Fifty years ago this April, Pope St. Paul VI issued the Apostolic Constitution, Missale Romanum, which promulgated the Novus Ordo Missae, the New Rite of the Roman Mass. The Novus Ordo went into effect the first Sunday of Advent, November 30, 1969. This new missal was the culmination of efforts set into motion by the first of the four constitutions promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which called for the Latin Rite’s “liturgical books . . . to be revised as soon as possible” to employ “experts . . . on the task” and to consult the bishops of various parts of the world in the revisions. To say that the faithful’s experience of worship changed in the period from 1963 through 1969 is an understatement. The language, gestures, orientation, and much else in the Mass changed—sometimes overnight.
How did the Church go from the Sacrosanctum Concilium to the Novus Ordo? What was the process that led from that Constitution, promulgated on November 22, 1963, to the Novus Ordo that went into effect just six years later? It is to these questions that Yves Chiron, a noted-French historian and writer, directs himself in his newly-translated book Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy.
The late-Archbishop Bugnini, was the Italian Vincentian who served as the influential secretary of the Consilium ad exsequendam Constiutionem de Sacra Liturgia (the Committee for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). Chiron’s work is both a biography of Bugnini and a succinct overview of the Consilium’s work in implementing and imposing the liturgical reform that gave us the Novus Ordo and the current Liturgy of the Hours.
Chiron’s work is equal parts impressive and depressing. It is impressive because Chiron avoids both polarizing starting points and conclusions, shows a great command of the primary sources, and in under 200 pages gives a succinct overview of the Consilium’s work. Chiron’s biography is a sober, objective, and well-researched account. His Bugnini is no bogeyman.
It is depressing because the book gives an unvarnished window into the political machinations, processes, and frequent failings behind the liturgical reform. In reading Chiron’s book, one understands at a deep level Joseph Ratzinger’s trenchant but charitable critiques of the post-Vatican II liturgical reform. For instance, in Milestones, Ratzinger writes:
It was reasonable and right of the Council to order a revision of the missal such as had often taken place . . . But more than this now happened: the old building was demolished, and another was built . . . [S]etting [the Novus Ordo] as a new construction over against what had grown historically, forbidding the results of this historical growth, thereby makes the liturgy appear to be no longer a living development but the product of erudite work and juridical authority; this has caused us enormous harm. For then the impression had to emerge that liturgy is something “made,” not something given in advance.
Indeed, this book helps one understand why Ratzinger has stated that “with respect to the Liturgy,” the Pope “has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile.” Chiron’s book shows that the Consilium’s work too often was that of a technician rather than a gardener. In Chiron’s account we see the (self-inflicted) wound that continues to harm the Church to this day. Chiron’s book is indispensable both for its historical depth and breadth and also for understanding how we received the only liturgy that most Roman Catholics have ever experienced.
Bugnini’s early years
Bugnini was born to a pious Italian family in the Umbrian hills and like two of his siblings entered religious life, joining the Vincentians. As young priest, Bugnini was a liturgical innovator. He experimented with the dialogue Mass, something that had already become relatively common. The dialogue Mass consisted of “the faithful reciting the ‘responses and prayers’ that were otherwise said by the server(s).” But Bugnini went beyond this, having “the assembly say aloud a sort of paraphrase of the text of the Mass.”
Bugnini’s words concerning his achievement are revealing of a mindset that would come to dominate the liturgical reform: “The ‘inert and mute’ assembly had been transformed into a living and prayerful assembly.” Bugnini viewed active participation—what some would say is better described as actual participation—as equal to or at the very least primarily expressed through verbal actions—speaking and responding. This view of participation sees it not primarily as an inner phenomenon, by which the faithful enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, death, and Resurrection, made present in the liturgy, but rather something manifested by outward actions and demonstrations.
When Bugnini became director of the Vincentian liturgical journal Ephemerides Liturgicae, he had a platform from which to “broadcast his ideas for a liturgical reform.” Like so many other tasks to which Bugnini put his energies, the journal, which had been moribund, began to flourish. Bugnini commissioned a survey of liturgical needs and desires. The survey was generated by Bugnini’s wish to “rejuvenate the liturgy, ‘ridding’ it of the superstructures that weighed it down over the centuries.” Bugnini wanted to pursue a “streamlining of the liturgical apparatus and a more realistic adaptation to the concrete needs of the clergy and faithful in the changing conditions of our day.” Again, the words Bugnini used to describe the liturgy—“superstructures,” “apparatus,” “changing conditions of our day”—are revealing of a certain mindset. It was a mindset that Bugnini would use his significant organizing skills to put into effect as secretary of the Consilium.
