Ecumenical councils mark an important time in the Catholic Church’s life. They occur in response to heresy, revolt, confusion of doctrine, or reform outdated ecclesial structures. While the Council of Trent was a more defensive reaction to Protestant polemic, the Second Vatican Council sought to bring aggiornamento, an updating, to the Church. The “walls” constructed by the Church over the centuries were to be dismantled.
Tearing Down of Frivolous, Cumbersome Traditions
The most visible sign of reform ushered in by the Second Vatican Council regarded the liturgy. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the liturgy as the sacred action par excellence is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed and it is likewise the font from which all her powers flow” (CCC 1071-1075). Appropriately, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosantcum concilium, was the first document issued by the Council Fathers. Promulgated on December 4th, 1963, this document set the tone for the rest of the council. The Roman Rite Mass, said completely in Latin prior to the Council, was in need of updating. Superfluous elements had accumulated into its rubrics and a wide gulf existed between the clergy and the laity.
From the onset of the document, Sacrosanctum concilium reiterates the importance of the liturgy: “The liturgy daily builds up those who are in the Church, making of them a holy temple of the Lord” (SC art. 1). Seeing it as the activity that transforms men into the house of the Lord is significant. Too many times, Catholics complain about going to Mass on Sunday because it either interferes with sleep or other events in their life. But if they knew about the life-altering effects the liturgy can have, a change in mentality might occur. The Council advocates an active participation within liturgical worship on the part of the People of God.
Mass is the Source and Summit of the Christian Life
An appreciation for the liturgy cannot occur without learning about its aim and purpose and how it relates to other aspects of the Church. A wonderful passage from the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, succinctly states the liturgy’s importance, “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows” (SC art. 10). This line provided great insight to the Church’s view of liturgy for me. The image of water flowing from a fountain is such a beautiful way to describe the relationship between the Mass and its outpouring of God’s grace upon humans.
The word “summit” in that phrase also invokes another profound image─ a mountain or peak. To speak of the Mass in that way, demonstrates that the purpose of a Christian’s life is to reach to top of the summit, which is done through participation in liturgical activity.
Eucharist and Priesthood Intertwined
Though the fount and summit depict the liturgy in a profound way, it is only through seeing the connection of the liturgy to the priestly office of Christ and the Eucharist that these images can be fully realized. Through the action of Christ the High priest the sanctification of men are accomplished (SC art. 7). When the priest offers bread and wine to God, he is not acting on his own behalf, but rather Christ’s.
The connection between the priesthood and the Eucharist is necessary in explaining the liturgy. If the Mass had an exclusive human element, it would become a mere frivolous activity. However, the Council Fathers stress the point of Christ’s presence within the liturgy. “But he also willed that the work of salvation which they preached should be set in train through the sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves” (SC art. 6). The reason these signs aid us in salvation is through Jesus’ constant presence within the Church’s liturgical celebrations (SC art. 7).
What is the Purpose of the Liturgy?
While the liturgy’s prime objective is directed towards the sanctification of man, it does possess an educational and pastoral nature as well (SC art. 33). Through the visible signs and prayers proclaimed during liturgical worship, the faithful gain a greater understanding of Catholic doctrine. Yet, because of unnecessary wordings and phrases picked up through the centuries preceding the Second Vatican Council, the rites within the liturgy became long and difficult to comprehend. According to the conciliar document, “The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity. They should be short, clear, and free from useless repetitions. They should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (SC art. 34).
Ignorance of Scripture, Ignorance of Christ
A second norm expressed by the Council Fathers advocated a closer link between the rite and words in the liturgy. Ways to implement this standard included greater variety of reading from the sacred scriptures and having the sermon’s content stem from the theme of that particular Sunday’s liturgy (SC art. 35). It was not until I attended an Extraordinary Form Mass that I realized how much reform went toward the restoration of sacred scripture in the liturgy. I took for granted what was lacking in the pre-Vatican II liturgy─ diversity in scripture readings. It is quite amazing how the Council Fathers meticulously delved into the sacred scriptures and developed specific motifs for Sundays and feast days. Such a restoration in the rites and readings helps Catholics better understand and participate in their liturgical experience.
