Restore the Sacred

Author: Robert Moynihan


"" ("But test everything; hold fast what is good"). St. Paul, <1 Thessalonians> 5:21

"Holy things must be treated in a holy way and this sacrifice is the most holy of all things. And so, that this sacrifice might be worthily and reverently offered and received, the Catholic Church many centuries ago instituted the sacred Canon. It is free from all error and contains nothing that does not savour of holiness and piety and contains nothing that does not raise to God the minds of those who offer the Sacrifice. For it is made up from the words of Our Lord, from apostolic traditions, and from devout instructions of the holy pontiffs." Council of Trent, On the Sacrifice of the Mass

By Robert Moynihan

On July 4, 1995, shortly before 10 in the morning, I entered the Palace of the Holy Office in Vatican City for an appointment with the chief doctrinal officer in the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger .

In recent years, it has been my privilege to meet with the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on a number of occasions, and I have been able to pose questions freely to him. The transcripts of the conversations will be collected into a book for publication in the near future. Part of our July conversation seemed so important, however, that it seemed wrong to delay sharing it with the readers of this journal.

The subject: the liturgy.

It will come as no surprise to readers to learn that Ratzinger is deeply concerned about the current state of the liturgy of the Roman rite. The liturgy is the communal prayer of the People of God and the indispensable basis for the community's faith; indeed, it determines that faith, according to the saying "" ("the law of prayer is the law of belief").

Thus, the state of the liturgy naturally concerns one who, like Ratzinger, has the task of overseeing "right belief," that is, orthodoxy.

In fact, Ratzinger has repeatedly declared his grave concern over the state of Roman Catholic liturgical practice - for example, the sharp declines in Mass attendance in comparison with a generation ago - and his hope that the problems will be addressed someday by "a reform of the reform."

Ratzinger's position is not at all that the Second Vatican Council was a mistake or itself the cause of subsequent liturgical abuses and scandals, but that the Second Vatican Council has been, in substantial ways, betrayed.

Ratzinger argues that many key aims of the Council have never been met, despite three decades of a "reform" process intended to make those aims a reality.

"The Popes and the Council Fathers looked forward to a new Catholic unity and instead ran into a type of dissent that - to use the words of Paul VI - seemed to pass from self-criticism to self-destruction," Ratzinger said more than a decade ago.

But this self-destruction was not the fault of the Council, according to Ratzinger.

"In its official statements, in its authentic documents, Vatican II cannot be held responsible for this evolution which, on the contrary, radically contradicts both the letter and the spirit of the Council Fathers," Ratzinger told the Italian Catholic journalist Vittorio Messori in 1984.

For Ratzinger, then, there is no question of rejecting Vatican II.

Rather, there is a need to return to , and to conform modern aspects of Church life to that authentic teaching, not to alleged "developments" of that teaching in the years since.

And this is precisely what Ratzinger would like to do. Especially with regard to the liturgy.

can now reveal that Ratzinger is preparing a theological treatise on the Church's liturgy to express these ideas in a systematic way. We do not know when the treatise will be ready for publication, but the project began during Ratzinger's vacation this summer, which he prolonged precisely to enable him to focus on this question.

*The Renaissance courtyard, half-filled with parked cars, echoed with the chatter of the water falling in the fountain at the courtyard's center.

I walked up a flight of stairs to the second floor. A doorman showed me into Ratzinger's waiting room.

On the walls, in addition to portraits of Pius XI and Ratzinger himself, were black and white photographs, one depicting the proclamation of the Dogma of the Assumption by Pius XII in 1950, another depicting the coronation of Paul VI by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani in 1963.

After a minute or two, Ratzinger himself opened the door and invited me into his private audience room. As I opened my briefcase to take out the notes I had prepared, a sheet of paper fluttered to the floor. Ratzinger leaned over immediately to pick it up and hand it back to me.

In the course of our conversation (we spoke in Italian), the subject of the liturgy arose.

Ratzinger said he had been much impressed by an article sent to him recently for his review. The article called for a "new liturgical movement" to "reform the reform" of the Second Vatican Council.

"The article sets forth, let us say, the failure of the liturgical reform on the basis of quite striking statistics," Ratzinger said. The statistics he was referring to are those that show a great decline in Sunday and weekday Mass attendance among Catholics since the early 1960s, especially in the Western world.

