. She is a regular commentator to media outlets on religious matters. She has worked for or collaborated with the Associated Press, CNN, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, The Record, The Stream, Vatican Radio (Vatican City), and EWTN (Rome). Dr. Murzaku is currently writing a book on St. Mother Teresa entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece to be published by Paulist Press in 2020.


  1. The “Bugnini” Mass, aka Novus Ordo, given its true identifying Mark by its suppressive and suffocating implementation, is a repulsive confection concocted by a mediocre and manipulative cleric, an inorganic artifact of the 1960s psychosis.

    The most gigantic and idiotic act of injustice against the children of the Church, who were robbed of their Roman Catholic culture by a clerical committee creature who Fr. Louis Bouyer recalled was “as bereft of Catholic culture as he was of basic honesty.”

    • I lived both the Tridentine Mass and the Novus Ordo and prefer the Novus Ordo. Why? Because it is in our native language and enables us to participate in the Mass. Jesus, at the last supper, faced the Apostles when he changed the bread and wine into His Body and Blood. He did not face the wall and offer it up to God the Father. The priest, in truth, is Jesus during the transubstantiation and should face the people as Christ did and not offer it up to God the Father….that is, in essence saying that Jesus, God the Son, is not present.

      At the Tridentine Mass, the church was dimly lit, the language was Latin, which nobody knew and had to read a Missal in the dark..It is difficult to read from a Missile and watch the service at the same time…No, no, no….Give me the novus Order. Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI we have the choice of either style Mass and that pleases all.

      • First of all – how do you know that Jesus faced the apostles at the last supper? – Maybe he did, probably he did not, but that claim is just typical subjective fluff and not relevant.

        But, has it occurred to you that the mass is something the church does primarily for God and not for us?

      • The Mass is the re-presentation – making present – of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross at Calvary in which He emptied Himself completely of all self-will, identifying, instead, His will with the will of His Father,. Our participation in the Mass is supposed to be our emulation of Christ, our intention to empty ourselves of sellf-will. Since the Mass is the re-presentation of Calvary not the re-presentation of the Last Supper it is totally irrelevant whether He faced or did not face His apostles. At the Mass we are at the foot of the cross not at the dinner table.

      • I too knew both the Tridentine and “Novus Ordo” Mass. In my opinion, there is room for improvement in both forms, especially in the “Novus Ordo.” In all of this controversy about Tridentine vs Novus Ordo, especially those who knew both forms of the mass, few mention, or do they recall, the “Interim” or “Transitional” Mass that was implemented from 1965 to 1970. To me, this was the most beautiful mass to come out of Vatican II – it closely resembled the Tridentine mass with slight modifications but in the vernacular. Why this was thrown out for the “Novus Ordo” is beyond me.

  2. Pope Francis does not claim to be a theologian; but he does claim to be a pastor, and his pursuit of various initiatives are in the name of being a pastor. But how can he judge what initiatives are sound without being a theologian?

  3. “Which are we heading toward: hermeneutics of continuity with tradition, or hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture with tradition?”

    Are you really uncertain about where the Holy Father is headed? He skirts the plain meaning of Holy Scripture to proffer the Sanctissimum Sacramentum to D&R Catholics, he fires both priests and laity without recourse to simple justice, allows supporters of abortion, contraception, and population control to speak at and influence Vatican organizations and conferences, freely hurls insults at those he disdains while preaching at Mass, refuses to dialogue with the traditional faithful (the dubia Cardinals are the most public group he has refused to dialogue with), but insists on dialogue when the deciding voice is his; he is silent in the face of serious scandals within his own administration, but denounces others for slight messes, has repressed traditional religious life, while promoting dubious clerics to high ranks in his dicasteries of communication and canon law.

    In all these things ask yourself is he acting like a pastor? Or a theologian? Or something else…

    Continuity or Rupture … Can you still not see where he is headed?

    • Indeed! Meanwhile, chaps in the Latin world are either explaining this in terms of the Latin mind and temperament, or others want nothing to do with him – they just go to Mass and go home. Meanwhile, there are many young Bishops who use the example of the Holy Father to perpetuate their own pagan manner of leadership. (I have personal experience of this.) One can’t help but wonder, whether or not the Holy Father really believes in Christ and His Gospel.

      • Pope Francis is conditioning Catholics and other Christians to accept the One World Religion. Follow Raymond Cardinal Burke. I don’t believe in coincidences but two of the 4 Dubia Cardinals are dead…..Scarry thought.

    • Indeed, and according to Cardinal Schonborn Pope Francis apparently asked the cardinal if Amoris laetitia was orthodox. Pope Francis seems completely bereft of the churches theology. Please somebody send or give if your at the vatican, the Pope a copy of Baronius’ Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine so that PF can study it and learn the faith.

  4. All of this sounds well, until one sees the Eastern Catholics celebrating the liturgy facing the people and having altar girls. What that does is sets back any progress made with the Orthodox.

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