Rorate Caeli

A 1999 letter by Cardinal Ratzinger on the reform of the liturgy

Last week, Fr. Matias Auge CMF, a veteran professor of liturgy in Rome, former consultant to the Congregation for Divine Worship and disciple of the reformers of the 1960's, published an exchange of letters that he had with then-Cardinal Ratzinger on the topic of the reform of the sacred liturgy.

Upon Rorate's request, Natasja Hoven, who works with the Swedish Catholic website Katolsk Observator, made the following translation of these very important letters.

(Commentary to follow shortly.)

Letter from Fr. Matias Auge to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:

Rome, 16 November 1998

Most Reverend Eminence,

I beg you to excuse me for venturing to write this letter. I do it in humble simplicity and also with great sincerity. I am a professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of Sant’ Anselmo and at the Theological Faculty of the Pontifical Lateran as well as Consultant of the Congregation for Divine Worship. I have read the conference that you gave some time ago on the occasion of the ”Ten Years After the Motu Proprio ’Ecclesia Dei’” ("Dix ans du Motu Proprio ‘Ecclesia Dei’”). I must confess that its content left me deeply perplexed. In particular I was struck by the response you gave to the objections made by those who do not approve of "the attachment to the old liturgy”. It is on this that I would like to pause a little in this letter to you.

The accusation of disobedience to Vatican II is fended off by saying that the Council did not itself reform the liturgical books but only ordered that they may be revised. This is true enough, and the affirmation cannot be contradicted. However, I want to draw your attention to the fact that not even the Council of Trent reformed the liturgical books, as they only occupied themselves with the very general principles. To execute the reform as such, the Council asked the Pope to do it, and Pius V and his successors implemented it in a most loyal way.

Therefore, I cannot understand how the principles of the Second Vatican Council concerning the reform of the Mass, presented in Sacrosanctum Concilium, nos. 47-58 (thus not only in nos. 34-36 as cited by Your Eminence), may be in harmony with the re-instatement of the so-called Tridentine Mass. If on the other hand we consider the affirmation of Cardinal Newman mentioned by you, namely that the Church has never abolished or prohibited ”orthodox liturgical forms”, then I ask myself if, for instance, the admirable changes introduced by Pius X in the Roman Psalter (Breviary – CAP) and by Pius XII in the (ceremonies for) Holy Week have abolished the old Tridentine orders or not. The above mentioned principle could make some people think – for example, in Spain – that it is permitted to celebrate the old Spanish rite – the Visigothic, (which is) orthodox, and return it to its place after Vatican II. To say that the Tridentine Rite is something different from the rite of Vatican II does not seem accurate to me: I would say that it is contrary to the notion of what is meant here by rite. Therefore the Tridentine Rite and the present one are one and the same rite: the Roman Rite, in two different phases of its history.

The second objection was that the return to the old liturgy is likely to break the unity of the Church. This objection is met by you in distinguishing between the theological and the practical side of the problem. I can share many of the considerations made by you in this respect, except some that are not historically sustainable, as for instance the claim that until the Council of Trent there existed Mozarabic Rites (of Toledo and other places), which were then suppressed by the same. The Mozarabic Rite was in fact suppressed already by Gregory VII, with the exclusion of Toledo, where it still remains in force. The Ambrosian Rite, on the other hand, has never been suppressed. Thus I cannot understand why it has been forgotten what Paul VI says in the Apostolic Constitution of April 3,1969, with which he promulgated the new Missal, namely: “We are confident that this Missal will be received by the faithful as a means of testifying to and confirming the unity of all, and that through it, in a great variety of languages, to our heavenly Father will rise one sole and identical prayer.” Paul VI desired that the new Missal should be an expression of unity for the Church. He then adds in conclusion: “What we have here established and ordained, we wish to remain valid and effective now and in the future, despite what may be contrary to it in the Constitutions and the Apostolic Decrees of our predecessors, as well as other provisions also worthy of mention and exception.”

I know the subtle distinctions made by some persons who are legal specialists or considered as such. I believe, however, that these are mere “subtleties” not meriting much attention. One could cite several documents that clearly show the intention of Paul VI in this respect. I can only remember the letter of October 11, 1975, which Cardinal J. Villot wrote to Monsignor Coffy, president of the French Episcopal Commission for Liturgy and the Sacraments (Secretariat of State, no. 287608), in which he said, inter alia: ”By the Constitution Missale Romanum, the Pope prescribes, as you know, that the new Missal should replace the old one, notwithstanding the Apostolic Constitutions and Ordinances of his predecessors, which consequently includes all the dispositions made in the Constitution Quo primum and which would have permitted the preservation of the old Missal [...] In short, as mentioned in the Constitution Missale Romanum, it is to the new Roman Missal and nowhere else that the Catholics of the Roman rite should look for the signs and the instrument of the mutual unity of all ... .”

