Editor’s note: This is a long-form essay in five parts, all published simultaneously below. The word count is around 12,400.

Part 1

The liturgical path of the Church after Vatican II


The Second Vatican Council, a watershed in the life of the Catholic Church, famously generated a number of significant reforms, particularly in the realm of the sacred liturgy. Central to these reforms was the document Sacrosanctum Concilium, a constitution that sought to renew the liturgy in the light of several centuries of formal stagnation in praxis, with the benefit of several centuries of profound liturgical scholarship carried out by such figures as Odo Casel, Dom Prosper Guéranger, Pius Parsch, Josef Jungmann, and Romano Guardini. The new constitution brought forth much renewal in its own right; nevertheless, the postconciliar period gave rise to further reforms by successor popes, reforms that sometimes arguably diverged from the express vision of the council itself. This five-part essay will examine whether (and to what extent) the Church should adhere to the black letter of Sacrosanctum Concilium, whether it should uncritically embrace all postconciliar reforms, or whether such a dichotomy can even be drawn, especially in view of the directives of the Holy See’s five “instructions on the correct implementation of the constitution on the sacred liturgy.”

Understanding Sacrosanctum Concilium

Sacrosanctum Concilium urged that the Church’s “rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition, and that they be given new vigor to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times” as the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; [and] the font from which all her power flows . . . [for] the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God.” And in their wisdom, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council perceived that,

“in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace, . . . ensur[ing] that [they] take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.”[1]

Given such an outlook, members of the lay faithful indeed contribute, per the council fathers, to “foster[ing] that full, conscious, and active participation demanded by the very nature of liturgy itself.” Key directives of the reform therefore included promoting this active participation, allowing the use of vernacular languages, and simplifying the rites while maintaining their intrinsic meaning. The goal was to ensure that moving forward, the Church’s liturgy would be treated not only as a clerical responsibility but a collective, communal expression of faith—the highest of which the Church is capable.

Postconciliar Implementation

Following the council, several popes introduced reforms to actualize the visions articulated in Sacrosanctum Concilium. However, concerns arose among both clerics and laymen about purported deviations from the council’s intentions. Some of these concerns were theologically valid, others were a result of rigorism, and still others represented a one-sided reaction to the tide of secularization sweeping across the world following two world wars and the rise and diffusion of communism and totalitarian ideologies.

To address these concerns, the Church issued five instructions on the correct implementation of the constitution on the sacred liturgy. These instructions served as guidelines to ensure that the reforms stayed true to the conciliar principles, emphasizing fidelity to the original texts, and attempting to strike the balance, as envisioned by the council fathers, between tradition and renewal, as well as incorporating some adaptation to local cultures.

Despite the issuance of these documents, they were not as widely implemented as the Church envisioned. Moreover, various indults were requested of the hierarchy to allow practices foreign to the conciliar and postconciliar documents, such as Communion in the hand (a controversial practice excluded from the liturgy for many centuries for prudential reasons, though also found in the Mass of the early Church). There was also a notorious period of unsanctioned experiments, which rightfully drew the ire of the Church hierarchy and many conservatives.

Analysis and Comparison

The central question at hand, however, is whether the postconciliar reforms have adhered to the letter and spirit of Sacrosanctum Concilium and/or even whether it is necessary that they do. Although the instructions were meant to align postconciliar changes with the council’s vision, there have been instances of both congruence and divergence. For example, the expanded use of vernacular languages in liturgy certainly aligns with the council’s intentions, but many argue that within the four corners of Sacrosanctum Concilium, it’s clear the vernacular was never supposed to be the only language used.

Certain other critiques challenge the postconciliar status quo on topics such as biblical translations, inculturation, the exclusion of various long-standing prayers, and the new orientation of the celebrant to face the people during the liturgy of the Eucharist. Many insist that the reform, as it stands, has strayed from traditional norms, potentially diluting the sacrality and universality of the rites. The simple answer to this, of course, is that the pope always maintains his prerogative (cf. the dogma of his papal primacy of supremacy) to supersede earlier liturgical decisions—even those made at the behest of an ecumenical council.

The question for us today isn’t whether such supposed deviations therefore are illegitimate or whether we should go back to the original constitution on the liturgy in a sort of conciliarist Ressourcement movement, but rather whether and to what extent the Church today considers the changes necessary and permanent to the reform.

If the Church considers these changes necessary, how should the faithful proceed, especially those who disagree with the Church’s judgement? Should the faithful learn to accept that what they perceive to be deficiencies are permanent or normative?

Acceptance of these “authoritative deviations” from the council becomes both an issue of proper liturgical formation and a challenge for the faithful to grow in virtue—particularly in humility, obedience, patience, and forbearance where appropriate. Proper liturgical formation and a proper regard for authority can help us to discern what practices may be improved upon. This will allow us to see what the Holy Spirit wants to do for us and through us.


Both Sacrosanctum Concilium and the postconciliar reforms offered various theological and practical challenges. The council’s reforms made the liturgy more accessible and engaging for the laity in many cases. However, the postconciliar period, guided by the five instructions, has seen a struggle to maintain a balance between preserving tradition and adapting to contemporary contexts.

Some see the Novus Ordo (a moniker for the revised rite of the Mass) as a departure from the traditional rite. Others see it as reflecting a theological maturation, a result of the scholarship of the so-called Liturgical Movement, though simpler in form than the preconciliar liturgy. This tension reflects a broader debate within the Church about maintaining its identity while responding to modernity.

Contemporary Perspectives and Debates

The Church today stands at a crossroads. Traditionalists often advocate either for rigid adherence to Sacrosanctum Concilium’s black letter or for rejection of the reform entirely, fearing that too much adaptation can lead to a loss of reverence, identity, and universality. More mainstream conservatives and “John Paul II Catholics,” on the other hand, tend to argue for the acceptance of and adherence to the liturgical reform undertaken by the postconciliar popes, despite whatever deficiencies may be present or perceived, in the hopes that a renewal of reverence and certain features of long-standing Catholic identity eventually find their place in the reformed order of the Mass, so as to satisfy the call to better meet modernity on its own terms while retaining distinctly Catholic worship.

Various proposals have been made about how this process could be undertaken, with some stressing first principles of liturgy (ars celebrandi, silence, natural symbols), while others have promoted a “reform of the reform,” seeking to reincorporate many of the traditional elements seemingly lost in the hastiness of the reform (and sometimes iconoclasm) during the ‘60s and ‘70s. In any case, the synodal role of the faithful in this debate is crucial, as their collective voice and experience, the sensus fidelium, can offer valuable insights into the efficacy and impact of these liturgical changes.

The Path Forward

It is evident that both Sacrosanctum Concilium and the postconciliar reforms, along with their corresponding guiding instructions, have significantly influenced the Catholic liturgy in our day (though there is much work still to be done). The path forward for the Church might not lie in pitting one authoritative document against another, but rather in finding the harmonious method that respects tradition while embracing necessary progress. This approach will require ongoing dialogue, deep theological reflection, and a commitment to unity within the global Catholic community. As the Church continues to navigate these liturgical waters, it must remain mindful of its rich heritage and the diverse needs of its faithful, always seeking to express the timeless truth of the Gospel in a language that speaks to the heart of each generation.

