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No. 104Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study ProgramMarch 2003


by Brian W. Harrison

This essay is a compilation of several lectures and previously published articles. Cf. "A Reform of the Mass? Britain Has Other Priorities," A Propos, No. 18, Feast of St. Joan of Arc, 1996, pp. 69-74; and "Die Reform der liturgischen Reform: Die bischöflichen Erwartungen am Vorabend des Zweiten Vatikanums", in Franz Breid (ed.), Die heilige Liturgie: Referate der 'Internationalen Theologischen Sommerakademie 1997' des Linzer Priesterkreises (Steyr [Austria]: Ennsthaler Verlag, 1997, pp. 196-215). The material specifically dedicated to the views of British and Austrian bishops comes from these two articles respectively. That regarding the Australian and New Zealand prelates was presented in a talk addressed to the Australian Ecclesia Dei Society Conference in Melbourne (July 1997). That which reports the views of the Archbishops of France was presented at the Colloquium organized by C.I.E.L. (Centre International d'Etudes Liturgiques), in November 2000 at Versailles.

History, as they say, is written by the victors. And there is now no serious dispute about the fact that the "victors" in liturgical matters since the promulgation of the new rite of Mass in 1969 have been those who sought far-reaching changes to the traditional Latin rite - changes, indeed, a good deal more sweeping in character than those actually called for in Vatican II's Liturgy Constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that according to the received or conventional assumption of modern Catholic liturgists, theologians, Church officials and religious journalists, there was, by the time Pope John called for an Ecumenical Council, a general consensus among the hierarchy round the world that the 'Tridentine' rite of Mass had become quite anachronistic, so that a more streamlined, up-dated vernacular liturgy was now an urgent pastoral necessity. The 1963 Constitution on the Liturgy, in this view, was simply the natural and inevitable outcome of a grass-roots reform movement which the Church's pastors had heeded and brought along to the Council.

A thorough examination of the documentary evidence, however, may well require some serious qualification of this scenario. In 1959 Vatican II's 'Antepreparatory' Commission in Rome, entrusted with preparing an agenda for the Council which Pope John had just announced, wrote to every Catholic bishop in the world inviting suggestions as to what should be discussed and/or decided at the forthcoming pastorally-oriented Council. Thousands of pages of confidential submissions (sub secreto) came in from thousands of individual prelates during the following twelve months (these were the days before episcopal conferences and the bureaucratic production of national 'consensus' documents). The submissions have since become available in large Catholic libraries and represent a mine of information about the state of the Church on the eve of Vatican II. Unlike the 27-volume Acta of the Council itself, however, they seem to have been largely neglected so far by scholars.

I have carried out some research in this area, the results of which strongly suggest that when all the evidence comes to light we may be faced with an unexpected result, namely, that right up until to the beginning of the 'sixties, there was much less episcopal enthusiasm for the idea of reforming the traditional Roman Rite of Mass than most of us have been led to suppose. The indications so far are that a surprisingly large majority of prelates - at least before they actually gathered in Rome in October 1962 - felt that the universal Church looking toward the last half of the twentieth century had other more important matters than this to deliberate about during the precious - and expensive - time which was to be spent at an Ecumenical Council.

I have so far surveyed most of those sent in from various countries which for one reason or another have held some particular interest for me. They are (in alphabetical order): Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, New Zealand, and the United States – a total of 148 prelates. 1 It is true that these countries may not necessarily be representative of Catholicism in all parts of the world - they are all Western nations, for a start. However, if indeed these particular prelates were not entirely representative, it seems unlikely that they would have been more conservative on the whole than the generality of Catholic bishops throughout the world. Why? In the first place, because there has long been a strong, and in some cases dominant, Protestant cultural component in most of these countries, which thus contained potentially fertile soil for ecumenically-inspired adaptations of Catholicism's traditional Latin liturgy. Secondly, because this group of bishops included the leading churchmen from those northern European nations wherein liberal and neo-modernist trends in Catholicism were becoming more widespread, articulate, and aggressive than in any other region - the 'Rhine' that was soon to 'flow into the Tiber' (to use Fr. Ralph Wiltgen's justly famous metaphor of Vatican Council II).

