Finally, it behooves us to recall that the Proper chants of the Mass are linked to the liturgical seasons and times, not just in a general fashion, but quite specifically, by virtue of their content. The oldest choir-books of the Roman liturgy eloquently testify that the overwhelming majority of these chants belonged to fixed days, and these assignments remained untouched up until 1968. The same texts were written in the Missals, and if they were not sung, then the priest prayed them. In doing so, the Church clearly expressed her desire that each chant stand in a fixed position, which simply means that on this day, at this liturgical position, this is the chant, and not any other.

Exactly when and how this “properization” of the Mass chants was achieved is an altogether different question. At this point, we are not interested in this question, nor in deciding whether or not the numerous speculations are true concerning the justification of the given position of a chant and its interrelationships with other parts of the daily liturgy through historical facts or spiritual reflections. We simply accept the fact that in the minds, hearts and memories of faithful Catholics there gradually emerged, over a period of 1200 years or more, a network of associations between the experience of a particular liturgical day and the chants “proper” to that day. Such associations were truly “catholic,” in other words universal within the Latin liturgy. All felt a part of it, anyone at will referred to it: the Sundays were named after their Introits (e.g. Laetare, Gaudete, Quasimodo); people dated their private letters by referring to the same chant; composers created music not to texts, but to the Offertory or the Introit of a given day. For a Christian who lived in and with the liturgy of the praying Church, this order of chants coalesced with the full liturgy of the day, and it contributed to the high degree of constancy in the Mass Propers (as opposed to the frequent variations in the Divine Office). So it is by no means an accident that certain chant forms were excluded from this uniformity. In spite of the unchanging stability of Introits, Graduals, Offertories and Communions, the Alleluja and the Sequence presented a wide field of opportunity for the creative forces of various geographic regions (tropes, sacred polyphony).

This universality and continuity in space and time bore rich fruit, and brought great blessings. Over and above the psychological associations, such universality nurtured a feeling of stability and promoted the reverence of which a long tradition is worthy. It radiated, and thus taught, discipline; it made palpable a kind of “impersonal anonymity” which cannot be achieved simply by concealing the authors’ names. My university students were always shocked to open Dom Hesbert’s Antiphonarium Missarum Sextuplex or the 11th-century Gradual of the Roman basilica of St. Cecilia, only to find there, on the same days, the same Proper chants than the ones printed in the Liber Usualis of 1950. And without any coaching from me, their first question after the initial surprise was, “Then why should we sing different ones instead of these?”

Why, indeed…?

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)


The blurring of the Hour’s character is the consequence of the diminution of daily psalmody and of the new distribution of psalms. The reform at the beginning of the 20th century gave up in great part the 1500-year-old system, as well as the basic principles of distribution. Two generations of priests had grown up without any personal experience of the Roman psalmic order, and, their majority simply did not know about its existence. The Liturgia Horarum – with a more radical resolution – went much further down the path opened 70 years before.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The reforms of St. Pius X considerably diminished the “burden of the day.” But for the clergy this was not enough. They found the one or one-and-a-half hour that the daily Office demanded too long. The main point of the further reforms requested from Vatican II was again a radical shortening of the Office. Another aim was a kind of “rationalization” in the spirit of Quignonez and the Neo-Gallican reform breviaries. A lot of other (sometimes right, otherwise wanton) changes completed the package of new reforms. Having the Liturgia Horarum in hand, one is frequently inclined to ask what is the “true spiritual benefit” of a particular modification, given the fact that the Constitution on the Liturgy defined this benefit as the main criterion of any legitimate change.

The Council dealt with the Office mainly from a theological, spiritual and disciplinary point of view, but some principles for its reorganization were also laid down. A new Latin version of the psalms was wanted (practically, a return from the Pianum to the Vulgate), and similarly a restoration of the hymns (return from the “modernized” version of the 17th century to the original medieval texts). The Constitution abolished Prime, conceded to make only one of the daytime Little Hours obligatory; stipulated that the Psalter be distributed within a longer (undefined) period instead of its weekly recitation. The realization was left to a Committee to be set up.

The Committee under the leadership of Msg. Bugnini (practically following his will, or, if the reports are true, a will from outside the Church) did not reform the Roman Office, but created a new breviary. It was sent to the bishops’ conferences to solicit their opinion. This was, in fact, no more than a formality. No time was left for a thorough analysis; the clergy was unprepared for a well-founded response; and, the Committee was resolute to carry the changes through whatever reply would come from “outside.”

