AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL AUGUSTIN CARDINAL MAYER, O. S. B.
(On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium,
December 4,1993, His Eminence granted an interview to Father John T.
Zuhlsdorf in Rome. These perspectives on the liturgy and sacred music are
the fruits of their conversation.)
Cardinal Mayer has great experience of the Church and the liturgy from rich
vantage points. He is a Benedictine monk and abbot emeritus of the Abbey of
Metten in Bavaria. (In 1846, Boniface Wimmer, a monk of Metten, founded the
Abbey of St. Vincent at Latrobe, Pennsylvania, which in turn founded the
Abbey of St. John at Collegeville, Minnesota.) Cardinal Mayer was a peritus
(expert) at the Second Vatican Council. From 1949 to 1966, he was rector of
the Pontifical Ateneo Sant' Anselmo in Rome, which in 1961 was erected as
the pontifical liturgical institute. He served from 1971 in the Roman
Curia, first as secretary for the Sacred Congregation for Religious, and
then as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline
of the Sacraments. After the events at Econe, Switzerland, in 1988, he was
named the first president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. Since
his "retirement," His Eminence has been very active, visiting religious
communities in different countries, ordaining priests, and enriching the
Church in many other ways. Recently a Festschrift, In Unum Congregati, was
published in his honor on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
Your Eminence has a special perspective on Vatican II. If I am not
mistaken, you were present at San Paolo fuori le mura on January 25,1959,
the day Pope John XXIII announced his intention to convene a council. You
were also involved with the preparatory stages before its opening and then
participated as an expert. Was your Eminence involved in any of the
discussions on the reform of the liturgy?
Actually, I was present at the solemn Mass celebrated by Pope John at San
Paolo. The Holy Father's intention to convene an ecumenical council was not
expressed in the homily of the Mass, however, but afterwards in the abbot's
parlor to the cardinals who were present. We learned about it that evening
on the radio. The rectors of the pontifical centers of academic studies
were then involved in the preparation of the council from the year 1959.
This involvement became for me very intense from July 1960 onward, when the
Pope appointed me secretary of the preparatory commission entrusted with
formation for the priesthood and with Catholic education.
So at that time you were already well known as an expert on priestly
At that time I had already served as the visitator of the Swiss seminaries
from 1957 to 1959. Then I was a consultant to the Congregation for
Would you explain the intention, aspirations, and "spirit," if you will, of
the council fathers behind the liturgical reform? Does Your Eminence think
that the council fathers' intentions are well reflected in Sacrosanctum
Concilium? Where might they diverge?
The council started with the reform of the sacred liturgy, certainly out of
interior reasons, since the liturgy belongs to the heart of the Christian
faith. Moreover, the schema elaborated by the competent preparatory
commission had attained to a certain maturity, which was without a doubt
due in considerable measure to the liturgical movement that from the
beginning of the century had tried to revive the great liturgical tradition
of the Latin Church. It had, so to say, rediscovered the liturgical year
and the spiritual treasures contained in the liturgical books, and had
tried to involve more actively the faithful. There was considerable
activity, you know, at the Benedictine monasteries of Maria Laach and
Solesmes and Beuron. Pius Parsch had given us books on the liturgy and
liturgical year. The Holy Father, Pius XII, had given us the encyclical
Mediator Dei and had begun a reformation of the liturgical books for the
Easter vigil and the triduum. It has been over ninety years since Pius X's
Tra le sollicitudini of November 2, 1903. All of this work has to be
considered when thinking of the "intentions" of the fathers.
We must admit with great thankfulness that the council underscored the
right understanding of the sacred liturgy distinguishing it from a mere
"cultic" function. This was already prepared by the liturgical movement.
But the council also recognized in the liturgy the exercise of the priestly
mission of Jesus Christ and therefore the summit toward which the activity
of the Church is directed, and at the same time the font from which all her
forces flow. The liturgical celebration as the action of Christ the Priest
and of His Body the Church is therefore a sacred action surpassing all
others. No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy to the same
degree. On the other hand, the council stressed that the liturgy doesn't
exhaust the entire activity of the Church.