In short, the prelates whose liturgical views I have studied so far seem quite likely to have constituted a significantly more liberal group than the world's preconciliar Catholic bishops as a whole. And that renders even more noteworthy the fact that, in their responses to the Vatican inquiry, a decisive majority of these bishops showed themselves to be far from liberal, at least by post-conciliar standards. I have divided their attitudes toward liturgical reform into three general categories: 'wary,' 'indifferent,' and 'favorable.'

The 'wary' prelates were those whose recommendations for the agenda of Vatican II mentioned possible revisions to the rite of Mass only in order to express caution or even opposition in regard to various innovations already being proposed by would-be liturgical reformers. There were ten such bishops in the sample of 148, that is, 7% of the total. Two provincial French archbishops warned respectively against laxity in the observance of all existing rubrics and against those liturgists who wanted to stress the Mass as a meal (convivium) rather than as Christ's sacrifice; three princes of the Church Cardinals Van Roey of Malines/Brussels, McIntyre of Los Angeles, and Godfrey of Westminster as well as several other British and Belgian bishops, wanted the Council to uphold Latin as the exclusive language of the Mass, that is, to expressly prohibit any introduction at all of the vernacular. Finally, in this group of prelates there was Archbishop Campbell of Glasgow, whose one and only liturgical comment was an "earnest plea" that the Council turn a deaf ear to those liturgical zealots who were hoping it would prohibit the recitation of the Rosary during Mass. 2

By 'indifferent' responses to the Vatican inquiry I by no means wish to imply indifference to the celebration of Mass as such, but rather, indifference toward current proposals for revising or reforming the traditional Roman rite. In this study, I have attributed this lack of interest to those prelates who simply ignored the whole issue of liturgy in their suggestions for the agenda of the forthcoming ecumenical council. And in fact, such complete omission was the response of the majority of the bishops in my sample: 77 of the 148 that is, 52% did not include in their proposals for the conciliar agenda any recommendations at all on the subject of liturgical change, whether for it or against it. The 'indifference' in question should of course be understood as relative, not absolute: such omissions simply indicate that the bishops in question, for whatever reason, did not feel that this topic needed discussion at an Ecumenical Council. 3

This left only 61 bishops – 41% of the sample group – in my category of 'favorable': that is, asking for some sort of change in the traditional Roman rite of Mass. All the rest, that is, about three out of every five either failed to mention the subject at all, or else explicitly warned against this or that change for which some liturgical experts were campaigning.

Furthermore, by far the greater part of this 41% favouring reform expressed interest only in very limited changes to the existing rite. Thirteen of these men, for instance, suggested nothing more than having some parts of the Mass in the vernacular (not even the most radical submissions asked fo the entire Mass to be in the vernacular!); and another five asked for nothing more than a reduction of the period of time required for the Eucharistic fast. This of course can scarcely be described as a change in the rite of Mass at all; and even translation into the vernacular, as such, does not in any way alter the structures and ceremonies of the old rite itself. Thus, if we do not include these 18 bishops, we are left with just 43, or only 29% of the whole sample group, calling for real organic textual or ritual changes of some sort in the ancient Roman rite. And of this relatively small minority - less than three out of ten - most suggested only one or two general categories of change, the most popular being more active participation of the laity in the Mass, some very moderate simplification of the rites (especially the pontifical rites), and a wider use of Sacred Scripture in the readings for Mass.

All these statistics, however, disguise very sharp regional or cultural differences of opinion. If we compare the responses of the English-speaking bishops in this group (Britain, Australia, the United States and New Zealand) with those from the European Continent, we find that the latter were far more interested in changes in the Mass than the former. While only 28% of the English-speaking bishops in the sample suggested changes of some sort to the liturgical status quo, no less than 60% of their colleagues on the Continent did so - more than twice as many proportionally. The contrast is even more marked if we exclude from the ranks of would-be reformers those bishops who wanted nothing more than a limited use of the vernacular or a reduction of the Eucharistic fast: those who recommended more extensive changes than these to the traditional rites and texts of the Mass made up only 17% of the English-speaking sector, but 46% of the European sector, that is, the prelates from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and Holland. And it must be kept in mind, for the reasons we have already noted, that when statistics become available from the episcopal submissions originating in those very large sectors of the universal Church located in southern Europe and Latin America, we will almost certainly find that these results approximate much more closely to the conservatism of English-speaking Catholicism than to the more reformist outlook of northern Europe.

