The Magisterium and Nostalgia: Pope Francis on Liturgy

It had not been in mind to comment on the latest chapter of papagate, in which Pope Francis has declared, we are told, that the liturgical reform is irreversible. Many commentators have weighed on the papal address, not least Frs Z and Hunwicke, Christopher Altieri at Catholic World Report and Phil Lawler at Catholic Culture. Though they share the same general interpretation of the papal speech they are not identical in their approach to liturgy; so reading them together makes for a balanced orthodox approach to the situation. (Feel free to add others you have found in the comments’ section below.)


However I followed one link to the infamous Pray Tell blog, and a commentary by Fr Anthony Ruff OSB of that monastic bastion of modernism modernity, Collegeville. He approached the papal address in a rather canny way, by examining its sources. He gives a running score of the sources cited in both the text proper and its footnotes. His tally is tabulated thus:In the text:

  • Vatican II or the Council: 7
  • Sacrosanctum Concilium: 1
  • Pius X – 1
  • Pius XII – 1
  • Paul VI – 3
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church – 1

In the footnotes:

  • Pius X – 3
  • Pius XII – 1
  • Sacred Congregation of Rites under Pius XII – 3
  • Sacrosanctum Concilium – 2
  • Paul VI – 2
  • John Paul VI [sic] – 1
  • General Instruction of the Roman Missal – 1
  • Texts of reformed liturgy – 2 (rite of dedication of altar, Easter preface)
  • Francis – 5

Apart from the Council documents—though note the majority are not from the decree on the liturgy—the single source Pope Francis cites most often is himself. Fr Ruff makes no reference to this but it seems very illustrative of the papal approach to matters: Pope Francis is very much his own authority.

What Fr Ruff does conclude from these citations is,

By his choice of what sources to use, and also what sources not to use, Pope Francis has given renewed strength to the narrative which has guided mainline liturgical reform and renewal in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council…

In this mainline narrative, which Francis has affirmed and strengthened, the task in the present day is simply to affirm the Council, to affirm the reformed liturgy, and to penetrate more deeply into the spirit of the reformed liturgy in the ongoing (and never-ending) effort to implement more faithfully what the Council intended.

It is obvious just what, and who, is omitted by Pope Francis in today’s major address.

In part his conclusion seems sound, though he will not come right out and say it in plain words. Pope Francis has carefully avoided citing the most recent magisterial teacher on the liturgy: Pope Benedict XVI. Thus, Fr Ruff implies, the discounting by Pope Francis of Benedict XVI as a source inevitably entails discounting all of Benedict XVI’s teaching on the liturgy, not least Summorum Pontificum.

2017-02-13 SOT Faculty and Staff 032
Fr Anthony Ruff OSB

With that discounted, Fr Ruff says we can see clearly that the pope wants to strengthen “mainline liturgical reform and renewal”—by which he clearly means himself and his crew—and to “implement more fully what the Council intended”. The intention of the Council, or any assembly, would normally be divined from its officially promulgated documents and decrees. However Sacrosanctum Concilium is not very useful for the “mainline” reformers, just as it was not particularly useful for Pope Francis in his speech, as it offers little justification for the mainline reform agenda. Thus we find that the Council is interpreted as an event, ongoing and unfinished, and that we must look beyond the texts to the “spirit of the reformed liturgy”. And how malleable that spirit has proved these last few decades. It is very much in the eye of the beholder; which is why, as a principle for reform and decision, it is useless, being meaningless.

On a side note, it was amusing to see Fr Ruff describe his tribe’s cause as “mainline liturgical reform”. In the States they speak of “mainline Protestantism”—Episcopalians (ie Anglicans), Evangelical Lutherans, United Methodists, Presbyterians and some Baptists. This establishment stream in American Christianity is now clearly in free-fall decline. An honest assessment of the Catholic Church would reach a similar conclusion: that the mainline stream within the Church, with its commitment to the reformed liturgy as inflicted by pastors and liturgists in the dim light of its nebulous spirit, is in free-fall decline, with ageing congregations in increasingly empty churches and religious houses and a dearth of clergy. Just keep the healthiness or otherwise of “mainline” Christianity in the back of your mind.

