The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
When a non-Catholic wanders into one of our churches during Mass, that’s their first question, right? “What in the world is going on here?” This reality has provided ample fodder for comics over the years. Ever heard of Larry the Cable Guy? (You never thought you’d hear his name mentioned at this workshop, did you?) Larry has a sketch where he talks about going with a friend to Mass…and not realizing he was in for an exercise routine: “Boy, you gotta be in shape to go there!” he says. “Down, up, sit down, stand up, do a shot, kneel back down, stand up…”
Pursuing a more sincere answer to that question has been known to provoke not belly-shaking laughter, but heart-changing conversion. Dr. Scott Hahn frequently tells a story from back when he was still a
rather anti-Catholic Presbyterian minister:
rather anti-Catholic Presbyterian minister:
…I quietly slipped into the basement chapel…. They were having a noon Mass and I had never gone to Mass before.… I sat down in the back pew. I didn't kneel. I didn't genuflect, I wouldn't stand. I was an observer; I was there to watch.… Then a bell rang and they all stood up and Mass began. I had never seen it before.… They read more Scripture, I thought, in a weekday Mass than we read in a Sunday service. …their prayers were soaked with Biblical language and phrases…. Wow! It's like the Bible coming to life and dancing out on the center stage and saying, “This is where I belong.”
“What in the world is going on here?”
I propose it was in an attempt to answer that very question that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council approved the very first of the Council’s 16 documents.
When most Catholics think of Vatican II, they think of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, solemnly promulgated on December 4, 1963—precisely 50 years ago today. Why? Well, for one thing, of all the conciliar documents, it made the most obvious difference in the average Catholic’s life: it brought about significant changes in the celebration of the Mass. Latin turned into English, the priest turned around at the altar, and choirs signing to the organ turned into folk groups strumming guitars…or, at least, that’s the common perception of what Vatican II did for the Church’s worship.
But the Constitution on the Liturgy stands out for other reasons, too. In many ways, it was programmatic of everything else the Council set out to accomplish. In other words, beyond liturgical reform, it revealed the Council’s wider agenda. In its very first paragraph, it announces to the Church and to the world that this Sacrosanctum Concilium—this “most sacred Council”—has set out:
(1) to reinvigorate the Catholic faithful in living the Christian life;
(2) to adapt those aspects of the Church which can be changed to the needs of the modern age;
(3) to promote greater unity among all who believe in Christ; and
(4) to call all mankind anew to enter the Church’s fold .
Clearly, that was quite an ambitious agenda!
Much like the previews shown before the feature film, The Constitution on the Liturgy also gives us
many hints of coming attractions from this Council:
many hints of coming attractions from this Council:
(1) it speaks repeatedly of the Church’s true and essential nature, as will the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium [2, 6-7];
(2) it speaks repeatedly of the Church as a sign lifted up among the nations, as will the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes [2, 9]; and
(3) it speaks repeatedly of the centrality of Sacred Tradition  and Sacred Scripture [24, 51], in the life of the Church, as will the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum.
Sacrosanctum Concilium is able to bear the burden of such weighty themes because its subject is the very summit toward which all of the Church’s activity is directed and the very source from which all her power flows: the Sacred Liturgy—in particular, the Most Holy Eucharist .
It could be tempting, of course, to assume that it was for such lofty reasons that this was the first document to be issued by Vatican II. But according to the recollections of an up-and-coming German theologian who assisted at the Council—a certain Fr. Joseph Ratzinger—the Bishops’ motivation was much more mundane: this was, by far, the least controversial subject on the table, and the preparatory work had been more carefully carried out. That’s not to say the text was without debate: discussion of the draft dragged on for three weeks, with more than 600 interventions by the Bishops, whether spoken from the floor or submitted in writing. But in the final voting, it passed by a landslide: 2,147 in favor, only 4 against.
To better understand where the Constitution on the Liturgy is coming from—and why it was approved by such a wide margin—I think a little background is helpful.
First, we need to be aware of the wider context of the Council itself. In contrast to the previous 20 ecumenical Councils recognized by Catholics, Vatican II was not convened in reaction to a particular crisis or attack on the Church—such as the Council of Trent following the Protestant Reformation. Instead, Blessed Pope John XXIII called the world’s Bishops to Rome with the intention of bringing the Church into dialogue with the modern world. The problem wasn’t that doctrine or discipline were being aggressively challenged by forces inside or outside the Church; the problem was that contemporary men and women were finding it increasingly difficult to see them as truly relevant to their daily lives. So the Council’s entire tone would be different from those of the past: focused less on dogma and rules for enforcement, and more on an appropriate pastoral response to the needs of the day.