In short, here in 1959-1960 we can see clearly taking shape, in its liturgical aspect, the broad outline of that great regional contrast of episcopal hearts and minds which was soon to become so prominent at Vatican Council II. A small minority of Fathers coming from northern Europe took the initiative in spearheading a highly intellectual, articulate, well-organized and persuasively-presented thrust for far-reaching mutations in Catholic life, worship, and theology: mutations which the vast mass of bishops from other parts of the globe had scarcely dreamt of right up until the Council itself. The astonishing success of this thrust for change is what led one of the best English-speaking historians of the Council, Father Ralph Wiltgen, S.V.D., to entitle his book – very aptly – The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber. 4

In the following pages I will present some more detailed information about the liturgical suggestions submitted by different national hierarchies, beginning with that of my own country of origin.


It is clear that indifference to the idea of liturgical reform was very much the dominant attitude in 1959-1960 among the Church's pastors 'Down Under'.

First, however, a brief trip from Australia itself across the Tasman Sea, where we find a surprising contrast in the attitudes of the New Zealand prelates who responded to the Vatican inquiry. All three of them seemed quite keen for liturgical change of one sort or another. Bishop Edward Joyce of Christchurch was the most 'radical,' calling for the vernacular to be used throughout the celebration of Mass and all other sacraments, with the sole exception of the words of the sacramental form in each case, which he thought should be kept in Latin. 5 Bishop John Kavanagh of Dunedin asked for the omission of the Psalm Iudica me at the foot of the altar and the Last Gospel, and for the addition of a thanksgiving prayer to be recited after Communion. He also suggested that the Eucharistic fast be reduced to one hour before the beginning of Mass. 6 Finally, the Archbishop of Wellington, Peter McKeefry, also called in very general terms for the "revision" of the existing Missal and other liturgical books, although he specified that the vernacular, in his opinion, should be introduced only into the Roman Ritual, keeping the whole celebration of Mass in Latin. 7

On returning to Australia's shores, we find that exactly the opposite position prevailed among leading Catholic Churchmen on the eve of Vatican II. Indeed, the Australian prelates showed themselves to be less interested in changing the traditional, 'Tridentine' rite of Mass than any other national hierarchy whose submissions I have studied so far. Of the 30 prelates in Australia who responded to Rome's inquiry (24 bishops and 6 archbishops, including the then Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Romolo Carboni), only five (17%) suggested any reform whatever of the existing rites.

Interestingly, four of those five either were already, or were soon to become, archbishops: the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Gilford Young of Hobart, Bishop Thomas Vincent Cahill of Cairns, soon to become Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn, and Bishop Lancelot Goody of Bunbury, who was soon to preside over the Archdiocese of Perth. Does this more marked presence of reforming ideas among the younger generation of leading prelates perhaps indicate a tendency on the part of the Holy See, already in the early 1960s, to be on the look-out for men considered to be rather 'progressive' or 'forward-looking' for promotion to the major Australian sees?

This hypothesis would seem to be supported by the fact that the papal representative responsible for making such recommendations, Archbishop Carboni, himself submitted proposals for changes in liturgy (and in many other areas of Church life) which were more detailed and more far-reaching than those of any of the Australians whose interests he thought he was representing to the Holy See. In his long (11-page) submission to the Roman commission preparing for Vatican II, Carboni suggested what he called "a number of innovations" designed to make the liturgy "better adapted to the local mentality." 8 He called for the vernacular to be used not only for the Scripture readings, but also for the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Pater Noster, Agnus Dei, and "Domine non sum dignus." He added, however, that while the people recited or sang those parts in English, the priest should still recite them quietly in Latin. Carboni also called for a wider selection of biblical readings in the Mass, and for the deletion of extra prayers of commemoration from Sunday Masses, so as to leave more time for preaching. 9

