On Sunday, March 19, BBC Radio broadcast a story featuring Cardinal Arthur Roche, the Vatican’s Prefect for the Dicastery of Divine Worship. The topic of the segment, which also included comments by papal biographer Austen Ivereigh and several traditionalist Catholics, was the implementation of Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis’s motu proprio limiting the celebration of liturgical rites antecedent to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

During the interview, Cardinal Roche discussed the advantages of the current, reformed Roman liturgy over the preconciliar rite, saying, “The theology of the Church has changed.”

It seems that the Cardinal’s words should be both intuitive and obvious to any Catholic with a basic understanding of the Council. After all, one of the most significant themes of the history of the Second Vatican Council is the involvement of the periti, some 480 theological consultants who assisted the bishops throughout the Council. Many of their names are still famous today (or infamous, depending on one’s perspective), including Ratzinger, Congar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Küng, Murray, and Lonergan. These theologians and those they studied with helped lay the groundwork for the Council. The great English theologian of the previous century, St. John Henry Newman — the man whose work on the development of doctrine has had a tremendous impact on modern theology — is often called “the Father of the Second Vatican Council.”

Unfortunately, some traditionalist Catholics — perhaps desperate to find something to attack — seemed to interpret the cardinal’s statement that “the theology of the Church has changed” as meaning “the doctrine of the Church has changed” or even suggesting that his statement was equivalent to “the Second Vatican Council represents a rupture in Catholic teaching.” One prominent magazine columnist suggested that this was confirmation that the postconciliar Church was “a different religion.” A US bishop even tweeted that Cardinal Roche needs to return to the faith.

But “change” does not mean “contradiction” and “theology” does not mean “doctrine.” To suggest such a thing is to show profound ignorance of how Catholic theology has changed and diversified throughout history. One needs only to observe the differences between the liturgical rites of the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Roman Rite to understand that the fullness of the Catholic faith can be expressed in liturgies with differing theological approaches.

Over the centuries following St. Pius V’s 1570 promulgation of the Roman Missal, liturgical theology underwent significant development and enrichment in the Western Church. One of the most significant developments was in our theological understanding of the role of the faithful at Mass. The liturgical movement that emerged from France in the 19th century grew and expanded in the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council. This movement encouraged greater participation by the faithful, beginning with modest changes such as the use of hand missals with vernacular translations so that members of the congregation could follow along. Congregational singing of the chants and hymns was another area of emphasis for the movement. In the 1930s and 1940s, the “dialogue Mass” was reintroduced in some regions, meaning that the congregation — and not only the servers — would speak the Latin responses to the prayers. Members of the movement proposed other innovations with roots in the Church’s tradition, such as greater use of the vernacular, allowing the faithful to receive communion in both kinds, and the priest facing the people during the Eucharistic prayer.

At the root of the call for a renewal and reform of the liturgy was the principal of “full and active participation” by all the faithful during the Mass. This principle was taken up by the Council and motivated the reform of the Roman Rite. This is also the primary theological change discussed by Cardinal Roche in the BBC program. The cardinal explained that in the preconciliar form of the Mass, “the priest represented, at a distance, all the people. They were channeled — as it were — through this person who alone was celebrating the Mass.” He said that in the current form of the Roman Rite, however, “It is not only the priest who celebrates the liturgy, but also those who are baptized with him.”

This statement recalls the words of the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, that “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. … In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” (no. 14).

There are other ways in which changes in the theology of the Church are reflected in the liturgy. Some of these were discussed in the Vatican less than a week later, on Friday, March 24, when Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, the papal preacher and a Capuchin friar once again gave a provocative Lenten sermon, this time offering a theological reflection on the liturgical reforms. Ordained a priest in 1958, Cardinal Cantalamessa personally experienced the Council and the implementation of its liturgical reform, and thus offers a rare first-hand perspective.

Cardinal Cantalamessa described the liturgy as “the point of arrival, what evangelization tends toward. In the Gospel parable, the servants are sent to the streets and crossroads to invite everyone to the banquet.” Here he recalls the same image of the liturgy described by Pope Francis in Desiderio Desideravi, that all are invited to the wedding feast.

