Liturgical Renewal: Going Back for the Future

dark churchThis coming December marks the 50th anniversary of The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

In a  recent article in America Magazine (5-27-13, pp. 11-14) Massimo Faggioli, Assistant Professor of Theology, at Saint Thomas University, Minnesota, is quoted as saying “To reject the liturgy that resulted from the Vatican II Constitution is to reject the Council itself.”

His statement can be viewed as basically inaccurate at many levels. Any number of Council Fathers stated and wrote afterwards that the great majority of bishops had no idea/intention of voting on/for what eventually became the New Liturgy. People such as Archbishop Dwyer, Bishop Adrian, Cardinal Heenan, Cardinal Stickler have all written that this was the case. On the left, they afterwards admitted that they purposely kept the text vague, so that they could use it towards their own ends. Also, in 1967, at the Synod of Bishops, they were presented with a “Missa Normativa” which eventually was what eventually became the new Mass. The majority of Synod Fathers, presumably 90% of whom must have been Council Fathers, rejected it. Then there is also the interesting point that conservatives, such as, Cardinal Ottaviani, Archbishop Lefebvre, Cardinals Spellman, McIntyre, Ruffini, Siri etc., signed the Liturgy Constitution!

Just as we have the low information voter so, too, we have always had the low information Catholic and/or Cultural Catholics.  And, as in the case with every social group ,most Catholics are formed by the tone from the top.  I don’t mean here the pronouncements of the Pope but how the local leadership, especially the parish priest, conducts himself and the rituals of the Church. The average person is not a theologian nor does he or she have the time or ability to immerse themselves in the finer points of theological discussions or the history of liturgical development.

The primary purpose for which Catholics go to Church is to receive the sacraments. Since these were established by Christ as external signs that impart an invisible, divine reality, which we call grace, it is always challenging to present them in a manner that indicates their transcendent reality and purpose. It would seem that the externals of the Traditional Roman Liturgy, which was the organic development of the Church’s expression of its faith, expressed this transcendent reality very clearly. It would seem difficult to deny that much of the transcendent sense has been lost with the new liturgy.

There is no doubt that The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy called for a revision of the Church’s Rites.  The Council especially promoted a vernacular presentation of the Readings and the importance of the homily to help form the laity with Sacred Scripture. The question is how far the reform was to deviate from the traditional Roman Rite confirmed by the Council of Trent during its Third Period (1562-63)? (It must be noted that the Traditional Liturgy was not an invention of the Council of Trent, but a codification of what had developed naturally from the earliest centuries. This is the Liturgy that the Fathers were voting on and for).

It may seem moot at this point in time to ask the question. Some of course will contend too much time has passed to change the Novus Ordo (1970). Others will find consolation in Pope Benedicts XVI Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum (2007), in which he stated, “That the Traditional Mass had never been abrogated and therefore priests have the right to celebrate it and the faithful have a right to ask for it.”

The intellectual secularization which the Novus Ordo lends itself to and the limited appeal and usage of the Extraordinary Form cannot solve the problem of re-engaging the majority of Catholics who no longer attend Mass. And, in some cases, this bifurcation of Rites has led to a silent division in parishes. This is quite reminiscent of some of the Protestant Churches which now advertise, for example,  Traditional Worship, 8AM, Contemporary Worship 11AM. They forget to add, however, “And never the twain shall meet.”

Protestantism by its very nature is divided. Two faith communities under one roof is an anomaly and it is usually the first step toward physical separation.  Unfortunately, what is left of their theology is not worth their fighting over. Their worship for the most part is dogmatically stripped and a celebration of humanity which calls congregants to social action for the betterment of society.  Because of this, main line denominations, i.e. Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationists, Episcopalians and kindred ecclesial communities have radically decreased in membership.  This can be directly attributed to a loss of focus on the sacred and on eternal life as the ultimate goal in their worship services.

The Evangelicals, on the other hand, have grown their flocks by providing social services.  They attract members not because of belief that God exists, according to T.M. Luhrman, a professor of Anthropology, at Stanford, but because their congregants want “an experience of joy and to learn how to have more of it.” (NYT 5.30.2013, p.A19).  Couldn’t a drug regime and therapy accomplish much of the same?

Because of this, Protestant worship often has a humanist agenda. The merger of religion with American optimism, encouraged by scientific advances which began in the 19th Century, has lent itself to a growing agnosticism and atheism which led to doubts about humanity’s divine origin and finally to doubts about eternal life. It touted reason and science as the way to what man can become through his own efforts.  God became superfluous.  This effectively made dogma obsolete in many of the liberal Protestant Churches which merged their theology with secularist ideals (Jacoby, S., 2013). Hence, the message of their worship logically leads to Church extinction.

Has the same thing happened to us?

