Thomas Merton, Paul VI, and reform—liturgical and otherwise

It is no surprise when a traditionally minded Catholic criticizes the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council. The reformers, particularly those in Annibale Bugnini’s circle, seemed to view the immemorial tradition of the Roman Rite as a burden to be lightened and an obstacle to be overcome, not a precious part of the faith of the Church to be protected and preserved. One expects to see defenders of the pure, apostolic faith—such as the great Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, the tragic hero of the Second Vatican Council—express reservations of the gravest sort about liturgical reform. It is, however, a surprise when someone not ordinarily considered a traditionally minded Catholic does so.

We were, therefore, surprised when we read Bellarmine University theologian Greg Hillis’s lengthy article about Thomas Merton’s reaction to the breakneck liturgical reforms of the 1960s. Indeed, Hillis’s piece has gotten some coverage from sources that probably do not follow him—or matters Merton—all that closely. He begins:

Alone in his hermitage on 22 September 1967 – a little over one year before his untimely death – Thomas Merton decided to make a recording. Because severe dermatitis in his hands hampered his ability to write, Merton used a tape recorder to dictate various things for a monk down at the monastery to type.

On occasion, however, he used the recorder for his own purposes, and on this day Merton recorded himself chanting in Latin the entirety of the Cistercian mass for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.

His journal entry for the day gives no clue as to why he did this, nor does he explain himself on the tape. But as one listens to Merton chant a liturgy with which he was deeply familiar after more than 25 years as a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, one hears his love for the traditional liturgy, both in the brief explanations he provides about certain parts of the liturgy as well as in the passion with which he sings it.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is, of course, hugely interesting on its own. Merton is known primarily as a hermit, mystic, and writer. (That’s how we know him, at any rate.) His spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, is a classic of its kind. One is surprised, therefore, to hear that Merton took an opportunity to sing the traditional Cistercian Mass apparently simply for posterity’s sake. However, as Hillis explains, Merton’s attitudes on the liturgy and liturgical reform were complicated. While a supporter of some reform, Merton had reservations about the way the reform was carried out and what the reform entailed. In this regard, as we’ll see in a minute, he reminds us of Pope Paul himself. And we think—we’ll come back to this—that there is a lesson here for this moment in the life of the Church.

Hillis goes on to tell us that Merton was enthusiastic, in some regards, about Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s decree on the liturgy, and the liturgical reforms that followed the Council. Merton died in 1968, so he would have known the reforms of Inter Oecumenici best. Tres abhinc annos was issued in May 1967, coming into effect about a month later. Thus, one may say that Merton was spared the most radical revisions to the Roman Rite and knew primarily the modest-in-comparison (though not particularly modest in objective terms) reforms of Inter Oecumenici. At any rate, Merton plainly was in sympathy with some of the motivating intentions of the reforms. Indeed,

According to Merton, the laity have become in some cases little more than spectators, detached from the liturgy and detached from one another, and because of this, the Eucharist as a sacrament of unity rooted in communion is lost. Hence Merton’s enthusiasm for the emphasis in Sacrosanctum Concilium on greater participation of laity in the liturgy: “The nature of the liturgy is such that if you don’t have everyone fully participating in it, you don’t have fully liturgical worship.”

Reform of the liturgy necessitates the full, conscious and active participation of the laity, for it is only through this that the true nature of the church is manifested in and through the liturgy. Whereas the Council of Trent emphasized Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and in the priest, Sacrosanctum Concilium completes the picture by emphasizing Christ’s presence in the communion of the faithful, a communion manifested in the union of all in the work of prayer and worship.

(Emphasis supplied.) Nevertheless, Merton understood that the problem—if it was a problem, and that itself remains a debatable and debated proposition—with the liturgy was not a problem with the Roman Rite itself, but a problem with the spirit in which the liturgy was performed. It is true, as Hillis demonstrates, Merton thought a spirit of openness and participation was needed. However, according to Hillis, Merton’s example of a liturgy motivated by a spirit of openness and full participation was a 1938 Mass he heard at Corpus Christi in New York City:

Interestingly, when Merton describes concretely what this kind of liturgy could look like, he appeals not to the new but to the old, pointing specifically to his experience of the liturgy at Corpus Christi parish in New York City in 1938. In this essay, he writes that it was in no small part because of the liturgy at Corpus Christi that he became a Catholic, a monk and a priest. What was it about the liturgy at Corpus Christi that set it apart?

“Corpus Christi had the same Roman liturgy as everyone else in 1938. It was just the familiar Mass that is now being radically reformed. There was nothing new or revolutionary about it; only that everything was well done, not out of aestheticism or rubrical obsessiveness, but out of love for God and His truth. It would certainly be ingratitude of me if I did not remember the atmosphere of joy, light, and at least relative openness and spontaneity that filled Corpus Christi at solemn High Mass.”

Merton tries here to steer a middle course between those calling for total reform with little regard for the tradition and those refusing to countenance reform of the old. There was, Merton writes, nothing of the new in the traditional Latin High Mass Merton experienced at Corpus Christi, but neither was the liturgy celebrated in order to be beautiful or out of slavish adherence to the rubrics. It was open, spontaneous, and beautiful because it was performed out of love.

