A More Realistic Appraisal of the Liturgical Movement and Its Destructive Descent

 Peter Kwasniewski, PhD September 21, 2022 0 Comments

On September 19, 2022, Church Life Journal published an article co-authored by John Cavadini, Mary Healy, and Thomas Weinandy—the first in a projected five-part series, “The Renewal of the Liturgy: Successes, Failures, and Contemporary Concerns.” In order to bring to the public a more realistic account of the issues at stake, OnePeterFive is pleased to share with readers the following slightly modified excerpt from chapter 2 of Dr. Kwasniewski’s book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic BirthrightThis portion of the book has not been published online before.—TSF

Century after century, Holy Mother Church employed all her care in worshiping the Lord—from hidden gatherings of persecuted Christians to the grand basilicas of Constantine, within the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages and the ornate edifices of the Counter-Reformation, through the upheavals of modern Revolutions down to the eve of the Second Vatican Council. Always and everywhere, the holy mysteries were performed, venerated, and received in a continuum of Catholic faith accompanied by growing theological insight and spiritual devotion that matured into well-established rituals perfectly suited to their content and purpose.

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council celebrated the Tridentine Mass in all four sessions.[1] They did not vote to retire or abolish this form of Mass, or even to alter its most striking features: Latin as the primary language, Gregorian chant as the primary music, ample silence, the east as a common direction for all worshipers, overlapping hierarchical activity entrusted to male ministers, the temporal cycle in the calendar, Communion received kneeling and on the tongue, and so forth.

Noble patriarchs, wayward grandchildren

How, then, did we end up getting, in the late 1960s, a new Mass so different from the Mass prayed by the Church for so many centuries? The answer to that question is closely bound up with the influential “Liturgical Movement” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This movement to rediscover the central place of the Church’s public worship in the Christian life can be described in terms of three distinct phases, although the boundaries from one to the next were somewhat fluid.

The first phase, exemplified by the pioneering figure Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805–1875) and his great work The Liturgical Year,[2] aimed at a better understanding and celebration of the inherited Roman liturgy through popular explanations and clerical-religious education. The leading idea was to take the treasures we already had and get to know and love them intimately. Guéranger often cited ancient sources to flesh out his commentaries, but without implying that the Church had erred in the medieval and post-medieval development of her liturgy, or that she should revert to these primitive models. This phase coincided with a blossoming of renewed monastic life.

The second phase—of which Dom Lambert Beauduin (1873–1960), Ildefonso Cardinal Schuster (1880–1954), Fr. Pius Parsch (1884–1954), and Fr. Romano Guardini (1885–1968) may be taken as representatives—was characterized by outstanding progress in historical, archaeological, linguistic, and theological research. It retained a profound respect for the wealth of tradition but sometimes spoke of medieval and Baroque “deviations” and showed a decided preference for what was (or, at times, was imagined by scholars to be) the most ancient—and therefore, presumably, most “authentic”—practice. This led certain individuals to dabble in experiments that conflicted with ecclesiastical legislation, e.g., celebrating Mass facing the people out of a conviction that this was how the Eucharist was originally celebrated by Christians.[3] The dangerous tendencies of this phase were called out by Pope Pius XII in his 1947 encyclical letter Mediator Dei.

Despite the encyclical that was meant to put the brakes on, the Liturgical Movement entered a more radical third phase in the fifties and sixties, as more of its members indulged in pastoral experiments and crafted paraliturgies intended to “reach people where they’re at” and “get them involved.” Heavy liturgical reform of the general calendar, the rubrics, and the rites of Holy Week prior to the Second Vatican Council already announced that the attitude of respect for longstanding practice had lost its self-evident force. This third phase combined selective antiquarianism with a utilitarianism that sought above all “the people’s benefit,” understood in activist terms.

