Why the Liturgy? Looking Back at Vatican II

Liturgy is the source and summit of the Christian life. Simply put, it’s a big deal.


Like me, many of you probably associate Vatican II with the changes in the liturgy, the liturgical year, sacred music, and sacred art and sacred furnishings. I got a heavy dose of this and all that jazz at my Catholic high school in Chicago. During high school Masses, I had to suffer through Brother Rich’s conga jam sessions. While I wasn’t overly annoyed, I had a hard time actively partaking in the essentials of the Mass. Despite the sheer wonder of his ability to almost turn the communion line into a conga line, Brother Rich and his congas kind of got in the way. Is this what Vatican II wanted?


A basic history of what culminated in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, elaborating on the importance it gives to full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy, our participation in the Trinity made possible through the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s passion, resurrection from the dead, and glorious ascension is necessary to understand where we are today. While some may think too much emphasis was given after the council to an aspect of active participation, the problem was that not enough attention was given to its meaning. As Dr. Denis McNamara has explained on the Liturgy Guys Podcast, active participation came to be solely understood as external participation (gestures, singing, responding) without seeing it as conducive to internal participation which is understanding, experiencing, and being transformed. If we are not interiorly praising God and transformed by the grace of Christ, then what is the point of Mass? Surely, it’s not a just community-building activity!


I believe Matthew Levering says that the Church shares in Christ’s offices by partaking in the life of Christ given in the sacramental life that flows out from the Eucharist. Yes, the Church is the assembly that listens to the Word of God, but it is more than that. Yes, it exists because the Lord is present wherever two or three are gathered in His name. But, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “in the Eucharist, Christ, present in the bread and the wine and giving Himself anew, builds the Church as His Body and through His Risen Body He unites us to the one and triune God and to each other.” The Mass is at the heart of renewing the church by connecting the mystical body with its Head, Christ, the superabundant source of the supernatural life. Liturgical renewal goes back to Trent. But it was particularly Popes Pius X, Pius XI and Pius XII who encouraged and supported the Liturgical Movement which finds its culmination in Sacrosanctum Concilium. Before getting into the document, let me give a brief overview of this important historical movement.


The work of 19th century French Benedictine monk Abbot Prosper Gueranger of Solesmes Abbey deepened appreciation for the liturgy and its centrality in the Church. Monasticism fell in decline during the French Revolution when the National Assembly prohibited all religious vows in 1790. Thanks to the efforts of Abbot Gueranger, Benedictine monasticism slowly revived in the 19th century. His fifteen-volume The Liturgical Year would inspire what became known as the Liturgical Movement. At the time there were many different missals being used in the Roman Rite. Back in 1570 Pope Pius V standardized the Roman Missal as the norm for the Latin Church. However, it took a long time for that to catch on given political entanglements. Abbot Guerranger initiated a return to the Roman Missal.

Another important figure was the great Belgian Benedictine, Dom Lambert Beauduin who wrote the very influential Liturgy the Life of the Church. Beauduin had a great influence on Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII. The Liturgical Movement wanted “to renew all things in Christ”, with “active participation” of the faithful in the most holy mysteries, mainly the Liturgy. The Mass is where we receive the “superabundant source of all supernatural life” from our Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ. Beauduin says that the sanctifying power of Jesus Christ is “not exercised here below except through the ministry of a visible sacerdotal (priestly) hierarchy.” The Mystical Body must be united to its Head, Jesus Christ, and it is through union with the hierarchy in the exercise of its priesthood that every soul is united with the priesthood of Christ. He writes: “The Eternal Priest has communicated to this hierarchy the very energies of His sanctifying power, through it he realizes the sanctification of the new humanity”...and “the soul that is desirous of living under the sanctifying influence of Christ (and is not that the intense desire of every interior soul?) will have nothing so much at heart as the maintenance of an intimate and continuous contact with the priestly acts of the visible hierarchy.” Those “priestly acts” are in the liturgy which culminates in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Pope Pius X called for frequent and active participation in the liturgy as the source of all piety. Pius XI called the laity not to be “strangers and silent spectators” in the liturgy. Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei wanted to root the faithful’s devotional life in the liturgy. Before moving on from Beauduin, I want to quote a nice summary of his theology. He deductively shows his reasoning this way:


“The life of God is in Christ, the life of Christ is in the hierarchy of the Church. The hierarchy realizes this life in the souls by its priestly power, and this priestly power is exercised in the authentic acts performed according to the liturgical books: MIssal, Breviary, Ritual….etc.”


Do not read into this a power structure but a hierarchical mediation of grace that reflects the trinitarian and sacramental mediation of the Church.


The Liturgical Movement encourages understanding the Mass as a movement through Christ to the Father by the Spirit. Active participation in the liturgical acts and prayers of the Church are important, but let’s not get overly fussy. In following the rubrics of the Mass, we cannot forget “the divine reality behind them.”


Liturgy has a two-fold purpose. It is the “official divine service of the Church for the (1) glory of God and (2) the sanctification of the faithful. It is the re-presentation (doing over, the making present again) of the redemptive act accomplished in the Paschal Mystery.


