Monday, June 24, 2019

Who Was Captain of the Ship in the Liturgical Reform? The 50th Anniversary of an Embarrassing Letter

Bugnini tells it like it is. (Well, sometimes.)
I am surely not the only reader who has noticed that the English translation of the great big important book by Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975, has been out of print for quite a long time. This is the single most detailed record of the ins and outs of the Consilium’s work, with extensive lists of personnel, summaries of crucial conversations, reproductions of memos and letters (including not a few that were still, in fact, classified material at the time of this book’s original appearance in Italian, which did not seem to bother the author, who wrote the work to memorialize his project and defend his reputation). One might think such a book would never go out of print in one of the key languages in which liturgical studies have been conducted for decades.

But then one gets to reading the book... and one realizes just how revealing it is. Bugnini does not sanitize anything; he lets you know his principles, his strategies, and his victories over obscurantist enemies of progress. As Chiron shows in his biography, The Reform of the Liturgy is by no means a complete account, nor could it be described as unbiased. Its businesslike way of talking about the wholesale dismantling and modular reconstruction of liturgy is, however, so repugnant to younger generations that one begins to suspect that The Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minnesota, is deliberately avoiding reprinting this volume, copies of which are selling on Amazon for between $75 and $1,999 (admittedly an outlier, listed as merely “acceptable” in condition: someone’s strange idea of humor?) Of course, the persistent scholar will find it at certain libraries or order it via interlibrary loan; it cannot be hidden altogether. Yet its Promethean spirit and embarrassing frankness can be hidden to some extent by making it hard to get.

In truth, the liturgical establishment sees that, however many particular battles it has won over the decades, it is losing the war. The old guard of Consilium defenders is a dying breed and they have few to replace them. In members of the younger generations who still believe and who care about liturgy, the momentum is with the usus antiquior and, in one packaging or another, the Reform of the Reform. (I wrote about this and related issues in my piece “The Queen of Sheba in the Court of Solomon: Liturgical Boredom and Ecstasy.”)

All this by way of introduction to a marvelous example of the sort of surprising things one finds out when perusing Bugnini’s tome. Exactly 50 years ago today, June 24, 1969, Pope Paul VI sent the following handwritten letter to Cardinal Benno Gut, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. He had received in May 1969 the proofs for the new Lectionary, and was passing along his judgment:
     In the very limited time allowed me, I have not been able to get a complete and detailed grasp of this new and extensive Ordo lectionum Missae.
     But because of the confidence I have in the skilled and devout individuals who spent a long time compiling it, and because of the trust I owe to the Congregation for Divine Worship, which has examined and corrected it with such expert care, I gladly approve it in the name of the Lord.
     The feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 1969.
                                                                                          Paul VI, Pope
In Gut we trust. 
In other words, now that the Roman Church is about to abandon a lectionary at least 1,200 years old (and in many of its elements certainly older) and replace it with a new multi-year lectionary created from different principles, priorities, and pericopes, the Pope is telling the folks in charge, “Hey, fellows, I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to dig into the details of these books you’ve sent me, but it’s okay -- I trust you hard-working, clever experts, and I know you’ve come up with something better than any immemorial tradition could be. I can see it’s got lots more Scripture -- good, that’s what Vatican II wanted. Looks like you more or less go through most of the books, skipping stuff here and there -- not sure what you’re skipping or why, since I didn’t look closely, but I’m sure it’s all fine. After all, we have the brightest minds working on this, under the capable direction of Msgr. Bugnini. So it’s got my approval, for what it’s worth.”

I just can’t read this letter without either wincing in embarrassment for Montini, who is too busy to read a major liturgical book he’s about to approve for over 600 million faithful, or getting steamed up in annoyance at his negligence, which overlooked so many and such great flaws in this lectionary, the unmitigated praise of which has become well-established as a sort of party orthodoxy. In any case, the letter shows the captain of the barque of Peter in about as favorable a light as Captain Joseph Hazelwood of the Exxon Valdez.

Matthew Hazell has some interesting remarks on this letter over at Lectionary Study Aids:
What else is this [letter] but an admission from Paul VI himself that he left the complete overhaul of the Roman Mass lectionary to the experts, merely rubber-stamping it at the end of the process? And why was he only “allowed” around one month to examine the OLM (he received the proofs in May 1969)?
       From Bugnini's account, it is apparent that Paul VI involved himself more in the reform of, for example, the Order of Mass than some other aspects. But even here, the Pope had to fight against the experts in order to make sure that the new offertory formulas actually had the word “offer” in them (p. 371)! Moreover, even after his decision in 1966 that the Roman Canon was to remain unchanged in the reform (p. 450), the experts tinkered with the words of institution and made parts of the Canon optional. Again, in 1967, the Pope insisted that the words of consecration in the Canon not be changed, and the experts basically ignored him (p. 462).
       With regards to vernacular translations of the Roman Canon, Bugnini also lets slip that in 1967, “The Holy Father had asked that the translations be ‘faithful and literal,’ but in fact practically no liturgical commission was observing this criterion” (p. 168).
       Yes, ultimately Paul VI was the final authority, insofar as he was required to approve and promulgate the reformed liturgical books. However, when one reads the whole of Bugnini’s memoirs [sic; rather, the source is Bugnini’s account of the reform; his actual memoirs were published only recently in Italian], in many respects Paul VI arguably comes across as negligent, naive, and often a prisoner of the liturgical establishment “experts”.
       In short, the “experts” may not have been the final de jure authority, but for large parts of the post-conciliar reform, they very much seem to have been the de facto one.
In light of these facts, we may revisit with profit the words of Benedict XVI:
In the confused times in which we are living, the whole scientific theological competence and wisdom of him who must make the final decisions seem to me of vital importance. For example, I think that things might have gone differently in the Liturgical Reform if the words of the experts had not been the last ones, but if, apart from them, a wisdom capable of recognising the limits of a “simple” scholar’s approach had passed judgement. 
This is a stinging indictment of Paul VI, who evidently lacked “a wisdom capable of recognising the limits of a ‘simple’ scholar’s approach.”

No wonder Bugnini’s Big Book has been allowed to go out of print -- and stays out of print.

A lot of compromising material between these covers.

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