Yesterday, though, I was struck with a possible inspiration for the Saturday Sacrament site. This weekend marks a major bend in the road, so to speak, as for the past several months I have discussed the history of sacramental understanding and practice, on down to Pope Pius XII (d. 1958). Now it is time to look at “the changes” themselves, as people refer to the reforms of Catholic worship, i.e. the sacraments. It is interesting that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which provided the rationale and principles of Catholic worship reform, was one of the first decrees approved by the fathers, December 4, 1963, at the conclusion of the Second Session.
I decided that for the next several weeks (months?) it may be worth our while to look at the text itself and draw our own conclusions about how faithfully the Church in general and local churches in particular have adhered to the precise intentions of the world’s bishops in communion with Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. Regrettably, this kind of thoughtful reading and education did not occur immediately during and after the Council, certainly not in parishes, and to be honest, not so much in seminaries, either. There was a burst of energy—much for the good, to be sure, but sometimes without understanding and human sensitivities—that exploded after the Council. This is the tale of my youth—I was about 18 when the Council was completed in 1965 and lived from 1969-1974 at Ground Zero of the immediate American Post-Council flurry, Washington, D.C. I found them exciting times, but I was too young to fully understand the impact of “the changes” on many older Catholics in particular.
Documents, particularly of an ecclesiastical nature, can appear remarkably tame until one reflects upon the forces that shaped them and the concrete realities implied in the texts. A few quick examples will suffice. In the Constitution the fathers state that Latin enjoys a place of preeminence in the worship of the Church. However, conferences of bishops may approve the celebration of Mass in the language(s) of the place, using translations approved by the Vatican from the official Latin rites. All of this means that Church law does not require Mass in English, for example. If, in the judgment of the USCCB, Mass in the vernacular (or prominent language) improves the celebration and participation of the faithful, the freedom to do so should take precedence. But nowhere in Vatican II documents is Mass in Latin prohibited, as a number of people think. With the United States a polyglot nation, it may be that a return to a common language—in our case, the Church’s mother tongue—would enable us to celebrate sacraments in unity. Obviously I am getting into hypotheticals, but my point is that with many matters of worship, assumptions are made without reading the official blueprints first.
I read just a few of the introductory paragraphs today, and I was amazed at the breadth of wisdom and vision exercised by the Vatican II fathers, riches we have never truly explored or even discussed. The very first paragraph of the Constitution explores the document’s purpose, including “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ.” Put another way, a guiding principle of sacramental worship is the ecumenical impact upon our separated brethren. This gives us pause, as we have been very protective of our rites, and of course our Church discipline forbids interfaith communion except in particular cases. Just this one phrase requires unpacking.
So, with your blessing, I propose we advance into the uncharted waters of The Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy. I would recommend that you have access to a copy; the best text and layout comes from the Vatican’s own website here. You can print copies or select pages for your own reflections. There is a paperback translation you can purchase, but I cannot find out anything about the publisher. I myself am using Vatican Council II, the 1996 revised edition. This volume contains all of the Vatican II documents and the Vatican follow-up through the 1990’s. The editor is Austin Flannery, O.P., and this text is a standard reference for anyone doing Church work.
Now that my work is done for today, I am taking my wife to Mass and then to dinner to celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary.