The Renewal of the Liturgy: Successes, Failures, and Contemporary Concerns


With the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the bishops at Vatican II enthusiastically and ardently hoped to renew the Eucharistic liturgy. While achieving much of what the Council desired, the postconciliar implementation of this renewal has also included many undesirable aspects and unforeseen distressing consequences. Since the close of the Council many of the faithful, clergy and laity alike, have expressed concerns regarding the way the liturgical renewal has been implemented. Often the liturgy has become a battleground between competing factions. With Pope Francis’s 2021 motu proprio Traditionis Custodes and the Congregation for Divine Worship’s subsequent clarifications in its Response to dubia, apprehensions regarding the liturgy have been heightened among many of the faithful. Since these documents strongly discourage and strictly limit the celebration of the Tridentine Mass (also known as the Traditional Latin Mass), this disquiet is particularly found among priests and laity who wish to celebrate that form of the Roman rite. The unease has not abated with Pope Francis’s most recent apostolic letter, Desiderio Desideravi, in which he provides theological and pastoral underpinnings for his earlier directives and also decries the liturgical aberrations that have marred the post-conciliar Church.

Concurrent with the growing liturgical tensions, the US bishops, deeply concerned about the loss of faith in Jesus’s real presence in the Eucharist among American Catholics, have launched a massive endeavor aimed at renewing Eucharistic faith and devotion. As the USCCB website states:

The Bishops of the United States are calling for a three-year grassroots revival of devotion and belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. They believe that God wants to see a movement of Catholics across the United States, healed, converted, formed, and unified by an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist—and sent out in mission “for the life of the world.”

These three years will culminate in the first National Eucharistic Congress in the United States in almost fifty years. Almost a hundred thousand Catholics will join together in Indianapolis for a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage toward the “source and summit” of our Catholic faith.

In the light of Vatican II’s desire to renew the liturgy and the American bishops’ effort to revitalize Eucharistic faith, we wish to address the theological, liturgical, and pastoral issues that have arisen over time and that presently disrupt the unity and peace of the Church.[1] Our hope is that, in bringing some clarity to what has developed, both positively and negatively, a constructive way forward may be found.

Our treatment will proceed in eight sections:

1. The rise of the liturgical renewal

2. The state of the liturgy prior to Vatican II

3. The Council’s reforms as outlined in Sacrosanctum Concilium

4. The implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium

5. The movement to return to the Tridentine liturgy

6. The pastoral strategies of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis

7. Theological and pastoral concerns with the Traditional Latin Mass movement

8. The way forward.

1. The Rise of the Liturgical Renewal

In the debate over Vatican II’s liturgical reform and its subsequent implementation, what is often overlooked is the rise of the liturgical movement prior to the Council. The desire for a renewal in the understanding and experience of the liturgy was fostered in various settings and comprised multiple components. A number of European Benedictine abbots and abbeys were most influential.

Dom Pascal Guéranger (1805–1875), the founder of the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes in France, is often considered the father of the liturgical renewal. He fostered the renewal by updating liturgical books, stressing the importance of the liturgical year, and promoting the revival of Gregorian chant. In 1903, Pope Pius X published Tra le sollecitudini, which contained directives for sacred music and underscored the importance of Gregorian chant in the liturgy, confirming the work of Guéranger. In these directives, Pope Pius encouraged the participation of the laity by employing for the first time the phrase “active participation” (actuosa participatio).

In particular, the laity are to actively participate in the liturgy through their singing of Gregorian chant. A century later, Pope John Paul II wrote: “The centenary of the Document gives me the opportunity to recall the important role of sacred music which St. Pius X presented as a means of lifting up the spirit to God and as a precious aid for the faithful in their ‘active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.’”[2] This emphasis on the importance of singing Gregorian chant finds it full expression, as we will see, in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

The German abbey of Maria Laach, under the authority of Abbot Ildefons Herwegen, also played an influential role in the liturgical renewal during the first half of the twentieth century. Odo Casel (1886–1948), a monk of Maria Laach and an expert in ancient and medieval liturgies, became one of the most prominent proponents for liturgical renewal. In his chief work, The Mystery of Christian Worship, he states:

From thence it comes that the whole church, not merely the clergy, is to take an active part in the liturgy, each according to sacred order, in his proper rank, place, and measure. All members are truly, sacramentally conjoined to Christ their head; every believer, because of the sacramental character he received in baptism and confirmation, has part in the priesthood of Christ the head. This means that the layman does not merely assist with private devotion and prayer at the priest’s liturgy, but is, by his objective membership in Christ’s body, a necessary and real sharer in the liturgical fellowship.[3]

Here we again find the importance of lay participation in the Eucharistic liturgy, founded now upon the sacramental character of their participation in the priesthood of Christ. One’s inner participation in the liturgy is to be expressed perceptibly by one’s words and actions. Thus the priest and people together offer, each according to their proper sacramental role, the one sacrifice of the Mass, and together partake of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. 

