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The Reform of Holy Week in the Years 1951-1956

by Fr. Stefano Carusi



In conclusion, as already affirmed, the changes were not limited to questions of the horarium, which legitimately and sensibly could have been modified for the good of the faithful; rather, they overturned the age-old rites of Holy Week. Beginning with Palm Sunday, a ritual of “versus populum” is created, so that the back is turned towards the altar and the cross. On Holy Thursday, the laity are made to enter the sanctuary. On Good Friday, the honors rendered to the Most Blessed Sacrament are reduced as is the veneration of the Cross. On Holy Saturday, not only is the reforming imagination of the experts allowed to run wild, but the symbolism relating to Original Sin and to Baptism as the doorway into the Church is demolished. In an era that claims it desires to rediscover the Scriptures, the passages read on this most important of days are reduced, and the Gospel passages on the institution of the Holy Eucharist in Matthew, Luke, and Mark are edited out. Traditionally, every time that the institution of the Eucharist was read during these days, it was placed in relation to the account of the Passion, to indicate how completely the Last Supper was an anticipation of the death on the Cross the following day, and thus to indicate how much the Last Supper is of a sacrificial nature. Three days were dedicated to the reading of these passages: Palm Sunday, Holy Tuesday, and Holy Wednesday. Thanks to the reform, the institution of the Holy Eucharist disappears completely from the liturgical cycle!


The entire raison d’être of the reform seems to be permeated with the whiff of rationalism and archeologism, which at times dollops of pure imagination. It is in no way intended to suggest that these rites lack the requisite orthodoxy, both because it would be unfounded and because the divine assistance promised by Christ to the Church even regarding what theologians call “dogmatic facts” (among which, we maintain, the promulgation of a universal liturgical law must be included) prevents a clearly heterodox expression within her rites. Having made this stipulation, though, we cannot excuse ourselves from noting the in-congruence and extravagance of some of the rites of the reformed Holy Week, while at the same time upholding the possibility and liceity of a theological discussion of the same, in order to discover a true continuity of the liturgical expression of Tradition. To deny that the "Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae Instauratus" is the product of a group of expert academics—joined unfortunately by opportunistic liturgical experimenters—is to deny the reality of the facts. With due respect to the papal authority that promulgated this reform, we are allowed to advance the criticisms which follow, since the experimental nature of these innovations requires that a balance be struck between such criticism and respect for authority.


According to Father Carlo Braga, this reform was the "head of the battering-ram" which broke into the Roman liturgy for the holiest days of the year. Something so revolutionary was bound to have repercussions on the entire subsequent spirit of the liturgy. In effect, it signaled the beginning of a deplorable attitude by which things could be done or undone in liturgical matters at the pleasure of the experts. Things could be suppressed or reintroduced on the basis of historico-archeological opinions, without taking account later that the historians had been wrong. (The most egregious example as it turned out, mutatis mutandis, was the much touted "Canon of Hippolytus.")


The liturgy is not a toy in the hands of the theologian or symbolist most in vogue. The liturgy draws its strength from Tradition; from the Church's infallible use of Tradition; from those gestures which have been employed for centuries; and from a symbolism which cannot exist merely in the minds of free-thinking academics but which corresponds to the consensus of clergy and people who have prayed in that manner for ages. Our analysis is confirmed by the synthesis of Father Braga, a protagonist extraordinaire of those events: "That which was not possible, psychologically and spiritually, at the time of Pius V and Urban VIII because of tradition [and we would like to emphasize "because of tradition"], because of insufficient spiritual and theological formation, and because of a lack of acquaintance with the liturgical sources, was possible at the time of Pius XII." (138) While we share his analysis of the facts, we might be permitted to object that Tradition, far from posing an obstacle to the work of liturgical reform, is the foundation for it. To treat of the era following the Council of Trent with disdain and to define Saint Pius V and the popes that followed him as men of "insufficient spiritual and theological formation" is presumptuous and proximate to heterodoxy in its rejection of the centuries-old work of the Church.


It is no mystery that this was the climate in the fifties and sixties during the reform. Under the pretext of archeologism, the millennial wisdom of the Church was replaced by the caprice of personal judgment. Acting in this way, one does not reform the liturgy but deforms it. Under the pretext of restoring ancient practices--about which scientific studies of a dubious and fluctuating value have been written--one gets rid of tradition and, having torn the fabric of the liturgy, now makes a flawed patch job by sewing on an archeological discovery of unlikely authenticity. The impossibility of an integral revival of rites that—if they ever existed—have been dead for centuries results in handing over the remaining work of "restoration" to the free flight of the "experts'" imagination.


The over-all judgment on the reform of Holy Week is mainly rather negative: it certainly does not constitute a model of liturgical reform (thanks, in part, to the artificial way it was pieced together and its use of personal intuitions at odds with tradition). The case of the reform of 1955- 1956 was analyzed because it was, according to Annibale Bugnini, the first occasion for the inauguration of a new way to conceive of the liturgy.


The rites produced by this reform were used universally by the Church for very few years, amidst a continual succession of reforms. Today, that artificial way of conceiving of the liturgy has been left behind. The great work of re-appreciating the riches of the liturgy of the Roman rite is making headway. Our sight must be set unceasingly on what the Church has done for centuries, in the certainty that those ancient rites have the benefit of the Holy Spirit's "unction." As such, they constitute an irreplaceable model for every work of reform. The then-Cardinal Ratzinger has this to say: "In the course of her history, the Church has never abolished or prohibited orthodox forms of the liturgy, because that would be foreign to the very soul of the Church." (139) These forms, especially those going back a millennium, remain the guiding light for every work of reform.

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