Part 1

The question of liturgical reform has become a constant one for Western Christians in the 20th century. Episcopalians in the United States have taken up the question of revising the 1979 prayer book — a text that has existed for less than 40 years. Roman Catholics continue to retranslate (although less drastically) texts of the marriage rite, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, infant baptism, confirmation, and the Liturgy of the Hours. There is a strong push among many Catholics for yet another retranslation of the editio typica of the Roman Missal (which we’ve been praying since 2011) — one that employs the philosophy of dynamic equivalence. Among others, there is a desire for a reform of the reform of the Second Vatican Council, one that restores some practices from the usus antiquor (popularly yet incorrectly called the Latin or Tridentine Mass) within today’s Roman Rite.

Liturgical innovation per se is not a unique feature of modernity. Students of medieval liturgy are aware that new texts, feast days, or sequences were often introduced into manuscripts. The unique feature of modernity is the self-awareness that exists among reformers of the raison d’être for such reform. Liturgical reform becomes a matter of carrying out a pastoral project globally, whether it includes updating the liturgy for “the contemporary person” or returning to more authentic ancient practice that sanctifies the imagination. There is a strategic vision behind such reform that becomes totalizing in scope. It’s not updating a text here or there but a revision of the underlying assumptions about the act of worship.

I am sympathetic to many dimensions of the need for liturgical reform, particularly within Roman Catholicism. I see problems with the reformed Lectionary, one that introduces a rich diet of Scriptures at the expense of repeating key texts. I likewise am not allergic to a rousing argument about the eschatological benefits of ad orientem worship. Lest I be excused of being a traditionalist, I also see serious problems with the current translation of the Roman Missal, particularly its collect prayers.


Nonetheless, the question that Christians today must ask about liturgical reform is more fundamental: why do our churches continually seek such reform? One must examine whether the desire for liturgical reform is a symptom of a modern malaise that seeks the kick that comes from constant novelty. Christians involved in such liturgical reform would be wise to attend to Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Bauman argues that modernity is best characterized as a liquid age, one in which structures dissolve as quickly as they are created. This hasty dissolution is made possible by the effect of speed (think about cars that travel at 75 mph rather than 15 mph) upon human consciousness. We can fight against limitations of space through the power of speed whereby we reconstruct our spaces with velocity. He writes:

Thanks to its newly acquired flexibility and expansiveness, modern time has become, first and foremost, the weapon in the conquest of space. In the modern struggle between time and space, space was the solid and stolid, unwieldy and inert side, capable of waging only a defensive, trench war — being an obstacle to the resilient advances of time. Time was the active and dynamic side in the battle, the side always on the offensive: the invading, conquering and colonizing force. Velocity of movement and access to faster means of mobility steadily arose in modern times to the position of the principal tool of power and domination.[1]

The digital revolution has only further developed this addiction to the instantaneous. The iPhone exists only to be replaced by a newer model that promises a further conquering of each human limitation. Novelty that allows for human beings to advance is what matters. Nothing that exists is permanent.

Such addiction to impermanence has an existential effect upon the human condition. We become used to moving from new thing to new thing. Nothing is solid. Everything must change.

The desire for liturgical reform may be part of this addiction to novelty. The structures of worship must change to deal with contemporary problems, whether secularization or the current needs of the modern person. The Church needs an approach to liturgical reform that is not liquid, dissolving forms too easily for the existential kick that comes with novelty. Liturgical prayer operates in the order of habituation, the gradual formation of Christians as they participate in prayer. When the order is changed again and again, this process of habituation is interrupted. One learns to expect from worship constant novelty. And the Church will not fulfill this kick as well as Apple or Hollywood.

The Church passes on a memory that is ancient. Our forebears, the communion of saints, have given us structures that promise the possibility of a human flourishing that we could not discover on our own. Liturgical reform, for this reason, should be approached with trepidation.

Yes, ancient practices should be retrieved over the course of time if they are salutary. Such retrieval should be gradual, not promising the constant newness that the liquid person desires. Through speedy reform, the Church will again and again be out of date, having to “reform” its liturgy and spiritual practices with each generation.

The liquidity of liturgical reform is a temptation for the modern person. As such, the work of liturgical renewal is not merely a matter of changing texts and rites around that speak more to the modern person. Instead, it is a deeper liturgical formation that allows the liquid person to fruitfully participate in a prayer that transforms the body into a living icon of divine love.


[1] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Polity, 2000), p. 9.

About The Author

Dr. Timothy P. O’Malley is academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life. He is a professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame specializing in liturgical-sacramental theology, theological aesthetics, and catechesis. He is the author of four books including most recently Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the R.C.I.AHe is currently working on a multi-volume history of liturgical formation beginning from St. Augustine of Hippo. Dr. O’Malley is married to Kara and has two children.

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