(Emphasis supplied and slightly reformatted.) Of course, the tension between liturgy celebrated well to honor God and mere adherence to the rubrics is nothing new to traditionally minded Catholics. Indeed, Fr. Adrian Fortescue expressed—in very sharp terms—nothing but contempt for liturgists whose lives were consumed with minute study of rubrics and responsa ad dubia from Rome. Of course, we might quibble and suggest that the arid, legalistic, technically correct Mass—a frequent caricature of the 1950s and 1960s—was not nearly so widespread as portrayed by supporters of the reform, not least since these spiritually unprofitable Masses were fantastically well attended. People don’t tend to go to Masses that do not provide some spiritual sustenance; just ask the finance councils of all the hip parishes known for their hip liturgies. (Provided they haven’t been “reorganized” out of existence. Yet.)

But, throughout all this, Merton deplored the unseemly haste with which supporters of the reform discarded the ancient forms of the Roman Rite—especially Latin and Gregorian chant. He wrote once, “The monks cannot understand the treasure they possess, and they throw it out to look for something else, when seculars, who for the most part are not even Christians, are able to love this incomparable art.” (Emphasis supplied.) And Merton understood that imprudent reforms would produce a terrible result. To a Carthusian, Merton wrote, in a spirit that seems not far removed from true prophecy, “I am very much afraid that when all the dust clears we will be left with no better than we deserve, a rather silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date series of liturgical forms that have lost the dignity and the meaning of the old ones.” (Emphasis supplied.) In other words, Merton, despite his enthusiasm for “openness” and authentic participation, understood that the liturgical patrimony of the Church was, so far from a burden and an obstacle, “a treasure” of tremendous spiritual value.

However, Merton was far from alone in expressing both enthusiasm for reform and a sense that something irreplaceable was being lost in the process of the reform. We are particularly reminded of Paul VI’s famous comments in his general audience of November 26, 1969, in which he expressed, with seemingly great regret, just what ditching Latin would mean for the Roman Rite:

 The other reason for the reform is this renewal of prayer. It is aimed at associating the assembly of the faithful more closely and more effectively with the official rite, that of the Word and that of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, that constitutes the Mass. For the faithful are also invested with the “royal priesthood”; that is, they are qualified to have supernatural conversation with God.

It is here that the greatest newness is going to be noticed, the newness of language. No longer Latin, but the spoken language will be the principal language of the Mass. The introduction of the vernacular will certainly be a great sacrifice for those who know the beauty, the power and the expressive sacrality of Latin. We are parting with the speech of the Christian centuries; we are becoming like profane intruders in the literary preserve of sacred utterance. We will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant.

We have reason indeed for regret, reason almost for bewilderment. What can we put in the place of that language of the angels? We are giving up something of priceless worth. But why? What is more precious than these loftiest of our Church’s values? 

The answer will seem banal, prosaic. Yet it is a good answer, because it is human, because it is apostolic.

(Emphasis supplied.) We are also reminded of Paul’s 1966 Apostolic Letter to religious bound to the choral recitation of the Divine Office, Sacrificium laudis:

Yet, from letters which some of you have sent, and from many other sources, We learn that discordant practices have been introduced into the sacred liturgy by your communities or provinces (We speak of those only that belong to the Latin Rite.) For while some are very faithful to the Latin language, others wish to use the vernacular within the choral office. Others, in various places, wish to exchange that chant which is called ‘Gregorian’, for newly-minted melodies. Indeed, some even insist that Latin should be wholly suppressed.

We must acknowledge that We have been somewhat disturbed and saddened by these requests. One may well wonder what the origin is of this new way of thinking and this sudden dislike for the past; one may well wonder why these things have been fostered.


Yet those things that We have mentioned are occurring even though the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council has after due deliberation declared its mind in solemn fashion (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 101,1), and after the publication of clear norms in subsequent Instructions. In the first Instruction (ad exsecutionem Constitutionis de sacra Liturgia recte ordinandam), published on 26th September, 1964, it was decreed as follows: In celebrating the divine office in choir, clerics are bound to preserve the Latin language (n. 85). In the second Instruction (de lingua in celebrandis Officio divino et Missa “conventuali” aut “communitatis” apud Religiosos adhibenda), published on the 23rd November, 1965, that law was reinforced, and at the same time due consideration was shown for the spiritual advantage of the faithful and for the special conditions which prevail in missionary territories. Therefore, for as long as no other lawful provision is made, these laws are in force and require the obedience in which religious must excel, as dear sons of holy Church.

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlink added.) It is extraordinary to read Paul’s statements, knowing that the root-and-branch destruction of the Roman Rite was carried out in his name. We are, of course, well aware of the story that Bugnini told him that Consilium wanted all these changes and the Consilium that Paul wanted the changes. We are also aware of the story about the Octave of Pentecost. But we are no less aware that, as archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Montini gave an intervention at the Council on October 22, 1962 on the schema De Sacra Liturgia, which would become Sacrosanctum Concilium. (The intervention may be found in the Acta Synodalia I.313–16.) His whole intervention is worth reading, not least because it seems to reflect a certain enthusiasm on his part for liturgical reform. Thus, we are not always sure that he was an unwilling participant in Bugnini’s schemes, but we will leave that for his biographers.

We bring it up only to note that Merton was far from alone in this ambivalence about liturgical reform. No less a reformer than Paul VI had reservations about not only the way the reforms were being carried out but also what was being lost in the reforms. One doubts very much whether Father Merton and Papa Montini, so to speak, were alone in their sentiments. Yet, the reforms occurred all the same. And this is perhaps a salubrious lesson for this moment in the life of the Church. It may even be the essential lesson for this moment in the life of the Church. A sense that something is not quite right or that the price for something is too high to pay—even if it is shared by figures as different as the Supreme Pontiff and a Kentucky hermit—is not enough to stop reform if the experts have determined that reform is necessary. More, it seems, is needed. Otherwise, the experts will implement the reform they want and leave the faithful to catch up.