Cantalamessa, echoing the words of Sacrosanctum Concilium and Cardinal Roche, also stressed the change in emphasis from the priest to the people. He said, “The Catholic liturgy underwent a transformation from an action with a strong sacred and priestly imprint to a more communal and participatory action, where all the people of God have their part, each with their own ministry.”

Beyond reflecting on the Church’s renewed emphasis on community and participation, the papal preacher also discussed the theological and spiritual significance of other reforms, including a change in the way the Eucharistic prayer was done by the priest. He explained:

“For centuries, the central part of the Mass, known as the Canon or Anaphora, was pronounced by the priest in a low voice, in Latin, behind a curtain or a wall (a temple within a temple!), out of the sight and hearing of the people. The celebrant only raised his voice at the final words of the Canon: ‘Per omnia saecula saeculorum,’ and the people replied, ‘Amen!’ to what they hadn’t heard, let alone understood. The only contact with the Eucharist, announced by the sound of the bells, was the moment of the elevation of the Host.

There is an evident return to what was going on in the worship of the First Covenant. The High Priest entered the Sancta sanctorum, with incense and the blood of the victims, and the people stood outside trembling, overwhelmed by the sense of God’s tremendous holiness and majesty.”

He also discussed the phrase “the mystery of faith,” which was moved from one part of the Eucharistic prayer to another:

“After the consecration, the celebrant says or sings, ‘The mystery of faith!’ Those of my age will remember that once this exclamation was inserted in the middle of the formula for the consecration of wine: ‘Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni testamenti – Mysterium fidei! – qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.’ As if the Church stopped, halfway through the story, amazed at what she was saying!

The reform was right, of course, to move this exclamation to the end of the consecration, but we should not lose the sense of amazement contained in it. More important than this, however, is to understand what the real reason for our amazement should be.”

He also discussed the increase in scripture readings at Mass:

“We have at our disposal some means that were not available in the past to enhance the Liturgy of the Word and also make it an occasion for an experience of the sacred. Thanks to the progress that the Church has made in many fields in the meantime, we have a more direct access to the Word of God. It can resound with greater richness and power than in the past.

The current liturgy is very rich in the Word of God, wisely arranged, according to the order of the history of salvation, in a framework of rites often brought back to the linearity and simplicity of the origins. We must value these means. Nothing can penetrate the human heart and make it feel the transcendent reality of God better than a living word of God proclaimed during the liturgy with faith and adherence to life.”

His view of opening up the Word of God in the new Lectionary agrees with that of Pope Saint Paul VI, who in a 1970 address to the Consilium said, “You have striven particularly to see to it that the word of God in Scripture receives greater prominence; that theology more strongly influences liturgical texts for a closer correspondence between the lex orandi and the lex credendi.”[1]

In his sermon, Cardinal Cantalamessa stressed that the purpose of discussing these changes was “absolutely not to set myself up as a judge of the past, but to better understand the present. The ‘present’ in the Church is never a denial of the ‘past,’ but its enrichment, or, as in the present case, going back from a relatively recent past to a more ancient and original one.”

He explained, “From St. Justin, from the Traditio Apostolica of St. Hippolytus, and other sources of the time, we obtain a vision of the Mass that is certainly closer to the reformed one of today than to that of the centuries behind us.” Certainly, some critics of the reform will challenge the accuracy of that assessment, but at the very least, that was the view of those who revised the missal.

Much more can be said about the theology of the liturgical reform, and these examples only scratch the surface of the serious thought and deliberation that went into every change in the liturgy, regardless of a diversity of opinions about the success of the final result. The reforms of the Council sought to recover and re-emphasize earlier liturgical traditions of the Church, while also incorporating new insights and developments in theology and pastoral practice. In this way, the liturgical reform provides a fuller expression of the Church’s rich liturgical tradition and a deeper understanding of Catholic theology than the form that preceded it.


[1] 99. PAUL VI, Address to the members and periti of the Consilium on the occasion of its final plenary meeting, 10 April 1970: AAS 62 (1970) 272-274; Not 6 (1970) 222-224. Source: Documents on the Liturgy (Liturgical Press), pp. 245-246.

Image: Public domain. Fresco in the Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano in Rome. 11th century unknown painters – St Clement celebrating the Mass. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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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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