Sacrosanctum Concilium: Paragraph 2
For the liturgy, "through which the work of our redemption is accomplished, “most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church. It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek. While the liturgy daily builds up those who are within into a holy temple of the Lord, into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ, at the same time it marvelously strengthens their power to preach Christ, and thus shows forth the Church to those who are outside as a sign lifted up among the nations under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together, until there is one sheepfold and one shepherd.
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In a perfect world the first documents to be released by the Council might better have been statements on the nature of the Church itself and divine revelation—a full explanation of why the Church exists and how its existence and ministry can be deduced from God’s Revelation. But there are two factors to consider here. The first is that the Council fathers were nowhere near agreement on either of those two theological issues, and second, there was considerable interest among many bishops in the state of Catholic worship, most notably the Mass. Most bishops were not theologians—they brought their own theologians, called periti, with them to the Council to explain what was happening. But all bishops offered daily Mass and would very likely have something to say about this sacrament and its impact—or lack thereof—upon the congregations they encountered. In addition, there was considerable pressure—both inside and outside the Council—to get something on paper, to show the world that the bishops’ labors were bearing fruit. Sacrosanctum Concilium was promulgated on December 4, 1963—the first formal statement of the Council after two years of discussion, study, and revision.
Paragraph 2 is the full introduction to the Council’s treatment of the sacred liturgy. [Paragraph 1 served as an introduction to the entire Council.] It is remarkably rich and marks a significant change in emphasis from the treatment of the sacraments put forth in the Council of Trent [1545-1563]. Of particular interest is the emphasis upon the active role of the laity and the transformational power of the Eucharist to intensify the interior experience of the lay worshipper with the saving power of God and to empower the participants’ “power to preach Christ” and model the innate holiness of Christ “to those who are outside…until there is one sheepfold and one shepherd.” The final vote of the bishops was 2147 to 4, even more remarkable when one considers the understanding and role of the Mass prior to the Council. Can any of us comprehend the significance of this change of emphasis?
The last major revision of the Mass and the other sacraments occurred after the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Trent was correctly identified as “a reform council,” a response to both Protestant attacks on the status quo and a clarification of the essentials of sacred worship, particularly on the nature of salvation, a point of contestation with Protestant thinkers. Trent, for example, is the council that corrected abuses of indulgences and mandated the institution of seminaries for the proper training of priests.
On the other hand, Trent—and its subsequent interpretations—placed a high value on uniformity of thought and practice in an age when various Protestant reform churches were proliferating. In the case of the Mass, Trent focused upon its definition as the unbloody reenactment of Christ’s death upon the cross and his one perfect offering of himself to his Father in atonement for our sins. This placed a high premium upon the exclusive role of the priest [or bishop] as the sole minister who could consecrate the bread and wine into the Real Presence of Christ and offer that perfect gift to the Father. This emphasis upon the consecration of the Mass tended to diminish the first half or Scriptural portion of the Mass [known back in the day as “The Mass of the Catechumens,” as my 1950’s missal would have described it] and, ironically, decreased reception of the Eucharist itself, particularly after the eruption of the Jansenist Heresy in the seventeenth century, which held that original sin had so distorted the human species that we are unworthy to approach the altar of God.
What the faithful were expected to do at Mass was never fully outlined in a catechetical way we would recognize today. [My personal opinion is that the passive nature of the laity during the Eucharistic Prayers of today’s Mass is still a problem inadequately addressed in the Vatican II reform. The problem is the prayers, not the people.] Post-Tridentine literature speaks of the Catholic in attendance as joining herself to the priest metaphorically as he himself offered the saving sacrifice of Christ to His Father. Or put another way, participation of the faithful at Mass was an entirely interior experience. Aside from attending and receiving communion, there was no other visible, tangible element of lay involvement [except for altar boys and choirs], a curious situation when we recall that a sacrament is an outward sign as well as an interior experience. Church Law dictated attendance at Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, but even the Catechism of my childhood stated that to be late for the first half of the Mass—the scripture/sermon/creed component--was only a venial sin. Mortal sin accrued if one were late for the second, or Eucharistic, portion of the Mass. [Even as a middle schooler I did not miss the irony that one did not commit mortal sin unless one missed the collection, taken as today during the Offertory.]
It would be a mistake to assume that “liturgical change” began with Vatican II. The Tridentine ritual still in use in 1962, known popularly as “the Tridentine Mass,” came into being in 1570 as the result of the reform Council of Trent, the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. However, the Tridentine liturgy placed a premium upon doctrinal accuracy and uniformity, which had a stultifying impact upon those who attended Mass over the following generations. In his remarkably good Theological Highlights of Vatican II [1966, Kindle only], Father Joseph Ratzinger, a peritus or theological expert at the Council and the future Pope Benedict XVI, made the telling observation that none of the great spiritual revivals between Trent and Vatican II involved the Eucharist—the mystical revivals of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius’ founding of the Jesuits, St. Margaret Mary and Devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the Marian apparitions at Lourdes and Fatima. Put another way, motivated Catholics attended Mass from duty, but they looked elsewhere for personal and communal stirrings of prayer and conversion.
