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No. 105Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study ProgramMay 2003


by Brian W. Harrison



Those submissions from Austria which I have been able to read so far seem to me fairly typical of that 60% of northern European Bishops who recommended at least some changes to the traditional Roman rite. The Archbishop of Salzburg, Andreas Rohracher, was one of those who suggested nothing more than switching over to the vernacular for a few restricted parts of the Mass: he opined that the oratio (the opening Collect) and the Scripture readings should be in read in the language of the people.1 Cardinal Franz König of Vienna – soon to become known as a ‘progressive’ leader at the Council – submitted his recommendations for the Vatican II agenda conjointly with several other bishops: the auxiliary and coadjutor bishops of Vienna, as well as Bishop Zauner of Linz, Bishop Memlauer of Sankt Polten and Bishop László, Apostolic Administrator of Burgenland. This group also recommended that the Epistle and Gospel be read in the vernacular and facing the people, but also made a point of insisting that Latin be retained for all the rest of the Mass.2 In addition, they recommended a wider variety of biblical readings in the Sunday Mass, distributed in a cycle of more than one year,3 and several other relatively minor changes: a reduction of the Eucharistic fast; the elimination of recitation by the celebrant of texts being sung simultaneously by thechoir; permission for concelebration at large gatherings of priests; and the omission of the Last Gospel.4


These submissions indicate that the British prelates — above all the English — were even more reserved about changes to the Mass than their colleagues across the Channel (see results for France below). Of the 29 bishops and archbishops in England, Wales and Scotland, only six (21%) suggested any reform whatever of the existing rites, and these included only two of the twenty-two prelates resident in England. Half of this group (Archbishop Gray of Edinburgh, Bishop Dwyer of Leeds, and Bishop Petit of Menevia, in Wales) limited their proposed reforms to some use of the vernacular in the first part of the Mass. Bishop Hart of Dunkeld suggested that, in addition to that, the laity should participate more actively; accordingly, he said, the Psalm Iudica me (recited at the foot of the altar at the beginning of Mass) should be omitted so as to allow time for instructing the people on how to participate in a ‘dialogue Mass’. Bishop Walsh of Aberdeen advocated reducing the number of saints’ feast-days on the calendar and suggested that if the Mass was to be in the vernacular it could all be recited audibly (alta voce) by the celebrant, rather than silently in some parts. Finally, Bishop Murphy of Shrewsbury said that while he wanted to see little if any use of the vernacular in the Mass, he favoured omitting the ‘Last Gospel’ (the prologue of John's Gospel, recited at the end of every Mass in the traditional rite) and banning the silent reading of certain texts by the priest if they were simultaneously being sung by the choir. Apart from these suggestions regarding the rites as such, five bishops (17% of the total) said they favoured some mitigation of the Eucharistic fast, which at that period was set at three hours before receiving Communion.

That was all the Vatican heard from England, Wales and Scotland in 1960 regarding hoped-for reforms in celebrating the Eucharist. Of that large majority of the British bishops (79%) who did not ask for even a single change in the Mass, several went out of their way to specify changes which they did not want the Council to introduce. The one and only liturgical comment of Archbishop Campbell of Glasgow, who evidently remained impervious to certain ‘basics’ of modern liturgical correctness, was an "earnest plea" that the Council do nothing to prohibit the recitation of the Rosary during Mass (enixe rogat ut nihil fiat quo prohibeatur recitatio publica Rosarii intra Missam). Finally, Cardinal Godfrey of Westminster, his auxiliary, Bishop Craven, Bishop Flynn of Lancaster and Bishop Restieaux of Plymouth all said that, while they favoured using the vernacular in some non-Eucharistic rites (baptisms, extreme unction, wedding and funeral rites and certain blessings were mentioned by one or more of these prelates) they did not want any English brought into the Mass. The Bishop of Plymouth, for instance, said: "In celebrating the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass the Latin language should be retained, and, if I am not mistaken, this is the feeling of the greater part of the faithful (ita . . . sentit maior pars fidelium). For the Catholic people are now familiar with the prayers of the Mass in Latin."



I have not had the opportunity to analyse all of the submissions of the French hierarchy, and so have limited myself to what I presume would be a fairly representative sampling, namely, the submissions of the Archbishops of France, 21 in number including the then Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Marella.5

Archbishop Dubois of Besançon and Archbishop Lamy of Sens were the two French prelates — 9.5% of the group surveyed — who showed clear signs of uneasiness with regard to certain fashionable liturgical trends. The first said in his submission that the Council should give renewed stress to the Mass as a sacrifice, warning against those liturgists who wanted to stress the Mass as a meal (convivium) or a prayer gathering. He also recommended a renewal of Eucharistic devotion outside of Mass, with stress on the permanent presence of Jesus in the tabernacle. Archbishop Lamy, for his part, while advocating some mitigation of the rule regarding the Eucharistic fast, also urged "more severe liturgical legislation" (ut severiores efficiantur leges . . . de liturgia), presumably in the interests of uniformity, or against laxity in the observance of rubrics.

