(Left) A session of Vatican Council II held in St. Peter's Basilica; (right) Pope Francis celebrates Mass in St. Peter's Basilica Nov. 4. (CNS photos)
years ago today, December 4, 1963, Pope Paul VI solemnly promulgated the Second
Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.
To mark the 50th anniversary of this significant document, Catholic World
Report spoke with liturgical scholar and writer Dom Alcuin Reid, OSB, author
Organic Development of the Liturgy and
a specialist in 20th-century liturgical reform, about the constitution, the
reform that followed it, and the importance of Sacrosanctum Concilium
order to have some necessary context, what should be known about the liturgical renewal movement that lead up to the Second
Alcuin Reid: The liturgical movement of
the 20th century arose from currents in the previous centuries which promoted
the Sacred Liturgy as the primary source of the spiritual life and which sought
to enable people to partake of the treasures of our liturgical tradition.
People such as Saint Guiseppe Maria Tomasi (1649-1713) and Dom Prosper
Guéranger (1805-1875) come to mind as promoters of this.
In the 20th
century itself, Saint Pius X gave great impetus to these currents by speaking
of the necessity of the restoration of the “true Christian spirit” and of all
the faithful “acquiring this spirit
from its indispensable fount, which is the active participation in the holy
mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church”i.e., the Sacred
had a great impact. The Belgian monk Dom Lambert Beauduin and others organized
this call into what became known as the “liturgical movement.” It spread
quickly throughout Europe and across the world. Dom Virgil Michel of
Collegeville, Minnesota brought it to the United States, and through his
journal Orate Fratres and other publications gave the movement great
impetus throughout Anglophone countries.
movement’s aims were simple: to enable ordinary Catholics to participate in the
liturgical rites of the Church so that they could draw from that wellspring of
grace all that they needed to sustain daily Christian life. The initiatives of
many pioneers in this period are inspiring, and are worth revisiting today.
aim raised a question: was ritual reform needed to facilitate people’s
participation in the liturgy? Discussion of this gathered momentum from the
1930s (Pius X had himself reformed the breviary), and after the Second World
War Pius XII established a commission for liturgical reform whose brief was to
work toward a general reform of the liturgy of the Roman rite. This commission
produced reforms of Holy Week, the liturgical calendar, the rubrics of the
breviary and missal, etc. that were implemented in the decade before the
are differing assessments of these reforms and of the principles from which
some of the reformers were operating, but the overall aim was to facilitate
that fruitful participation in or connection with action of Christ in the
Sacred Liturgy as the basis of Christian life for all Catholics.
then the need for Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC]?
It is probably true to say
that if Blessed John XXIII had not convoked an ecumenical council the
liturgical reform begun by Pius XII would have continued gradually over the
years, if not decades, to come. It’s difficult to say that there was a
pre-existent “need” for Sacrosanctum Concilium, but once a council had
been called it was natural enough that it would consider matters of liturgical
SC was the first of the 16 documents of
the Council. Why was it the first? Is that surprising, considering that the
Council is widely understood as being focused on ecclesiology?
The liturgy being debated
and promulgated first is undoubtedly due to the fact that there had been at
least a decade of liturgical reform previously―the bishops had already been engaged in this question―as well as the fundamental importance of its subject. As
Pope Paul VI said when promulgating it, “our
first required duty is to bring prayers to God” and in considering the Sacred
Liturgy first of all, “the right order of things…has been conserved.”
need to be a bit careful about saying that the Council was “focused on
ecclesiology” as if this occludes everything else the Council did. Certainly
Vatican II teaches an important ecclesiology, and looking back there is a
temptation to read the orientations of later documents into earlier ones.
Historically, however, Paul VI did not wait for the Council’s ecclesiology to
be articulated before beginning the work of implementing Sacrosanctum
Concilium. That work began in earnest early in 1964, within months of its
promulgation, [at which point] there were still two sessions of the Council
school of thought exists which interprets Vatican II as an “event,” whereby is
meant that the Council canonized an overriding and ongoing dynamic process of
changeoverriding, that is, the
specific provisions of conciliar constitutions and the contexts in which they
were formulated, and ongoing in that this view insist that these texts must be
re-interpreted today in the light of this dynamic: “What would the Council have
said now,” etc. This elevation of process into a hyper-hermeneutic is utterly
foreign to the historical reality of Council itself. This following of a
so-called “spirit of the Council” rather than its “letter” is a way of reading
into the Council documents whatever one wishes regardless of what they in fact
what does SC say?
