Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy by Yves Chiron is indispensable both for its historical depth and breadth and also for understanding how we received the only liturgy that most Roman Catholics have ever experienced.
Chiron’s book provides a helpful vehicle by which to assess, at least partially, Bugnini and his efforts at liturgical reform. If one were to base this assessment simply on output and results, Archbishop Bugnini must be judged a resounding success. In the space of six years he took the general directives of the Second Vatican Council and engineered a new missal for the Latin Rite. The Mass, which had been celebrated for centuries in Latin, was now celebrated, almost exclusively, in the vernacular. Within a half-decade, Mass went from being celebrated ad orientem in both the East and West, to being almost exclusively celebrated versus populumin the Latin Rite. The reforms directed and overseen by Bugnini have become deeply embedded in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.
And, yet, reading this wonderful book in light of the 50 years since the Novus Ordo’s implementation, Bugnini’s legacy is decidedly more mixed, even negative. Bugnini and the other members and consultors who manned the Consilium were undoubtedly experts in the practice and history of the liturgy. Their legacy, however, raises the very important question whether they were, as Paul VI famously described the Church, “expert[s] on humanity.”
The buzzwords of their articles, talks, and titles of their books betray their biases and presuppositions and suggest that they were not experts on humanity. For instance, Dom Botte’s book describing his inside view of the liturgical reform is titled From Silence to Participation. Bugnini described the transformation of the “inert and mute assembly” into true participants. Such descriptions are a common theme. The liturgical reformers failed to see how silence could be a form of participation, indeed perhaps a deeper participation than the recitation of banal translations.
The reformers also seemed unable to credit ordinary lay people with the ability to learn and penetrate the mysteries of the Mass as it was already being celebrated. If these people could not “understand” the words, they could not truly worship. Bugnini had to paraphrase the Mass to make it “accessible.” This both assumes that one can really comprehend phrases such as, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body,” and obscures the manner in which mystery and comprehension coincide and overlap. As we begin to grow in knowledge, we realize that God’s mystery is even greater than we ever imagined.
The reformers’ zeal for relevance and for a liturgy fit for contemporary man was and is a fool’s errand. As soon as one “updates” a liturgy, it is suddenly out-of-date. The new new man succeeds the new man. And so on and so forth. Nor does this chasing after relevance take into account man’s eternal and universal thirst for transcendence.
Finally, Bugnini and his fellow reformers put a premium on rational comprehension and stark simplicity. But this was done at the expense of basic human anthropology and a proper understanding of God. We are not simply spirits, but embodied souls who need to touch, to feel, to taste, to see. When we no longer kneel, genuflect, kiss, adore, we often cease to believe. We may now “understand” the words of the liturgy but at the expense that we do not actually believe them. Further, God is superabundant. His language is superabundance. He expresses Himself in ways that seem excessive, even superfluous. Why should our worship of Him be any different?
Chiron’s book is a great gift to the Church. While we cannot change the past, Chiron gives us the ability to see it clearly, to assess it with honesty, and to ask the deep questions that will help us avoid making missteps in the future. Bugnini was clearly well-intentioned. He loved the liturgy. But so many of his actions undermined rather than cultivated the liturgy he loved. May we avoid repeating his mistakes.