Before man can be called to activity in the liturgy, he must first be
called to faith and conversion. Moreover, the council gave a great number
of directives for the renovation of rites and texts. Among these were the
principle of a noble simplicity, and that the celebrations should have a
more varied reading of the sacred scriptures, and that care should be given
to the specific character of cultures of different peoples, the aspect of
inculturation. Particularly, the council wished that all the faithful
participate with a true, conscious, and active participation in the
liturgical celebrations; not as standers-by, or silent observers, but as
conscious and active people. They should themselves offer the Sacrifice not
only through the hands of the priest, but also in communion with the
There is great confusion now about the meaning of "active participation,"
I think that arose afterwards from the misunderstandings of the council.
Active participation was almost exclusively misunderstood to be singing,
speaking, making gestures, and so forth, as well as the distribution of
different offices. But it was nearly forgotten that the most necessary
active participation is the interior answer to what Our Lord does, what He
gives in His Word, and particularly what He gives in rendering present His
life-giving paschal mystery and then in our participating interiorly in
this mystery. This is the most needed and most active participation.
I have heard it put that the real "active participation" begins with our
That is correct, in a way. Moreover, there is a "reception" that can be
immensely active. By responding in his heart to what Our Lord is giving,
this is "active" participation.
Would you say that it was this sense of "active participation" that was
intended by the council fathers?
I would say that surely many desired a change in attitude of the
congregation which was sitting or kneeling in the pews without a visible,
audible, perceptible participation. But afterwards, some liturgists
interpreted that active participation was to be expressed by physical
things, talking, singing, processions and so forth. And that is right. But
the most active and necessary participation is an interior participation in
what the Lord does. That is a great difficulty now. Some liturgists are
always looking for more things people can do. You can do this or that now.
You might even find dance! Stressing nearly exclusively exterior activity,
they miss the point. The point of the liturgy is to respond with love and
faith to what Our Lord is doing.
Looking at the documents themselves about this notion of "active
participation," does Your Eminence find an ambiguity that may have been
imprudent in that time of revolution when the council was going on?
When a solid theological formation is not present, ambiguity is a problem.
Especially if the Sacrifice of the Mass is reduced only to the cena, the
banquet, then one thinks about what one "does." You do not care
sufficiently anymore about the fruit of the participation in faith and love
in the Sacrifice of the Lord and of the priest. This is the most important
aspect. Concerning this very point, corrections were made in the editions
of the missal that came out after the council. In the Institutio Generalis
of the first edition of the missal of 1969 in the second chapter, number 7,
(March 26,1970) specific references were added to the person of the priest
in the Sacrifice of the Mass as personamque Christi gerente, that the
priest "presides" bearing the person of Christ. This had been left out
before. I am sorry about the "presider" staying there. But the phrase
personamque Christi gerente had to be added. Before, it only referred to
the priest celebrating at the supper. They also had to add that in the Mass
sacrificium Crucis perpetuatur... the sacrifice of Christ is perpetuated.
That was not in the first edition. They also put in references to the Real
Presence of Christ being present in both of the Eucharistic species. Even
today, they forget this, don't they? They also added the word consecratio,
when before they spoke only of narratio. This narratio, by the way, could
be something dangerous if it is understood as just telling the story of the
Do you see what one had to do to clarify these things? Some wanted to make
the liturgy, in a way, acceptable even to the Protestants, to bring the
celebration of Holy Mass close to their notion of Abendmahl.