The Second Vatican Council
After Pope St. John XXIII announced his intent to convoke the Second Vatican Council, Bugnini was appointed to serve as secretary to the preparatory commission for the liturgy for the Council. Perhaps the most significant of the preparatory commission’s suggestions was that the “‘structure’ of the ‘so-called-Mass of Saint Pius V’ had to be ‘reformed’ in such a way that additions be suppressed and that other elements improved or embellished,” and that “elements genuine, fundamental, and suited to our times should be cultivated.”
With the inception of the Second Vatican Council, Bugnini suffered the first of two significant demotions in his ecclesiastical career. Bugnini, with good reason, had expected to be named the secretary of the Council’s Commission on the Liturgy. Instead, that position went to another priest. Bugnini would serve simply as a peritus, an expert. But Bugnini would not be out of favor for long. Sacrosanctum Concilium was the first constitution adopted by the Council Fathers on November 22, 1963. In early 1964, the Consilium was established with Bugnini as its secretary.
It is with the inception of the Consilium that Chiron’s book takes on the pace of a gripping novel. A key to understanding the Consilium was its autonomy from the Roman Curia. It could function in ways that normal curial congregations could not. And given that Bugnini had already established a strong relationship with Pope Paul VI and that Bugnini was the day-to-day administrator of the Consilium, he had considerable power. As Chiron writes, Bugnini “was truly the architect of the reforms that were about to begin.”
And the reforms began almost right away and in a piecemeal fashion. Chiron documents something we too often forget. While the Novus Ordo did not go into effect until Advent 1969, significant liturgical experimentation and changes were being undertaken in the six years between the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Novus Ordo’s implementation. The Holy See issued several documents, produced in large part by the Consilium that revised portions of the Mass and allowed for different options prior to the implementation of the Novus Ordo.
For instance, Inter Oecumenici, issued in 1964, called for the recitation of the Our Father in the vernacular by priest and congregation together, introduced the prayer of the faithful, and suppressed the Last Gospel and the Leonine Prayers, among other things. Inter Oecumenici also introduced the possibility of Mass facing the people. As Chiron writes, “this concession was soon to become the norm” with Paul VI “himself giving the example.”
In 1967, the Holy See issued another instruction on the liturgy, Tres Abhinc Annos. Chiron states that it introduced “significant modifications to the celebration of Mass” including reducing a number of the priest’s gestures—kisses of the altar, signs of the cross—and genuflections and “complet[ing] the introduction of the vernacular into the Mass by allowing the Canon to be said aloud and in the vernacular.”
The Consilium would continue to revise the new rite in the years to come, soliciting feedback from cardinals and bishops attending the 1967 meeting of the Synod of Bishops. The Mass was also tested in front of the synod fathers, though the reaction was decidedly mixed. After further revisions, in January 1968, over the course of three days, the Consilium celebrated three versions of the new Mass in front of the Pope, using different Eucharistic prayers and different “modes of celebration.” This new version of the Mass added the “Sign of Peace,” which had not been used at the demonstration of the Mass to the Synod of Bishops.
What is striking about Chiron’s description of these experimental Masses is the way in which the new Mass was essentially Beta-tested. Reading Chiron’s description, one cannot help but think of engineers in a design studio designing a product, tweaking it, and then testing it out on a pilot group before introducing the product to market. This new Mass was not the result of the slow organic growth of certain practices and the paring back of others. Rather, it was the product of experts and technicians working it out abstractly in a “laboratory.”
Even before the final Novus Ordo was promulgated, the Holy See permitted the use of eight new prefaces and the three new Eucharistic Prayers in addition to the Roman Canon. The finalized Novus Ordo “synthesized and made official changes that had already been taking place.” These included the following: “a more communal penitential part of the Mass; more numerous and diverse Sunday readings spread out over a three-year cycle; a restored ‘universal prayer’; new Prefaces; a changed Offertory; three new Eucharistic Prayers . . . ; modified words of consecration, identical in all four Eucharistic Prayers; the Pater noster said by the whole congregation, . . . ; [and] suppression of many genuflections, signs of the cross, and bows.”
