One of the difficulties in responding to critics of the Vatican II liturgy is that they are attempting to resurrect a debate that was effectively finished in the 1960s and 1970s. This was long before the internet made it possible to digitize and store content. After the implementation of the reformed liturgical rites was completed in the 1970s, most mainstream liturgical scholars considered questions over their legitimacy settled. By the time use of the internet became widespread in the 1990s, very few people were likely motivated to publish 10- or 20-year-old apologias on “why it is preferable to celebrate Mass facing the people” or “10 reasons why the Last Gospel should have been removed from the Mass.”

On the other hand, Catholics who opposed the liturgical reforms remained highly motivated to continue to promote their arguments and seek to win support for their ideas. Therefore, it isn’t difficult to find articles with titles like “Mass ‘Facing the People’ as Counter-Catechesis and Irreligion” or “What We Lost When We Lost the Last Gospel” when searching for commentary on these topics. Responses from the pro-reform camp are most often written as rebuttals to arguments — both recycled and novel — from restorationists, such as Paul Ford’s 2012 defense of Mass facing the people in the PrayTell Blog (one of the few sites on the internet that regularly explains and defends the liturgical reform). Near the beginning of his article, Ford writes, “Some of our friends continue to assert that we regular celebrators of the [Vatican II liturgy] are laboring under a massive misunderstanding of the implementation documents of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.”

Retracing old ground is painstaking and often frustrating to do when only one side of the story is easily available on the internet. I have learned this the hard way. Thankfully, more and more Catholics who accept the conciliar reforms are taking notice of the dominance of traditionalist narratives on the web and are beginning to respond.

This narrative came together in the years after the council, constructed by clergy, liturgists, and theologians who opposed many of the liturgical changes. This story likely picked up steam after years of liturgical abuses and because many of the faithful perceived a lack of reverence and beauty in the typical parish liturgy in the West. One of the pioneers of this movement was the German liturgist and author Klaus Gamber, whose Die Reform der römischen Liturgie (published in English as The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background) challenged many of the liturgical reforms that followed the Council. As Alcuin Reid put it in his review of the book, “Gamber is clear and unequivocal: a large mistake has been made with regard to the liturgy, unprecedented in the Church’s history.”

Gamber’s quibbles are many. They range from a lengthy addendum about a single word — his view that “pro multis” in the words of consecration should translate to “for many” (rather than the then-more common “for all” in vernacular translations — to much larger concerns, such as his pages and pages of historical documentation and arguments in favor of “turning to the East” (ad orientem) in liturgical worship. In this lengthy section he manages to present a rebuttal to almost every thinkable argument that dares to suggest there is any historical precedent for the priest to say Mass facing the people, even if an ancient church’s architecture would have forced the entire congregation to turn away from the altar during the Eucharistic prayer — “With little physical effort, the faithful were able to turn their bodies in the direction of the East, towards the church entrance” (p. 159).

Gamber also presents some arguments that are repeated ad nauseum by traditionalists today. The fourth chapter, provocatively titled, “Does the Pope Have the Authority
to Change the Rite?” presents an argument against papal authority that is part Cardinal Burke’s 2018 speech about the limits of power and part “Is the Mass of Paul VI licit?” — a treatise from earlier this year written by John Lamont, one of the dissidents who signed the latest open letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy. Gamber makes his case (“the liturgical reforms of Pope Paul VI created a de facto new rite”), but pulls up short of making the accusation:

“Since there is no document that specifically assigns to the Apostolic See the authority to change, let alone to abolish the traditional liturgical rite; and since, furthermore, it can be shown that not a single predecessor of Pope Paul VI has ever introduced major changes to the Roman liturgy, the assertion that the Holy See has the authority to change the liturgical rite would appear to be debatable, to say the least” (p. 39).