How would you compare the intentions expressed in the document Sacrosanctum
Concilium and the actual reform that was carried out in the years following
I think we have to distinguish between three phases of the reform. The
first phase was the work of the council, the constitution on the sacred
liturgy. I said already that one has to acknowledge that there were
profound insights and good general guidelines given there. The second phase
was the work of the Consilium headed by Cardinal Lercaro and Bugnini as
secretary, established for the implementation of this constitution. Also in
this second phase there is the on-going work of the Congregation for Divine
Worship which continued after the Consilium. At the same time, there was
the work of the conferences of bishops, and the influence of national
liturgical commissions, to which on September 26,1964, there was addressed
a first "instruction" on the liturgy from the Consilium. This entrusted the
task of regulating the liturgy and the pastoral liturgical action in an
entire nation to the bishops. Finally one has to consider and evaluate the
third phase: the concrete implementation of the liturgical reform in the
dioceses, parishes, and religious institutes.
In that second phase, mentioned before, you have to distinguish three
particular things: first, the reform of the existant texts and the creation
of new texts and rites with rubrics, the different books, such as the
missal and lectionary, and the office books for the Liturgia Horarum;
secondly, the translations into the various languages; and thirdly,
adaptation and accommodation to particular circumstances. The bishops
didn't participate in creation of new texts. That was the Consilium. The
bishops prepared the translations which Rome could approve. To the bishops'
conferences was committed the task of the opportune aptationes, adaptations
to particular cultural conditions. These adaptations had to be approved by
the Holy See. The so-called accomodationes are committed to the celebrating
priest, who often
can choose betweeen various forms, for instance in the penitential rite, or
when it is stated, his vel similibus verbis. The aspect of adaptation was
mostly entrusted to the priests.
Would this include the notion of the "options" we have now?
Yes, options. Adaptation, however, is a deeper concession to the genius of
single peoples and cultures. This is inculturation. Now, many say that the
more one integrates symbols and gestures of an indigenous culture, the
better the inculturation is obtained. This is true, in a certain way. But
the more urgent need is the interiorization of what is happening in the
liturgy. This is the real inculturation. We continually switch the meanings
around. Some liturgists often go just by the exterior things. Priests too,
no? Who talks today about the Cross? So often they talk only of the
Alleluia. But this is not all there is in the paschal mystery. We are
almost in a situation now in which Easter Sunday has been separated in
people's minds from Good Friday. That doesn't mean that we have to be sad
and mourning, but the Church must stay under the Cross, too. Otherwise it
won't be the Catholic Church. We recognize in the Resurrection, and also
the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Father's response to
Jesus' Sacrifice. St. Paul, in Philippians, said we have to know the whole
mystery, the Resurrection and the suffering also. The Church has to go the
same way Our Lord has gone, of course, in the power of the Spirit. This is
not sad or depressing. But I am afraid that some liturgists are missing the
point. Our priests are committed not only to the celebration of the
Eucharist, but also to the sacrament of reconciliation.
Doesn't the new typical edition for the rites of ordination for the
priesthood address this same point in the interrogations made of the
ordinands? The new edition puts back a specific reference to the priest's
office of forgiving sins.
That is right. I insisted on that when I was at the Congregation of Divine
Going back to the idea of ambiguity mentioned before, we have to preserve
the right understanding of the mystery of the Church. So much attention has
been drawn to the second chapter of the constitution on the Church (Lumen
gentium), the "People of God." And rightly so. But the first chapter is on
the mystery of the Church. This seems to be nearly forgotten. If you forget
the mystery of the Church, you are in danger of interpreting the People of
God aspect not enough in its connection with the People of God as in the
Old Testament, but rather in the populist sense, or a democratic way. This
subverts its meaning. The democratic understanding of our times pushes
aside the vision of the "temple" and of the Church as Christ's bride, and
so all the interest focuses on the "presider" who could be understood as
being "elected" by the people, instead of as the priest acting in persona
Regarding that second phase and its three great tasks, we can see that the
translation of texts and the adaptation to local needs was not without its
risks. That adaptation must be done with the focus on interiorization of
what Our Lord is doing, not on what we do. This is the right idea of
Sometimes you hear talk that there was an agreement made by the translators
of the texts after the council (I don't necessarily want to say conspiracy)
not to render accurately or faithfully the new Roman texts.