Just half of the French archbishops (10 of the 20, i.e. excluding the Italian Papal Nuncio to France) showed themselves indifferent to proposals for liturgical reform by saying nothing at all about liturgy in their suggestions for the conciliar agenda.6 Thus it was that twelve out of the twenty — a clear majority of 60% — could be described as liturgically conservative in the sense of being basically satisfied with the liturgy as it already was, manifesting no desire at all that liturgical reform or innovation should be promoted at the imminent Ecumenical Council.

Among the remaining eight archbishops of France (nine including the Nuncio), i.e., those who did express a desire for the Council to initiate some sort of liturgical reform, by far the most popular suggestion was that some use of the vernacular be permitted. Every one of the eight made this recommendation. Cardinal Richaud of Bordeaux wanted both Epistle and Gospel in the vernacular, as did Archbishops de Provenchères of Aix, Marques of Albi, de Bazelaire of Chambery, Lalliers of Marseilles, Rémond of Nice, Martin of Rouens, and the Nuncio Marella. Cardinal Gerlier of Lyons was the most innovative in this regard, expressing a desire for the vernacular to be permitted for all prayers and readings up to the offertory; however the Cardinal immediately qualified even this relatively ‘liberal’ proposal by insisting that "the use of Latin must be most strictly maintained in everything touching the valid administration of the sacraments and the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass". And Archbishop de Bazelaire — prophetically as matters turned out — qualified his advocacy of a limited use of the vernacular by urging caution "lest the use of the Latin language gradually disappear" (ne latinae linguae usus paulatim evanescat).

Apart from the question of language, suggestions for change were neither numerous nor radical. Four of the 21 prelates (Richaud, Marques, de Bazelaire and Martin) recommended some degree of simplification of the existing rites; two of them (Rémond and Marella) hoped for more "active participation" on the part of the faithful (with the last-mentioned, the Nuncio, urging as an example the prohibition of their praying the Rosary during Mass). And that was all, apart from a comment by Archbishop de Provenchères to the effect that episcopal vestments during Mass should be somewhat simplified. Notably, not one of these leading pastors of the French Church called for such changes as a wider choice of Scripture readings at Mass, the practice of concelebration, nor for Communion under both species (much less for reception in the hand) on the part of the laity. In short, if we were to judge their views by today's standards, and indeed, by the standards which were soon to be set by the conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy in 1963, the leaders of the Catholic Church in France would have to be classified as decidedly conservative, on the whole, in matters of liturgy.

* * * * * * *

Let us now summarize the results of this sampling of 148 episcopal submissions from round the world shortly before the Council. A total of 59% of these prelates – nearly three out of every five – either expressed no interest in changes to the celebration of Mass, or revealed themselves to be positively opposed or suspicious of certain proposals for change. That left 41% who expressed themselves in favour of reform to a greater or lesser extent — mostly lesser. And the words "mostly lesser" need to be stressed. For indeed, what seems to me the most striking fact to emerge from this survey is that even the initial changes called for by the Council itself in 1963 were far more sweeping than what the great majority of Fathers had in mind before they actually convened in Rome. Those changes, called for by the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, represented an agenda for reform which, scarcely three years previously, had been espoused by only a tiny minority on the extreme liturgical left wing of the world's Catholic bishops. Of all the prelates whose submissions I have read so far, only two called for changes to the Mass of roughly the same number and kind as those which in due course were specified by the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium; and these two were among the most prominent and outspoken liberals in the entire Catholic episcopate: Cardinal Julius Döpfner of Berlin (later of Munich), and the Primate of Holland, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Bernard Alfrink of Utrecht, (destined soon to lead his country's Church to the brink of schism by his support of, amongst other things, the notorious Dutch Catechism of 1966). In addition to suggesting the vernacular in a "great part" of the Mass, Alfrink called for more active participation on the part of the laity, a simplification and clarification of the rites, the faculty of concelebration at large gatherings of priests, Communion under both kinds for the laity on special occasions such as nuptial Masses, and a reduction of the Eucharistic fast to two hours before receiving Holy Communion.7 Cardinal Döpfner, as well as asking for much of the above, offered a detailed program for simplifying and rationalizing the Ordinary of the Mass, and suggested in addition such developments as offertory processions, more Prefaces, more varied Scripture readings, the sign of peace, and for some of the hitherto silently recited prayers to be said out loud.8