All three phases of the Liturgical Movement, be it noted, emphasized lay involvement. The first phase saw it primarily in terms of acquiring education: being initiated into a great tradition that one could explore for a lifetime yet never exhaust, and participating in the liturgy through prayerful engagement with the rites. The second phase strongly promoted the use of hand missals, devotional aids for living the Church year, and popular singing of plainchant. The third phase took an ideological turn, as prominent liturgists embraced the conviction that liturgy ought to be clear, comprehensible, accessible, verbal, linear, and group-oriented: modernized for Modern Man.

Paul VI lent his full papal support to the ideals and plans of this radical phase of the Liturgical Movement. When the ink was barely dry on the Council’s first approved document, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), the pope set up a body called the Consilium. The pope and the Consilium took Vatican II’s call for moderate reform as carte blanche for an unprecedented wholesale reconstruction of the Roman rite in every area—Mass, lectionary, calendar, Divine Office, sacraments, sacramentals, pontifical and papal ceremonies, and so forth. The controversial Vincentian priest and later archbishop Annibale Bugnini (1912–1982), who worked on a succession of schemes of liturgical reform at the Vatican from 1948 to 1975, could be described as the general contractor of this massive project of demolition and reconstruction.[4]

While we can admit that the reformers were responding to certain problems of their time, we see looking back from our present vantage that they were often mistaken in their theories, naïve in their assumptions, and callous in their pastoral approach. The qualities of easy rational accessibility, immediate verbal comprehension, and community-centeredness are surely desirable in some social situations, but there is ample reason to question whether they suit well the religious ceremonies by which man comes before the God who wrapped Himself on Mount Sinai with voices, flames, the sound of the trumpet, and a dark cloud, wrought wind, rent rocks, shook stone, and whispered words, who names Himself “I AM” and “dwells in light inaccessible”;[5] the worship that leads to communion with the God-Man Christ Who baffled His own mother and foster father, who unwithered a man’s hand and withered a fig tree, Who blessed little children, raised the dead, drove out merchants with a whip, and sweated blood;[6] the operation of the Spirit who moved upon the face of the waters, descended as a dove from opened heavens, and entered as a violent rushing wind, to rest on the apostles as tongues of fire.[7]

Indeed, prominent voices in favor of liturgical reform, such as Fr. Louis Bouyer (1913–2004), subsequently expressed their regrets and dismay at much of what was done to and with the liturgy.[8]A close associate and disciple of Pius Parsch, Fr. Petrus Tschinkel of Klosterneuburg, admitted in an interview:

Now I can tell you that Pius Parsch would not at all have agreed with the changes of the post-conciliar era. That’s not what he wanted. Yes—(the liturgy) in the mother tongue. That is all, however. But also, the Mass as mystery, as a reality hic et nunc, here and now….  After the Second Vatican Council these liturgical forms are nothing but idling: only text after text. Not a trace of internal disposition nor of mystery.[9]

Fr. Tschinkel relates that Guardini, when he received the texts of the new liturgy, looked at them for a long time and then said: “Plumbers’ work!” (Klempnerarbeit).[10] Joseph Ratzinger renders a similarly negative judgment, though in more elegiac language:

The Liturgical Movement had in fact been attempting to… teach us to understand the Liturgy as a living network of Tradition that had taken concrete form, that cannot be torn apart into little pieces but has to be seen and experienced as a living whole. Anyone who, like me, was moved by this perception at the time of the Liturgical Movement on the eve of the Second Vatican Council can only stand, deeply sorrowing, before the ruins of the very things they were concerned for.[11]

In any case, we can say that history has moved on and the Church is now in a much different place than it was fifty years ago. If anything, the passage of decades has shown how urgently our traditional Roman liturgy responds to essential and universal human needs as well as needs peculiar to the postmodern era. Although a stubborn Old Guard of Bugninians remains ensconced in many a university chair and chancery office,[12] the energy is with the Ratzingerians, whose banner is Summorum Pontificum and whose motto is “what earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too.” As Dom Alcuin Reid observes:

the reality in the life of the Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century [is] that the usus antiquior is a living liturgical rite in which people—indeed significant and growing numbers of young people—participate fully, actually, consciously and fruitfully in a manner that would have brought great satisfaction to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and to the pioneers of the twentieth-century liturgical movement which preceded it.[13]

When Joseph Ratzinger called for a “new liturgical movement,”[14] he seems to have had in mind a new beginning, a movement characterized by the features of the first and healthiest phase, in which filial piety, grateful receptivity, and warm devotion are directed toward a rich heritage developed over twenty centuries of continuous worship—a tradition that should never have been rejected, and, happily, was never entirely forgotten or lost.[15]

Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

[1] The public meetings of the Council began with solemn liturgies, most often in the venerable Roman rite but also on occasion in various Eastern and non-Roman Western rites as well.

