One day at Oxford in 1982, I asked my tutor, Bishop Kallistos Ware, what Orthodox thought of the Catholic liturgy as reformed by Paul VI. Sensing immediately where I was coming from, he replied that Orthodox had mixed feelings: they mostly approved of things like the use of the vernacular and the restoration of the cup to the laity as returns to an older tradition. They were less impressed by innovations like celebration facing the people.
I agreed with him then and now. Almost forty years later, I still think he was right. A little of my personal story will serve to give context to the reflections that follow. As an adolescent, I encountered Latin liturgy (in the new rite) and it drew me, uninspired by the vernacular liturgy which took its place, to considering priesthood. I was just too young to remember the old Latin Mass, but when Archbishop Lefebvre became notorious for rejecting the post-Vatican II reforms, I acquainted myself with the older rites and fell in love with them.
I held back from following Lefebvre into disobedience, but in seminary I found that a traditionalist sensibility was unwelcome. I dropped out, and after university and work, tried one of the new, authorised traditionalist communities founded after the Lefebvrist schism. There, I encountered the pitfalls Pope Francis has decried as his rationale for restricting the activities of the traditionalists: opposition to Vatican II and rejection of the modern church, rigorism, clericalism, pathological rigidity and, one might add, a tendency to far right politics which has since become so manifest a problem in the Anglophone “trad” world.
My superiors and I both saw that this was not the place for me. I eventually became a diocesan priest and reconciled myself to the new liturgy. It was usually uninspiring, but only occasionally seriously unsettling. As celebrant one can most of the time avoid the worst—the unauthorised texts and abuses which Francis himself alludes to in his latest Motu Proprio.
Lefebvre and traditionalist critics of the new liturgy had accused the new Missal of containing theological ambiguities and innovations which endangered Catholic teaching on the Real Presence and Eucharistic Sacrifice. They spoke of a protestantisation of the Mass, and of a substitution of a horizontal communitarianism for the worship of the transcendent God.
Orthodox onlookers, for whom both Real Presence and Sacrifice are also fundamental, and who see Right Glory as the essence of the Church, might share some of these concerns. Archbishop Bugnini and the reformers responsible for the new Missal had stoked the fears of his traditionalist critics by prefacing it with a definition of the Mass as a “sacred synaxis or congregation of the people of God assembled, the priest presiding, to celebrate the memorial of the Lord.” This says nothing false, but is hardly adequate as a summary of Catholic belief, and indeed, it was quickly dropped. By then, however, the narrative of modernist betrayal had taken hold.
What is at stake is not so much the secondary question of Latin versus the vernacular, but the substantive changes made to the rites and prayers. Looking at the new rite promulgated by Paul VI, anybody with a theological formation which goes beyond the static formulae of medieval and baroque scholasticism can see that charges of unorthodoxy are unfounded. Taken as a whole, the Missal contains frequent and unambiguous statements of Catholic belief. The idiom is no longer that of scholastic theology, but is more redolent of the patristic era. The Roman Canon, whose language of oblation and repeated pleas for the acceptance of the Sacrifice owe much to the Latin juridicism which flowed so easily into the scholastic mindset, lost its monopoly but was retained. Three new Eucharistic prayers, based to some extent on ancient—though non-Roman—sources were introduced. Of these, one, based on an ancient model now known to be Antiochene in origin, contains only one reference to sacrifice, not obvious to the non-specialist: “You have counted us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you”. Another, however, essentially a new creation, contains a lapidary statement of the doctrine which is as full an expression as one could wish for of the faith of all the Apostolic Churches: “Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your Church and, recognizing the sacrificial Victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself, grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”
In this context, one should note the introduction of elements from Eastern Christian traditions. The Antiochene anaphora of Pseudo-Hippolytus, which forms the basis of the second Eucharistic Prayer, has already been mentioned. The fourth is based (loosely) on the Anaphora of St Basil. Even here however, changes were made to accommodate these texts to specifically western Catholic theology. The introduction of an epiclesis—at least in its developed, pneumatological form, missing from the Roman Canon—will be welcomed by Orthodox theologians. But it is always inserted before the Words of Institution, in order to conform to the specifically Western theology of the “Words of Consecration” henceforth regarded as dogma by the Catholic Church.
Enough has been said to make it clear that claims of protestantisation are basically unfounded. Notions like that of memorial, whose reductive interpretation by the Protestant reformers had rendered it suspicious to Counter-Reformation Catholic ears, were reinstated, but in a context which should make it clear that what is sought is a balanced, biblical, and patristic mode of expression more open to the wider Tradition. Those formed in the defensive, narrow and sometimes sclerotic scholasticism of the post-Tridentine manuals of theology, who regarded with suspicion the currents of ressourcement which had been renewing Catholic theology in the decades preceding Vatican II, were in the vanguard of resistance to the new liturgy.