In short, the Mass we know today.
Bugnini’s final years
In Chiron’s final two chapters, he discusses Bugnini’s fall from grace and eventual service as Apostolic Nuncio to Iran. Bugnini seems to have served ably and nobly as the nuncio. And, as relations between the Vatican and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of Saint Pius X worsened, Archbishop Bugnini urged restraint and mercy. He even “suggested that the celebration of the traditional Mass might be authorized,” subject to certain conditions. The Vatican rejected this advice. On a visit to Rome for medical care in 1982, Bugnini died of an embolism. He was buried with the epitaph: “Liturgiae amator et cultor”—Lover and Supporter or Cultivator of the Liturgy.
Chiron’s book provides a helpful vehicle by which to assess, at least partially, Bugnini and his efforts at liturgical reform. If one were to base this assessment simply on output and results, Archbishop Bugnini must be judged a resounding success. In the space of six years he took the general directives of the Second Vatican Council and engineered a new missal for the Latin Rite. The Mass, which had been celebrated for centuries in Latin, was now celebrated, almost exclusively, in the vernacular. Within a half-decade, Mass went from being celebrated ad orientem in both the East and West, to being almost exclusively celebrated versus populum in the Latin Rite. The reforms directed and overseen by Bugnini have become deeply embedded in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.
And, yet, reading this wonderful book in light of the 50 years since the Novus Ordo’s implementation, Bugnini’s legacy is decidedly more mixed, even negative. Bugnini and the other members and consultors who manned the Consilium were undoubtedly experts in the practice and history of the liturgy. Their legacy, however, raises the very important question whether they were, as Paul VI famously described the Church, “expert[s] on humanity.”
The buzzwords of their articles, talks, and titles of their books betray their biases and presuppositions and suggest that they were not experts on humanity. For instance, Dom Botte’s book describing his inside view of the liturgical reform is titled From Silence to Participation. Bugnini described the transformation of the “inert and mute assembly” into true participants. Such descriptions are a common theme. The liturgical reformers failed to see how silence could be a form of participation, indeed perhaps a deeper participation than the recitation of banal translations.
The reformers also seemed unable to credit ordinary lay people with the ability to learn and penetrate the mysteries of the Mass as it was already being celebrated. If these people could not “understand” the words, they could not truly worship. Bugnini had to paraphrase the Mass to make it “accessible.” This both assumes that one can really comprehend phrases such as, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body,” and obscures the manner in which mystery and comprehension coincide and overlap. As we begin to grow in knowledge, we realize that God’s mystery is even greater than we ever imagined.
The reformers’ zeal for relevance and for a liturgy fit for contemporary man was and is a fool’s errand. As soon as one “updates” a liturgy, it is suddenly out-of-date. The new new man succeeds the new man. And so on and so forth. Nor does this chasing after relevance take into account man’s eternal and universal thirst for transcendence.
Finally, Bugnini and his fellow reformers put a premium on rational comprehension and stark simplicity. But this was done at the expense of basic human anthropology and a proper understanding of God. We are not simply spirits, but embodied souls who need to touch, to feel, to taste, to see. When we no longer kneel, genuflect, kiss, adore, we often cease to believe. We may now “understand” the words of the liturgy but at the expense that we do not actually believe them. Further, God is superabundant. His language is superabundance. He expresses Himself in ways that seem excessive, even superfluous. Why should our worship of Him be any different?
Chiron’s book is a great gift to the Church. While we cannot change the past, Chiron gives us the ability to see it clearly, to assess it with honesty, and to ask the deep questions that will help us avoid making missteps in the future. Bugnini was clearly well-intentioned. He loved the liturgy. But so many of his actions undermined rather than cultivated the liturgy he loved. May we avoid repeating his mistakes.
Annibale Bugnini:Reformer of the Liturgy
By Yves Chiron
Foreword by Alcuin Reid
Angelico Press, 2018
Hardcover, 214 pages
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