Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series by Andrew Likoudis entitled “The Liturgical Reform – Council, Consilium, and Papacy.” Part 3 will be published tomorrow. Click here for Part 1: “The liturgical path of the Church after Vatican II.”

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 signer of all the 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 necessity 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 will be published tomorrow.

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