The fundamentally reactionary nature of this resistance was instrumental in persuading Pope Paul VI to resist calls to allow the “Old Rite” to coexist with the new. The Pontiff’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Jean-Marie Villot, persuaded him that the old liturgy had become like the white flag of the French monarchists—something innocuous in itself but which had been turned into a dangerous symbol of resistance to necessary reform. Villot’s nationality was not insignificant here—the negative reaction to the reforms was strongest in France where rejection of Vatican II often went hand in hand with the anti-republican, Catholic-nationalistic authoritarianism prevalent among some Catholics and already in conflict with the Vatican since the 1930s. Lefebvre’s traditionalist seminary at Ecône, founded with ecclesiastical approval but swiftly falling foul of Rome, was a hotbed of this integralist mentality. For them, Vatican IIs espousal of ecumenical dialogue and religious liberty was a betrayal.
After Lefebvre’s break with Rome, John Paul II made it clear that he believed that the issue of the Old Rite could and should be detoxified by breaking the link with integralist ideology and rejection of contemporary papal teaching. Groups which requested the use of the old liturgy were to be accommodated as long as they made it clear that they accepted the validity and orthodoxy of the new. Some of the Lefebvrists were won over and other, less radical traditionalists were added to their growing numbers.
But most of the world’s bishops were unenthusiastic, and many traditionally minded Catholics found themselves deprived of opportunities to benefit from the popes’ liberalisation. That is why Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum in 2007. He was clear that what was at stake went beyond a pastoral accommodation to a troublesome minority: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”
Since 2007, there has been steady growth in the celebration of what was henceforth designated as “the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite” and of the clerical institutes which are devoted to it. As these have burgeoned, a new generation of Catholics has gravitated around them, no longer out of nostalgia for a past they never knew, but discovering a form of worship which seem to them to embody the qualities of transcendence, reverence, awe, and other-worldliness which will be familiar to those who attend Orthodox divine worship.
At the same time, all too human factors were also at work. I have already mentioned the factors which estranged me from the traditionalist microcosm: a tendency to be judgmental, elitist, rigid, and even pharisaic, and to serve agendas which owe more to reactionary ideologies than to the Christian Faith. Readers both Catholic and Orthodox, in the USA and elsewhere, will know what I am talking about. Recently, a fiery, politicised fundamentalism learnt—not without irony—from US Evangelicals has inserted itself into the mix.
Pope Francis, too, has noticed this. He explicitly evokes it as a reason for his decision to curtail the liberty granted to traditionalist clergy and faithful by his predecessor. The acerbity of the attacks directed against him personally, as he seeks to go beyond culture wars and stress mercy as well as truth, have doubtless hardened his resolve. I have already made it clear that I share his frustration. In what follows, I will outline why I think nevertheless that his action is wrong-headed, and why Orthodox observers, including those who are worried by the rise of intolerant fundamentalism in their own Church, should see it as boding ill for relations between our two communions.
First, although in matters of Eucharistic doctrine the Missal of Paul VI is entirely faithful to the Faith received from the Apostles, this does not mean that it does not contain aspects which distance it from our shared Tradition in worrying ways. There are two aspects to be considered here: one concerns the texts and rites themselves, and the other their concrete application. The second aspect contains the most worrying features. Nobody cognisant with the worship of modern Catholic parishes could imagine themselves saying, upon returning home, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”
Modern Catholic liturgy, with few exceptions, neglects alarmingly the numinous and the latreutic dimensions. Banal translations, poor hymnody (texts usually of non-liturgical origin often set to trite, contemporary music) can create an ethos which seems to celebrate the community itself and its worldly preoccupations rather than acknowledging its origin and destiny in God. Abuses have abounded: unauthorised texts, sometimes of dubious orthodoxy as well as taste, theatrical gimmicks more suitable to the theatre than the liturgy. Francis himself deplores the abuses in Traditionis Custos, but he has never taken energetic measures to eliminate them.
One element in particular has, I think, been decisive here. The orientation of the celebrant towards the assembly, which has never been forbidden in the old rite nor compulsory in the new, has become ubiquitous and in practice quasi-obligatory. There is nothing wrong with celebration Versus Populum in itself. I have seen Patriarch Bartholomew celebrate the Liturgy of St James in this manner, and both ways of celebrating can express complementary truths. But I am convinced that the fact that now most Catholics never experience priest and people praying in the same direction has led to a general decline in the sense that liturgy is essentially worship directed “outward” to a transcendent God, as well as celebrating his immanence through the Incarnation.
Nor are the texts themselves entirely innocent of a tendency to impose a contemporary theological agenda on the liturgy, rather than allow the liturgy we have received from past ages to form our theology. The maxim that the law of prayer establishes the law of belief, which goes back to St Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century, has effectively been reversed.
