Rorate Caeli

EXCLUSIVE: Dom Alcuin Reid’s Response to Prof. Grillo’s Interview

Wrong, Professor Grillo—Think Again!

Dom Alcuin Reid

Amidst the ‘liturgy wars’ of over a decade ago, Father John Baldovin SJ published an article: “Idols and Icons: Reflections on the Current State of Liturgical Reform.” (Worship 2010, n. 5) He argued that some were given to the idolisation of certain ritual forms, complaining that he found “a paradoxical kind of narcissism in certain attitudes towards the liturgy in which people think they are arguing for more transcendence at the same time as they are promoting an idolatrous attitude toward the liturgy itself.” Borrowing from the French phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion, Baldovin argues that the liturgy should, instead, be iconic whereby (in Marion’s words) “the icon does not result from a vision, but provokes one…[it] summons sight in letting the visible be saturated little by little with the invisible.” Baldovin quotes further: “In the idol the gaze of man is frozen in its mirror; in the icon the gaze of man is lost in the invisible gaze that visibly envisages him.” (p. 389)

Father Baldovin is careful to assert that he does not consider the “traditional Roman rite to be idolatrous” itself, but that he does think that “the attitude of insisting on it or a return to many of its features à la ‘reform of the reform’ is idolatrous” in the manner described above. He makes a good point: the Sacred Liturgy is not a dead idol to be worshipped. It is indeed a living icon into whose gaze our own is drawn, transforming us and forming us in that which is the “source and summit” of all Christian life.

His important distinction came to mind reading Andrea Grillo’s recent interview with Messainlatino. For if there was ever an example of the idolisation of certain ritual forms, and “a paradoxical kind of narcissism in certain attitudes towards the liturgy in which people think they are arguing for more transcendence at the same time as they are promoting an idolatrous attitude toward the liturgy itself,” it is here. Professor Grillo gets it in one!

For if there is one thing that we know for certain—thanks to some very diligent investigative journalism—it is that the current authoritative reign of terror against the usus antiquior of the Roman rite (the pre-conciliar liturgical forms of the Mass, sacraments, sacramentals, etc.) for which one could almost call the good Professor Grillo the press-officer, is born of precisely such a narcissistic idolisation of the liturgical reforms promulgated after the Council. They are carved in stone. No talk of their reform is permitted and talk of their being left aside in favour of the living and growing use of the usus antiquior is simply an abomination that can no longer be tolerated—it suggests the unthinkable: that all the blood, sweat and tears shed in changing the liturgy was not necessary after all. And no one can possibly be allowed to say that.

Indeed, this is regarded as such an abomination that a group of ageing cardinals in Rome, mostly not in pastoral ministry, strategized to organise a survey of the world’s bishops in 2020. It seemed like asking politicians if they would like a pay rise, except that, from what we know, many of them said that they wouldn’t! That is to say that the leaks we have of the unpublished survey results suggested that the world’s bishops do not regard the usus antiquior as a problem. It was not being worshipped like an idol but was in fact increasingly serving as an icon of Him Whom we are all called to worship.

Their Eminences were not to be deterred, however. By hook or by crook the Holy Father was persuaded to replace Cardinal Sarah at the Congregation for Divine Worship with Archbishops Roche and Viola and to sign off on the infamous Motu Proprio Traditionis custodes in July 2021—with the henchmen already in place to ensure its merciless implementation. The liturgical reform following the Council that the Pope had curiously found need in 2017 to affirm “with certainty and with magisterial authority” as “irreversible” was established as the “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman rite” (i.e. the only truly legitimate way to worship) to which recalcitrant resorters to the usus antiquior were to be converted, by coercion if needs be—“in the constant search for ecclesial communion,” as Traditionis custodes insists. Some have attributed the curious expression “the unique expression…” to Professor Grillo’s influence. To my knowledge he has never confirmed this, but if the hat fits…

Archbishop Roche lost no time in sharpening Traditionis custodes with Stalinist clarifications in the name of the Holy Father such as insisting that altar servers at the usus antiquior have the diocesan bishop’s permission and that no such Masses be advertised in parish bulletins, etc., with the stated intention that all were to be brought to “the “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” The campaign to this end has been waged constantly since, with the prospect of another piece of legislation in the offing that would deal with the usus antiquior once and for all being currently reported.

