In my nearly four years as editor of Where Peter Is, I’ve usually had good intuition about which of our posts will attract attention. Whenever we’ve broken a news story (such as when we uncovered court documents that helped reveal the truth behind the viral video of a “church brawl” in October), or when we give an in-depth and well-researched analysis of a current controversy in the Church (Rachel Amiri’s deep dive into the planned Veritatis Splendor community in east Texas back in March, for example), we anticipate an increase in attention and internet traffic.

Sometimes, however, a post unexpectedly garners many more clicks than we expect, and for unforeseen reasons. A recent example of this is a post I wrote, almost as an afterthought, on a Saturday night in October 2020. We had been following the story of a French Canadian priest named Fr. Michel Rodrigue, whose claims of apocalyptic messages have grown very popular in certain parts of the Catholic world, despite being theologically dubious and condemned by the bishops of the two dioceses where he has ministered. One night, I listened to a podcast by Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin analyzing Fr. Rodrigue’s claims and thought it would be worth sharing with our readers. In the last few weeks—more than a year later—views of this post suddenly and unexpectedly shot up. It is currently the post with the third-most views on WPI for the month of December. (It seems that the new buzz surrounding Fr. Rodrigue is due to his prediction that the end times were set to begin earlier this week. We’ll keep you posted.)

At other times, the unexpected traffic has come when we’ve published something without realizing just how passionately some people are about the opposing view. One memorable example was Dawn Eden Goldstein’s four-part critical analysis of the popular spiritual book In Sinu Jesu. People were so incensed that we criticized some aspects of the book and its background that many of them assailed us on social media. Others sent personal messages demanding that we take down the posts. Some even demanded that we shut down the site. Others launched deranged personal attacks against the author. I’d never seen such hysteria caused by a negative book review! (A year later, we were vindicated somewhat when a former monk of the Benedictine priory in Ireland that produced the book went on the record detailing the spiritual abuse and strange behavior that he and many others experienced at the hands of the book’s author.)

The unexpected traffic and attention we’ve received over the last several days, however, in response to Malcolm Schluenderfritz’s article on the reform of the liturgy, has been different. The criticism in this case comes in large part from those who either didn’t understand what the article said or didn’t read it at all.

Malcolm made a number of nuanced points in his article. To demonstrate one of his central arguments, he used an analogy that—when comprehended properly—clearly aligns with the Second Vatican Council’s vision for liturgical reform in an increasingly multicultural Church. Unfortunately, it was widely misunderstood by readers.

In his article, Malcolm compared the Tridentine rite of the Mass to a laminated prayer card, and the Vatican II liturgy to a painting class. In this analogy, the “prayer card recipients” and the “painters” represented the cultures and peoples of the world. I take full responsibility for my part in causing the confusion. I made the editorial decision to highlight this analogy in both the title and social media posting of the article. I didn’t anticipate the reflexive angry reactions of traditionalists and others in response to these words removed from context.

The point of the first analogy is that the Tridentine rite was developed, with all its nuance and complexity, in the context of one culture—the local Church of Rome. In his analysis, Malcolm explained that  the potential for organic liturgical reform in the centuries preceding Vatican II was hindered by the fact that the Mass was universalized and standardized throughout most of the Western Church. This process was assisted by St. Pius V’s apostolic constitution Quo Primum, which was promulgated in 1570 following the Council of Trent (hence the “Tridentine Mass”). The document declared, “Let all everywhere adopt and observe what has been handed down by the Holy Roman Church, the Mother and Teacher of the other churches, and let Masses not be sung or read according to any other formula than that of this Missal published by Us.”

In this sense, the Tridentine rite is like a mass-produced prayer card: totally uniform and virtually unchanged wherever it’s used, even though it was developed in the context of one specific culture, place, and time. Obviously, the history is complicated and there were a number of additional contributing factors, but in the decades immediately preceding the Second Vatican Council, the Tridentine Mass was the liturgy celebrated by the overwhelming majority of Western Catholics.