Part 2

The Post-Conciliar Era: The Church and the Rise of Traditionalism

Following the watershed moment of the Second Vatican Council and the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Catholic Church embarked on a journey of implementing the Council’s directives. However, this process was met with varying degrees of acceptance and resistance. The rapid pace of these changes, coupled with a lack of in-depth catechetical preparation, led to a ripple effect and a sense of disorientation among the faithful. Many Catholics felt adrift in a sea of novelties and uncertainties. This period was characterized by a mixture of enthusiasm for the renewed approach to liturgy and apprehension about the loss of cherished traditions.

Controversies and Misunderstandings

One of the primary sources of controversy was the introduction of vernacular languages in the Mass. While this move was designed to enhance the active participation of the faithful, it also led to concerns about the loss of Latin, the Church’s universal language. Latin had long served as a unifying force, bridging linguistic and cultural divides among Catholics worldwide. This change was perceived by some as a rupture with the Church’s historical continuity. Moreover, alterations in liturgical music, the reconfiguration of altars, and the reduced emphasis on certain long-standing practices added to the overall sense of unease.

In some cases, the authoritative reforms were ignored altogether, and instead, unauthorized experiments were carried out, sometimes with a degree of creativity that stretched beyond the intended scope of both the Council and the Consilium (the post-conciliar liturgical commission established by Pope St. Paul VI), leading to liturgical abuses and a perceived drift away from doctrinal orthodoxy.

The conflation of these experiments with the official reforms sanctioned by the Consilium has led to much confusion over who the protagonists of the reform have been, and thus whether the present-day revised rite of the Mass authentically belongs to the Tradition of the Church.

The Emergence of Traditionalism

In response to these rapid changes, a movement known as traditionalism began to take shape. This movement, while not monolithic, generally sought to safeguard and perpetuate the pre-conciliar liturgical forms and expressed concern over what was perceived as the dilution of the Church’s liturgical heritage. Traditionalists ardently argued that the changes, although perhaps well-intentioned, risked severing the Church from its rich historical roots and diminishing the sacredness of its worship. Their concerns represented a genuine fear that in the pursuit of relevance, the Church might lose sight of the timeless sacrality inherent in its liturgical traditions.

The SSPX and Archbishop Lefebvre

One of the most prominent figures in the new traditionalist movement, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), exemplified this growing rift in the Church over the nature of the reforms. Initially a supporter of the Council, and a signatory of all of its documents, Lefebvre grew increasingly critical of the post-conciliar reforms.

His role became more pronounced with the establishment of a seminary in Écône, Switzerland. The seminary, founded in 1970, was intended to be a bastion of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, particularly with the continuance of the preconciliar liturgy. It was, therefore, not just an educational endeavor but a cornerstone of his broader religious and ideological campaign. The archbishop was essentially creating an independent structure, parallel to the official Church Hierarchy.

His eventual refusal of submission to Popes St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, culminating in the illicit consecration of four bishops without papal mandate—and in fact, against the explicit wishes of Pope St. John Paul II, a formally schismatic act without the necessary approval—led to his excommunication. He was not reconciled to the Church before his death. The dramatic event of Lefebvre’s excommunication underscored the widening schism within the Church, with traditionalists like Lefebvre at odds with the Pope and the rest of the Church’s hierarchy over the interpretation and implementation of the Council’s decisions.

The Church’s Efforts to Reconcile

In response to the growing traditionalist sentiments and the challenges posed by the SSPX, the Church sought ways to reconcile and address the concerns of those attached to the pre-conciliar liturgical forms. First, in 1984, Pope John Paul II, issued the document Quattuor abhinc annos, cautiously extending very limited access to the Pre-conciliar Missal. Four years later, in response to Lefebvre’s illicit consecrations, John Paul took a significant step by issuing the apostolic letter, Ecclesia Dei.This document not only granted generous permission for the celebration of the Tridentine Mass but also established a commission to facilitate dialogue with traditionalist groups. This effort was part of a broader strategy to maintain unity within the Church and provide pastoral care for those who remained deeply attached to the pre-conciliar form of the Mass.

Liturgical Reform and Renewal: A Balancing Act

In retrospect, the post-conciliar period was marked by an ongoing effort to reconcile the imperative of liturgical renewal with the preservation of the Church’s rich liturgical tradition and pastoral care for those struggling with the reforms. The Church recognized the need to adhere to the visionary spirit of the Council while addressing the confusion and loss experienced by many. It was a balancing act. It must be acknowledged that, at times, there were missteps in governance, reflecting the challenges of such a significant transition.

These challenges highlighted the vital role of dialogue with the faithful and the need for the Church hierarchy to adapt. This adaptive approach enabled the Church to formulate strategies to address a complex and evolving situation, while remaining anchored in its foundational and timeless doctrines. The Church’s response demonstrated a commitment to both honoring its traditions and embracing necessary changes.

In summary, the post-conciliar period was one of immense change, challenge, and growth in self-understanding for the Catholic Church. It marked a broader trajectory regarding the Church’s identity and mission in a rapidly changing world. The liturgical shifts and the emergence of traditionalism during this time reflect the dynamic nature of a tradition that seeks to maintain its integrity while undergoing renewal. This era, with its trials and triumphs, underscores the Church’s capacity to navigate periods of change and stands as a significant chapter in its long history.

Part 3

John Paul II and the Liturgical Reforms: A Continuation

Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate (1978-2005) was marked by significant efforts to continue the liturgical renewal initiated by the Second Vatican Council while addressing the challenges and controversies that emerged in the immediate post-conciliar period. In addition to the issuance of the indult for the limited use of the pre-conciliar Missal, Quattuor abhinc annos, and the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei, responding to the illicit episcopal consecrations by Archbishop Lefebvre and expanding the use of the same Missal (both controversial actions by the pontiff, the former carried out against the almost unanimous advice of the episcopate, and the latter undertaken without any consultation),[2] this period saw him continue Pope St. Paul VI’s efforts to address liturgical issues through working with the Consilium, a commission of liturgical experts, theologians, and clergy, to produce a series of “instructions” aimed at guiding the correct implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the refinement of liturgical praxis. These instructions are little-known, but they are the authoritative answer to the polemic that the reform didn’t follow closely enough the black letter of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

The Five Instructions on the Correct Implementation of Liturgy

  1. Inter oecumenici (1964)

This instruction served as the foundational guideline for the immediate implementation of the liturgical reforms. It introduced several significant changes including to language, the orientation of the priest, simplification of the rites, the role of the laity, and liturgical music. One of the specific changes included guiding the introduction of vernacular languages in certain parts of the Mass, particularly the readings and prayers. It also controversially encouraged the priest to face the congregation. This new orientation would be further solidified in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal,[3] which also built on the Congregation for Rites’ 1967 Instruction, directing that altars be made the focal point of the liturgy, stationed between the priest celebrating the liturgy of the Eucharist, and the laity, so that what takes place on the altar may be clearly seen by all. This document also simplified various rites and reduced repetitions to make the liturgy more concise and focused. It instructed that ornamentation of a church be directed toward noble simplicity rather than ostentation. It also emphasized greater participation of the laity in the liturgy, including more active roles in responses and singing. Significantly, it also encouraged the use of local musical traditions in the liturgy.