"But the author argues that a simple return to the Old Mass, as proposed by the Fraternity of St. Peter and others, is not the solution to the problem," Ratzinger continued. "He says we must, finally, carry out the liturgical reform as it was desired precisely by the Council. Because, he argues, the liturgical reform carried out by the post-conciliar [the special commission on the liturgy set up by Paul VI to implement the liturgical reform] does not correspond to the Council's .

"Then he explains what a liturgical reform would look like if developed simply along the lines of the conciliar text. His ideas are very interesting, and very precise.

"And he argues that this could, potentially, bring about peace between the liberal and conservative currents in the Church which are growing ever more widely separated. Because , in its authenticity, and, on the other hand, and not a break with that tradition in the way that the reform of the Consilium, instead, became a break.

"It is a project that merits further study, I would say..."

As I took my leave, I asked the cardinal how long he would be away for his summer vacation.

"This vacation will be an especially long one. I have to prepare a number of talks, but what I really have in mind to write is something on the theology of the liturgy..."

The post-conciliar liturgical reform is one of the most emotional issues in the present life of the Church because it lies at the crossroads of the Church's response to modernity.

The Second Vatican Council can be seen as the Church's great effort to respond to the challenges and opportunities of modernity, and the post-conciliar liturgical reform as the problematic attempt to "root" that reform in the life of the Church.

The world had evolved with tremendous rapidity in the four centuries between Trent (1545-1562) and the convocation of Vatican II (1962), and with even greater rapidity in the 90 years between Vatican I (1870) and Vatican II (1962-65). Marxism, Darwinism, Freudianism, Nazism and other "isms" had arisen in a world transformed by scientific breakthroughs and technological advances. Democracy had begun to spread worldwide; the British Empire had disintegrated; the formerly colonized nations of Africa and Asia had begun to achieve independence.

Amid these dizzying changes, the Church decided to "democratize," "horizontalize," "demythologize," "historicize," diminish the distinction between priest and people, eliminate potential barriers to ecumenism, expel any shadows of "superstition." As a central part of this process, she decided to reform what was perhaps her greatest glory: the Latin liturgy. The renewed liturgy would help the Church confront and engage modernity.

But the result was not what anyone anticipated.

As theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand put it some years ago: "The new liturgy is without splendor, flattened and undifferentiated. It no longer draws us into the true experience of the liturgical year; we are deprived of this experience through the catastrophic elimination of the hierarchy of feasts, octaves, many great feasts of saints... Truly, if one of the devils in C.S. Lewis ' had been entrusted with the ruin of the liturgy, he could not have done it better."

Likewise, Father Michael Napier , a British Oratorian, expressed the feelings of many Catholics when he asked some years ago: "What has gone wrong in the Church's public worship, that instead of being a source of joy and constant renewal it has become for many only bitterness and wormwood, so that their spiritual lives have been crippled, and many alienated from the Church?"

High-ranking members of the hierarchy have shared these feelings.

As British Cardinal John Heenan once put it: "When on 7 December 1962, the bishops voted overwhelmingly (1,922 against 11) in favor of the first chapter of the they did not realize that they were initiating a process which after the Council would cause confusion and bitterness throughout the Church."

The American Professor James Hitchcock of St. Louis, in his book (1974), saw the liturgical changes as an importance cause of an overall breakdown in Catholic identity.

"The fragmentation and manipulation of sacred symbolism," Hitchcock wrote, "conveyed in the most dramatic and effective way possible that the community of the Church was also fragmented, probably beyond repair... The casual discarding of traditional symbols, often with the implication that there was something ridiculous or unsavory about them, symbolized effectively a Church dying piece by piece."

"A Church dying piece by piece." Such was the premonition of one of the most maligned Church leaders of this century: Cardinal Ottaviani, the aging lion whom the liberals at the Second Vatican Council thought of, rightly, as their chief obstacle and enemy.

For those who have studied the background of the liturgical reform, Cardinal Ottaviani's opposition to the new Mass is well known.

But to many readers it may come as a surprise to learn how intense was Ottaviani's opposition.

Then the powerful Prefect of the Holy Office (thus Ratzinger's predecessor as the Church's highest doctrinal official), Ottaviani had such grave reservations about the proposed changes in the Mass that he sent a letter to Paul VI asking him to reconsider setting aside the old rite (see box).

The critics of the liturgical reform continue to see much of the enterprise as marked by a spirit foreign to the old liturgy, a spirit more Protestant and humanist than Roman Catholic.

But Ratzinger remains hopeful.

