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Dialogue Mass - XLV

Revolutionary Nature of the Liturgical Reform

Dr. Carol Byrne, Great Britain
We have seen some, but by no means all, of the depredations (1) inflicted on the Palm Sunday liturgy, which became operative in 1956, and have noted that they were undertaken at the expense of authentic Catholic values, doctrinal integrity, poetic beauty and appreciation of the Church’s past achievements.

History has indeed shown that these reforms were not only the tip of the iceberg of an unrestrained pillaging and ransacking of the ancient Holy Week rite; but they were also the first steps in a deliberate attempt to demolish our common heritage and usher in an entirely new kind of liturgy ‒ one that has not advanced the cause of Catholicism. It was a painful record of humiliation, defeat and loss for all the Bishops, priests and lay people who protested to the Holy See at the time. They were simply left to rail in impotent anger.

Given the historical evidence, we are entitled to conclude that, in spite of protestations of good intentions by the liturgists, the reforms involved either an indifference to the nature of Catholic Tradition or a desire to eradicate it.

One innovation begets another…

It is only when the details are examined that the revolutionary nature of the reforms becomes apparent. Now we shall see what new ideas were dreamt up by the progressivists to replace what they had managed to purloin from the universal Church with the complicity of Pius XII.

liturgical committee

Pius XII opened the door to today’s liturgical committees that design liturgy for each parish

The foremost issue was the “active participation” of the people, as Fr. Frederick McManus, a major figure in the reform, explained as soon as the new Holy Week Ordo was issued in 1956:

“The rubrics of the Ordo refer constantly to the responses to be made by the members of the congregation and to their activity in the carrying out of the holy liturgy. This is of course a notable departure from the rubrical norms of the Roman Missal.” (2)

What is even more revolutionary is that responsibility for carrying out the liturgy now falls, by papal diktat and for the first time in the Church’s History, on the shoulders of the laity: their “active participation” is “made a matter of rubrical law and incorporated into the very text of the new liturgical book.” (3)

When has the Roman Missal ever laid down rules to regulate how the faithful should respond during the liturgy? (4) Even Fr. McManus had to admit that the traditional Missal was silent on the manner of lay participation. But the reformed Missal, on the other hand, made it incumbent on the laity to give the responses and contribute actively to the performance of the liturgy.

This shows that Pius XII imposed these changes in an authoritarian, oppressive and intrusive program to please the liturgical reformers. The impression was given that anyone praying silently in the pews during liturgical ceremonies would be guilty of breaking a law laid down by the Pope. (5)

The ‘cult of novelty’ in the Palm Sunday liturgy

The 1956 and 1962 Palm Sunday liturgy opens with a visual and (literally) shocking reversal of traditional practice. In order to reinforce the “community celebration” aspect, a portable table is set up in the sanctuary, the palms are laid on it and the priest blesses them in full view of the people, (6) all the while with his back to the altar and the Blessed Sacrament.


Palms setout before a bare altar at a modern Novus Ordo church

Reversing centuries of liturgical tradition, the 1956 Ordo of Palm Sunday mandated that the priest (or deacon) should conduct an audible dialogue with the people while facing them. This took place at various points: before the blessing of the palms; (7) both before and after the procession; (8) before the Gospel and at the Orate Fratres. (9)

Ironically, the procession in honor of Christ the King was revamped to exalt the role of the people in the liturgy. Now that the supernatural significance of the sub-deacon’s role was eliminated, as were the traditional purple vestments – doubly significant as the color associated with royalty and Christ’s Passion – the way was open to enlarging the role of the laity.

Whereas in the traditional Missal the singing of the liturgy was the function of the priest and cantors alternating with the choir, in the new Ordo this suddenly became the responsibility of all. (10) Thus, the congregation was required to sing not only during the blessing and procession of palms, but also throughout the entire Palm Sunday Mass. (11) This introduced a novelty into the rubrics for sung Masses. The Graduale Romanum issued by Pius X had not included instructions for congregational singing. (12)

A made-up prayer

Now, let us consider another innovation in the Palm Sunday liturgy that was incorporated into the 1962 Missal, having been first introduced into the 1956 Ordo: The prayer after the procession, which is said facing the people and to which they have to respond aloud. It was the result of a shambolic committee-work hastily cobbled together by Bugnini and his associates and was problematic for two reasons.

First, theologically speaking, the prayer was vague and ambivalent. It mentioned palm branches and God’s blessing, but without establishing any intrinsic link between them, and spoke of our redemption being wrought by Christ’s “right hand” (a phrase normally attributed to the Father).

Second, linguistically speaking, it was expressed in somewhat garbled Latin. Judging by its varying translations, no one seems to know what exactly the prayer was supposed to mean. Evidently, the composers of the prayer have left everyone guessing.