  1. Tres abhinc annos (1967)

This instruction furthered the reform process initiated by Inter oecumenici. Primarily, it expanded of the use of the vernacular language in more parts of the Mass, including the Eucharistic Prayer. It also modified the Liturgical Calendar and texts and rites, aiming to make them more relevant and understandable, and introduced new Communion practices for both distribution and reception, including the possibility of receiving Communion under both kinds (bread and wine).

  1. Liturgicae instaurationes (1970)

This instruction aimed at reinforcing and consolidating the reforms. It stressed adherence to the reformed liturgical books, also discouraging unauthorized liturgical innovations. It reiterated the need for active participation by the faithful in the liturgy. It also provided detailed guidelines to bishops and national conferences on how to properly implement the liturgical reforms within their local territories.

  1. Varietates legitimae (1994)

Focused on the inculturation of the liturgy. It recognized the need for liturgical expressions that reflect local cultures, allowing for certain adaptations in liturgical celebrations. This balance between traditional praxis and adaptation was a challenge involving a focus on maintaining the integrity of the traditional Roman Rite while incorporating elements from local traditions, languages, and arts. The document sought to outline the principles and procedures for adapting liturgical texts and rites to different cultural contexts.

  1. Liturgiam authenticam (2001)

This last of the five instructions concentrated on the translation of liturgical texts. It primarily advocated for translations that are faithful to the original Latin texts, in terms of both accuracy and liturgical propriety, and also stressed that translations should preserve the sacrality, dignity, and doctrinal precision of the liturgical language. It also emphasized the need for collaboration between bishops’ conferences and the Holy See in the process of translation to ensure unity and fidelity in the liturgical expressions.

The Third Edition of the Roman Missal

In 2000, John Paul II promulgated the Third Typical Edition of the Roman Missal, carrying the reform forward into the Third Millennium and impressing upon anyone who still had any doubts about whether the reform would hold, that this revised order of the mass had the Church’s full backing. This new Missal included revisions to the liturgical calendar, new saints’ feasts, additional prefaces for the Eucharistic Prayers, and improved translations of key theological terms, aided by the guidelines laid out in Liturgium authenticam. The revised Missal aimed to deepen the faithful’s understanding of the Paschal Mystery dimension of the liturgy, correcting lopsided understandings of the Mass that focused too exclusively on the sacrificial aspect. This was to be done while maintaining the integrity, beauty, and simplicity that had characterized the liturgical celebration thus far in its process of reform.

Challenges and Achievements

The period of John Paul II’s pontificate was not without its challenges, however. The Church continued to grapple with the fallout and disorientation that inevitably followed the replacement of the 1962 Missal and the Tridentine form of the Mass. While many welcomed the clarifications and refinements brought by the new Instructions and the revised Missal, others viewed these as insufficient in addressing the perceived liturgical irregularities, abuses, and theological and practical questions that more flexible rubrics, and a new praxis, introduced into the life of the Church. Some of the faithful who had settled into previous forms of the reformed liturgy saw these further Instructions and New Missal as an imposition on the already-established local expressions of the liturgy.

In his Apostolic Letter Vicesimus auintus annus: On the 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Conciliar ConstitutionSacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy, Pope St. John Paul II acknowledged the difficulties encountered in this period of liturgical renewal. He noted that the changes had not always been accompanied by adequate explanation and catechesis, leading to confusion and resistance in some places.[4] Moreover, he expressed concern about the liturgical abuses that had emerged, causing distress to many.[5]

In response to these challenges, St. John Paul II stressed the liturgical renewal as “the most visible fruit of the whole work of the Council”[6] and continued the call for a faithful implementation in accordance with Sacrosanctum Concilium (and, needless to say, thus also in accordance with the Church’s interpretation of this Constitution, found in its five “instructions”).

He also issued during his pontificate two significant magisterial documents to address concerns and abuses, offering at once extensive catechesis on the changes taking place, and simultaneously instructing bishops, priests, and laity about how to remedy the abuses that were occurring, including deviations from the authoritative interpretation of the Council being carried out by his pontificate.

These two letters were Dominicae Cenae: On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist, issued in 1980, and an Instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, issued in 2004, titled Redemptionis Sacramentum: On Certain Matters to be Observed or to be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist.This latter was a continuation of the Pope’s encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia; it was issued to address the entire spectrum of abuses recorded over the early implementation period of the liturgical reform.

Despite the continued proliferation of some abuses and still many cases of experimentation, Pope St. John Paul II rightly recognized the liturgical renewal taking place as a case of wheat growing with the tares,[7] rightly recognizing the changes themselves as being in harmony with the Church’s historical-liturgical heritage—a “reform in continuity”—though that term had still yet to be coined by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI (it would later be found in Benedict’s 2005 Christmas address).

Various indults also came to be requested, however, allowing practices which were relatively novel—at least to the 20th century—though in at least one case the practice could also be found in the early Church (receiving Communion in the hand).


The Sainted Pontiff writes, for example, regarding this practice, one that has produced much confusion and polemics and has been subject to many abuses:

Scrupulosity must be avoided, but God preserve us from behaving in a way that lacks respect, from undue hurry, from an impatience that causes scandal… In some countries the practice of receiving Communion in the hand has been introduced. This practice has been requested by individual episcopal conferences and has received approval from the Apostolic See. However, cases of a deplorable lack of respect towards the Eucharistic species have been reported, cases which are imputable not only to the individuals guilty of such behavior but also to the pastors of the church who have not been vigilant enough regarding the attitude of the faithful towards the Eucharist.[8]

He also writes, regarding the use of extraordinary ministers of Communion and diversity in liturgical practice,

To touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hands is a privilege of the ordained, one which indicates an active participation in the ministry of the Eucharist. It is obvious that the Church can grant this faculty to those who are neither priests nor deacons, as is the case with acolytes in the exercise of their ministry, especially if they are destined for future ordination, or with other lay people who are chosen for this to meet a just need, but always after an adequate preparation.[9]

Furthermore, we should follow the directives issued by the various departments of the Holy See in this field… . And although at this stage of renewal the possibility of a certain “creative” freedom has been permitted, nevertheless this freedom must strictly respect the requirements of substantial unity. We can follow the path of this pluralism … only as long as the essential characteristics of the celebration of the Eucharist are preserved, and the norms prescribed by the recent liturgical reform are respected… . Indispensable effort is required everywhere to ensure that within the pluralism of Eucharistic worship envisioned by the Second Vatican Council the unity of which the Eucharist is the sign and cause is clearly manifested.[10]


An Apology

The same Pope also deeply apologized for mistakes made during this time of liturgical transformation, humbly writing:

I would like to ask forgiveness-in my own name and in the name of all of you … for everything which, for whatever reason, through whatever human weakness, impatience or negligence, and also through the at times partial, one-sided and erroneous application of the directives of the Second Vatican Council, may have caused scandal and disturbance concerning the interpretation of the doctrine and the veneration due to this great sacrament.

Not Just about Liturgy

John Paul II, however, being the great visionary that he was, also saw that the liturgy would be the lynchpin, as it were, for the reception of the entire Second Vatican Council. He writes:

The Church not only acts but also expresses herself in the liturgy, lives by the liturgy and draws from the liturgy the strength for her life. For this reason liturgical renewal carried out correctly in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council is, in a certain sense, the measure and the condition for putting into effect the teaching of that Council which we wish to accept with profound faith, convinced as we are that by means of this Council the Holy Spirit “has spoken to the Church” the truths and given the indications for carrying out her mission among the people of today and tomorrow.

