A Magnificent Confusion
ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
17. In seminaries and houses of religious, clerics shall be given a liturgical formation in their spiritual life. For this they will need proper direction, so that they may be able to understand the sacred rites and take part in them wholeheartedly; and they will also need personally to celebrate the sacred mysteries, as well as popular devotions which are imbued with the spirit of the liturgy. In addition, they must learn how to observe the liturgical laws, so that life in seminaries and houses of religious may be thoroughly influenced by the spirit of the liturgy.
Looking back 54 years since this Constitution was promulgated, Section 17 would seem like stating the obvious, i.e., that a candidate for the priesthood ought to know how to say Mass. But in fact, this text is directed toward two populations: students in diocesan seminaries or religious order houses of formation (my case, with the Franciscans), and those who were already priests who needed an orientation to the theological understanding of the new Mass and other sacraments, and who had to learn an entirely different set of rites with new emphases.
It is hard to overstate the difference between the rite of the Mass before Vatican II and the Mass of Pope Paul VI (1970) that we celebrate today. It occurred to me this morning that YouTube might have a good film or taping of the Tridentine Mass, or “the old Latin Mass” as folks of my generation are wont to say. Indeed, I did find an excellent quality link to the celebration of a Tridentine Mass, evidently taped recently in a parish where the local bishop permits the Tridentine rite. This video reflects the Mass exactly as I would have served it as a fifth grader in 1958—we servers had to learn a bucket of Latin as the tape shows. In reliving that experience I noted that it is not until several moments into the tape that the camera pans to the congregation—it is a visual shock to see that there is one, as the Tridentine rite does not incorporate actual congregational involvement aside from approaching the altar for holy communion. If you have a little time, I suggest you view at least some of the tape, for it will help explain why the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has been the source of dispute and controversy that continues to this day.
A seminarian prior to Vatican II would certainly have received a significant spiritual formation to his future priesthood. He was a candidate for a sacrament that by definition set him apart from other people (a priest was and is defined as “ontologically changed” or “changed in his being”). One cannot be “un-ordained” any more than one can be unbaptized. I can still hear a dying person’s confession despite my laicization. The reason for this radical shift in identity is the function of the priest, who at the moment of the consecration of the Mass becomes an alter Christus or “another Christ” when he says “This is my body.”
This sacramental understanding of the priesthood, defined at the Council of Trent, was at the heart of priestly training until well into the twentieth century, and the present Code of Canon Law (1983) still embodies this understanding of priesthood. To understand this theology of priesthood is to understand the Church’s teaching on priestly celibacy, for example, as a man who is consecrated as an alter Christus must be virginally pure, his heart focused on Christ and the higher things. The Tridentine rite Mass, in its rites, vestments, and even architecture, is arranged to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the man who is empowered sacramentally to bring this about.
It is a remarkable vision of the Mass and the Eucharist—and strangely enough, it was the first matter of business of Vatican II to reexamine the theology and rites of the Tridentine way. In his excellent What Happened at Vatican II (2008, pp. 129-141) John O’Malley describes how Sacrosanctum Concilium was written. While the committee work was contentious, there was one matter that troubled nearly all its participants—the absence of participation by the general faithful at Mass, their right by Baptism. This worry over the Tridentine rite was not new to Vatican II; O’Malley outlines the concerns of popes dating back to Pius X and the reforms of Pius XII (r. 1939-1958) concerning Holy Week, evening Masses, and the advocacy of the use of congregational missals, among other things.
SC did not undo or change the central role of the priest in the Eucharist, but it emphasized the proper communal nature of the Eucharistic celebration itself as the central event of Church life, the “source and summit” as we teach today. And in doing so, SC created a moment of significant reorientation for every ordained priest—an opportunity long-welcomed my many but virtually devastating to others. Section 18 [next week’s entry] addresses the personal circumstances of ordained priests, but I can say now from my own experience that the Council, while doing what needed to be done theologically, did not adequately understand or address in its documents the realities of the transitions it was calling for. In one respect Sections 17-19 [the nineteenth dealing with formation of the laity] resemble the dogmatic style of previous councils with emphasis upon the procedural and the legal without much thought to the pastoral and practical.
Sacrosanctum Concilium might have been better accepted and more influential today had it considered the “rollout phase” more directly. Section 17 makes clear that, in terms of theology and personal spirituality, the reforms of the liturgy would have profound consequences calling for significant preparation. And yet, as I was reminded by O’Malley’s text, the first temporary drafts of a vernacular Mass were available for wholesale use on the First Sunday in Advent, 1964, while the Council was still in progress and would be for another year. The rationale for such changes would have been available to an educated American Catholic public only through the reports of our chatty friend Xavier Rynne to New Yorker Magazine or eventually by secular observers for the New York Times. Diocesan papers were limited to what their bishops could officially make public in terms of rubrics and directives.
Later in SC the document will speak of the role of bishops in the teaching and explanation of the Council to the priests and faithful of their dioceses. Ironically, the directives of SC were coming into use while the world’s bishops were away from home, at the Council, particularly at the time of the introduction of Mass in the vernacular. SC is one of the “big four” documents of the Council, and its impact upon every Catholic is immense. But, alas, “opening night” did not come off without its hitches.
A regular reader informed me, good-naturedly, that I have a tendency on this stream (and others) to “leave you hanging.” In my good-natured defense, I call it “leaving you hungry for more” and I encourage you to run ahead as the spirit moves you. This is why I use the links to books, and in our present stream I highly recommend the O’Malley text for a full picture of what I have only lightly covered here; it is available instantly on Kindle for $9.00 at last check, as well in as other formats. I added a link today to the entire SC document as well.
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