ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
1. This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.
Yesterday (Saturday) both Margaret and I were out for the day giving workshops in different locations, and I am very grateful for the hospitality I received at Ascension Catholic Church in Melbourne, Florida, which provided cuisine and professional support. It is always edifying to see a gathering of Catholic school teachers and principals, on our first genuinely cool day of the fall, no less. If some of those in attendance are visiting the Catechist Café for the first time, welcome aboard!
Over the past few months I have dedicated Saturdays to a review of sacraments in terms of the Church’s developing understanding of its rites over the span of its history. Earlier in October I noted the contributions of the popes Pius X and Pius XII, which brings us to the Council Vatican II (1962-1965). The Vatican II document “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” is the most significant teaching on the sacraments since the Council of Trent, which unified a variety of sacramental rites from around Europe into one standard formula in the late 1500’s.
The thought occurred to me recently that it might be useful to examine the actual text of what the Church taught about our sacraments in 1963, when the Constitution was formally promulgated by Pope Paul VI (John XXIII died earlier that year.) I will admit that for me this would constitute my first analytical study of the text. In truth, I would wager that very few Catholics have ever read any of the Vatican II texts, and there are legitimate reasons for that. The official documents of the Council as printed in a standard translation such as Austin Flannery’s edition run to about one thousand pages. The documents were released in Latin primarily in December of 1963, 1964, and particularly 1965, the year of the final session. In the days before the internet, accessibility to the texts themselves was not as easy as one might think.
The first wave of people to truly digest the contents of the Council were academics. My first introduction to the raw text, so to speak, was in 1969, when my novice master walked us religious newbies through Vatican II’s Perfectae Caritatis, the decree on religious life. Then in 1973 the Constitution on the Church was on the reading list of my graduate ecclesiology course. I can’t recall the text coming up in my oral exam, though.
In truth, what I know of the Council Documents—aside from historical commentaries of the event itself, such as Xavier Rynne’s “undercover” reporting of the Council—comes from the integration of that material into every course I have taken and every theology text I have read up to and including the present day. This is true of the catechetical series in use in your home parish. It is even true of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which draws entire segments from various Vatican II constitutions, decrees, and documents.
I will digress here for a moment to make mention of a large group that did not have the advantages I had of receiving detailed information and analyses of Vatican II’s teachings from professionals: the local clergy and the laity in general, most of whom were introduced to Vatican II when the word came down to switch from Latin to English. The “roll-out” period was unnecessarily rapid, rushed, and probably undertaken with little time for reflection and explanation. The confusion and bitterness of those early post-Vatican II days lingers—and in some cases has been passed on generationally. I will address that down the road.
But to the text at the top pf the page, you are looking at the very first writing of the Council about worship and sacraments. As this is the first major document of the Council to be promulgated, the writers provide an overview of the aims of the entire Vatican II assembly, not just liturgy and worship. The first aim or hope of the fathers was greater vigor in the living of the Christian life. While the intent here is certainty the increased piety of the Church at the local level, there was an expectation that the vigor of the faith would prevent such moral catastrophes as world wars and the Holocaust.
The second goal is the adaptation of the Church to “the needs of our own times” “the institutions subject to change.” There are multiple implications of this sentence. It is the Church that does the adapting, acknowledging the reality that elements of its life have been found wanting, or have become roadblocks to its work. The text refers to specific institutions worthy of reform: in the discussion leading up to December, 1963 Cardinal Fringes famously declared that Cardinal Ottaviani’s Holy Office at the Vatican itself was in grave need of reform. However, the term “institution” here can be applied to a great number of things, from Canon Law to seminaries to sacramental rites, and even to schools of thought.
You may be wondering what institutions were (are) not subject to change. This was a contentious question at the Council, and particularly afterwards. The Nicene Creed is an obvious example; the need for a visible Church is another. But within the Council itself, there was considerable debate over the operational function of the office of the papacy. No one at the Council called for discontinuation of the office of Bishop of Rome (the papacy) in favor of governance by a Church council of bishops, but the extent of his power and his relationship with his brother bishops was respectfully but intensely debated.
The paragraph continues to exhort promotion of unity between the Catholic Church and other Christian communions to the degree possible. This is one of the significant paradigm shifts to come out of the Council. Again, the extent of strategies to achieve Christian unity extends to the present day. This call for unity is extended to all people of good will. Pope John XXIII had realized that the problems facing the world were impacting peoples and regions across denominational and philosophical lines, and he addressed his encyclicals on peace and justice prior to Vatican II to the citizens of the world, not merely to members of the Catholic Communion.
Finally, the Council fathers state their intention to bring these considerations into the Church’s official worship. This is a matter that will come up again and again in this document. One very good example is ecumenism: Catholic thinking was clearly influenced by Protestant theology on the importance and the preaching of the Word of God, an example that the Church embraced in the reform of the liturgy, if not spectacularly successful. The freedom to celebrate interfaith services, such as Thanksgiving prayer services, with Protestant neighborhood churches became common after the Council, as did relaxed laws on interdenominational marriages. Theologically the Council would come to recognize that ministers of other Christian churches were conducting valid ministries and celebrating the presence of Christ in their churches.
Paragraph 1 sets the table; the next post on Saturday will look at Paragraph 2, which enumerates specifically the Council’s hope for the sacred liturgy.