At present, statistics indicate that only 25 – 28% of Catholics attend Mass on Sunday.  This is down from over 70 – 74% prior to Vatican II.  To believe that Mass attendance dropped because of a rejection of the documents of the Council, most notably the documents on Religious Freedom and Ecumenism, etc. is to be naive.  The fact is that these documents are too technical for most of the laity to understand. What people did understand or at least sense is that their encounter with the Holy-Other seemed to be lacking in the new utilitarian Liturgy of the Novus Ordo that replaced the awe and mystery of the 1,500 year old Roman Rite.  The call for “actual participation”, in the liturgy by Vatican II means more than didactics and inter-active dialogue. It means to enable the person to be caught up in a divine rapture.

The liturgical reforms called for by the Council did not have to be as radical as the Novus Ordo. As a matter of fact to enable the “hermeneutic of continuity” in the Church and to allow for the organic growth of the Liturgy one had only to look to the Council of Trent (1562-3) which addressed; the importance of preaching; discussed the possibility of using the vernacular, and allowed for the reception of the Eucharist under both species (O’Malley, J.W., 2013). Had these reforms simply been enacted the decline in Mass attendance would have been less dramatic.

Pope-Emeritus Benedict had a sense of the need for a “hermeneutic of continuity” with the traditions of the Church and began what is now called a “reform of the reform”.  He knew that the Church could not go back totally to the liturgy prior to Vatican II.  But, he did encourage certain elements, though minor from the old rite, to reappear in the celebration of the Novus Ordo in order to recapture the theological sense and the symbolism necessary to appreciate the Catholic understanding of the Mass.

First among these ritual actions of the older Rite of the Mass should be the reintroduction of the celebrant facing “ad Orientem” (toward the East) for the Liturgy of The Eucharist. This orientation reflects one of the main goals of the Mass which should point the Christian toward Christ coming in glory. It is also a reminder that the Mass is a participation in the heavenly liturgy. This symbolic posture, according to Catholic author, George Weigel, has often been frustrated in the closed circle orientation now in vogue in most parishes where the priest and people face each other around a free standing altar. Weigel secondly contends, that the closed circle of liturgy does not inspire the people of the Church to become agents of the Church’s mission since it lessens the sense of the importance of coming in contact and going forth with the truth of Christ for all peoples. Thirdly, he says, that ad Orientem gives a better sense of the people and the priest moving together toward God. This suggestion certainly helps to avoid the unintentional earth-bound message of our current Mass celebration.

Weigel also discusses the need to redesign sacred space. He says that the Church should be seen as the Porta Coeli (the door to heaven).  This can be accomplished by its architectural orientation and point of focus. Churches, he says, should be aesthetically dignified and bespeak Catholic theology.

Finally, it is necessary to once again encourage the posture of kneeling for Holy Communion and receiving the Eucharist on the tongue. Pope Benedict insisted upon this at his Masses. This reverential sign speaks volumes of theology regarding the Real Presence of Christ and the sacramental sacredness of the moment of His reception into our body.

The above suggestions do not require a ruling by the Pope. Therefore, it is important that laity encourage their bishop and pastor to enact them in their diocese and parish. Of course, good catechesis will be necessary to explain why these changes are good for the Church.

These simple steps will initiate a gradual increase in Mass attendance simply because they will fulfill the need that people have for a pre-reflective contact with God and a visceral sense of communion with Him.

The Mass should lift us out of ourselves; remind us of God’s presence and of our ultimate goal, which is heaven. It should also move us to share the truth of the Gospel with others. These adjustments can help people recover what has been lost in contemporary worship and give impetus to the new evangelization called for by both Pope’s Benedict and Francis.


Baldovin, J. F. (2013). An Active PresenceAmerica 208 (18), 11-14.

Jacoby, S. (2013). The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press

Luhrmann, T. M. (2013, May 20). Belief Is The Last Part of FaithNew York Times.   p.A19.

O’Malley, J. W. (2013). Trent: What Happened at the Council. MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Wiegel, G. (2013) Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st – Century Church. NY: Basic Books.


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Fr. Michael P. Orsi


Chaplain and Research Fellow at Ave Maria Law. Father Michael P. Orsi was ordained for the Diocese of Camden in 1976 and has a broad background in teaching and educational administration. Fr. Orsi has authored or co-authored four books and over 300 articles in more than 45 journals, magazines and newspapers. He has served as Assistant Chancellor, Assistant Vicar for Pastoral Services, Director of Family Life Bureau, and Coordinator of Pope John Paul II’s visit to New Jersey for the Diocese of Camden. He has also served as a member of The Institute for Genomic Research at the University of Pennsylvania and as a member of New Jersey’s Advisory Council on AIDS. Fr. Orsi holds a Doctorate in Education from Fordham University, two Master degrees in Theology from Saint Charles Seminary, and a Bachelor of Arts from Cathedral College. He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida. He is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. In 2005 Fr. Orsi was appointed as a Senior Research Associate to the Linacre Center for Bioethics, London, England. Fr. Orsi co-hosts a weekly radio program The Advocate which discusses law and culture on WDEO-AM 990, WMAX-AM 1440 in metro Detroit and WDEO-FM 98.5 in southwest Florida [also linked at].

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  • Brennan

    Dear God, an article on the liturgy that actually makes sense. I think I’ve just experienced a miracle.

