Pope Francis celebrates Mass during the Feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) at St. Giovanni in Laterano Basilica, in Rome, on May 26, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CATHOLIC-GAYS, originally transmitted on June 30, 2016.

Reforming Catholic liturgy should be like updating software

In response to requests from bishops all over the world, last week Pope Francis gave more authority to national bishops’ conferences in determining liturgical translations and adaptations. He did this in a letter entitled "Magnum Principium" or "The Great Principle."

The reform of the liturgy was the most visible effect of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which assembled all the Catholic bishops of the world to update the church. In their 1963 Constitution on the Liturgy, the council fathers recognized the need to encourage lay participation and to adapt the liturgy to local cultures. They had anticipated that most of this work would be done by national assemblies of bishops known as bishops’ conferences.

A provisional Mass, which I will call Liturgical Reform 1.0, was rolled out in 1965. This version called for translating the Mass into the vernacular and turning the altar around to face the people.

Liturgical Reform 1.0 was a revolutionary change, like moving from DOS to Windows. Further upgrades and fixes were anticipated. Ultimately, they resulted in the Mass announced by the pope on April 28, 1969, which I will call version 2.0. This upgrade included significant revisions in the introductory rite, the presentation of gifts, the kiss of peace, and additional Eucharistic prayers.

Pope Paul VI was elected pope in 1963 and served until he died on Aug. 6, 1978, at the age of 80. Religion News Service file photo

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Pope Paul VI was intimately involved in the development of the 1969 Mass. His liturgical training and his experience with the Ambrosian Rite while he was archbishop of Milan made him open to the possibility of using other Eucharistic prayers in addition to the Roman Canon.

On the other hand, he vetoed dropping the prayers during the presentation of gifts. The drafters wanted to deemphasize this part of the rite, which in the past was called the Offertory. There was no question that Paul VI, like Bill Gates, was in charge.

Granted the challenges faced by the reformers, Liturgical Reform 2.0 was an extraordinary achievement. The new lectionary of readings for both Sundays and weekdays provides Catholics with a richer selection of Scripture readings than in the past. The additional Eucharistic prayers, although underutilized by the clergy, are great additions to the prayer life of the church.

People were a bit confused when version 1.0 was rolled out, but they quickly caught on and embraced it and its upgrades. Although a few diehards opposed the reforms, the old version of the liturgy, like DOS, was fading away.

The reforms went a long way toward increasing lay participation in the Eucharist, but the Vatican was hesitant in allowing adaptations of the liturgy to local cultures. The two most significant adaptations were for India at the end of the 1960’s and for Zaire in 1972. They were authorized for experimental purposes for a limited time.

More upgrades were in the making. Additional prayers were written in English for Sunday liturgies that would sync with the liturgical readings of the three-year cycle. Thus, the opening prayer would pick up themes from the readings of each Sunday. A new and better English translation was also prepared by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). This 1998 translation was approved by all the English-speaking bishops’ conferences, but never approved by Rome.

pope benedict XVI

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief theologian under Pope John Paul II, was elected pope in 2005 and served until he resigned in 2013. RNS file photo by Odette Lupis.

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As time went on, the reform movement experienced growing opposition in the Vatican and eventually a hostile takeover by those, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who felt the reforms had gone too far. Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, who had spearheaded the reforms, was exiled from Rome and made nuncio to Iran in 1976, where he celebrated Christmas Mass for the hostages in the American embassy. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in 2002 led a coup at ICEL, removing those who had supported the reform and replacing them with people more in line with Vatican thinking. Rather than respecting local translations, Rome began micromanaging the translations.

Thus, began Liturgical Reform 3.0, or what many called the “Reform of the Reform.” The 1998 ICEL translation was trashed and replaced by an awkward, more literal translation in 2011. It is like MS Vista, a 2007 version of Windows that was rejected by users. Also brought back was the pre-Vatican II Latin version of the Mass. Marketing an old and new version of the Mass has caused confusion among priests and laity. It was as if Microsoft had decided to bring back DOS.

The reform of the reform put a stop to any new innovations. New ideas were unwelcome in Rome.

Early in his papacy, liturgical reform was not a priority for Pope Francis. In 2014, he appointed Cardinal Robert Sarah as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship. The cardinal supports the reform of the reform and has even been promoting Masses where the priest faces east, with his back to the people.

This was perhaps Francis’ worst appointment. Francis had earlier closed down the office Sarah had headed in the Roman Curia and Francis felt he needed to give him a job. The position at the congregation was open.

