The Preface to Nicola Bux's Benedict XVI's Reform: The Liturgy Between Innovation and Tradition | Vittorio Messori
The “liturgical crisis” that followed the Second Vatican Council caused a schism, with many excommunications latae sententiae; it provoked unease, polemics, suspicions, and reciprocal accusations. And perhaps it was one of the factors—one, I say, not the only—that brought about the hemorrhaging of practicing faithful, even of those who attended Mass only on the major feasts. Well, it might seem strange, but such a tempest has not diminished but, rather, increased my confidence in the Church.
I will try to explain what I mean, speaking in the first person, returning thus to a personal experience. Some would regard this approach as immodest, but others would see it as the simplest way of being clear and to the point. It happens to be the case that despite my age I have only a very slight recollection of the “old” form of the Church’s worship. I grew up in an agnostic household and was educated in secular schools; I discovered the gospel—and began furtively to enter churches as a believer and no longer as a mere tourist—just before the liturgical reform went into force, which for me meant only “the Mass in Italian”.
In sum, I caught the tail-end of history. Only a few months later, I would find the altars reversed and some new kitschy piece of junk made of aluminum or plastic brought in to replace the “triumphalism” of the old altars, often signed by masters, adorned with gold and precious marble. But already for some time I had seen—with surprise, in my neophyte innocence—guitars in the place of organs, the jeans of the assistant pastor showing underneath robes that were intended to give the appearance of “poverty”, “social” preaching, perhaps with some discussion, the abolition of what they called “devotional accretions”, such as making the Sign of the Cross with holy water, kneelers, candles, incense. I even witnessed the occasional disappearance of statues of popular saints; the confessionals, too, were removed, and some, as became the fashion, were transformed into liquor cabinets in designer houses.
Everything was done by clerics, who were incessantly talking about “democracy in the Church”, affirming that this was reclaimed by a “People of God”, whom no one, however, had bothered to consult. The people, you know, are sovereign; they must be respected, indeed, venerated, but only if they accept the views that are dictated by the political, social, or even religious ruling class. If they do not agree with those who have the power to determine the line to be taken, they must be reeducated according to the vision of the triumphant ideology of the moment. For me, who had just knocked at the door of the Church, gladly welcoming stabilitas—which is so attractive and consoling to those who have known only the world’s precariousness— that destruction of a patrimony of millennia took me by surprise and seemed to me more anachronistic than modern.
It seemed to me that the priests were harming their own people, who, as far as I knew, had not asked for any of this, had not organized into committees for reform, had not signed petitions or blocked streets or railways to bring an end to Latin (a “classist language”, but only according to the intellectual demagogues) or to have the priest facing them the whole Mass or to have political chit-chat during the liturgy or to condemn pious practices as alienating, which instead were precious inasmuch as they were a bond with the older generation. There was a revolt on the part of certain groups of faithful—who were immediately silenced, however, and treated by the Catholic media as incorrigibly nostalgic, perhaps a little fascist—united under the motto that came from France: on nous change la réligion, “they are changing our religion.” In other words, although it was pushed by the champions of “democracy”, the liturgical reform (here I am abstracting from the content and am speaking only of the method) was not at all “democratic”. The faithful at that time were not consulted, and the faithful of the past were rejected. Is tradition not perhaps, as has been said, the “democracy of the dead”? Is tradition not letting our brothers who have preceded us speak?
But, as a novice in Catholic matters, there was another reason for my stupor. Not having had particular religious interests “previously”, and being a stranger to the life of the Church, I knew that the Second Vatican Council was in progress from some newspaper headlines but did not bother to read the articles. So I knew nothing about the work and the long debates, with clashes between opposing schools, that led to Sacrosanctum concilium, the Constitution on the Liturgy, which was, among other things, the first document produced by those deliberations. Along with the other conciliar acts, I read the text “afterward”, when faith had suddenly irrupted into my life. I read it, and, as I said, I was left surprised: the revolution I saw in ecclesial practice did not seem to have much to do with the prudent reformism recommended by the Council fathers. I read such things as: “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites”; I found no recommendation to reverse the orientation of the altar; there was nothing to justify the iconoclasm of certain clergy—which was a boon for the antique shops—who sold off everything so as to make the churches as bare and unadorned as garages. It was the space for the participating assembly, for encounter and discussion, not for alienating worship or—horror of horrors!—for an insult to the misery of the proletariat with its shining gold and art exhibits.
