The Reform of Holy Week in the Years 1951-1956

The Reform of Holy Week in the Years 1951-1956: A translation of the study by Fr. Stefano Carusi IBP

[From the archives; hat-tip to gpmtrad: “I’d bet that, unless he has studied the scholarly work of Canon Hesse, the average “trad” has little or no knowledge of the fact that the liturgical revolution began under HH Pius XII. The changes that Bugnini ( a Pius XII “golden boy” ) wrought were devastating and all of this happened before Vatican II.”]

Rorate Caeli
Posted by CA at 7/25/2010

After many delays, Rorate Caeli presents the following translation of Fr. Stefano Carusi’s work on the reform of Holy Week under Pope Pius XII. This translation is the work of a U.S.-based priest who had spent much time in Rome and who wishes to remain anonymous. [UPDATE November 2, 2010: the translator has given permission for his name to be appended to this post: he is Fr. Charles W. Johnson, a U.S. military chaplain.]

The text has been scrupulously translated, but the formatting has been changed slightly by turning the bullet points in the original Italian text into numbers typed in boldface.
This text is posted with the intention of encouraging civil and constructive discussions on the roots of the liturgical reform. Rorate does not take the view that important theological and liturgical disputes even within the Traditional Catholic world ought to be swept under the rug. CAP.

From Disputationes Theologicae:


by Stefano Carusi

“It was felt necessary to revise and enrich the formulae of the Roman Missal. The first stage of such a reform was the work of Our Predecessor Pius XII with the reform of the Easter Vigil and the rites of Holy Week (1), which constituted the first step in the adaptation of the Roman Missal to the contemporary way of thinking”
(Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum, April 3, 1969)


In the course of recent years, the publication of numerous studies concerning the history of the theological and liturgical debate of the 1950’s has cast new light on the formation and the intentions (which were not always openly declared at the time) of those who were the actual composers of certain texts.

As regards the work of the reform of Holy Week in 1955 and 1956, it is desirable to consider the declarations, finally made public now, of the well-known Lazarist Annibale Bugnini, and of his close collaborator and later secretary of the “Consilium ad reformandam liturgiam” Father Carlo Braga, and of the future-Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli, in order to establish whether or not their work of liturgical reform corresponds to a wider theological project and in order to analyze the validity of the criteria used and then reproposed in the reforms that followed. We shall consider the notes and minutes of the discussions of the preparatory commission, preserved mainly in the archives of the Congregation of Rites and recently published in the monumental work of the liturgical historian Msgr. Nicola Giampietro, which testify to the tenor of the debate.
In October of 1949 at the Congregation of Rites, a liturgical commission was named which would have as its object the Roman rite. (Actually, the commission was named on May 28, 1948, while the constitutive meeting of the commission was held on June 22 of the same year. See Fr. Thomas Richstatter’s “Liturgical Law: New Style, New Spirit”, Franciscan Herald Press 1977, p. 182. CAP.) It was to study whether eventual reforms should be adopted; unfortunately, the calm necessary for such a work was not possible on account of the continual requests by the French and German episcopates demanding immediate changes with the greatest and most precipitous haste. The Congregation of Rites and the Commission considered themselves bound to treat the question of the horarium of Holy Week in order to circumvent the imaginative creations of certain “autonomous celebrations,” especially in regard to the Vigil of Holy Saturday. In this context, it was necessary to approve “ad experimentum” a document that permitted the evening celebration of the rite of Holy Saturday, i.e. the “Ordo Sabbati Sancti” [“The Order of Holy Saturday”] of January 9, 1951. (2) In the years 1948-1949, the Commission was erected under the presidency of its Cardinal Prefect Clemente Micara, replaced in 1953 by Cardinal Gaetano Cicognani; also present were Msgr. Alfonso Carinci, Fathers Joseph Löw, Alfonso Albareda, Agostino Bea, and Annibale Bugnini. In 1951 Msgr. Enrico Dante was added; in 1960, Msgr. Pietro Frutaz, Fr. Luigi Rovigatti, Msgr. Cesario d’Amato, and finally Fr. Carlo Braga. (3) This last-named was long a close collaborator of Annibale Bugnini; in 1955 and 1956, he participated in the work of the commission though not yet a member, and was moreover, along with the aforementioned Fr. Bugnini, the author of historical-critical and pastoral articles on Holy Week (5), which would eventually be revealed as “letters of transit,” so to speak, for the changes which followed.

The Commission worked in secret and under pressure from the central European episcopates (6), though it is not clear if their pressure was meant to intimidate or encourage the Commission. So great was the secrecy that the unexpected and sudden publication of the “Ordo Sabbati Sancti instaurati” [“On the Restored Rite of Holy Saturday”] on March 1, 1951, “came as a surprise to the very officials of the Congregation of Rites,” (7) as commission member Annibale Bugnini has stated. This same Fr. Bugnini informs us of the singular manner in which the results of the Commission’s work on Holy Week were conveyed to the Pope: the Pope “was kept informed by Msgr. Montini as well as weekly by Fr. Bea, Pius XII’s confessor. Thanks to this link, notable results could be achieved even in the period when the Pope’s illness prevented anyone else from approaching him.” (8) The Pope was afflicted with a serious stomach malady that required a long convalescence; and so it was not the Cardinal Prefect of Rites, in charge of the Commission, who kept him informed but then-Msgr. Montini and the future-Cardinal Bea, who was to have a great role in the reforms to follow.

The labors of the Commission were protracted until 1955, when, on Nov. 16, the decree “Maxima redemptionis nostrae mysteria” [“The Greatest Mysteries of Our Redemption”] was published, which was to take effect at Easter of the following year. The bishops received these novelties in various ways, and, beyond the façade of triumphalism, there were not lacking laments over the introduction of these innovations, and indeed requests began to multiply for permission to retain the traditional rites. (9) But by now the machine of liturgical reform had been set in motion and to halt it in its course would have proven impossible and moreover inadmissible, as the events to follow would demonstrate.

Despite the wish that the liturgists should sing, as it were, in unison—compounded by a certain monolithic attitude, which in the 1950’s was meant to show unity of purpose—authoritative voices were raised in dissent but promptly constrained to silence despite their competence. Such was the case not only for certain episcopates but also for certain liturgists, such as Léon Gromier, who, notable for his well-documented commentary on the Caeremoniale Episcoporum, (10) was also a consultor for the Congregation of Rites and a member of the Pontifical Academy of the Liturgy. In July of 1960 in Paris, in a celebrated conference, he spoke his mind [on all of this] in a heated but well-reasoned manner. (11) Pope John XXIII himself, in 1959, at the celebration of Good Friday at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme followed the traditional practices, thus making evident that he was not in agreement with the innovations recently introduced and that he recognized the experimental nature of those changes.

Certain reforms introduced experimentally in 1955 and 1956 were clearly inserted into the fabric of the ritual in a clumsy manner, so much so that they were easily corrected in the reform of 1969. But that topic deserves a separate treatment.

In order to sketch the importance of the reform of Holy Week, both liturgically and theologically, mention must be made of the commentary provided by two of the greatest protagonists of this event, so that the intentions of those who labored over this project might be brought into focus. Father Carlo Braga, the right arm of Annibale Bugnini and for years at the helm of the authoritative review Ephemerides Liturgicae, defined the reform of Holy Saturday in bold terms, calling it “the head of the battering-ram which pierced the fortress of our hitherto static liturgy.” (13) The future-Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli defined it thus in 1956: “the most important act in the history of the liturgy from St. Pius V until today.” (14)


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