ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
54. In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue. This is to apply in the first place to the readings and "the common prayer," but also, as local conditions may warrant, to those parts which pertain to the people, according to the norm laid down in Art. 36 of this Constitution.
Nevertheless, steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.
And wherever a more extended use of the mother tongue within the Mass appears desirable, the regulation laid down in Art. 40 of this Constitution is to be observed.
If this material looks familiar, it is drawn from two previous sections of Sacrosanctum Concilium as indicated in the text itself. The difference is that the previous articles on language appeared in the “general principles” section of SC applicable to all sacraments; para. 54 is situated in the specific instructions for the Mass itself, and it is located at the very end of the Liturgy of the Word sequence, after the Prayer of the Faithful article 53 of last week. I would just add one quick observation on para. 54, that the instructions here are applicable “in Masses which are celebrated with the people,” which presupposes that a priest offering a private Mass retains the right to celebrate the sacrament in its entirety in Latin.
All the commentaries on Vatican II agree that the discussion on the reform of the Mass was, for want of a better word, compelling. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, the leading prelate in the United States, took the position that nothing of the Tridentine rite of 1570 should be changed, and he was not alone in this belief. The Tridentine Mass was built upon the principle that Christ, in the person of the priest, was repeating the sacrifice of himself in an “unbloody sacrifice of Calvary,” facing the crucifix upon the altar and winning the same grace and favor of the first Good Friday. As the Church entered the 1960’s, then, the paradigm of the Mass was the priestly action of sacrificing Jesus to his Father once again. While the salvation of Catholics rested upon their attendance at the holy sacrifice, their “participation” was a holy reverence of silence. The Mass was a reenactment of Good Friday.
The competing paradigm, derived from study of the Scripture and early history, was the model of the Last Supper, with Jesus surrounded by his apostles and sharing the bread and wine with them “until he comes again.” Three of the four Gospels describe the first Mass as a Passover, which celebrated sacred scripture within its rite. The model for the Mass presented by the periti (theologians) and advocated by other bishops envisioned a Eucharist involving word and meal. While the priest would continue to exercise his unique ministry of leadership, the Mass would be considered the “source and summit” of the life of all the baptized, and the reformed rite would bear this into account.
The Last Supper model, or “the Eucharistic banquet motif,” would eventually carry the majority support of the Council, though the matter is not quite as black and white as it seems. Para. 54 reflects the stress of changing paradigms. The text does not demand the abandonment of Latin; “a suitable place may be allotted to their [the congregation’s] mother tongue, citing the Scripture readings and the Prayer of the Faith. It adds, if conditions warrant, “those parts which pertain to the people.” It was explained to me in the late 1950’s when I was learning my altar boy Latin, that I was representing the people in my responses. Presumably para. 54 is suggesting that the parts assigned to the altar boy might be better rendered by the entire assembly in the mother tongue. I have a link here to a 1962 altar boy card with the server’s (and eventually, the congregation’s?) appropriate responses, which are considerable.
Interestingly, para. 54 seems to reverse itself in its second section, calling for “steps…so that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” Not to be psychological here, but the somewhat conflicting directive involving Latin and the mother tongue reflects a natural desire among the Church fathers to embrace a reform without letting go of a familiar past. Those of us who lived through this period of transition all experienced an ambivalence on a very personal level about the liturgical changes. The late blogger Michael Dubriel posted a sad scene from the day that Pope Paul VI discovered that Ordinary Time had replaced the week-long octave of Pentecost:
The story goes that on the Monday after Pentecost in 1970 His Holiness Pope Paul VI rose early and went to his chapel for Holy Mass. Instead of the red vestments he expected, green ones were laid out for him. He asked the Master of Ceremonies, “What on earth are these for? This is the Octave of Pentecost! Where are the red vestments?” “Your Holiness,” replied the Master of Ceremonies, “this is now The Time Throughout the Year. It is green, now. The Octave of Pentecost is abolished.” “Green? That cannot be,” said the Pope, “Who did that?” “Your Holiness, you did.” And Paul VI wept.
Stresses notwithstanding, para. 54 opens the door for greater use of the mother tongue, with reference to para. 40 on the appropriate chain of command in making major liturgical decisions, such as celebrating an entire sacrament in English. I commented on para. 40 back last October on the challenges of language against the backdrop of declining Mass attendance. The text of para. 40 is detailed and seems to address radical reform of liturgy quite seriously and gravely. The curious thing is the rapidity of embracing a fully vernacular English Mass in the United States; most of the Eucharistic celebration was permitted to be observed in the vernacular as early as 1965, and the Canon or Roman Eucharistic Prayer in 1967. The new Missal of Paul VI was not promulgated till 1970. I think that better preparation of the faithful might have eased the transition, but given the circumstances, Catholics today are better engaged in the Mass celebrated in the common tongue.
It is hard for me to imagine that most Catholics today would embrace the simple changes in section one of para. 54 instead of the full vernacular Mass we have grown accustomed to over nearly 50 years. In fact, the “liturgy wars” of the present day are being fought over much bigger issues than just language, with some in the Church believing that the Missal of Paul VI is invalid, that the Missal of Pius V (1570) is the only true rite for the Mass, theologically speaking. Those who maintain the priority of the Tridentine Mass argue that the new Mass has led to an exodus from Sunday Mass observance. On the other hand, it can also be argued that Catholics who now hear the Word and the Eucharist in clear language—everything that the Mass calls us to be—can make more honest internal choices about their depth of faith to the mysteries of the altar.