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Vol 38


Brendan Byrne SJ

Gerard Moore SM

Neil Brown

John Ozolins

Claude Mostowik MSC

Bruce Duncan CSsR


Kevin Mark


Fording the impasse: Beyond the ‘Reform of the Reform’ of the Liturgy


RECENTLY THERE HAS BEEN an increasing number of works devoted to what might be termed the ‘reform of the reform’ of the liturgy. The authors are a diverse group, representing a range of opinions and views. They include writers Cardinal Ratzinger, Catherine Pickstock, Aidan Nichols and David Torevell.1 Yet their dissatisfaction with the reform of the liturgy that has sprung from Sacrosanctum concilium has not led to a way forward for fruitful liturgical reform. In part that is because the writers I have called upon do not form a coherent movement and have not claimed such. Even without a programmatic revision the reform itself appears to be spluttering, if not immobilized. The wholesale rejection by the Sacred Congregation for Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments of the work of the Conferences of Bishops from around the world shows a real rift within the official church over the reform. Here we can list the rejections of the English language translations and adaptations of the Sacramentary and the rite of ordination, of the rite of marriage by the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales, along with that of the French Bishops, and the re-making of the guidelines for translation in Liturgiam authenticam.2 It might be added that these internal ecclesial divisions are potentially more serious and more divisive than most current disagreements among liturgists.

It is worth putting some flesh on the lines of disagreement with the reform of the liturgy to date. Some issues immediately flag discontent with, if not dissent from, the current official teaching.3 Among them are that prayer should be made facing East, with the practical consequence that the priest pray with his back to the people. This is not dissociated from questions over the placement of the altar and the tabernacle. There is the question of the appropriate posture for the faithful during the Eucharistic Prayer, whether it be standing or kneeling.4 There are issues around the theology of priesthood, and especially focussing on the over-importance placed on the personality of the priest. At another level are a series of criticisms around religious experience and aesthetics. Contemporary liturgy is oft criticised for being banal. There are severe reprimands handed out around the lack of aesthetic merit in music, architecture, art and prayer texts both translated and newly composed. These are factors in the larger criticism that there is a distinct loss in the sense of mystery, and a corresponding sterility in devotional life.

While mountains can easily be made out of liturgical molehills it is important to note that behind these points are areas of theological and liturgical weight. We can name four immediately: the relationship between God’s immanence and transcendence in liturgy; the interconnection of the priesthood of Christ, of the baptised and of the ordained minister; the nature of Christian ritual; and the quality and variety of Christian religious experience. These points are far from trivial, have currency in every act of liturgy, and are liable to facile interpretation by liturgical commentators of all stripes and colours.

When considering the ‘reform’ debate, there is a further dimension to be included. Those who seek a reform of the reform can under-appreciate the significance, merit and influence of the current renewal of the liturgy. The success of the vernacular has been nothing short of spectacular. The same bishops who voted for a limited use of the vernacular in liturgy almost immediately extended that application to all liturgical rites.5 In Ecclesia in Oceania, the Pope is clear about the positive results of liturgical reform:

They [Synod Fathers] recognized greater participation of the People of God6 in the liturgy as one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, which has led in turn to a greater sense of mission, as it was intended to do. Christian life has been invigorated by a renewed understanding and appreciation of the liturgy, especially of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.7

This endorsement echoes paragraph 37 in the earlier Statement of Conclusions:

The work of renewal of the Church in Australia has made progress largely by means of the renewal of the liturgy and the people’s fuller participation in liturgical celebration.8

Before continuing I would like to identify a couple of less than helpful characteristics in a significant proportion of the literature on the reform of the reform. There is a tendency to build up, demonise and demolish ‘straw men’ (sic). At play are often unconscious or unidentified suppositions about culture and cultural change. Included here is a complex interweaving of the essential nature of Christianity with the matrix of European culture. We in Australia, inhabitants of one of the truly old lands, whose families have felt deeply the cold steel and death of 20th century Europe, and whose electoral roles are filled with the names of the refugees of such wars and mayhem, may have been gifted by the Spirit with different insights about Christianity and culture!

