Liturgy, Authority, and Postmodernity

As our self-consciously modern liturgical rites approach their fiftieth birthdays we would do well not to cling to them uncritically. Nor can we follow postmodernity down paths of ecclesial and liturgical subjectivism.

Altar with chalice and Missal in the Basilica of St Nicholas in Rome (t0m15/

Editor’s note: The following was originally delivered as the Opening Plenary Address for the Annual Conference of The Society for Catholic Liturgy, held in Philadelphia on September 28, 2017.


Future historians of philosophy will, no doubt, have much to say about our pivotal use of the word “modern” in contemporary discourse. We categorise schools of thought as “pre-modern,” with a great deal of sympathy for those poor people whose prived existence without hot and cold running water, electricity or intellectual emancipation we so pity; or as “modern” – “early” or “late” – perhaps with admiration for these devotees of intellectual renaissance, enlightenment, autonomy and liberty and even with some respect for their cult of Reason; or as “postmodern,” with some interest and perhaps even mild astonishment at its unhesitating dethronement of Reason and the rejection of any search for Truth that this triumph of subjectivity entails.

Future historians of liturgy may similarly wonder at the devotion of many contemporary liturgists to the term “modern” in liturgical discourse, be that in disparaging the purportedly non-participatory nature of pre-modern liturgy; in rejoicing at the breakthroughs of modernity in the enlightenment liturgies of the eighteenth century and at its triumph in the liturgical reform following the most recent Ecumenical Council; or in embracing the paths of radical inculturation and deconstructive creativity down which postmodernity beckons the liturgy.

Analogous observations in respect of theological and pastoral discourse and practice are also possible. Whether we ought to or not, whatever the discipline, far too often we consciously or subconsciously default to defining ourselves and our theological, liturgical, and pastoral initiatives and practices in relation to modernity.

Whilst the Church’s critical engagement with current or prevailing philosophical narratives rightly begins with St Paul at Athens (see Acts 17: 16-34) and is a duty which cannot be ignored due to the true goods which such substantial dialogue can yield, and indeed that it has given the Church throughout her history, for the Christian it is the person of Christ, God incarnate in human history, the definitive revelation of the Father, who is pivotal and in relation to whom we define ourselves. He, not the prevailing philosophical fashion, is our reference.

Therefore, whilst the devotees of philosophical, theological and liturgical modernism and postmodernism may well teach us much about the world in which we live, and lead us to valuable insights as how better to faithfully to live and proclaim the Gospel of Christ in our world, our eyes must remain fixed on Christ living and acting today in the Sacred Liturgy of His Holy Church (see: Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). It is in and from this ongoing liturgical encounter that the Christian takes his or her identity as a member of the Church. It is in the context of this cultic relationship with Christ that His Church exercises authority in respect of her members and of her mission to the world. We worship Jesus Christ, not modernity or postmodernity. We do this not as individuals, but ecclesially as members of the One True Church he founded; as baptised members of His ecclesia.

And yet we know that at the turn of the twentieth century the Church endured what became known as the “modernist crisis” and that the philosophical, theological, and liturgical progeny of modernism matured in the course of the twentieth century. The Second Vatican Council was itself in many ways a conscious attempt to address the needs of modern man. The liturgical reform which followed it was a self-conscious attempt to construct rites which would better reach modern people.

Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, “modern” is modern no longer: we have moved beyond modernity into the “post” modern era. Where does that leave us? What does that mean for our modern liturgical rites and practices as they approach their fiftieth birthdays? Are we hastily to pension them off and hurry to create postmodern ones (if that is even possible)? Are we to cling to the modern rites and their attendant milieu uncritically and as tenaciously as some have clung to the premodern rites? How and with what authority are we to proceed? Or are we simply to descend into an ecclesial and liturgical subjectivism which mirrors that of postmodern society?

Modernity, Liturgy, and Authority

It is perhaps ironic that he who would become the known as the “Hammer of Modernism” in the early twentieth century, Pope St Pius X, is the very same pope responsible for giving to the Church the great impetus for contemporary liturgical renewal by means of his appeal made in the first months of his pontificate in 1903:

It being our ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit restored in every respect and preserved by all the faithful, we deem it necessary to provide before everything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for the object of acquiring this spirit from its indispensable fount, which is the active participation in the holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church (Motu proprio, Tra le sollecitudini, 22 November 1903).