In reality, however, what the mainline reformers mean when they interpret Pope Francis in this way is that they have been affirmed in their vision of reform by the Pope Francis, just as Pope Benedict did not affirm them, and indeed was a potent threat to their “mainline” reform agenda. This is the “spirit” of Pope Francis’ talk they invoke; does the actual text support such a spirit?

It can be made to do so, and such a malleability in any official text is always a weakness. Historically when popes and councils speak officially, and magisterially, they do so precisely in order to be clear, not ambiguous. Until 1962, that is…

Nevertheless, the papal speech is not quite the unequivocal endorsement of the “mainline” reformers that Fr Ruff makes it out to be, nor does it offer them a carte blanche for their future efforts in reform. The speech gives a potted history of 20th century liturgical reform up to the Council. Regarding the Council’s liturgical decree Pope Francis puts things rather well:

It was about expressing in a renewed way, the perennial vitality of the Church at prayer, being eager “so that the faithful do not assist as strangers and silent spectators to this mystery of faith, but, understanding well through rites and prayers, participate in the sacred action knowingly, piously, actively” (SC , 48)

Indeed, the heart of the Liturgical Movement was not centred in changing the liturgy and its rites at all, but in changing those who took part in it, that the people could draw as much as they could from it and so be nourished, strengthened, enlightened, and encouraged even more than they were already. In effect, by including this explicit quote from the Council, Pope Francis is validating the authentic reform agenda of the Liturgical Movement, in seeking to change people not rituals.

Coming to the present day, Pope Francis maintains that our liturgical task today is

rediscovering the reasons for the decisions taken with the liturgical reform, surmounting unfounded and superficial readings, partial reception and practices that disfigure it.

Could there be a better mission statement for the Reform of the Reform? We have such so many recent studies which reveal the deceptions and machinations of the Consilium and its major officials, the regret some of the reformers now feel for their work, a return to the sources in the documents of Vatican II the better to interpret it and to unmask the many false and tendentious interpretations and practices that have prevailed for so long—all of which have impeded the reception in the Church of the reforms actually mandated by the Council Fathers. The Pope is spot on.

It is his conclusion this paragraph that has sparked so much attention:

After this magisterium, after this long journey we can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.

To me at least, this is not saying as much as many are reading into it. “This magisterium” seems, in the context, to refer to the entire trajectory of papally-approved reforms from Pius X to the present. That must necessarily include, by implication, the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, and thus also Summorum Pontificum. This reform he declares to be “irreversible” and he declares it so with the invocation of “magisterial authority”. This, it has to be admitted, is remarkable.

Dr Ed Peters explains with canonical clarity why this cannot be an invocation of papal infallibility, because liturgical reform is not a proper object of infallibility. An ongoing process cannot be clothed with infallibility. Only concrete and finished doctrines and teachings can be. So, it is infallibly taught that the bread and wine in Mass become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ; but it is not infallibly taught that the Mass of Paul VI, any more than the Mass of Pius V, is the perfect and only way for the Eucharistic Mystery to be accomplished. Thus, no liturgical rite is irreversible.

When Pope Francis says that the liturgical reform is irreversible he can only mean, within an authentic and justifiable context, that the process of reform initiated under Pius X and continuing to the present cannot be reversed because it is a fact, and because clearly it comes from the authority of the Church. What Pope Francis is not saying, and he cannot say, is that there is one particular expression of the reform that is irreversibly fixed.

Just as the Mass of Pius V was a reform of the previous Roman liturgy, and this Mass was itself many times adjusted and refined over the centuries leading up to the Second Vatican Council, so too the Mass of Paul VI is not fixed in stone but can, and must, be adjusted in the light of doctrinal and pastoral reflection and experience. Pope Francis says as much, as we have seen above.

Really this speech of Pope Francis is, despite its lack of clarity and bungled invocation of authority, substantially unremarkable. Let us move on.

What is remarkable is the nostalgia that lies so close to the surface in so many commentators in the mainline reform movement. Seeing in the eyes of traditionalists the mote of a nostalgia for a golden age that never was, they fail to see the beam of the same in their own eyes.

Fr Ruff gives the game away in his own article referenced above:

In this mainline narrative, which Francis has affirmed and strengthened, the task in the present day is simply to affirm the Council, to affirm the reformed liturgy, and to penetrate more deeply into the spirit of the reformed liturgy in the ongoing (and never-ending) effort to implement more faithfully what the Council intended.

