New Liturgical Movement: How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Canon? (Part 1)

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

In the last several days, some of the less healthy parts of the Catholic internet have been subjected to a great deal of pearl-clutching over purported statements that the post-Conciliar reform of the liturgy was in one way or another, or even in toto, a mistake. These statements, it is claimed, call into question the belief of those who make them in the doctrine of the Church’s indefectibility. Conveniently forgotten, of course, is that the inventors of the post-Conciliar rite themselves believed and openly stated that for centuries, the Church had been in many ways, or indeed in all ways, gravely mistaken about how the liturgy ought to be celebrated. We are grateful, therefore, to a guest contributor for sharing with us this article, which demonstrates that they did not scruple to hold and state this opinion even about the very heart of the Roman Rite, the Canon.

New Liturgical Movement: How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Canon? (Part 1)
The beginning of the Roman Canon in the Gellone Sacramentary, ca. 780 AD (Folio 143v; Bibliothèque National de France; Département des Manuscrits, Latin 12048)

Much has been written on the motu proprio Traditiones Custodes and the subsequent press releases, document leaks, interviews, and dubia communiques. The reader will no doubt be relieved to learn that it is not my intention to contribute yet another piece on the meaning and import of, or reactions to, any of the above. Rather, I wish to explore a more fundamental question that has been raised in the aftermath of the motu proprio, regarding the nature of the Roman Canon and liturgical progress in general.

In early August, Rev. Anthony Ruff was interviewed by Gloria Purvis of America Magazine about his reactions to Traditiones Custodes and his thoughts on the pre- and post-conciliar liturgy in general. Ruff began by saying that one of his first reactions to TC was heartfelt concern for those who desire the traditional Mass, because until now they had been “misled” by the hierarchy and would therefore be all the more confused and hurt by this motu proprio. “The authorities of the church let them believe that there was something O.K. and something good about the pre-Vatican II rites,” he explained.

According to Ruff, “the Second Vatican Council said, the form of this [pre-Vatican II] Mass, where it’s really more clerical than congregational, that form is not adequate. We’re not saying that the people were inadequate or un-Christian, but we’re saying that that form does not reflect the nature of the true church, which is how they worded it.” It is for this reason that “the church understands the 1970 missal after Vatican II, in a sense to be superior, more faithful to the will of the Lord as understood by the Second Vatican Council”.

Patrick Smith, contributor to a variety of outlets including The Lamp, the Josias, and Ius & Iustitium, offered brief commentary on Ruff’s interview via Twitter. “As I think about this,” reflected Smith, “it’s an extraordinary claim that, from about 500 to Nov. 30, 1969, the Roman Rite was afflicted with an unsatisfactory liturgy that did not reflect the Lord’s will or even a correct understanding of the Church.” He continued, “it is interesting to compare the post-Conciliar project of ressourcement, of returning to the Fathers and stripping off the decadent Baroque neo-Thomism, with the post-Conciliar project of revising/rejecting the Roman Canon, which was attested in detail by Father after Father.”

Smith’s comments, and his pinpointing of the Canon as a locus for post-conciliar revision, serve as a useful framework for examining the theological assessment given by Father Ruff and its wider implications for the history (and future) of the liturgy.

The Canon and the Liturgical Movement

The Roman Canon, the extraordinarily ancient central text of the Roman Rite of the Mass, stretching from the Te igitur to the Per ipsum, was viewed by many mid-century reformers as a priority for modernization efforts. Its structure and phrasing of the Roman Canon often was viewed as odd, difficult, and obviously in need of improvement by liturgical scholars of the conciliar period.

The beginning of the Roman Canon, in the Stowe Missal (AD 792). Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS. D ii 3, fol. 24 r. (Source)

A priest convert-and-liturgist writing in the diocesan newspaper of the Archdiocese of Hartford in the years immediately following the council provides a representative example of this sentiment: “the Roman (the ancient ‘Gregorian’) Canon was once called by an Anglican writer of the last century ‘the most venerable prayer in Christendom.’ Venerable it may be and is, and incomparable because certainly unlike any other, it is yet far from being the classic or ideal eucharistic prayer. Our scholars have long been pointing this out […] How my fingers itch for the blue pencil!”