In short, I could not put the contrasts together: the fanatics of the ecclesial democracy were undemocratic: imposing their own ideas on the “People of God” without concern for what the “People” thought, isolating and ridiculing the dissidents. And the fanatics of “fidelity to the Council”— and they were almost always the same people—did not do what the Council said to do or even did what it recommended not to do.
Decades have passed since then, and what has taken place in the meantime is well known by those who follow the life of the Church. Well, what troubled many often saddened me, too, but it did not, as I said at the beginning, touch my confidence in the Church. It has not touched that confidence because the abuses, the misunderstandings, the exaggerations, the pastoral mistakes were those, as is always the case, of the sons of the Church, not of the Church herself. Thus, if we consider the authentic Magisterium, even in the dark years of chaos and confusion, it never substantially strayed from the guiding principle of et-et: renewal and tradition, innovation and continuity, attention to history and awareness of the Eternal, understanding the rite and the mystery of the Sacred, communal sense and attention to the individual, inculturation and catholicity. And, in regard to the summit, the Eucharist: certainly it is a fraternal meal; but just as certainly, it is the spiritual renewal of Christ’s sacrifice.
The conciliar document on the liturgy—the real one, not the mythical one—is an exhortation to reform (Ecclesia semper reformanda), but there is no revolutionary tone in it, insofar as it finds its inspiration in the considered and, at the same time, open teaching of that great pope who was Pius XII. After Scripture, Pius XII is the most cited source (more than two hundred references) of Vatican II, which, according to the black legend, intended to oppose the very Church he represented. In the many official documents that followed the Council, there is sometimes a pastoral imprudence, especially in an excess of trust in a clergy who took advantage of it, but there is no concession on principles: the abuses were often tolerated in practice but condemned—and it is this that counts in the end—at the magisterial level. Variations in doctrine were not responsible for the worst of what was done but, rather, “indults” that were exploited. It is because of such considerations—for what it is worth—that I and many others were not demoralized even in the most turbulent moments and years: a confidence prevailed that the pastoral misjudgments of which I spoke would be corrected, that the ecclesial antibodies would, as always, react, that the “Petrine principle” would prevail in the end.
It was, in other words, a confidence that times would come like those described—with obligatory realism but also with great hope—by Father Nicola Bux in this book. The recent past has been what it has been; the damage has been massive; some of the rearguard of the old ideologies of “progressivism” still boldly proclaim their slogans; but nothing is lost, because the principles are very clear; they have not been scratched. The problem is certainly not the Council but, if anything, its deformation: the way out of the crisis is in returning to the letter, and to the spirit, of its documents. The author of the pages that follow reminds us that there is work to be done to help many minds that— perhaps without even knowing it—have been led astray. We must help them recover what the Germans call die katholische Weltanschauung, the Catholic world view. It is not by chance that I use the German, as everyone knows where that Shepherd comes from who did not expect that ascension to the papacy to be woven into his story as a patient and “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord”. If I put the reference to patience in italics, it is because it is one of the interpretive keys to the magisterium of Benedict XVI, as this book will also underscore.
These are pages that Don Nicola Bux was well equipped to write and for which we should be grateful to him. He is a professor of theology and liturgy with important teaching positions, and he has a special knowledge of the liturgy of the Christian East. It is precisely this, among other things, that permits him to show yet another contradiction of the extreme innovators: “Comparative studies show that the Roman liturgy in its preconciliar form was much closer to the Eastern liturgy than its current form.” In sum, certain fanatical apostles of ecumenism have, in fact, made the problem of encounter and dialogue worse, distancing themselves from those ancient and glorious Greek, Slav, Armenian, Copt, and other Eastern Churches, in trying to please the members of the official Protestant tradition. The latter, five centuries after the Reformation, seems near to extinction and often is represented only by some theologian with almost no popular following. In some cases, finds itself on the shores of agnosticism and atheism or on those of pentecostals and charismatics belonging to the infinity of groups and sects where everyone invents his rites according to current tastes in a chaos that it would be completely inappropriate to call liturgical.