I would say that perhaps there could have been an agreement on a personal
level, maybe. Of course, in the English-speaking world, the work of ICEL
has suffered from some preferential nuances. I remember very well
Archbishop Ryan Dermot of Dublin, who was for a short time the pro-prefect
of Propaganda here in Rome. He died too soon. He was a scripture scholar.
And he told me that he had many reservations about the work of ICEL. He
said he would give me his materials on this, but he died then... too soon.
There were others, too, who were deeply pre-occupied. ICEL denies all this,
denies any ideological preference whatsoever. But this denial is hard to
substantiate when you see what happened in the translations. Now, of
course, many are watching hopefully this new group CREDO in the U.S.
Let us, however, return to that third stage, mentioned earlier. That stage
involved the concrete implementation of the reforms in the parishes and is
committed, not to some agency, but to the priests. This phase shows a few
great currents. A rare one would be an obstinate refusal of any
implementation. That would be represented in some way by the movement
around Lefebvre. Others are determined to be faithful to the documents and
directives, and honestly try to implement them. This means that they also
had to read them. Moreover, there was a kind of wild creativity which
individual priests were indulging.
But in a way it's hard to say that these are isolated priests, since
workshops and seminaries and, basically, the dominant liturgists, have
virtually imposed a kind of style on the liturgical formation of our
priests and liturgists today. Is that fair to say?
Well, yes, there is something to that. But to the people they appear as
individuals, for they are not so much aware of the trends being taught in
the workshops, and so forth. They don't know that these experiments may
have an ideological background. We see that today devotions like
Eucharistic adoration have been nearly wiped out, because a national
liturgical commission chose to quote only part of a document of the
competent congregation refering to it. They underscore the cena and are
nearly silent about the Real Presence. Some liturgists also want to take us
back to early centuries of the primitive Church, in which a notion of the
Eucharist didn't yet consider "adoration." They don't understand the growth
in the sensus fidei, and that the gift of the Eucharist, in the Blessed
Sacrament, has been grasped always more deeply. It is true that the
Eucharist was conserved for the sick at first. But more and more it was
understood that Our Lord, really and substantially present, should be
adored. We do not adore the "sign," we adore the reality!
I want to add something about that second phase and the Consilium. Now, for
example, we have a richness and variety of scripture readings that before
we didn't know, both in the Mass and in the office of readings as well as
the rites for other sacraments. Also, from the treasures of prayer of the
Church we have new prayers and prefaces that we didn't have before in the
Mass. The use of the mother tongue has also contributed to the
understanding of the rites. This opened up the liturgy of the hours to more
people as part of their prayer life. But afterwards we will have to say
something more about this, won't we, and also about Latin.
You know, there is a characteristic of the way the reform of the liturgy is
misunderstood, a kind of extremism. Before there was only Latin, and now
some pretend that it needs a special permission to use it, even for the new
order of Mass. It's incredible, really. Before, the gestures at Mass were
so precisely defined, and now there are so many options available that
nothing seems fixed down. But also positive achievements must not be
forgotten, for instance the new Masses for Our Lady. I am glad to have
signed that book as prefect of the congregation. The council had ruled out
this extremism. In the constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium, with number
23, the council says "There must be no innovations unless the good of the
Church genuinely and certainly requires them and care must be taken that
any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms
So if change is not required, it's wrong to change something, according to
the council, and any change must be organic?
One cannot say that this number 23 of Sacrosanctum Concilium was considered
adequately in that second phase. One cannot really say that the Consilium
followed that principle. Some have said that now, instead of having a
gewordene Liturgie, we have gemachte Liturgie, instead of a liturgy that
developed, we have a liturgy that was made. It was one done on the table.
Do you think that is true?
I would say to a certain extent. Generally liturgy grows through the life
of the Church which is especially her prayer life. Now they sit down and
write it. First, I said it was very positive that we have this new richness
of scripture readings. On the other hand, I think nevertheless, one should
also say that we have done a bit too much. It somewhat surpasses the priest
and the faithful, especially some of the readings of the Old Testament.