Certainly, many traditionalists have no problem with this. They prefer the uniformity and the unchanging nature of the pre-Vatican II Mass. This article was not really written for them, because they believe that significant liturgical reform is an inherently bad idea. Those who are not open to the idea that liturgical reform can ever be a good thing, or those who see no use in the authentic inculturation of the faith by different peoples around the world, will oppose the premise of the article on those principles. This article was written from the perspective of someone who thinks with the Church. The Church thinks that liturgical reform is not a bad thing and that inculturation of Catholic prayer and worship is a good thing. Certainly mistakes and abuses often occur, and we address these too. It seems to me that many traditionalist believe the Church revolves around their concerns, when in fact most of the Church is either uninterested in their arguments or has moved on. We do address traditionalism from time to time, because no one in the Church should be totally ignored, and many of our contributors have traditionalist backgrounds. For the most part, however, we try to concern ourselves with the issues that are important to the entire Church and to cultural issues that affect Catholics.

This article was intended for those who are at least interested in understanding the motivations for the reform of the liturgy that resulted from the Council—even those who have doubts or questions. Even if you are just curious about the arguments in favor of the liturgical reform that followed Vatican II, this article should help you to understand. Additionally, if you wonder why the typical Mass in the US or parts of Europe seems artificial or lifeless, he puts forth a theory about the state of our culture that may help explain it.

In his piece, Malcolm describes how liturgical diversity was the norm in the Latin Church in centuries past. Many cities and regions throughout Europe (for example, in Cologne, Finland, and Northeastern Italy) had their own Rites and Uses of the Missal that included local feast days, saints, prayers, and rituals that were unique to their cultures and traditions. Today, when we look at the Eastern Churches, we can still see this. The Churches in different regions of the East have developed the Divine Liturgy in ways that reflect their distinct cultures, venerated saints, spiritual patrimonies, languages, and symbols.

St. Pius V had plenty of good reasons to centralize and regulate the Missal in 1570. At the time, many people were tinkering with the liturgy, including the early Protestants, and Pius saw it necessary to emphasize Church unity and to standardize Christian worship in response to liturgical innovations and abuses throughout Western Europe. 400 years later, however, the Church looked very different, and a lot less European.

The second analogy, that of the “painting class” illustrates the desire of the fathers of Vatican II to allow for legitimate cultural adaptations to the liturgy. Paragraphs 37-40 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s document on Sacred Worship, articulate their vision. Here are those paragraphs, in full:

D) Norms for adapting the Liturgy to the culture and traditions of peoples

1. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.

2. Provisions shall also be made, when revising the liturgical books, for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved; and this should be borne in mind when drawing up the rites and devising rubrics.

2. Within the limits set by the typical editions of the liturgical books, it shall be for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to specify adaptations, especially in the case of the administration of the sacraments, the sacramentals, processions, liturgical language, sacred music, and the arts, but according to the fundamental norms laid down in this Constitution.

4. In some places and circumstances, however, an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed, and this entails greater difficulties. Wherefore:

1) The competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, must, in this matter, carefully and prudently consider which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship. Adaptations which are judged to be useful or necessary should then be submitted to the Apostolic See, by whose consent they may be introduced.

2) To ensure that adaptations may be made with all the circumspection which they demand, the Apostolic See will grant power to this same territorial ecclesiastical authority to permit and to direct, as the case requires, the necessary preliminary experiments over a determined period of time among certain groups suited for the purpose.

3) Because liturgical laws often involve special difficulties with respect to adaptation, particularly in mission lands, men who are experts in these matters must be employed to formulate them.

There are three important things to note in response to this section of the document. First, examples of legitimate cultural adaptation do exist today. Sometimes, these are reflected in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which is produced by the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome. It serves as the official guide for celebrating Mass according to the Roman Missal. But the Vatican’s version of the document is not the version that is officially approved in many places. In fact, the official version of the GIRM in a country is often approved by the Holy See with local adaptations proposed by the episcopal conference. For example, through a quick internet search, I was able to track down the versions of the GIRM approved for use in the United States, Australia, Ireland, Canada, and England and Wales. Since these countries are culturally similar and share a common tongue, the differences are minor. One example where there’s a slight difference is the treatment of the sign of peace. The Australian GIRM says, “the most common form of the gesture of peace is the handshake, although different practices according to region and culture are not excluded.” The Canadian version says, “In the dioceses of Canada, the sign of peace is given by a handshake or a bow. However, it is appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner.”