Amidst all of this Professor Grillo has been smugly confident in his assumption that those whom Pope Benedict XVI noted “have discovered this liturgical form [the usus antiquior], felt its attraction, and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them” are in fact, as he asserts in his interview, backward-looking people who do not understand the meaning of tradition and who form “little more than a sect that experiences infidelity as salvation and is often linked to moral and political positions [presumably he means bad ones] and very concerning customs” and who “cultivate nostalgia for the past.”

Included in this damning slur are the 18,000+ Chartres pilgrims (“the future of the Church in France” according to one French diocesan bishop), the faithful and heroic Catholic families who dare to have children and raise them with the traditional liturgical forms, the seminaries, monasteries and religious houses where the usus antiquior is the living, beating heart, and of course any academic who dares to defend its ongoing value. They are all members of “a high society club or an association aimed at speaking a strange language or identifying with the past, cultivating reactionary ideals.” The use of the “dead language” of Latin is deprecated (even though the Second Vatican Council insisted that it be retained) and even the poor cappa magna (the ceremonial train for bishops and cardinals that is still an option in the reformed liturgical books) is condemned—all because “Tradition is not the past, but the future.”

If this interview was not with a Professor of a Roman Pontifical University and at an important Italian liturgical faculty whose ideas seem to have some influence over the policies of the Holy See at present, it would be eminently discardable. But because Professor Grillo is indeed thus placed, its risible ravings are very important—for the sheer lack of theological depth and pastoral sensibility and experience they demonstrate and, indeed, for their exposition of the sheer terror that the partisans of the usus recentior have for the usus antiquior.

Ironically, Professor Grillo complains loudly about poor reasoning. Let us take his fundamental assertion that “Tradition is not the past, but the future.”

Our Lord taught that “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Mt 13:52) Pope Benedict XVI, in clarifying that the usus antiquior had never been abolished and was therefore always in principle permitted, and in recognising its pastoral value in the twenty-first century and freeing it from any restriction, acted accordingly—good theology and good pastoral practice in my book.

Tradition is neither the past, nor is it the future—exclusively. Tradition is the living presence in the Church today of all that has been handed down from the Apostles and developed over the centuries in the life of the Church in her worship, doctrine and customs. In the first place it obviously includes that which has directly been revealed by God, to which Sacred Scripture is a singularly privileged and inspired testament. But the Sacred Liturgy is the place in which this tradition lives, where Scripture is read in context, where we offer our first fruits to Almighty God in worship as best we can (as the magnificent, yet diverse, forms of ecclesiastical architecture, liturgical music, vesture and other forms of liturgical art demonstrate). The very rites of the liturgy and the things they employ themselves become sacramentals—created things privileged to reflect the holiness of God through their use in His worship. They cannot be treated profanely or discarded at will.

It is for this reason that, as a recent pontifical document reminded us, popes and bishops are “custodians of the tradition,” which implies all that a previous pope taught when in respect of the papal office (and mutatis mutandis the Sacred Liturgy) he said that:

“The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith. The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.” (7 May 2005)

Hence it is difficult to accept the pure positivism that underlines Professor Grillo’s idolising of the postconciliar reforms. The previous liturgical forms were “sacred and great” and can most certainly be “sacred and great” today also. The fact that this terrifies those who have staked their reputations and careers on a questionable act of papal positivism (the imposition of new rites that are not that for which the Council called and that are not in organic continuity with liturgical tradition developed over the centuries) and that they are fuelling the opportunistic imposition of their ideology whilst they have the political capacity to do so does not change the truth that whilst Tradition does indeed develop, it does so organically, by enrichment, not by root and branch reform or substitution.

Otherwise, nothing is true, nothing has value—everything is simply a matter of political expediency. That is why Pope Benedict did not err in teaching that “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” and that “It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”

To be clear, this does not mean that a pope cannot legitimately propose a new liturgical development or rite as did Paul VI. But it must earn its place in Tradition on its own merits, as it were, and not through positivist imposition by authority. Nor can it be sustained on dishonest subsidies.  If it becomes part of the Tradition, so be it. If it suffers the fate of the innovative sixteenth century breviary of Cardinal Quignonez—propped up for decades by papal support before its long overdue death—then so be it also. Conversely, one must say that if a rite continues to live and breath and bring forth good fruit even in the face of papal opposition, it is very hard to deny that it has a legitimate place in the living tradition of the Church today and in the future.

