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Dialogue Mass - XLIII

The Holy Week Reform Paved the Way
for the Reform of the Mass

Dr. Carol Byrne, Great Britain
In this article we will look at the manner in which ancient principles of the traditional Holy Week liturgy were sacrificed on the altar of Progressivism, and reflect on the tragic fact that Pius XII made this destructive agenda the basis of binding juridical norms for the whole Roman Rite.

Night of the long knives

This was accomplished on November 16, 1955, with the Decree Maxima Redemptionis. The members of Pius XII’s Liturgical Commission used the “lingchi” (1) strategy – a slow slicing rather than a single fatal blow, also known as “death by a thousand cuts” – in their concerted attack on the traditional Holy Week rites.

pius XiI

His reforms paved the way for the Vatican II revolution

The reformers started by lopping off “medieval accretions” whether textual, ritual or ceremonial, topping and tailing the preparatory and concluding prayers of the Mass, paring to the bone the prayers of blessing, excising most of the Scriptural readings, gouging holes here and there in the ancient custom of the Roman Rite and generally butchering the coherence of the whole.

From 1951 to 1955, the Holy Week ceremonies were subjected to cut after brutal cut, none of which was fatal in itself, until they were so attenuated that, like all lingchi victims, they scarcely resembled their former selves. This was the method by which those who were wielding the knives were attempting to prepare the faithful for the eventual abandonment of the traditional Mass.

It is of the greatest significance that the resulting Holy Week liturgy, which would later be incorporated into the 1962 Missal, was horribly dismembered and mutilated, its beauty disfigured, its dignity assailed, its order and structure wrecked, its own special identity transformed so as to appeal to modern man.

Connection between Holy Week reforms & Paul VI’s New Mass

Before moving on to examine these “cuts” in all their gory detail, we must pause to consider that they were merely the prelude to worse atrocities, for what happened to the liturgy in 1969, with the introduction of the Novus Ordo, plumbed new depths of barbarity. The same methods were used, largely by the same people who operated in the Holy Week reform, but were applied in stages, via the 1962 Missal, to the whole of the Church’s liturgy.


Msgr. Wagner in suit and tie at the time of the Council

This intention of the reformers was confirmed by the German liturgist, Mgr. Johannes Wagner, (2) Director of the Liturgical Institute of Trier. (3) Writing in 1959, he explained that the Holy Week reforms were the forerunner of the reform of the Mass itself:

“It has always been the desire of those working for a true renewal of the liturgy that it should, in its whole action, become meaningful again; a meaningful interplay or, better, combined action and interaction of many, where each has his own non-interchangeable, non-transferable contribution to make, his own part to play. The new order of Holy Week shows many tendencies in this direction… [this reform] would indeed be the beginning of the great renewal of the liturgy which the Church needs. God grant it!” (4) [emphasis added]

Leaving aside the inbuilt presumption of divine approval that has always been characteristic of the reformers, we cannot ignore the fact that Mgr. Wagner had some personal involvement in the Liturgical Movement industry. The Institute he directed was responsible for publishing militant propaganda in favor of the Holy Week reforms and for organizing Congresses in Germany and abroad for the same purpose. (5)

Where angels fear to tread (6)

As we have seen, these reformers called for, among other things, the elimination of much of the Roman Rite, the use of the vernacular and “active participation” by the people. The reformers rushed in where even angels fear to tread by proposing to change the Canon of the Mass.

It is evident that the reformers who patronized the Congresses simply used the gatherings as proverbial “fishing expeditions” to trawl for any information, however biased or spurious, they could later use as false evidence for the “need” to dismantle the Church’s ancient liturgy.

In order to assess the extent of the damage done by Bugnini’s men to the Holy Week ceremonies of the ancient Roman Rite, all we need is a pre-1955 Missal in one hand and a 1962 Missal (which contains the bulk of Pius XII’s reforms) in the other. A simple comparison will reveal the depredations of a progressivist culture twisting its knives deep into the entrails of the Church’s traditions. It will also serve to remind us that lingchi was not the sole preserve of the Chinese.

The blessing of palms on Palm Sunday

The first thing we notice in Pius XII’s reform (also in the 1962 Missal) is that the Asperges, which preceded every solemn Sunday celebration throughout the year, (7) has been dropped. The same applies to the prayers at the foot of the altar. (8)


Paul VI at the closing of the Council

Regrettable though that may be, the significance of their loss hardly registers on the scale of destruction wrought on the ancient and venerable rite of the Blessing of Palms that preceded the Mass. It is important to know that the rite of blessing and the Mass together formed a monolithic structure, which had remained solid and unchanged for many centuries; as such it was indivisible, an organized whole that exerted a powerful and influential force for spiritual good in the Church.

The destruction of the rite of blessing can be described, without exaggeration, as a total cliff face collapse of the traditional structure, as it was simply “scooped out” by the reformers. In the resulting landslide, as we shall see, many beautiful prayers and accompanying ceremonial, valued over the centuries for their power to move the soul and reinforce the Faith, were swept away.

How important was the traditional blessing of palms?

Dom Prosper Guéranger remarked with reference to this ceremony: “We may have an idea of its importance by the solemnity used by the Church in this sacred rite.” (9) No greater token of its importance could be given than to enshrine the Blessing of Palms in a rite that is closely modelled on that of the Mass itself.

The pre-1955 rite began at the altar, on which the palms were laid; the sequence of texts corresponded to the Introit, Collect, Epistle, Gradual, Gospel, Secret, Preface, Sanctus and Post-communion; the part of the rite corresponding to the Canon was filled with seven prayers of blessing of the palms, after which the clergy and the people would approach the altar, as they would at Communion time, to receive the blessed palms. This structure, with its obvious connection to the Holy Sacrifice, was abandoned by the 1955 Decree, thus turning overnight the traditional rite into a “museum piece”.

