Friday, October 20, 2006

Guest Book Review: The Reform of the Roman Liturgy

A Review by Alex Begin

Roman Catholic Books ( has recently reprinted the late Msgr. Klaus Gamber's "The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background", a book which provides context and academic justification for both the Tridentine Restoration and the Reform of the Reform movements. Msgr. Klaus Gamber’s analysis of the post-Vatican II liturgy is an interesting, though not flawless, read, for those just beginning to familiarize themselves with liturgical history, and somewhat less so for those who are already familiar with the arguments supporting each position.

This book was republished because it deals with issues that have taken on renewed significance in Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate. In the era of Redemptionis Sacramentum, and what amounts to an international tour by Francis Cardinal Arinze promoting that document, Gamber's work is timely. It carries a preface written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, containing the oft-quoted words: “What happened after the Council was something else entirely: in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over the centuries, and replaced it – as in a manufacturing process – with a fabrication, a banal, on-the-spot product.” Gamber shows us, in an unemotional, objective way, just what is deficient.

Gamber’s position falls somewhere between the “Tridentine is the only solution” view of Michael Davies, and the “Tridentine is passé; rewrite the Novus Ordo” position of Helen Hull Hitchcock, founder of Adoremus. This book actually consists of two sections: the first, written in 1993, is titled the same as the book. The second, written in 1987, called “Facing the Lord: On the Building of Churches and Facing East in Prayer”, concerns itself with the history of the layout of sanctuaries, Catholic and non. While there is a common theme to both sections, there is a frustrating repetitiveness. Several of the same points made in Part I are restated, and reargued, in Part II. Perhaps 10% of the book is wholly redundant.

If you have read other, similar studies of the Liturgical Reform, you will notice one significant difference about this book: Gamber, a German, cites almost exclusively German academic sources to support his arguments, most of whom this writer has never heard mentioned before. Even the reformers are German: Gamber attributes the beginning of the push for vernacularization and sanctuary reordering to one Pius Parsch, who conceived a “Liturgy of the People” in the 1930s. He cites the German “Youth Masses” of the 1950s as taking then-unusual risks, such as having people waving banners in the sanctuary during Mass.

Gamber’s conclusions amount to the following: 1) What Vatican II called for, and what ultimately became the norm for Novus Ordo Masses in the typical Catholic parish, are quite different. 2) The transitional 1965 Missal represented a more authentic implementation of Vatican II’s call for updating the liturgy than did the 1970 Novus Ordo. 3) The reordering of the Roman Calendar was unprecedented and excessively different. 4) The primary cause of the desacralization of the liturgy is due to the implementation of celebrating Holy Mass facing the people. This positioning, along with the common non-symmetrical arrangement of candles and flowers on a freestanding altar, creates a loss of focal point. The traditional orientation of priest and people facing the same way, at a symmetrically arranged altar (even a freestanding one) eliminates the priest’s temptation to “perform” for the congregation, and focuses the priest and congregation’s attention on the sacrifice taking place. These are familiar arguments, but rarely are they supported as well as Gamber does, by way of historical citations and footnoted references. Particularly interesting are Gamber’s comparisons to efforts to update the Orthodox liturgy and sanctuary layout.

His only somewhat inconsistent argument is to condemn the existence of options in the Novus Ordo on one hand, and yet recommend more options in the Tridentine on the other, for example freedom in choosing readings. It is one thing to allow choice of Propers from a selection of preset votive Masses, and quite another to allow ad libitum selection of any reading that the celebrant chooses. That could be a slippery slope into improvised Collects, Prefaces, and the like. The Church needs to return to a greater sense of universality in her liturgy, therefore options must be restrained.

Gamber calls for Rome to restore the Tridentine Mass to full freedom and equality alongside the new rite, as a gesture of support for legitimate diversity, and to demonstrate continuity in our faith. NLM readers may well consider this his most important point. While NLM readers may consider this argument one they have heard before, one must not dispute the significance of an academic work, written fairly dispassionately and from an historical viewpoint. It is filled with quotable snippets that one can use to support one's personal views in favor of both the Reform of the Reform as well as the restoral of the Classical Roman Rite. That usefulness as a reference alone makes it worthy of recommendation. And by mentioning this book in our own conversations and correrspondence, we can draw it to the attention of a wider audience unfamiliar with the core arguments that we have been making, piecemeal, for such a long time.

Product Link: The Reform of the Roman Liturgy

Alex Begin writes from the Detroit, MI. area and is actively involved in the Tridentine Latin Mass communities of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

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