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Dialogue Mass - XLIV

Devastating Consequences of the 1955 Reform

Dr. Carol Byrne, Great Britain
As noted in the last article (note 7), the reformers cut out some of the traditional Palm Sunday antiphons sung during the procession and substituted others from a modern Latin translation of the Psalms, which marked a complete break with tradition. (1)

The Social Kingship of Christ marginalized

Here we will deal only with one line of the Psalm 46:9, which became in the Bea version: “Deus regnat super nationes” (God reigns over the nations).

The problem is that the Bea version, which is based on the Hebrew text, does not express the Christological context of this Psalm, which was a prophecy about the future establishment of the Church when Christ would confer on her His spiritual authority over all individuals and nations. That is why the authentic Latin text found in the Vulgate Bible of St. Jerome uses the future tense: “Regnabit Deus super nationes” (God shall reign over the nations). (2) But this meaning was lost in the 1955 reform. (3)

cristo rei

A rejection of the truth that Christ reigns over nations; above, Cristo Rey in Lisbon, Portugal

The Preface of the pre-1955 Blessing of Palms shows the relevance of this teaching to our age by revealing the theological foundation of the duty of temporal governments to be subservient to Christ the King. It was this teaching that the 1955 reformers excised from the liturgy of Palm Sunday, as they also did from the Good Friday liturgy with the abolition of the hymn, Vexilla Regis.

Where the suppression of the traditional doctrine in the 1955 liturgy was leading has become quite clear with the benefit of hindsight. Paul VI would seal its fate in 1969 with his motu proprio Mysterii Paschalis. Whereas Pius XI had called on all nations to declare Christ as their King here and now, Paul VI gave a different message: Abandon any prospect of the Social Kingship of Christ until the end of the world. (4)

This is in line with Vatican II teaching on “religious liberty.” For progressivists the kingship of Christ is not acceptable when its realization impinges on the political and social order of modern States or demands the Church to convert all nations, Christianize their cultures and influence their laws. But this is tantamount to banishing Christ from the public square. And people wonder why the Church’s missionary spirit has been extinguished.

The ancient rite of blessing the palms abolished

Of the seven traditional prayers for the blessing of palms, Pius XII’s Commission abolished all except one, thereby expunging from the Holy Week liturgy a vital expression of the Church’s doctrine on the efficacy of sacramentals.

According to Dom Prosper Guéranger, the blessing of the palms imparts a virtue to these branches and elevates them to the supernatural order. Thus, they become a means for the sanctification of our souls and a protection of our persons and dwellings. (5)

In these prayers, the sprigs of palm or olive, after they are blessed, are called a sacramentum, a “sacred sign” and a “saving remedy” signifying God’s “protection of soul and body.” God is further entreated that all who receive them “in the spirit of faith” and keep them in their homes may receive His blessing and protection, and that through their use the right hand of God may dispel all evil.

paul vi tiara

Paul VI sold his tiara to symbolize the Papacy's abdication of its temporal power

This is the clearest possible liturgical expression of the Church’s teaching that the blessed palms, when used with a pious intention, are carriers of God’s grace to man. (6)

But the 1955 reformers, in their desire to bury this doctrine, used the following straw man argument to eliminate any mention of it in the liturgy:

“These pious customs [of the blessed palms], although theologically justified, can degenerate (as in fact they have degenerated) into superstition.” (7)

In spite of the fact that the liturgy neither comes from nor leads to superstition, that was their crass justification for desacralizing the Palm Sunday rite of blessing by divesting the prayers of their supernatural status.

Scepticism about the supernatural was always the hallmark of progressivists, and is still evident today, as we can see in the following quote from an official Vatican source, a document from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments:

“Palms or olive branches should not be kept as amulets, or for therapeutic or magical reasons to dispel evil spirits or to prevent the damage these cause in the fields or in the homes, all of which can assume a certain superstitious guise.” (8)

A creeping naturalism

Cutting these prayers out of the liturgy was bound to weaken any real sense of the significance of the supernatural in the lives of the faithful. The history of the liturgical reform has shown that this was just the start of a trend, culminating in the Novus Ordo Mass, in which the supernatural was steadily being peeled away. It is no wonder that belief in the Church as the mediator of divine grace has long since faded.