[2] Different publishers have kept this masterpiece in print over the years. The most recent edition: Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB, The Liturgical Year, trans. by Dom Laurence Shepherd, OSB (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2017), 15 vols. Some sections may be found online.

[3] We now know that this is not true and that the history is more complicated. For a good overview, see Fiedrowicz, Traditional Mass, ch. 7, “Direction of Prayer,” 141–52.

[4] For an excellent biography that also handily summarizes the liturgical fermentation and change from 1945–1975, see Yves Chiron, Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy, trans. John Pepino (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2018). There was a short period during the Second Vatican Council when Bugnini was not working for the Vatican in an official capacity. He nevertheless remained in Rome, in close contact with all the major players, until he was reappointed as secretary of the Consilium.

[5] Cf. Ex 20:18–21; 1 Kg 19:11–12; 1 Tim 6:16.

[6] Lk 2:43; Mt 12:13, Mt 21:19; Mk 10:16, Jn 11:43, Jn 2:15, Lk 22:44.

[7] Gen 1:2; Mt 3:16; Acts 2:2–3.

[8] See The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer: From Youth and Conversion to Vatican II, the Liturgical Reform, and After, trans. John Pepino (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015), 218–25.

[9] See Wolfram Schrems, “The Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy: Reform or revolution?,” Rorate Caeli, May 3, 2018.

[10] Ibid. The German colloquialism means work done in a hasty, slipshod way, with inadequate care, and botched results. The reference to a hack plumber doing a mechanical job carries the implication that the reform of the liturgy was approached like the fixing, cutting, adapting, or welding of pieces of metal pipe, rather than as a subtle work of skill on a delicate living reality that would require holiness, discretion, and learning. Klempnerarbeit might also convey in this case a lack of aesthetic value in the misnamed “reforms.”

[11] Preface to Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy: The Principles of Liturgical Reform and Their Relation to the Twentieth-Century Liturgical Movement Prior to the Second Vatican Council, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 11.

[12] Notable figures who staunchly support the liturgical reform of Paul VI include Bugnini’s quondam secretary Archbishop Piero Marini (b. 1942), Msgr. Kevin Irwin (b. 1946), Fr. John Baldovin, SJ (b. 1947), Andrea Grillo (b. 1961), Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB (b. 1963), and Massimo Faggioli (b. 1970).

[13] “The older form of the Roman rite is alive and well,” The Catholic World Report, April 3, 2020.

[14] Milestones: Memoirs 1927–1977, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 149.

[15] See Fr. Thomas M. Kocik, Singing His Song: A Short Introduction to the Liturgical Movement, rev. and expanded ed. (Hong Kong: Chorabooks, 2019); cf. “The New Liturgical Movement: Urgent Care for a Sick Church,” in Kwasniewski, Noble Beauty, 89–112.

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Peter Kwasniewski, PhD

Peter Kwasniewski, PhD

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America who taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism whose work appears online at, among others, OnePeterFiveNew Liturgical MovementLifeSiteNewsThe Remnant, and Catholic Family News. He has published eighteen books, including Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020), The Ecstasy of Love in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Emmaus, 2021), and Are Canonizations Infallible? Revisiting a Disputed Question (Arouca, 2021). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages. Visit his website at

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. Mary Parks says:

    I had in-depth experience of the old liturgy when it was a natural organic thing. I don’t think we will ever get it back that way. And the NO Mass reading translations are an abomination. Only Jesus can fix this.

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