Dom Lambert Beauduin (1873–1960) was a monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Mont César in Leuven, Belgium. He was greatly influenced by his prior, Columba Marmion (1858–1923), who fostered the renewal of the priesthood and liturgy. Although Beauduin opposed the use of the vernacular, he furthered the active participation of people in the liturgy by promoting bilingual missals in which they could silently pray along with the priest. He and the monks of Mont César also published liturgical and spiritual instruction manuals to educate the laity. Beauduin was thus very practical in his approach in furthering the emerging liturgical renewal.

The writings of Maurice de la Taille, SJ (1872–1933) also greatly influenced the movement, particularly his principal three-volume work Mysterium Fidei, published in 1921. In his extensive examination of the biblical, patristic and Thomistic understanding, de la Taille brought a theologically fresh understanding of Christ’s saving sacrifice and its relationship to the sacrifice of the Mass. He demonstrated that there is an inherent harmony among Christ’s sacrifice initiated at the Last Supper, its consummation in his death and resurrection, and its continuing to be made present in the sacrifice of the Mass. Thus, de la Taille added theological depth to the liturgical renewal in the midst of its more pastoral qualities.

Mention must also be made of Fr. Pius Parsch (1884–1954), a member of the Augustinian Canons Regular at the Klosterneuburg Abbey in Austria. As a leading figure in the liturgical movement, he wrote popular works on the liturgy founded upon recent scholarship and pastoral developments, some of which were published in English, such as The Liturgy of the Mass. He promoted what he called the “People’s Mass,” which again fostered the participation of the laity. Surprisingly, this liturgical innovation comprised a free-standing altar where the priest faced the people. While unusual, such was nonetheless permitted prior to Vatican II. Little did he know that what he initiated would become the liturgical norm after Vatican II.

In the United States, probably the most influential contributor to the liturgical renewal was Virgil Michel (1890–1938), a Benedictine monk at Collegeville, Minnesota. Having studied in Europe he was knowledgeable of the liturgical movement and made it known to the English-speaking world, particularly in the United States. With the permission of his abbot, he set out to establish St. John’s Abbey as a center for liturgical renewal. To foster the renewal, he founded the journal Orate Fratres (later renamed Worship), as well as Liturgical Press. The European liturgical renewal thus became established in America.

Having briefly surveyed some of the chief architects of the liturgical renewal, it is also important to examine the response of the Church’s hierarchy. We already noted Pius X’s positive response to Guéranger’s initiative at promoting a revival of Gregorian chant. But it was Pius XII who firmly placed the liturgical movement within the heart of the universal Church. In 1947, he published his encyclical Mediator Dei on the sacred liturgy. In it he notes the revival of scholarly interest in the liturgy that began at the end of the nineteenth century. This movement, he confirms, has brought much fruit. He states: “We ourselves, in the course of our traditional address to the Lenten Preachers of this gracious city of Rome in 1943, urged them warmly to exhort their respective hearers to more faithful participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice” (§6).

Pope Pius was well aware of unapproved innovations that had crept into the liturgy, including “those who make use of the vernacular in the celebration of the august eucharistic sacrifice” (§59). Pius sees the use of Latin as “a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth,” but notes that “in spite of this, the use of the mother tongue in connection with several of the rites may be of much advantage to the people” (§60). At the same time, he warns that, although ancient liturgies are worthy of veneration,

Ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor or aroma of antiquity. The more recent liturgical rites likewise deserve reverence and respect. They too owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age even to the consummation of the world. They are equally resources used by the majestic Spouse of Jesus Christ to promote and procure the sanctity of men (§61).

Pius XII thus acknowledges the need to venerate the ancient liturgies. Yet he insists that contemporary rites likewise deserve respect and reverence, for they too are inspired by the Holy Spirit and so freshly foster the sanctity of the faithful.

Pius XII also offers a doctrinal interpretation of the Eucharistic liturgy, stressing its sacrificial nature and the sacramental fruits produced by it—reconciliation with God and communion with the body and blood of the risen Jesus (see §§66-78). In this doctrinal context, Pius accentuates the need for the faithful’s active participation:

It is therefore desirable, Venerable Brethren, that all the faithful should be aware that to participate in the eucharistic sacrifice is their chief duty and supreme dignity, and that not in an inert and negligent fashion, giving way to distractions and day-dreaming, but with such earnestness and concentration that they may be united as closely as possible with the High Priest (§80).

While the priest, as an ordained minister, is the principal celebrant of the Eucharistic sacrifice, he does so in communion with and on behalf of the faithful, for “they participate, according to their condition, in the priesthood of Christ” (§88; see also §92). Although there have been some exaggerations, Pius is “very pleased to learn that this teaching, thanks to a more intense study of the liturgy on the part of many, especially in recent years, has been given full recognition” (§94).

In this doctrinal context, Pius XII praises those “who, with the idea of getting the Christian people to take part more easily and more fruitfully in the Mass, strive to make them familiar with the ‘Roman Missal,’ so that the faithful, united to the priest, may pray together in the very words and sentiments of the Church” (§105). Pius also commends those who foster ways for the laity to share in the liturgical act in an external manner, for example, by responses and by singing. He suggests the faithful “either answer the priest in an orderly and fitting manner, or sing hymns suitable to the different parts of the Mass, or do both,” including signing Gregorian chant (105). To this end, Pius’s wish is that “in each Diocese an advisory Committee to promote the liturgical Apostolate should be established” (§109).