The Bea Psalms – from optional to mandatory

An example of an unwarranted intrusion into the Palm Sunday liturgy – indeed into the whole of the 1956 Holy Week ceremonies – was the imposition of a new Latin version of the Psalms, which had been undertaken, at Pius XII’s request, by a committee of biblical experts headed by Fr. Augustin Bea, S.J.

bea jjohn 23

Bea would take the liturgical reform further under his friend John XXIII

This replaced St. Jerome’s Vulgate version of the Psalms that had been established as the universal and immemorial customary lex orandi (law of prayer) for the Latin Rite. Their authenticity was guaranteed by the Council of Trent on the basis of centennial custom, which is why the liturgical use of the Vulgate was regarded as sacrosanct, as we can see from the same Council’s warning that “no one is to dare, or presume, to reject it under any pretext whatever.” (13)

At first, it was only optional, (14) but in 1956 Pius XII integrated some of the new Psalms by force of law into the Holy Week ceremonies, an initiative that was nothing short of revolutionary. This innovation was yet another example of how Pius XII subordinated immemorial Tradition to papal authority on the basis of the subjective opinions of the reformers, in a manner that would be adopted by Paul VI on a comprehensive scale.

His reform gave rise to two major problems.

First, the new wording of the Bea Psalms, drawn from Classical Latin vocabulary and syntax, was different from the “Christianized” idiom of the Vulgate, which the Church had adopted as the sacred language of the liturgy and which the clergy had been using for over 15 centuries.

Fr. Bea despised the Latin recited by the clergy for so many centuries and unjustly called it a “decadent usage” incapable of meeting the standards of Classical Latin. (15) But there was no need to have an inferiority complex about it.

As various classical scholars have shown, Medieval Latin was a direct descendant of the literary, learned Latin of the classical age, not a debased or corrupt form of it. It was this elevated form of Latin that the Church elaborated and adapted for use in Scripture and the liturgy, adding her own distinctive style and diction, to express the Christian message. And, so, there emerged the unique “Christianized” Latin that is found in the Vulgate. There the “family lineaments” of Latin Christianity are clear, revealing the Bea version as an interloper.

Second, the Bea Psalms were ill adapted to Gregorian chant, making it awkward to sing in religious communities and providing a disincentive for them to do so. (16) The words were not, in general, those used by their forebears in the Faith and the new chants, which had to be composed to match, were not those that had echoed around the medieval monasteries. We can conclude that the new Holy Week ceremonies were not in harmony with the ancient Latin liturgical heritage and should have no place in the Roman Missal.

Thus, we can see how Pius XII began a process that had the gravest possible implications for future changes in the liturgy – the gradual detachment of the clergy from the worship, theology and spirituality of their Latin patrimony.