The Direction We Will Take

I would like to outline some paths across the seeming impasse. What is an appropriate understanding of symbol and rite? How does Christian worship understand mystery? Does our history and theology of priesthood serve liturgy well? Are there aspects of the Constitution on the Liturgy that have yet to be implemented? In the main the liturgy of the Eucharist will provide the ritual focus for our discussion.

Symbol and Ritual

The call for full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy (SC §14 & GIRM (2002) §18) has had some unintended side effects. It has seen the confusion between participation and ‘activity’. ‘Conscious’ has been read in a cerebral and didactic manner. As well, it has provided the grounds of an often relentless desire for creativity and meaningfulness. As off-putting and culturally conditioned as these distinctly modern responses might be, they should not be used to hide a single and demoralizing reality. For perhaps 1200 years the practice of Catholic worship has excluded its participants from intentionally and directly engaging with the actual symbols and ritual forms of the liturgy itself. Let me offer a most poignant example. For over a millennium the Liturgy of the Word in the Mass has been a dead letter. While bishops, priests, deacons, monks, religious and laity have read into the rite a rich variety of meanings, its essential ritual meaning has been denied. The Word is meant to be heard. If it cannot be heard, then it is not the word of God! Regardless of the quality of the parchment and script, the incense, the jewelled cover, the splendid vestments of its reader, the Latin tones, the allegorical interpretation, only one thing matters: the word is to be heard. This point is not to be confused with the values and merits of the marvellous array of alternatives created in part to cover over this enormous failure: stained glass windows, statues, cathedrals, plays, stories. Tellingly they replaced the proclaimed word, rather than built upon it.

Our first path then leads us to ask what are the symbolic dimensions at the heart of each rite in the liturgy. How does a worshipper enter, explore and become immersed in the Lord have Mercy (Kyrie eleison), the Gloria, the Lamb of God, the Eucharistic Prayer?9 The Mass is made up of a great variety of ritual forms, each of which calls for a different response. They do not all fit so comfortably together! Often, both in the Latin and in the vernacular liturgy, we find that we give a rite meaning against, in spite of, and usually in ignorance of, its ritual form and invitation into the symbolic.

We are forced to ask what do we think we are doing when we enact these rites. Our ignorance compounds the effects of the one thousand year muteness assigned to the scriptures, since the General Instruction, echoing the Constitution on the Liturgy (§24), reminds us that the scriptures are the inspiration behind the prayers, collects and songs of the liturgy (GIRM(2002)§391).

With such a ritual consciousness we can then ask how each of these contributes to entering the symbolic heart of the rite as a whole. For the Mass this heart resides in the Sunday gathering of the body of Christ within which the word of God is proclaimed, the bread and wine are blessed, and the body and blood of Christ is eaten and drunk.10 All the ritual forms in this liturgy ought to prepare us to engage more fully in these most central symbols of Christian worship. It is salutary for us to reflect on how our history has passed onto us an emphasis on only certain members of the body of Christ, and the action of blessing, not its completion in eating and drinking. How difficult is it for us to ‘know’11 that the climax and completion of the Mass is the reception of communion, through which we are in union with God. Is this communion not the very aim of faith itself? Expressions such as ‘attending Mass’, ‘hearing Mass’ or the more contemporary ‘being a minister’ do not get the core of Christian worship.

It is essential, then, that participants in the liturgy are able to have access to the symbols and their forms. All members of the assembly require a liturgical knowledge that gives them entrée to the ritual action. This involves being steeped in practice. It assumes knowledge of what each of the rites asks of us: what does a collect, an acclamation, a petition require? There is a constant need for vigilance and care to keep front and centre the central symbolic focal points. At issue here are the dispositions we bring to worship which can and do attempt to reconfigure, distort or sideline the rites. Many of these are our inheritance from the practice and catechesis of the medieval Mass.

