ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
11. But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain  . Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.
I should confess that today’s post went through several drafts before its final posting—and you may wish it had gone through a few more. Paragraph 11 can be read several different ways. One might argue that the text states the obvious about the need for proper disposition and preparation in the celebration of sacraments. I have no argument with the principle.
That said, there is an abundance of directive for the laity; the only directive here for “pastors of souls” is to make sure the laity have done their homework, so to speak. I am pleased to say that para. 14 will adjust this imbalance by addressing clerical responsibilities at some length, but para. 11 still leaves the impression that responsibility for access to God’s grace rests solely with the efforts of the faithful.
In truth, the role of the laity was only vaguely defined prior to Vatican II, and remains so after this writing. I found a statement from Pope Pius X from the introduction of a 1961 daily missal: “If you wish to hear [sic] Mass as it should be heard, you must follow with eye, ear, and mouth all that happens at the Altar. Further, you must pray with the Priest the holy words said by him in the Name of Christ and which Christ says by him. You have to associate your heart with the hold with the holy feeling which are contained in these words and in this manner you ought to follow all that happens on the Altar. When acting in this way you have prayed Holy Mass.”
Pius X used the popular phrase of the time “hear Mass” in describing the liturgy; he stressed a mental sort of association between faithful and priest; he urged the laity to “follow with the eye, heart, and ear.” This was an optimistic directive given that Mass was celebrated with the priest facing the altar, not the congregation; the language was Latin; except in high Masses the words of the priest were not acclaimed to be audible in any language. Oral participation was limited to the altar boys trained in Latin. Again, one is left with the impression that lay participation is more thoughtful than anything else, particularly considering the church architecture of the time—which is still problematic in many places today. If participation at Mass is officially viewed as a private mental exercise, seeing the altar and the rituals was ultimately inconsequential to valid attendance at Mass.
At the time of Pius X’s teaching—and continuing into Vatican II—the catechetics of the time defined sacraments as “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” The sign element in the 1900’s celebration of Mass was probably more obscure than earlier in the Church’s history, as in Henry VIII’s day when popular belief held that gazing upon the elevation of a newly consecrated host at Mass guaranteed that the attendees would not die on that day. Henry VIII always attended Mass before hunts. Both Pius X and Pius XII recognized to varying degrees that the rite of the Mass in use before Vatican II—the Roman Missal of the Council of Trent around 1570—had many deficiencies. Pius X called for more frequent reception of holy communion; Pius XII encouraged the use of a daily missal in the local language to improve understanding and participation. The daily missal—which I started using in the third or fourth grade—was a great help to me, but very few people used them; they were not available in church pews.
Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) and many other conciliar documents call for a return to full participation of the faithful and the clearest expression of the sacramental signs. We saw in para. 7 a few weeks back, “In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy, the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.” The rites were thus renewed accordingly, with the Eucharist among the first and Penance among the last. But para. 11 muddies the waters some with its insistence that the faithful must be “saved before they are saved,” so to speak. There is slight mention of saving grace—the undeserved saving mercy of God; the idea that one receives this grace “in vain” has me scratching my head.
The hope of the Church fathers at the Council was a renewal of sacramental rites that would make them both self-explanatory and humanly stimulating. Have you attended the baptism of a child at a parish Mass where the officiating priest explains each step of the rite before he undertakes it? If there is a need for detailed celebration, the action has stopped serving as a self-explanatory sign and turned into a classroom. Para. 11, in talking about this problem, speaks of the pastor’s role of making sure that the faithful take part fully aware of what “they” [the faithful] are doing.
Certainly, another of the hopes of the Council was that better celebration of sacramental rites would not just retain the present-day Catholics of the 1960’s but energize the base toward more outreach and bring more souls to the Eucharistic banquet. Many have argued that the “new Mass” did the opposite and drove some Catholics into the arms of traditionalist or schismatic folds. I do not hold that position: I celebrate the liturgical renewal and believe that it staunched a faster decline in membership for a time.
Where I think the problem lies is in a failure of the Church to understand that the Mass is a celebration of the Holy Spirit, not a testimony to institutional loyalty and structure. So much of the legislation since the Council has been devoted to “correctness;” para. 11 itself makes mention of the “laws governing valid and licit celebration.” Research does exist (one example here) about how Catholics feel about their parish experiences, and among the most frequently cited concerns involve liturgy are preaching and church music, two areas where the faithful have little recourse but to vote with their feet.
Happy New Year on the Feast of the Virgin Mary. If you are looking about for an intriguing religious read over the weekend, may I suggest Kenneth Woodward's 2016 release about religious life in the U.S. over the past half century, Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama. Woodward was the religion editor of Newsweek Magazine for many decades. I am using portions of this work for our Morality Monday series, as Woodward has excellent insights on the Catholic Church (he is Catholic), but his scope is the entire sweep of religion in American culture and politics. If you missed the Catholic turmoil of the 1960's, here is a chance to catch up, in context of hindsight. This work is available on Kindle, among other media.
On My Mind