What he is saying is that we are meant to affirm the period 1962-70. If ever there was a group stuck in a rut of nostalgia it is the mainline liturgical reformers. They have not seen that the world, and the Church, have moved on from the heady days of hippies, free love, the brotherhood of man and revolution in everything that marked, indeed scarred, the 60s. The mainline liturgical reformers have failed in their express intention of producing a liturgy that engages modern people actively, a failure proved by the precipitous decline in Mass attendance since the reform was introduced.

Blaming social change and militant secularism is just passing of the buck and does not stand much scrutiny. It was precisely such a changed and more secular society that the reformers sought to accommodate liturgically. What they gave us was a newly-fabricated liturgy that answered the reformers’ assessment of 1960s society. 50 years later that liturgy, at least as celebrated in the majority of places still, does not meet the needs of those born after the reforms. The world has changed, and will go on changing, as it always has. The one constant until the 1960s was the liturgy, which was a stable rock that gave sure footing in times of immense, often violent, change. Since it was not the fabrication of any one age, it was not married to any one age, and transcended them all.

The mainline reformers gave us a liturgy that was wed to the 1960s, and the young of today, and yesterday in fact, find it largely unsatisfying. Occasionally they find it celebrated in a manner that draws from the organic stream of Catholic tradition and life, and to this they find an attraction. Yet it cannot be denied that so many young people, the sort who go to Mass of their own accord and desire, and who think seriously of a religious of priestly vocation; these young find in the pre-conciliar Mass, the Mass that had grown organically and recognisably over a millennium and half, something that rings true as worship of God rather than celebration of man. They are not nostalgists, for they cannot feel nostalgia for a time they did not know. But they can see that if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, feels like a duck and smells like a duck, then it must be a duck. Replace “duck” as appropriate.

The real nostalgists are the mainline reformers, so many of whom have never left the 60s, still fight battles that are no longer relevant, and still root their Catholic identity in a time of flux and confusion half a century ago. Moreover, the reformed liturgy itself was drafted by mainline reformers harbouring a futile nostalgia for a golden liturgical age in the early Church, an age that never existed in the shape and colour they depicted it in. This archaeologism, which Pius XII warned us of, is little more than an intellectualised nostalgia that ignores the growth and development, the reality, of the Church over the centuries and seeks to return us to a golden age that never was and never can be again. They risk making the Church a ghetto of ageing nostalgists; the young will not join them.

Ironically, or maybe not, the traditionalists show themselves far more open to reform, the legitimate and authentic reform the Council decreed. Some of its most fervent supporters of my acquaintance will readily concede that the 1962 liturgy is not perfect, and that it has been mandated by Summorum Pontificum because Archbishop Lefebvre chose the 1962 Missal in order to establish some consistency and liturgical unity to his movement. He signed the conciliar decree on the liturgy. He would have found the 1964/5 Missal acceptable as an expression of the conciliar reforms, and indeed a couple of traditional monasteries have been known to use the 1965 liturgy. Traditionalists on the whole see the need for reform of the 1962 liturgy, and for them also this need is irreversible. Which is why I have said before we need to revisit the liturgy of 1965 to find a faithful enactment of the conciliar reforms that would be acceptable to most traditionalists and reassuring to those who fear some sort of undoing of the Council.

In short, the mainline reformers are not the best advocates of the liturgical reform enjoined by Vatican II; in fact, they are its worst. We must ensure that we, and the liturgy, have survived intact when they die, as very soon they will. The Church’s work must be to bring as many along as possible along the path of authentic reform; otherwise we must leave the dead to bury their dead.

To conclude, some photos (courtesy of the Sacra Liturgia Summer School Facebook page—click to see larger) from the pontifical Mass at the Sacra Liturgia Summer School on the Assumption this year. Young people everywhere; I was one of the oldest present, and I am not even 50. Just saying…

Join the Conversation

  1. Well said Fr!I am afraid Francis,and his cronies,are stuck in the Age of Aquarius.Encounter,dialogue and discernment are all 1960s jargon for Modernist talking therapy!As for the Liturgy =only one winner in the end-Tradition.