There is no substitute for
reading the constitution itselfwhich would be a good way
in which to mark its 50th anniversary. As a guide, firstly it teaches a
liturgical theology developed amidst the currents of 20th century theological
and liturgical renewal. Let’s be clear that the Council does not define any
liturgical dogma: one can respectfully prefer another style of liturgical
theology and remain a Catholic in good standing. Nevertheless, it articulates
its theology of the liturgy which has much to offer.
the constitution articulates its raison d’être: because the Sacred
Liturgy is the “the
summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed [and] at the same
time it is the font from which all her power flows,” a widespread program of
liturgical formation and a moderate reform of the liturgical rites are to be
carried out in order to facilitate true the participation of all in the Sacred
Liturgy. These are its fundamental
principles; if we lose sight of them or ignore their interdependence we will
interpret the remainder of the constitution erroneously.
liturgical principles follow, as do more contingent ones which express the
policy decisions taken by the Council which are intended to further the
implementation of its fundamental principles. These policies are outlined in
the remainder of the constitution.
important to noteparticularly 50 years laterthat these policies are not doctrines
and that whilst they were judged apposite then, it may well be that in the
light of subsequent experience, and indeed of changed circumstances, different
policies may be appropriate today. For example, the constitution stated that “a
suitable place” may given to vernacular languages in the Mass, whereas today it
would be necessary to say that “a suitable place may be given to the Latin
Catholics, if asked about changes to liturgy, do focus immediately on Latin (or
its absence) and the use of the vernacular, of the celebration of Mass “ad
orientem” and “versus populum,” and the notion of “active participation.” What
did SC actually say about those
The Council called for participatio
actuosa, which is primarily our internal connection with the liturgical
actionwith what Jesus Christ is
doing in his Church in the liturgical rites. This participation is about where
my mind and heart are. Our external actions in the liturgy serve and facilitate
this. But participatio actuosa is not first and foremost external
activity, or performing a particular liturgical ministry. That, unfortunately,
has been a common misconception of the Council’s desire.
Council allowed an “extended” place for the vernacular in the liturgical rites
whilst stating that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved.” This is
a typical example of the many nuances of the constitution, which called for a
moderate reform on the basis of retaining sound tradition whilst being open to
legitimate progress. It spoke similarly when it said that the treasury of
sacred music was “to be preserved” and that Gregorian chant was to “be given
pride of place in liturgical functions,” whilst allowing “other kinds of sacred
music” provided “they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.”
may be surprising to learn that Sacrosanctum Concilium did not ask for,
recommend, or order the celebration of Mass facing the people (versus
populum). Nor did it call for the inclusion of new Eucharistic prayers in
the Mass. These and other sensitive changes to the liturgy were made after the constitution
was promulgated and are not directly attributable to the Council itself.
why the difference between the constitution and the reformed rites? What
Pope Paul VI appointed a
commission to implement Sacrosanctum Concilium. There was nothing
unusual in thatmuch the same took place after the Council of Trent. But it is a
fact that from the moment this “Consilium”
began its work in 1964―if not before―there were sharply divergent views as to
the direction the reform should take. Personal agendas and ecclesiastical
politics played their partone only needs to read the memoirs of the secretary
of the Consilium, Archbishop
Bugnini (The Reform of the Liturgy, Liturgical Press, 1990), to learn
the extent of them. There were even serious disagreements between the Consilium and Paul VI at times.
There was also a certain opportunism on the part of some of the Consilium’s officials and
consulters. It is as if they were seeing “how far they could go,” with the
result that the moderate reform called for by the constitution, with its
nuanced provisions, was quickly left behind and rites that reflected both
personal enthusiasms and political compromises were produced. In his memoirs
Bugnini himself boasts that, in respect to the reform, the saying “fortune favors
the brave” came true.
rites were authoritatively promulgated, of course, and they are valid. But it
is a more than open question as to whether they are in fact the reform desired
by the Fathers of the Council, the organic development of liturgical tradition
for which Sacrosanctum Concilium called.
talked about the official work of reform. But how was the liturgical reform
implemented on the ground?
There was a
very widespread attitude in the life of the Church―not
only in respect to the Sacred Liturgy―that “Vatican II changed all that.” This is
the popular slogan that summaries what Benedict XVI called “a hermeneutic of
rupture.” This is what the “spirit
of the Council” meant at grass-roots level.
change not continuity was the order of the day in many places, with little
regard for Sacrosanctum Concilium or even for the official directives
coming from the Consilium or
from dioceses and episcopal conferences. Liturgical abuses and unauthorized
experimentation were not uncommon. The Holy See and many bishops tried to stop
these, but in some ways the gate had been opened by the “spirit of the Council” and the horse had well and truly bolted.
were also the issues of hurried and faulty vernacular translations―an
issue only recently rectified for English-speakers; of iconoclasm in the
re-ordering of churches whereby much that was good and well-loved was rapidly
and unnecessarily disposed of or even destroyed; of unsuitable music introduced
into the liturgy in spite of what the Council laid down, and so on. These
things were never intended by the Fathers of the Council or by the constitution.
it has taken decades to begin to correct the damage that was done, thankfully
the days of widespread abuse of the liturgy and of experimentation are largely
over. Blessed John Paul II reasserted liturgical discipline many times. [More
recently] Pope Francis and Pope Benedict before him have spoken about the
importance of beauty in the liturgy. Indeed Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum
Caritatis (2007) is, in many ways, a charter for liturgical healing and
authentic renewal along the lines the Council desired.
seem to be two great temptations regarding the liturgy in our time, the first
being to make it “relevant” and even entertaining, the second being to make it
insular and almost museum-like, with a fixation on esoteric details. How does SC help avoid these two extremes?
