A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Council

The Rhine Alliance and Vatican II

“Those therefore who after the manner of wicked heretics dare to set aside Ecclesiastical Traditions, and to invent any kind of novelty, or to reject any of those things entrusted to the Church, or who wrongfully and outrageously devise the destruction of any of those Traditions enshrined in the Catholic Church, are to be punished thus: if they are bishops, we order them to be deposed; but if they are monks or lay persons, we command them to be excluded from the community.”

——— Second Council of Nicaea 787 A.D.

by Harry Stevens

It was huge news in 1965: the Catholic Mass would finally be ‘modernized.’ By 1970 the Pope Paul VI Missal was in place, setting off a chain-reaction of liturgical innovation which shook the Catholic world to its core.

Vatican 2
SAINT PETER’S DURING THE VATICAN COUNCIL Curious onlookers — mainly lay people — watch the clergy process.

Today, almost 50 years later, many Catholics are beginning to ask why and indeed whether such drastic liturgical changes were ordered by the Council. These are serious questions. Now that the actual Council documents are available online for all to peruse, it is painfully clear that many of these liturgical changes — now in practice around the world – were never actually specified by the Council.

One thing is clear: those that were, were spearheaded by a group of liturgists and theologians from the Rhine Valley.

Catholic Mass Unchanged Since 600 AD

Up until the 1960s, the Roman Rite Mass had remained essentially unchanged –except for minor local variances — from the time of St Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). The Council of Trent (1545-1563) decreed that the Mass was to be celebrated uniformly and so St Pope Pius V in 1570 published a revised missal by the Bull Quo Primum.

The Missal of Pius V continued in use with very minor changes until the John XXIII Missal of 1962.

The Roots of Change

A torrent of questions remain basically unanswered. What led to the revolutionary changes in the Mass, post-Vatican II? Why have the priest face the people? Why term the priest no longer a ‘celebrant’ but a ‘president’? Why change all the ancient prayers to the vernacular? Why delete the prayers at the foot of the altar? Did all of this really start at Vatican II, as many believe? Or did it actually start earlier?

Some say these liturgical changes began with St Pope Pius X on November 22, 1903 with his motu proprio ‘Tra le sollecitudini’

“It being our ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit restored in every respect and preserved by all the faithful, we deem it necessary to provide before everything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for the object of acquiring this spirit from its indispensable fount, which is the active participation in the holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.”

Tra le sollecitudini, in short, helped reform liturgical music with active participation of the faithful.  Pius X’s reform energized others to action.

Father Romano Guardini, an Italian by birth who was raised in southern Germany, may have been the genesis for what later became known as the ‘liturgical movement.’  This was an effort to enhance the appreciation and experience of worship with one goal: to enable the active participation of the faithful in the liturgy.

Guardini’s liturgical movement spread to the Rhine. Concentrated mostly in France and Germany, this pre-World War I liturgical movement was made up of academics, scholars, monks, priests and visionaries. There was little in the way of representation from the laity in the pews.

Even the century before, Dom Guéranger from Solesmes, France, was an early visionary with the reform of Gregorian chant.  Later, Benedictines in France and Germany were pioneers in the liturgical movement: Abbott Anselm Schott (who edited a Latin-German Missal); Dom Odo Casel, Dom Beauduin, Dom Maurice Festugière, Dom Ildelfons Herwegen, Dom Virgil Michel, and Dom Pius Parsch.

Pius XII’s Post World War II Commission

Forward to 1948 and back to Italy, when the next phase of liturgical reform began.  Pope Pius XII – expressly stating his wishes that the liturgy be kept within the spirit of Pius X – formed a liturgical commission.  In November 1955, this commission, under Father Annibale Bugnini, was responsible for changes in some Holy Week rites.

Today, there are questions about whether Pius XII was really kept informed about the activities of Bugnini’s commission, which implemented the first major changes to the Pius V Missal since 1570.  Some of these changes directly affected the rite of the Mass: the suppression of the prayers at the foot of the altar and last gospel on certain occasions and the celebrant not himself reading parts of the Mass.

The overall effect was to begin a watering-down of the Rite. Today, questions are still unanswered. Was this a trial run for the reforms that came later from the Council?  Was there an overall Italian plan led by Bugnini for the Council?   And what about the Rhine countries during this time?

Post War Along the Rhine

The Rhine Alliance, as it came to be known, included clerics from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. In the wake of World War II, these were at the center of a push for modernization across European society. Both the secular and religious intelligentsia were keen to be rid of “tradition.”