This subject was not limited to private debate about mere stylistic preferences or obscure scholarly minutiae. Rather, it was the public and strenuous opinion of the leading figures in the Liturgical Movement that the Roman Canon was in fact theologically and liturgically ‘defective’ and guilty of ‘sins’ that stood in need of correction. Although running afoul of the strictures of the 22nd session of the Council of Trent, these scholars stood convinced that these claims were imperative to the project of officially renewing the liturgical life of the church.

The writings of two such figures demand particular attention: Rev. Frederick McManus and Rev. Cipriano Vagaggini. These were two of the most prominent and influential players in the story of liturgical reform, and it is difficult to summarize even the highlights of their careers.

Rev. Frederick McManus (Source)

McManus was the most respected canonist of his generation, first teaching at and then leading the school of canon law at CUA. He served on the Vatican’s pre-conciliar, conciliar, and post-conciliar liturgical commissions which drafted, edited, and then implemented the Sacrosanctum Concilium. He was part of the US bishop’s press panel at the council, giving briefings on the closed sessions, and he wrote countless feature articles for the US bishop’s official news service. He also served from 1965-1975 as the first executive director of the US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, the official body responsible for guiding the liturgical reform in the United States.

Rev. Cipriano Vaggagini OSB (Source)

Vagaggini likewise served on the pre-conciliar, conciliar, and post-conciliar liturgical commissions, and was responsible for drafting many of the most prominent portions of the liturgical reform. He helped draft Sacram Liturgiam and almost exclusively drafted Inter Oecumenici, the two major documents which implemented the council’s liturgical constitution in 1964. Vagaggini also drafted, among other things, the new rite of concelebration, the new rite of confirmation, the new multi-year lectionary, several of the new eucharistic prayers, the new instruction on communion under both species, the new instruction for seminaries, and the instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium.

1966: ‘Radical Revision’ underway

Their opinions regarding the Canon and the need for reform were summarized in Vagaggini’s book The Canon of the Mass and Liturgical Reform, originally published in Italian in 1966 and released in English in May of 1967. Rather than merely positioning itself as an academic exercise, the book instead is designed to broadcast a clear message: changes to the Canon are necessary and unavoidable, already underway, and will arrive much sooner than anyone expects.

The book’s description opens with a rather stark line: “Liturgical reform was decreed by Vatican II and in the end is bound to be radical.” McManus begins his preface in much the same way: “One of these days the eucharistic prayer of the Roman Mass will change. Whether this comes about by way of radical revision of the Roman canon or by the addition of several alternative anaphoras, the change will come.”

McManus explained that “the eucharistic prayer in the vernacular, however desirable, will make public something that has been overlooked except by liturgical and pastoral experts, namely, the defects of the Roman canon” and that “the limitations and defects will call for the evolution of new forms.” The solution to these problems, according to McManus, was “the serious construction of new eucharistic prayers which reflect the progress of theological and liturgical science and which are meaningful – or can be made meaningful through study and reflection – to the twentieth-century Christian.”

In his introduction, Vagaggini again emphasized that there was a real and urgent need to correct “the canon’s intrinsic limitations and manifest defects.” Over the course of some 18 pages, he highlights ten specific defects, including:

1. The impression given of an agglomeration of features with no apparent unity (“this is the first and most serious defect that is immediately evident when it is compared with the anaphoras of Hippolytus or the Eastern Churches”).

3. The unsatisfactory way in which the various prayers of intercession are assembled in the Canon (“it is as though the worst possible solution had been chosen”).

6. The lack of a theology of the part played by the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist (“this is a very serious deficiency”).

7. Deficiencies in the Qui pridie and the institution narrative (“the greatest defect is that Hoc est enim corpus meum stands alone; [… it] is a serious one liturgically and theologically”).

9. The list of saints in the present Canon (“lend themselves to a great deal of criticism”).

10. The lack of an overall presentation of the history of salvation (“this is a failing of the Roman Canon and of the whole anaphora tradition in the West”).

Vagaggini bluntly delivers the judgment of the liturgical reformers: “these defects are undeniable and of no small importance. The present Roman canon sins in a number of ways against those requirements of good liturgical composition and sound liturgical sense that were emphasized by the Second Vatican Council […] the general liturgical reform called for by the recent Council would be failing in one of its gravest tasks if its courage faltered in confronting this problem.”

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