All of these changes were in due course introduced. But it is worth noting that not even the Church's two most prodigiously progressive prelates, Döpfner and Alfrink, were calling for certain more radical changes which have since become routine throughout the Western Church, and whose cumulative effect has been not so much a true reform of the old Roman rite, but its de facto replacement by a sweepingly different rite. I refer to such changes as Mass facing the people, new and shorter Eucharistic Prayers (resulting in the near-extinction of the Roman Canon), the practical disappearance of Gregorian chant and polyphony, the elimination of Offertory prayers stressing the sacrificial character of the Mass, Communion in the hand, Mass with few if any moments of silence, Mass with no Latin at all, the tearing out of altar rails, and the abolition of kneeling to receive the Lord's Body.

What inferences can be drawn from the episcopal submissions we have surveyed? It would be going beyond the evidence to infer that in 1960 there was much downright opposition among the bishops to the prospect of changing even slightly the existing rites. For even the declared opposition of a few of these prelates to having any vernacular in the Mass does not necessarily imply the same attitude toward other possible reforms in the rites. It must be remembered that within little more than three years of submitting these generally very conservative recommendations for the Vatican II agenda, nearly all of these same bishops were destined to vote in favour of that liturgy Constitution by which the Council mandated much more significant changes in the rite of Mass: changes which corresponded closely to those requested by that prelate whose ideas placed him at the extreme liturgical ‘left’ of the Catholic episcopate just before Vatican II — the Primate of Holland, Archbishop Alfrink.

It would probably be more accurate, then, to describe the prevailing sentiment of these bishops as a feeling that the much talked-about designs of liturgical specialists for ‘updating’ the rite of Mass were really rather irrelevant to the real needs of God's people. Such proposals were widely seen not so much as a threatening prospect as a low-priority issue which did not even merit discussion at the forthcoming Council.

What would have been the key factor in modifying this 1960 apathy toward the project of reforming the Roman Missal? Was it perhaps the bishops’ experience of actually living through the Council during 1962 and 1963? In those heady days terms such as ‘renewal’, ‘dynamism’, ‘openness to the world’ and ‘aggiornamento’ were still new and exciting, charging the ecclesial air in Rome with that renowned ‘spirit of Vatican II’ which seems to have won over many hitherto staid prelates to the cause of far-reaching change. Whatever may be the reason(s) for the change of outlook that led the bishops to approve almost unanimously the substantial reforms spelt out in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the evidence of their previous proposals for this pastoral Council of the universal Church suggests strongly that their rank-and-file constituencies — that is, most ordinary laity, priests and religious — were by no means clamouring for changes in the celebration of Mass as a condition of its continuing ‘relevance’ or ‘meaningfulness’ in the modern world.

It seems significant, in the light of post-conciliar developments, that two future Popes, whose individual submissions to Rome I noted independently of my country-by-country survey, were part of the quite small minority (29%) of bishops in our survey who wanted the Council to introduce more extensive changes to the Mass than just the use of the vernacular. The young auxiliary bishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla, saw a need for more active participation on the part of the laity, a simplification of the pontifical rite of Mass, and a "prudent" use of the vernacular, "without, however, a complete nationalization of the rites."9 Cardinal G. B. Montini of Milan, destined to ascend the Chair of Peter as Paul VI within three or four years, made similar observations regarding active participation on the part of the faithful, and asked for the Council to authorize the use of the vernacular in the "Mass of the Catechumens" (what we now call the "Liturgy of the Word").10

Such proposals were actually fairly typical among this ‘progressive’ minority. But although this minority group might reasonably be labelled as being the liturgical ‘liberals’ or ‘progressives’ of 1960, what needs to be stressed is the fact that, with very few exceptions, the innovations they contemplated would have to be considered cautious or conservative in comparison to what Vatican II actually called for three years later in Sacrosanctum Concilium, and ultra-conservative in comparison to the still more sweeping changes which were then subsequently introduced — by Paul VI himself — in the name of the Council! Indeed, one has the impression, on reading these preconciliar submissions, that if Catholic bishops round the world in 1960 had been granted a crystal-ball preview of the way they themselves would be celebrating the Eucharist only a decade in the future, the overwhelming majority would have been left astonished at the drastic extent of these imminent changes to the ancient Roman rite.

