Reform Moved Too Quickly

THE ORGANIC DEVELOPMENT OF THE LITURGY, by Alcuin Reid, OSB, London, England: Saint Michael’s Abbey Press, 2004, 333 pages, $38.95 (US).

This book traces the history of the Roman Liturgy, with emphasis on the Mass, from the beginning of Catholicism to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The history is divided into three phases: from the beginning up to 1900; 1900–1948; 1948–1965. In each part the author deals with all the significant developments and passes judgment on them.

The author realizes that the Liturgy is a privileged expression of our faith, and that its organic development must be preserved at all costs. One principal that is stressed is that the liturgy should be changed only in non-essentials and only when absolutely necessary. He quotes with approval: “History has proved a thousand times that there is nothing more dangerous for a religion, nothing is more likely to result in discontent, incertitude, division, and apostasy, than interference with the Liturgy and consequently with religious sensibility” (p. 285).

Concerning liturgical reform up to 1900, the author concludes: “At the close of the nineteenth century, a healthy respect for the Roman rite as a developed organic reality exists” (60). And in support of this he quotes a famous liturgist: “The Roman rite arrived at this point in history much developed indeed, but still that living organism that was the Roman Liturgy of the first Christian millennium. The developments had been prompted in part by necessity, and in part by the vicissitudes of history. Care had been taken to respect objective liturgical Tradition and to develop it organically. Reforms that were not organic were eventually proscribed” (60-61).

In the second phase of the Liturgy’s history the author deals with the growth of the church-wide Liturgical Movement, which can be said to have been born in 1909. Again, the author’s conclusion concerning this phase was a favourable one: “The Liturgical Movement, then, approached its fortieth birthday . . . in good health and with a largely traditional and moderate mentality with regard to reform . . . . Even though some reprobate practices arose, the Movement’s essence was to comprehend objective liturgical Tradition in order to give shape and meaning to Christian life, and indeed to society” (131).

The third phase of the Liturgy’s history was to terminate with the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. The author’s summing up of this phase, though it contains some praise, ends with a warning: “The Liturgical Movement achieved much between 1948 and the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Its goal of placing liturgical piety at the centre of the life of the Church, underlined by Pius XII in Mediator Dei, was adopted and widely promoted by numerous individuals and groups . . . .Yet, a momentum, an expectation of, if not a thirst for, further reforms, builds up, pre-eminently among European liturgists and scholars, which could only intensify with the establishment of the preparatory liturgical commission for the forthcoming Council. There is a sense among some writers that almost everything is negotiable, resulting in at least an implicit devaluation of the objective nature of liturgical Tradition: something foreign to the Liturgical Movement in its origins” (282-283).

The general conclusion of the author concerning the effect of the Council is: “To some extent, then, we may say that reform moved too quickly prior to the Council. More time needed to be spent preparing the foundations before renovating the edifice . . .. Whilst clearly a metaphor, ‘organic development’ is, nevertheless, the metaphor employed by key persons throughout the Liturgical Movement and indeed by the Second Vatican Council itself when speaking of liturgical reform . . . . We conclude, then, that this, the principle, or law, of the organic development of objective liturgical Tradition, is indeed the sine qua non of Catholic liturgical reform . . . . However some of the Movement’s activists pressuring for reform before the Second Vatican Council moved beyond its bounds . . . . The task of a thorough assessment of whether this law was respected in the reforms enacted following the Second Vatican Council remains” (287-292).

Rev. Leonard A. Kennedy, C.S.B.
Academy of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom
Barry’s Bay, Ontario, Canada

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