This call for universal and true participation in the Sacred Liturgy – something relatively novel at the beginning of the twentieth century (but in reality a call for the “restoration” of an ancient but long-since ignored treasure) – resulted in many and varied initiatives which we group together under the title of the “twentieth century liturgical movement.”1

Pius X’s insistence that real participation in the Sacred Liturgy was essential arose from his experience as a pastor as a fruit of the work of liturgical pioneers in the nineteenth century, such as Dom Prosper Guéranger of Solesmes. His motivation was pastoral in the true meaning of that word (in the sense of shepherding his flock to the eternal pastures of heaven): he judged this ancient but discarded practice to be essential for the good of the Church.

Some six decades later the Second Vatican Council would reiterate Pius X’s words in article 14 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in its own insistence that:

In the restoration and promotion of the Sacred Liturgy the full and active/actual participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else, for it is the primary and indispensible source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.

It is important that we note that this judgment of both a pope and an Ecumenical Council in respect of the restoring and promoting liturgical participation has two motivations. The first arises from the nature of the Sacred Liturgy itself: the liturgy is nothing other than “the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.” The second is clearly pastoral: the more fully that Christians participate in the Sacred Liturgy the more fully they will imbibe the true Christian spirit for the eternal good of their souls and of that of others through the advancement of the mission of the Church in the world.

Let us be clear: the cornerstone of the twentieth century liturgical movement, which is the sine qua non of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, does not arise from modernism. Nor is it a self-conscious attempt by the Church to appease the modern world. Rather, the call for actual participation in the Sacred Liturgy is a judicious pastoral judgement grounded in the nature of the liturgy, indeed the nature of Christian life itself. Certainly, the circumstances of the modern world (and, we trust, the Holy Spirit) prompted Pius X and the Council to this wise judgment, but it was a judgment made with eyes fixed on Christ, not on the world.

From this, I submit, we are able to articulate a principle of how liturgy, authority, and modernity interrelate which shall serve us well: Authority acts authentically in regard to the Sacred Liturgy when it acts in a manner that respects and is utterly consonant with its nature so as to optimize the good of souls. We find this in the development of the liturgy throughout history, whether that be in its gradual development which authority witnesses and respects, or even in the occasional but always proportionate introduction by authority of elements into the rites, or even its similarly proportionate pruning of them. So too this principle may be found in the repudiation of inauthentic liturgical developments such as the sixteenth century breviary of Cardinal Quignonez or of the eighteenth century Synod of Pistoia.

As the twentieth century liturgical movement progressed and ‘got on’ with the business of promoting participation in the Sacred Liturgy as it were, a certain self-consciousness arose. Its cause may be articulated thus: the Liturgy in which the Liturgical Movement sought to bring about greater participation assumed a Christian culture and yet the modern world had long since left that culture behind. One writer in the late 1920s articulated the problem clearly when he wrote:

The most significant mark of a Christian culture is an appreciation not only of the unity of Christendom, but also of the Christian orientation of every human activity; when the Church is regarded as that divine being in which redeemed mankind can realise its position in the hierarchy of creation, then the Christian approach to any problem is naturally adopted. Whether that problem be the making of a building, of a picture, or of a prayer, is of no account; in its execution the work will be signed with the mark of Christianity, for this is of the very life of the workman. In such circumstances the art of the Liturgy is most properly and reasonably cultivated. It is natural to the people, nor is there any self-consciousness in the ‘participation in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.’ The manner in which it is carried out is the effect and not the cause of a manner of living.

With the disappearance of the mentality that produced that mode of life, the Liturgy is found to be no longer a part of the life of the people. In its place have arisen those expressions of devotion which are to the Liturgy what every modern corruption is to the reality for which it is substituted. There is need for reform—but at which end shall the reformers start? They have apparently attempted to cure the disease by removing those symptoms only which appear on the surface. There can be no doubt—any parish priest can verify this—that even to this day the prayer which is offered up publicly is of a nature which is consonant with and produced by the culture of the congregation. You may cut down their ‘devotions’ and drive them to Vespers in the evening, but their attendance, as a general rule, at these services is unnatural and incompatible with the principles upon which their daily life is built. It is these which must first be changed.2

Protagonists of liturgical renewal had to confront the reality of the cultural disparity between modernity and the Sacred Liturgy. The there were two options: to change the world, or to change the Liturgy.

As we know, the Second Vatican Council judged that, in the light of the changed circumstances of the modern world, a moderate general reform of the liturgical rites was apposite for the pastoral good of the Church, enjoining “that sound tradition…be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress,” insisting that there be “no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and [that] care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 23).

