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Dialogue Mass - XVI

An Incoherent Reform

Dr. Carol Byrne, Great Britain
What was the rationale of the Holy Week reforms when, in the opinion of everyone else outside the Liturgical Movement, there was no obvious or compelling need for any change whatever? Bugnini later “explained” in his memoirs:

“The Liturgical Movement was an effort to unite rites and content, for its aim was to restore as fully as possible the expressiveness and sanctifying power of the liturgy and to bring the faithful back to full participation and understanding.” (1)

A circular argument

But this explains nothing except that the assumptions he started with determined the conclusion he came to. In other words, he already believed, like the Protestants, that the Catholic liturgy, as it had been handed down through the centuries, was essentially falsified and also dysfunctional.

Pius XII with Montini

With his innovations, Pius XII laid the foundation to destroy the traditional ceremonies

According to him, there was a mismatch between the ceremonies of the Roman Rite and the content that they were meant to represent, leading the faithful astray. (We should note here that any Catholic who expressed this attitude was considered excommunicated by the Council of Trent). (2)

His “solution” – to adapt the liturgy in the direction of “active participation” so that people could understand it better – simply reinforced his preconceived ideas about a supposed “ignorance and dark night of worship… out in the nave.” (3)

With this “explanation,” the cat was well and truly out of the bag. It was exactly the same argument put forward by the Commission that had produced the Decree Maxima Redemptionis back in 1955. The main point of similarity between them was the undercurrent of hostility to Tradition discernible in both accounts, which is hardly surprising given that they were masterminded by the same person – Bugnini.

A strange anomaly

It is noteworthy that those who happily condemn such an “explanation” coming directly from Bugnini are prepared to brush it aside or overlook it when it emanates from a decree promulgated by Pius XII. That is because they have conferred on Pius XII the iconic status of the “last traditional Pope,” believing that he ensured the continuity of Tradition.

Easter vigil

An extravagant fire receptacle for the modern Easter Vigil ceremony

But the proof of continuity is fidelity to Tradition, and Pius XII authorized substantial changes including innovations in the Holy Week rites – all in the name of “active participation.” How could he have ensured continuity when he failed to make a full commitment to the liturgical tradition that is its only guarantee?

Whatever the degree of Pius XII’s personal complicity in the reforms, it is unarguable that an arbitrary restructuring of the Church’s liturgy has always been alien to orthodox Catholic sense and practice.

What possible justification could there be for changing the face of the Holy Week rites?

When we examine the Decree Maxima Redemptionis we will see that its purpose was not to provide well reasoned arguments for reform, but to convey an attitude. It positively bristled with loaded polemics that served to prejudice the faithful against their own traditions and to lock the Liturgical Movement into a negative attitude to the Church’s spiritual patrimony. Let us look at the reasons that were considered by Pius XII’s Commission to be worthy of special consideration and emphasis.

A benighted reform

The most popular argument put forward by the reformers in favor of changing the Easter Vigil was the alleged illogical character of lighting the Easter fire and candle in daylight hours. How absurd, they scoffed, to be singing about the darkness of “this night” in broad daylight – as if the Church had committed a liturgical gaffe that had gone unnoticed for 13 centuries.

And so the reformers sneered and sniggered at the age-old Easter Vigil, led on by the instigator of the Liturgical Movement, Dom Beauduin, who stated scathingly in 1951:

“How is it that we have endured and accepted uncritically for centuries the practice of singing the Exsultet and the Vere beata Nox (“O truly blessed night”) in broad daylight? And how many other equally serious anomalies we now accept without batting an eyelid! Surely this must lead us to conclude that our liturgical consciousness is not sufficiently enlightened?” (4) (See here)

It was an astoundingly arrogant view that assumed that all his predecessors in the priesthood were either oppressed by tyrannical Church leaders or were too dim-witted to think for themselves and, furthermore, that there was only one way to think – his way. It was also a view that came to dominate and distort the thinking of theologians and liturgists up to our times. (5)

But it was Beauduin and his fellow-reformers, not the followers of Tradition, who were the benighted ones. The central fallacy in Beauduin’s argument, which was enshrined in Maxima Redemptionis, was that midnight, or at least sundown, was the “proper” time to hold the Easter Vigil. (6)

Cardinal Wiseman

Cardinal Wiseman justified the traditional Easter vigil ceremonies

Having claimed to be following the superior path of enlightenment over the Church’s lex orandi, Beauduin failed to see what was glaringly obvious to well instructed Catholics: that the references to the “night” in the traditional Easter Vigil had a mystical rather than a naturalistic significance.

