Cardinal Sarah’s Liturgical Reform Meets Resistance

It has been said that Rome thinks in centuries. In the present age, however, it seems that Rome reacts in days. So Cardinal Sarah learned following a July 5 address on the liturgy, as the Vatican issued a clarification meant to quash speculation about the possibility of new enactments from Rome that would affect liturgical norms and practices.

As many readers know by now, the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments gave the opening address at the annual Sacra Liturgica conference, held this year in London. In part of his address, Cardinal Sarah urged bishops and priests to consider a return to the age-old practice of offering Mass ad orientem, where the priest and the people face together the “liturgical east.”

This suggestion caused an uproar in some quarters of the Church. Cardinal Vincent Nichols of the Archdiocese of Westminster, the see in which Sarah gave his address, quickly issued a letter to his priests discouraging the idea, claiming that the General Instructions of the Roman Missal (“the GIRM”) favors the now common practice of celebration versus populum.

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Shortly thereafter came a statement from the Vatican, wherein Fr. Lombardi, also citing the GIRM, made clear that there would be no “directive” concerning ad orientem worship from Rome. The Vatican Radio website reported the pope’s position thusly:

Fr. Lombardi notes that Pope Francis made this view clear to Cardinal Sarah during a recent audience, stressing that the ‘Ordinary’ form of the celebration of Mass is the one laid down in the Missal promulgated by Paul VI, while the ‘Extraordinary’ form, permitted in certain specific cases by Pope Benedict XVI, should not be seen as replacing the ‘Ordinary’ form.

Many learned laymen and clergy, including Fr. Zuhlsdorf on his blog, have already debunked the notion that the GIRM encourages the practice of offering Mass facing the people. Where both Fr. Lombardi and Cardinal Nichols refer to a translation of the GIRM that calls Mass facing the people “desirable whenever possible,” it is indisputable that the original Latin does not employ the word “desirable.” Rather, the section in question, denoted as paragraph “299,” simply allows Mass versus populum as an option and permits, but does not require or encourage, the construction of the altar apart from the wall.

But beyond the misuse of the GIRM to undermine Cardinal Sarah’s invitation, it is critical to note how even the Vatican proffers a wholly confusing and inaccurate depiction of the “Missal promulgated by Paul VI.” While it is true that the Missal of Paul VI governs the “Ordinary” form of the Mass, it is not correct to assert or imply that the 1969 Missal mandates Mass facing the people. There is no rubric in the 1969 Missal that requires the priest to say Mass facing the people. Nowhere in the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum promulgating the new missal does Paul VI mention versus populum worship, despite the fact that he discusses the changes to the Mass that he deems most significant (the first of which he identifies as the addition of three new Eucharistic Prayers).

This is the key to understanding why Cardinal Sarah’s address touched an ecclesial third rail. It seems that churchmen at the highest levels do not wish anyone to notice that certain practices associated with the Novus Ordo—Mass facing the people, Communion in the hand while standing, the use of laymen to distribute Holy Communion—have no grounding in the Missal of Paul VI, let alone in the mandate for liturgical reform set forth at the Second Vatican Council. Rather, these practices sprouted up throughout the 1970s as a result of devastating anti-traditional fads that even the radical post-Council crafters of the 1969 Missal never envisioned.

Indeed, the whole point of Cardinal Sarah’s keynote was to call for a reexamination of the Council’s directives on liturgical reform and for a reevaluation of their implementation. This call for a “reform of the reform” is nothing new, but it is the first time that a prelate of Sarah’s rank and official position actually exhorted priests to return to the traditional posture. Sarah also revealed that Pope Francis instructed him to continue to pursue the “reform of the reform” vision of Pope Benedict.

For many, it seems, this was too much. The responses from the Vatican, Cardinal Nichols and even the USCCB (it issued its own statement on the matter on July 12 that was evenhanded but repeated the incorrect assertion that the GIRM prefers the versus populum position) have the air of an attempt to politely but clearly distance oneself from a politically incorrect statement. It is as if an eminent figure made an impolite statement at a party, causing the other guests to nervously smile but demurely explain that they, of course, do not agree with the august speaker.

The pushback against Cardinal Sarah has itself engendered a pushback. Nine years after the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum and the hopes it raised for genuine and definitive liturgical reform, it has become impossible for the “spirit of Vatican II” powers to stifle or marginalize the traditional movement.

As with so much else in the present pontificate, it is not apparent what Pope Francis thinks of Cardinal Sarah’s work or the program of “reform of the reform” in general. It is certain, however, that the critics of the pastoral and intellectual bases that ungird the way that most Catholics have experienced the Mass of nearly 50 years will continue to press their case, and the most fervent, and youngest, cohort of the faithful will not waver from a long-term commitment to liturgical reform along traditional lines.

The Arian controversy unleashed a century of chaos on the Church; the popes lived in Avignon for 75 years; nearly three decades elapsed from the time of the 95 Theses to the opening of the Council of Trent; the traditional liturgy of the Rome Rite has been in effective suppression for 45 years. The Church is 2,000 years old. Rome thinks in centuries.

(In the image above, Cardinal Sarah celebrates Mass ad orientem. Photo credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.)


  • Christian Browne

    Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.

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