First, let’s consider what Pope Francis actually said, as reported by Vatican Radio:
The liturgical reform, he said, did not “flourish suddenly,” but was the result of a long preparation. It was brought to maturity by the Second Vatican Council with the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, “whose lines of general reform respond to real needs and to the concrete hope of a renewal; it desired a living liturgy for a Church completely vivified by the mysteries celebrated.”
Reflecting on the theme of this year’s Liturgy Week – “A living Liturgy for a living Church” – Pope Francis dwelt on three points:
1)The liturgy is “living” in virtue of the living presence of Christ; Christ is at the heart of the liturgical action.
2)The liturgy is life through the whole people of God. By its nature, the liturgy is “popular” rather than clerical; it is an action for the people, but also by the people.
3) The liturgy is life, and not an idea to be understood. It brings us to live an initiatory experience, a transformative experience that changes how we think and act; it is not simply a means of enriching our own set of ideas about God.
So when Pope Francis spoke about liturgical reform, he did not mean merely the external changes to the form of the Mass which occurred after Vatican II. By liturgy and liturgical reform, Pope Francis means just what he said: “the living presence of Christ; Christ is at the heart of the liturgical action” and “life through the whole people of God” and “an initiatory experience, a transformative experience that changes how we think and act.”
The controversial remark of Pope Francis was the following: “we can assert with certainty and magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” It is controversial because so many commentators assume that liturgical reform refers merely to the external, changeable points of liturgical form, such as the particular wording used for prayers, when to sit or stand or kneel, whether the priest faces the congregation or the altar, whether Communion is received in the hand or on the tongue, and similar points of discipline. But from the actual content of his talk, Pope Francis was clearly NOT saying that. Obviously, such elements are changeable.
Liturgy is not a leaf in the winds of change.
Liturgy is a boat on the ocean of doctrine.
What is “irreversible” is the type of reform that he described, where “Christ is the heart of the liturgical action” and the people live the liturgy, and it becomes a transformative experience. This aspect of the liturgy falls under doctrine, not discipline, and so it can be taught by the Magisterium, and it can be considered certain and irreformable.
Under which type of infallibility does liturgical reform fall? I would say it is under the ordinary and universal Magisterium, since there is no formal infallible definition, as would be the case for Papal Infallibility or Conciliar Infallibility.
Was Pope Francis proclaiming a new dogma? No, he was opining on the contents of the truths taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, as they apply to liturgical reform. And he may have taken that insight from a particular book by a particular archbishop.
Archbishop Piero Marini is president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses. “For twenty years he served as Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations, in charge of the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff. In that capacity he worked for Popes John Paul II for 18 years and Benedict XVI for two years.” [Wikipedia]. He authored a book, published by the Vatican Press, “The Fortieth Anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium”, subtitled “Memories of an Experience.” In that book, he states: “the progress made in the renewal of the liturgy in the light of Sacrosanctum Concilium is irreversible”. Yes, irreversible progress in the renewal — or one might say in the reform — of the liturgy.
Pope Benedict XVI, in June of 2010, gave a general audience in which he stated: “Together with the Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos II and the representatives of the Armenian, Lutheran and Anglican communities, we fraternally renewed our reciprocal and irreversible ecumenical commitment.” It’s irreversible, he said.
On the same topic of ecumenism, Pope Saint John Paul II stated: “Today’s meeting reinforces our dedication to pray and to work to achieve the full and visible unity of all the disciples of Christ. Our aim and our ardent desire is full communion, which is not absorption but communion in truth and love. It is an irreversible journey for which there is no alternative: it is the path of the Church.” Also, irreversible.
Pope Benedict XVI in 2007: “Origen of Alexandria truly was a figure crucial to the whole development of Christian thought. He gathered up the legacy of Clement of Alexandria, on whom we meditated last Wednesday, and launched it for the future in a way so innovative that he impressed an irreversible turning point on the development of Christian thought.”
Sometimes, some things in the faith are irreversible. When Pope Saint John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI say it, no one objects. But the critics of Pope Francis are analyzing his every word, looking for ways to denigrate him, looking for opportunities to treat him as if he were in need of teaching or correction. For they do not want to be taught or corrected by him.
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