CathBlog - Reforming the reform of the liturgy

A month ago, a large rally was held in Washington, DC, in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It was led by Glenn Beck who is one of the principal faces of the Murdoch owned FoxNews channel which is essentially the voice of the extreme neoconservative branch of the Republican Party. Beck was supported by Sarah Palin and her self-serving jingoistic rants. Beck’s strident rhetoric was of ‘America the Messiah,’ coming fittingly from a Catholic converted to Mormonism. With religious fervour, Beck proclaimed: “Something beyond imagination is happening…America today begins to turn back to God.” Some observers have claimed that this gathering represented a transparently cynical hijacking of what happened in that place 47 years earlier when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. The messages could not have been more contrastingly different.

Beck led his congregation of sectional interest in a celebration of America’s power, greatness and its God-given culture of freedom, flags waiving and hands over the heart. It was all about a fundamental redefining and re-formation of national existence accompanied by a sub current of resentment and bitterness. The theme of the rally was Restoring Honour, and it was heralded with its own dogma and unquestioned authority. It was triumphant. This is ominous in that echoes of primitive tribalism might be heard here. Honour-Shame societies mark out clear boundaries, which determine who is in the tent and who is not, what are the criteria governing the relationship between the individual and the group, who has authority and who has not, what is the system of rewards and punishments that go with all this.

The Catholic Church went through a not dissimilar time of redefinition and regrouping after the Protestant Reformation. This ‘reform’ process was put into action during the long years of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Church, under both political and religious pressure, was compelled to restore its honour and to bury its shame. The Council, while successfully correcting many systemic abuses, was largely reactive. Its Counter-Reformation dogmatically reaffirmed Church identity as expressed in its pyramidal, hierarchal structure, institutions, disciplines, lines of authority, legal system, doctrine and Sacraments. The Church had established a platform of unity, stability and continuity in its mission to the world. This was the Church Militant and now Triumphant at its best. However, things would change.

In the aftermath of two world wars in the first half of the 20th century, Europe was a continent in shambles. Its political, social and economic systems were devastated, vast populations had been either wiped out or displaced. Confidence and meaning were in short supply, hopelessness, cynicism, loss of nerve and anxiety were in abundance. Ominously, for the Church, faith itself was not only being questioned, it was losing its constituency. In response to the challenge, a group of Catholic thinkers began to re-imagine the Church’s being and mission in a dramatically changed world. Men (mostly) such as de Lubac, Danielou, von Balthasar, Haring, Schillebeeckx, Rahner and Ratzinger were responsible for ‘The New Theology,’ a term of derision in some quarters. The invaluable service of these and many other theologians was to assist the Popes and bishops of Vatican II in providing a new, understandable language to express the meaning of the Church and its Gospel message.

One of the principal resisters to the Conciliar renewal of Vatican II was Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office. He and a number of high-profile Church officials believed that any reform of Trent’s ecclesiology and rites would lead in the direction of heresy, mass confusion and scandal to the faithful. This protest was all about the perceived honour of the Church, its immemorial institutions and the survival of ‘Orthodoxy.’ John XXIII and Paul VI, it seems, had more faith in the workings of the Holy Spirit. Ottaviani sent a letter to Paul VI reaffirming his reservations about the Venacular Mass. On September 25, 1969 he wrote: “…The recent reforms have amply demonstrated that new changes in the liturgy could not be made without leading to complete bewilderment on the part of the faithful, who already show signs of restiveness and an indubitable lessening of their faith.” He also refers to “an agonising crisis of conscience” among the clergy.

As the Novus Ordo is soon to disappear, we await the implementation of the ‘reform of the reform.’ One thing to remember about the people whose want and need is to restore ‘dignity, beauty and truth’ in the liturgy is that they have long memories when it comes to ‘shame.’ Some have proclaimed this a triumph. There are now fourteen months of preparation to go and who will be ‘bewildered’ when honour is definitively restored? The language certainly won’t be English but it sure will be an experience in nostalgia.


Kevin ManningDavid Timbs blogs from Albion, Victoria



Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

Mass on Demand


From Parish of Our Lady of The Way, North Sydney & Lavender Bay. The first Mass of the day on YouTube

Mass Online


Live streamed from Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral, Waitara


Daily Prayer

Daily Prayer

All your daily readings, reflections and prayers can be found here...