We shall continue in the future to take special care to promote and follow the renewal of the Church according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, in the spirit of an ever-living Tradition. In fact, to the substance of Tradition properly understood belongs also a correct re-reading of the “signs of the times,” which require us to draw from the rich treasure of Revelation “things both new and old.” Acting in this spirit, in accordance with this counsel of the Gospel, the Second Vatican Council carried out a providential effort to renew the face of the Church in the sacred liturgy, most often having recourse to what is “ancient,” what comes from the heritage of the Fathers and is the expression of the faith and doctrine of a Church which has remained united for so many centuries.

Regulatory Compliance

Throughout all the controversy that this process of renewal faced, Pope St. John Paul II continued to stress collaboration between the Holy See’s Consilium and relevant Congregations, and individual episcopal conferences, as well as the importance of reading the “signs of the times.” He continues in the same document:

In order to be able to continue in the future to put into practice the directives of the Council in the field of liturgy, and in particular in the field of eucharistic worship, close collaboration is necessary between the competent department of the Holy See and each episcopal conference, a collaboration which must be at the same time vigilant and creative. We must keep our sights fixed on the greatness of the most holy Mystery and at the same time on spiritual movements and social changes, which are so significant for our times, since they not only sometimes create difficulties but also prepare us for a new way of participating in that great Mystery of Faith.

Ut unum sint (That All May Be One)

Above all though, Pope St. John II stressed that maintaining the unity of the Church was of the highest priority, an effort that must run concurrent to any reforms which were to occur. He urgently impresses in this same letter on the Eucharist that,

Above all I wish to emphasize that the problems of the liturgy, and in particular of the Eucharistic Liturgy, must not be an occasion of dividing Catholics and for threatening the unity of the Church. This is demanded by an elementary understanding of that sacrament which Christ has left us as the source of spiritual unity. And how could the Eucharist, which in the Church is the sacramentum pietatis, signum unitatis, vinculum caritatis, form between us at this time a point or division and a source of distortion of thought and of behavior, instead of being the focal point and constitutive center, which it truly is in its essence, of the unity of the Church herself?. . . .

We should all listen together to that spirit of truth and of love whom He has promised to the Church and who is operative in her. In the name of this truth and of this love, in the name of the crucified Christ and of His Mother, I ask you, and beg you: Let us abandon all opposition and division, and let us all unite in this great mission of salvation which is the price and at the same time the fruit of our redemption. The Apostolic See will continue to do all that is possible to provide the means of ensuring that unity of which we speak. Let everyone avoid anything in his own way of acting which could “grieve the Holy Spirit.”[11]

In order that this unity and the constant and systematic collaboration which leads to it may be perseveringly continued, I beg on my knees that, through the intercession of Mary, holy spouse of the Holy Spirit and Mother of the Church, we may all receive the light of the Holy Spirit. And blessing everyone, with all my heart I once more address myself to you, my venerable and dear brothers in the episcopate, with a fraternal greeting and with full trust. In this collegial unity in which we share, let us do all we can to ensure that the Eucharist may become an ever-greater source of life and light for the consciences of all our brothers and sisters of all the communities in the universal unity of Christ’s Church on earth.[12]

Pope St. John Paul II also recognized the importance of inculturation in the liturgy, advocating for a balance between the universality of the Roman Rite and the unique expressions of local cultures—a salient feature that pre-conciliar liturgy, and thus the faithful at this time also, were less than familiar with. Unfortunately, some mistook these adaptations as syncretism, relativism, pantheism, or “capitulation to the culture.”

Overall, Pope St. John Paul II’s approach during this period was characterized by a desire to maintain the integrity of the liturgical reforms, while judiciously addressing the concerns and pastoral needs of the faithful, striving to ensure that the liturgy remained a living expression of the whole Church.

Synthesis of Tradition and Renewal

Throughout this difficult period, St. John Paul II balanced an emphasis on the importance of incorporating elements of reverence and demonstrating continuity between pre- and post-conciliar forms, with the clear call of Vatican II for renewal. He also recognized the need for a liturgy that speaks to the contemporary faithful (and potential faithful), without losing sight of its historical and transcendent dimensions, a theme continued by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Part 4

Benedict XVI’s Liturgical Vision:  Summorum Pontificum and Beyond

A Traditionalist at Heart

Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate (2005-2013) was characterized by a deep commitment to the liturgical heritage of the Church. Recognizing the ongoing debates and divisions within the Church regarding liturgy, Benedict sought to harmonize the post-conciliar liturgical reforms with a renewed appreciation for the Church’s traditional liturgical expressions.

Though his pontificate saw very few changes to the reformed liturgy, his writing before ascending to the Chair of Peter was prolific, and sheds light on his thoughts about the reform.

As a Cardinal and theologian, he wrote in 1987:

Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me add that as far as its content is concerned (apart from a few criticisms), I am very grateful for the new Missal, for the way it has enriched the treasury of prayers and prefaces, for the new Eucharistic Prayers and the increased number of texts for use on weekdays, and so on, quite apart from the availability of the vernacular. But I do regard it as unfortunate that we have been presented with the idea of a new book rather than with that of continuity within a single liturgical history. In my view, a new edition will need to make it quite clear that the so-called Missal of Paul VI is nothing other than a renewed form of the same Missal to which Pius X, Urban VIII, Pius V, and their predecessors have contributed, right from the Church’s earliest history. It is of the very essence of the Church that she should be aware of her unbroken continuity throughout the history of faith, expressed in an ever-present unity of prayer. This awareness of continuity is destroyed just as much by those who “Opt” for a book supposed to have been produced four hundred years ago as by those who would like to be forever drawing up new liturgies. At bottom, these two attitudes are identical. … The fundamental issue is whether faith comes about through regulations and learned research or through the living history of a Church that retains her identity throughout the centuries.[13]

He later wrote in 1992, in the preface of Monsignor Klaus Gamber’s The Reform of the Roman Liturgy:

A young priest recently said to me: “Today we need a new liturgical movement.”… He felt that we needed a new beginning from within the liturgy, as the liturgical movement had wanted when it was at the height of its true nature, when it was not a matter of fabricating texts, inventing actions and forms, but of rediscovering the living center, of penetrating the very fabric of the liturgy, so that the fulfillment of the liturgy would come from its very substance.

The liturgical reform, in its concrete realization, has moved ever further away from this origin. … On the one hand, we have a liturgy that has degenerated into a show, in which people try to make religion interesting by means of fashionable nonsense. … On the other hand, there is the conservation of ritual forms whose greatness is always impressive, but which, pushed to the extreme, manifests an obstinate isolation and finally leaves only sadness.

Certainly, between the two there remain all those priests and their parishioners who celebrate the new liturgy with respect and solemnity; but they are called into question by the contradiction between the two extremes, and the lack of internal unity in the Church finally makes their fidelity seem (wrongly for many of them) to be merely a personal variety of neo-conservatism. Because this is so, a new spiritual impulse is needed to make the liturgy once again a communal activity of the Church for us and to remove it from the arbitrariness of parish priests and their liturgy committees.