In clear contrast to the Apostolic Delegate's marked interest in liturgical reform was the indifference of the Church leaders of Australia's great east-coast cities. Cardinal Norman Thomas Gilroy of Sydney submitted a two-page letter suggesting several items for the Vatican II agenda, but these did not include anything regarding the rite of Mass. 10 An apparently total lack of interest was displayed by the aged Archbishops Mannix of Melbourne and Duhig of Brisbane, neither of whom even bothered to reply to the Roman request for suggestions regarding the Council's agenda. (Was this their way of hinting to the Holy See that they saw no great need for an Ecumenical Council anyway?) Seeming indifference to liturgical reform was also the order of the day in Adelaide, Canberra-Goulburn and Perth, where Archbishops Beovich, O'Brien and Prenderville respectively also failed to mention this topic in their brief responses to the Vatican inquiry. 11

Apart from the Apostolic Delegate, the one archbishop who expressed a desire for liturgical change was Gilford Young of Hobart, who called for a greater use of the vernacular and more active participation of the faithful in the celebration of Mass. 12 With the benefit of hindsight, we can note with interest that Archbishop Young's opinions on such matters were practically identical with those of the two future Popes who were independently submitting their suggestions to Rome at around the same time. 13

The two future Australian archbishops who told Rome they saw some need for liturgical reform, Bishops Thomas V. Cahill and Launcelot Goody, also agreed on this idea of using the vernacular in the first part of the Mass. Cahill, like Cardinal Montini, called for its use in the Mass of the Catechumens, and also asked for some simplification in the rubrics, following along the lines of the recent reform of the Holy Week liturgies carried out by the authority of Pope Pius XII. 14 Bishop Goody's view was that the vernacular should be permitted in all the Sacraments, but he cautioned that the Canon of the Mass should always remain in Latin. 15 In the light of thirty years' practical experience of liturgical change, we can now see that another comment of Goody's was quite far-sighted. While calling for a limited use of the vernacular, and for a single uniform version of translations into English and other languages spoken in a variety of countries, the future Archbishop of Perth evidently foresaw the danger that the pendulum might swing from one extreme to the other - that is, from the exclusive use of Latin to its practical abandonment or even prohibition. He therefore told Rome that while he hoped Vatican II would allow some use of the vernacular, the Council should at the same time decree that it would remain always and everywhere licit to keep celebrating the Mass and other sacraments in Latin. 16

Such were the views of the more important Australian prelates - those who already held the sees in capital cities or who were soon to be elevated to them. On turning to the submissions of the 25 remaining bishops, we find even less interest expressed in the idea of reforming the Mass. Practically none at all, in fact. Australia's rural Catholic bishops at that time had a reputation for being solid, pastoral, but rather unimaginative men - practical administrators rather than intellectuals or innovators; and one or two of them almost seemed bent on reinforcing that image in their replies to Rome. Bishop James O'Collins of Ballarat, for instance, responded to the inquiry only to inform the Vatican commission in a few lines that he could think of nothing at all to put on the Council's agenda, whether on liturgy or any other topic: "Nothing," he confessed, "enters our mind." 17 Not to be outdone in blank-mindedness regarding Vatican II, Bishop William Brennan of Toowoomba not only admitted to having no recommendations on any topic whatever, but confessed to being a sheep among shepherds in such matters. When it came to such august and lofty affairs as Ecumenical Councils, said Brennan, he preferred to let others wiser than himself make the recommendations: "It is better," he said, "for me to follow them, rather than try leading others in my own blindness" ). 18 The only one of these twenty-five bishops to suggest any changes at all in the celebration of Mass was Edward J. Doody of Armidale, who added his voice to those calling for more active participation of the laity. He also suggested one very slight simplification: that in pontifical and sung Masses the celebrant no longer be required to read quietly those texts which the choir was simultaneously engaged in singing.

That was the sum total of the advice that reached the Vatican from Australia in 1959-1960 regarding possible reforms to the Mass. Even without taking into account the Archbishops of Melbourne and Brisbane, who did not reply to Rome at all, the statistics are very lop-sided: of the thirty replies received from Australia regarding the agenda for Vatican II, twenty-five (83% of the total) made no mention whatever of any potential changes to the traditional Roman rite of Mass. In those relatively few replies that did request some change, the most sought-after innovation was, as in other countries, the allowance of the vernacular language in some parts of the celebration. This was requested by four of the thirty prelates (13% of the total). Three of them (10%) sought more active participation of the laity, and three wanted some degree of simplification of the rites. A wider variety of Scripture readings in the Mass was requested by only one respondent (3% of the total) - and that was the Apostolic Delegate, not an Australian bishop.