  2. I had a theology professor, a peritus at the council in his youth, and who deeply lamented some of its outcomes, who used to say: ‘There’s nothing wrong with the liturgy that a few more requiem masses won’t correct.’ Yes, indeed. May it be so.

  3. If the Novus Ordo is ‘irreversible’ then the ad hoc variation, extemporisation and personal whim that is expressly provided for in its rubric – the main source of the abuses – is also irreversible.
    As for the Traditional Mass of ancient times, that liturgy is also irreversible, and according to papal proclamation it has never been and can never be abrogated, nor can its use ever be restricted except illicitly. Its rubric is so well formulated that it provides for no wilful whim: thank God, Pope Pius V, and Pope Benedict XVI.

    Papal Infallibility is also irreversible – as are its strict and restrictive conditions.

    As for sourcing Pius X, Pius XII, and (revealing Freudian slip) ‘John-Paul VI’ – this is just a transparent ploy that fools nobody. Luther and Calvin sourced Our Lord, St Paul and St Augustine. Just saying. 🙂

    On a lighter note, as Philip J has aptly reminded us of that late-1960s loon-panted ballyhoo about the Age of Aquarius, let me cite here what must surely be the first recorded example (1969) of a tasteful NO liturgical Offertory dance. (Though in its modest restraint it only anticipated later innovatory liturgical developments still to come…)

    1. You were marked spam again! There is a devil in this.

      Much scope for abuse in the NO was removed when the previous perilous words “in these or similar words” were removed in the latest edition of the NO missal. So rubrics are reversible. So are processes, at least theoretically.

      A guilty secret is that I rather like Age of Aquarius, as a groovy piece of music, not for its lyrics (which are amusing in a perverse sort of way).


      1. Father, the removal of the phrase ‘in these or similar words’ does not prevent many celebrants from saying, doing, or omitting whatever they spontaneously feel to be appropriate.

        There are three (count ’em) official alternative versions of the liturgical Greeting. And yet in a random selection of urban parish Masses, I have also heard, ‘Well good morning everybody, I’m sure we’re all pleased that Arsenal is through to the Final’ OR / ‘Looks like lovely weather today, so thank you all for turning up’,/ ‘We all had a great time last night, so I expect it’s still a bit early for some of you’.

        I also know a church where the Gloria is frequently omitted on Sundays when it should be recited.

        Ah, you will say, but these are illicit personal whims. But they are persistent, legion, and remain uncorrected and unsanctioned.

        Just to take the ICEL itself:

        The Greeting is then (officially) followed by three alternative forms of the Penitential Rite (alternatives wityhout any apparent reason at all) of which two are so brief as to suggest that very little penitence is needed. Naturally the briefer forms are routinely chosen – why risk boring the ‘audience’? They have lunches and dinners to go to, after all. How many beat their breasts at the re-introduced ‘mea culpa’? Maybe 5%. Middle-class self-respect always trumps penitence.

        And at the Canon, how often is the orthodox, Roman Canon ever heard? Once again the briefer three versions are invariably preferred – all three wilful, historically highly questionable distortions of the Rite, and certainly – at the very least – insufficient and even flagrantly misleading expressions of the Rite’s true meaning.

        The ‘Rite of Peace’ – which used to give celebrants the option of not calling for the faithful to exchange a Sign of Peace now invariably exacts it without option, and the requirement to give it ‘only to those who are nearest’ does not prevent the attention-seekers from going on walkabout or even safari, nor prevents courting couples from engaging in a brief snog. For whatever the ‘Sign of Peace’ is or must be remains coyly unspecified in the rubric.

        The result is that all Joe Average remembers is an amusing if over-long anecdote in the homily, some wilfully worded bidding prayers that sound like political propaganda, and a lot of embarrassingly un-English handshaking with complete strangers.

        Liturgically, as they say in New York, that’s a definite disadvantage.

  4. If that is subtlety, we are in more dire straits than I thought. Then again, my own contribution to this chapter on our journey has occasioned some readings that tend to corroborate the hypothesis of a severe dearth of sensitivity to eironeia.

