January 6 seems like as good an occasion as any to raise the issue of whether it is possible to admit that some elements of liturgical reform following Vatican II might have been mistakes. In this specific case, should the importance of Día de Los Reyes in many Latin American cultures and the growing importance of Hispanics in U.S. Catholic culture make the bishops of the U.S. rethink the transferral of Epiphany to Sunday—something that people (at least in the rarefied circles in which I travel) carp about every year? Could this be changed?
Pondering this possibility leads me to think about other changes that were made—changes in the universal Church and not just the Church in the U.S.—that might be unmade. For example, could the pre-Lenten “gesimas” be restored? The various octaves of various feasts? The prayers at the foot of the altar? The ninefold Kyrie? The Dominus vobiscum before the opening collect or before the Universal Prayer/Preparation of the Gifts? The old prayers at the offertory? The threefold Domine non sum dignus? The use of salt in baptism? These are all things that various people have suggested were losses that should be retrieved, changes that can and should be undone.
Of course, there might be good reasons not to undo these changes. For example, I for one do not particularly see the point of restoring pre-Lent and don’t really buy the idea that we need a time of preparation for Lent, since Lent itself is a time of preparation, and once we start preparing to prepare—well we might as well prepare to prepare to prepare et cetera ad infinitum. But other things, such as the reduction in the Kyrie (which as far as I know is without liturgical or musical precedent) or the somewhat arbitrary reduction and reshuffling of the Dominus vobiscum or the use of salt in baptism, do strike me as decisions worth revisiting, things that might have been mistakes. After all, what are the odds that every decision that was made by a small group of people within a narrow time frame would prove, over time, to be correct?
But acknowledgment of liturgical mistakes seems unlikely to happen. And for several reasons.
First, liturgical change in a “restorationist” direction seems to have all the wrong advocates. That is to say, some of the people who don’t like the sixfold Kyrie also don’t like widely popular changes associated with Vatican II, like the vernacular or women lectors or religious liberty. To suggest that some changes associated with the Council, even minor ones, might have been mistaken could seem like the thin edge of the wedge of some wholesale revanchist agenda. Though the possibility of such an agenda succeeding is vanishingly small, fear of it seems to occupy a large amount of real estate in some people’s minds.
Second, for modern people it seems natural to assume that change only flows in one direction and that if the liturgy does require any change it is change in a “progressive” direction (e.g. more flexibility, more attention to modern concerns and adaptation to modern ways of thinking, etc.). Such an assumption fuels the tendency of some to see desire for liturgical restorations as fighting against the inevitable arc of history, and so quixotic at best, pernicious at worst.
Third, I tend to think that most people these days want stability in their liturgy. The negative reactions to the 2011 Missal translation revealed how conservative most of us are with regard to liturgy—we like our liturgy to remain as we have always known it. So change, whether in a restorationist or progressive direction, does not seem to have much of a constituency. Most people like what they know, and beyond that are like the Anglican Dean William Inge who, when asked if he had an interest in liturgy, replied, “No, nor do I collect stamps.”
Fourth, Church leaders never like to admit mistakes. The top-down nature of the post-Conciliar liturgical reform meant that every liturgical change was a result of a specific ecclesiastical decision, in contrast to the general way that liturgy had changed before the modern era, which was more bottom-up. A post-Tridentine conception of authority was at play in the reforms, in which authority takes the form of commands issuing from a central source and obedience takes the form of submitting your will to those commands. To suggest that the reforms might have been to some (any?) degree mistaken cannot but be seen as challenging the authority of the Church. Whatever else one thinks of Traditionis Custodes, it seems undeniable that challenges to Church authority from conservative quarters was at least one motivating cause for its promulgation.
In light of all of this, it seems unlikely that we will see any rethinking of decisions associated with the liturgical reforms. Unlikely, but not impossible. Some of the decisions made in the Holy Week reforms of the 50s (such as the extreme truncating of the Vigil’s Old Testament readings) were rethought in producing the first edition of the current Missal, and things such as the Vigil of Pentecost were restored in the third edition of the Roman Missal. Even if, for a variety of reasons, change is unlikely, I think honesty should incline us to admit that there might have been changes that were made that were not helpful and which, if the opportunity presented itself, could be undone without undermining the liturgical reform as a whole. Indeed, one of the salutary fruits of Vatican II is a movement to return to the past in order to retrieve what might have been lost.