Active participation means knowing what you’re doing when you’re glorifying God in the liturgy and celebrating it as the Church asks. You’re partaking in the Paschal Mystery, the wellspring of life. Vatican II made every attempt to help the faithful partake in these mysteries, having it shape their entire lives for the life of the world. The story of how Sacrosanctum Concilium was implemented in post-conciliar documents is complicated. Many of the liturgical abuses the Church has tried to correct in recent years are not explicitly legitimated in Sacrosanctum Concilium. The practical guidelines for the reform of the liturgy were not concretely defined, so there was much confusion about their proper implementation. The constitution itself was not controversial at the time. It was approved by the assembled bishops with a vote of 2,147 to 4. The reform of the liturgy was in the works for a long time.


Let’s look at some parts of the constitution that cover active participation and reform. Article 50 demands:


The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, may be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved.


For this purpose the rites are to be simplified, due care being taken to preserve their substance; elements which, which the passage of time, came to be duplicated, or were added with but little advantage, are now to be discarded; other elements which have suffered injury through accidents of history are now to be restored to the vigor which they had in the days of the holy Fathers, as may seem useful or necessary.


Shaving off the inessential aspects of the rite will help the church better focus on its essentials.


As mentioned before, active participation of the faithful in the liturgy is external and internal, but primarily internal. It is knowing what you’re doing in the liturgical act and being transformed by it. To promote active participation the council encourages people to take part “by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times, all should observe a reverent silence.” These are all in service to internal participation, namely, understanding, experiencing, and being transformed.


The rites were to be simplified so that we wouldn’t lose focus on the essentials of the Mass. Also, many liturgists of the Catholic Enlightenment found that the ritual had suffered change and decay. They called for liturgical reform. Active participation would be facilitated by bringing back greater simplicity to the Mass. The restoration of the liturgy would bring us back to the sources and concentrate on Jesus Christ. This was not a capitulation to Protestant criticism but a restoration in Christ.


The principles of liturgical reform were rather general, and Consilium, the Council for Implementing the Constitution on the Liturgy headed by Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, had to further elaborate those principles. Five instructions on the proper implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium were given. But before you jump to a conclusion about the intention of those implementing the reform, I want to point out the importance they gave to active participation in the Paschal Mystery. In 1964, Consilium said:


“Pastoral activity guided toward the liturgy has its power in being a living experience of the paschal mystery…”


As the council teaches, the sacred liturgy is the source and summit of our life and mission (article 10), the one action not surpassed in efficacy by any other action. Pope Benedict wrote, “Our faith and the eucharistic liturgy both have their source in the same event: Christ's gift of himself in the Paschal Mystery.”


In his Motu Propio on the Sacred Liturgy, Paul VI said that reason for the care given to the reform of the liturgy is that quoting article 8 in Sacrosanctum Concilium, “in the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem, toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle. With all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory: venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, until he, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with him in glory.” There you see the two ends of the sacred liturgy: 1. Glorification of God 2. Sanctification of humanity.


Pope Paul VI wanted all Christians to study the Constitution so as to better understand the Mass. He wanted active participation. He gave approval to the bishops to implement the reform within certain restrictions mandated by the Apostolic See. However, as many of you know, there were serious errors resulting from the misinterpretation of the Council which led to tensions within the Church. John Paul II attempted to correct these errors in his Apostolic Letter on the 25th Anniversary of the Constitution, noting that the message of the Council has been experienced principally through liturgical reform. Getting the reform of the liturgy right as proposed in the Constitution is important for the renewal of the Church sought by the Council Fathers.


Thankfully, Pope Benedict clarified the meaning of active participation as the Council intended it in his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis:


It should be made clear that the word "participation" does not refer to mere external activity during the celebration. In fact, the active participation called for by the Council must be understood in more substantial terms, on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to daily life. The conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium encouraged the faithful to take part in the eucharistic liturgy not "as strangers or silent spectators," but as participants "in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, actively and devoutly" (156). This exhortation has lost none of its force. The Council went on to say that the faithful "should be instructed by God's word, and nourished at the table of the Lord's Body. They should give thanks to God. Offering the immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, they should learn to make an offering of themselves. Through Christ, the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and each other" (157).


If you look at that document, Pope Benedict reiterates many things in Sacrosanct Concilium, like the need for seminarians to be prepared to celebrate the Mass in Latin and teach the faithful to sing parts of the liturgy in Gregorian chant. In his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum Pope Benedict wrote that the Roman Missal promulgated by John XXIII in 1962 was never abrogated, extending a hand to some of those groups who still cherished that Missal. What was once holy is always holy. This does not mean Pope Benedict was nostalgic for the old mass. Many council fathers did not foresee the extreme changes that would happen after the council like exceptions becoming norms. The popular perception was that the council was changing everything, especially the liturgy. The situation in the Church today is still tense regarding the Mass. If that is the heart of the Church’s renewal, the many questions on whether or not Vatican II truly effected renewal are important.

The post-Vatican II chaos is subsiding, letting many scholars see the form of Christ in the council. John XXIII’s hope for the reform of the Church through a Council is slowly being realized as pastors are being better educated in the meaning of active participation, imbuing themselves in the spirit and power of the liturgy. Sacrosanctum Concilium is a blessing for the Church and should not cause division. I urge you to study this Constitution, calling your pastors to truly bring the reform of the liturgy to your parish so that all the faithful may draw abundant grace from the well-spring of eternal life, Jesus Christ.