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Issue Date:  December 28, 2007

-- CNS/Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

Pope Benedict XVI, flanked by Archbishop Piero Marini, celebrates Palm Sunday Mass at the foot toe the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the center of St. Peter's Square April 9, 2006.
Vatican champion of reform finds hope in liturgy


For most people, Archbishop Piero Marini is a face without a name. He’s routinely stopped at airports, restaurants and on the street, usually running into some variant of the same question: “I know I’ve seen you before. Who are you?”

For the record, Marini is that tall, silver-haired, imperturbable Italian cleric who was always at the side of Pope John Paul II, and later Benedict XVI, on Christmas, Easter and any other time the pope celebrated a liturgy in public. He served as the papal master of ceremonies for 20 years, from 1987 to 2007. In that capacity, the Italian state television service RAI estimates that Marini has been seen by more people around the world than virtually any other living figure -- even if the vast majority of them have no idea who he is.

-- CNS

Archbishop Marini

For Catholic insiders, on the other hand, Marini is anything but anonymous. From his position as the pope’s top liturgist, Marini served as the great champion of the reforming spirit in Catholic liturgy associated with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), making him a darling of church progressives and a bane of the traditional wing. After Joseph Ratzinger himself, though for decidedly different reasons, Marini may have been the most talked-about and dissected figure in the upper echelon of John Paul’s aides.

While Marini’s papal liturgies were always precise and deeply rooted in tradition, he would occasionally push the envelope. It was Marini, for example, who allowed an indigenous Mexican shaman to exorcise John Paul II during the canonization Mass for Juan Diego in Mexico City in 2002, and who permitted scantily clad Pacific islanders to dance for the pope during the opening liturgy of the Synod for Oceania in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1998 -- both under the rubric of “inculturation,” adapting the rites of the church to speak to the experience of local cultures. He also favors local decision-making over centralized Roman control. In fact, both of the envelope-pushing instances cited above originated with requests from local bishops.

For fans and critics alike, therefore, Marini’s Oct. 1 departure as master of ceremonies marked the end of an era. (Today Marini serves as president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses.)

This change in role has not signaled Marini’s disappearance as a force in liturgical debates, as witnessed by his new book, A Challenging Reform: Realizing the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal (Liturgical Press). Edited by three American liturgists, the book tells the story of the Consilium, the unique body created during Vatican II (and suppressed just a few years later) to oversee the implementation of the council’s decree on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

The Consilium was always an anomaly: it had no juridical authority of its own, yet at the peak of its influence it enjoyed virtually unchallenged sway over liturgical policy; it was led by a wide international assortment of bishops and liturgical experts, most of them not part of the Roman curia; and it consulted widely with bishops’ conferences, national liturgical organizations and publishers of liturgical texts, usually backing their views over opposition from the Vatican. Its crowning result was the Novus Ordo, the new Mass, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1969 to replace the Tridentine rite codified five centuries earlier.

A Challenging Reform was formally launched on Dec. 14 with a presentation in the throne room of the residence of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster, England. Plans call for presentations in Boston, Chicago, Notre Dame and New York in February.

NCR sat down for an extended interview with Marini on Dec. 15 in London. The following are excerpts from that interview; the full text can be found in the Special Documents section of

NCR : You’ve called on the church to “take up with enthusiasm the liturgical path traced by the council.”
Marini: First of all, it’s important that I spoke about a path, one that I believe is irreversible. I often think about the journey of the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament. It was a difficult journey, and sometimes the people became nostalgic for the past, for the onions and the melons of Egypt and so on. In other words, sometimes they wanted to go back. But the historical journey of the church is one which, by necessity, has to move forward. We’re in the liturgical season of Advent right now, which tells us that the Lord is in front of us, not behind us. If you want a lesson about the dangers of going back, I’ll limit myself to the woman from the Old Testament who turned around and became a pillar of salt.

What’s the essential content of this path?
We have to keep in mind two fundamental principles. First is the relationship with scripture, because in the liturgy we celebrate what’s contained in the Bible. That’s why the liturgical reform gave so much space to scripture. Second, we have to always be grounded in the church of the Fathers. ... I’m talking about the era of Augustine, Ambrose, the early period of the church.

Then, of course, there are the other elements emphasized by Vatican II. First of all, the priesthood of the faithful is something that we can’t afford to forget. Of course, we know that the Protestants thought they had “discovered” the priesthood of the faithful, because they saw that in the Bible the word “priest” referred only to Christ and to the holy people of God, not to the apostles. For that reason, the church of the Reformation rejected the idea of an institutional priesthood. The Catholic church naturally defended it, and created a liturgy, the Tridentine liturgy, which made a sharp distinction between the priest and the people of God. The liturgy became something priests do.

