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Recovering the Lost Liturgy

Klaus Gamber’s The Reform of the Roman Liturgy
benedict xvi

Klaus Gamber’s book The Reform of the Roman Liturgy was and is a publishing event, one of the most significant in the Catholic world in a generation. It sent shock waves throughout Europe when it first appeared there 16 years ago, and its appearance here during the pontificate of Benedict XVI—who as Cardinal Ratzinger provocatively endorsed it with a pointed preface to the French edition—promises to be no less eventful.

High Church politics is unfolding. The Mass is the center of Church life. Insiders expect Benedict to forcefully restore the old Latin Mass, at least as an option, thereby extending the baby steps taken by John Paul II, whose heart was clearly not in it, to atone for expunging the Latin liturgy from the life of the average Catholic after Vatican II.

This book provides, in bite-sized chapters, all the background. It is common knowledge that in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI dramatically revised the text and rubrics of the Mass. Whether the Council Fathers envisioned the radical changes that were ultimately made is a matter of dispute, but recent research by Father Brian Harrison of the Pontifical University of Puerto Rico found that most of the leading bishops as Vatican II opened favored only minor changes rather than a sweeping revision of the entire rite.

But a sweeping revision of the entire rite is exactly what we got.

Apologists for the reform tried to claim that the Mass had been changed countless times in the past and therefore that the discontent surrounding this most recent round of changes must reflect either a lack of acquaintance with the checkered history of the Mass or a reactionary attachment to older forms for their own sake. But none of the organic and virtually imperceptible changes that had been made over the centuries was anything like the reform of the 1960s, in which a committee radically overhauled the entire rite.

Motivations for changing the rite varied, ranging from the pastoral concerns of misguided men of good will all the way to the downright sinister. Some, moved either by neo-Jansenism or Enlightenment contempt for the Middle Ages, claimed they were returning the Mass to its apostolic simplicity in light of recent liturgical research. This argument has not held up over time: research more recent still has shown that as a result of misreadings of the ancient sources, major aspects of the new rite—from the Prayer of the Faithful to concelebration to the practice of Mass facing the people —are in fact modern fabrications with no ancient analogue.

Others claimed they wanted to make the Mass more understandable to the people. But if that were all they were after, there was no need to draw up a completely new rite: they could simply have translated the traditional Mass into the vernacular.

Whatever the motivations behind the changes, though, Pope Paul VI acknowledged that something of priceless worth was being given up when he introduced his new rite in 1969-70. “A new rite of Mass: a change in the venerable tradition that has gone on for centuries. This is something that affects our hereditary religious patrimony, which seemed to enjoy the privilege of being untouchable and settled. It seemed to bring the prayer of our forefathers and our saints to our lips and to give us the comfort of feeling faithful to our spiritual past, which we kept alive to pass it on to the generations ahead.”

And although some even now pretend that stripping away the Latin language was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind at the time and that the abandonment of Latin was merely the unfortunate result of a later misunderstanding of the reform, Paul VI spoke as if the loss of Latin was a clear and unavoidable aspect of the new Mass. And again, he used words upon which the most devoted Catholic traditionalist could scarcely have improved: “We are parting with the speech of the Christian centuries; we are becoming like profane intruders in the literary preserve of sacred utterance.”

When it looked as if the traditional Mass was doomed, a group of 57 distinguished writers, scholars, artists, and historians in England—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—signed a petition urging Pope Paul to reconsider. The signatories of the appeal, who included Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, and Malcolm Muggeridge, urged that, apart from the spiritual ramifications of the abolition of the traditional Mass, the rite itself, “in its magnificent Latin text, has also inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts—not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.”

The appeal continued:

One of the axioms of contemporary publicity, religious as well as secular, is that modern man in general, and intellectuals in particular, have become intolerant of all forms of tradition and are anxious to suppress them and put something else in their place. But, like many other affirmations of our publicity machines, this axiom is false. Today, as in times gone by, educated people are in the vanguard where recognition of the value of tradition is concerned, and are the first to raise the alarm when it is threatened … . In the materialistic and technocratic civilisation that is increasingly threatening the life of mind and spirit in its original creative expression—the word—it seems particularly inhuman to deprive man of word-forms in one of their most grandiose manifestations.

The Archbishop of Westminster, John Cardinal Heenan—with whom a distraught Evelyn Waugh, aghast even at the initial liturgical changes he lived to see, carried on a lengthy correspondence—brought the issue before Pope Paul VI. The pope granted an indult for England and Wales for the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass on special occasions. Apart from an additional dispensation for elderly priests, though, that was the only allowance, anywhere, for the traditional rite.

That was how things stood until Pope John Paul II, prodded by French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, broadened the indult in 1984 and again in 1988, urging the world’s bishops to be “generous” in allowing the traditional Mass for those who wanted it. The generosity the pope asked for was not forthcoming: as of 2006, only a tiny fraction of one percent of all parish Masses are offered in the traditional rite.

The progressives who revised the Mass had won in a rout.

Then, in the late 1980s, came Monsignor Klaus Gamber. He was a liturgical scholar of great renown, who headed the liturgical institute at Regensburg and had brought out nearly three dozen volumes in the Studia Patristica et Liturgica and Textus Patristici et Liturgici series. It was Gamber’s unimpeachable mainstream credentials that made his book The Reform of the Roman Liturgy all the more shocking.