The plan of the author of these pages is guided by the desire to explain—confuting misunderstandings and errors—the motivations and the content of the motu proprio Summorum pontificum through which Pope Benedict, while conserving a single rite for the celebration of the Mass, has permitted two forms of that rite: the ordinary form—the one that came out of the liturgical reform—and the extraordinary form, according to the 1962 Missal of Blessed John XXIII.
To give shape to his plan, Don Bux was able to draw, not only on his formation as a scholar, but also on the knowledge of the problems, people, and schools that he acquired in his experience working on commissions and in offices of the Roman Curia. So he has firsthand experience and is not just a specialist and a professor. Nevertheless, he understands that it is not possible to deal with the controversial question about the “return to the Latin Mass” (we put it this way to simplify) without taking account of the theological and liturgical perspective of Joseph Ratzinger and, then, the question of Christian and Catholic worship in general. That is the origin of this book—small and dense— which unites history and the present, theology and current events, and can help those who “already know” about these things to go into them more deeply and reflectively; and it can help the layman who “does not know” to understand the importance, the development, the beauty of this mysterious object that is, for him, the liturgy, which also, even if he is not practicing, involves him or those close to him at important moments in life.
As he himself says, with respectful and affectionate solidarity, the theological and pastoral perspective of Don Bux is the same as that of Joseph Ratzinger, whom he looks upon today as a master, also in respect to two indispensable Christian virtues: patience, as we have already pointed out, and prudence. It is a prudence in which there is a place for renewal, but never forgetting the tradition, for which change does not interrupt continuity. Ecclesia non facit saltus: Vatican II is heard and applied as it merits to be, but in its true intention, that of aggiornamento and of deepening, without discontinuity with the whole history of Catholic doctrine. These pages also help us to recover that sacred reality expressed by the liturgy: in liturgical action, understanding, in the Enlightenment sense, is not enough; thus, the translations into the vernacular are not enough: it is necessary to rediscover that the liturgy is, first of all, the place of encounter with the living God.
Father Bux, who knows the “world” well, reminds us that there is a mentality that needs to be changed. He thinks that the conditions for this are present: today it is often the young people who find, with awe that becomes passion, the riches with which the Church’s treasure chest is full. It is these young people who crowded around the Polish Pope, the great charismatic, and who now crowd around this Bavarian Pope, in whom—beneath the courteous and gentle manner—they intuit the wise project of “restoration” that Joseph Ratzinger has always understood in its noble and necessary sense: the restoration of the Domus Dei after one of the many tempests of its history. A project that has been meditated on for many years and that Benedict XVI is now carrying out with courage and patience, because in him, as Don Bux notes, “the patience of love” is at work—love for God and for his Church, certainly, but also for postmodern man, to help him rediscover in liturgical worship the encounter with him who has called himself “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”.
When Benedict XVI reestablished the celebration of the older Latin Mass, voices of protest rose up from many sides. The widespread fear was-and is-that the Pope had revealed himself as the reactionary defender of tradition that many have accused him of being since he was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the former Holy Office.
Defenders of Benedict XVI have responded to these objections by explaining that the use of the Tridentine Rite is not a "step backward" to pre-Vatican II times, but rather a step forward. Now the Church can see what the older rite offered in terms of beauty, reverence, and meaning and perhaps desire more of those elements in the ordinary form of the Mass.
A professor of theology and liturgy, the author of this book explains the motives behind the Pope's decision to allow two forms of the Mass. He does this by turning to the Pope's own theological and liturgical writings, but he also draws from his experiences on various Church commissions and in offices of the Roman Curia.
The author also brings to his subject an astute understanding of current social and spiritual trends both inside and outside the Church. Sensitive to modern man's hunger for the sacred, he desires with Pope Benedict XVI that the Mass be first and foremost a place of encounter with the living God.
Nicola Bux is a priest of the Archdiocese of Bari and a professor of eastern liturgy and sacramental theology. He has studied and taught in Jerusalem and in Rome. He is a consultor to the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith and for the Causes of Saints and consultant of the international Catholic theological journal Communio. He was recently named a consultor to the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.