Mystery in Christian Worship

What is the stuff of Christian mystery? The adjective is used deliberately. Liturgists, theologians and commentators alike need to be alert to the various uses of the language of mystery. Two in particular are of interest here. One is that derived from the work of Rudolf Otto as he wrote of the ‘overwhelming and endlessly fascinating mystery’, his mysterium tremens et fascinans.12 He was taken with the hold of the numinous upon human beings and the particular forms of expression it took. He gave to western thought an insightful and arresting category of religious experience. We need to ask, however, whether this is the ground for the Christian experience of the mystery of the triune God. The same question needs also to be asked when ‘mystery’ becomes closely tied to (western) aesthetics, particularly certain types of music, architecture, ritual and language that are described variously as beautiful, sacred, holy, transcendent and religious.

It is not worth our while here to stake out the ground between the holy, the sacred, mystery, and the numinous. They are used to name experiences that are seen as foundational for our sense of God, our sense of the human (whether in God or aside from belief in God), our sense of what epitomises the very best of our society (ANZAC as sacred), our sense of being a part of the earth and material reality (the sacred cosmos). All contribute to our experience in liturgy. Yet there is a Christian criterion that needs to be applied. The experiences we name as holy God, the mystery of being, the depth of being human, the fabric of society are Christian when they are known in or placed into context with the life, death, resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, and the sending of the Spirit. The ultimate mystery of the liturgy is the paschal mystery. It has a twofold dynamic: the inflooding abundance of divine love and our response in conversion. The mystery that liturgy celebrates is our conversion through love into the very body of Christ. At the heart of our being, and at the heart of all creation, is the self-emptying redemptive love of God seeking to enable us to share in the life of the trinity. The aim of our worship is not to induce experiences of the holy, the sacred or the human. Rather it is to celebrate the mystery of that incarnational and crucificed love through which the holy has been revealed to the human. This may be achieved in and through stunning architecture, compelling music, repetitive ritual and uplifting texts but, as the crafty, cave-waiting Elijah sensed (1 Kgs 19:9-18), those numinous experiences are not the mystery. The paschal mystery is made present in our conversion and life of love. Christian worship, when enacted as the celebration of that love, its call to us, and our response, manifests what it celebrates—the mystery of God.

The Threefold Priesthood: Of Christ, Of The Body Of Christ And Of The Ordained Minister

In light of the logic of eucharistic rite and symbol we need to examine carefully the nexus between the priesthood of Christ, that of the body of Christ, and that of the ordained minister. Here we can call on some patristic background—we require some first millennial tradition to review some second millennial thinking! The studies on early medieval Mass Commentaries by Canadian liturgist and theologian Mary Schaefer outline a dramatic shift that took place during the course of the twelfth century.13 She notes that this shift coincides with the movement away from platonic and patristic categories to the more Aristotelian based foundations of early scholasticism.

For writers in the early part of that century Christ is seen as the true and actual priest. It is Christ, using the ministry of the ordained, who offers his once-and-for-all sacrifice and distributes his own body and blood through their hands. The priest is said to be related to the church as its indispensable minister. The assembly are understood as active participants in the Eucharist, co-offerers, co-operators with the priest. Their offering is said to be joined to that of Christ in order that they may be divinised. In a sense there are two foci here. One is on the activity of Christ himself. The other is on the assembled community, lead indispensably by the ordained minister, and as such gathered as the body of Christ. Schaefer quotes Odo of Cambrai (d.1113): ‘[the action of the canon is the action] of all those who stand around, namely those who are corporeally present, co-operators of the sacred ministers.’14

By the end of the century a different picture held the foreground. The direct activity of Christ and the cooperation of the assembly had been moved to the shadows. The Eucharist was understood as the official act of the priest. At ordination he was seen as receiving power to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. In effect, the Mass came to be perceived as an exercise of personal devotion as well as an action on behalf of the church. The faithful were said to offer their own devotion in conjunction with the priest’s sacrifice. The theology of the priest as able to act in the liturgy ‘in the person of Christ’ stems from this time. Often too, patristic texts are re-interpreted from the perspective of this theology of ordination, one quite alien to their original intent.