Theological Underpinnings

As Cardinal Ratzinger, he would write again, this time critiquing the pre-conciliar liturgical theology and also in reference to the Liturgical Movement who formed the ground of the Council’s renewed theology:

What mattered in the sacraments, and likewise in the Eucharist, was essentially their validity and, therefore, the moment of Consecration. Eucharistic theology had been reduced to an ontological and juridical problem, everything else being considered as beautiful ceremonies, interesting, and capable or incapable of interpretation in an allegorical sense, but not as the reality in which the Eucharist has its concrete existence. It was thus necessary to discover anew that the liturgy is not just a collection of ceremonies that aim to give length and solemnity to the Consecration, but that this is the world of the sacrament as such. This was a new vision, and in that sense they went beyond a narrow kind of theology and discovered a more profound vision, not only of theology, but of the whole Christian life. We can grasp the stature of the Liturgical Movement only in the historical context of an understanding of the liturgy that was severely lacking. For example, from the time of Leo XIII on, we used to recite the Rosary during Mass all through October—and that was still the custom when I was young. The Mass was thus truly, as I wrote in the preface to my book, like a painted-over fresco. Thus, to rediscover that the liturgy in itself is living and is a reality experienced by the Church as such was a development that considerably enriched the Church. We have therefore left far behind those misunderstandings, those inadequate conceptions and deficient visions of the liturgy and of theology. I even think, too, that the explosive outbreak of the Reformation in the sixteenth century was possible because there was no longer any real understanding of the liturgy. For Luther, all that remained of the Mass was the Consecration and the distribution of Holy Communion.[14]

The Problem of Roman Rites within the Roman Rite

This did not mean, however, that he agreed with Pope St. Paul VI’s initial decision to derogate (not abrogate) the preconciliar Missal. In fact, like Pope St. John Paul II, he supported the expanded use of this missal, though for different reasons. Whereas Pope St. John Paul II authorized expanded use of the 1962 Missal primarily in order to reconcile the Lefebvrites and other traditionalists, Benedict, though affirming this value, saw another benefit in the continued (and expanded) use of the older Missal lying also in the continuity it pointed toward. He writes:

Personally, from the beginning I was in favor of the freedom to continue using the old Missal, for a very simple reason: people were already beginning to talk about making a break with the preconciliar Church and of developing various models of Church—a preconciliar and obsolete type of Church and a new and conciliar type of Church.

… It seems to me essential, the basic step, to recognize that both Missals are Missals of the Church and belong to the Church, which remains the same as ever. … It seems to me indispensable to continue to offer the opportunity to celebrate according to the old Missal, as a sign of the enduring identity of the Church.

[T]he old Missal is a point of reference, a criterion—as [Professor Spaemann] said, a semaphore signal. … [T]his Missal of the Church should offer a point of reference and should become a refuge for those faithful who, in their own parish, no longer find a liturgy genuinely celebrated in accordance with the texts authorized by the Church. …

One problem, on the other hand, does remain: How are we to regulate the use of the two rites? To me it seems clear that, in law, the Missal of Paul VI is the Missal in current use and that using it is normal (or normative). We should therefore consider how to permit the use of the old Missal, and to preserve this treasure for the Church. … Yet there is a very real problem here: if the ecclesial community becomes a matter of free choice, if there are, within the Church, ritual churches, chosen according to subjective criteria, that does create a problem. The Church is built on the bishops, in keeping with apostolic succession, in the form of local Churches, therefore with an objective criterion. I am in this local Church, and I do not look for my friends there, I find my brothers and my sisters; and these brothers and sisters are not people we look for, we just find them there. This situation of the non-arbitrariness of the Church in which I find myself, which is not a church of my choice but rather the Church that presents itself to me, is a very important principle. … I am in the common Church, along with the poor, the wealthy, with people I like and people I do not like, with intellectuals and uneducated people; I am in the Church, which was there before me. Opening up the opportunity of choosing one’s Church “à la carte” is something that could genuinely damage the structure of the Church.

One ought, therefore it seems to me to look for a non-subjective criterion with which to open up the opportunity of using the old Missal … and preserve this treasure for all the faithful; yet, on the other hand, it must also preserve and respect the episcopal structure of the Church.[15]

Summorum Pontificum (2007): An Attempt at Mutual Enrichment

In 2007, only two years after his election, Benedict XVI issued the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum. This document was a significant change in the Church’s liturgical life, as it granted much greater freedom for the celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal. What was previously an allowance made for those attached to the pre-conciliar form, this new papal decision granted basically unrestricted access to the pre-conciliar form, what became known under this new legislation as the Extraordinary Form. However, it did not grant the unbridled license, taken by many, to now attend the Extraordinary Form exclusively, and to reject the Ordinary Form. As Pope Benedict XVI writes in the Letter, Con grande fiducia, which accompanied this new Motu Proprio:

Needless to say, in order to experience full communion, the priests of the communities adhering to the former usage cannot, as a matter of principle, exclude celebrating according to the new books. The total exclusion of the new rite would not in fact be consistent with the recognition of its value and holiness. … It is not appropriate to speak of these two versions of the Roman Missal as if they were ‘two Rites.’ Rather, it is a matter of a twofold use of one and the same rite.

Key Provisions of Summorum Pontificum

The document, in addition to recognizing the pre-conciliar liturgy as an extra-ordinary form of the Church’s liturgy, allowed priests to celebrate it without needing specific permission from their bishops. It aimed to facilitate the access of the faithful to this form of the Mass, acknowledging its importance as a precious spiritual and cultural heritage.

The Motivation Behind the Document

Benedict XVI’s decision to issue Summorum Pontificum was multifaceted. Primarily he sought to illuminate for the faithful the liturgy’s unity of inner identity,[16] and to insist that “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”[17]

Along with this, he also saw that allowing it served to attract young people who “found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them.”[18]

And though not his primary motivation, he, like his predecessor, naturally realized that such an allowance could help heal the rifts within the Church that had emerged over liturgical matters, primarily with the SSPX and other canonically irregular or unrecognized groups. By acknowledging the value of both the ordinary (post-conciliar) and extraordinary (pre-conciliar) forms of the Mass, he sought to foster a sense of unity-in-diversity within the Church’s liturgical practice.

The “Reform of the Reform”

Pope Benedict XVI also emphasized that the two forms of the Roman Rite should be mutually enriching. This did not mean, however, that he believed that the allowance for the preconciliar Missal was to be considered an absolute right.

He noted again, while still Cardinal Ratzinger:

What can we do, given that the goal we are all aiming for in the end—it seems to me is liturgical reconciliation and not rigid uniformity? I am not in favor of rigid uniformity, but we should, of course, be opposed to chaos, to the fragmentation of the liturgy, and in that sense, we should also be in favor of observing unity in the use of Paul VI’s Missal.

That seems to me a problem to be faced as a priority: How can we return to a common rite, reformed (if you like) but not fragmented or left to the arbitrary devices of local congregations, or that of a few commissions or groups of experts? Thus the “reform of the reform” is something that concerns the Missal of Paul VI, always with this aim of achieving reconciliation within the Church, since for the moment there exists instead a painful opposition, and we are still a long way from reconciliation, even though these days we have shared together here are an important step toward that reconciliation.[19]

Here he further outlined some suggestions:

As for the Missal in current use, the first point, in my opinion, would be to reject false creativity. … We have recalled more than once what the Council actually said on this subject: Only the ecclesiastical authority makes decisions; neither the priest nor any group of people has the right to change the liturgy. But in the new Missal we quite often find formulae such as: sacerdos dicit sic vel simili modo … [the priest speaks thus or in a similar way …] or Hic sacerdos potest dicere … [Here the priest can say….]