One of the most important change-producing factors was no doubt the generally higher academic qualifications of the European Church leaders, and the prestige and prominence of their theological and philosophical mentors: De Lubac, Schillebeeckx, Rahner, Küng, Congar, Maritain, Teilhard, and so on. Confronted in Rome by such a galaxy of acknowledged intellectual luminaries constantly assuring the conciliar Fathers that the status quo in almost every aspect of Catholic life, thought and worship was seriously antiquated and unsatisfactory, many ordinary bishops no doubt became persuaded that their own intuitive lack of enthusiasm for change and innovation up till that moment was due mainly to their own out-dated formation and lack of modern knowledge and expertise. Indeed, some of the English-speaking bishops whose preconciliar submissions I have read seemed to manifest a certain consciousness of inferiority, and a disposition to follow, rather than lead.11 I have also found evidence that this kind of intimidation by the periti may have been at work also in Europe — and even before the Council began. Among the German archbishops who answered the Holy See's inquiry individually in 1959, only Cardinal Döpfner recommended detailed and extensive changes to the existing rite of Mass. However, the Vatican documents also include a later submission sent to Rome in 1960 in the name of the entire German episcopate; and in this collective submission all of the liturgical innovations recommended by Döpfner — and more! — were included. Evidently, a number of prelates had during the course of the year allowed their own views about worship to be guided and led by the reforming zeal of the most influential and progressive liturgists.12

Whatever may be the principal reasons for the change of outlook that led the world's bishops to approve almost unanimously the substantial reforms spelt out in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the evidence of their previous proposals for this pastoral Council of the universal Church suggests strongly that their rank-and-file constituencies that is, most ordinary laity, priests and religious, were by no means clamouring for changes in the celebration of Mass as a condition of its continuing relevance or meaningfulness in the modern world.13 And this fact, I would suggest, is of considerable importance for the international movement for liturgical reform that has been gaining momentum in the last few years, thanks largely to the initiative and encouragement of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: a movement which seeks not only, at the academic level, a continuation of research into the genius and development of the Roman rite such as that of the late liturgical historian Klaus Gamber,14 but also, at the practical level, a corresponding revision of the post-conciliar liturgical innovations in accordance with a more accurate, and therefore more moderate, implementation of the Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy. This is what has come to be known popularly as the quest for a "reform of the reform."

There are two main reasons why I would suggest that these pre-conciliar submissions from nearly four decades ago still constitute relevant evidence for today's liturgical reform movement. In the first place, they can be seen as an important hermeneutical key for understanding what the conciliar Fathers truly envisaged when they voted for the Council's liturgy Constitution. It is well known that many of the prescriptions in Sacrosanctum Concilium for modifying the rite of Mass are in themselves quite broad or general, and therefore capable of a wide range of interpretations and applications. And, while it is true, as we have noted, that many or most bishops, once the Council began, evidently became more interested in, or favourable towards, liturgical change than they had been in 1959-1960, we should surely be careful not to exaggerate gratuitously the extent of this change in attitude. That is, we should not presume that, when they voted for SC in November 1963, these same bishops would by that time have favoured a radical and sharply innovative implementation of these general norms laid down in the Constitution. Rather, the reasonable conclusion to draw from the very moderate and cautious attitude of most bishops on the eve of the Council is that they intended the changes specified in SC to be implemented in a correspondingly moderate and cautious spirit.

Secondly, these pre-conciliar submissions have an importance which transcends the legal or juridical question of determining as accurately as possible the minds of the conciliar legislators. Today's movement for a reform of the reform needs to take into account not only the question, "What kind of celebration of Mass was willed by the Fathers of Vatican Council II?" but also "What kind of celebration of Mass is, or would be, most pleasing to Almighty God?" And it is precisely because we believe that the Holy Spirit never has abandoned, and never will abandon, Christ's Church, whether in her liturgy or in any other aspect of her life and belief, that the whole bimillennial tradition of the Church before the Council, not only her recent legislation and the brief but deeply troubled experience of Catholic worship after the Council, must be taken into account in attempting to discern the will of God. When viewed from this standpoint, the relative silence of the world's bishops in regard to possible changes in the Roman rite of Mass – a silence which lasted until their personal pastoral judgment was affected by the prestige and pressures of conciliar committees and periti – bespeaks, in effect, a corresponding silence among the People of God. And this popular silence — this striking absence of any significant grass-roots-level clamour for liturgical innovation, at a time when Mass attendance was quite high in most countries — would seem to indicate among the worshipping christifideles a fairly undisturbed peace and serenity: fruits of the Holy Spirit. This, it seems to me, is yet another fact which argues in favour of great respect for tradition in any future efforts at liturgical reform or renewal. The Mass, after all, belongs to the whole Church, not just to the periti. Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote a justly celebrated essay in the nineteenth century, "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine"; and I have no doubt that a similarly sound argument could be presented for consulting the faithful in matters of liturgy.