There are also ways to foster inculturation in the liturgy that don’t require permission from the Vatican. I witnessed one small example of a cultural adaptation when attending Mass in a church in Western Ireland. At the Our Father, the entire congregation began to recite it in the Irish language. It struck me that this adaptation benefitted both the liturgy and the culture, because not only did it add a unique and ancient element to the liturgy, but by encouraging the people to pray in their ancestral tongue, the liturgy helped in a small way to preserve a unique but important part of their culture.

The second point is that the Council fathers explicitly state their desire for liturgical adaptations suited to different cultures, “especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved.” Malcolm’s article, when it describes the successful inculturation of the liturgy in the global South, is referring to this kind of adaptation.

Third, the Council fathers clearly delineate the essential role of ecclesiastical authority in reviewing and approving any cultural adaptations. In Malcolm’s example of the painting class, the “painters” were the cultures of the world, and the “instructors” were the ecclesiastical authorities who would guide and oversee the way each painter interpreted the image. It should have gone without saying that any student who tried to paint something that wasn’t an authentic representation of the “subject” of the painting (the liturgy), would not receive a passing grade and the painter would have to try again.

Some readers completely misread this analogy, thinking that the article was suggesting that it’s appropriate for individual celebrants to create their own innovations and adaptations to the Mass. In fact, the article acknowledges the existence of such abuses and condemns them, saying that following the reforms, “Catholics in the ‘First World’ covered their ‘canvas’ with the uniform drab grey of suburbia. That proved boring, so they quickly proceeded to cover it with ideological stickers, from red-white-and-blue jingoism to hippy psychedelics.” He contrasts this with the successful inculturation of the reformed liturgy in many parts of the global South, where “the ‘painting’ proceeded with gusto, creating striking works of enculturated art… Masses in India, Mexico, and the Philippines were all clearly the same liturgy, yet also distinctly local. It was a beautiful expression of unity in diversity.”

In other words, if you find the typical suburban Mass in the US or Europe banal and lifeless, or if you’ve witnessed artificial or inappropriate additions and abuses to the liturgy, this article is written for you. It attempts to provide an explanation of what has been lost in our culture, and why our attempts at liturgical renewal have fallen flat. Likewise, if you respect the way that other cultures around the world, particularly in poorer communities and in the global South, have adapted the liturgy—retaining its sacredness while authentically reflecting their culture—this article discusses why their cultures are well-suited to the celebration of the Vatican II rite.

Malcolm’s argument that the reformed liturgy is better-suited to inculturation is due to the increased number of options, such as optional memorials for local saints, and the simplification of the prayers and the removal of unnecessary elements of the Tridentine liturgy. Again, Sacrosanctum Concilium explicitly said that parts of the Mass “which, with the passage of time, came to be duplicated, or were added with but little advantage, are now to be discarded” (SC 50).

The most provocative and perhaps most challenging part of the article is the assertion that there is no longer a true culture in the US and much of the West, but an “anti-culture,” and that we will not have a true culture until we rebuild true community. That sounds like a long-term project, and suggests it will be a long time before the US has a genuine inculturated liturgy.

American Catholics tend to view the Universal Church through a US-centric lens, and naturally assume that any general statement about the Church or the liturgy applies to them. But the fact is that we are only 6% of the global Church, and while we may have wealth and a large media presence, we are still a small fraction of the People of God. The response to Thursday’s article was a good demonstration of the pervasiveness of this worldview.

What were St. Paul VI’s hopes for the reformed liturgy? He articulated them during a General Audience address on November 19, 1969:

What will be the results of this innovation? The results expected, or rather desired, are that the faithful will participate in the liturgical mystery with more understanding, in a more practical, a more enjoyable and a more sanctifying way. That is, they will hear the Word of God, which lives and echoes down the centuries and in our individual souls; and they will likewise share in the mystical reality of Christ’s sacramental and propitiatory sacrifice.

When looking to the global South, we can convincingly state that the answer to the question, “Did the Vatican II liturgical reforms succeed?” is a resounding yes. In the United States, I think the grade is “incomplete.” Given the division in the Church today, there’s no guarantee of success, but we should not despair. Where there’s life, there’s hope, and with hard work, prayer, and the assistance of the Holy Spirit, someday we will have a true liturgical renewal.

Image: Pope Francis celebrates Holy Mass according to the Zaire Use of the Roman Rite at St. Peter’s in Rome. Screenshot from Vatican Media.

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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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