To summarize the effects of this shift crudely, the ordained minister came to take ownership of the sacrifice rather than earthly leadership in the actual ritual prayer of Christ and his body. The focus was no longer on engagement with the rite in all its richness, but on the single ritual actor and particularly those acts in which he exercised sacred power. That is why the word of God could be lost to worship! The words that mattered became the so-called words of consecration, and the communion that mattered was that of the priest, and the devotion that mattered was adoration. The theological change left within the liturgy an enormous tension, unclearly felt at the Reformation, but now more apparent to Catholic sensibilities with the vernacular liturgy. One part of the tension is that the Mass is necessarily a public, communal, symbolic action which of its nature demands engagement. The other is that the Eucharist is enacted as the private act of the priest done in public.

The appropriation of the Mass by the ordained minister, acting as Christ, has a number of effects on the reform of the liturgy. The overwhelming emphasis placed on those parts of the rite in which the priest is described as exercising his sacred power has meant that most priests have little sense of leading the assembly to engage with all the symbolic events within the rite. Consequently those rites are not seen to matter. Ironically this leaves the liturgy of the Mass as something of a stage upon which the priest is free to write his own personality. This appears to have been a feature of the Tridentine liturgy,15 and now in the vernacular, is a recurring complaint of the reform school and the bane of most of us too. Deep within this is a sleeping mistrust by ordained and non-ordained alike of the power of symbols and rites to engage us. In part this is why presiders try to fill in every silence, since it cannot be controlled. It follows then that for the presiding priest any adaptation will do! The caveat, of course, is that it will do as long as it suits him. Or conversely, that no adaptation is possible, and rigid ritualism is the order of the day. Neither is sanctioned by the contemporary liturgy.

The over-identification of the priest to Christ leads to a pathetic despotism in liturgy preparation. It may be benign or tyrannical. It is rarely authentic leadership in humility to the divine ritual action and the body of Christ gathered. How often have we heard bishops and priests signal that an option is to be taken because that is the one they like or demand? As well there is the converse: that they don’t care what options are chosen. The liturgy documents are clear that these approaches are neither appropriate nor desirable:

In planning the celebration, then, the priest should consider the general spiritual good of the assembly rather than his own personal outlook. He should be mindful that the choice of texts is to be made in consultation with the ministers and others who have a function in the celebration, including the faithful in regard to the parts that more directly belong to them. (GIRM(2002) §352)

Perhaps it is a bit mischievous to ask, but when the priest identifies himself as the ‘person of Christ’, is it ever as Christ the servant or as Christ crucified?

In view of our reappraisal of the symbolic nature of the liturgy, and the necessary engagement of the assembly in those symbols, the close theological identification of an ordained minister with Christ relativises the rites and symbols themselves. It leaves priest and people together struggling to find a common spiritual, sacramental and devotional framework for liturgical engagement and encounter with the mystery of God in Christ. We need to reassess the nexus between the priesthood of Christ, that of the body of Christ, and that of the ordained priesthood.

It is worth noting such reassessment has been given momentum with the permission accorded for admission to the Eucharist between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.16 This involves recognition of the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, an ancient Eucharistic Prayer which has no explicit ‘words of consecration’. In effect this decision calls into question one of the pillars of the scholastic reading of in persona Christi. There it was understood that the supreme act of the priest ‘in the person of Christ’ took place when the ordained minister uttered the master’s words over the bread and cup as in the Last Supper narratives. This extends the point, poorly reflected in much literature, that the ‘words of Christ’ in the eucharistic prayer, including the Roman Canon, have never been an exact repetition of any scriptural text. Rather they are a liturgical re-interpretation of those texts. Their reputed characteristic as the ‘very’ words of Jesus has not adequately measured up to a literal fidelity to the scriptural text.

Some Unfinished Business

Let me conclude with two points stressed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, but yet to be heeded. The first is around education in liturgy. The Constitution is clear, insistent and programmatic:

The study of liturgy is to be ranked among the compulsory and major courses in seminaries and religious houses of studies; in theological faculties it is to rank among the principal courses. It is to be taught under its theological, historical, spiritual, pastoral and canonical aspects… (SC §16)

In seminaries and houses of religious, clerics shall be given a liturgical formation in their spiritual life. The means for this are: proper guidance so that they may be able to understand the sacred rites and take part in them wholeheartedly; the actual celebration of the sacred mysteries and of other, popular devotions imbued with the spirit of the liturgy.... (SC §17)

Priests, both secular and religious, who are already working in the Lord’s vineyard are to be helped by every suitable means to understand ever more fully what it is they are doing in their liturgical functions ... (SC §18)

With zeal and patience pastors must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful and also their active participation in the liturgy both internally and externally ... (SC §19)

All these numbers appear to be kept more in the breach than in the observance!

