Léon Gromier: Liturgical Reform Between Rupture and Continuity

Msgr Léon Gromier (1879-1965)

Up until a few years ago, any
peep of concern about the 1970 Missal of Paul VI was adduced as evidence of
schism and obscurantism.  Klaus
Gamber’s The Reform of the Liturgy,
first published in 1981 in Germany and in English translation in 1993, changed
all that.  Likewise, in
traditionalist circles, peeps of concern about the 1962 Missal of John XXIII
were squelched.  Today, however,
searching questions about the Pauline Reform are being asked out loud from the
halls of the Vatican to blogs with a readership of 2, and questions about the
liturgical reforms of both John XXIII and Pius XII are beginning to be taken
seriously.  Now, there are still
some quarters where the very mention of such criticism is laughed at.  Those who suggest a closer analysis of
the pre-Vatican II liturgical reform are often accused of wanting to found a
Society of Pope Pius II.5, since X and V already exist, and they are rejected
as hopelessly wedded to “older is better” in the face of scholarship and common
Yet, there are thinkers in
the Church who are earnestly trying to understand where a hermeneutic of
rupture has been applied to various aspects of the Church’s life, and just how
continuity is or is not reform.  The
only approved form of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is the 1962
Missal and its associated books. 
But the provision in Universae
52 allowing religious orders to use their proper rites may give
hope to some that a further liberalization to employ previous editions of the
Roman Missal, such as those pre-dating the 1955 Pian Reform of Holy Week, is
But why should we even
bother looking at the pre-Vatican II liturgical reform?  The Church’s current liturgical law
only allows the 1962 Missal and most EF enthusiasts seem perfectly content
using it.  But if we are to
discern, under the Church’s authority, where a hermeneutic of rupture has been
applied to the liturgical life of the Church, it seems nonsensical to stop at
an arbitrary date or edition of the Missal such as 1970, 1962, 1955, or even
1570.  Is every abridgement,
replacement or omission evidence of rupture, or can they be seen as little
pieces of thread in the larger tapestry of liturgical reform?  I should like to argue that a closer
look needs to be paid to the pre-Vatican II liturgical reform.
Recently I came across a
name that I had never heard before, and I would bet that even the most seasoned
of Chant Café readers are unlikely to be familiar with him either.  Léon Gromier (1879-1965) is best known
as one of the Ceremonieri of Pius XII’s papal liturgy.   But this priest of Autun had been in Rome since his
ordination in 1902 and was a consultor on matters liturgical from the time of
St Pius X.  As early as 1936, he
expressed loud reservations about the trajectory of liturgical discussions,
such as that of restoring the Easter Vigil to celebration during the
night.  With characteristic aplomb,
he made his opinions loud and clear, and did not rise in an ecclesiastical
career, but his knowledge was such that even those who disagreed with him still
respected him. 
You can find some
information on Gromier and excerpts of his works in Italian and French here.  He is best known for his commentary on
the old Caeremoniale Episcoporum, which
I have tried in vain to obtain.  But
what struck me as the most interesting was a conference Gromier gave in Paris
in 1960.  You can read it in its
original French or in its English translation by the always interesting-to-read Anthony Chadwick. 
This conference makes for
interesting, if difficult, reading. 
As the transcription of a talk, it often reads, especially in its
translation, not very linearly. 
One must be patient with editorializing and the occasional shot across
the bow at his liturgical adversaries. 
But there is also much here that I find fascinating.
An impression that I have
gotten from studying the successive series of texts of the Holy Week
ceremonies, as well as their accompanying rubrics, is of a certain amount of “cut
and paste.”  Anyone who is familiar
with the Breviary of St Pius X who has then switched to that of John XXIII
knows of those awkward moments where et
is preceded by a mental ma da
dov’é abbiamo cominciato qua? 
in this talk often points out where the “cut and paste” mentality has produced
some very difficult to explain things in the liturgical reform up to 1960.  One wonders if these were things which
Evelyn Waugh found so irksome in his letters to Cardinal Heenan.
But before we look at what
some of those things are, there is an observation in order.  Before we cut anything, it behooves us
to really understand why what was there, was there in the first place.  Often, we invent a reason why something
should be changed or removed, which does not respect the reason for its
existence and also does not foresee unintended consequences.  This is true in many aspects of our
life, and, as Gromier points out, is also true in the liturgy. 