  5. As ever dear Father,clear and brilliant! A phrase from scripture popped into my mind as I read your words that sum the situation up;” there are non so blind as those who will not see”

  6. I have feared since March 2013 that someway, somehow the Mass of all Ages (Latin Mass) would be suppressed. Why because it fosters vocations? Restores reverence, and the sacred, calls young people to a Mass they had never before experienced?
    There a multiple reasons for the us of the Latin Mass, we are having one this evening at 5p. It is so Beautiful, High Mass,I resent hearing “Oh you like nostalgia”, what a incorrect statement, it has to do with again the Reverend and the Sacred.

    We pray that S.P. stays in place.

  7. “Age of Aquarius’? ……….I’d rather call it the ‘Twilight Zone’. Francis just kind of makes up his own style of ‘Magisterial teaching’ as he goes along.

  8. Let’s just assume the Pope was referencing what might be called the most recent official Papal statement on the Mass which would of course be the clarification of Summorum Pontificum.

    Indeed, that need never be reversed!

    “There are no other interpretations”…!!

  9. Father wrote : “What Pope Francis is not saying, and he cannot say, is that there is one particular expression of the reform that is irreversibly fixed.”

    Father, I believe the Bishop of Rome WAS saying precisely that … but that he was speaking ultra vires (he cannot say it definitively). I think you assign to Pope Francis far more insight into the Sacred Liturgy than he actually is capable of. Remember, he is a Jesuit 😉

    Also, as you illustrated so well, the commentary of Father Ruff OSB and those who look to him, are the final expressions of “yesterday’s men”. I don’t deny that they have their following, but it is unlikely that there are many young Catholics among them … evidence suggests otherwise.

    Although things Catholic seem very depressing just now, in only a very short time there will be a new Pope who will be quite unlike the present incumbent, who will then be just an unhappy memory, the last gasp of the “Spirit of Vatican II”.


      1. Yes, this was very disappointing to read, Alvin. They do not quite come out and offer full support but they are equivocating, and that is a poor example to set the young.


  10. “Traditionalists on the whole see the need for reform of the 1962 liturgy, and for them also this need is irreversible.”
    What? This seems like a bold claim. I haven’t heard this before (which doesn’t make it untrue). This sounds very much like, in political terms, American neo-conservatism. Are you really saying that people who attend Latin Mass would prefer something akin to the 1965 missal? I am extremely skeptical of this.

    1. In fact I have heard it many times, most recently at the summer school. The intellectual-pastoral wing of the traditionally minded recognise that 1962’s Missal was chosen rather arbitrarily, and that it is imperfect. That is why the 1964/5 missal was not rejected by Lefebvre (who settled on 1962 as the best compromise to unite his fraternity who were using all sorts of missals. Lefebvre’s choice dictated Ecclesia Dei’s choice. Prior to that the indult was for 1967’s missal, at least in England). For example many would argue the 1955 Holy Week reform that 1962 includes needs serious re-working. Some think the inclusion of St Joseph by John XXIII is contrary to tradition, and had been refused by Pius XII.

      The return to tradition cannot mean a return to an ossified, idolized missal. The liturgy has always evolved. As Dom Alcuin Reid argues, it needs to evolve anew, but organically and gradually in communion with the Latin tradition.

  11. Father Hugh commented at Father Zed’s Blog :

    “What still puzzles me is what exactly the interest of the Australian bishop in this matter was if the indult only applied to Fontgombault abbey anyway. It isn’t exactly situated in New South Wales, now, is it?”

    Father Hugh might contact the Saint Bede Studio for the answer to that question.

  12. “The return to tradition cannot mean a return to an ossified, idolized missal. The liturgy has always evolved. As Dom Alcuin Reid argues, it needs to evolve anew, but organically and gradually in communion with the Latin tradition.” Presumably you view the 1962 missal as “ossified” and “idolized”. As much as Dom Alcuin Reid seems to be open to a vernacular Mass, he does not the Church make.

    You will find, to be sure, a great number of people open to other missals, particularly pre-1962. However, most people are distrustful of the liturgical “evolution” as in practical terms it has mean “revolution”. Any so-called “evolution” that henceforth abandons Latin will be rejected by the Latin Mass communities and priestly fraternities. Bank on that, despite the “pastoral-intellectual” wing’s position (somehow implying that it is generally non-pastoral/non-intellectual clergy that would disagree with you and Alcuin.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.