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

Any attempt to summarize this matter in a balanced way would include points such as these:

1. History testifies to the existence of a sacred language, just as it attests to changes in the liturgical language. The Eastern churches, for example, were able to preserve their Liturgy in great vigor while using vernacular tongues. Since it is plain that today’s intellectual and religious environment is not propitious to the precondition of ‘fidelity’ in the process of translation, we must think long and hard about the postulata, the munimina and the subsidia of authentic and congenial translations, following the lead of the Holy See’s Instructio Quinta De Usu Linguarum Popularium in Libris Liturgiae Romanae Edendis” (March 28, 2001).

2. If in the minds of believers and of churchmen there is once established the equation “Latin = Ordo Antiquus, Vernacular = Ordo Novus,” then there is no chance at all for the traditional rite to be widely accepted, and it will remain the private hobby of some few groups. Good translations of the content of the Roman rite are much more important than any eventual reproach for insensitivity — but only on condition that the use of Latin is simultaneously safeguarded, in the sense of Vatican II and the wise provisions of e.g., SC 36 and 54, which should be followed in preference to what occurred after the Council.

3. Analysis of the various elements of the Liturgy allows us to differentiate the varying degrees of difficulties in linguistic accuracy, a) Most difficult (or impossible?) is an equivalent translation of the Sacramentary (Eucharistic Prayer, Prefaces, Orations). If these are kept in Latin, and good translations are made available for the congregation, then the essence of this dogmatically most sensitive part of the Liturgy will be safeguarded. b) A much easier task is the translation of the Bible based upon sensible principles, meaning that the chants and lections can be translated when and where necessary, without harm to the liturgical content. One need not think in terms of the chants and readings being delivered in the mother tongue at all Masses. A correct and balanced proportion can be found, c) The Mass Ordinary presents a twofold aspect. On the one hand, it is easy to translate and to provide appropriate melodies. On the other hand, since these texts remain unchanged, they are easy to learn also in Latin. The best solution in the case of the Ordinary may perhaps be a regular alternation of Latin and the vernacular.

4. Since the Divine Office consists almost exclusively of biblical texts, it could be translated without difficulty, provided that this be done with intellectual honesty. But here, another factor must be taken into account, namely, that the clergy will come to feel at home with the Latin chiefly by regularly praying the Office in that language. 

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

Though it is the most difficult to formulate, the fifth point is the most vital factor, and this is the LITURGICAL TRUTH of the liturgy. The liturgy is a special form of sign language, an individual manifestation of the faith having its own laws, proportion, style, logic and structure. This sui generis system links on one level all authentic liturgical manifestations of mankind; on another level all the Christian rites. Every individual rite has its own inner laws, preserved even during the changes. If the rite lacks these laws it becomes a fiction. If a house is not constructed firmly, it will eventually collapse. But if the liturgical truth is diminished or attenuated, no visible trouble will result right away, since the liturgy is falsely assumed to be the sum of human conventions. It is commonplace, however, that in a society serious disorder will follow if the commonly accepted norms of behavior become regarded as mere conventions that can be changed at will. The spiritual unity of such a society disintegrates when its former principle of order changes to fiction. Similarly, the violation of liturgical truth will sooner or later grievously harm the common sense and spirituality of the Church, as well as the religious behavior of her priests and faithful. Sad to say, this thesis has been proven right by the events that followed Vatican II. As Cardinal Ratzinger put it: “The cause of the Church’s inner crisis is the disintegration of her liturgy.”

Just what is this “liturgical truth”? The matter resembles St. Augustine’s relationship to time: “If you do not ask me about it, I know it clearly, but when you ask me, I suddenly do not know.” I offer an absurd example of this. Let us imagine that someone comes up with the following idea: the Gospel is the Word of the Living Christ Who is present among the congregation. Hence it is more logical if first of all Christ appears among us (through the Transubstantiation), and then afterwards speaks to us (in the Gospel). We all sense the falsity of this conclusion, and the absurdity of the idea. But on the level of speculation it is difficult to offer a rebuttal. If the Gospel were transferred to a position following the words of the Last Supper, no dogmatic truth would be offended. But the whole liturgical truth of the Mass would have collapsed.

