Book challenges those who attempt to undermine Vatican II reforms

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns


Archbishop Piero Marini served as papal master of ceremonies for some 20 years, under both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict recently appointed him president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, a position that is likely to carry with it a cardinal’s red hat.

Although it would have been far better if he had succeeded Cardinal Francis Arinze as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the curial establishment in Rome would have raised a holy ruckus had such an appointment seriously been contemplated.

That in itself tells us something about the state of the church today. There is a small but powerful and determined group within the Vatican who have never accepted the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI. Their resistance is at root ecclesiological in nature.

What they oppose is the declericalization of the liturgy. In their minds, the church is identical with the hierarchy and the priests who serve under the bishops. The laity, on the other hand, are simply the beneficiaries of the sacramental ministrations of the clergy, in a process ultimately controlled by the Vatican.

The problem for the resisters is not so much that the Mass was put into the vernacular, but that the laity could now fully understand it and actively participate in it.

The same applies to the turning around of the altar to face the congregation. It was no longer the priest-in-charge reciting the sacred words and performing the sacred rituals on behalf of the laity, but the laity themselves participating in the Mass along with the priest, making responses, singing various parts, proclaiming the Scripture readings and even assisting with the distribution of holy Communion.

And the same applies to the removal of the Communion rail and the receiving of Communion in the hand rather than on the tongue, while standing rather than kneeling. Each of these changes signaled again that the laity are not passive observers at Mass, but active participants.

The Communion rail is gone because there should be no barrier between the sanctuary and the worshiping congregation. Communion is given in the hand because the laity should feed themselves rather than be fed like infants or very young children.

The communicants stand rather than kneel because they approach the priest as coequals with him in baptism, not as serfs coming before their lord and master to express their fealty.

It is this underlying ecclesiology that is rejected, and not simply the changes in language and rituals. What the resisters oppose is the very idea that the church is the whole People of God, laity included, rather than the hierarchy and clergy alone.

This is what Archbishop Marini has stood for during all of these post-conciliar years, even as he literally stood at the side of two popes in papal ceremonies in St. Peter’s Basilica and around the world. And this is why he has been such a controversial figure in the Vatican, even though the general public never had an inkling of it.

With the release of his new book, A Challenging Reform: Realizing the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal, 1963-1975, edited by Mark Francis, John Page and Keith Pecklers, and published by The Liturgical Press, Archbishop Marini presents the case for the perennial validity of the council’s liturgical reforms. He also challenges those who would, some 40 years later, attempt to undermine those reforms, in opposition not only to Vatican II but to the expressed wishes of Pope Paul VI himself.

In 1965, as the council was drawing to a close, Paul VI declared that the “new way of doing things will have to be different; it will have to prevent and shake up the passivity of the people present at Mass.

“Before,” he continued, “it was enough to assist; now it is necessary to take part. Before, being there was enough, now attention and activity are required.”

And that is the proverbial rub, as Archbishop Marini points out in his new book and in a subsequent interview conducted in December by John Allen, senior correspondent for National Catholic Reporter.

The resistance, he insists, is not so much against the vernacular or a few ritual changes, but against the ecclesiology on which those changes are based.

Worship involves the whole church. The Mass is not something performed by the clergy, but is an action of the entire congregation. Like an orchestra leader, the priest-presider cannot presume to play all of the instruments himself, but must strive to bring them into a general harmony.

More about Archbishop Marini in my Feb. 4, 2008, column.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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