ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
10. Nevertheless the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time, it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord's supper.
The liturgy in its turn moves the faithful, filled with "the paschal sacraments," to be "one in holiness" ; it prays that "they may hold fast in their lives to what they have grasped by their faith" ; the renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire. From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way.
Paragraph 10 of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy contains the famous phrase that still appears in every church bulletin and religious educational endeavor: with some local variations, it appears as “the Sacred Liturgy is the source and the summit of all life in the Church.” The only phrase I can think of from the Council that rivals this one is the wording from Gaudium et Spes that “marriage is both unitive and procreative.” In the case of the Liturgy, the immediate consideration is whether the pronouncement in the first paragraph is a fact or a hope.
At moments like this I sorely miss one of the majestic commentaries of the Council proceedings, the five-volume 1967 work edited by Herbert Vorgrimler. I thought this would be a helpful addition to our Saturday stream, but I discovered this morning that a new set—when you can find one--runs to $2000. This work was such a staple of seminary libraries in my school days that I shudder to think how many volumes ended up in dumpsters or obscure book stores for $9.98. However, there is advantage to allowing historians to do their work and sleuthing down all the private meeting minutes, etc. About twenty years ago, Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak edited a five-volume study of the Council, which runs to about $400 in Amazon Prime currency. George Weigel, Pope John Paul II’s official biographer, has an excellent review here of Volume III, which includes discussion of our posted document on the Sacred Liturgy. Weigel also complained that the work was too expensive.
Weigel has an interesting phrase about the Council, the tendency of historians to describe the four-year conclave as “the cowboys against the Indians,” in this case the liberal academicians of Europe and friendly bishops versus the Vatican conservatives, headed by our old friend Cardinal Ottaviani. I raise this point here because the issues surrounding liturgical reform have played out with considerable acrimony since the Council, and I would certainly love to know how the Council, in its working meetings and countless tête-à-têtes at the Bar Jonah, arrived at the formulation of the Liturgy in para. 10. If memory serves correctly, only four Council fathers voted against Sacrosanctum Concilium, but subsequent history does not support that level of unity.
As para. 10 reads, the Liturgy (I believe the editorial emphasis is upon the Sunday Eucharist) is the peak moment in Catholic life toward which our personal and communal existence is focused. The word “liturgy” can be traced to the Greek for “works” or “public works.” As I read the statement, the Church is teaching a focus or centering on the Eucharist of the Day of the Lord’s Resurrection, Sunday. Presumably the document will spell out an agenda of preparation—spiritual and practical. The second paragraph describes the benefits from which the liturgy is the source.
The interesting thing here is that the second paragraph could have come from Vatican I, or the Council of Trent, or back considerably further. Prior to Vatican II’s teaching, the Liturgy was certainly the source of all good graces. Every idiom or paradigm I can recall spoke of the Eucharist as something of a one-way process in which a duly ordained priest or bishop, “another Christ” in the context of the Mass, confects or makes possible the divine presence in the consecrated bread and wine. The presiding priest or bishop was a sine qua non. Without him there could be no Mass. The language of ownership at the time was revealing. Priests spoke of “my Mass” and the privilege of offering Mass daily was at the heart and soul of priestly identity.
Today, with many fewer priests, it is hard to fathom the circumstances of my own junior seminary, for example, where perhaps 25 priests resided and each offered his private Mass at one of a series of side altars along both walls. I believe we had ten or twelve altars in addition to the high altar. The “seminarians Mass” was offered at the high altar, but eight or ten other Masses might be taking place simultaneously in the same chapel, these side altar Masses being offered sotto voce or rather quietly.
There was certainly very little talk about “the summit,” or about what we as laymen (seminarians) were expected to do personally in terms of our preparation in the “summit and source” model, which did not then exist. The clearest message to all Catholics was to seek confession of mortal sins if one wished to partake of holy communion. In fact, the seminary had a spiritual director who heard confessions seven days a week at 5:45 AM for any seminarian who wished to confess prior to the daily 6 AM Mass. (Father Eric just passed away two weeks ago, at age 93.)
Before the Council a layman attended Mass or heard Mass. Participation equaled a devoted silence. Vatican II, in Sacrosanctum Concilium, changed the thought paradigm about sacraments—notably the Eucharist—with a language that placed the Mass at the center of a dynamic process in which the preconditions of full celebration related directly to the faith, prayer, and life of the Church in which this Mass would now be “concelebrated.” The ideal paradigm of Eucharist was reworked into the ownership, so to speak, of the community of the faithful. The term “priesthood of the faithful” had always been given lip service in catechisms, but now the term carried more meat on the bones.
Vatican II never rescinded the essential role of the priest at Mass, but it certainly labored to make clear that the “other Christ” was actively presiding over a body of Baptized believers with essential roles that now belonged exclusively to them. Our practice of singing at Mass, responding to prayers, proclaiming the Creed and the Our Father, and exercising functions such as lectoring and distributing communion were either restored or instituted in SC. Many priests and many laymen found the Council’s teaching hard to absorb. A number of priests refused to celebrate Eucharist with other priests in what is commonly done today, the concelebrated Mass, and insisted upon saying daily private Masses till they died. I had a visitor to my church one day tell me that he only received communion from a priest. “I don’t receive from civilians!” [Lay Eucharistic Ministers]
Paragraph 10, with its language of inclusiveness and its new emphasis upon the work of the entire Church in the Eucharistic celebration, was a breakthrough in the Council, but one that Pope John XXIII, sadly, did not live to see promulgated universally, as he died earlier in 1963.