What we find in Pius XII’s encyclical is the highest magisterial endorsement of the liturgical renewal as found at that time. Pius is intent that the liturgical renewal be achieved properly, according to doctrinal and liturgical norms, but he wishes it to continue for the spiritual good of the people. He realizes that only as the faithful fully participate in the Eucharistic liturgy, in accordance with their priestly baptismal character, will they fully obtain its sacramental blessing.

Before concluding our survey of the liturgical movement prior to Vatican II, reference must be made to two significant theologians whose influential writings contributed to the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy: Fr. Romano Guardini (1885–1968), and Fr. Louis Bouyer (1913–2004).[4]

Guardini was one of the leading theologians of the early twentieth century. His major contribution to the liturgical movement was The Spirit of the Liturgy (1918; English translation 1930), in which he emphasized that liturgical prayer is composed of both words and actions, in a form that is unique to their sacredness. Moreover, the liturgy is communal, in that the liturgical words and actions are done in common by both the priest and the laity. The liturgy consistently uses “we” and not “I,” and thus the liturgical actions are done as one worshiping community. The priest in communion with the faithful offers the one sacrifice of the Mass, and they are bound together in partaking of the one bread and cup that are the body and blood of the risen Jesus. Guardini’s emphasis on the communal and participatory nature of the Eucharist was a judgment against the rampant autonomy of the individual that he perceived in contemporary Western society and even in the Church. His hope was that the liturgical renewal would help purge the Church of such individualism, and so render more perfect the unity of the body of Christ, which would in turn help transform secular society. Unfortunately, as we will discuss, the Council’s renewal of the liturgy, not in itself but by human causes, has given birth to divisions in the Church. Nonetheless, Guardini’s theological and spiritual vision of the liturgy did bear fruit at Vatican II—fruit that needs to ripen again today.[5]

A former Lutheran pastor, Fr. Louis Bouyer became Catholic in 1939 and subsequently joined the Congregation of the Oratory, founded by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Bouyer became one of the leading liturgical theologians prior to Vatican II. Like Odo Casel, Bouyer stressed the importance of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection in the liturgy, in that the Eucharist enacts these same mysteries. By participating in the sacramental act of the Eucharistic liturgy one is taken up into the saving acts that comprise the paschal mystery itself. For this reason, active participation in the Eucharist is essential, for in so participating one comes to partake of the benefits of the sacramental acts themselves—forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ. Such emphases can be found in his Paschal Mystery: Meditations on the Last Three Days of Holy Week and in Life and Liturgy. Of equal importance is his book Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer, where Bouyer treats the theological development of the Eucharistic prayer through the centuries. Bouyer was appointed a peritus at Vatican II, and in that position he was a theological consultant for the committee that drafted the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Bouyer was not entirely happy, during and especially after the Council, for he anticipated and later observed the subsequent liturgical aberrations, both theological and pastoral. At this point, an important conclusion may be drawn from this brief summary of the rise and growth of the liturgical movement.

Like almost all renewal movements in Church history, such as the rise of the Franciscans and Dominicans, the liturgical renewal movement was from the ground up. In this case, it was initiated and primarily grew from within a monastic setting, and its principal concern was to revive the laity’s active engagement in the liturgy, in union with the priest—thus the urging of active participation of the faithful in both words and actions. At the same time, this movement for liturgical renewal was guided, sanctioned, and encouraged by the Church’s hierarchy. Such ecclesial approval and support were given at the highest level by Popes Pius X and Pius XII. The liturgical movement thus needs to be acknowledged as an authentic work of the Spirit for the benefit of Christ’s Church. It was not free from weaknesses and errors, as Pius XII acknowledged, yet it cannot be denied that the Holy Spirit was guiding sinful and fallible people—the only kind he had to work with—to undertake this renewal that was desperately needed for the good of the Catholic faithful.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the first installment of five on the renewal of the liturgy.

[1] Since none of the authors is a canon lawyer, we will not address any juridical issues that have arisen.

[2] Chirograph of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio « Tra le sollecitudini” on Sacred Music (2003).

[3] The Mystery of Christian Worship and Other Writings, ed. Burkhard Neunheuser (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1962), 48. Casel also writes: “The co-offering of the faithful rest first of all on the objective sacramental engrafting of every Christian into the body of Christ by baptism. What the body does, the members do in company with it. The more conscious this participation is, the more deeply it is experienced, the more intensive the participation. This explains the necessity of active participation in the liturgical celebration and in its external form; the external strengthens what is within” (23, n. 3).

[4] Josef A. Jungmann and his work The Mass of the Roman Rite, Dom Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy, and Jean Daniélou’s The Bible and the Liturgy are also deserving of mention.

[5] Pope Francis draws from Guardini to make several key points in Desiderio Desideravi (see 34, 44, 50, 51).