(to be continued)


1. In the case of some of these countries (Austria, France, Germany, Holland, and U.S.A.) I have not so far had the opportunity to study all the episcopal submissions, and so have looked only at those coming from the major or metropolitan sees - those governed by an archbishop.

2. ". . . enixe rogat ut nihil fiat quo prohibeatur recitatio publica Rosarii intra Missam" (Acta et Documenta Concilio Oecumenico Vaticano II Apparando I, II, I [Vatican City: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1960], p. 14).

3. Some of the topics vying for conciliar attention along with reform of the Roman Missal might perhaps seem surprising. I do not know if the city of San Francisco already had a reputation by 1960 as something approaching a latter-day Sodom; but if so, that might help to explain why its local Ordinary, Archbishop John Mitty (who expressed no interest in changes to the Mass) insisted in his submission that the forthcoming Vatican Council, if it did nothing else, should promulgate a dogmatic definition on "the objective reality of hell-fire (de realitate obiectiva ignis infernalis)" (Acta et Documenta, I, II, VI, p. 441). A burning issue, indeed. Perhaps the Archbishop reasoned that the thirst for transient unnatural pleasure might be most effectively quenched by the certain prospect of unending preternatural pain. Then there was Cardinal Richard Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, who, in spite of his reputation as a very down-to-earth prelate, advised Rome that one of the issues needing conciliar deliberation was the possible existence of . . . extraterrestrials! In spite of Boston’s considerable distance from Roswell, New Mexico, Cardinal Cushing seemed to be keeping up on reports of little green men in flying saucers, for he urged that Vatican II issue a statement on the possible implications of "created intellectual beings which might be discovered above the heavens (de creatis intellectualibus super sidera forsitan reperiendis)" (ibid., p. 284).

4. R.M. Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967).

5. Cf. Acta et Documenta, I, II, VII, p. 649. Bishop Joyce also offered the idiosyncratic suggestion that in Masses of Our Lady there should be "special colours" for the vestments. (Blue, perhaps?)

6. Cf. ibid., pp. 650-651.

7. Cf. ibid., pp. 652-653.

8. ". . . aliquæ innovationes . . . ut . . . ingenio nativo magis aptetur" (ibid., p. 612).

9. Ibid. If the Apostolic Delegate to Australia seemed ‘liberal,’ by the standards of 1960, on matters concerning liturgy, his attitude toward Communism could scarcely be described in those terms. In all the episcopal submissions studied so far I have found no stronger denunciation than his of the Communist system and ideology, the condemnation of which he clearly regarded as a top priority for the imminent Council. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine any stronger denunciation! According to Archbishop Carboni, the Fathers of Vatican II should insist "that this diabolical, detestable and altogether abominable error be vehemently anathematized, and that all men of good will strive with all their might so as to attack it with every ounce of their strength (. . . ut detestandus atque omnimodo abominandus hic error diabolicus vehementer anathemizetur, necnon ut omnes bonæ voluntatis homines omni vi urgeantur ut contra eum totis nervis distensis pugnent)" (ibid., p. 611). Like the hundreds of other Bishops from round the globe who asked Rome to put a clear condemnation of Communism on the Council’s agenda, Carboni probably did not know that Pope John was secretly negotiating an agreement with Moscow in which he undertook to exclude in advance any such "political" statements from the Council documents, as the price of the Kremlin’s permitting observers from the Russian Orthodox Church to attend the Council.

10. Cf. ibid., pp. 602-604.

11. Cf. ibid., pp. 579, 588-590, and 596.

12. Ibid., p. 591.

13. Cf. concluding section below.

14. Acta et Documenta, I, II, IV, p.587.

15. Ibid., p. 586.

16. Ibid.

17. ". . . nihil in mentem nostram venire" (ibid., p. 583).

18. ". . . melius est me illos sequi quam me cæcum alios ducere" (ibid., pp. 604-605).

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