Gromier makes a distinction
between what he sees as the true Roman liturgical spirit embodied in the texts,
rubrics and ceremonial traditions of the Roman liturgical books, and a very
different spirit animating those he calls les
, what we might call the “pastoral liturgists” one assumes were
imbued with Liturgical Movement ideas more akin to Guardini than Guéranger. 
He begins his talk with the
indication that the proposed restoration of Holy Week was to commence with the
timing of the service.  Fifty years
out from Sacrosanctum concilium, many
priests and lay faithful are shocked to hear that, up until the middle of the
last century, centuries had gone by with the Triduum services celebrated in
the morning.  The usual quips about
the “Mass of the Lord’s Breakfast” and the flame of the paschal candle not
being able to be seen because of light bathing the church usually come up.  Most liturgists just dismissed the idea
of having services at those times as an inexplicable anachronism tied to some
idea that Mass was not supposed to be celebrated after noon.  But Gromier points out that the timing
was intimately connected with the Church’s ancient discipline of fasting, which
of course had been significantly relaxed. 
He talks about the renaming
of the services.  He asks why the
ancient name of Good Friday as In
had to be replaced by the Passion and Death of the Lord, when passion as a concept included death, and
if so, why not call the Passion Gospel the Passion and Death Gospel?  He talks about why the Passion and the
Gospel were two distinct things, which were then in 1955 melded into one
history.   Gromier also
complains of the fact that in the 1955 Holy Week, Vespers is omitted in Holy
Thursday and Good Friday and Compline on each day of the Triduum. 
One of the more interesting
parts of the talk is when he takes issue with the adjective solemn as applied in the 1955
Reform.  He writes, “The solemnity
of liturgical services is not an optional decoration; it is of the nature of
the service . . . Outside of this, so-called solemnity is not an amplifying
enticement, to impress and score the goal .  . . we made a prodigious use of the word solemn even for necessarily or
intrinsically solemn acts.  We use
words, believing that we can put more solemnity into the Procession of Palms
than into that of Candlemas, more solemnity into the Procession of Maundy Thursday
than that of Good Friday (abolished as we shall see).  Always on the same slippery slope, we learn that the Passion
of Good Friday is sung solemnly, as if it could be sung in another fashion.”
Here Gromier identifies a
crucial characteristic of the Reformed Liturgy that I had never been able to
put into words.  Theologians often
talk about the svolta antropologica, a
man-centered volte-face of theology
after Rahner.  Here we have a clear
liturgical complement.  Solemnity
no longer arises from the nature of the Christological mystery being
celebrated, but of how we go about celebrating it, and what we do to celebrate
it.  The Eucharistic Processions of
Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were solemn before because of their reference
to Christ being carried to and from the Sepulchre.  After 1955, Maundy Thursday remains solemn because incense
and song and candles accompany the Procession.  Good Friday ceases to be so because those things that we do
are omitted.  I think this is a
point worthy of further reflection. 
How often in our parishes, basilicas and papal liturgies have we seen
attempts at solemnization of the liturgy interpreted as our use of Latin,
candles and incense rather than the solemn nature of certain ceremonies rising
from their intrinsic Christological import? 
Our French liturgist here
also speaks at length about blessings being done no longer on the altar or as
close to the altar as possible (ashes, palms, candles, oils) but on a table in
front of the people.  He also
points out that, after placing these blessings in front of the people so they
could ostensibly see what was going on, the rites were so drastically
simplified so that there was not much left to see.     
He blames the pastoral
liturgists for creating a situation which introduced several ambiguities and contradictions
within the ceremonies themselves. 
He points out the fact that the clergy are instructed to no longer hold
palms on Palm Sunday during the Passion, forgetting that the reason the clergy
held the palms was in deference to a reference to St Augustine, whose homily
was read that day in Matins.
Often the changes in rubrics
belie confusion as to their origin. 
The change of color in the Palm Sunday liturgy is an example.  In the pre-Pian liturgy, Gromier, claims
the Roman color was always purple (and black in Paris and red in Milan).  In 1955, the Procession is in red and
the Mass is in purple, stemming from the introduction of the idea of red and
triumphant, and downplaying the predominant theme of Passion in the Palm Sunday
liturgy.  Now, of course, Palm
Sunday and Good Friday in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite are entirely in
red, a sign of the capitulation of the Roman liturgy to the idea of triumph
which, arguably for Gromier at least, is not a properly Roman liturgical idea.