Increasing Active Participation
Besides simplifying rubrics and making scripture more varied, permission to use the vernacular on a wider basis aided in the faithful’s ability to actively participate in the Mass. While Latin remains the norm for the Latin rites, Sacrosanctum concilium emphasizes the importance of incorporating the language of the faithful in the Mass. “But since the use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy, may be frequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use may be made of it”(SC art. 36.2).
The document specifically mentions the readings and prayers in which the mother-tongue may be used. Having the liturgy proclaimed in a language the laity is accustomed to increases their ability to comprehend the Sacred Mystery. As stated in the previous paragraph, my experience with the Extraordinary Form Mass affected how I viewed the Novus Ordo Mass. In the former it was a struggle for me to follow the prayers said in Latin by the priest, while the latter has all the prayers in English the language I grew up learning. Despite, my limited knowledge of the Latin language, I still appreciate its beauty especially when sung.
The Mass Foreshadows Heavenly Worship
Another aspect of the liturgy expounded upon early on in the conciliar document is the eschatological nature of the liturgy. “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, proclaim the Council Fathers” (SC art. 8). After reading this, my view of the liturgy greatly deepened. I always knew the importance of attending Mass weekly and its connection to the other sacraments. I just never stopped to ponder how the liturgy went beyond temporal activity.
All our actions in the liturgy anticipate our participation in the Heavenly worship before God. My understanding before seeing the link between worship of God in earth and heaven was elementary. The liturgy does not only affect humans in their daily lives, but gives them a glimpse of the Heavenly Banquet. Article 8 also depicts Christians as a pilgrim people. Stated in that way, I gained a deeper appreciation for the Eucharist. For each and every Mass can be seen as providing food and strength along life’s journey.
Where are all the Catholics every Sunday?
Such significance of the Eucharist calls to mind an urgent question: why is not every Catholic readily attending Mass on a weekly basis? Well, I think that a prominent problem occurring today in the Church regards the status of one’s participation within the liturgy. Growing up, there were times I felt that the Mass was boring and that I got “nothing” from the experience. I have heard many other Catholics express similar feelings about the liturgy.
The Second Vatican Council stated the importance of active participation during the Mass (SC art. 30). However, the word active does not refer to merely external action. “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalms, antiphons, hymns, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper time a reverent silence should be observed,” declare the Council Fathers (SC art. 30). Notice that even through silent moments people can participate in the liturgy.
Importance of Sacred Music
Without a proper disposition towards the Mass, a person lacks an authentic liturgical experience. Sacred music provides an invaluable role in developing a proper mindset toward the liturgy. The decree on Sacred Liturgy has an entire chapter dedicated to this subject. Music throughout the Church’s tradition is of immeasurable value─ greater than all other art forms (SC art. 112). To quote the conciliar document, “So have the Fathers of the Church and the Roman pontiffs who in more recent times, led by St. Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function exercised by sacred music in the service of the Lord” (SC art. 112).
In secular society, music tends to have a sole purpose─ entertainment. Concerning the liturgy, sacred music is not sung in order to save people from boredom. Instead, the Mass acts as a service of the Lord to draw us closer to God. Sacred music is considered to be more holy, the more intimately its connection to the Mass (SC art. 112).
Worship Not Entertainment
Growing up I never thought of the function of music going beyond entertainment. Many newer churches have the choir located at the front and center. I have experienced liturgies in which people would applaud after a mass if they thought the choir sang well. Although the choir gained constant recognition for their singing, it became commonplace for that congregation to lack participation in song. The choir is not supposed to be the most memorable part of the Mass. This is not what the Second Vatican Council called for. Rather, the choir’s aim is to invite the faithful into active participation in the liturgy (SC art. 114).
Great Gregorian Chant
Furthermore, the Council Fathers echoed the long tradition of Gregorian chant as the liturgical norm in music, “The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being specially suited to the Roman liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC art. 116). The document also continues to state that other types of sacred music may be used such as polyphony, but they must foster active participation among the people. Not until I started attending a church that implemented Gregorian chant on a regular basis did I develop a sense of understanding and appreciation for that musical form.
From my experience, I know that Gregorian chant creates active participation because it allows everyone to take part in the liturgy. Though not a popular style of music, Gregorian chant transcends culture and time and demonstrates universality. Catholics have been chanting parts of the Mass for centuries and this practice continues today. Through this particular musical form, Catholics today can be connected to peoples from various ages and cultures.