Yes, in the old order of Mass the readings were restricted, but this also
guaranteed that certain readings would be heard, understood, and
And these readings were tied to the sacred music for the Mass. The
antiphons and chants were tied to the readings.
Yes. Yet, it seems to me that in the selection of the pericopes, there was
an exegetical approach rather than a liturgical approach in the choices
made. Liturgy is always a serving of and adoration of God. We must adore
God. The exegetical point of view can be different. The Novus Ordo has a
strongly didactic element. We have to admit that the liturgy has also this
purpose, but to put it first is wrong. First, is the cultic, understood
correctly of course. We have to concede that the didactic intention often
dominates now, no? But the first important aspect remains adoration,
So, in some ways in that second phase the Consilium went beyond what it was
intended to do. And perhaps they gave too much freedom, too many options.
These freedoms were given also at the same time as the mother tongue had
become, first, an option, and then used nearly exclusively. When only Latin
was used in the liturgy, the danger of abuses was not so great. But with
the mother tongue, quite a few priests began to think that they could
change words and gestures according to their own whims.
In contrast to some priests and lay faithful who seem to take little
account of Sacrosanctum Concilium and related documents, there are many
hopeful (and sometimes long suffering) Catholics in the world who think
that a true renaissance of liturgy and sacred music would come if only our
bishops would assure that we, as a Church, would just "do as the council
asked." Do you think that this is too optimistic?
I would say that this is at least a realistic possibility... if we really
try to do what the council wanted, especially that we deepen the
understanding of the mystery, the values of the sacrum, the values of the
Cross and the Resurrection that must be really present in the hearts and
the minds of the priest and then also the people. It is a possibility, if
we avoid the wild creativity and stay with what the universal Church has
recommended. It is possible if, as I have said before, instead of running
after some new little findings, we first take to heart the interiorization
of the meaning of the liturgy and especially of the Mass, and return to its
integrity. We must help the people understand, appreciate, and love it.
This would be something great. If we could avoid this wild creativity, we
could avoid also creating new wounds in many good people. We must also
avoid giving ammunition to those who will sometimes with great bitterness
attack the new liturgy.
This idea of attack on the new liturgy relates back to what you were saying
about those wide trends of how the reforms were implemented in that third
stage. From your perspective of having been the first president of the
commission, Ecclesia Dei, do you think that the use of the 1962 missal is a
challenge in a negative sense or a positive challenge?
I must say that, according to the mind of the motu proprio, Ecclesia Dei,
use of that missal should really be more freely given to those who
reverently desire it. But we cannot think that the 1962 missal will become
again the missal of the whole Church. We must try to keep the Novus Ordo in
its real, given form and not go beyond. Those who follow the 1962 missal,
on the other hand, shouldn't think that the Church can be "saved" only with
the 1962 missal. They should avoid being polemic and try positively to
develop and share with others the transcendent value of the liturgy, the
adoration value of the liturgy, the mystery value of the liturgy. They
should reveal these values to others without attacking those who
participate in the Mass according to the Novus Ordo, sincerely
acknowledging, as they are asked to do, the doctrinal and juridical value
of the new missal.
One hears talk today of a "reform of the reform." Some people hope that the
Church will return to the 1962 missal and abandon the new liturgy. Some
people completely belittle the older form of liturgy. Some want a kind of
tertium quid, combining the best of both. After all your experience, where
would Your Eminence stand on this? What role could the 1962 missal play in
I would say that if we used the 1962 missal, or maybe better the values
that are more easily expressed in it, without extolling every detail, and
if we avoid the polemics, then, given also especially the witness of the
people who follow that missal, the reverence and deep gratitude they
should express, then they can have an influence. Again however, at this
moment we must allow a certain calm to come about. But this calmness would
require also that the bishops would be more open to petitions, granting
solidly founded permissions to use the 1962 missal. On the other hand,
those who follow the new liturgy, should stay with the new liturgy as it
should be celebrated. If possible they should bring to it those values that
have been endangered: reverence, for example, and a deep theological and
spiritual understanding of the content of the Mass. One bishop was recently
published saying that the Mass is "boring." Maybe he doesn't really
understand what is going on.
