ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
43. Zeal for the promotion and restoration of the liturgy is rightly held to be a sign of the providential dispositions of God in our time, as a movement of the Holy Spirit in His Church. It is today a distinguishing mark of the Church's life, indeed of the whole tenor of contemporary religious thought and action.
So that this pastoral-liturgical action may become even more vigorous in the Church, the sacred Council decrees:
44. It is desirable that the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, set up a liturgical commission, to be assisted by experts in liturgical science, sacred music, art and pastoral practice. So far as possible the commission should be aided by some kind of Institute for Pastoral Liturgy, consisting of persons who are eminent in these matters, and including laymen as circumstances suggest. Under the direction of the above-mentioned territorial ecclesiastical authority the commission is to regulate pastoral-liturgical action throughout the territory, and to promote studies and necessary experiments whenever there is question of adaptations to be proposed to the Apostolic See.
Paragraphs 43-46 compose a subset called “The Promotion of Pastoral-Liturgical Action.” Paragraphs 45 and 46 will deal with local advisory councils or liturgy committees, and inclusion of artists. Looking back a half-century later, it is hard to pinpoint the precise focus of this section. Para. 43 states that promotion and reform of the liturgy is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit, while para. 44 decrees the establishment of a liturgical commission at the level of national conferences of bishops, composed of true professionals, to oversee changes at the regional/national level required by the revisions of sacramental rites established by the Holy See after the Council.
This section of SC illustrates as much as any the collision of ideals and hopes with the reality on the ground. Para. 43, truth be told, was a hope as much as a fact, and it was directed primarily to the bishops themselves. In the Conciliar debates over Sacrosantum Concilium, a healthy number of Church Fathers expressed reservations about the principles of reform on the floor. The bishop of the largest diocese in the United States, Cardinal Spellman of New York, expressed his sentiment that the Tridentine Mass remain in place, and he was hardly alone. Most American bishops, for example, were reasonably good—in many cases excellent—administrators, but few were either theologians or social scientists. In news reporting during the Council era, it was common to describe the rare bishop from academia as “a theologian in his own right.” A bishop with advanced degrees in theology from Catholic University, Notre Dame, or a European university would be well versed in biblical and liturgical science, and probably had a subscription to Worship, the journal of liturgical research and renewal published in the U.S. since 1928.
The postwar years in the United States were a time of brick and mortar growth, as returning GI’s married and began raising families. Enrollment in Catholic schools crested at all-time highs when Vatican II was convoked in 1962, and bishops were under pressure to meet the practical demands of pastoring and keeping seminarians flowing through the diocesan seminary pipelines. Many of these men were anxious about the annual three-month commitment of time to the Council that kept them away from duties in their home dioceses. Gradually they began to realize that the matters of the Council, particularly para. 44 noted here, would fall into their laps nationally and at the diocesan level at Council’s end. In this context para. 43 looks like support for the task ahead.
The USCCB, the American body to whom para. 44 is addressed, does have an on-line review of its involvement with the Council, “Stewards of the Tradition—Fifty Years after Sacrosanctum Concilium,” released in 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of SC. I would describe it as “administratively upbeat.” Looking back to the immediate years after the Council, there is little argument against the reality that many local churches were running ahead of administrative oversight and delving into experimentation in many ways, some good, some not so good. One of the first important collective acts of the American bishops was the establishment of ICEL, the company entrusted with producing English-language texts for the sacraments from the Roman Latin originals.
One factor of Vatican II, hard to convey today, is the air of excitement among many Catholics and the apprehensions of others. Religious orders are a good place to look. I can remember one of my Scripture professors at the time commenting on the sisters he knew. “They read, they read late into the night, they read every theology text coming on the market.” Vatican II’s Perfectae Caritatis had encouraged religious communities to return to the founding principles of their orders, which in many cases involved direct involvement with the poor and the faithful at large. As has been documented numerous times, Catholic sisters began leaving the classrooms of Catholic schools in significant numbers for responsibilities in the larger parish or in ministries of social need. Many became directors of liturgy or catechetics, both new positions after Vatican II.
In like manner, the Council’s call for a simpler rite of Eucharist with greater lay involvement and the use of the vernacular, reception of communion in the hand, and the sharing of the communion cup was greeted enthusiastically. SC had provided the principles but not the actual rites, which would come 5-15 years down the road. (The Mass of Pope Paul VI was promulgated in 1970.) Since the younger clergy at my seminary were well-formed by the Council, and a few had even studied overseas, liturgical renewal of the Mass began there well before the directives started coming down. Even as the Council was closing in 1965 some of our priests were celebrating Mass in English and introducing participatory psalm singing, and even sharing the cup. This would happen in our “class masses,” itself an innovation to foster the communal nature of the Mass. The student body chapel Mass was somewhat slower to change, though I remember in 1967 the first concelebrated Mass in my seminary—when my professors nearly all celebrated the same Mass together. I was the sacristan for that Mass.
From what I saw and what I was told, such reform adaptations were common in other seminaries and parishes long before the administrative “green flag” was thrown. The dangers in speedy adaptations are understandable enough: changes were made without good catechesis or instruction; little consideration was given to Catholics whose Mass piety was deeply rooted in the Latin Tridentine rite; even within parishes and seminaries there were priests and other officials deeply divided over the principles of change or the way they were carried out. There were several legendary tales of liturgical excess in the Washington, D.C., area during my years there (1969-74) including a celebrant who rode down the center of the church aisle at the Palm Sunday Mass on a donkey.
But as we will see next week, nearly the entire American Church was in “catch-up mode,” including bishops, priests, and laity. The role of the bishop after the Council was often one of restraining excesses. Para. 45 and 46 will look more closely at the kinds of skill expected for liturgical reform. I can speak for myself and admit that in the late 1960’s and on through my college chaplain years as a priest that I was riding a “wave of enthusiasm” without enough training in the many facets of excellent worship. On the other hand, some of the excesses embodied sentiments that helped the Church, particularly an attitude of inclusivity and welcome. That I have no regrets about.
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