Since this “liturgical truth” is the aggregate of a great number of components, effects, proportions, which can hardly be described in most cases, the human mind is unable to construct it. This truth is something more vibrantly alive than the dogmatic, juridical or pastoral truth. As the human mind and body cannot be produced by construction, since they are the marvelous result of conception, birth and growth, so too the liturgical truth can only be inherited, nursed and transmitted. We may change it in approximately the same measure as we can change our own bodies. This is the TRADITIONAL TRUTH of the liturgy. We can know how, why and when certain individual elements of the liturgy were introduced. Its totality, however, comes (or should come) to us from a world of anonymity, from the immemorial ancient traditions of the Church.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

One of the great human mysteries of modern times is the amazingly swift process by which the Roman Catholic Church, apparently one of the most solid, self-confident, and enduring institutions in the history of the world, was plunged into an identity crisis of cosmic proportions. The crisis still goes on, with no satisfactory outcome yet in sight. […] The answer to that question is perhaps best approached by noticing how the crisis developed and its exact locus. Immediately it becomes necessary to dispose of one common myth, that the crisis was somehow a democratic uprising from the pew, forcing the hierarchy of the Church to reconsider its doctrines. Anyone with even the most elementary acquaintance with sociological principles realizes at once how such an event could scarcely have occurred in the kind of society  which was the Catholic Church of 1960.

Instead the roots of the crisis must be located among the elite of the Church, including some lay people of advanced educational attainments, but mainly with the Church’s official leadership, the anointed guardians of its laws and traditions – the clergy. It was a crisis which quickly spread beyond the priesthood as such and into the ranks of nuns, brothers, and seminarians. Only from these very strategic centers did it begin to permeate the church at large.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

The second problem is the consequence of an anthropocentric view of the liturgy. The liturgy was traditionally understood as the permanent priestly activity of holy Church: she conducts the highest matters of salvation before God’s throne and at the same time, it is her intimate communication with her divine Bridegroom. The greatest honor for the faithful is to join this divine work (opus Dei) as a member of the Mystical Body, and while the believer strives to live his life hidden in Christ and the Church, while he thus “loses” his life, he in fact finds it, The liturgy is not something we create but an objective reality we share in, a precious patrimony we inherit. What happens in the Mass is relatively true for all parts of the liturgy: it is not we but God Who is doing His work in it, and we ourselves become divine when we receive Holy Communion. So the reality we celebrate becomes our own. With respect to the prayers and chants, this truth is expressed by St. Benedict’s classic saying: “mens concordet voci‘: the mind should be concordant with the voice. It is not the soul who speaks in the voice, but it is the Church and the Holy Spirit. The harmony between soul and voice comes not from expressing the soul by the voice but from adapting the soul to the sounds that the Church and the Holy Spirit put upon our lips.

The Liturgical Constitution of the Council says nothing contradictory to this traditional view. And yet, according to the post-conciliar approach it was precisely the modern man, man hic et nunc, who became the focus of interest and the norm of the liturgy. Consequently the liturgy and its chant are supposed to express the religious experience of the individuals and communities. The result is: “vox concordat menti” i.e. the voice is concordant to the state of the mind. The regrettable outcome of this approach is that the liturgy is unable to elevate and raise up heavenwards the individual and communities: they express themselves and so they remain where they are.

This liturgical approach also influenced the church music. A great part of the clergy can accept music only as the chant of the assembly. The demand of actuosa participatio is taken in a sense that excludes the possibility of silent and attentive listening to the chant of singers or choir. Consequently, in many places the choirs have disbanded and the musicians have fled their posts. To anyone who reads the Constitution it is clear that this fate was not intended by the Council. Par. 28 says that “each person should perform his role by doing solely and totally what the nature of things and liturgical norms require of him.” Even in the new Missal of Paul VI we find the names of items belonging to the schola. Things are even clearer if we examine the natura rei, the nature of things: the liturgy is a dramatic event and the assembly participates “actively” in the ritual by performing the parts proper to them. The Council judged it opportune to stress the actuosa participatio because the role of the assembly had been taken over by others during the course of centuries. But this does not mean that now the assembly has to take over the role of others!

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)


The root cause is the underestimation of the role of music in the liturgy and religion in general. Today the Church finds herself “at home” in the movements, activities and appearances of secular society, and values music only in the measure it can be utilized in this context. Music in this view has no value of its own, no value in building bridges between the Christian soul and God, between the Church and her Divine Head. What Guardini wrote about the liturgy as a whole, namely that it has meaning and not aim or purpose, should also be true for its music to some extent. In this life there are things whose purpose we learn, and then we work with them according to their own nature. The pianist, for instance, knows that Bach’s music contributes to the spiritual good of mankind; but the moment he sits down at the piano, he concentrates upon fingering and touch. The Council pointed to the place and role of music in the liturgy and Church life. And so the duty of church music is to fill this place by enjoying a certain independence. But it is not allowed to do that.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The Second Vatican Council used very nice words to describe church music in Chapter Six of its Liturgical Constitution.

