Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Liturgy and Legislation

Pope St. Pius V

Before the 16th century, there was little notion of ecclesiastical legislation or codification in the realm of liturgy. The liturgy developed almost independently of legislation, by a natural, organic, and almost unconscious process. Certainly, the Popes contributed to its development, but so did many other Christians. It was the piety of the universal Church down through the ages, and not any legislative motive at a given moment, which moved the Christians of old to contribute to the formation of the liturgy. As a human artifact, the liturgy was not the work of lawgivers, but of saints: it was the pious faithful, both clerics and laity, who built up the liturgy – not simply according to their own individual notions, but in the spirit of the traditions of prayer which they had received at the hands of divine Providence. It was this Providence, and not the will of men, which was looked upon as the single source of the means of holiness. 

Then, in the years just preceding the Council of Trent, a kind of liturgical anarchy began to arise within the Church, along with the revolution of the Protestants. More drastic measures were needed, above and beyond the normal, natural progression of tradition which had taken place before. The Council called for a reform of the Missal and the Breviary, which was carried out by Pope St. Pius V. The two bulls Quo Primum and Quod a Nobis, addressing the Missal and the Breviary respectively, were the resultant legislation promulgating the uniform use of the Tridentine books. The reform which had taken place sought to restore the liturgical books according to the sound tradition of the fathers, and a comparison of the Tridentine liturgical books with their predecessors reveals a very substantial continuity. This is not to say that this reform was perfect – probably it was not – but it succeeded in preserving the essential tradition of the Roman rite.

This was the first time in history that such an explicit and high ranking use of ecclesiastical authority had ever been applied in the realm of the liturgy. And yet the content of the liturgy remained essentially the same as it had ever been. This was, on the whole, a prudent exercise of Papal authority, on the part of Pius V. He rightly saw his authority as subject to the tradition of his ancestors. In regards to the content of the reform, it amounted to a further organic contribution to the liturgy, but with the additional note of formal legislative force. This more explicit codification was a practical means of purging the Church of the rampant liturgical abuse which existed in that period, and so preserving the tradition which had been threatened.

But unfortunately, a probably unintended side-effect of this legislation was that the liturgy came to be seen as no longer an object of tradition and organic development, but of legislation. By the time of the 20th century, it became the popular notion that the Pope was in fact the sole arbiter of the liturgy; tradition had little to do with it. While, on the one hand, the errors of liberalism arose and a habitual disdain for authority began to set in, on the other hand, faithful conservative Catholics became enamored with an equally strange ultramontanism, according to which the Pope might as well be infallible in his every word and decision. This latter was a reaction against liberalism. Ironically, both of these extremes – the liberal anti-authoritarianism and the radical ultramontanism – converged with each other in subjecting religion to the whims of an individual. In the case of liberalism, religion was made subject to any and every individual person – hence the errors of religious indifferentism and so forth. But ultramontanism practically subjected religion to the person of the Pope. The Pope became the object of a kind of cult. This being so, the ultramontanists took the prudential decision of Pope Pius V in the Tridentine liturgical reform and transformed it into the absolute principle that the Pope is the arbiter of liturgy. While I admit the possibility that Pius V might have given too exaggerated an impression of the role of his authority in the liturgy, I do think it can be gathered from his legislation that he viewed himself not as the arbiter of the liturgy, but as its guardian. Even if the centralization which occurred with his legislation was extreme, it nonetheless respected the role of the Papacy as the protector and not the maker of the liturgy. But the ultramontanists reinterpreted it to mean precisely this latter. Thus the path was cleared for a radical liturgical upheaval.

Pope St. Pius X
Pope Pius X made the first move. While most laudably the hammer of the modernists – in which respect I think Pius X’s teaching is of the utmost importance for today’s Church – Papa Sarto was also something of an ultramontanist. Little did he seem to realize that his own ultramontanism was a species of the very modernism which he rightly condemned: for it subjected a most important element of the Catholic religion to the whims of an individual. The reform of the breviary in 1911 was dramatic, ridding the Office of an ancient tradition in the arrangement of the Psalter, which had deep roots in the venerable spirituality of the Roman Church. It has been said that in some parts, this tradition was equal in venerability to that of the Roman Canon in the mass. The tradition of the breviary was thus damaged – though not quite destroyed – and something new put in place. Certainly we should not doubt the good intentions of Pius X, who was otherwise a holy and orthodox Pontiff. But history alone shows that he departed from the tradition of his ancestors, in his exaggerated use of his own authority.

Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII was the next Pope to introduce drastic reforms into the liturgy. While Pius XII followed in the footsteps of Pius X in some of his theological opinions, having condemned the offspring of modernism which took the form of the "New Theology," in other respects he does seem to have been something of a progressive, and this shows through in his liturgical decisions. In his encyclical Mediator Dei (which definitely has its good points) he emphasized the role of the Papacy in the liturgy with only vague and week reliance on the concept of tradition. The 1955 reform of the rites of Holy Week damaged an ancient and venerable tradition in the Roman rite. Strangely enough, the principles according to which Pius XII’s liturgical commission operated were strikingly similar to those which would later influence the reform of Pope Paul VI. This is not surprising, considering that many of the same persons on the commission of Pius XII were also prominent members of the Consilium which constructed Paul VI’s liturgy.