While Gromier derides the
symbolic and liturgical value of the changes, he also indicates the practical
ramifications of the changes.  The
celebrant having to walk around sprinkling palms everywhere in the church, introducing
laymen into the sanctuary for the Mandatum, the lack of instructions as to the
veiling of the processional cross or the altar for Palm Sunday, the removal of
the Cross from the altar just to be brought back to it on Good Friday, the
changes of the vestments on Good Friday, carrying a large and heavy paschal
candle, etc. 
It is common nowadays to
hear that the central focus of the liturgical action is the altar.  Some argue that the tabernacle should
not even reside on or near the altar because it “distracts” from the Action
during Mass.  Everyone is taught
that the altar is the symbol of Christ and is worthy of respect with a
bow.  But Gromier states, “The
Roman Pontifical teaches us that we do not greet a new altar before having
placed its cross.  The altar itself
is not the object of veneration, but the cross that dominates it, and to which
all prayers are addressed.  The
altar without a cross, if it is worthy of being kissed, has no right to a bow
or genuflection . . . for an altar is not invoked.”  Common practice today is for the Cross to not be on the
altar at all, and for the altar as table to occupy much of the attention in
reverence.  One wonders what
Gromier would say about the later rubric which directs the Celebrant at the
Oremus for the collects to bow towards the book and no longer towards the
cross.  Today, the altar and the
cross have been separated as if they no longer belong together, much as altar
and tabernacle have been separated (malgré
Pius XII’s admonition against it). 
Pope Benedict XVI’s custom of having the Cross on the Altar, referred to
as the Benedictine arrangement
although it is perhaps more accurately referred to as the Roman basilica arrangement, has restored the unity between Cross
and Altar and re-oriented liturgical prayer towards the Cross and away from the
Celebrant at the Altar.  I have no
idea if Josef Ratzinger, developing this idea in The Spirit of the Liturgy was aware of Gromier’s critique on this
point or not, but it is a happy phenomenon that clergy are imitating the papal
liturgy in this fashion and giving priority to the cross as a focus of
liturgical action, no longer separated from the altar. 
The confusion of symbolism
in the 1955 Holy Week led to some oddities that Gromier criticizes.  “The procession of Maundy Thursday,
definitively instituted by Sixtus IV (+1484), and that of Good Friday,
instituted by John XXII (+1334), therefore by the same authority, have the same
object, same purpose, same solemnity, except the festive character of the first
and the mourning of the second. 
Why abolish one and keep the other?”  He asks why, when fonts, baptismal water and baptisms go
together, they are separated out during the Vigil: “the pastorals make
baptismal water and baptize in a basin, and in this container they carry it to
the font, singing the song of a thirsty deer, which has already drunk, and
which is going towards a dry font.” 
Why is the renewal of baptismal vows from the custom of First Communion
of children inserted into the Vigil after baptisms have already been done, and
if so, why not renew the marriage vows of all present at a wedding?
It may be easy to surmise in
reading Gromier’s talk that the man was just a curmudgeon opposed in principle
to all novelty.  Yet he does not
argue entirely against the reform of the times of the Triduum, even as he
protests against the removal of them from the context of their fasting
discipline and Breviary accompaniment. 
He does not argue against the distribution of Communion at the Good
Friday Liturgy of the Presanctified, even as he lambastes the rubric of eating
the Host without also drinking the ablutions associated with it, as if anyone
ever ate without drinking.  The
impression that comes across is that Gromier issues a pointed challenge to the
pastorals to provide better theological, historical and practical rationales
for all they accomplished during the reform.               
As Gromier declares, “Certain
modifications of tradition, so well-known, are just as dishonest as they are
daring.”  It is a lapidary
statement, meant to provoke. 
Fifty-two years after he made it, these words still provoke strong
reactions.  If we are to explore
how Vatican II is an exercise in continuity with the tradition, and to see how
the liturgy can be reformed and still be in conformity with the tradition, we
must go back to the sources.  Far
from accepting tout court the
accepted history of the liturgical reform and Vatican II as proffered by the
Bologna School and the Liturgical Establishment, we have an opportunity for
true ressourcement.  We need not discard the words of criticism
of the liturgical reform, whether it be Léon Gromier’s often acerbic analysis
of the changes in the liturgy in the pre-Vatican II period, or the linguistic
observations of those who express reservations against the new English
translation of the third editio typica of
the Pauline Missale Romanum.  All of these critiques should be
entertained, not out of a sense of ideological protest or loyal dissent, but in
an effort to serenely ascertain what has happened, why it happened, and how to
recover the spirit of the liturgy, ever ancient and ever new, for today and


Revd Fr Christopher Smith (26 Posts)

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