These formulae of the Missal in fact give official sanction to creativity; the priest feels almost obliged to change the wording, to show that he is creative, that he is giving this liturgy immediacy, making it present for his congregation; and with this false creativity, which transforms the liturgy into a catechetical exercise for this congregation, liturgical unity and the ecclesiality of the liturgy are being destroyed.

Therefore, it seems to me, it would be an important step toward reconciliation if the Missal were simply freed from these areas of creativity, which do not correspond to the deepest level of reality, to the spirit, of the liturgy. …

The second point about which we have spoken is the translations. … There are some Congregations in the United States where, in the name of inclusive language, they no longer dare to say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” because that is “male chauvinism”—the Father and the Son, two men. They then say, “In the name of the Creator, of the Redeemer, and of the Holy Spirit.” That is just one example to show the seriousness of the problem. … There is a new document from the Holy See on this problem that constitutes, it seems to me, genuine progress.[20]

I would just add this: we ought also to preserve some elements of Latin in the liturgy in ordinary use; the presence of a certain amount of Latin seems to me important, as constituting a bond of ecclesial fellowship and communion.

The third problem is the celebration versus populum. As I have written in my books, I think that celebration turned toward the east, toward the Christ who is coming, is an apostolic tradition. I am not however in favor of forever changing churches around completely. … But if there were always, on every altar, a cross, a quite visible cross, as a point of reference … then we would have our east, because in the end the Crucified Christ is the Christian east.

He believed that these enrichments, features already of the preconciliar liturgy, (at the time of his pontificate, the Extraordinary Form) could provide a deeper sensory/aesthetic experience of the sacred, and a more profound understanding of the Church’s liturgical heritage, while the Ordinary Form, more accessible to the average member of the faithful, offered a renewed emphasis on intelligibility by providing necessary catechesis through understandable words and symbols which corresponded better to modern man’s situation (especially since many today lack proper catechesis); increased opportunities for active participation; and further scriptural richness with expanded lectionaries and new prefaces.

Response and Impact

The response to Summorum Pontificumby the bishops, clergy, and lay faithful was mixed. While it was received with great enthusiasm by traditionalist groups and those with an attachment to the pre-conciliar Missal, others expressed concern that it might lead to further divisions within the Church or a rollback of the reforms of Vatican II. However, Benedict XVI viewed this move as a means of reconciliation and a step towards a more inclusive Church that recognizes the richness and diversity of its liturgical traditions. He stated again in the same Letter cited before, that:

The fear was expressed in discussions about the awaited Motu Proprio, that the possibility of a wider use of the 1962 Missal would lead to disarray or even divisions within parish communities. This fear also strikes me as quite unfounded.[21]

Nevertheless, Benedict instructed the bishops,

I invite you, dear Brothers, to send to the Holy See an account of your experiences, three years after this Motu Proprio has taken effect. If truly serious difficulties come to light, ways to remedy them can be sought.[22]

Unfortunately, such a census was never carried out during his pontificate.

Discussing the Future of the Missal of St. Pius V

Pertinently, though, while still a Cardinal he would express sentiments that can also be reflected on today, in light of the abrogation of Summorum Pontificum:

I know very well the sensibilities of those faithful who love this liturgy—these are, to some extent, my own sensibilities. And in that sense, I understand quite well what Professor Spaemann was saying when he asserted that if you do not know the aim of a reform, however small it may be, if vou are left to suppose that this is just an intermediate step toward a complete revolution, then people feel sensitive about it. …

However, he did also say—and I emphasize this—that it would be fatal for the old liturgy to be, as it were, placed in a refrigerator, left like a national park, a park protected for the sake of a certain kind of people, for whom one leaves available these relics of the past. …

It must also be liturgy of the Church and under the authority of the Church; and only within this ecclesial dimension, in a fundamental relationship with the authority of the Church, can it give all that it has to offer. Naturally, one can say, “We no longer have any confidence in the authority of the Church, after all we have been through in the past thirty years.” It is nevertheless a basic Catholic principle to trust in the authority of the Church.[23]

Enhancing Liturgical Formation

Despite little formal changes made, with the exception of Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI’s efforts went beyond his Motu Proprio in one way at least. He consistently advocated for a deeper liturgical formation among the clergy and laity and a more profound theological understanding of the liturgy. His writings and teachings often reflected on the beauty and spiritual depth of the liturgy, encouraging a reverent and contemplative approach to liturgical celebration. For a pope who had no formal specialized liturgical training, many nevertheless consider him to be one of the greatest liturgists of their lifetime.

Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI’s Liturgical Reforms

Benedict’s liturgical vision was marked by a profound respect for tradition coupled with an understanding of the need for the Church to speak to the modern world with clarity, and in truth. His approach to the liturgy highlighted the continuity within the Church’s tradition, seeking to bridge gaps from liturgical disputes, and offer generous access to the Church’s liturgical heritage. Unfortunately, his generous (though seemingly tentative, given his caveat about possible difficulties) allowances towards the traditionalist communities were exploited, and his hoped-for “mutual enrichment” fell short.

The fallout from this exploitation would be later addressed by his successor, Pope Francis, after almost a decade of inter-ecclesial warfare by those weaponizing this generous allowance of Pope Benedict in their seeking to overturn the reform, and a decade likewise, of this successor pope’s patience and forbearance.

Part 5

Pope Francis’s Liturgical Vision: Embracing Unity, Fostering Formation 

End of the Road

In July of 2021, Pope Francis issued Traditionis custodes, a motu proprio that significantly restricts the 1962 Roman Missal, and seeks to gather together the faithful of the Latin Church around a singular form of the Roman Rite.

He prefaces his reasons for this decision by briefly outlining the recent history of the expanded use of the 1962 Missal under Pope Benedict XVI:

It comforted Benedict XVI in his discernment that many desired “to find the form of the sacred Liturgy dear to them,” “clearly accepted the binding character of Vatican Council II and were faithful to the Pope and to the Bishops.” What is more, he declared to be unfounded the fear of division in parish communities, because “the two forms of the use of the Roman Rite would enrich one another”. Thus, he invited the Bishops to set aside their doubts and fears, and to welcome the norms, “attentive that everything would proceed in peace and serenity,” with the promise that “it would be possible to find resolutions” in the event that “serious difficulties came to light” in the implementation of the norms “once the Motu proprio came into effect.”

Pope Francis then delineates his role in the assessment of the situation, during his own pontificate,

With the passage of thirteen years, I instructed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to circulate a questionnaire to the Bishops regarding the implementation of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum. The responses reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene.[24]

Thus, he concluded that there could no longer be an ordinary and an extraordinary form, due to the weaponization of a form of the liturgy of the Church against the Church’s Magisterium and juridical authority. The issuance of Traditionis custodes therefore abrogated the prescriptions of Pope Benedict XVI and establish the reformed Missal—also known as the Mass of Paul VI—“as the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.”[25] Pope Francis further justified his decision, writing,

Regrettably, the pastoral objective of my Predecessors, who had intended ‘to do everything possible to ensure that all those who truly possessed the desire for unity would find it possible to remain in this unity or to rediscover it anew,’[26] has often been seriously disregarded. An opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.[27]

Within this act of new legislation, Pope Francis lamented the need to restrict a prominent feature of the Church’s living patrimony, in large part due to rejection of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the popes who followed. In explaining his decision, he identified the pre-conciliar form of the liturgy as an unfortunate rallying point for dissension and the growth of ideological factions that display tendencies of undermining the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church.