As with the Council’s adoption of Pius X’s call for liturgical participation in article 14 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, it is difficult to see in the principles outlined here anything other than an exercise of collegial and papal authority for the good of the Church in the light of modern circumstances in a manner which respects the nature of the Sacred Liturgy as an intrinsically traditional living organism capable of proportionate development in accordance with the true needs of the Church. The Council of Trent operated from similar principles. We ought not to forget that it considered the pastoral value of such possibilities as the use of the vernacular in the liturgy and the reception of Holy Communion under both species. Liturgical reform and development cannot be excluded a priori.

Today there is an increasing body of material available from those involved in the reform of the Sacred Liturgy following the Second Vatican Council, as well as credible new scholarship emerging, which demonstrates that what resulted from the call for a moderate general reform of the liturgy was not that which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council intended but rather a product of the desires, opportunistic triumphs, and even the ideological agendas of key persons who took control of the implementation of the reform.

Louis Bouyer, a member from March 1966 onward at the personal request of Blessed Paul VI, of the body established to implement the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Consilium ad Exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia, reflects:

I should not like to be too harsh on this commission’s labours. It numbered a certain number of genuine scholars and more than one experienced and judicious pastor. Under different circumstances, they might have accomplished excellent work. Unfortunately, on the one hand, a deadly error in judgment placed the official leadership of this committee in the hands of a man who, though generous and brave, was not very knowledgeable: Cardinal Lercaro. He was utterly incapable of resisting the manoeuvres of the mealy-mouthed scoundrel that the Neapolitan Vincentian, Bugnini, a man as bereft of culture as he was of basic honesty, soon revealed himself to be.3

One can perhaps understand why Kevin W. Irwin’s review of the two English editions of Bouyer’s Memoirs opines that: “…we did not need these memoirs; I, for one, would have preferred that he had not written them.”4 But what Irwin seeks to dismiss as a “sad book, reflective of one who comes across as a very sad man,”5 does bear witness to a reality that cannot itself be dismissed: the fact that the work of the Consilium was controversial if not profoundly flawed from its inception in January 1964 through to its suppression at the establishment of the new Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship in April 1970.

The diaries of Father Ferdinando Antonelli, OFM, an official of the Congregation of Rites (and its Archbishop Secretary from 1965-1969) and someone well experienced in the work of liturgical reform from the 1940’s onward – and by no means opposed to it – bear this out. He was amongst the few priests named as a full member of the Consilium in March 1964.

Of the first meeting of the Consilium in March 1964 he notes: “Things are still nebulous. These are grandiose projects, but it will not be easy to realise them.”6 After the second meeting his concern develops. He writes:

I am not enthusiastic about this work…It is merely an assembly of people, many of them incompetent, and others well advanced on the road to novelty. The discussions are extremely hurried. Discussions are based on impressions and the voting is chaotic. What is most displeasing is that the expositive Promemorias and the relative questions are drawn up in advanced terms and often in a very suggestive form…It is unpleasant to find that questions which, in themselves are not very important but which have serious consequences, should be discussed and decided by an organ which functions such as this.7

Later, Antonelli would reflect:

That which is sad… however, is a fundamental datum, a mutual attitude, a pre-established position, namely, many of those who have influenced the reform…and others, have no love, and no veneration of that which has been handed down to us. They begin by despising everything that is actually there. This negative mentality is unjust and pernicious, and unfortunately, Paul VI tends a little to this side. They have all the best intentions, but with this mentality they have only been able to demolish and not to restore.8

Even Archbishop Bugnini himself would admit of exceeding the Council’s provisions for a limited introduction of the vernacular by rapidly pushing for a complete vernacularisation of the whole liturgy, and would boast that in respect of the reform, fortune favoured the brave.9

The contemporary scholarship of Dr Lauren Pristas of Caldwell College has painstakingly laid bare the theological motives if not ideologies behind the reform of the orations in the missal produced by the Consilium and promulgated by Paul VI. As a perusal of the succeeding issues of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal demonstrates, various members of the Society of Catholic Liturgy and other scholars have similarly contributed to exposing a self-conscious concern to reform the liturgy according to the perceived needs of modern man, leaving behind “sound tradition” at will, pushing for progress and innovation seemingly as ends in themselves with little or no care for any organic development of liturgical forms from those already existing. I myself have attempted to study the Council’s and the Consilium’s work on the reform of the Ordo Missae in a 2006 Antiphon article and in my presentations to the last two Sacra Liturgia conferences, in London in 2016 and in Milan in June of this year.