That is to say, Vatican II wanted to make it easier for people—Catholics or otherwise—when they looked at the Church, to answer that probing question, “What in the world is going on here?”
Following the so-called “Age of Enlightenment” and the many violent revolutions it sparked, traditionally Christian regions of Europe found the Church and its influence becoming increasingly marginalized. Likewise, Catholic liturgy—for a variety of reasons—had been reduced, by and large, to minimal forms: something the priest did at the altar, with the assistance of a few altar boys at most, entirely in Latin (excepting the sermon…when there was one), while the faithful in attendance occupied themselves with other devotional practices—very few of them even regularly coming forward to receive Holy Communion. Something needed to be done to revive the faith, and it was believed—by a few hearty souls, anyway—that the best way to renew this Church was to renew her worship.
So, very quietly, a movement began—the Liturgical Movement. It started in France, but spread across the European continent and then to North America; it originated in monasteries, but gradually moved into parishes. Scholars dug deep into the history of the liturgy, hoping to recover its original vitality. The designs of church buildings, priestly vestments, and sacred vessels began to reflect their discoveries—returning to a noble simplicity after much baroque excess. The clergy were encouraged to go beyond a merely mechanical obedience of the rubrics—and the bare minimum required, at that—and appropriate the true spirit of the liturgy. And such a liturgical spirituality was promoted for the laity, as well—moving them from being passive spectators on the sidelines to being genuine participants: from praying at Mass to praying the Mass. It was believed that, by drawing people more deeply into the Sacred Mysteries, not only the Church but also culture and society at large could be transformed.
As the Liturgical Movement grew, it gained momentum, attention—and support at the highest level. Pope Leo XIII permitted missals to be printed in the vernacular, so that people could follow the texts of the Mass in their own language. Pope St. Pius X encouraged frequent reception of Holy Communion beginning at an early age, rather than what had become customary: just once a year; he also restored Gregorian chant—the native music of the Roman liturgy, meant to be sung by all, which had over time been replaced by devotional hymns or performance pieces sung by a choir. Pope Pius XI endorsed the “dialogue Mass,” during which the entire congregation responded to the prayers—not just the altar boys. And Pope Pius XII didn’t simply publish an entire encyclical—Mediator Dei—devoted to the liturgy, but put theory into practice by beginning the reform of the liturgies of Holy Week in the early 1950’s.
One hundred and fifty years of groundwork had been carefully laid before the world’s Bishops assembled at Vatican II.
Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us quite explicitly that its purpose is twofold: the promotion and restoration of the sacred liturgy [3, 14]. The liturgy—like the Church and like her Founder—is essentially both human and divine: made up of visible, physical elements which are directed toward and subordinate to invisible, spiritual realties [2, 7, 8]. Thus we have promotion: the Council calling the Church to look “under the hood,” if you will, of the liturgy—to become familiar with that which God is accomplishing unseen; to recognize at the deepest level “what in the world is really going on here.” And we also have restoration: taking the liturgy to the “body shop,” so as to make sure the rest of the vehicle—its sensible, tangible components—is truly worthy of its engine. The Constitution on the Liturgy’s intent is to assure that what is happening outwardly in the Church’s worship is a clear and faithful expression of “what is going on” deep within her.
Promotion of the liturgy—“getting inside of it”—was the chief preoccupation of the Liturgical Movement, and is (no surprise) the chief preoccupation of this document, too.
The Council Fathers remind us that the Apostles, sent forth by Christ, didn’t just preach about his Death and Resurrection: the Word continued to become flesh, as it where, when those who believed were Baptized and broke the bread of the Lord’s Supper . And each new generation of believers has gone out to the world with more than a spoken message of Good News, but with the living and active presence of him who is the source, center, and substance of that Gospel. Sacrosanctum Concilium highlights four modes in which Christ is present in the Church’s liturgy:
(1) Christ is present, first and foremost, in the Mass—in the person of the priest and, above all, in the sacred species of the Most Holy Eucharist;
(2) Christ is present in the celebration of the other sacraments;
(3) Christ is present when the Scriptures are proclaimed; and
(4) Christ is present when the Church gathers to sing and pray in his name .
Because Jesus Christ is one Body with his bride, the Church—his presence permeating her so intimately and completely—the Head and members cannot act apart from one another. Accordingly, under signs that can be seen and heard, touched and tasted, and—yes—even smelled, the world’s salvation and sanctification—the fruit of the dying and rising of the Son of God—continues to be worked out in the liturgy. While it is not the whole of her activity , nonetheless no other action of the Church can equal it . The spiritual life of the faithful is certainly not limited to the liturgy ; however, all true devotion must necessarily be in harmony with it .