Matters reached a point where Catholics virtually stopped receiving communion altogether, and this was not so long ago. My Baltimore Catechism in the 1950’s included the Church commandment to receive the Eucharist at least annually, during the Easter Season. Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914] was so deeply concerned about the infrequency of reception of holy communion that he famously lowered the age of First Communion to around seven, so that youngsters would learn at an early age to approach the Eucharistic rail with regularity. Pius XII [r. 1939-1958] reformed the observance of the Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil—by moving the services to the night hours so that more could attend, and he famously reduced the communion fast to three hours instead of from midnight. But these initiatives did not address the main problem of lay passivity, and except for isolated reformist movements in Europe, no one—not even popes—seemed to know how to engage the laity in the celebration of Mass. Pope Leo XIII [r. 1878-1903] actually encouraged the faithful to pray the rosary to Mary at Mass during the month of October each year! In the twentieth century popes encouraged the use of missals, the full English translation of what was happening on the altar, but these were never purchased in large numbers and Catholics typically developed their own rituals of litanies, rosaries, prayers, etc. to recite silently while the priest offered the holy sacrifice in Latin. In my own case, I would read the reflections of The Imitation of Christ at the seminary Masses until the Vatican II reforms percolated into our liturgical lives around 1965.
Thus, the typical parish Mass of 1962 was a passive affair, strange when one considers that the word “liturgy” comes from the Greek λειτουργία or “public works,” a bread-and-butter definition which defines our Catholic worship as common labor. We have Father Ratzinger’s remarkable description of the Mass of the opening of Vatican II in October 1962 as witness to serious reservations of thoughtful churchmen everywhere over the passivity of the laity [and clergy!] at Mass. After commenting on the interminable length of the celebration, the future pope mused:
The opening liturgy did not really involve all who were present, and it had little inner coherence. Did it make sense for 2,500 bishops, not to mention the other faithful there, to be relegated to the role of mere spectators at a ceremony in which only the celebrants and the Sistine Choir had a voice? Was not the fact that the active participation of those present was not required symptomatic of a wrong that needed remedy? Any why did the Credo [Nicene Creed] have to be repeated after Mass when the Mass itself contains a profession of faith? What was the need for an ornate additional liturgy of the Word, when the Mass itself contained appropriate epistle and gospel messages? Why were long litanies sung outside the Mass, when the liturgy of the Mass itself provided for the insertion of suitable intercessory prayers? …the real meaning of [the liturgy’s] various parts were no longer intelligible. People no longer realized that the enthronement of the gospel, the profession of faith and intercessory prayers were actually contained in the Mass itself.
There is humor in this paragraph. If memory serves me correctly, the opening of the Council—a Mass followed by a stream of repetitive rites dating back a millennium—ran to about five hours. And Father Ratzinger, a Bavarian, might have been poking Teutonic fun at the old Romans for failing to recognize the nature of the very Mass ritual they were defending. Unless his biographer tells us in the upcoming biography of the pope emeritus, we may never know.
Father Ratzinger could have been describing much of the American Catholic landscape in his description of the Council’s opening Mass in terms of the limited participation of the laity. In Why Catholics Can’t Sing  Thomas Day recalls that in the United States Catholics typically picked the shorter Sunday Masses and avoided high [sung] Masses like the plague. Boys like me were the exception. As an altar boy I learned the rubrics and became the weekly master of ceremonies of the three-priest solemn high 10:30 Mass. I loved the hands-on involvement with the Mass and the polyphonic choir, but obviously I was the exception, not the rule. My classmates attended the 35-minute earlier Masses. At the high school seminary I later attended, I did not have the opportunity to serve, and the Mass was a labor of duty in those years.
It would be wrong to suggest, however, that Catholics in my youth were not actively engaged in faith-filled ventures. Many of us youngsters had the daily experience of religious life in our classrooms, in my case with the Christian brothers in elementary school. The school and the parish calendars were a smorgasbord of devotionals—weekly confessions, rosary, Stations of the Cross, holy hours, the annual Forty Hours devotion, Corpus Christi procession, annual retreats, blessings of the throat [St. Blaise] and Easter dinners [Holy Saturday], May Crowning, etc. In Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession 1955-1975  Maria Morrow describes the common penitential practices that united Catholics before the Council, such as fasting and abstinence during Lent and the Ember Days
What troubled generations of scholars [end even some popes] was the separation of intense lay Catholic devotion from the celebration of the Eucharist. Historians, particularly in the century leading up to Vatican II, reminded anyone who listened that the eucharistic liturgy had a long history before the Council of Trent, and that the Mass of the second century looked quite different from the Mass that Father Ratzinger endured in 1962. The most radical point of departure for Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium was the ancient principle that the Eucharistic liturgy is the source and summit of all Christian life, for laity and clergy alike. In principle, the Vatican II bishops voted unanimously for a reform of the sacramental life of the Church which centered spiritual life around the Eucharist. It is hard to imagine, though, that the 2147 bishops who voted “aye” were of one mind on just how such a reform should look. Or, for that matter, how would these reforms be received in the United States, to cite one country, where many Catholics—often over ethnic and family generations—had crafted a religious routine that they had been told was unchangeable? Not for nothing does this document run to 130 paragraphs—to be followed by dozens upon dozens of Vatican and bishops’ conferences on the fine tuning. To be honest, much work still remains.
Did you live through the 1960’s when the changes in the liturgy were introduced piecemeal? Do you have a sense of the “before and after” of the Council’s liturgical renewal?
Do you know older Catholics who lived through those times? Do they talk about the highs and lows of change and divisions within their local churches?
How closely is your personal prayer and religious life connected to the liturgy as it is celebrated in your community? Is the liturgical calendar living in your head? Is this year’s Sunday Gospel, St. Matthew’s, stimulating your prayer and reflection?
Are you familiar with very recent controversies involving Popes Benedict and Francis on the policy of permitting local churches to celebrate the pre-Vatican II format of the Mass, the Latin Tridentine form? How would you address the issue?
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