VATICAN CITY (RNS) — It’s not every day that Pope Francis chooses to invoke the full weight of his office. This is, after all, the pontiff renowned for his freewheeling, informal style and that famous phrase “who am I to judge.”
But when it comes to the furious internal rows over Catholic worship, he’s decided enough is enough.
In a detailed, 2,500-word address at the Vatican on Thursday (Aug. 24), Francis declared that the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgical reforms of the 1960s are “irreversible,” a move designed to stop groups of traditionalists trying to roll back those changes.
While acknowledging that “there is still work to do” in interpreting changes made during the Second Vatican Council, the pontiff said it is not a question “of rethinking the reform by reviewing its choices, but of knowing better the underlying reasons.”
The speech almost certainly won’t end the Catholic liturgy wars. Just a few hours after it was delivered the Latin Mass Society, based in the United Kingdom, responded: “Is it a piece of poetic prose about the liturgy? Have got through about half of it and lost the will to live.”
The pope’s words reflect his growing frustration with a traditionalist faction that opposes his overall reformist agenda. Still, a return to previous styles of worship has little support from ordinary Catholics except for a vocal minority.
And the traditionalists wield considerable influence. They include Cardinal Robert Sarah, leader of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship. He has said liturgical reformers have brought about “devastation and schism” in the church and has delighted conservatives with his call for priests to say Mass with their backs to the people.
In Catholic understanding, the celebration of the liturgy is both a moment to praise God but also build up the community of the church. The Eucharist, the reenactment of Jesus’ last supper, is something everyone — priest and people — plays a part in.
Walk into the average Catholic Church for Mass on Sunday and you are likely to witness a ritual conducted in a language understood by local people and led by a priest facing his congregation. Some of those attending the liturgy will also read passages of Scripture, distribute Communion and say prayers. And when it comes to the singing, you’re more likely to hear the sound of guitars strumming than any Latin chanting.
For years, a faction of conservative Catholics have called for a return to a formal style of worship that includes more Latin, a priest facing east and people praying quietly in the pews. This, they argue, is how Catholics have worshipped for centuries and ensures the celebration is sacred and awe-inspiring.
Before the 1962-65 council, Mass was celebrated entirely in Latin, with the priest saying prayers in a voice that was barely audible. Defenders of this form of liturgy say it offers an other-worldly experience that connects people with the divine.
But a near unanimous number of bishops disagreed and voted during the council to make changes including allowing the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy and the “full, active and conscious” participation of the congregation. Defenders of reform argue that Mass said in this way is closer to how the early Christians celebrated the Eucharist when they gathered in one another’s houses to pray.
In the years following the council there was a backlash in certain quarters against how the changes set forward by the council developed and there were increasing calls for a “reform of the reform.”
During Benedict XVI’s papacy traditionalists were encouraged by his loosening of restrictions on celebrating the old form of the liturgy a decade ago while more recently they have applauded Sarah who has spoken favorably about a “reform of the reform.”
In his speech on Thursday the pope described the Mass as “popular” rather than “clerical” and “an action for the people, but also of the people.” He also quoted from the Second Vatican Council documents stating that Catholics should not be “strangers or silent spectators” during Mass.
For Francis, the liturgy is more than an idea and should reflect a church that is “truly living” and missionary. And he pointed out that reforms to the liturgy were started by popes such as Pius X and Pius XII, who were held up as heroes by traditionalists.
(Christopher Lamb is The Tablet’s Rome correspondent and a contributor to RNS)