It is true that article 4 of the Constitution states: “The Council…desires that, where necessary, the rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition, and that they be given new vigour to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times.” Read partially and in isolation this article could be said to authorise the creation of a brand new liturgy according to the perceived needs of ‘modern man’. But read in context and as part of the whole Constitution (which includes article 23 cited earlier) – as did the Fathers of the Council who overwhelmingly approved the Constitution – article 4 calls for a moderate reform of the Sacred Liturgy so that the liturgy itself will have a renewed vigour in respect of modern man.

Where was authority in respect of the implementation of the liturgical reform? It is clear that the authority of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy itself was all too easily set aside as key players sought to have initiatives and even personal enthusiasms endorsed in its name, at times in spite of such initiatives having nothing whatsoever to do with the Council or the Constitution itself. First amongst these reforms aimed at creating a new liturgy for the modern world was the total vernacularisation of the liturgy mentioned earlier. The rapid promotion of Mass celebrated facing the people, the enthusiastic introduction of new Eucharistic prayers, and the creeping concession of permission for the reception of Holy Communion in the hand are but three other examples.

Each of these ‘reforms’ was effected, ironically, by the utterly premodern exercise of absolute papal positivism. For the papal positivist the Pope’s will is sovereign and unquestionable. This positivism (ultramontanism by another name)—which is alive and well down to our own times—is a critical factor in the study of the implementation of the reform. Paul VI personally approved the details of the reform in forma specifica. To obtain his signature was to win the day.

Too few people are aware of the extent of the politics and of the spirit of opportunism in which the reform was affected. Any yet it was a reality. Whilst the reforms mentioned above were ‘achieved,’ some which were proposed to Paul VI by Bugnini as the will of the Consilium were not. In this respect Bugnini’s 1968 complaint about the lamentable intransigence of Paul VI in his refusal to abolish the abolition the sign of the cross at the beginning of Mass, the Confiteor, the Orate Fratres and even of the Roman canon—the sentinel of substantial unity in the Roman rite—is noteworthy.10

If we ask whether the resultant compromise, the Missal of Paul VI promulgated in 1970, is an example of authority acting in regard to the Sacred Liturgy in a manner that respects and is utterly consonant with its nature so as to optimise the good of souls, we must take pause. For there is much evidence that those responsible for what the supreme authority promulgated had their eyes fixed more on modernity, certain related ideologies, and their own personal preferences rather than on Christ alive and acting in the millennial liturgical tradition of the Church. The resultant product (we may even say “products”, for the same reality is more or less true mutatis mutandis of the reform of the other liturgical books) betray a self-conscious desire to conform to modernity rather than the pursuit of a judicious development of the rite so as to give it renewed vigor in the light of the circumstances and needs of modern times. The distinction is subtle, but real: in the liturgical reform following the Council the tail of modernity wagged the dog, and not the dog the tail.

In her masterful analysis of modern liturgical reform, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, Catherine Pickstock identifies another factor present in the post-conciliar reform. She writes:

Because of [the] reciprocal link between life and liturgy, any liturgical reform must take account of the fact that the liturgy which it seeks to revise was as much, or more a cultural and ethical phenomenon, as a textual one. Now, criticisms of liturgical reform, such as those implicit in what I have just said, are often dismissed as conservative or nostalgic. But because the Vatican II reforms of the medieval Roman rite failed to take into account the cultural assumptions which lay implicit within the text, their reforms participated in an entirely more sinister conservatism. For they failed to challenge those structures of the modern secular world which are wholly inimical to liturgical purpose: those structures, indeed, which perpetuate a separation of everyday life from liturgical enactment.11

Pickstock is no antediluvian conservative. She is clear that her “criticisms of the Vatican II revisions of the medieval Roman rite…far from enlisting a conservative horror at change, issue from a belief that the revisions were simply not radical enough.” She argues that “a successful liturgical revision would have to involve a revolutionary re-invention of language and practice which would challenge the structures of our modern world, and only thereby restore real language and liturgy.”12

This assertion of an utter failure of the liturgical reform to in fact create a liturgy that could speak to modernity is striking in its assertion of the profound cultural and philosophical naiveté of the reform itself. It was indeed a reform of texts with little regard for the culture in which they took flesh, liturgical or secular. And if Bouyer and Antonelli are right about its principal protagonists and the modi operandi employed, the philosophical subtleties of that with which they were dealing were seemingly simply beyond their grasp.