Now, let us examine why our forefathers in the Faith considered these Palm Sunday ceremonies of such great importance (and, by implication, why the 1955 reformers who abolished them did not).

Even the briefest survey of its prayers and ceremonies, which is all that can be attempted here, would suffice to show that they were valued for their theological content, their poetic beauty, their expressive symbolism and their ability to move the soul to enter, through contemplation, into the mystery of Christ’s Passion.

Their effect was enhanced when they were conducted against the backdrop of imposing architecture, magnificent vestments and the sublime strains of Gregorian chant. All of these elements combined to attract and edify both clergy and faithful for many centuries.

Theological content suppressed

The first casualty of the reform of the Blessing of Palms was the essential connection between the Passion of Christ and the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
  • Before 1955, the texts of the liturgy gave an overview of salvation history, starting with the events of the Old Testament when after the Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron God provided them with manna in the desert; those texts considered Christ’s entry into Jerusalem as a figure of His triumph, through His Passion, over sin and death. The analogy with the Eucharist is that God provides the Bread of Life on our altars through the Holy Sacrifice.

  • In the traditional rite, the Gospel of the Palm Sunday Mass included the institution of the Eucharist, but this was cut out in 1955, as it was in all the Passion readings of the reformed Holy Week.
Christ the King

Christ the King must rule over all nations

Secondly, Pius XII’s reform abolished the Preface, (10) which proclaimed Christ’s authority over all the “kings and powers of this world” and the consequent duty of temporal governments to be subservient to Christ the King. The elimination of this doctrine from the ancient rite can, at the very least, be regarded as an affront to Pius XII's immediate Predecessor who had promulgated the Encyclical Quas primas, on the Kingship of Christ, in 1925. In that Encyclical Pope Pius XI reaffirmed the unbroken teaching of previous Popes that nations as well as individuals must submit themselves to the rule of Christ the King.

Indeed, the significance of this omission goes way beyond the issue of “simplification” of the liturgy. It can be considered as the first step in the progressivists’ campaign to promote the sort of “religious liberty” that would later surface at Vatican II.

For, 10 years later, in December 1965, Dignitatis humanae, Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, also suppressed the traditional papal teaching on the social reign of Christ the King. With the promulgation of that Declaration Church leaders ceased to teach that all rulers and statesmen have an obligation to give public honor and obedience to Christ. This perennial teaching of the Magisterium was rejected by Vatican II in order to open the Church to the revolutionary principles of the modern world. (11)


  1. A particularly gruesome and sadistic form of execution used for centuries in China.
  2. Mgr. Johannes Wagner was an influential figure in the post-war German Liturgical Movement. He later became a member of Pope Paul VI’s Consilium, and was given the task of directing the work on the new Missal. He was also one of the select few liturgists on the Consilium who worked directly with Bugnini. (See Piero Marini, A Challenging Reform, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2007, p. 12) Other key collaborators on this project were the well known liturgists Jungmann, Jounel, Gy, Wagner, Vagaggini, Gélineau, Bouyer and McManus.
  3. This was set up in 1947 to promote liturgical reform in Germany through publications and organization of liturgical Congresses.
  4. Johannes Wagner, Postscript to Balthasar Fischer and Johannes Wagner (eds.), Paschatis Sollemnia. Studien zur Osterfeier und Osterfrommigkeit. Festschrift J. A. Jungmannzur Vollendung seines 70. Lebensjahres von Schülern u. Freunden dargeboten Freiburg, (Studies on the Easter Celebration and Piety. A Tribute to J. A. Jungmann for his 70th birthday, presented by pupils and friends), Herder, 1959. (See here), pp. 190-191
  5. In 1950 the Institute organized the first German Liturgical Congress at Frankfurt, in 1951 the First International Congress of Liturgical Studies at Maria Laach and in 1955 the second German Liturgical Congress at Munich. All put pressure on Pius XII for liturgical reforms, some of which were granted in his pontificate, the rest being only a matter of time before they materialized.
  6. A far-sighted and apt quotation from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1709):
      “No place so sacred from such fops is barr’d…
       Nay, fly to altars; there they’ll talk you dead;
       For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
  7. Except in Eastertide when it is replaced by another equally solemn ceremony, the Vidi aquam.
  8. Psalm 42, however, was not included in the pre-1955 prayers at the foot of the altar in Passiontide.
  9. P. Guéranger O.S.B., The Liturgical Year, Dublin: James Duffy, 1886, vol. 6, p. 195.
  10. Part of the Preface of the Blessing of Palms reads: “For Thee do Thy creatures serve, because they know Thee, their only author and God: and all the things that Thou hast made join in praising Thee; and Thy saints bless Thee, in that they confess with unfaltering voice before kings and powers of this world that great name, the name of Thine only-begotten Son.”
  11. The revolutionary principles of the modern world are now clearly apparent even in formerly Catholic countries today in the legalization of divorce, contraception, pornography, “gay marriage,” euthanasia and abortion. Under the protection of Vatican II’s repudiation of the reign of Christ the King over societies, an abortion clinic was opened in Rome during the papacy of Paul VI; he was reportedly upset, but could do nothing to prevent it without contradicting his own teaching on religious liberty and the separation of the Church and State. He can, thus, be said to have presided over the spiritual and corporal destruction of his flock in his own Diocese.


Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted January 3, 2017

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