" I am still certain that the Lord prevails and that the Church survives, not only survives, but lives with strength through all of these crises," Ratzinger said. "I am optimistic, because I am one who has the hope of the faith. But whether in a part of the world - for example, in Europe - these crises can still grow more severe, I do not know."

In upcoming issues, will provide a series of reports on the ongoing liturgical reform.



"We must now return to the central reality. All these ecclesiological struggles, struggles that are ongoing and obscure the face of the Church - celibacy, election of bishops, participation of the laity in all decisions - all these power struggles make me think of the discussions among the apostles about who would be the first among them. Let us now hear the response of the Lord, who says to us, 'What are you doing? It does not matter who is the first, who is second, who is last. What matters is God.' Therefore, it seems to me that the centrality of God must be clearly affirmed. We must speak of essential things: Who is God? What does God do? Is he present in the world? Who is Christ? What is eternal life?

"The problems of Christianity today are found not only in the Catholic Church, but even more acutely in the Protestant Churches as well. Therefore, the true crisis cannot stem from celibacy or something similar, it must stem from something else. It is precisely this: the crisis is a crisis of the sense of God.

"In my presentation of the Catechism [December, 1992], I said the true problem of the empty churches - of the emptied churches - is the deism of Christians, the view that 'Maybe there is a Supreme Being, but that has nothing to do with our daily lives.'

"If people believe this, the Church dies, and all that she does with her. And so, it seems to me, this centrality of God brings us back to the great proclamation of Christ, to the two concepts: 'Repent' and 'the Kingdom of God.' Conversion, and God."


Most Holy Father,

Having examined, and presented for the scrutiny of others, the prepared by the experts of the , and after lengthy reflection and prayer, we feel it to be our duty in the sight of God and towards Your Holiness to put forward the following considerations:

1) The accompanying critical study is the work of a group of theologians, liturgists, and pastors of souls. Brief though it is, it sufficiently demonstrates that the Novus Ordo Missae - considering the new elements, susceptible of widely differing evaluations, which appear to be implied or taken for granted - represents, as a whole and in detail, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Holy Mass as it was formulated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent, which, by fixing definitively the "canons of the rite, erected an insurmountable barrier against any heresy which might attack the integrity of the Mystery.

2) The pastoral reasons adduced in support of such a grave break - even if they could stand up in the face of doctrinal reasons - do not appear sufficient. The innovations in the , and on the other hand the things of eternal value relegated to an inferior or different place (if indeed they are still to be found at all), could well turn into a certainty the suspicion, already prevalent, alas, in many circles, that truths which have always been believed by Christians can be altered or silenced without infidelity to that sacred deposit of doctrine to which the Catholic faith is bound forever. Recent reforms have amply shown that fresh changes in the liturgy could not but lead to utter bewilderment on the part of the faithful, who are already giving signs of restiveness and of an indubitable lessening of faith. Amongst the best of the clergy, the practical result is an agonizing crisis of conscience of which numberless instances come to our notice daily.

3) We are certain that these considerations, which spring from the living voice of shepherds and flock, cannot but find an echo in the paternal heart of Your Holiness, always so profoundly solicitous for the spiritual needs of the children of the Church. The subjects for whose benefit a law is passed have always had - more than the right - the duty, if it should instead prove harmful, of asking the legislator with filial trust for its abrogation.

Therefore we most earnestly beseech Your Holiness not to deprive us - at a time of such painful divisions and ever-increasing perils for the purity of the Faith and the unity of the Church, daily and sorrowfully echoed in the voice of our common Father - of the possibility of continuing to have recourse to the fruitful integrity of that Missale Romanum of St. Pius V, so highly praised by Your Holiness and so deeply venerated and loved by the whole Catholic world.

Feast of St. Pius X (September 3, 1969)


(Excerpts from the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy , promulgated December 4,1963. It was no accident that this was the first document approved at Vatican II. Pope Paul VI said, "The liturgy was the first subject to be examined and the first too, in a sense, in intrinsic worth and in importance for the life of the Church.")

21. "In order that the Christian people may more securely derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, Holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted, and elements subject to change... In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify..."

23. "That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way be open for legitimate progress, a careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised... 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 already existing..."

36. (Par. 1) "Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. (Par. 2) But since the use of the mother tongue... may frequently be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended..."

50. "The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, can be more clearly manifested..."

51. "The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God's word. In this way a more representative portion of the Holy Scriptures will be read to the people over a set cycle of years."

114. "The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with very great care..."


This article was taken from the August/September 1995 issue of "Inside the Vatican."

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