Given the principles laid down in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy which insist on the retention of sound tradition and on the organic development of the liturgy, we cannot follow the Anglican Pickstock’s utterly postmodern call for a revolutionary re-invention of liturgical language and practice. But we can profit from her profound insights into the inadequacy of the reformed liturgical books as modern.

For if the whole point of the liturgical reform was to find ways in which better to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times, it would seem that we missed the mark not only due to the petty Roman power plays pursuing positivistic papal approbation, but also because of their failure to do the required philosophical and cultural homework. The resultant products may, then, be critiqued both in terms of the liturgical principles articulated by the Council itself and in respect of the modernity they were intended to address.

Before proceeding I ought to state that in speaking of these liturgical “products” thus, I doubt neither their validity nor the reality that in the ensuing decades they have been at the heart of the life of faith and prayer of many generations who have celebrated them worthily and in good faith and who have worshipped in spirit and in truth thereby. However, at an academic conference it is appropriate to critique their production, content, and effect in the search for appropriate paths for the future—out of fidelity to the Council and indeed to Christ Himself who lives and acts in the Sacred Liturgy of His Holy Church. For what the reformers and indeed the Council anticipated – a new springtime in the life of the Church and of her liturgy – has simply not come to pass. There are undoubtedly many factors to consider in respect of this, but the modern rites certainly feature amongst them. We have to face the fact that they do not of themselves retain or attract vast numbers of our modern or postmodern contemporaries.

Liturgy and Authority in the Postmodern World

In 1968 Louis Bouyer 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…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…”13

Bouyer may have been (well, he was!) given to provocation, but he had a point. Certainly, there are parishes and religious communities, especially monasteries, where the spirit and power of the liturgy has breathed freely these past decades (at times not without cost), but they have been far fewer than they ought to have been.

Bouyer’s criticism was not isolated. Writing in 2004 of the Neoscholastic reductionism and theological disconnection with the living form of the liturgy that the liturgical movement had attempted to overcome, Cardinal Ratzinger asserted that: “Anyone who, like me, was moved by this perception at the time of the liturgical movement on the eve of the Second Vatican Council can only stand, deeply sorrowing, before the ruins of the very things they were concerned for.”14

Writing in Antiphon in 2002 the then Professor Gerhard Ludwig Müller asserted that “in many countries the euphoria of the liturgical movement has given way to disillusionment.” “Modern man, formed by secularism and by an environment both immanentist and secular,” he observed, “no longer understands the individual rites and gestures of the liturgy,” and insisted that nothing less than “a sanatio in radice” (a healing in the very roots of the matter) is necessary.15

Bouyer laments deviations in the reforms following the Council. Müller highlights the profound cultural crisis. Cardinal Ratzinger, I think it is fair to say, shares both concerns whilst underlining the profound theological nature of the Sacred Liturgy as ritual.

Bouyer continued with a suggestion that may provide a route to a sanatio in radice. “When one has thrown everything out, people will have to return to these sources,” he said.16 What might such a ressourcement include? What paths might we pursue in healing the wounds of past decades?

The sources to which Bouyer was referring were the writings of the leaders of the classic liturgical movement: Lambert Beauduin, Odo Casel, and Pius Parsch. To this list we might add Romano Guardini, Virgil Michel, Idlefons Herwegen, and others, and certainly their seminal writings are excellent sources for formation in “the spirit and power of the liturgy”17. I would add that in truth these are writings more for digestion as lectio divina than for study: their treasures are at times too rich for but one reading.

In addition to this I would like to propose three further elements for a possible sanatio in radice, for liturgical ressourcement at the beginning of the twenty-first century. There are undoubtedly others, but I think these are of particular importance today.

The first is that we renew our understanding of precisely what Catholic liturgy is and that we are perfectly clear of the nature of Catholic liturgical tradition. For Catholic liturgy is intentionally distinct from the public rituals of modern and postmodern society (and we imitate them at our peril).