  • JMC

    At least in terms of music, the same thing has happened in many Catholic parishes. Though it’s never advertised on a sign – if the parish even has one – it’s usually case of “traditional music at the 8:30 Mass; contemporary music at the 11:00 Mass,” or vice versa. And from what I’ve seen of the two choirs, at least, one could quite accurately say “lex cantatae, lex credendi;” or, as we sing, we believe. Most of the members of the contemporary choir say that the traditional music seems dark and repressive to them, calling to their minds as it does the supposedly “dark and repressive” times prior to Vatican II – when most of them aren’t even old enough to remember what those times were really like. I do remember, at least what the Mass was like; in the parish in which I grew up, they celebrated it in a way that I think was the way it was done originally: The CONGREGATION gave the responses, in Latin, much as they do in the Missae Novus Ordo today. We all recited the Confiteor, the Gloria, the Credo, and the Pater Noster, as well as the other prayers usually recited by the altar boys in response to the priest’s prayers. I was only 11 or 12 when the Novus Ordo was introduced; since I wasn’t especially fluent in Latin – it wasn’t taught as a language in my school – it wasn’t until I compared my old Missal with the new one that I realized that the prayers themselves had been changed. I found the new prayers weaker, at best, than the old ones; many of them were just plain insipid. I still do. So at Mass I say “You” and “Your,” along with everybody else; in private prayer, I still use “Thee” and “Thy/Thine.” Prayer is special, and to my mind, at least, it should have a special language. I think it has actually helped keep me grounded through the decades of confusion since Vatican II. I was glad to see a return to the older English translations of the prayers, though I could do without the “inclusive” language. Still, at least it’s a move in the right direction.

  • Pat Schwarz

    Bravo, Father Orsi. These magnificent changes are possible without much trouble. The Catholic Churches that ripped out the altar rails would be at a disadvantage for kneeling for Holy Communion. But, kneelers could be used very easily. After these magnificent changes, we could throw out the current hymnals, or, at least, eliminate the “songs” and sing the real ” hymns”, such as “O God of Loveliness”, for one. Wow, I guess we, the laity, should pray about this and shake off our sloth, speaking for myself. “Going back for the future” would be a great spiritual adventure. God bless you.

  • modesto

    I feel that Vatican II should of never happen . It’s sad but true only 20% of Catholic go to Mass on Sunday. As for mass in Latin, No. it should be in English ,Spanish ,or Korea. or any language peopel will understand. Jesus said take this and eat it this is My Body . I am sure they took it with there hands…. Priest should face the Alter , He is a man .

  • Poppiexno

    I (modestly) consider myself a conservative Cathollic and agree there has been much abuse of the liturgy since Vatican II including church architecture and music. I avoid attending mass that has a “folk” choir and I regret the practice in some parishes of removing the tabernacle from the sanctuary. Some churches constructed after Vatican II, place undue emphasis on the laity to the detriment of the Eucharist
    On the other hand, I believe some good has come out of Vatican II. For example, the attention now given by priests to homilies and a more active participation by the laity. I remember a time when homilies were rare or non-existent (granted that many today could benefit from an editor’s red pencil) and that some of the devout felt so estranged by the liturgy that they prayed the rosary during mass.
    I understand the argument for the priest facing the East. I also understand, but disagree with, the argument to remove the tabernacle form the sanctuary.I believe having the priest facie the laity can be justified by the fact that Jesus undoubtedly faced the apostles. I understand the liturgical significance of receiving Jesus’ Body on the tongue but I am glad to be able to receive Jesus’ Body in my hand just as the apostles undoubtedly did – for sanitary reasons if nothing else. I am glad that those of the laity who wish to do so can now receive the Blood of Christ, though I am uncomfortable at the manner in which it is done – again for sanitary reasons.
    As to kneeling and the alter rail, my understanding is that keeling is not prohibited. However, I may be in error. Of course prior to Vatican II accomodation was made for those who found kneeling difficult but I think we have not lost anything in the present practice even though some laity could benefit from instruction on the “pofound bow.”
    Finally, I am grateful that the mass is in the vernacular. I had four years of Latin in high school and used a dual language missal before Vatican II; but the vernacular has increased my attention and devotion.
    So, moderation in all things. Correct the abuses but keep the good
    It is sad that so few attend Sunday mass; but I think broad cultural currents are nuch more the cause than the liturgy.

  • Brett Page

    “These simple steps will initiate a gradual increase in Mass attendance”. You must be joking. People don’t attend Mass because of the direction the priest faces and they want to kneel when receiving communion? Puhlease. People are leaving in their droves because they fail to sense any relevance or inspiration from a turgid liturgy which is boring. Get the priests to start talking about the real moral issues of our time. Fellow contrymen without health insurance. The number of guns in our communities. The failure of our elected leaders to raise the minimum wage of the poorest amongst us. Start talking about these things and people might, just might, think you have something worth listening to. Forget the new architure and arcane rules about kneeling and tongues. You need people to think you’re relevant to their daily lives. At the moment, judging by the people flow, they don’t.