Tomorrow, the Church commemorates Pope St. Pius V (1504-1572), the Dominican pope who reigned from 1566 to 1572 and who was tasked with implementing the liturgical reform called for by the Council of Trent. This he did with the publication of the Breviarum Romanum in 1568 and the Missale Romanum in 1570. These were not innovations but for the most part careful editions of the Roman Rite as it had evolved over the centuries and been diffused throughout much of the Latin Church. In addition to standardizing the Roman Rite itself in a precisely printed Missal and Brevary, Pius sought also to standardize the Latin liturgy in general by mandating the use of the new Roman liturgical books everywhere in the West and by everyone (religious orders included), except those places and communities already in possession of rite more than 200 years old. Thus, this standardization left untouched the Monastic Breviary used by Benedictines and Cistercians, and the liturgies of such ancient sees as Milan, Lyons, and Braga, and of religious orders like the Domincans, the carmelites, and the Carthusians. These diverse liturgical regimes remained in place until a new standardization took place in the wake of the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms.
Fifty years after Sacrosanctum Concilium opened the floodgates to liturgical experimentation, that more recent reform remains still controversial. There are fanatics on both sides - extreme traditonalists who cannot abide anything about the reforms of Paul VI and extremists on the other side who totally denigrate the liturgy of the centuries. Both positions are somewhat absurd. Not only were generations of faithful Catholics and saints formed and spiritually nourished by the 1570 Missal, so of course were the Vatican II Bishops who voted to make certain reforms in the familiar rite. It was the Mass according to the 1570 Missal, which was celebrated at the opening of the Council and (somewhat modified) at its close.
And even Archbishop Lefebvre's name appears among the signatories of the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy. It was only later (admittedly not much later in the larger scheme of things) that the post-conciliar liturgical changes came to symbolize a complete change in Catholic culture. By then, of course, the changes (culminating in Paul VI's promulgation of the new Roman Missal in 1969) had gone well beyond what the Council had called for - and likely well beyond what anyone had expected. There is something about change (at least in the modern world) that seems to lead inexorably to even more change. This is true even among the traditonalists. Having secured authorization for the free use of the last typical ediiton of the old Missal, that issued by Blessed John XXIII in 1962, some traditonalists seem to want to go back even farther - for example, to the rites of Holy Week before their first reform in 1955. (There is, I suppose, a certain logic to that position. The 1955 reforms and the 1961 Code of Rubrics already anticipated various changes and embodied the spirit of liturigcal reform.)
Having been basically formed in the old rite and having then lived through the trauma of liturgical change and experimentation, and recognizing how the persistence 50 years later of the liturgical wars in some sense reflects larger socio-cultural wars, I have come to a few modest conclusions about it all.
1. The reforms actually mandated by Vatican II (including its modest concession of some vernacular in the liturgy), might - had it been culturally possible to implement them as envisioned - just might have been less traumatic and might have produced less of a rupture in Catholic culture. That the reform quickly went way beyond what Sacrosanctum Conclilium initially envisioned illustrates the inherent problematic of all reform. Change invites further change. It was the Council's chronological misfortune to occur on the eve of the civilizational revolution of the 60s, into which its reforms got completely swept up.
2. At the same time, it is absurd to blame the liturgical changes (or the post-concliar changes in general) for the post-conciliar problems of Catholic life. The revolutionary dynamic unleashed in the 60s swept everything before it. On the other hand, it is hard not to believe that the novel sense of the Church changing conttributed, to at least some extent, to a general loss of confidence within the Church. Almost overnight 1st-world Catholics seemed to lose confidence in their religious way of life and in the Church's mission to the world. Insofar as the changes in the Church (liturgical and other) added to the feeling that everything was now up for grabs, they helped facilitate the growing passivity in the face of secularization which was, of course, the very opposite of the spiritual renewal and evangelizing outreach the Concil had intended.
3. While much may have been lost liturgically by adopting the vernacular, much may also have been gained - everywhere, but especially (and here I echo John Allen) in places where the Church is actively competing with Islam. It serves no good purpose not to recognize the benefits of a more accessible liturgy (among them an expanded lectionary, concelebration, and the renewed rites of initiation). Nor does it seve any good purpose not to recognize the important values that were diminished in the process (reverence, transcendance, the sense that worship is about God not about us, and, notably, the Church's musical tradition).
4. The effort begun by Pope Benedict XVI to "reform the reform" by permeating the ordinary experience of the new liturgy with some of the best of the spirit of the old was a positive step, but it will remain extremely difficult to implement in our fractured and polarized world.
5. The long-term tragedy of the past 50 years has been the excessive turn inward, whihc has so distracted us from the Church's mission to the world (which both the Council in general and its liturgical reforms in particular were intended to equip the Church better for). Liturgy is where it all comes together and from which we then go out to witness to the world. As long as we are fractured and polarized liturgically, we will continue to have a hard time doing everything we need to be doing in the world.