Your Eminence, please let me say, that being a professor of liturgy, I find myself in the position of teaching facts that seem to me different from those expressed by you in above mentioned conference. And I believe that I have to continue on this road of obedience to the Pontifical Magisterium. I also lament the excesses with which some people after the Council have celebrated and still celebrate the reformed liturgy. But I cannot understand why some eminent Cardinals, not only yourself, think it opportune to call into question a reform approved, after all, by Pope Paul VI and to open the doors more and more to the use of the old Missal of Pius V. With humility, but also with apostolic frankness, I feel the need to state my opposition to such an outlook. I prefer to say openly that which many liturgists and non-liturgists, feeling themselves to be obedient sons of the Church, say to each other in the corridors of Roman universities.

Your most devoted [servant] in Christ,

Matias Augé, CMF

Response of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to Matias Auge

February 18 1999

Reverend Father
P. Prof. Matias Augé, CMF
Istituto “Claretianum”
L.go Lorenzo Mossa, 4
00165 Rome

Reverend Father,

I have attentively read your letter of November 16, in which you express some criticism in respect to the conference I held on October 24, 1998, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the motu proprio “Ecclesia Dei.”

I understand that you do not share my opinions on the liturgical reform, the way it has been implemented, and the crisis deriving from some of the tendencies hidden in it, such as desacralization.

However, it seems to me that your criticism does not take into consideration two points:

The first one being that the Pope John Paul II, with the indult of 1984, under certain conditions, granted the use of the liturgy preceding the Pauline reform; thereafter the same Pope in 1988 published the motu proprio “Ecclesia Dei”, manifesting his wish to please the faithful who are attached to certain forms of the earlier Latin liturgy; and furthermore he asks the bishops ”by a wide and generous application” to allow the use of the liturgical books of 1962.

The second one is that a considerable number of the Catholic faithful, especially those of French, English, and German nationality and language remain strongly attached to the old liturgy, and the Pope does not intend to repeat what happened in 1970 when the new liturgy was imposed in an extremely abrupt way, with a transition time of only six months, whereas the prestigious Liturgical Institute in Trier had rightly proposed a transition time of ten years (if I am not mistaken) for such an undertaking, one that touches in a vital way the heart of the Faith.

Thus, these two points, namely the authority of the Supreme Pontiff and his pastoral and respectful concern for the traditionalist faithful, that must be taken into consideration.

I, therefore, take the liberty to add some answers to your criticism of my speech.

1. Regarding the Council of Trent, I have never said that it should have reformed the liturgical books; on the contrary, I have always emphasized that the post-Tridentine reform, situating itself in the continuity of liturgical history, did not wish to abolish the other Latin orthodox liturgies (which existed for more than 200 years); neither did it wish to impose liturgical uniformity.

When I said that even the faithful who use the indult of 1984 must follow the decrees of the Council, I wanted to show that the fundamental decisions of Vatican II are the meeting point of all liturgical trends and are therefore also the bridge for reconciliation in the area of liturgy. The audience present actually understood my words as an invitation to an opening to the Council, to the liturgical reform. I believe that those who defend the necessity and the value of the reform should be completely in agreement with this way of bringing Traditionalists closer to the Council.

2. The citation from Cardinal Newman means that the authority of the Church has never in its history abolished with a legal mandate an orthodox liturgy. However, it is true that a liturgy that vanishes belongs to historical times, not the present.

3. I do not wish to enter into all the details of your letter, even if I would have no difficulties meeting your various criticisms against my arguments. However, I wish to comment on that what concerns the unity of the Roman rite. This unity is not threatened by small communities using the indult, who are often treated as lepers, as people doing something indecent, even immoral. No, the unity of the Roman rite is threatened by the wild creativity, often encouraged by liturgists (in Germany, for instance, there is propaganda for the project Missale 2000, which presumes that the Missal of Paul VI has already been superseded). I repeat that which was said in my speech: the difference between the Missal of 1962 and the Mass faithfully celebrated according to the Missal of Paul VI is much smaller than the difference between the various, so-called ”creative” applications of the Missal of Paul VI. In this situation, the presence of the earlier Missal may become a bulwark against the numerous alterations of the liturgy and thus act as a support of the authentic reform. To oppose the Indult of 1984 (1988) in the name of the unity of the Roman rite, is – in my experience – an attitude far removed from reality. Besides, I am sorry that you did not perceive in my speech the invitation to the ”traditionalists” to be open to the Council and to reconcile themselves to it in the hope of overcoming one day the split between the two Missals.

However, I thank you for your courage in addressing this subject, which has given me the occasion – in an open and frank way – to discuss a reality which is dear to both our hearts.

With sentiments of gratitude for the work you perform in the education of future priests, I salute you,

Yours in Christ

+ Joseph Card. Ratzinger