  1. Lest anyone should think that the word depredation is mere hyperbole, it has been chosen advisedly for its etymological roots in the Latin language which links praeda (prey) to praedari (to plunder). Later the prefix de (completely) was added to intensify the meaning and indicate that a thorough job has been done.
  2. Frederick McManus, The Rites of Holy Week: Ceremonies, Preparations, Music, Commentaries, New Jersey: St. Anthony Guild Press, ,1956, pp. viii-ix.
  3. Ibid. , p. ix.
  4. It was the responsibility of the celebrant, not the laity, to “read the black and do the red” as printed in the Missal, under pain of penalty. There were also detailed instructions in the Missal for other ministers in the sanctuary in their respective roles, but none for the laity because they were not regarded as having a liturgical role to play.
    Here we must keep in mind a known historical fact: Under the influence of Jansenism and Gallicanism, some 17th and 18th century French dioceses published their own Missals independently of the Holy See, in which the compilers issued instructions for the congregation to make certain responses. But this does not, however, prove that the people did, in fact, make any responses or, if so, how many in a given congregation or to what extent throughout France. In the diocese of Meaux, for example, a Missal was published in 1709 in which the people’s responses were designated by the sign ℟ printed in red. But there was such a general outcry against it that the Bishop, Thiard de Bissy (Bossuet’s immediate successor), ordered the rubrics to be removed from the Missal. (See P. Guéranger, Institutions Liturgiques, Paris, 1841, vol. 2, pp. 181-182) See here.
  5. This revolutionary view was reinforced in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal where it is stated that the faithful have a duty (§ 18) to become actively involved in the liturgy and they must not refuse to do so: “The faithful, moreover, should not refuse to serve the People of God in gladness whenever they are asked to perform some particular service or function in the celebration.” (§ 97).
  6. In conspectu populi.”
  7. After the opening Antiphon is sung, the celebrant, facing the people from behind the table, says Dominus vobiscum, to which all respond Et cum spiritu tuo. But in the traditional rite, the priest remains at the altar, and is specifically instructed not to turn to the people (non vertens se ad populum) during this exchange: the response is given by another minister in the sanctuary.
  8. Before the procession, the deacon, facing the people, says Procedamus in pace (Let us go forth in peace), and the people respond In nomine Christi (in the name of Christ). This contrasts with the traditional Missal, which instructs only the Choir to sing the response. See p. 28 here.
    At the end of the procession, a new prayer has been inserted, which is said by the celebrant while facing the people, and requires the response Amen from them.
  9. After the priest has said the Orate fratres in a clearly audible voice (clara et elevata voce), the people respond aloud.
  10. The rubrics of the 1956 Ordo and the 1962 Missal indicate the parts to be sung by the choir and by the people. But the rationale for this can be seen in the spirit of rivalry on which it was based. Fr. McManus explained the thinking behind this reform:
    “When a choir chants those parts of Holy Mass or other rites that belong to the people, the faithful are not doing what they are appointed by their baptismal character to do – namely, worship God as members of Christ. In the restored Holy Week, the clear directions indicate again and again that the people should not be denied this right.” (F. McManus, The Rites of Holy Week, p. 32)
    An option is given for the faithful to sing Christus vincit or another hymn.
  11. This included the Kyrie; Et cum spiritu tuo and Amen at the Collect; the entire Creed; Et cum spiritu tuo at the Offertory; Amen to the Secret; the responses at the Preface dialogue; the entire Sanctus; Amen after the Canon; Sed libera nos a malo, Amen and Et cum spiritu tuo at the Pater Noster and Libera; the Agnus Dei; Et cum spiritu tuo and Amen after the Post-communion; Et cum spiritu tuo and Deo gratias at the dismissal; and Amen at the blessing. Ibid, pp. 36-38.
    Pius XII had already encouraged efforts in this direction in 1947: “Therefore, they are to be praised who, with the idea of getting the Christian people to take part more easily and more fruitfully in the Mass, strive to make them familiar with the Roman Missal, so that the faithful, united with the priest, may pray together in the very words and sentiments of the Church. They also are to be commended who strive to make the liturgy even in an external way a sacred act in which all who are present may share. This can be done in more than one way, when, for instance, the whole congregation, in accordance with the rules of the liturgy, either answer the priest in an orderly and fitting manner, or sing hymns suitable to the different parts of the Mass or do both or, finally, in high Masses when they answer the prayers of the minister of Jesus Christ and also sing the liturgical chant. (Mediator Dei § 105)
  12. Graduale Romanum: De Ritibus Servandis in Cantu Missae, Rome, 1908, pp. xiv-xvi. The rubrics referred only to the singing of the choir and the cantors; there was no mention of a role for the congregation.
  13. Council of Trent, session 4, April 8, 1546, Decree Concerning the Edition and the Use of the Sacred Books.
  14. In his Motu proprio Cotidianis precibus of March 24, 1945, Pius XII granted permission for the use of the Bea Psalter to priests and all who were obliged to say the Divine Office. And two years later he extended this permission for any liturgical use. See De usu novi Psalterii latini extra horas canonicas (The use of the new Latin Psalter beyond the Canonical Hours), October 22, 1947, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 39 (1947), p. 508.
  15. Bea made this “chauvinistic” judgement in the Introduction to the first edition of his New Psalter. See the Liber Psalmorum published by the Pontifical Institute of Biblical Studies, Rome, 1945, p. xxvi. But it was simply a common prejudice found among those who confuse Vulgate Latin with Vulgar Latin (the language once used by Roman soldiers, colonists and farmers). The classical scholar, Christine Mohrmann, explained: “Liturgical Latin is not Classical Latin, but neither is it, as is so often said, the Latin that was considered decadent by educated people.” Liturgical Latin: Its Origin and Character, CUA Press, 1957, p. 60.
    Even in Bea’s day, the prejudice against ecclesiastical Latin as infima latinitas (the lowest form of Latinity) was already outdated, which shows that he himself was behind the times and unwilling to acknowledge with pride the unique contribution of the Vulgate in the transmission of the Faith in the Church and in Western culture.
  16. In the estimation of Church musicians, the new chants are unmelodious. Even when recited, the words do not exactly roll off the tongue, as with the traditional Psalter. That is because the authors of the new Psalter tried to force the natural rhythm of the Vulgate version to match the rhythm of Classical Latin poetry and its laws of “quantitative” meter. Unsurprisingly, the Bea Psalter was not a success; most of the religious communities refused to accept it. One of the few who did accept it was the Benedictine monastery of En Calcat in France. It was there, incidentally, that Dom Lambert Beauduin had spent some years of his banishment by Pius XI for his “ecumenical” activities and his opposition to any form of proselytism.


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Posted February 6, 2017

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