Pope Francis (third from right) arrives to lead a Mass for the Jubilee for Priests at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on June 3, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

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When the council of cardinals advising the pope asked bishops what issues they thought should be handled by bishops’ conferences rather than the Vatican, the almost universal response was liturgical translations. Bishops were tired of being second guessed by Rome. Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay (Mumbai), India, heard that from every bishops’ conference in Asia.

In response, the pope appointed a commission earlier this year chaired by Archbishop Arthur Roche, the number two man in the Congregation for Divine Worship, to look into the question. This was clearly an end run around the prefect Cardinal Sarah. The pope accepted their recommendations and Roche explained them to the media.

Church law was clarified by the pope to emphasize the original intention of Vatican II to give primary authority to bishops’ conferences in liturgical translations. The Vatican now simply “confirms” or “ratifies” the approval of the bishops of these translations after reviewing them. No more micromanaging.

When it comes to “adaptations” or changes in the liturgy, the Vatican’s role is a bit larger. It is to review and evaluate adaptations in order to safeguard the substantial unity of the Roman Rite. What is striking is that the explanatory documents cite Vatican II, which spoke of “radical adaptation” of the liturgy. This appears to be a clear invitation to bishops’ conferences to propose significant changes in the next stage of liturgical renewal.

What might the next stage, Liturgical Reform 4.0, look like.

A first step would be to look at the upgrades that were canceled because of the reform of the reform. Although it would confuse people if their responses at Mass were changed again, it would not cause any problems to let priests use the good 1998 ICEL translation as an alternative to the current bad English translation. Let the users decide which interface they prefer.

Pope Francis leads the Chrism Mass in Saint Peter's Basilica on March 24, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini.

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A second step is to clarify the position of the pre-Vatican II liturgy. The church has to be clear that this product is being phased out. It is only being allowed out of respect to the sensitivities of the faithful who find change difficult. Baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and ordinations in the old rite should be discontinued. The old rite should not be taught in seminaries. Any seminarian who has problems with the new rite should not be ordained. Parents should be instructed to bring up their children in the new rite.

Third, new prefaces need to be drafted for each Sunday in the three-year cycle that would pick up themes from the Scripture readings of that Sunday so that the congregation would see a connection between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Fourth, more Eucharistic prayers that include responses from the assembly, as does the “Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children II,” are especially needed. The church needs to show that the Eucharistic prayer is not just the prayer of the priest, but of the whole assembly.

Parishioners exchange kiss of peace during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. on Sunday, May 20, 2012. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

A fifth step would examine and experiment with the placement of the kiss of peace, which through the centuries has moved around in the liturgy. The most ancient location was at the end of the Liturgy of the Word.

This last recommendation reminds me to emphasize that the church needs a better process for developing and rolling out changes in the liturgy. The Constitution on the Liturgy speaks of granting bishops’ conferences the power to permit “the necessary preliminary experiments over a determined period of time among certain groups suited for the purpose.”

Rather than having everything coming top down from the Vatican, it is clear that the council fathers expected bishops’ conferences to be creative in developing adaptations. These adaptations, even "radical adaptations," would be tested locally before they were proposed for approval by the Holy See. In the secular world, this is called beta testing or market testing. Getting feedback from the congregation to improve the adaptations would be an essential part of this testing.

Over its 2,000-year history, the Catholic liturgy has constantly changed in response to new situations and cultures. Like software, it must continue to be updated and adjusted to the people and cultures of today. Allowing creativity and experimentation is the best way to prepare for Liturgical Reform 4.0. Pope Francis has opened the door; bishops need to foster creativity.


  1. I see no reason why those who prefer the TLM should not have the opportunity to attend one. It is still valid as it has been in use for millennia and to deny that fact is to suggest error in the Mass since the beginning. It is rather curious that so many are scared of the TLM, and the existence of people and groups who prefer it. I am very aware that there are some rather questionable vowed groups associated with the TLM and their views on issues that are not right, but that does not mean that the TLM which existed before these groups needs to go away.

    Change for the sake of change in the RCC is the wrong method to use, and using computers as a metaphor implies that the Mass is a cold, calculated, repetitive task which is far from what the Mass constitutes. Any change in the Mass must come about ONLY when it provides a better form of worship FOR God not for us personally.

  2. Ah, I see why my first comment was censored. I didn’t even notice that the author of this left-wing bigotry was Thomas Reese, one of the most well-known anti-Catholic heretics in the ‘liberal Catholic’ world today.
    That explains everything! 🙂

  3. A very helpful analysis. Thank you Fr. Reese. Yes the “old mass,” with its outdated ecclesiology needs to be phased out.