Quite predictably, the work of Pius XII’s Commission gave rise to a vicious circle within the Church. For the temptation that followed the 1955 reform, and to which many have since yielded, was to reinterpret Faith and Morals to suit the prevailing secularization of the liturgy.

Old Testament symbolism discarded

We cannot but deplore the disappearance of the rich symbolism in the Palm Sunday liturgy, which carries deep theological meaning. The traditional prayers mention a range of people and events in the Old Testament and show their connection with Christ’s redeeming work, thus revealing the spiritual and mystical significance of the entire Holy Week.

They present Moses, Aaron, the Israelites, Noah and the Ark as “types” or “shadows” prefiguring some aspect of God’s plan of salvation fulfilled in the New Testament: liberation from the bondage of sin the peace of God heralded by the dove carrying the olive branch; the Ark as the figure of the Church.

palm sunday

The blessed palms are rich with symbolism

Even the humble branches of palm and olive are mentioned in these prayers: the former as signifying Christ’s victory over the prince of death, (9) the latter as prefiguring “spiritual unction” (sacramental grace) through Christ.

All of this symbolism was removed in 1955, reducing the Blessing of Palms to a perfunctory, one-prayer service displaying none of the scriptural depth, poetic beauty or mystical significance of the traditional rite.

Card. Nicholas Wiseman described these prayers of blessing as rich in poetry and dramatic appeal, and said that they “possess an elevation of sentiment, a force of expression and a depth of feeling that no modern form of supplication ever exhibits.” (10) He was, however, only one (albeit the most eloquent) among the countless Catholic souls who appreciated and were moved by these prayers before their relegation to the dustbin of history.

An ancient & much-loved ceremony abandoned

One of the most popular and memorable traditions in the unreformed Palm Sunday ceremonies took place after the distribution of the palms and was performed by the sub-deacon who led the procession while carrying the veiled crucifix.

palm sunday knocking on door

The sub-deacon strikes the cathedral door in a 1942 Palm Sunday Procession in London (more here)

After the clergy and faithful had processed outside the church to the sound of antiphons sung by the choir, the door was closed; they could only regain admittance after the sub-deacon had struck the door three times with the foot of the cross.

For those participating in the procession, this dramatic gesture carried deep theological meaning. It was a particularly vivid symbol signifying Christ’s opening the gates of the New Jerusalem by His death upon the Cross and leading the faithful to their heavenly goal.

Who could fail to understand or be impressed by the doctrinal significance of this simple gesture? Yet, it was cast aside by the reformers as a worthless relic of the past instead of being cherished and transmitted to posterity as an inheritance from our forefathers in the Faith.

The reading of the Passion curtailed

In the 1955 reform – and consequently in the 1962 Missal – the Passion of St. Matthew is considerably shortened by the deliberate omission of two key elements: the institution of the Eucharist and the guarding of the tomb of Jesus.

As regards the former, the Church included it on Palm Sunday and other days of Holy Week in order to make a doctrinal point unmistakably clear: that there is an essential bond between the Eucharist and the Passion. Or, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Eucharist is the perfect sacrament of our Lord’s Passion, as containing Christ crucified.” (11)

The omission of what the Church had considered vital to our understanding of the Eucharist undermines the coherence of the entire Holy Week liturgy.

As for St. Matthew’s account of the guarded tomb, also omitted in 1955, its excision from the Palm Sunday liturgy was seriously detrimental to the Church for two reasons.

First, it furnished incontrovertible proof of the reality of Christ’s Resurrection, while at the same time exposing the malice of the Jews who continued their persecution of Him even beyond His death. (12)

Secondly, as St. Matthew was the only one of the four Evangelists to mention the guarding of the tomb, to expunge this passage meant that it would no longer have any place in the entire Roman Missal; it was just another case of the Liturgical Movement’s “memory holes” swallowing up unwanted doctrinal facts and erasing them from the official records.