Pope Francis’s decision to issue Traditionis custodes was primarily rooted in a desire to uphold the unity of the Church and to ensure that the reforms of Vatican II were being faithfully implemented,​​​​​​[28] and that the Office of Peter — the visible center of unity of the Church — was being given due respect and deference.

He wrote in the letter accompany this legislation:

I am … saddened that the instrumental use of the Missale Romanum of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the “true Church.”

… One is dealing here with comportment that contradicts communion and nurtures the divisive tendency—“I belong to Paul; I belong instead to Apollo; I belong to Cephas; I belong to Christ”—against which the Apostle Paul so vigorously reacted. In defense of the unity of the Body of Christ, I am constrained to revoke the faculty granted by my Predecessors. The distorted use that has been made of this faculty is contrary to the intentions that led to granting the freedom to celebrate the Mass with the Missale Romanum of 1962. Because “liturgical celebrations are not private actions, but celebrations of the Church, which is the sacrament of unity”, they must be carried out in communion with the Church.

… Sacrosanctum Concilium explained that the Church, the “sacrament of unity,” is such because it is “the holy People gathered and governed under the authority of the Bishops.”

… St. Paul VI, recalling that the work of adaptation of the Roman Missal had already been initiated by Pius XII, declared that the revision of the Roman Missal, carried out in the light of ancient liturgical sources, had the goal of permitting the Church to raise up, in the variety of languages, “a single and identical prayer,” that expressed her unity. This unity I intend to re-establish throughout the Church of the Roman Rite.[29]

Thus, the new Motu Proprio removed the decision-making power over the use of the 1962 Roman Missal from individual priests and groups of the faithful, placing it back into the hands of local bishops, under the direction of the Dicastery for Divine Worship.[30]

Clarifications: Responsa ad Dubia and Rescriptum ex Audientia

The Vatican released both a Responsa ad Dubia[31] (issued December 2021) and a Rescriptum ex Audientia[32] (issued February 2023) to provide further clarifications on Traditionis custodes. These documents emphasize the bishop’s central role in overseeing the use of the Tridentine Mass within their dioceses, underlining the importance of unity and adherence to the Council’s reforms, and answering questions about some of the restrictions found in Traditionis custodes.

The Congregation for Divine Worship confidently stated that:

The text of the Motu Proprio (Traditionis custodes) and the accompanying Letter to the Bishops of the whole world clearly express the reasons for the decisions taken by Pope Francis. The first aim is to continue “in the constant search for ecclesial communion”[33] which is expressed by recognizing in the liturgical books promulgated by the Popes Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.[34] This is the direction in which we wish to move, and this is the meaning of the responses we publish here. Every prescribed norm has always the sole purpose of preserving the gift of ecclesial communion by walking together, with conviction of mind and heart, in the direction indicated by the Holy Father. … When Pope Francis reminds us that ‘after this magisterium, after this long journey,[35] We can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible’ he wants to point us to the only direction in which we are joyfully called to turn our commitment as pastors.

The Responsa further reiterated the view of St. John Paul II as seen in Vicesimus quintus annus,[36] the opinion of Pope Benedict,[37] and the position of Pope Francis when it formally expresses the position of the Church hierarchy, stating unequivocally in response to a dubium about Article 4 of Traditionis custodes:

This reform has enhanced every element of the Roman Rite and has fostered—as hoped for by the Council Fathers—the full, conscious and active participation of the entire People of God in the liturgy,[38] the primary source of authentic Christian spirituality.[39]

The question of the place of the pre-conciliar Missal in the future life of the Church remains. It has not been abrogated. Its current restrictions are significant; however, the Holy Father’s purpose has not been to stamp out the pre-conciliar form, a form that he supported during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, establishing a fixed place for its weekly celebration only two days after the issuance of Summorum Pontificum.[40] He also stated that the restrictions of Traditionis custodes did not apply to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter which has the celebration of the Mass with the preconciliar Missal written into its constitution. Rather his goal, in issuing these new regulations, seems to be to seek the reestablishment of substantial unity of the faithful under the Mass of Pope St. Paul VI.

This does not necessarily mean that there will be no place for celebration with the pre-conciliar Missal in years to come, but this might also depend directly on how well unity is reestablished, and whether polemics and infighting cease.

Desiderio desideravi: A Vision for the Future

Pope Francis’s approach to liturgy, as reflected in his decisions and writings, is quite forward-looking. He stresses the importance of moving beyond rigid and ideological adherence to past forms (while also recognizing the value that our patrimony holds and can teach us[41]) and instead focusing on how liturgical practices can serve the Church’s mission today. He writes,

For this reason we cannot go back to that ritual form which the Council fathers, cum Petro et sub Petro, felt the need to reform, approving, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and following their conscience as pastors, the principles from which was born the reform. The holy pontiffs St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, approving the reformed liturgical books ex decreto Sacrosancti Œcumenici Concilii Vaticani II, have guaranteed the fidelity of the reform of the Council. For this reason I wrote Traditionis custodes,so that the Church may lift up, in the variety of so many languages, one and the same prayer capable of expressing her unity.[42]

His vision thus encompasses an acknowledgement of the role tradition plays, and how it can guide us, as a recognition of the need for liturgical formation and renewal in our context today, as well as an application of the Church’s doctrines and praxis that adequately responds to contemporary challenges.

The Faithful’s Role: Docility and Reverence

Pope Francis, today, calls on the faithful to receive the Church’s teachings and decisions with reverent submission and to carry them out even despite the sacrifice they entail, for the good of the whole Church, its mission, and thus also, for the whole common good, and the good of all souls. This obligation is grounded in a sober understanding of the Liturgy’s centrality in the life of the Christian (really at the center of the order of creation). It also requires us to reflect deeply on the Pope’s role as the Vicar of Christ, who exercises the authority of Christ over the whole Church, so that the Church can act as one Body of Christ, and thus also as one Sacrament of Salvation for the world.

The Holy Father has stressed the need for unity and obedience, within the ecclesiological understanding of authority solidified at Vatican I and further developed and outlined in Lumen Gentium,[43] Dei Verbum,[44] [45] and The Catechism of the Catholic Church.[46]

He enumerated this explicitly in Desiderio desideravi, writing,

It would be trivial to read the tensions, unfortunately present around the celebration, as a simple divergence between different tastes concerning a particular ritual form. The problematic is primarily ecclesiological.[47]


In conclusion, Pope Francis’s liturgical directives, encapsulated in Traditionis custodes, the accompanying Responsa ad Dubia and Rescriptum ex Audientia, and his Apostolic Letter Desiderio desideravi, highlight his commitment to the principles of the Second Vatican Council as well as moving beyond it, in seeking out new ways to engage modern man, through the authority vested in him to guide the Church in the Third Millennium.