  4. Millennia?? Actually TLM as you know it was used for only 400 years. And, of course, about 7 other major liturgical rites and languages were used continuously as well.

  5. J K Rowling has been updating the liturgy since 1997. Her ongoing updates are universally accepted and translated into 65 languages.

  6. Once again, a solution for the Catholic liturgy and Christianity in general:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2017: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request)

  7. All liturgy should be RE-FORMED to meet the changing world. Yes, it is necessary to keep the core of faith but there is nothing “sinful” in music that appeals to this generation, and acknowledgement of changing roles and attitudes. Remember, the masses liked Jesus, not the “Honor Student” types who resided in the Temple, kissing, “you know what” in order to get ahead. Brood of Vipers? REFORM means just what it says. The church is good, the people must lead it into the future. It’s not a “private club”!

  8. Put the Kiss of Peace very near the front of the Mass, as a sign that we are all a congregation, a group gathered to worship. That “Kiss”, or handshake, is a sign of community, a sign that we worship as a community. It adds to or creates the atmosphere in which we join together in prayers we say together.

  9. The liturgy is not software to be updated based on user preferences and then marketed to consumers. It is a sacred legacy of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

    The liturgy should not be haphazardly democratized, but carefully curated. It functions not only as as the “summit” but also the “source” of our encounter with Christ. In this sense, changing the liturgy is not just like changing the atmospherics, but more like changing the air itself. To do so too radically or inconsistently threatens the faithful with spiritual suffocation.

  10. I agree the current liturgy is just awful in the Latin Rite Church, but I trust the Holy Spirit to eventually work it out. Sadly, your post is just as uncompromising and intolerant as the author of the article. I’m tired of seeing so many Catholics literally hating one another over liturgy. If I lived in a large city I would find an Eastern Rite parish and be done with it.

  11. Stupid article. TLM should be phased out? Its kept because people can’t adapt to change? How moronic. I gave up on the Novus Ordo nonsense. Thank God I found the Latin mass. Such hatred for TLM, which is authentic Catholicism as opposed to this modernist crap we have today. Novus Ordo has no future. TLM will eventually be returned as the main mass for the Catholic church, thank God for that. True Catholics attend TLM. The reason the church is dying is because of the modern mass. Once more people discover the Latin mass, watch how quickly it will replace NO. One thing that comforts me is that vocations for TLM priests are becoming more and more popular and seminaries for NO are dying. Thats great news; no NO priests so no NO fake mass.

  12. You clearly have no idea about TLM. This mass implemented in 1573 has elements of the mass unchanged since the 6th century. It was created to be as authentic and true to early Christian worship. So this TLM as we know it, is derived from ancient practices.
    And its language is Latin and should remain so. The other liturgical rites are culturally distinct hence they are said in the language of that culture. Latin is the universal language of the Roman Catholic Church.
    Maybe being Protestant will suit you better.
    Your shitty NO mass will become extinct one day as will our heretical popes and clerics.

  13. You and everyone who thinks like you needs to be phased out.
    TLM is the future of the Catholic church. Cant believe how stupid and uneducated everyone is in regard to it. You do realise this modern “mass”, if you could call it that was created by freemasons to destroy the Catholic church, which it has done very successfully. Seminaries and clergy, full of homosexuals, empty churches, empty souless, profane mass. I guess you think the Orthodox mass should be changed too if you were Orthodox because its “old”?
    The Orthodox and TLM are extremely close in appearance. This gives you a good idea of what an authentic, valid mass looks like.
    NO is so far removed from TLM that it should not be even considered Catholic.

  14. Let the users decide which interface they prefer.

    Unless it’s a liturgy Fr Reese does not like – like the Extraordinary Form?

    It is sad to see what is hard to describe as anything other than…manifest intolerance for worship which brings great comfort and graces to millions of Fr. Reese’s fellow Catholics – as it did for generations of their forebears beyond number. Use any interface you like – but no, not that one. This seems to be the Henry Ford approach to liturgy: You can have your Model T in any color you like, so long as it’s black.

    It’s likewise perplexing to hear the traditional Roman Rite described as nothing more than a concession to “the faithful who find change difficult.” But the average age of attendees at the Extraordinary Form Masses we sponsor is roughly about 15. If Fr. Reese were to come visit us, he might just learn that there are other motives at work in the love of this liturgy than inability to deal with change.

  15. Your comments do no favor to those who love the Tridentine Mass with strange comments concerning freemasons and “empty souless, profane mass. [sic]”

    In fact, your words are just as divisive and extremist as Thomas Reese’s. The liturgy isn’t software and neither is the liturgy a hidebound antiquarian’s fantasy.

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