The council asked that Latin be maintained (Sacrosanctum Concilium 54),
that Gregorian chant be given pride of place in the liturgy and that the
musical heritage of the Church be used and fostered (114-116). We know too
that sacred music is pars integrans in the liturgy. What do you see as the
key element that safeguards these things from becoming merely expressions
of nostalgia? What must priests be sure to teach the people when they use
these traditional Catholic expressions in the parish?
This pars integrans that the council expresses, means that music is not
merely a decoration, something which is just added to the liturgy. Sacred
music is liturgy. Of course, it is not its essential aspect, but it does
belong to its integrity. So, the council says that music helps to give
glory to God, using the beauty also created by man, using the gifts that
God has given to men. Sacred music, then, in a special way gives something
beautiful back to God. It is said that no art is so closely linked to the
liturgy as sacred music, for it expresses and deepens the minds of those
who participate in it, no? It is in a very special way a "giving back" to
the Father of the Incarnate Word, a word of praise that we incarnate.
Cardinal Ratzinger has written about this aspect, bringing together sacred
music and the mystery of the Incarnation. Sacred music brings out certain
values of the Word, which cannot be expressed with the spoken word alone.
The mystery of the Incarnation and the paschal mystery come out more
completely with music.
Of course, Gregorian chant is bound together with Latin, though there are
some that dispute this. It is suggested that one can adapt chant to other
languages, but this is not really successful, is it? I would say too, that
Latin should not have been completely abolished as it has been de facto.
The council did not say it should be abolished. It said Latin should be
used. You remember that while at Ecclesia Dei, I received a letter once
from a chancery office in the United States, asking me if I didn't know
that the council had abolished Latin!
It is remarkable that anyone would put a signature to that! But, Your
Eminence, Latin is a special language for the liturgy, is it not, at least
for the Latin rite?
It is a sacred language, in a way, as there are sacred times, places,
people. And it is universal. Yes, of course. Especially now, when we have
so many languages in a world that is becoming increasingly smaller, when
people travel so much for different reasons, it is hard to find any
possibility of feeling at home. With the Latin, this was a given. No, there
is no doubt about the importance of Latin, even practically.
Concerning music, not all music for the liturgy must be Gregorian chant. We
also have the great treasures of polyphony too, from Palestrina all the way
to Haydn, Mozart, Bruckner, and many other great Catholic composers.
I have heard it said that the Church has given two things as its heredity
to the whole world: art and saints.
Yes, I have heard this too. And the Church should do more to promote these.
There is a great apologetic value, too, of the arts and saints. Saints and
art express our real values.
Could you say a few words about formation? If bishops and rectors of
seminaries were to come and ask you for advice concerning the liturgical
and musical formation of aspirants to the priesthood today, what would you
tell them? And what would you like to tell seminarians or young priests,
about Latin, liturgy and music?
They should know, of course, from the council, and from the documents and
directives given since, what the Church says about music and Latin and the
liturgy. I would say also that we should regain something of what has been
lost. We should follow the orientations given. There is nothing really new
here, if we would only put into practice what is set down.
We must also get over this prejudice against Latin, no? In the secular
world a new kind of flowering of Latin is sometimes to be observed. On the
other hand, in the Church we see a kind of pitiful and deplorable attitude
of resistance, a desire to throw it all away.
We may also consider that those wonderful Latin chants, the Marian
antiphons, those to the Holy Spirit, to the Blessed Sacrament used in the
different liturgical seasons, have been prayed and sung with great devotion
by so many saints, and by generations and generations of faithful. I think
that from this fact there must be something special in these chants. We
don't have to sing them exclusively, of course, that is clear. We can use
the mother tongue too, that is very positive, and new good liturgical music
can be and must be developed with the mother tongue. But the freedom we now
have with languages and music should be used without this complete burning
of the Latin.