He seeks to lead the Church towards a deeper understanding and more authentic expression of its liturgical life rooted in the realization that the liturgy is first about “[God’s] infinite desire to re-establish that communion with us that was and remains his original design, [which] will not be satisfied until every man and woman, from every tribe, tongue, people and nation,[48] shall have eaten his Body and drunk his Blood.”[49] Thus, the task we are called to by the Pope is in a rediscovery of the liturgy’s Christocentric and Marian dimensions—both through offering and receiving the Paschal Victim, and through a renewed reflection on the reason for our adoration, praise, and thanksgiving, as central features of the “wellspring of worship.”[50]

He also calls the faithful to a proper formation, making the distinction between a formation for proper celebration of the liturgy, and a formation by and through the liturgy.[51] He acknowledges the difficulties produced by the “liturgy wars,” recognizing that ideological imbalance and polemics have replaced proper formation. Thus, he stresses, that while rejecting certain excessive creativity and resulting abuses in the liturgy and recognizing the due respect owed the Church’s liturgical patrimony, there is also a need for contemporary people to rediscover the liturgy first and foremost as God’s meeting place with humanity, as a gift, and as an expression of God’s desire to “break bread” with us today.

As Dr. Timothy O’Malley, Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy has explained,

Pope Francis notes that even careful attention to the rubrics and the celebration of a beautiful liturgy does not lead to active or full participation.[52] … Rather, liturgical renewal depends on amazement at the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.[53]

Pope Francis writes in Desiderio desideravi:

The astonishment or wonder of which I speak is not some sort of being overcome in the face of an obscure reality or mysterious rite. It is, on the contrary, marveling at the fact that the salvific plan of God has been revealed in the paschal deed of Jesus (cf. Eph 1:3-14), and the power of his paschal deed continues to reach us in the celebration of the ‘mysteries,’ of the sacraments.[54]

The Pope sees that for this formation in holy amazement to take place, the liturgy wars must cease, and the faithful must rediscover the unity of the Church, found in the Successor of Peter, and ultimately, in Christ. This may mean putting aside one’s preferences, and firstly “uniting oneself in mind and heart with the Roman Pontiff,”[55] receiving his teaching with docility, and accompanying him on the Barque of Peter in the direction indicated for the Church, especially as it has just crossed the threshold of the new millennium.[56] This is our God-given responsibility as the faithful of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Then may we see, the fruit of the reform in full bloom, as,

A foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle.[57] [58]

[1] Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, §11.

[2] Rita Ferrone, Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium, found in the series, Rediscovering Vatican II, 68.

[3] General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Ch. V, Sec. 2, 90–91.

[4] Pope St. John Paul II, Vicesimus Quintus Annus: On the 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy,§12.

[5] Pope St. John Paul II, Vicesimus Quintus Annus, §12.

[6] Pope St. John Paul II, Vicesimus Quintus Annus, §12.

[7] Cf. Matt. 13:24–30.

[8] Pope St. John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae: On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist, §11.

[9] Pope St. John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae, §11.

[10] Pope St. John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae, §12.

[11] Emphasis mine.

[12] Pope St. John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae, §13.

[13] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works vol. XI, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014, 524-525.

[14] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works,vol. XI, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 559-560.

[15] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works,vol. XI, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 562–564.

[16] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works,vol. XI, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 524-525.

[17] Pope Benedict XVI, Con Grande Fiducia, Letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum.

[18] See the 2016 Peter Seewald interview with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

[19] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works,vol. XI, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 564–565.

[20] Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Liturgicam Authenticam, March 28, 2001.

[21] Pope Benedict XVI, Con Grande Fiducia.

[22] Pope Benedict XVI, Con Grande Fiducia.

[23] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works, vol. XI, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 566–567.

[24] Pope Francis, Letter accompanying the Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes

[25] Pope Francis,Traditionis Custodes, §1.

[26] Benedict XVI, Letter Con Grande Fiducia accompanying Summorum Pontificum; AAS 99 (2007) 797-798.

[27] Pope Francis, Letter accompanying the Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes; emphasis mine.

[28] See for another helpful analysis on this point: Sean Blanchard, PhD, Traditionis Custodes Was Never Merely About the Liturgy,” Church Life Journal, August 02, 2021.

[29] Pope Francis, Letter accompanying the Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes; emphasis mine.

[30] This latter subsidiary relationship was later to be further delineated in a Rescriptum ex Audientia.

[31] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Responsa ad Dubiaon certain provisions of the Apostolic Letter Traditionis Custodescan be found here:


[32] The Rescriptum ex Audientia can be found here:


[33] Pope Francis, Traditionis custodes, Preamble.

[34] Cf. Pope Francis, Traditionis custodes, §1.

[35] Pope Francis, Address to the participants in the 68th National Liturgical Week, Rome, 24 August 2017.

[36] Pope St. John Paul II, Vicesimus Quintus Annus: On the 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy, §12.

[37] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 87.

[38] Cf. Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, §14.

[39] Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Responsa ad Dubia on certain provisions of the Apostolic Letter Traditionis Custodes; emphasis mine.

[40] This would seem to dispel any polemic that Pope Francis hates tradition, and what is erroneously called “The Mass of the Ages”; See, “Bergoglio presenta su renuncia como arzobispo de Buenos Aires, aunque seguirá en el cargo,” Terra Noticias. 15 December 2011.

[41] See for an analogous example: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2023-06/pope-message-for-world-day-of-grandparents-and-elderly-2023.html.

[42] Pope Francis, Desiderio desideravi, §61.

[43] See Lumen Gentium, §25: “This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”

[44] Dei Verbum, §8: “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.”

[45] Dei Verbum §10: “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”

[46] CCC 100: “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.”

[47] Pope Francis, Desiderio desideravi, §31.

[48] Rev. 5:9.

[49] Pope Francis, Desiderio desideravi, §4.

[50] Cf. Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship; The work of Jean Corbon would seem to be one of Francis’s inspirations for Desiderio desideravi, as noted by another prominent liturgist, (Cf. Rita Ferrone, “Earnest Desire,” Commonweal, August 27, 2022); Jean Corbon was the author of CCC 2560 and 2561; CCC 2560 reads: “‘If you knew the gift of God!’ The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.” CCC 2561 reads: “You would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” Paradoxically our prayer of petition is a response to the plea of the living God: “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water!” Prayer is the response of faith to the free promise of salvation and also a response of love to the thirst of the only Son of God.”

[51] Cf. Rita Ferrone, “Earnest Desire,” Commonweal, August 27, 2022.

[52] Cf. Pope Francis, Desiderio desideravi, §23.

[53] Timothy P. O’Malley, PhD, “The only way forward in liturgical reform is to encounter the Lord,” Our Sunday Visitor, August 29, 2022; this article is part 10 of a multi-part series exploring the gift and promise of Vatican II’s liturgical reforms.

[54] Pope Francis, Desiderio desideravi, §25.

[55] Pope Pius X, Major Catechism §204.

[56] See for further on this theme, Pope St. John Paul II, Tertio Millenio Adveniente.

[57] Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, §8.

[58] For further reading I will point the reader to the excellent and thorough multi-part series on the liturgical reform written by Drs. Mary Healy, John Cavadini, and Fr. Thomas Weinandy in Church Life Journal, collectively titled, “A Synoptic Look at the Failures and Successes of Post-Vatican II Liturgical Reforms.”

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Andrew Likoudis is a student of business and entrepreneurship at Towson University, an associate member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and the editor of several books on the papacy and Catholic ecclesiology. He runs a column titled Nature & Grace at Patheos.com.

Share via
Copy link