Let us listen to the following explanation of this point given by a Prelate who had never been indoctrinated in the Liturgical Movement’s ideology. With reference to the Easter Vigil, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman (1802-1865), the first Archbishop of Westminster, stated: “The service speaks of the ‘night;’ it is the night in which Israel escaped from Egypt, and which preceded the resurrection of Christ.” (7)

In other words, “night” was used in the Vigil texts in a pre-figurative sense, (8) as a metaphor for the darkness of the world in the bondage of sin before the Redemption. It has no intrinsic connection with the time when the sun sinks below the horizon.

An incoherent reform

So, the time of day when the Vigil takes place is irrelevant: as far as the celebration of the mysteries of salvation is concerned; it matters not a jot if the sky is dark or light. The point is not a trivial one. It follows that holding the Easter Vigil in daylight hours could not, as Maxima Redemptionis contended, be “detrimental to the liturgy’s meaning” or contribute to any loss of its “innate clarity.”

The irrationality of this claim becomes even more obvious when it is made the basis of legislation, as if the 1955 reforms were founded on solid and irrefutable arguments for the good of the Church.

With Maxima Redemptionis the Bishops of the world were told that they would be breaking the law if they continued the traditions of their predecessors. Even today, to celebrate the Easter Vigil in daylight is regarded as “reprehensible.” (9) And although there is no rational reason to insist on a nocturnal celebration of the Vigil, those who favor the traditional practice are themselves relegated to outer darkness.


  1. A. Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975, Collegeville, Minnesota:, Liturgical Press, 1990, p. 6.
  2. Council of Trent, 22nd Session, Canon 7: “If any one says that the ceremonies, vestments and outward signs, which the Catholic Church makes use of in the celebration of Masses, are incentives to impiety, rather than offices of piety; let him be anathema.”
  3. A. Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, ibid.
  4. L. Beauduin, ‘Le Décret du 9 Février 1951 et les Espoirs qu’il suscitent,’ (‘The Decree of 9 February 1951 and the Hopes It Has Raised’), La Maison-Dieu, n. 26, April 1951, p. 103. Translation from the French: “Comment…pendant des siècles s’est-on résigné…a-t-on accepté presque inconsciemment de chanter l’Exsultet de la Vere beata Nox en plein jour? Et que d’autres anomalies aussi énormes se maintiennent, sans provoquer en nous aucun étonnement! Ne doit-on pas en conclure que notre conscience liturgique n’est pas suffisamment éclairée?”
  5. The radical theologian, Fr. Herbert McCabe OP, echoed both Beauduin and Maxima Redemptionis when he opined: “Before the [1956] restoration … ‘the Vigil’ was a very ramshackle affair and its meaning was badly obscured by the preposterous practice of celebrating it on Holy Saturday morning instead of at night” [emphasis added] . Herbert McCabe., ‘The Easter Vigil: the mystery of new life’ in God Matters, Continuum, 2005, p. 103.
  6. But there is no rational sense to be found in the notion that the Church should imitate the example of the early Christians who held the Easter Vigil at midnight. Strong evidence exists to show that their worship meetings generally took place during the hours of darkness, i.e. between dusk and dawn, only because they were living in an era of persecution.
  7. Nicholas Wiseman, Four lectures on the offices and ceremonies of Holy Week, as performed in the Papal chapels delivered in Rome in the Lent of MDCCCXXXVII, London: C. Dolman, 1839, p. 102.
  8. This also applies to expressions such as “this night” and “this blessed night” which are reiterated in the text.
  9. Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts, Protocol n. 120/88, published by the Congregation for Divine Worship 20 February 1988.


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Posted February 9, 2015

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