The book was a blistering attack. The new Mass, said Gamber, was pastorally, theologically, and aesthetically disastrous. “The new liturgical forms,” he wrote, “well intentioned as they may have been at the beginning, did not give the people bread, but stones.” It radically unsettled and disoriented the faithful and probably sent countless numbers away for good. And it was an abuse of power to boot: Gamber suggested that whether the pope actually had the authority to revise the Mass so radically was “debatable, to say the least.”

Against those who have argued that anything promulgated by the Holy See is ipso facto traditional, Gamber absolutely insisted that the new liturgy constituted a “break with Church tradition.” He suggested that the new rite, in practice, amounted to a humanistic celebration of the assembled congregation rather than the propitiatory sacrifice of traditional Catholic theology.

We are now involved in a liturgy in which God is no longer the center of our attention. Today, the eyes of the faithful are no longer focused on God’s Son having become Man hanging before us on the cross, or on the pictures of His saints, but on the human community assembled for a commemorative meal. The assembly of people is sitting there, face to face with the ‘presider,’ expecting from him, in accordance with the ‘modern’ spirit of the Church, not so much a transfer of God’s grace, but primarily some good ideas and advice on how to deal with daily life and its challenges.

And then Gamber did the unthinkable in the ecclesial climate of his day: he called for the restoration of the traditional rite “as the primary liturgical form for the celebration of Mass. It must become once more the norm of our faith and the symbol of Catholic unity throughout the world, a rock of stability in a period of upheaval and never-ending change.”

As recently as the 1990s, it was unthinkable that someone who endorsed the conclusions of Gamber’s book could ever be elected pope. But the current pontiff, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, did just that: in his preface to the French-language edition he gave the book his hearty endorsement, including its finding that Mass with the priest facing East with the people, rather than with the priest facing away from the tabernacle and toward the people, was the ancient tradition and should be restored. Ratzinger’s endorsement of Gamber’s book made headlines across Europe.

And in his preface to Gamber’s book, speaking of the changes that were made to the Mass, Ratzinger added: “In the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it—as in a manufacturing process—with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product. Gamber, with the vigilance of a true prophet and the courage of a true witness, opposed this falsification …”

The word out of Rome these days is that Pope Benedict XVI is considering lifting all restrictions from the traditional rite, such that any priest of the Roman Rite could offer the traditional Mass without needing the special permission from his bishop—as required under John Paul II—that has so often been denied. This is exactly what Gamber called for and what Benedict has long believed. “The old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it,” he said in 1997, while still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. “It’s impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that. A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent.”

Over the summer, Marcia Christoff Kurapovna wrote in these pages about reconciliation efforts currently under way between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. Resolution of the liturgical question in the West is central to any kind of reconciliation between the two. It is not simply that the traditional Mass has much more in common with the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom than does the new Mass. The point is that the Orthodox have no desire to see their own liturgies vandalized or “reformed,” and they are deeply suspicious of the modern mentality that conceives of ancient conveyors of the faith merely as texts in need of a good editor.

We live in strange times, in which nothing seems exempt from the forward march of ugliness and vulgarity. Architecture oscillates between the banal and the grotesque, the “art world” is a bad joke, and Hollywood hardly requires comment. We might have expected the Catholic Church, and Christians more generally, to remain entirely aloof from and unaffected by the spirit of vulgarization and narcissism that overtook the West in the 1960s.

But at the very time when the piety of the faithful most needed nourishment at the fount of tradition, and when the Western world needed more than ever to be reminded that tradition was more than something to be spat upon and discarded, the traditional Mass was taken away. Allen Tate, a convert to Catholicism and one of the Twelve Southerners who wrote the agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, regretted that he had converted not long before this venerable institution, which until then had successfully resisted the worst aspects of modernity, seemed to be throwing in the towel.

That is why the traditional Mass is potentially such an important pedagogical device for the Western world. I have often heard it said that in “today’s world” we need a simpler rite and one in the vernacular. But to the contrary: it is precisely in today’s world, a world in which man believes himself bound by nothing, in which the traditional Mass is so obviously necessary. What generation has needed more than the present one to be told that the world does not revolve around it? In a world that believes that nothing is immune to change, that the family itself is subject to redefinition according to human whim, the piety and reverence of the traditional Latin Mass, in its beauty and stately reserve, and in its reservation of sacred tasks to the priest alone, reminds us that some things really are not to be touched by man. Here, in a nutshell, is the conservative’s outlook on the world.

If Pope Benedict follows through on what he has said in the past about the need to make the old rite widely available again, its significance will extend well beyond just those who have formed their spiritual lives around it. One of the great treasures of Western civilization will at long last have been restored. Those who prefer the Muppets to the Moonlight Sonata—and who for over 35 years have done everything they could to deprive people of the liturgical equivalent of the Moonlight Sonata—will doubtless bellow in protest, but to the relief of a great many Catholics and their sympathizers, Monsignor Klaus Gamber will at last have been vindicated.

Thomas E. Woods Jr. is author of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, a free chapter of which is available at ThomasEWoods.com.