In a similar vein the Constitution calls for each diocese to have a commission on the liturgy, and if possible, one for music and art (SC §45,46). Our failure to resource our theological colleges and form a liturgically literate clergy and laity are direct causes of our failure to create and sustain fruitful liturgical commissions.

In Conclusion

This paper has been an attempt to offer some paths beyond the impasse that the reform of the reform movement appears to have encountered. It does not deny a number of their criticisms. As well, it has left aside some controversial areas, such as the role and interpretation of history in liturgical polemics, the relationship of liturgy to ecclesial politics, and the question of relevance in the post-modern environment. Yet the reform need not be stalled. If it takes seriously the symbolic nature of Christian liturgical ritual, and its insistent demand for appropriate engagement, then there is a strong chance that we can reclaim Christian mystery as conversion into the love of God, appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of sacrament, and reconfigure the threefold priesthood more fully under Christ the priest.


1. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ingatius Press, 2000), Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), Aidan Nichols, Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of its Continuing Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), David Torevell, Losing the Sacred: Ritual, Modernity and Liturgical Reform, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000).
2. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Liturgiam Authenticam: Fifth Instruction on the Vernacular Translation of the Roman Liturgy (Washington DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2001).
3. It is not out of order to allow liturgical practice to be a form of church teaching.
4. In light of the support from speakers earlier in the conference for a retrieval of patristic writings, it is worth considering a retrieval of patristic theology and practice in this matter.
5. See Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) §36, 54, and The General Instruction on the Roman Liturgy (GIRM(2002)) §12.
6. It is not clear whether ‘the People of God’ refers to the laity only, or to the whole people of God including the ordained.
7. John Paul II, Ecclesia in Oceania: The Church in Oceania (Strathfield: St Pauls, 2001), § 38.
8. ‘Statement of Conclusions: Interdicasterial meeting with a representation of the Australian Bishops,’ L’Osservatore Romano (Dec 16, 1998) § 37.
9. Some of my own attempts at this can be found in Eucharist and Justice (North Sydney: Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, 2000) and ‘Praying the Text: The Eucharistic Prayer in the Assembly’, chapter in Gerard Kelly et alia, The Eucharist: Faith and Worship (Strathfield: St Pauls, 2001), 90-108.
10. We are here following the ritual pattern for the Mass found in the writings of Justin Martyr. For the text see RCD Jasper and GJ Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1987): 25-30.
11. That is to know, communally as the body of Christ, with our whole hearts, souls, minds and bodies.
12. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational (Oxford University Press: 1968).
13. Mary Schaefer, Christ as Priest or Priest in the Place of Christ: Commentaries on the Mass from the Carolingians to Innocent III (forthcoming). The work builds upon her doctoral thesis Twelfth Century Latin Commentaries on the Mass: Christological and Ecclesiological Dimensions, University of Notre Dame (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1983). An opening onto the discussion can be found in her article ‘Twelfth Century Latin Commentaries on the Mass: the Relationship of the Priest to Christ and to the People,’ Studia Liturgica 15 (1983): 76-86.
14. Schaefer, ‘Twelfth Century Latin Commentaries on the Mass: the Relationship of the Priest to Christ and to the People,’ Studia Liturgica 15 (1983): 84.
15. For the importance ascribed by theologians at Trent to the devotion and intention of the priest see David N Power, The Sacrifice We Offer (New York: Crossroads, 1987), 74, 79.
16. The document, dated July 20th, 2001, was published by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in agreement with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. The full title is ‘Guidelines for Admission to the Eucharist between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East’, and can be accessed at www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/index.htm (accessed 10/10/02).

This article is from a public lecture from Vatican 2: Memory and Hope – 40 Years On, a conference presented by the Forum of Australian Catholic Institutes of Theology (FACIT) with Australian Catholic University, and held at St Patrick’s Melbourne Campus of ACU in October, 2002.