Pope Paul VI
Paul VI’s reform surpassed those of his predecessors, in both the Missal and the Breviary. A huge tradition of about 1500 years was practically destroyed. All of the most essential and ancient elements which previously defined the Roman missal were heavily affected, having been eliminated, suppressed, or radically altered. The culminating effect was such a radical change that it is quite ridiculous to identify the content of the Novus Ordo with that of the liturgy which preceded it. The Liturgia Horarum of Paul VI was no less a drastic alteration (Laszlo Dobszay thinks it was an even greater change than that of the missal). While Pius X’s reform of the breviary merely damaged the tradition, preserving some its more basic principles, that tradition can hardly be said to exist at all in the new Liturgy of the Hours.

Again, we should not doubt the good intentions of these Popes. But the fact is that all of these reforms were in large part the result of an over-exaggerated importance which was attributed to the role of Papal authority in the development of the liturgy. The Church’s officially defined doctrine on the Papacy nowhere implies such an absolute and arbitrary power to the Pope in liturgical matters, nor does history before the 20th century offer any real instances of such extremism. The post-Tridentine reform of Pope Pius V was falsely interpreted to have introduced a new working principle into the Church, whereas in reality it was practical measure intended to unite the liturgical practices of the Roman Church so as to suppress rampant liturgical abuse and preserve the tradition. The legislative decrees of Pius V were rightly exercised for the service of tradition. And so tradition, as was always the case, was the rule or standard of liturgical development. What reason could there have been for this to change so suddenly by the time of the 20th century?

It is no use to object that Vatican I in Pastor Aeternus gave the Pope the authority not merely of a guide or supervisor but of a supreme enforcer and a ruler. While this is certainly true, these terms are used in Pastor Aeternus with respect to us the faithful, and not with respect to the content of that which is enforced. It is analogous to the Pope’s authority in matters of dogma, which is certainly his very highest authority: the Pope does not invent or arbitrate dogma; rather, it exists prior to his authority. His role is merely to receive dogma and authoritatively command the assent of all Christians to it, thereby guarding and overseeing its preservation. Indeed, in this respect he is not merely a guide for Christians, but an enforcer with the highest authority, who must be obeyed; and yet he has no power to be anything but passive with respect to dogma itself. Similarly, it is not impossible that he should also have a supreme authority in matters pertaining to liturgical discipline, and yet have the duty first to receive, and not to arbitrate, the liturgy.

Papal authority is not a law unto itself. In principle, it cannot be. It exists not for its own sake, but for the sake of the tradition of faith – whether as exemplified in dogmatic propositions or in liturgical prayer. Papal authority in itself is not higher or superior to either of these things. Its purpose is first to preserve them and secondly to enhance them, but never to invent them. I quote the words of Cardinal Ratzinger:
The pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law; rather, he is the guardian of the authentic Tradition and, thereby, the premier guarantor of obedience. He cannot do as he likes, and he is thereby able to oppose those people who, for their part, want to do whatever comes into their head. His rule is not that of arbitrary power, but that of obedience in faith. That is why, with respect to the Liturgy, he has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile. The "rite", that form of celebration and prayer which has ripened in the faith and the life of the Church, is a condensed form of living Tradition in which the sphere using that rite expresses the whole of its faith and its prayer, and thus at the same time the fellowship of generations one with another becomes something we can experience, fellowship with the people who pray before us and after us. Thus the rite is something of benefit that is given to the Church, a living form of paradosis, the handing-on of Tradition (Preface to Alcuin Reid's The Organic Development of the Liturgy).


  1. Overall, I agree.But Pius XII DID restore the Church's tradition in the Holy Week Triduum. I remember as an altar boy in the 1950's that on Holy Saturday at NOON 12 HRS EARLIER THAN THE TRADITIONAL VIGIL, three hours of ceremony took place with no congregation, being locked out for the whole thing. With many changes of the color of the vestments. And the highlight of Good Friday was the three hours of sermons on the Last Words from the Cross followed by the stations of the Cross. Thank God for the Pope's intervention. Besides, between Pius X and Pius XII 50 years of the tightest, centralized discipline in the whole history of the Church. This was providential given the trials of WWI, Depression WWII and the Communist ascendancy of the Cold War. Your concern for the Liturgy was communicated to Paul VI by Patriarch Athenagoras I in the Holy Land--to be commemorated soon-- when he told the Pope NOT TO CHANGE THE LITURGY JUST TRANSLATE IT! Paul VI did not listen to this wise advice from an apostolic authority, but DID listen to the sons of the Reformation and the Enlightenment to our. Also St Robert Belarmine stated that the pope had to follow Tradition and would cease to have authority if he e.g. attempted to destroy the Liturgy (apparently such an extreme action as to never be attempted that everybody would agree the pope had no authority to do this).