  1. In 1945, with Pius XII’s approval, Fr. Augustin Bea, S.J., produced a new Latin version of the Psalms. It was the work of a committee of experts at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome carried out under his direction. For some of the problems created by the new Psalter, See here note 9.
  2. The Bea translation of “regnat” is, therefore, a falsification of the Latin Vulgate that has been handed down through liturgical use and interpreted by the Fathers of the Church.
    In the Hebrew text (which was also divinely inspired), the Perfect tense of the verb malakh (reign) is used. Normally associated with past events, the Perfect tense is more wide ranging in Hebrew and covers the action of a verb as a whole. Whether it embraces the past, present or future is revealed from its context. Like many Old Testament prophecies, the Hebrew version of Psalm 46:9 uses the so-called “prophetic Perfect” tense to foretell a future event.
    In this context, the use of the future tense “regnabit” in the Latin Vulgate of the pre-1955 Missal is appropriate to illustrate the Old Testament prophecy of Christ’s Kingship when He founded the Church in the New Testament. Thus, the two Testaments are seen as inter-related in a unified and coherent whole; as St. Augustine said: “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old is fulfilled in the New.”
  3. It was precisely this teaching that the reformers cut out of the Palm Sunday liturgy, first from the Preface of the Blessing of Palms and secondly from Psalm 46, which is itself a completely new insert. It is noteworthy that the Bea version is reproduced in the editio typica of the 1962 Missal promulgated by the Sacred Congregation of Rites on 23 June of that year. (See here, p. 132)
    Curiously, with the exception of Baronius Press, which has reproduced the 1962 Missal in strict accordance with the editio typica, other traditionalist publishers have changed “regnat” back to “regnabit” presumably out of fidelity to Tradition. The expression “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel” comes to mind.
  4. In this motu proprio, Paul VI changed the date of the Feast of Christ the King (set by Pius XI on the Sunday before All Saints Day) to the last Sunday of the ecclesiastical year, with the intention that “the eschatological importance of this Sunday is made clearer.” Thus, he gave the faithful to understand that Christ will become King of the Universe only after a long process, that is, at the end of the world.
  5. Prosper Guéranger O.S.B., The Liturgical Year, vol. 6, James Duffy, Dublin, 1886, p. 195.
  6. We will see in the next article how Bugnini and his colleagues invented a new prayer phrased in such a way as to conceal the link between the Church's blesssing of the palms and their efficacy as sacramentals.
  7. Apud N. Giampietro, ‘A cinquant’anni dalla riforma liturgica della Settimana Santa,’ in Ephemerides Liturgicae, CXX, 2006, n. 3, July-September, p. 307.
  8. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, Principles and Guidelines, December 17, 2001, § 139.
  9. And, by extension, the palm is a symbol of victory against the enemies of the soul in the war waged by the spirit against the flesh – a doctrinal point very much out of favour in the modern liturgy.
  10. 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 1837, C. Dolman, London, 1839, p. 64.
  11. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part III, q. 73, a. 5.
  12. In Matthew 62-66 we read: “The chief priests and the Pharisees came together to Pilate, saying: Sir, we have remembered that that seducer said, while he was yet alive: After three days I will rise again. Command, therefore, the sepulchre to be guarded until the third day: lest perhaps his disciples come and steal him away, and say to the people: He is risen from the dead; and the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate saith to them: You have a guard; go, guard it as you know. ... And they, departing, made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone and setting guards.”
    St. Augustine saw the illogicality of the Jewish lobby and asked: if the guard was awake, how could the theft succeed, and if the guards were asleep, how could they identify the disciples as the thieves?
    In this passage, St. Matthew brought out with subtle irony the workings of divine Providence regarding the attempts by the Jews to prevent the Resurrection from taking place. For the more precautions they took, humanly speaking, to seal and guard the tomb, the more they confirmed the truth of the Resurrection as a supernatural event to the whole world. And so they were hoist on their own petard, for it was their credibility that was damaged while belief in the Resurrection was strengthened by their very attempts to suppress it.


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Posted January 16, 2017

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