To borrow the words of His Eminence, Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, we can say that:

Catholic liturgy is the singularly privileged locus of Christ’s saving action in our world today, by means of real participation in which we receive His grace and strength which is so necessary for our perseverance and growth in the Christian life. It is the divinely instituted place where we come to fulfil our duty of offering sacrifice to God, of offering the One True Sacrifice. It is where we realise our profound need to worship Almighty God. Catholic liturgy is something sacred, something which is holy by its very nature. Catholic liturgy is no ordinary human gathering…

God, not man is at the centre of Catholic liturgy. We come to worship Him. The liturgy is not about you and I; it is not where we celebrate our own identity or achievements or exalt or promote our own culture and local religious customs. The liturgy is first and foremost about God and what He has done for us. In His Divine Providence Almighty God founded the Church and instituted the Sacred Liturgy by means of which we are able to offer Him true worship in accordance with the New Covenant established by Christ. In doing this, in entering into the demands of the sacred rites developed in the tradition of the Church, we are given our true identity and meaning as sons and daughters of the Father.18

Catholic liturgy, then, intentionally has its eyes firmly focussed on Almighy God and not modernity, postmodernity, or any other culture or philosophy. It has, as Sacrosanctum Concilium taught, fundamental place in the Christian life as the source and summit of the life and mission of the Church (see: n. 10). Catholic liturgy is normative for the life of the Christian, and enjoys an objectivity in that its content is not subject to the passing fashions of each generation – or to the peculiar tastes of given priests or bishops – but is handed down in tradition with integrity whilst being proportionately persuadable according to true pastoral need. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, Catholic Liturgy is a singularly privileged and an objective and constituent element of Christian Tradition (see: n. 1124).

It is clear that the Sacred Liturgy is, then, of its nature antithetical to postmodern culture’s exaltation of subjectivity an all areas of life, most especially to the Church’s central claim to present the Truth as revealed by God to mankind. Catherine Pickstock presents a fascinating appraisal of this confrontation when she asserts: “A genuine liturgical reform…would either have to overthrow our anti-ritual modernity, or, that being impossible, devise a liturgy that refused to be enculturated in our modern habits of thought and speech.” Pickstock argues for the creation of a liturgy that “would have more actively to challenge us through the shock of a defamiliarising language” so as “to live only to worship, and to be in community only as recipients of the gift of the body of Christ.”19

Pickstock is correct in stating that the liturgy must refuse subserviently to go down the paths of modernity, and indeed that its unfamiliarity can and does serve as a salutary shock for those well advanced along those paths. We may do well to ponder this in our pastoral ministry. One must part company with Pickstock in her desire merely to construct liturgy as one might a civic ceremony (howsoever well she may do so). However, in future liturgical development her lesson that liturgy that is antithetical to the mores of postmodernity has a positive value needs to be learnt, and learnt well.

The second element of ressourcement that I would propose follows from Pickstock’s underlining of the value of liturgy that is culturally ‘unfamiliar’ and which refuses to be dominated by postmodern culture. We do not have to look very far for this resource, for it alive and well in the Church today, indeed it has found new life and is growing. I speak, of course, of the usus antiquior of the Roman rite – of the more ancient liturgical rites in use prior to the liturgical reform following the Council – now happily freely available for more than ten years to clergy, religious and laity who wish to celebrate them.

Anyone who has studied a liturgical history course in recent decades has been taught at one time or another that the ‘old’ pre-conciliar liturgy was to be dismissed as corrupt in so many ways, as non-participatory, clericalist, etc. However, medieval historians such as Eamon Duffy have given the lie to the claim that no one could or did participate in premodern liturgy. Indeed Boston College’s Virginia Reinburg argues that in the late medieval period “the clergy expected lay people to participate in the liturgy in a distinctive way—a way distinguishable from the clergy’s more doctrinally instructed participation, but possessing its own integrity.” “Late medieval liturgy,” she asserts, “can be viewed as the establishment of social and spiritual solidarity among God, the Church, and the lay community.”20

So too our own experience of the usus antiquior these past ten years – and even here in Philadelphia a fortnight ago on September 14th – testifies to the reality that participation in pre-modern liturgical forms is both possible and has a pastoral value in the life of the Church in the postmodern world, particularly amongst the young who experience therein a refusal of postmodernity that encompasses the embrace of all that is true, beautiful and good.

The free and optimal celebration of the usus antiquior in all its richness, I would argue, is a key element for liturgical ressourcement in our day. No one wishes to go backwards or to return to the days of low Mass muttered in but minutes. And the usus antiquior is not going to make a clean sweep of our parishes any time soon. Yet, it is difficult to know how liturgical ministers, formators, and scholars can move forward in their vocations and professions without themselves having sufficient familiarity with its riches. For its premodern ways have much to teach us as we strive to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy authentically in the postmodern world.

The third element of ressourcement I hold to be crucial is that we are utterly clear about the nature of authority in respect of the liturgy. I have spoken about the role of papal positivism or ultramontanism in the postconciliar reform. We see this today in respect of the question of liturgical translation. Without making any comment here on the motivation and content of the recent Motu proprio Magnum Principium, I would ask whether we must expect a new magisterial document on vernacular translations, or on other liturgical matters, every time white smoke issues forth from the Sistine Chapel? Surely there are applicable principles which do not change according to each successive pope?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches one such principle:

Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the Liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the Liturgy (n. 1125).