Along with Gregorian chant, Sacrosanctum concilium gave directives on the proper musical instrumentation used in the liturgy. The preferred instrument for liturgy is the pipe organ. Sound produced by the organ greatly enhances church ceremonies and powerfully lifts men’s minds to God (SC art. 120). An appreciation towards organ music in the Mass cannot be gained until a person experiences it. I have noticed a huge difference in the tone of the liturgy when a piano is played versus when an organ is used. The organ can sustain notes for a much longer time and its sound will not be drowned out by a large congregation singing.
Pianos lack the capability to adjust volume levels based on the size of the congregation. When sitting in the back of a church, there were times that I had difficulty in hearing the piano. The Council permitted use of other instruments in the liturgy, but they had to be approved by the territorial authority (SC art. 120).
Liturgy of the Hours
A major area of liturgical reform called for by the Second Vatican Council pertained to the Divine Office. According to the document, the office of readings was part of ancient Christian tradition. It is designed to incorporate prayer throughout the day. Article 85 states, “Hence all who take part in the divine office are not only performing a duty for the Church, they are also sharing in what is the greatest honor for Christ’s Bride.”
As the official prayer of the Catholic Church, clergy are required to pray five “hours” per day. The Council Fathers sought to renew the divine office in order to follow tradition better. First, they called to change the hours of the divine office back to fit the schedule of the practices of the early Church (SC art. 88). The two chief hours were Lauds, Morning Prayer, and Vespers, Evening Prayer.
While I have only prayed Liturgy of the Hours a few times, I am most familiar with Compline, Night Prayer. It was wise for the Council Fathers to restore the hours back to their original times. I found it calming to mediate on particular psalms and prayers in Compline relating to sleep and rest. Having prayer linked with specific hours of the day helps draw my attention from the mundane events occurring in world. The Divine Office leads me to a deeper connection with God’s time.
Public Prayer of the Church
Because the divine office is a communal prayer of the Church, personal prayer is nourished and grown out of it (SC art.90). Liturgy of the hours is strongly encouraged to be prayed preceding Eucharistic celebrations. “Pastors of souls should see to it that the principal hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and on the more solemn feasts”, states the conciliar constitution (SC art. 100). Upon reading this article, I realized how far off the ideal the implementation of liturgical action in the United States was.
If asked which type of prayer should precede the Mass, a common answer would be the rosary. Up until a couple of years ago that would be my response as well. However, through both a friend and my parish priests, I slowly became introduced to the beauty of the divine office. Now, I am a strong proponent of bringing back traditional prayer such as Vespers to precede Sunday liturgies.
When carried out as recommended by the Council, liturgy of the hours has a powerful effect on a person both externally and interiorly. The constant back and forth proclamation of the psalm by the congregation demonstrates the communal aspect of the prayer. Also, the Council prefers to have the office sung or chanted (SC art. 99). Saint Augustine once said, “A person who sings prays twice”. As previously stated, Gregorian chant allows for greater participation due to its ease of learning. In addition to reflecting on psalms, Catholics are further united in the singing of the divine office.
To sum up, the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has set forth guidelines in which the Church must obey regarding liturgical practices. The Council Fathers desired to restore lost elements of the Mass, while at the same time abolish frivolous accretions it gathered from the centuries after Trent. As the wellspring of the Church’s activity, liturgical reform must be taken seriously. All regulation of the liturgy passes through the magisterial authority of the Catholic Church. “Therefore no other person, not even a priest, may add remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority,” state the Council Fathers (SC art. 22). This statement might be the most overlooked sentence in the entire document. I have witnessed on several occasions pastors and even lay people who tamper with the liturgy. Perhaps the worst abuse occurred when a priest added and changed words to the Eucharistic prayer.
Currently, the liturgy is a topic on the forefront of many Catholics’ minds since the new translation of the Roman Missal is coming out during Advent 2011. Pope Benedict XVI’s fervent advocacy of the New Liturgical Movement continues to show the relevancy of the reforms called for by the Second Vatican Council. Through prayer and guidance by the Holy Spirit we can hope that all the liturgical reforms in Sacrosanctum concilium may come to perfection in the ensuing age.