The Renewal of the Liturgy 50 Years Later
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), completed by the Second Vatican Council in December 1963, set in motion the most far-reaching liturgical reform in Catholic history.
The initiation of this momentous change within the Catholic Church in America came on the heels of the social and political upheaval of the 1960s that included civil rights marches, demonstrations for women’s liberation, and protests against the Vietnam War. Historians and theologians alike would look back on the sixties as a watershed in our political and religious culture—the end of the modern era and the beginning of postmodernism.
The council voted by a margin of 2,147 to 4 to approve the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy—the first of sixteen documents of Vatican II. These teachings would bring about a profound reform of the liturgy and also open up new questions about how to understand our ancient heritage today. The Catholic Church in America would soon feel the reverberations of the decisions reached in Rome as changes in the liturgy appeared in parishes worldwide.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II sprang out of nowhere. The background can be traced to the nineteenth century, when a liturgical movement began in Benedictine monasteries throughout France and Belgium. Historical research brought about a deeper understanding of Catholic liturgy and also revealed the changes it had incurred over the past centuries—changes that were not always for the better.
Originally, liturgy was highly participatory. However, over time it became less the prayer of the whole assembly and more the special province of the clergy alone.
By modern times, most people no longer understood Latin and therefore could not comprehend the prayers. The congregation’s role of making the responses and singing the songs of the Mass had lapsed, leaving these roles to acolytes and the choir. The faithful seldom received Communion and remained silent through much of the Mass.
In sum, the people in the pew had become passive observers of the liturgical action rather than active participants in it.
Pope Pius X’s 1903 statement that “the genuine source of the true Christian spirit” was to be found in active participation in the liturgy was welcomed by liturgical-movement leaders. They produced Latin-English hand missals, published books about the liturgy, and taught at Liturgical Weeks (conferences devoted to liturgical education for priests and religious). This movement soon became a worldwide phenomenon.
Pope Pius XII approved of the Liturgical Movement. He called for the reform of the Holy Week liturgies in the 1950s, a reform of the Breviary, and a simplification of the rubrics (liturgical instructions). When he revised the liturgies of Holy Week, for the first time in history the rubrics included explicit instructions about not only the priest’s role but also that of the people.
By the time Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II in 1963, the desire for reform was strong. The council fathers approved a thorough reform of the liturgy and identified active participation in the liturgy as the pastoral goal to be considered “before all else.”
At the heart of the liturgical reform was a profound theological commitment to celebrate the paschal mystery: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The faithful are immersed into this mystery by baptism and live it out through all the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
The council fathers called for the reform of the Mass, sacraments, and Liturgy of the Hours. They wanted the rites to be simpler and more accessible. It was recommended that repetitive and confusing elements that had crept in through the ages be pruned away so the main actions of the celebration could be seen more clearly.
Music and art that didn’t adhere to the form and spirit of the liturgy were to be replaced. The fathers encouraged choirs to be maintained, but not at the expense of or to replace congregational singing.
Latin would be used along with modern languages. The calendar was reformed to emphasize the main seasons that celebrated the mystery of Christ and ensure that secondary elements, like the celebrations of the saints, wouldn’t overshadow them.
Reform would also bring new treasures to light from the storehouse of the Church’s history. New prayers that drew on ancient sources would enrich the liturgy along with the inclusion of more Scripture readings. Communion, under both forms, would be available on some occasions.
The fathers also wanted liturgy to be adapted to the various peoples around the globe, allowing a diversity of cultures to find expression in the rites of the Church. The theologian Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ, who was present at the council as an advisor, remarked that Vatican II was the beginning of the “world Church.” No longer would Catholicism see itself primarily as a European community.
The work of many generations of missionaries had borne fruit: All portions of the globe were represented at the council and would be embraced by its reforms.
Ecumenism and Evangelization
Pope John XXIII had four objectives for the council: updating to the times, renewal of the faithful, ecumenism, and evangelization. Liturgical reform was considered the foundation for furthering all four because liturgy is the most central act of the Church—an expression of the Church’s deepest identity.
By returning to the roots of tradition in the liturgy, the Church became better able to overcome the division between Catholics and other Christians. Some of these Christian groups had been separated since the eleventh century by the great schism with the East, others since the sixteenth-century Western Reformation. Some divisions remain, but we’re much closer than we were.
Dialogue with other world religions, especially Judaism, also flowed from the council. The increase in biblical readings from the Old Testament helped Catholics to cherish a more positive relationship with the Jews. (Before Vatican II, 1 percent of the readings heard at Mass were from the Old Testament; after, it rose to 17 percent.)
In general, the Church began to appear less like a fortress and more like a bridge-builder. The addition of the Prayer of the Faithful and the Sign of Peace, gave Catholics a sense of solidarity through faith-filled relationships within the community and in the rest of the world.
After Vatican II
Most of the principles enunciated by Vatican II were put into practice from 1963 to 1975 by revising the liturgical books and implementing the changes. Indeed most of the phenomena people associate with Vatican II took place not at the council itself but in the period immediately following.
Altars were turned around so that Mass could be celebrated facing the people. More English was used in the liturgy. Communion was offered standing and in the hand. The restoration of the catechumenate (RCIA) made its appearance, and the rite of baptism for children included roles for parents as well as godparents—to name just a few of the changes.
After this time of industrious and creative expansion, the Church settled down to become more deeply rooted in the reforms of the rites. In 1985, Pope John Paul II said—echoing the Synod of Bishops—that most people experienced the fruit of the council primarily through liturgical reform, and they had embraced it.
Not all Catholics were happy with the reforms. For some the changes came too quickly and interrupted either their personal piety or their sense of value toward rites that predated the council. Through the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, continuous refinement of the reforms was called into question by those who wished to either go back to the preconcilior liturgy or reconstruct the reform along different lines.
Nevertheless, liturgical reform continues to flourish. It has assisted the phenomenal growth of the Church in Africa and Asia. It continues to provide a strong experience of active participation that engenders a sense of community and mission in parishes and dioceses worldwide.
The liturgical reforms of Vatican II walk hand in hand with the new evangelization, ecumenism, and the love of sacred Scripture. They’ve made Catholicism more responsive to both the ancient truths of the faith and the demands and needs of the modern world.
What About My Parish?
In the end, the test of reform lies in the way it’s implemented in local communities. Full celebration of the paschal mystery includes music that expresses the beauty and meaning of the celebration, preaching that inspires, and full participation of the faithful who offer themselves with Christ in the sacrament of the altar.
The work of Vatican II continues through daily efforts to celebrate the liturgy so that all are sent forth renewed, to bring Christ’s love to the world.