The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of immeasurable value… Sacred music increases in holiness to the degree that it is intimately linked with liturgical action. This Sacred Council maintains the norms and precepts of ecclesiastical tradition and discipline. Great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries… and also in other Catholic institutions and schools. Gregorian chant should be given pride of place in liturgical services. Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures. Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music… The texts intended to be sung … should be drawn chiefly from Holy Writ and from liturgical sources.

The Constitution outlined a view of church music in which Gregorian chant (as most suitable for the liturgy), polyphonic music of artistic quality, and religious hymns of the congregation are balanced with each other and “give a more noble form to the liturgical action”; a church music in harmony with the ecclesiastical traditions having “the spirit of the liturgical action”, “the spirit of the liturgy” as its highest norm; church music under the care of diligent bishops, and priests receiving a solid musical education.

In actual fact, however, church music fell into such a deep crises after the Council as never before in its history. In a great part of the Church over the world, church music is not cultivated but neglected; musical rubbish prevailed; sacred music fell in many places into the hands of uneducated dilettantes; its fate and daily practice depends upon decisions of priests who stand in this matter (too) very far from the true spirit of the Council. The “treasure of immeasurable value” is dissipated; in many churches the most frivolous music resounds without a single word of warning from the hierarchy; and the music which predominates can be called anything but “the expression of true art.”

The responsibility for this decline lies firstly with the ambiguous instructions of the post-conciliar committees, secondly with the church authorities who neglected to fulfill the will of the Council, thirdly with the clergy and in fourth place with the church musicians themselves. Before entering into details, I mention briefly that in my opinion the matter of church music is not a question of music. Good church music exudes into pastoral practice, spirituality, church discipline, morals and even theology. Bad church music likewise affects all this but in a destructive manner. And vice versa: behind the lapse of church music, liturgical lapses lie hidden; behind the liturgical lapses an incorrect image of the Church, and in the last analysis, implicitly heretical views. It ought to have been the task of theologians familiar with church music or church musicians with expertise in theology to express clearly the deeper roots of the theology of worship and of its music in order to expel the suspicion of being cultural aristocrats and defenders of purely aesthetic values.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

After Vatican II, when a “translation” of the liturgy seemed to be necessary again, the Church and church musicians found themselves at a crossroads. The Constitution spoke for the first — we may say, the “orthodox” — way. The chant is a mediator of concrete liturgical content. Beside the Latin that should be preserved, it would generate — combined with new ritual languages — new branches of the old musical family. A natural way, suggested by good examples, would be to begin singing the words of the liturgy and give time for assimilating the musical idioms to the character of the different languages.

Instead, people became entrenched in the false question of the possibility or impossibility of adapting Gregorian melodies to the prosody of the new languages. The creation of a musical language and repertory for the rite demands, of course, knowledge and musical invention; but an acceptable liturgical music is more than the result of paperwork by scholars and ambitious composers. The keyword in the post-cociliar documents became: vel alius cantus aptus. By the use of this concession the liturgy turned in practice to the second way: replacing the liturgical items by various musical pieces. This led to three consequences:

1. Phrases interpreting the term “aptus” proved to be empty formulas unable to be used as norms for actually assessing chant material. The few objective norms given in the Constitution (such as: the text of chants should be taken mainly from the Bible and the rite; Gregorian chant should take pride of place in the liturgy; it should be introduced in small parish churches, too; only items approved by the bishops’ conference should be sung; chant must consist of noble artistic material, etc.) lost increasingly their regulating strength.

2. Chant at the moment does not participate in preserving and conveying concrete liturgical content and has become an element of ‘mood’ in the liturgy. Its unity with the celebration, its part in the dramatic structure of the liturgy has been abandoned, and it plays the role of mere ‘insertion’ (the only exception, perhaps, being the interlectionary chants).

3. Chant is assessed now according to its capacity to express the feelings of the community. In this connection, a totally unauthentic interpretation of “folk music” has spread (discussed below). Chant is regarded as a means of “inculturation,” an expression of the different mentalities of different nations. Music as promoting the catholicity of the church, or to express a kind of universality as a bridge connecting gender, generations, social strata is out of the question and has been forgotten in practice. This attitude stems, in the last analysis, from a false anthropology that prefers the differences among people to their community, and takes man as an unchangeable entity regardless of the use of learning and training (the “second nature” of man in a former view).

Liturgical music — if taken in the original sense of the word — has been relegated either to the liturgical museum of “Gregorian” festivals, courses, and workshops, or to the “New Age” and “World Music” sections of CD stores.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)