A close look at the euchology of the 1970 Missal is revealing. The newly composed orations tend to put less stress on eschatological hope and more on ethical progress. Some older orations have been reproduced unchanged, but others have been doctored, subtly or otherwise, to eliminate elements judged ill-suited to the spirit of the age. References to the miraculous are avoided. Anything related to asceticism is heavily played down. Fasting vigils have been eliminated from the calendar. References to fasting in Lent have been replaced with vaguer talk of “abstinence” or “observance”, doubtless to avoid embarrassing us, since now we do it but twice a year.
One altered collect used to pray that “we may pass through temporal goods so as not to lose eternal ones”, but now it reads “we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure”. There is nothing wrong with this latter prayer, of course, but the fact that the reformers felt the need to change the text is significant. The idea that the lesser goods may sometimes be inimical to the higher ones, so fundamental to the inherited ascetical tradition common to East and West, seems to be considered unsuitable in a Church where asceticism has all but vanished.
Fundamentally, I think that Orthodox Christians will have little sympathy with the outlook of those who deem it necessary to compose—and then impose—liturgical texts which reflect contemporary sensibility rather than to allow our sensibilities to be formed by texts inherited from the Tradition. The Catholic liturgical scholar David Fagerberg has talked of liturgy as theologia prima, a tradition with origins anterior even to the New Testament which forms our Faith. Seen in this light, the fact that we have a liturgy drawn up only decades ago by scholars with their own agenda, replacing one which has evolved organically over the centuries, must surely be problematic, even if the texts thus produced are mostly unobjectionable in themselves.
The contention that the current reform is merely one in a constant series of similar reforms dating back to Trent and beyond is disingenuous, as has been recognised by the more honest of those who oversaw it. Anyone who reads Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II decree on the liturgy, without prejudice will see that it mandates a limited reform of the existing liturgy rather than the drawing up of a new one retaining only dismembered elements of the old, alongside elements from other traditions and newly composed texts. This latter procedure would be unthinkable in the Orthodox Church. So would the manner of its imposition, namely by papal fiat.
Pope St Paul VI, despite some misgivings, was prevailed upon by the members of the Consilium which drew up the new liturgy, to go beyond what the Council had mandated. Any resistance was seen as a challenge to papal authority. Pope Francis seems to have reverted to this instinct, which owes more perhaps to Vatican I than to the principle of synodality which elsewhere he espouses. Traditionis Custodes is an act of papal universal jurisdiction, preceded by no real synodal process. The consultation with national episcopates which preceded it apparently produced no clear majority in favour of imposing restrictions on the older liturgy. There was pressure at least from the Italian episcopate, which saw a grave threat in the presence on their territory of younger traditionalist clergy. Given the tiny number of people involved there, and the magnitude of the problems facing the Italian Church, this seems frankly farcical.
The undoubted problem of the sectarian tendencies present in some traditionalist circles cannot be resolved by restricting access to the traditional liturgy. On the contrary, it will exacerbate those tendencies by allowing those groups to monopolise that liturgy. Since some of them are more or less schismatic and the others are not at present targeted, they will be unaffected by the new norms and so able to promote their own agendas all the more effectively behind the traditionalist standard. Cardinal Villot rightly foresaw a danger in allowing the old Mass to be weaponised. But the answer is surely not to allow the “white flag” to become the exclusive property of the monarchists, but to snatch it from their hands and allow others to wave it with more irenic intent.
Pope Francis hopes that his authoritative intervention will serve Catholic unity by impeding centrifugal forces opposed to his direction for the Church. My fear is that it will harm intra-ecclesial unity by inciting bitterness, and when I hear people who consider themselves liberal rejoicing in the face of an illiberal use of authority, it only confirms that fear. I also believe that this backward step harms the cause of true ecumenism. It gives the lie to the sincerity of some who insist in dialogue that unity does not require uniformity, but apparently cannot stomach liturgical pluriformity in their own Church. Why will the Pope of dialogue not dialogue with the traditionalists?
Traditionis Custodes prolongs a situation in the Catholic Church where many Orthodox see little to encourage them to think our liturgical practice is an expression of the same faith, and that authority is exercised in the service of Tradition rather than as a replacement for it. After Summorum Pontificum, the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow, representing two very different visions of Orthodoxy, both expressed satisfaction. Well-disposed Orthodox observers should find little cause for satisfaction in the continuing Catholic liturgy wars which Pope Francis’ action will only serve to exacerbate.
Some years ago, at an ecumenical colloquium, an Orthodox theologian from an internationally renowned academy said to me, in the context of a discussion on the need for collegiality within Catholicism, “We think that the Catholic Church is irreformable.” The spectacle of Pope Francis behaving in such an authoritarian manner, with the avowed intent of eventually eliminating a diversity considered legitimate by his predecessors, whilst imposing an idea of tradition which is essentially reduced to papal legal positivism, feeds the suspicion that my Orthodox conversation partner might have been right.
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