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Assessing the liturgical reform of Vatican II: according to Fr. Taft, liturgical pioneers drew inspiration from Russian Orthodox emigres to France.

Jesuit Fr. Robert F. Taft, an internationally acclaimed authority on the history of Eastern liturgies, has been teaching at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome for almost 40 years and also serves as a consultor for the Vatican's Congregation for the Oriental Churches. He holds the honorary title of archmandrite, conferred upon him by more than one Eastern church for his extraordinary contributions to liturgical studies and church unity.

His recent article, "Return to Our Roots," in the May 26-June 2 issue of America offers an evenhanded assessment of the liturgical reforms promoted by the Second Vatican Council and promulgated by Pope Paul VI.

A vocal minority of Catholics have expressed unhappiness with those reforms, and some have called for a "reform of the reform," claiming that the pope himself is sympathetic with their cause. They point to his writings as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and his subsequent approval of the Latin Mass as Benedict XVI.

What does a seasoned and widely respected liturgical scholar like Fr. Taft have to say about this debate?

Over against the liturgical naysayers, he writes: "I maintain that the Roman Catholic liturgical renewal in the wake of Vatican II was an overwhelming success, returning the liturgy to the people of God to whom it rightly belongs."

Fr. Taft acknowledges, on the one hand, that the reform mandated by the council "was not perfect, because nothing but God is perfect." He insists, on the other hand, that "it was done as well as was humanly possible at the time, and we owe enormous gratitude and respect to those who had the vision to implement it."

That said, Fr. Taft turns his attention to "what the reform did not do well." His list, he hastens to add, does not include anything that the "reformers of the reform" want to reverse, such as the celebration of the liturgy in the vernacular, Communion in the hand, Mass facing the people, or the removal of the tabernacle to a sacrament chapel.

He reminds us that the council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy had a single, central purpose, namely, that the faithful might "be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebration which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy and to which the Christian people.., have a right and an obligation by reason of their baptism."

To attain this end, the council had to restore the rites "to the vigor they had in the tradition of the Fathers." And this, Fr. Taft points out, is "where the East came in."


Liturgical pioneers drew inspiration from Russian Orthodox emigres to France, who had fled from their homeland after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. These contacts proved crucially important because the Orthodox church, Fr. Taft notes, had preserved the liturgical spirit of the early church and continued to live by it.

Liturgists in the West, however, did not attempt simply to imitate existing Eastern usage, but interpreted and applied it in the light of the needs of Latin Christianity. And that is why the liturgical movement, which Vatican II essentially validated, was so successful.

But there were things that Vatican II "failed to do well or did not do at all," Fr. Taft writes. He mentions three items: the process of initiation, the Liturgy of the Hours, and Communion from the tabernacle.

He underscores the irony that one of Pope Pius X's most celebrated and enduring reforms, namely, the lowering of the age of first holy Communion from adolescence to the age of reason, had the unfortunate effect of shifting the time of first Communion before confirmation, and in the process making first confession precede first Communion.

"This destroyed the age-old sequence of the rites of Christian initiation," Fr. Taft insists, and it also transformed the sacrament of penance, which was originally intended to reconcile grave sinners with the church, into one of the rites of Christian initiation in the Catholic West.

Fr. Taft argues, secondly, that the Liturgy of the Hours, despite its title, "is no liturgy at all, but still a breviary or book of prayers." Even in its supposedly reformed state, it remains an essentially private activity of the clergy rather than a prayer of and by the whole church.

Finally, the distribution of pre-consecrated hosts at Mass was "totally unthinkable in the early Christian East and West ... [and] is still inconceivable in any authentic Eastern Christian usage today." Indeed, "Communion from the tabernacle is like inviting guests to a banquet, then preparing and eating it oneself, while serving one's guests the leftovers from a previous meal."

As always, Fr. Taft tells it like it is.

[Fr. Richard McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.]
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Title Annotation:COLUMN/OPINION; Robert F. Taft
Author:McBrien, Richard P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 27, 2008
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