Indeed, it seems significant that the European nations which brought forth the most radical demands for liturgical change in the conciliar and post-conciliar period were precisely those nations wherein many ordinary Catholics were quickly losing their peace and serenity, and falling prey to those viruses of inner turbulence and doubt which have since exploded in massive secularization, dissent, loss of faith, and catastrophic decline in liturgical practice. With the advantage of thirty years experience, we cannot fail to detect a note of unconscious and tragic irony in the dire warning issued to the Vatican by that most progressive of preconciliar prelates, Bernard Alfrink, in his submission urging a full-scale revision of the traditional Roman rite of Mass. "Only by introducing the most drastic changes," he gravely intoned, "will it be possible to prevent many of the faithful from becoming more and more alienated from the Church's liturgy."15 The hard evidence indicates that Cardinal Alfrink's prognostications could hardly have been more wrong. For the truth is that nowhere in the world, by all accounts, have the de facto liturgical changes since Vatican II been more truly drastic than in Alfrink's own country, The Netherlands. But that country also happens to be the one in which the post-conciliar alienation of baptized Catholics from the life, worship and teaching authority of the universal Church seems to have been more widespread, bitter and devastating than anywhere else on earth. Almost the same degree of alienation, it appears, has occurred in Germany — that other nation whose bishops, influenced by Cardinal Döpfner and his periti, were most outspoken before the Council in recommending far-reaching reforms to the rite of Mass.

As the popular adage has it: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" Perhaps, on the eve of the Council, the prevailing lack of episcopal interest in current projects for changing the celebration of Mass manifested rather more genuine and prudent pastoral and liturgical insight than many today would like to admit.


1. Acta et Documenta, I, II, I, p. 63.

2. Ibid., p. 77.

3. Ibid. p. 78.

4. Ibid., pp. 77-79.

5. The submissions to Rome from France referred to here can be found in Acta et Documenta I, II, I, op. cit., between pp. 177 and 453.

6. These ten were: Cardinals Liénart of Lille, Feltin of Paris, and Roques of Rennes, and Archbishops Audrain of Auch, Urtasun of Avignon, Joseph Lefebvre of Bourges, Guerry of Cambrai, Marmottin of Rheims, Garrone of Toulouse, and Ferrand of Tours.

7. Acta et Documenta, I, II, II, pp. 514-515.

8. Cf. ibid., pp. 587-588, 591

9. ". . . sine tamen totali nationalisatione rituum" (Acta et Documenta, I, II, II, p.747).

10. Acta et Documenta, I, II, III, p. 377.

11. As we have already noted, the Australian bishops O’Collins and Brennan replied to Rome only to say they had no recommendations at all for the agenda of Vatican II (cf. notes 17 and 18 above and corresponding discussion in main text). And Bishop Gerald Bergan of Omaha, U.S.A., displayed an equally profound humility. While indeed he made so bold as to suggest some use of the vernacular in the Mass, he was quick to add that at the Council he would be willing to endorse whatever those wiser than himself might choose to decree (cf. Acta et Documenta, I, II, VI, p. 400).

12. Cf. submission of "Conferentia Episcopalis Fuldensis," Acta et Documenta, I, II, II, p.760.

13. Even some bishops who were soon to become leading agents for change during the Council still showed few signs of such tendencies, at least as regards liturgy, when they submitted their responses to the Vatican inquiry. For instance, the then auxiliary bishop and future incumbent of Malines/Brussels, who as Cardinal Léon-Josef Suenens was soon to become prominent among the liberal wing of the conciliar Fathers, showed himself in 1960 to be interested only in a few very slight changes in this area: he called for the Eucharistic fast to be reduced to one hour before Communion, and recommended a simplification only of the pontifical rite of Mass, especially as regards the "incessant" and "ridiculous" doffing and donning of the bishops mitre, a spectacle which he claimed elicited more mirth than reverence among modern Belgian congregations (cf. Acta et Documenta, I, II, I, p. 147).

14. K. Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background (transl. K.D. Grimm; Una Voce Press & Foundation for Catholic Reform, 1993).

15. "Gravissimis solummodo mutationibus inferendis impediri poterit, ne multi fideles ab Ecclesiæ liturgia magis magisque abalienentur" (ibid., p. 514).

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