Semper Reformanda: Always reforming

By Sharon Boyd, 28 June 2019


Drawing upon the insights of St Augustine and other theologians, Hans Küng, a pre-eminent Catholic theologian of our day, referred to the Church using the phrase ‘always to be reformed’—semper reformanda. This concept was absorbed into the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, but what on earth does it mean?

Semper reformanda does not mean that the Church must be forever changing to satisfy the present culture; on the contrary, it means that the Church is always in need of renewal according to Scripture (and Tradition) to maintain purity, because it is made of people, imperfect people. Semper reformanda calls the Church to change, to repent, to heal, so that it can grow—grow in Christ, faithful to our baptismal promises, the promises that we renewed again this Easter. Semper reformanda challenges the Church to speak to the signs of the times, maintaining cultural currency and relevance, and remaining ‘forever young’. To stay faithful to Christ we must be changing, growing—always reforming in the spirit of the Gospel. The alternative is to calcify into lifeless rigidity.

To grow is to change; and yet many people are uncomfortable with change and resist it, while others rail against it. Uncertainty can provoke a lot of fervent emotions. In the 54 years since the close of Vatican II, one aspect of the Church’s life that has undergone substantial reform and renewal has been the worship of the Church, its liturgy.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), states:

In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.

In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community. (§21)

In my youth, I thought everything at Mass was just as it had been since the Last Supper. I was, of course, wrong. Just because ‘that is the way it has always been done’ in my time, does not mean that is how it has always been celebrated in the long history of Christian worship.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy explains that ‘the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community’ (§37), and that ‘Provisions shall also be made, when revising the liturgical books, for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved; and this should be borne in mind when drawing up the rites and devising rubrics’ (§38). These paragraphs envision the possibility of significant adaptation of Catholic worship to particular cultures, while at the same time retaining ‘substantial unity’.

Since Vatican II there has been a lot of renewal in the liturgy itself and its theological understanding. For something to be alive means it must move and change. Among other liturgical changes, the Church has moved from the use of Latin to the vernacular, making the liturgy accessible to a new level that fosters full, active and conscious participation (SC§14). Translating all of the ritual books in such a short space of time was no easy feat, and those presented with the challenge of translation were embarking on a task that had not been undertaken in the Church for many centuries. In the first round of translating the liturgical texts of the Church, experts followed the principles of the document Comme le prévoit (1969). Just as the Church and its worship is always changing, however, so too are theories of translation.

In 2011, Australia along with 10 other English-speaking countries adopted a new translation of the Roman Missal completed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). This translation was according to the principles set forth in another Church document Liturgiam authenticam (2001), which required a stricter adherence and formal equivalence to the Latin text.

The ‘General Instruction’ that introduces and explains the Roman Missal speaks of the benefit of Communion under both species: partaking of the Blood of Christ from the chalice along with his Body in the host. The post Vatican II Missal also provides more choices when it comes to the Eucharistic Prayer we use at Mass, including options for reconciliation and various needs.

The post-Vatican II Roman Martyrology is another massive project that corrected and updated the calendar of Catholic saints. Not only does it separate fact from fiction in the lives of the martyrs and saints, but it is also in sync with the Liturgy of the Hours. It gives us a new opportunity to rediscover the communion of the saints. Already this publication is out of date as the Church continues to beatify and canonise new saints. God is always raising up new saints to help us in our own challenging times; was there ever an easy time in the life of a Christian or of the Church? I doubt it; saints help us on our journey to ‘put on Christ’.

Last year Óscar Romero was canonised and this year the cause of Venerable Carlo Acutis continues to be investigated. Carlo died in 2006 at the age of fifteen. Born in London to Italian parents, Carlo was raised in Milan; he had exceptional computer skills along with a strong devotion to the Eucharist and developed a website focussed upon Eucharistic miracles, which later led to an international exhibition. Carlos loved God as a child and this deep love never left him as an adolescent; he was a typical teenager who enjoyed school and friends, and when diagnosed with leukaemia, he offered his suffering for Pope Benedict and the Church. As part of the process towards canonisation, Carlos’ body was exhumed in January of this year and is reported to be incorrupt, a sign of holiness. In speaking to youth recently (Christus Vivit §§104–106), Pope Francis shared how Carlo used the Internet brilliantly and creatively and was not seduced by its dark side. Carlo could turn out to be the saint for computer geeks!

Change is inevitable with the Church’s life and worship because liturgy is about life and to be alive means to change. Semper reformanda is not about change for the sake of change—it keeps us focussed on Christ and keeps the Church on its toes and ‘forever young’.

Sharon Boyd, MA is Professional Specialist, Liturgy Education for the ACU Centre for Liturgy.

With thanks to Melbourne Catholic Magazine and the Archdiocese of Melbourne.


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