Cardinal Ratzinger expanded on this in his work The Spirit of the Liturgy.

The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith, and that also applies to the Liturgy. It is not “manufactured” by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity…

The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.21

As Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger would speak similarly of the exercise of the whole Petrine office in his 7 May 2005 homily in the Lateran Cathedral on the occasion of taking possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome.

The exercise of authority in respect of the Sacred Liturgy then, is something requiring profound humility and careful discernment in respect of the integrity of liturgical tradition. Authority acts authentically in regard to the Sacred Liturgy when it acts in a manner that respects and is utterly consonant with its nature so as to optimise the good of souls. Pure positivism, whether papal, episcopal, priestly, or bureaucratic has no rightful place in relation to Catholic liturgy. And yet we know that it has claimed such a place too often, and that it sometimes does so today. Everyone who exercises liturgical ministry and authority should examine their consciences carefully on this point.

It must also be said that where positivism has been visited upon liturgical tradition a conservative yet uncritical acceptance of its results, whilst understandable, is not acceptable—above all on the part of those in positions of liturgical and pastoral leadership. For such uncritical stances perpetuate the problem. Rather, our task is faithfully to examine current liturgical realities in the light of the theological nature of the Sacred Liturgy and in the light of what has been done to the liturgy in recent history in an attempt to identify future paths for the Church’s liturgical life, and even future liturgical reform, that will be paved with probity.

In this context the consideration of a reform of the liturgical reform that followed the Council, of possible areas of mutual enrichment between the older and more recent uses of the Roman rite, or even of moving towards some form of liturgical reconciliation between the two (without disenfranchising anyone) should be pursued in charity and equanimity. Ecclesiastical authority should, in my opinion, facilitate such a consideration by freely allowing such discourse and perhaps even by taking prudent and proportionate initial steps towards the realisation of some of the more apparent needs in these areas.

There are, as I said, many other ways in which we might move towards the sanatio in radice that Cardinal Müller thought necessary fifteen years ago. I submit that these three feature prominently amongst them and are worthy of consideration.


As our self-consciously modern liturgical rites approach their fiftieth birthdays we would do well not to cling to them uncritically. Nor can we follow postmodernity down paths of ecclesial and liturgical subjectivism. Rather, with a renewed appreciation of the riches of the Church’s living liturgical tradition, let us seek ways of celebrating “the traditional expression of the Christian mystery in all its spring-like fullness” that are both faithful to that tradition and apposite for the needs of postmodern society. But let us take care that the dog wags the tail, not the tail the dog.


1 For a comprehensive bibliography of the various stages of the Twentieth Century Liturgical Movement see: Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, 2nd edn. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005).

2 Cited in Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, p, 94.

3 John Pepino (trans.) The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer Memoirs (Kettering: Angelico Press 2015) pp. 218-19.

4 Worship, vol. 90 (May 2016) p. 280.

5 Ibid.

6 Nicola Giampietro, The Development of the Liturgical Reform (Fort Collins: Roman Catholic Books 2009) p. 166.

7 Ibid., pp. 166-67.

8 Ibid., p. 192.

9 See: Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press 1990) p. 11, 110.

10 See: Alcuin Reid, “After Sacrosantum Concilium – Continuity or Rupture” in A Reid. (ed.) T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy (London: Bloomsbury 2016) pp. 297-316, p. 309.

11 Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell 1998) p. 171.

12 Ibid.

13 Louis Bouyer, The Decomposition of Catholicism (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press 1969) p. 105. Emphasis added.

14 Preface to: Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, p. 11.

15 Gerhard Ludwig Müller, “Can Mankind understand the Spirit of the Liturgy Anymore?” Antiphon, vol. 7 (2002) n. 2, pp. 2-5, pp. 2, 3.

16 Bouyer, The Decomposition of Catholicism, p. 105.

17 For bibliographical references see: Alcuin Reid “Thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy – Sacrosanctum Concilium and Liturgical Formation” in A. Reid (ed.) Sacred Liturgy: The Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2014) pp. 213-236, pp. 229-230.

18 Robert Cardinal Sarah, “Towards an Authentic Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium” in U.M. Lang (ed.) Authentic Liturgical Renewal in Contemporary Perspective (London: Bloomsbury 2017) pp 3-19, p. 5.