In order for the liturgy to be effective—for this unseen presence to change the world we can see—it is crucial for us to be properly disposed: that we be aware of what we’re doing; that our minds be in tune with our voices; that we be engaged in and enriched by the ritual action; that we cooperate with heavenly grace, lest we receive it in vain . If Christ is really and truly present in the liturgy, then—by golly—we need to be really and truly present, too. Therefore—in what are probably the most powerful words of the entire Constitution—“Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people…have a right and obligation…” . Participation! Whether as a noun or a verb, the word shows up 28 times. We, the baptized, are duty-bound to take part—to involve ourselves—in the liturgy in a manner that is:
(1) full: engaging the whole person—both bodily and spiritually, inside and out;
(2) conscious: knowing (as best we’re able) just what it is that we’re doing; and
“Active” here requires some extra explanation. The original Latin expression is “participatio actuosa.” It usually gets translated as “active participation,” which is generally taken to mean engaging people through songs, responses, gestures, or any number of ministries; it puts the accent on giving people something to do. But such an understanding is only partly right. A more accurate translation—although, admittedly, its sounds poor in English—is “actual participation,” which sets a much higher standard: engaging not just people’s bodies, but their minds, their hearts, and their wills, as well; it’s not so much about getting folks to do something, as it is getting folks to allow Christ to act—to do something—through, with and in them. That really raises the bar! It’s essential—we’re told—that the Church’s pastors be properly trained, making sure that they understand this, because fostering this sort of participation is one of their chief responsibilities [14-19]. The Council is calling Catholics at every level to be completely awake to “what in the world is going on here.”
So much for looking “under the hood”! Now that we know the liturgy isn’t a model straight out of the Flintstones (one we have to power ourselves), but instead has an engine all souped-up and turbo-charged by the presence and action of Christ, it’s time to see what shape the rest of the vehicle is in.
Before getting into the specific bodywork the Bishops have in mind—about changes to be made in the liturgy, particularly the Mass—Sacrosanctum Concilium lays down some ground rules.
(1) The liturgy is made up of both unchangeable elements and elements which can be—maybe even ought to be—changed. It’s absolutely crucial to recognize the difference . Which is why…
(2) …the liturgy is regulated by the Church’s highest authority: the Pope and, in certain cases, the Bishops. Nobody, not nobody (and, for some reason, it singles out us priests) is to tinker with it on his own . Which is meant to guarantee that…
(3) …any changes to the liturgy are in line with the Church’s Tradition. While this restoration ought to take into account contemporary experience, changes must be preceded by careful study, organically flow from existing forms, and be made only if the good of the Church requires it . And in the Church’s Tradition, few things are more important than…
(4) Sacred Scripture, which has a central part to play in the liturgy. If we’re going to promote and restore the liturgy, then we must do so loving the Scriptures .
(5) The liturgy is both hierarchical and communal. Changes must make it clear that liturgical rites are never private functions but the celebration of the whole Church. Each person, whether clergy or lay, ought to be fully engaged in his or her proper role…but in only that role [26-32]. (In other words, be sure you’re doing your job, and don’t go trying to take anybody else’s.)
(6) The liturgy is both instructive and pastoral. In the liturgy, God speaks to his people and his people respond . In order to make sure that this communication is clear…
a. when it comes to rituals: they should be marked by a noble simplicity, and not be so complicated that they cannot be easily understood ;
b. when it comes to texts: the Scriptures should be read more, preaching should be improved, and appropriate liturgical instruction should be provided ; and
c. when it comes to language: Latin is still the first choice and is to be preserved…but local languages have a valuable place .
(7) The liturgy can and even should be adapted to the temperaments and traditions of particular peoples. This expressed a concern especially for mission lands. Local customs could be incorporated, as long as “substantial unity” was preserved with the rest of the Church [37-40]. In other words: there’s a way for the liturgy to be both properly Roman and truly “Catholic” (universal).
(8) The liturgy of the Bishop—surrounded by his priests and people—in his cathedral is the principle manifestation of the local Church, and therefore must be held in highest esteem. But since the Bishop can’t be everywhere (although ours seems to be trying to prove otherwise), the liturgical life of the parish is also of great importance. For this reason, national and diocesan commissions on liturgy and sacred art should be established to promote the needed renewal [41-46].
