Ethics & Public Policy Center

Archbishop Marini on the Liturgy Wars


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Those seeking insight into the ideas that shaped the Missal of Paul VI, the revised breviary, and other facets of the Church’s post-Vatican II liturgy will have to look elsewhere than A Challenging Reform by Archbishop Piero Marini, Master of Pontifical Liturgical Ceremonies from 1987 until 2007 (Liturgical Press).

Oddly, coming from a man of strong convictions, Marini’s tale is bureaucratic rather than substantive — a lumbering walk through the maneuvers by which the “Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (an entity created by Pope Paul VI) wrested control of the reform process from the Curia’s Congregation for Rites and held the bit in its teeth for a crucial five-year period, 1964-1969. By the end of that half-decade, the Consilium’s de facto leader, the energetic Italian Vincentian Annibale Bugnini, had achieved a lot of his ambition to re-cast the Roman Rite in a dramatic way.

Bugnini’s star eventually began to fade, though, and in 1975 he was exiled to the ecclesiastical Siberia of the Vatican nunciature in Tehran. There, he wrote an apologia in the form of an enormous book, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975. Its most memorable moment is Bugnini’s description of using a stopwatch to time the performance of several experimental revisions of the Mass, conducted before Paul VI in the Matilde Chapel of the apostolic palace.

Alas, even as a tale of Vatican intrigue, A Challenging Reform is dull, duller, dullest. The excruciating detail of who-went-to-what-meeting is one problem. Another, and worse, is that Marini’s characters are cartoons: good reformers, wicked reactionaries, all seemingly devoid of ideas and arguments. Not only does Marini fail to give an account of the so-called reactionaries’ ideas; he doesn’t explore the ideas and personalities of the reformers, the party in which he was then a junior subaltern.

Moreover, at the end of the day we’re still in the dark about the two crucial questions emerging from this drama: What accounts for Annibale Bugnini’s hold on Paul VI from 1964 until at least 1972, when he was ordained bishop by the pope? And what explains Archbishop Bugnini’s subsequent fall from favor and his exile to the Persian hinterlands?

Marini gently suggests that his mentor and hero may have overreached at a time when the pope was becoming exhausted. But how does that square with Paul VI’s evidently high regard for Bugnini in the crucial period 1964-69?

Archbishop Marini’s filial piety toward Bugnini and his commitment to Bugnini’s cause lead him to claims that will strike some readers as contradictory. He insists that Bugnini achieved a historical reform “that was an answer to the needs of the whole Church rather than simply an expression of its central bureaucracy.” Yet he also argues that “it was … necessary to change the attitudes of both the clergy and the lay faithful to enable them to grasp the purposes of the reform.”

Huh? The “clergy and lay faithful” were unable, unaided, to “grasp the purpose” of a reform that was “an answer to the needs of the whole Church”?

Certain Curial elements, having lost the debate on the floor of the Council, undoubtedly tried to block bureaucratically what the bishops of Vatican II had strongly endorsed: a reform of the Roman Rite. The fundamental flaw in Marini’s account, however, lies in his unexamined assumption that a reformed liturgy devised abstractly by “experts” (a recurring noun in the book) would necessarily respond to “the needs of the whole Church” (even if a considerable chunk of the “whole Church” would have to be, er, re-educated, in order to appreciate that their spiritual needs were now being met). The mental image of Bugnini and his stopwatch is hard to erase: this was organic, developmental reform, building on the achievements of the liturgical movement throughout the 20th century?

I am no nostalgic in the matter of the pre-conciliar liturgy. The point today is to reform the reform, not effect a liturgical Thermidor in a futile attempt to recapture an often mis-remembered past. Surely, however, the “challenging reform” of the 21st century requires an account of 1964-69 that’s something more than cowboys-and-Indians, Vatican-style.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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