In France, the alliance of most of the conservative bishops with the Vichy government resulted in their complete discredit and removal from office. The Rhine contingent to the Second Vatican Council was composed of men who had been bishops during the war, many of whom were cardinals by the 1960s. They brought with them younger advisors — the so-called ‘periti’ — whose names since have become well-known to Catholics:  Congar, de Lubac, Ratzinger, Rahner, Schillebeeckx and Küng. These young men brought their various ideas and schools of thought to Vatican II, with a view towards modernization and ecumenicism.

In the years since, well-regarded observers have posed different explanations for what happened at the Council.

Some have reported that it was the powerful Rhine alliance – with  reluctant Italians in tow — and more specifically, Father (later Archbishop) Bugnini that led the revolution. Father Wiltgen, who reported on the Council for the news media, described a struggle between the Italian and German contingents.  Cardinal Ratzinger, in his 1988 book, ‘Milestones’ described ‘German arrogance’ as a key factor.

The Council Unfolds

The Second Vatican Council opened in October 1962, and closed three years later.  In terms of liturgy, several changes set a precedent for further change early in the Council’s meetings. These included permanently omitting Judica me (prayers at the foot of the Altar), the Last Gospel, the Confiteor and the Absolution before Communion.

In December 1962 Pope John XXIII changed the Canon by adding St Joseph’s name immediately after the name of the Most Holy Virgin.  This was the first change to the Canon of the Mass, an unexpected move which surprised many.

Also, early in the Council, missionary bishops assigned to Asia and Africa sought liturgical reform and practices, hoping that languages other than Latin would bring a richer and more vital liturgy to their faithful.  There were a few calls for changes such as shortening prayers at the foot of the altar, ending the Mass at Ite, missa est, making the priest facing the people, and developing an ecumenical Mass.

The vast majority of the Council Fathers, however, did not call for any liturgical change. Undaunted by this lack of enthusiasm, however, the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy approved three distinct Mass formulas, specifying that the Canon was to be said aloud, in the vernacular, and with the priest facing the people.

One can say things moved quickly in just three years.

A High-Jacked Reform
From whence came all of this unprecedented change? By the 1960s, opposition to the Vietnam War and Cold War balance of power politics prompted the US peace movement.  In Germany and France, the ‘68er’ movement of student protest, activism and rebellion seemed to shadow America’s experience.  But did the turmoil in society necessarily have to affect the Church so much – and for so long?

In the decades since this tumultuous era, various observers and authors have offered their comments. Michael Davies famously opined that the liturgical movement was ‘high-jacked’ and contended that a ‘pseudo liturgical renewal’ developed afterwards.

Of this same  influence Benedict XVI later reported, “I was not able to foresee that the negative sides of the liturgical movement would afterward reemerge with redouble strength, almost to the point of pushing the liturgy towards its own self-destruction.” Furthermore, he stated unequivocally that the Council Fathers ‘never intended many of the changes that took place.’

How then did this all happen?

Outright rebellion against the Council

In the final analysis, it appears that fifty years later we can say with certainty that it was outright rebellion on the part of some European and American bishops and priests that led to institutionalizing practices such as Communion received standing and in the hand, and priests no longer celebrating Mass ad orientem.

Furthermore, this same group unleashed a storm of iconoclasm never imagined by the Council Fathers, destroying the work of centuries in beautiful art — high altars, stained glass, and statuary in Catholic churches all over the world.

Tragically, the damage wrought by the so-called ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ did not end there. The catechesis of Catholics was seriously damaged. Traditional Orders quickly lost their bearings — and most of their members. As religious vocations plummeted, abuses rapidly crept in to the Church — in seminaries, in parishes and in Orders. Today, many observers point to the fact that two generations of un-catechized Catholics have meant mass apostasy in most of the Western world.

The damage that has been done to the Church is only now starting be assessed by a new generation of unbiased Catholic and secular scholars alike. What really happened at Vatican II may in fact take another fifty years to understand.

(Editor’s Note: This short essay is but an introduction to and some thoughts on the liturgical movement, the Rhine alliance and Vatican II.  See the Reference list and their bibliographies for further reading.)

Davies, Michael.  Liturgical Revolution, Volumes I, II, III, Angeles Press
Fortescue, Adrian.  The Mass, A Study of The Roman Liturgy, University Press, Longmans, Green and Co, Ltd 1955.
Guardini, Romano.  The Spirit of the Liturgy. Sheed & Ward, London 1930;
Ratzinger, Joseph.  Milestones Memoirs 1927-1977, Ignatius
Wiltgen, Ralph. The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, The Unknown Council, Hawthorne Books, Inc

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