07 May 2022, The Tablet

Pope warns against 'formalism' in Catholic liturgy

Pope Francis criticised the 'closed mindsets' of those resisting the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope warns against 'formalism' in Catholic liturgy

Pope Francis, pictured here on Good Friday, has criticised people with closed mindsets who use liturgical schemes to defend their own point of view.
Paul Haring/CNS

Pope Francis says the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council are being resisted by groups with “closed mindsets” who call into question the authority of bishops to preserve the Church’s tradition. 

Francis’ remarks, made during a speech to a group from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, can be read as a defence of his decision to issue restrictions on the use of the pre-Vatican II liturgy. The Pope also hit back at those creating divisions over the liturgy saying they were doing the devil’s work. 

Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of the Tradition), issued in July 2021, handed authority to local bishops to oversee celebrations of the Traditional Latin Mass and overturned Benedict XVI’s 2007 ruling which had made it much easier for priests to celebrate the Old Rite. But many of those attached to the pre-Vatican II Mass have responded to Traditionis Custodes with furious hostility and resistance. 

“Closed mindsets use liturgical schemes to defend their own point of view,” the Pope said during his address. “This is the drama we are experiencing in ecclesial groups that are distancing themselves from the Church, questioning the Council, the authority of the bishops...to preserve tradition. And the liturgy is used for this.”

When he issued his restrictions on the Old Rite, Francis said he was seeking to preserve the unity of the Church, saying that support for the pre-Vatican liturgy often includes “a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions”. An ecumenical council is the highest form of legislation in the Church and at Vatican II an overwhelming majority of bishops voted to reform the liturgy. 

But in his remarks to the Sant’Anselmo liturgists, the 85-year-old Pope pointed that resistance to liturgical reform is nothing new. Pius XII, Francis said, faced pushback when he introduced changes to the Holy Week liturgies, allowed for Masses on Saturday evening and changed the rules on fasting before receiving communion. 

“All these things scandalised closed minds,” the Pope explained. “The [Second Vatican] Council Fathers did a great job to ensure that this was the case. We must continue this task of being formed by the liturgy.”

Francis pointed to three areas of renewal which had taken place in the liturgy following the council’s reforms which included: an “active and fruitful participation” of ordinary believers; the building up of communion within the Church through the celebration of the Eucharist and the impulse for all the baptised to evangelise using the liturgy as a starting point. 

The council, he said, “wished to prepare with abundance the table of the Word of God and the Eucharist, to make the presence of God possible in the midst of his People”. It meant that the Church, through liturgical prayer, prolongs the work of Christ among men and women of every age, and also in creation.

The Pope warned about the danger of “formalism”, an excessive focus on externals and particular rubrics which can be seen among groups dedicated to the pre-Vatican II liturgy.

“I would like to underline the danger, the temptation of liturgical formalism: going after forms, formalities rather than reality, as we see today in those movements that try to go backwards and deny the Second Vatican Council,” Francis explained adding that this means “the celebration is recitation, it is something without life, without joy.”

While the liturgical reforms of the council have been largely accepted by Catholics globally, a small number of groups have continued to forcefully argue for the pre-Vatican II liturgy. Francis, however, has described the post-conciliar reforms as “irreversible”. The Pope has also said that the concessions to allow these celebrations offered by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI had been used to “encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.” 

In his latest speech, Francis described division over the liturgy as motivated by the devil. “When liturgical life is a banner of division, there is the smell of the devil in there, the deceiver,” he said. “It is not possible to worship God and at the same time make the liturgy a battleground for issues that are not essential.” 

Following the publication of Traditionis Custodes, the Holy See’s liturgy office published additional guidelines to help with its implementation. Francis has also given permission to a traditionalist group, the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, to continue exclusively celebrating the sacraments in the Old Rite.

For more: read The Tablet interview with Archbishop Arthur Roche.




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