Vatican II helped us to rediscover the idea of the priesthood as something universal. The faithful don’t receive permission from priests to participate in the Mass. They are members of a priestly people, which means they have the right to participate in offering the sacrifice of the Mass. This was a great discovery, a great emphasis, of the council. We have to keep this in mind, because otherwise we run the risk of confusion about the nature of the liturgy, and for that matter, the church itself.

Your book creates the impression that you’re concerned about the current liturgical direction of the church, warning of a return to a “preconciliar mindset.”
I see a certain nostalgia for the past. What concerns me in particular is that this nostalgia seems especially strong among some young priests. How is it possible to be nostalgic for an era they didn’t experience? I remember this period. From the age of 6 until I was 23, in other words for 18 years, I lived with the Mass of Pius V. I grew up in this rite, and I was formed by it. I saw the necessity of the changes of Vatican II, and personally I don’t have any nostalgia for this older rite, because it was the same rite that had to be adapted to changing times. I don’t see any step backward, any loss.

Would you see Benedict XVI’s motu proprio of July 7, granting wider permission to celebrate the old Mass, as part of this nostalgia?
Look, I don’t really want to get into this subject. I’ll just make two points.

First, the pope said that he was motivated to issue the motu proprio out of a concern for unity. [Note: The reference is to the split following Vatican II involving followers of French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected the new Mass and other reforms.] In that sense, the basis of the motu proprio has a positive aspect. One has to respect the pope, who certainly has to keep this concern for unity close to his heart. Obviously I’m not in his position, and while I might have different ideas, as Catholics we must respect the role he plays.

Second, the pope himself wrote in the letter that accompanied the motu proprio that it takes nothing away from the authority of the Second Vatican Council. In the same way, the pope said that this is no way detracts from the validity of the liturgical reform. From my point of view, therefore, the motu proprio does not change the need to keep moving forward with renewal of the liturgy.

You’re probably aware that an English journalist has interpreted your book as an “attack” on the liturgical philosophy of Benedict XVI. Is he wrong?
As far as I’m concerned, he’s wrong. Obviously people are free to say what they want and to publish their opinions. Sometimes those opinions have a solid foundation, and sometimes they’re just gratuitous. In reality, this book was written well before the pope issued his motu proprio.

Your book tells the story of the Consilium, the organism created during the council for carrying forward the liturgical reform. You seem to suggest that the Consilium has an importance that transcends the liturgy, in that it offers a model of a different way for the Vatican to operate -- in your view, more collegial, more international, more open. Am I reading you correctly?
I’m in perfect agreement. What you’re talking about is the problem of the reform of the curia, which is the curia created after the Council of Trent. That council didn’t publish a document on the liturgy like Vatican II, but it left the pope the task of reforming the liturgy and reforming the church. In order to carry out this reform, the pope constituted the Roman congregations. Before the Council of Trent, the congregations didn’t exist. The church lived for more than 1,000 years without Roman congregations. How was it possible?

The congregations, such as the Congregation for Rites, were instituted by the pope in 1588 in order to deal with the various problems of the church -- but to do so in the spirit of Trent. Therefore, they had all the limitations of that era.

Today, after Vatican II, we now have, for example, national bishops’ conferences, which didn’t exist at the time of the Council of Trent. In my view, there’s a problem of adjusting the operation of the congregations to the new situation after the council.

While big changes may not be possible right now, personally I believe that eventually it will be necessary to return to the Consilium as an example of how to streamline the congregations, so that they’re not just organisms bound by certain rigid norms, but more flexible bodies for resolving the problems of the world of today. Among other things, the bishops should be more involved in the decisions that concern the church, including those that concern the liturgy. Precisely because the liturgy belongs to the whole church, before taking decisions it’s important to involve the bishops and the bishops’ conferences.

The same is true of the Synod of Bishops. As presently structured, it’s an office for creating documents and for giving the pope advice, but this was perhaps not the intention that Paul VI had when he created the Synod of Bishops. It’s a problem that remains open.

For those, such as yourself, most committed to liturgical reform, these can be difficult times, as you indicated a moment ago with respect to a growing nostalgia for the past. Where do you find hope?
Before anything else, hope lies in the past. We had an ecumenical council that, together with the pope, approved this document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, on the liturgy. They launched a movement which is irreversible, because the principles expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium are perennial. They aren’t principles bound to a certain historical period. The priesthood of the faithful, the primacy of scripture, the return to the church of the fathers, the possibility of adaptation in language and the other elements of the rites are permanently valid.

The other basis of hope is the liturgy itself, because celebrating the liturgy is itself the primordial source of renewal in the church. The more we succeed at celebrating the liturgy, the more we’ll live the Christian life fully and the more we’ll succeed in transforming the church.

The great ideals of the church are in crisis today in part because there’s a crisis in the liturgy. The great ideals of ecumenism, of internal reform of the church, of dialogue with the world, are all connected. The council wanted to confront these challenges beginning with the liturgy. If the liturgy is the source and summit of our life, then we foster in the liturgy the kind of life we need to meet these great goals.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2007

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