By leaps and bounds, the most important of Gamber’s disciples was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger provided a preface to the 1991 French edition, in which he wrote perhaps his harshest words about the liturgical reform:

“What happened after the Council was something else entirely: in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it—as in a manufacturing process—with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.”

Many of Gamber’s ideas were incorporated into Ratzinger’s later work, including The Spirit of the Liturgy. Remarkably (or perhaps providentially) his reforms to the normative Roman liturgy as pope were relatively minor, such as the addition of St. Joseph’s name to Eucharistic Prayers II-IV and an instruction that future translations render pro multis as “for many.” Additionally, it seems likely that Gamber’s theories played a role in Benedict’s notion that opening up permission for the older rite would lead to “mutual enrichment” of the liturgy and — somehow — foster “organic development.”

The “Reform of the Reform” movement picked up some momentum as time passed and the Vatican II generation faded away. Theories began to congeal, such as: the liturgical changes don’t reflect Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Council’s constitution on the liturgy), the Consilium (the committee appointed to carry out the reforms) was hijacked by six Protestants and a freemason, and the idea that the “true” Missal of Vatican II was the so-called Missal of 1965 — a hastily slapped-together, typo-ridden English sacramentary based on the 1962 Missal (with some early changes) that was used temporarily until the new reformed edition was promulgated. There’s a wide-open field to advance ideologically one-sided versions of events because only one side is effectively advancing their version of the story on the internet.

Episode 2 of Mass of the Ages advanced a narrative of the liturgical reform based on several of these theories, and focuses its argument on the notion that the reforms don’t align with Sacrosanctum Concilium. They’ve filled in the gaps with a story that suits their ideology. Their narrative is primarily based on two passages in the 130-paragraph document. One is about Gregorian chant — “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (116). Last year, I wrote about the history of Gregorian Chant in recent centuries, and noted that it had more or less died by the beginning of the 20th century. Since St. Pius X, popes have been encouraging a revival of Gregorian chant with very limited success.

The second passage is “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (36.1). The document then suggests that certain prayers of the Mass could be translated into the vernacular. Clearly, the Mass that most of us experience is entirely in the language of the people. So what’s the story?

Here is where I hand the baton to John Cavadini, Mary Healy, Thomas Weinandy, who wrote about this topic in a new article for Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal:

Here it is evident that the postconciliar implementation went further than what the Council decreed. As we have seen, the Council Fathers desired that the Latin language be preserved, especially in the people’s responses, although they readily acknowledged that the vernacular was frequently advantageous to the people. What they did not anticipate was the enthusiasm with which the vernacular was accepted by clergy and laity alike. Bishops’ conferences around the world voted to expand the use of the vernacular and requested and received permission to do so from Rome. So widespread was the use of the vernacular that the Vatican decreed in its 1970 General Instruction on the Roman Missal, Cenam Paschalem:

Since no Catholic would now deny the legitimacy and efficacy of a liturgical rite celebrated in Latin, the Council could now concede that “the use of the mother tongue can frequently be of great advantage to the people” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 36), and it gave permission for such use. The enthusiastic welcome given in every country to this permission has in fact led to the situation in which, under the guidance of the bishops and of the Holy See, all liturgical functions in which the people take part may now be celebrated in the vernacular so that the mystery being celebrated may be the better understood (§12).

The vox populi had spoken and had been affirmed by the Church—vernacular it would be. This ecclesial affirmation undercuts one of the most common arguments against the Novus Ordo: that the wholesale adoption of the vernacular, and the reformed liturgy more broadly, is illegitimate because it went beyond what the Council intended. What this fails to note is that Church’s magisterium, in the persons of Paul VI and John Paul II, confirmed these developments, judging them to be authentic liturgical developments that were in accord with the aims of the Council, even if the Council had not explicitly called for them.

Read it all. In fact, read the whole series. I believe they plan a total of eight installments. I’m grateful for the work they have done to present the Church’s side of the story.

Image: Adobe Stock. By wideonet.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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