Professor Grillo’s lack of pastoral acumen is astounding. He seems only to have experienced the usus antiquior via the internet and to have (perhaps rightly) reacted to some flamboyant and at times curiously antiquarian celebrations of it. If only he and Cardinal Roche and Archbishop Viola would spend Pentecost weekend walking from Paris to Chartres with the thousands who do every year, they would encounter ordinary, heroically faithful Catholics of all ages (but mostly young) for whom the treasures of the older rites are ever new today and which nourish them in their diverse Christian vocations. Sure, there would be some odd people and clerics, but the usus antiquior does not have exclusive claim to them—and they, too, have souls that need saving.

The Professor, His Eminence and His Excellency would also encounter rich celebrations of the Sacred Liturgy in which these thousands participate fully, consciously, actively and fruitfully with great devotion—as is manifest by the profound reverence with which they receive Holy Communion (in all manner of weather). This, of course, is heresy to our idolators who believe that the reformed liturgical rites are sine qua non for such participation. But this is where they are pastorally naïve. The greater majority of the celebrations of the usus antiquior today evince everything that the classical liturgical movement and indeed the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council desired. Certainly, the latter mandated some moderate and organic reforms of the rite to facilitate this, but they were not so stupid as to believe that these were ends in themselves, or indeed were to be idolised.

Full, conscious, active and fruitful participation in the Sacred Liturgy was what the Council sought, and those who refuse to recognise that this is frequently found in celebrations of the unreformed rites today are simply denying the truth. It is a reality in parishes, monasteries, religious houses and seminaries across the world for all to see, including the Professor and his friends. Would that they would open their eyes to the good that it is, and that it brings, and encourage and foster it!

To question the prudential judgements of a Pope after the Council (and this is what the liturgical reform of Paul VI is – a series of his own prudential judgments) is not to reject the Council itself, as Professor Grillo holds. The two are distinct. To apply the fundamental principle of its liturgical constitution (on participation) in celebrations of the richer, unedited liturgical rites is, however, to honour the Council’s most cherished desires (a desire expressed by so many from Dom Guéranger in the 19th century onward). Sorry, Professor, but this is very far indeed from denying the Second Vatican Council.

Nor, necessarily, is the celebration today even of the rites of Holy Week anterior to the reforms of Pius XII. For Professor Grillo, those who do so “objectively place themselves outside Catholic tradition”. Our little monastery received the permission of the Holy See to use them, and having done so discovered their richness and beauty—a treasure we simply cannot now bury anew. I can agree with the Professor that choosing one’s favourite date on the timeline of liturgical reform can be arbitrary and ill-informed and lacking in an ecclesial spirit, but when the Church’s authority authorises something as a good today (as it has), it is very hard to see how the same authority can all of a sudden entirely forbid it or consider it harmful.

It is difficult to conclude without taking profound exception to Professor Grillo’s assertion that ‘traditional’ seminaries “don’t generate a life of faith but often great resentment and personal hardening”. One can quite agree that one finds odd professors and candidates in seminaries—in practically all of them. Insecure narcissists lurk in many faculty lounges, superiors’ offices and chanceries, but they are also by no means the exclusive property of ‘traditionalists.’ And there are seminarians who leave seminaries, and also sometimes the Catholic faith, with great resentment and indeed with little life of faith. But again, this is not “copyright traditionalists”. Where these abuses and problems exist, they must be addressed decisively and across the board.

But what must also be addressed—and accepted as true and respected—is that there are dozens of formators and hundreds of candidates in so-called traditional seminaries, monasteries and religious houses who strive daily for holiness, the conversion of their life, an increase in the virtues, the augmentation of their ability faithfully to carry out the mission of the Church in the world today and in the future, pastorally and intellectually, etc. These good men and women are not seeking to preserve the ashes of a past age, but are (pace Gustav Mahler) inculcating within themselves the fire of that living Tradition that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are not part of the Church’s problems; rather, they form a significant part of the solution to her thus far disastrous confrontation with a post-Christian world.

At this moment in the history of the Church it is hard to believe that her hierarchs are narcissistically closing down such thriving and growing young congregations and communities, or forcing them into canonical irregularity, or even further still, outside of the Church, in the name of a desired unity that is in fact nothing more than a politically motivated insistence on uniformity so as to appease the idol of their choice: the (ageing and not so well) reformed liturgy. And it is a scandal that Professors at reputed Pontifical institutes are supporting their efforts. They would all do well to follow the advice of Gamaliel: “Keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5: 38-39) 

Dom Alcuin Reid is the founding Prior of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in Brignoles, Provence, France and is a liturgical scholar of international renown.