Robert F. Taft, SJ, an internationally acclaimed authority on the history of Eastern liturgies, in his recent article, “Return to Our Roots” (America, May 26-June 2), offers an evenhanded assessment of the liturgical reforms promoted by the Second Vatican Council and promulgated by Pope Paul VI.
A vocal minority of Catholics has expressed unhappiness with those reforms, and some have called for a “reform of the reform.”
Over against the liturgical naysayers, Father Taft writes: “I maintain that the Roman Catholic liturgical renewal in the wake of Vatican II was an overwhelming success, returning the liturgy to the people of God to whom it rightly belongs.”
Father Taft acknowledges, on the one hand, that the reform mandated by the council “was not perfect, because nothing but God is perfect.” He insists, on the other hand, that “it was done as well as was humanly possible at the time, and we owe enormous gratitude and respect to those who had the vision to implement it.”
That said, Father Taft turns his attention to “what the reform did not do well.”
He reminds us that the council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy had a single, central purpose, namely that the faithful might “be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebration which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy and to which the Christian people … have a right and an obligation by reason of their baptism” (n.14).
To attain this end, the council had to restore the rites “to the vigor they had in the tradition of the Fathers” (n.50). And this, Father Taft points out, is “where the East came in.”
Liturgical pioneers drew inspiration from Russian Orthodox emigr√©s to France, who had fled from their homeland after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. These contacts proved crucially important because the Orthodox Church, Father Taft notes, had preserved the liturgical spirit of the early church and continued to live by it.
Liturgists in the West, however, did not attempt simply to imitate existing Eastern usage, but interpreted and applied it in the light of the needs of Latin Christianity. And that is why the liturgical movement, which Vatican II essentially validated, was so successful.
But there were things that Vatican II “failed to do well or did not do at all,” Father Taft writes.
First, he underscores the irony that one of Pope Pius X’s most celebrated and enduring reforms, namely the lowering of the age of first holy Communion from adolescence to the age of reason, had the unfortunate effect of shifting the time of first Communion before confirmation, and in the process making first confession precede first Communion.
“This destroyed the age-old sequence of the rites of Christian initiation,” Father Taft insists, and it also transformed the sacrament of penance into one of the rites of Christian initiation in the Catholic West.
Father Taft argues, secondly, that the Liturgy of the Hours, even in its supposedly reformed state, remains an essentially private activity of the clergy rather than a prayer of and by the whole church.
Finally, the distribution of preconsecrated hosts at Mass “… is like inviting guests to a banquet, then preparing and eating it oneself, while serving one’s guests the leftovers from a previous meal.”
As always, Father Taft tells it like it is.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.