From these general principles, the Council Fathers move on to specific reforms. Here’s where the “rubber hits the road.” They begin at the top, with the Mass, outlining nine concrete mandates:
(1) that the rites of the Mass be simplified by removing unnecessary repetitions and bringing back unfortunate losses, all the while preserving their substance ;
(2) that more of the Bible be read at Mass, and the readings be arranged in a cycle laid out over several years ;
(3) that the homily be seen as an essential part of the Mass, be more carefully prepared, and be omitted only for serious reasons ;
(4) that the Prayer of the Faithful be restored after disappearing many centuries before ;
(5) that local languages may be used for the readings, the Prayer of the Faithful, and the people’s parts…but folks still ought to know these parts in Latin, too ;
(6) that it’s preferable for people to receive Hosts consecrated at the same Mass they’re attending, rather than from a previous one ;
(7) that Holy Communion may be distributed under both kinds on a few special occasions ;
(8) that people be helped to understand that the Mass is composed of two parts—the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist—and that they really should be there for both ; and
(9) that concelebration—multiple priests offering one and the same Mass—be permitted .
Nothing too earth shattering in that list! In fact, what’s surprising 50 years later is all that is not there. There’s nothing about turning the altar around or strumming on guitars. The door is opened to allowing English at Mass…but alongside Latin, not instead of it. There’s no mention of moving the tabernacle or Communion in the hand. Such changes—and their associated controversies—would come a little farther down the line: after the Council, as a result of things this Constitution set in motion or how it was being interpreted.
Sacrosanctum Concilium continues for several more chapters, doing for the rest of the liturgy—for the other sacraments and sacramentals [59-82], for the Divine Office [83-101], for the calendar of seasons and saints [102-111], for sacred music [112-121], art, and furnishings [122-130]—what it did for the Mass: restorations far too numerous to be discussed now, and all of them intended to help us have a better sense of “what is going on here.”
At the 50 year mark, many people are rejoicing—and rightly so. Look how far we’ve come! When a half-century ago we had only altar boys, ushers, and a choir…now we’ve got permanent deacons, Readers and extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, greeters, art and environment committees. New liturgical music—praise God, of increasing quality—is being published all the time. We’ve seen a lot of changes, and a lot of it has been good.
But this optimism must also be tempered by an honest examination of conscience. Because if the founders of the Liturgical Movement—people holy, learned, and wise—believed that the best way to renew the Church was to renew her worship, then why aren’t our pews overflowing?
One reason might be the law of unintended consequences—things you don’t have to be a scholar to recognize and lament. In the desire to simplify the rites of the Church and make them more accessible, some symbols have been minimized or even lost. (Catholics used to be known for “smells and bells”; now many parishes lack both.) Not wanting to be preoccupied with details, reverent ceremonial has given way to a rather casual—sometimes even sloppy—approach: one which fails to point to these as truly “sacred mysteries.” (Every few weeks, I see a letter to the editor in the Plattsburgh Press Republican, complaining that altar servers are misbehaving…“not—I tell you—like my sons back in the day.”) Openings for creativity and adaptation have left some congregations subject to the changing whims and fancies of individuals (usually their pastors), committees, or the latest trend promoted by the “experts”; meant to include more of the faithful, this has generally alienated (or at least confused) a greater number than it involved. (I know of a community where Catholics celebrate Advent in purple at one end of town and in blue at the other.) And moving the celebrant to the other side of the altar has put more focus on the priest—his person and personality—not less. There can be no mistaking any of this for renewal.
But I think our real difficulty is far more elementary than all that. I think that we got so very busy restoring the liturgy, that we failed to really promote it. So much time and energy was invested in hubcaps and hood ornaments, racing stripes and fuzzy dice—whether stripping off the old ones or putting on new ones—that we neglected to pay much mind to what was going on under the hood. And, in the end, what a vehicle looks like pales in importance when compared to whether or not it will take you where you hope to go. If we don’t know what we’re celebrating—better yet, if we don’t know who we’re celebrating—then how can we ever know how we ought to celebrate it?
Exactly 50 years ago, the Second Vatican Council promulgated a document that brought about very noticeable changes in the way Catholics worship. With the urgent needs of the New Evangelization, I think we’d do well to spend the next 50 years focused less on Sacrosanctum Concilium’s mandate of restoration, and more on its call to promotion of the liturgy. When anguished parishioners speak to me of family members or friends who no longer practice the faith or have left the Church altogether, they often ask, “But how could they walk away from the Eucharist?” I think the more pressing question is, “Did they ever really understand it? Did they have any good idea what in the world is going on here?”
The liturgy—like the Church to which it has been entrusted—is a living organism. Living things change. With the proper care, they flourish and grow; neglected, they wither and decay. Regardless, they will change. And the only time they will stop changing is when they have died. In this living, changing relationship between the Church and her worship, it is critical that we remember: it’s not so much that Christians make (and remake) the liturgy, as that the liturgy makes (and remakes) Christians.
The first document of the Second Vatican Council sought to reinvigorate—to give new vitality, to bring new life to—the Church by promoting and restoring her liturgy. To that I say a hearty, “Amen! May it be so!”