  2. From the little studying that I have done, in fact the traditional Easter Vigil did not take place at midnight, but between the offices of None and Vespers on Holy Saturday. This means it was during the day - late morning or afternoon. It was not meant to be a celebration of the actual Resurrection Mass, but an anticipation of it - that's what "vigil" means. So the Midnight Easter Mass is actually something of a novelty.

    1. You must define your use of tradition. I'm presuming Apostolic Tradition, which was a weekly celebration of Holy Week, with daily morning , midday and evening prayer and NO Eucharist, Wed. & Fridays fasting days and SUNDAYS in the middle of the night: an office of Vigils = WAITING FOR THE SECOND COMING OF THE LORD, an office of readings psalms ending with morning praises and the Eucharist completed just as the sunrises. It took a couple of centuries before a yearly celebration to be set. All over the Catholic world during the era of persecutions this is seen. It was,as Fr. Anselm Marie accurately states below an episcopal Liturgy. At the end of the first era, monasticism preserved the Tradition but without the Baptismal liturgy. The Eastern Churches have maintained the pattern only shortening the time from 6 hrs to 3 or so, though the Coptic Liturgy in Egypt is 6 hrs. It is DEFINITELY NOT A MID-20TH CENTURY NOVELTY. The word for the DAILY evening service is called NOT A VIGIL service but an EVENING service "hesperides" thru Latin: vesperes to Eng. vespers. Pius XII made PRUDENT changes gradually. Vat II asked for RESTORING the original Apostolic Tradition. Paul VI's applications of Vat II WERE imprudent. One can accept Vat II and rightly conclude we got a poor rendition due to excessive haste. If we just translated it, using ALREADY available vernacular translations, and then slowly study and GRADUALLY with much study and conferences apply additions (e.g, .intercessions,) subtractions of some minor things, alterations of others, over the next 20 yrs. One example that was due to persecution: Lithuania. The Church there never changed facing Liturgical East from the Offertory on because they simply couldn't pay for new missals. So they altered the Liturgy of the Word but when they eventually could, they decided not to as the better option.

    2. There are two different uses of the word "vigil" in liturgy. One is the original term for Mattins (or Orthros in the Byzantine tradition) which is an hour of the Office prayed prior to daybreak in order to begin the feast of the day. The second definition, relevant to the Paschal liturgy, is a day dedicated to preparing for a great feast. Holy Saturday in its entirety is a vigil for Pascha, the Mass included. Masses, outside of Christmas, were NEVER celebrated at midnight in the Roman rite. They were celebrated after Terce on feasts, after Sext on Simples and feriae, and after None on penitential days and most vigils (Holy Saturday included).

      Pius XII's liturgical changes were based on poor research, historical imagination, and sloppy committee work. When the same people who concocted his (un)Holy Week created the Pauline Liturgy they actually improved the Holy Week rites by restoring much of what they had cut out (parts of the Passion readings, Mass vestments on Good Friday etc).

      Moreover, Paul VI's changes were not an imprudent application of the Council's liturgical demands. The Conciliar document of the liturgy was written by the same man who was secretary to Pius XII's commission and the same man who headed the committee which created the Pauline liturgy. It would involve him mis-interpreting his own words and his own reform agenda. Sure, most of the bishops probably did not think things would o as far as they did, but they certainly knew an enormous overhaul was in store. Pius XII's papacy and his affiliates made that clear.

      So yes, they new Holy Week and especially the midnight Easter Mass is a tremendous novelty which misses the point of the entire service, disrupts liturgical time, discards possibly the most ancient rite in the Roman Church, and wrecks the Divine Office for the most important day of the year. It might be the absolute low point in the history of the Roman rite.

  3. How long ago was the midnight Easter Mass introduced?

    1. Basically it is a mid-20th century invention. Which is hard for those of us who have only experienced the 1962 liturgy to fathom (including myself).

  4. The old Vigil was between None and Vespers (Vespers being interpolated into Communion) which would make the "proper" time between 3 and 4PM, but for pastoral reasons—to give the priests a break for Mattins and Lauds in the evening and to allow families with children to attend—it was usually done in the late morning. If a priest was locking the door to the church then that was an abuse, but certainly not the norm.

    The old times were "off" a little for pastoral reasons, but the new times are far more wrong than the old, given that liturgically, following Jewish custom and law, a new day begins at sunset. Moreover, Pius XII did not just change the times; he changed the rites themselves radically for every day of Holy Week. Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Office of Easter are beyond recognition.

  5. The rites of the Sacred Triduum are pontifical ceremonies, to be performed by the bishop assisted by his clergy, with all the Faithful gathered to witness. The increasingly frequent and broad indults in the past century extending them to parishes has obscured that character, in a manner similar to how scheduling for "pastoral" reasons (read, for worldly convenience) has obscured the liturgical significance of hours of the day.