ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
3. Wherefore the sacred Council judges that the following principles concerning the promotion and reform of the liturgy should be called to mind, and that practical norms should be established.
Among these principles and norms there are some which can and should be applied both to the Roman rite and also to all the other rites. The practical norms which follow, however, should be taken as applying only to the Roman rite, except for those which, in the very nature of things, affect other rites as well.
Section 3 is the third of four introductory statements leading into the theological principles and guidelines for Catholic sacramental worship. The second paragraph here is a reference to the Council’s teaching vis-à-vis the multiple rites of the Roman Church. There are about two dozen Eastern Rite Churches in communion with Rome. Paragraph 814 of the Catechism teaches “holding a rightful place in the communion of the Church there are also particular Churches that retain their own traditions. The great richness of such diversity is not opposed to the Church's unity.” In his description of the Council Xavier Rynne commented that at various times in the proceedings the Mass per each of these rites was celebrated with the entire body of the Council fathers.
The Council tread cautiously in its liturgical dealings with these Churches precisely because their sacramental rites date back to the first millennium and predate the final division of Eastern and Western Christendom, the excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, in 1054. There was and is a theological and historical heritage connected to these rites that constitutes something of the very nature of the Church itself. Section 3 alludes to the challenge of unity. When, as Catholics, we pray for “Church Unity,” this is not limited to ultimate union with, say, Lutherans, as desirable as that may be. The full nature of Church unity is oneness with a segment (segments) of the world that perceives reality in different constructs and signs.
The Council would address the relationship of the Latin Roman Church with the Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome as well as the Orthodox Church, but not specifically in Sacrosantum Concilium, choosing to direct its teachings on the specifics of worship to the Latin Roman Church.
Section 3 makes mention of two distinct types of teaching: principles and practical norms. This is a critical point that might be overlooked by a new reader, because it has been very much overlooked by those of us who have possessed the document over the past half-century. Section 3 teaches that the nature of the document is “promotion and reform” of the liturgy itself, to be implemented by “practical norms.” In practice, the Council is revisiting the understanding of sacraments themselves, and considering this understanding, would authorize examination of each rite in view of the Church’s full understanding. The Council would undertake study of the principles; reforms of the rites would be taken up by post-Conciliar and national bodies such as the new model of national conferences of bishops.
The first principle of worship, of course, is faith. One of the venerable maxims of Church history is lex orandi, lex credendi, loosely, the law of prayer is the law of faith. Everything that the Church is, everything she teaches, flows from her prayer; liturgy is the Church’s religious and psychological self-understanding. Reform of the Church’s self-understanding is a daunting deed; the Council fathers needed two years to find the right language. Moreover, Sacrosanctum Concilium is the first of the promulgated Vatican II documents. This may have been a strike of administrative good luck, or it more likely manifested a collective desire of the fathers to express in the unique teaching moment of the Council exactly what the Church believes itself to be.
The question has been raised—with great passion in some circles—how one can apply the process of reform to an institution founded by Christ and whose validity is professed every Sunday in the Nicene Creed? There are many ways to answer this concern, not the least is with the Church’s own history. Vatican II was preceded by a Vatican I, and before Vatican I the Church met on nineteen previous occasions, not counting the “Council of Jerusalem” in 50 A.D. recorded in Acts 15. Every Council I am aware of met in response to a challenge of identity and self-understanding.
The challenges that led Pope John XXIII to announce the summoning of a council in 1962 were matters of the past and the future. Two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the spiraling nuclear arms race were proof enough for Pope John that the Gospel was not being preached effectively in the Roman Communion, nor in other members of the Christian household. Catholic sacraments lay at the heart of this problem: as the self-expression of the work of Christ, Catholic worship was not effecting a moral awakening powerful enough to stem the free reign of rage, hatred, and opportunism that had so recently ravaged the world.
Pope John understood, too, that the success of the Church in any future rejuvenation rested upon its ability to make its message clear in word and deed. He was truly the first post-Enlightenment pope to publicly acknowledge that the starting ground of discourse in the West was not denominational identity. His own correspondences went out to “men of good will,” not specifically Roman Catholics, not specifically Christians. The agnostic, the atheist could just as easily accept this pope as a man with something important to say.
The work of Sacrosantum Concilium, as the Church’s statement of liturgical self-identity, was nothing short of relearning how to talk about Jesus through worship in a manner that was both true to its roots and to its new world now capable of total annihilation. With the hindsight of fifty years it is possible to see how hard it was to produce this statement, and even more so to put it in practice. As I noted above, the inheritors of liturgical reform planning probably missed the point that changing the location of the altar in church is not the same as offering one’s self upon that altar, which is the heart of Christ’s action in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Martin Luther, among others, was right in his definition of the Church as semper reformanda, or “always in need of reform.” As a member of that Church who shares in its sacraments I know that my own interior attitude of heart must be in the right place, always seeking reform. But I also need an environment where that interiority can be fed by Christ’s saving work, which is why I turn to the Church for the rites to affect that reform in me. Progressing through the Council’s teaching on worship, I am eager to find out what we are doing right, and what we are doing wrong, because I think I’m not alone in admitting that it doesn’t always click like it should.