19 Pickstock, After Writing, p. 176.

20 Virginia Reinburg, “Liturgy and the Laity in Late Medieval and Reformation France” The Sixteenth Century Journal 23 (1992), pp. 526-47.pp. 529, 542.

21 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2000) p. 166.

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!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dom Alcuin Reid 8 Articles
Dom Alcuin Reid is the founding Prior of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France, and a liturgical scholar of international renown. His principle work, The Organic Development of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2005) carries a preface by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.


  1. A most agreeable article, to be sure. Thanks Br Alcuin!

    There is so much that Authority needs to just implement! Meanwhile, as I always say, it is the People of God who suffer at the hands of unfaithful Prelates. One hopes that all the ink spilt re Liturgy since 1970, has some impact on the Magisterium, not to mention the People of God who can now READ FOR THEMSELVES what Liturgy ought to be.

  2. Modernity in its best form is to reach Modern Man. In its worst form it’s to decompose its integrity to accomplish it. The latter indicates the “self-conscious concern” and subjectivity. Dom Alciun suggests Modern Man has lost all sense of externals intrinsic to Liturgy. I partly disagree because many are desirous of return to the externals of the Tridentine Form. Though not all. The solution is thought implementing Sanatio in Radice. Recommended by Cardinal G Muller, suggested by Benedict XVI. That is the right path. How that is achieved is the challenge because of the abysmal dearth of religious education and knowledge of the faith of the Laity. The Church would need to be reprogrammed. The Liturgy however is the preeminent Act of Worship of the Body of Christ. And a preeminent teacher. It is here that Sanatio in Radice can be realized in effecting renewal. That is if the moral and doctrinal content of the Liturgy is faithful to Sacred Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition. We’ve come close to achieving a perfect modern Liturgy that is understandable, simple, retaining doctrinal integrity in the revision to the Novus Ordo under Benedict XVI. Whether and how it can be improved [certainly it can] is the current dilemma. If what Pope Francis intends in the revised process for Liturgical reform in eliminating the Confirmatio and replacing it with Affirmatio–is as he seeks to convince us is to retain Liturgical doctrinal moral integrity, that change of process is the opposite. Dom Alcuin scholarly address touches this issue obliquely in reference to Magisterial authority. Our best hopes, intentions are likely to be rendered moot.

    • A correction of terms. Affirmatio was mistakenly intended by me to mean Recognitio. Nevertheless the meanings are similar. Rubber stamp approval.

  3. As one who came to the Church in the 1980s, I have only known the Novus Ordo, and I have indeed found Truth here. That said, I agree that the stated overall goal of attracting “modern” people has not happened. My own parish priest somewhat pathetically thanks people for coming each and every week, as if the purpose of Mass was to be congratulated. The centrality of worship of God is hard to see. I have a question about two specific changes that, in my extremely humble opinion, were worthwhile: the lectionary and the restoration of Easter Vigil in the evening. In reading about the pre-Council changes, I’m amazed that people sang “this is the night” on Holy Saturday morning. And for the lectionary, I would hate to lose the Old Testament readings that so carefully parallel and support the Gospel readings. I found this an illuminating article, and my own comments are just that, comments and not criticism. I would be interested in further and more learned commentary on the expansion of the liturgy and the Triduum liturgy.

    • Expanding the lectionary to include readings from the OT would be good; it may be better to include the OT reading during Saturday or First Vespers. At any rate, the 3-year cycle needs to be eliminated.

  4. The Latin Mass should be reintroduced as a vital part of the Holy Roman Church. The emphasis on the sacred and spiritual is the only way to counter the profane and secular. Traditional truth is what is needed not false modernity. The faithful are not just members of a community but are part of the Mystical Body of Christ: Illam Est Sanctam Romanam Ecclessiam!

  5. Why is liturgy given so much importance in the Church? The power of God comes to us by faith and trust in His Son. This is what Scripture emphasizes. Without this, the liturgy is just a religious ceremony. This is also true of the older liturgies.

7 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Liturgy, Authority, and Postmodernity - Catholic Crossing
  2. Liturgy, Authority, and Postmodernity -
  4. The Attack On The Liturgy – Pope Francis Now At War With The Vatican | Traditional Catholics Emerge
  5. New Article by Dom Alcuin Reid | New Goliards
  6. Vale Vatican II: Moving On-site de Fr Hugh -Church life – sourceserlande
  7. Vale Vatican II: Moving On-site de Fr Hugh -Church life – Titre du site

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.