The Sacred Liturgy is
relevant to each of us because of what its true nature is: it is the saving
action of Jesus Christ in his Church. Sacrosanctum Concilium is very
clear about this. Through the liturgy we are made Christians (baptism, confirmation,
and first Holy Communion), formed and sustained in our Christian life (Holy
Mass and the regular reception of the Blessed Eucharist, liturgical prayer such
as the Divine Office, the Blessings, etc.), given the graces required for our
particular vocations (matrimony, holy orders), and strengthened and healed as
necessary (penance, anointing of the sick, rites of Christian burial, etc.).
What could be more relevant?
yes, when the true nature of the liturgy is not understood the temptation is to
make of the liturgy something that is appealing or “relevant” primarily to
those who will be present. An objective sense of celebrating the liturgy of the
Church is lost, leading to that subjectivity whereby, as Cardinal Ratzinger
once observed, “the community celebrates itself.” And of course once we go down
this path there is the need to be constantly doing something new and different
so that the “audience” does not become “bored.” No, the liturgy is not
entertainment, it is ritual worship―the ritual worship of the
Church, given to us in tradition and not made up by usrather, it is
something we celebrate faithfully and as fully as we are able.
can be, as you say, a tendency to make the liturgy a museum exhibit, something
untouchable, to almost put it “behind glass” as it were. In part this may be a
reaction to the extremes and abuses of previous decades and to the liturgical
subjectivity that still exists in many places. People can become
hyper-sensitive when questions of changing the liturgy arise. As mentioned, Sacrosanctum
Concilium speaks of retaining sound tradition whilst being open to
legitimate progress. This is not a new or a “modernist” idea: the history of
the liturgy shows its organic development. The liturgy must develop,
organically, over time. Benedict XVI spoke of augmenting the Missale Romanum
of 1962 with newly canonized saints and more prefaces, etc., and that would be
a welcome and natural development, certainly.
very happy development since the Council is the widespread expectation of those
who are regularly present at liturgical rites of participating in them. This is
true for celebrations of the newer and of the older rites. When there is such
participation, we are not looking at a museum piece, regardless of whether its
date is 1570/1962 or 1970/2002.
about the older rites that Benedict XVI liberated, as it were, in 2007? Some
have seen this act as a rejection of the liturgical reform of the Council.
It was certainly a
striking and historical statement about the liturgical reform that followed the
Council. That a pope found it necessary to address the fact that the liturgy
had become such a point of division, and therefore to seek reconciliation
within the Church as well as the reconciliation of the Church with her
liturgical tradition by clearly establishing that the pre-conciliar rites were
permitted and indeed valuable, is a singular moment in liturgical history. I
don’t think it says that much about Sacrosanctum Concilium itself,
except perhaps implicitly that its language did at times permit of differing
interpretations, if not exploitation. Rather, it is an indictment of the
direction the liturgical reform took afterwards. It may also underline the view
that we have not in fact seen the liturgical reform as desired by the Fathers
of the Council.
should note that the Council never intended to produce one uniform “modern
rite” that would be imposed throughout the Western Church as the Missale
Romanum of 1970 was. It intended moderately to reform the received
liturgical tradition, a tradition which included the differing rites of
religious orders and also of some ancient dioceses. The “triumph” of the Missal
of Paul VI over these rites (another notable event in liturgical history) is
not attributable to Sacrosanctum Concilium. The constitution respects
legitimate liturgical diversity. In the light of that one can say that the
continued use of the usus antiquior―the older ritesor indeed the Church’s welcoming of
the rites of the Anglican Ordinariates, are not opposed to the Council,
particularly when the celebration of such rites serves the constitution’s raison
d’être―which indeed they do.
we haven’t seen the
liturgical reform as desired by the Fathers of the Council? This raises the
question of a “reform of the reform.” Where would that leave SC and the Council in general?
In many ways
it would allow us to realize its liturgical reform for the first time. Taking
the “reform of the reform” seriously is really a matter of justice to Sacrosanctum
Concilium and to the liturgical tradition preceding the Council. The modern
rites, both on paper and as they are most often celebrated, do lack some
elements of “sound tradition” which the Council wished to retain. Whilst it
remains in the modern liturgical books (because Paul VI overruled the Consilium’s wishes on this),
how often is the Eucharistic prayer of the Roman rite, the Roman Canon
(Eucharistic Prayer I), in fact used? What happened to the ancient Octave of
Pentecost? And so on. Fifty years after the constitution’s promulgation, it is
indeed a good time to re-read it and to ask exactly what it intended―and
perhaps also, what it did not.
this 50th anniversary of SC, what is
the one thing we should recall about it?
We cannot return often enough to
the constitution’s raison
the Sacred Liturgy is the source and summit of the life and mission of the
Church, we must form people to be able to participate fruitfully in it. Ritual
reform itself is not what is essential: being able to drink the living water
offered by he who comes to us in the Sacred Liturgy is.