On the old Opus Publicum I staged several defenses of the liturgical books approved for use with the vetus ordo (“1962 books”) against those critics, some more good-natured and well-intentioned than others, who find them wanting. Some in fact argue that the 1962 books represent a transition from the classic Roman Rite to the New Rite of Pope Paul VI, though as a genealogical matter that is a hard argument to maintain. While the modern liturgical reformers had been busy at their dark craft since the first-half of the 20th Century, the revolutionary changes to the Holy Week Rite in the 1950s coupled with a reduction of the Breviarium Romanum and the Roman Calendar did not inevitably point to the Novus Ordo Missae and the Liturgia Horarum. Besides, it is anachronistic to assess the value of the 1962 books based on what happened later in the decade, as if the slight and subtle simplifications introduced into the Missale Romanum of John XXIII eviscerated the Offertory in the New Mass and gave us Eucharistic Prayer II. The integrity of the 1962 books must be judged, if not exclusively then substantially, in the light of what preceded them.
And therein lies a serious complication. For while a good number of liturgical critics focus in on the differences between the books of 1962 and the books of 1954 (the last year before Pius XII’s reforms came into play), some note, no doubt rightly, that the first major liturgical renovation of the last century came from the hands of the ultra-conservative St. Pius X whose breviary reforms, promulgated in 1911, broke heavily with the traditional ordering of the Psalter and included many revised antiphons, hymns, and readings. If, as some contend, the destruction, or at least the degradation, of the Roman Rite began in 1911, then neither the books of 1954 nor 1962 can appear as anything but inadequate; the debate shifts simply to the degree of their inadequacy. If, however, the reforms of St. Pius X were in large part justified by resolving, perhaps imperfectly, legitimate liturgical problems (e.g., the displacement of Sundays for Saints’ days and excessive repetition in the Psalter), then 1911 becomes, for better or worse, the standard of judgment. Others, however, want to take a broader approach to the matter by nodding favorably toward the reforms of St. Pius X while not losing sight of what was lost or obscured in the centuries following the Council of Trent. In all likelihood this debate, whatever its value, will never be put to rest.
That doesn’t mean we can’t say something about the 1962 liturgical books and that this “something” can’t be critical. For those Catholics attached to the classic Roman Rite, there is little disagreement that Pius XII’s Holy Week reforms were a mistake (more here and here), but little consensus on what, if anything, ought to be done about it. Similarly, it is widely acknowledged that the reduction of readings at Matins was carried out in a clumsy manner and that the suppression of many octaves was uncalled for, but again little consensus on what, if anything, ought to be done about it. With the exception of Holy Week, which is experienced directly by a bulk of the faithful laity, the differences between the 1954 and 1962 books are, at most, marginal. That is to say, most traditional Catholics have never prayed the Breviarium Romanum regularly and the loss of a commemoration or two at Mass, which amounts to less than two minutes being shaved off the liturgy, is unnoticeable. Even if it would be better to have some of these prayers restored, there is no reasonable argument available that the effect of their absence is deleterious to the faith of the man in the pew, especially not in the sense that certain absences and ambiguities in the New Mass have been, presumably, deleterious to the faith of many Catholics over the past four decades. “More” does not necessarily mean “more holy.” If that were true we might be forced to judge the service of Tenebrae and the Officium Defuntorum as “less holy” than the rest of the breviary on account of their content and form hearkening back to a more ancient, and thus simpler and shorter, iteration of the Divine Office.
The real question that needs to be answered first when examining the 1962 books is if they preserve the heart and the inner logic of the Roman Rite. Though that case is difficult to make with respect to the 1955 Holy Week ritual, it is easy to make with respect to the Missale Romanum, the substance of which remained unchanged between 1570 and 1962. It is this substance that so clearly centralizes, communicates, and commemorates the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary which continues to nourish faithful Catholics to this day. And while some, if not all, of the aforementioned marginal difficulties with the 1962 books ought to be rectified, that rectification will only occur after a wider reception of the traditional liturgy in the Roman Church. For most Catholics coming to tradition, the 1962 books are their gateway into a much larger patrimony. Contrary to the contentions of some hyper-traditionalists and liturgical fetishists, assisting at Mass or reciting Vespers according to the presently authorized liturgical texts does not rot the soul.
Personally speaking, I am fully supportive of any and all efforts to move the classic Roman Rite back towards where it was in 1954. I think it is exceedingly silly, for instance, to see people fret over whether a priest says Mass out of a 1962 missal rather than a 1954 one (which is soon to be reprinted). I know several priests who simply use whatever old missal happened to be collecting dust in a box in their parish basement when they started offering the Tridentine Mass. Moreover, several orders of traditional priests freely incorporate pre-1962 elements on a regular basis. The point here is that the 1962 books can be enhanced through a sincere dedication to liturgical heritage of the Roman Rite without recourse to distracting polemics and baseless accusations. While there are, unfortunately, many issues that divide traditional Catholics, the choice of liturgical books should most definitely not be one of them.
Note: This post contains several parts drawn out of numerous entries from the old Opus Publicum blog. In other words, some of you have “heard this all before.”