For Catholics, Mary is the most honored saint—she is the holy Mother of God. She is a perfect example of what love and obedience to God looks like. There exist over 15 official liturgical feasts celebrating Mary! Each focus on different facets of her life and various roles she performs on behalf of Jesus. I like to think of these Marian feasts as theological checkpoint—spiritual stops along our faith journey during the year.
Ultimately, we celebrate and honor Mary because she is the closest human to Christ. She is a holy role model for sinners. Why does the assumption of Mary matter? Let’s first define this event in Mary’s life. Then we will examine three reasons why this feast matters.
What is the Assumption?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph number 966,
Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.”
Logically flowing from the fact that Mary’s was created without original sin, it makes sense that Her body and soul are assumed into Heaven. The faithful who pass from this life will be resurrected at the end of time. Our Blessed Mary is granted the gift of experiencing the fullness of Heaven before time and space pass away.
St. Pius XII infallibly defined this doctrine in his encyclical Munificentissimus Deus. The pope clearly states, “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” While this teaching ultimately remains a Mystery, we at least have a basic understanding of what the Church teaches about the end of Mary’s earthly life.
Essential to Catholic Faith
Belief in the Assumption of Mary is not an option for Catholics. It is one of the hallmarks and chief doctrines of truth. Pope Pius XII explicitly declares in Munificentissimus Deus, “Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith” (no 45).
To jettison the teaching of the Assumption would eventually lead to a decreased faith in our Marian doctrines: the Immaculate Conception, Maternal Mediation, seeing Mary as Mother of God.
Soul and Body Integrity
Another reason Mary’s Assumption plays an important role for us is that it prohibits a purely spiritual view of the afterlife. The body and soul do not remain separated for the faithful that attain the glory of Heavenly.
The Second Vatican Council document Gaudium Et Spes points out that created things of this world, including our bodies are inherently good. “For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured,” the council bishops’ declared (Gaudium Et Spes no 39).
Because there exists some type of temporal and physical reality to Heaven it makes sense that Mary—the holiest of all saints—participates with Her body and soul unified.
Evidence of Her Holiness
Lastly, the Assumption of Mary is evidence that she is a holy and exemplar model of virtue. Mary is the handmaiden of the Lord and most humble servant of God. According to the great French priest, St. Louis de Montfort in his work True Devotion to the Mary, “[The] Blessed Mother… is the safest, easiest, shortest and most perfect way of approaching Jesus”. The doctrine of the Assumption is assurance for Catholics that Mary is united with God.
Catholics don’t worship Mary. Instead we look to Our Blessed Mother as a guide, a signpost, and a beacon that orients us toward God. The beauty and grandeur of Mary exists because she is the perfect mirror. She reflects God’s love outward toward all of humanity. May we continue to grow closer to God and learn from the humble example of Mary to obey God in all things!
In the modern world “reform” is a frequently used word. During the 2008 presidential election, a major issue was the reform of the United States healthcare system. Currently, violent revolutions occurring in Libya and Egypt cause people to call for political reform. The modern world frequently criticizes the Church. Many people believe that the Church should update its doctrine by permitting gay marriage and contraceptive use.
The Church is Incarnational
Though being a human institution, the Church has a Divine aspect, and is guided by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, all of its doctrines are immutable and Her truths are eternal. 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.” So the Church desires liturgical worship focused on God rid of excesses that deter from that goal.
Papal authority throughout the centuries advocated liturgical reform when abuses crept in. A prime example of this can be found in the 6th century with Pope Gregory the Great. He made several changes to the Roman Rite in response to heretical groups which caused some bishops to become scrupulous with prayer texts.
Another instance of immense liturgical reform occurred in the 16th century when the Council of Trent, in response to the Protestant Reformation, sought to elucidate the Catholic doctrine, in particular the sacraments and reaffirming the Sacrificial nature of the Mass. While successful in clarifying the Church’s teaching, the rigidities of Trent led to decay in liturgical participation among the laity.
Context for Liturgical Reform
Within the 20th century, the 2nd Vatican Council provided the renewal needed for the liturgy of the Roman rite. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium states, “The liturgy builds up those who are in the Church, making of them a holy temple of the Lord, a dwelling-place for God in the Spirit, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Because of the importance of the liturgy, the Council required that reforms should be made and practical norms established. Yet, the reform decrees found in the conciliar document did not develop in isolation. Rather, liturgical reform was several years in the making. Starting as a pastoral movement, the Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century began in monastic centers and sought to return piety to the liturgy. It gained papal impetus through Pius XI’s Divini cultus in 1928 and Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei in 1948.
Since the liturgy’s development is organic, many of the renewal efforts of the Liturgical Movement pushed for a return to earlier Christian liturgical elements such as: an increased focus on the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice, better use of Scripture reading, greater emphasis on Gregorian chant and promotion of active participation among the laity. Ultimately, these concerns were addressed and declared by the Church in the 2nd Vatican Council.
A brief liturgical history from the Reformation to the 20th century will help to put the Liturgical Movement into perspective. Protestant reformers rejected not only the abuses of the Church, but the medieval liturgy as well. Dustan Tucker viewed the Reformation as “essentially an anti-liturgical revolution”.
Council of Trent and the Liturgy
The Council of Trent responded by criticizing such departures from Tradition. Pope Paul V declared, in the papal bull Quo primum, a return to the rite of the Early Fathers. This included removing lengthy and unnecessary prayers, ornate elements, and superstitious piety from the Mass. Soon after Trent, the Church implemented this reform. From 1568-1570 the Tridentine Missal and Breviary took shape. Requirements to pray the office of the Blessed Virgin and of the dead were lifted. General rubrics at the beginning of the missal provided uniformity in worship.
For the next few centuries there was stability in liturgical reform. However, abuses in the liturgy still arose. For instance, the number of feast days increased from 182 to 300 between 1584 and 1903. Many started to take priority over Sunday. Several attempts at reform failed during the three centuries preceding the Liturgical Movement.
Influence of Prosper Gueranger
Liturgical study blossomed within monastic communities in France in the 19th century. The Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes, in France, housed one of the early promoters of the European liturgical movement, Prosper Gueranger. He advocated a return to Gregorian chant as the authorized liturgical music for the Church. By the 1870s, his fellow monks researched chant manuscripts and desired to purify the texts to their original content. Gueranger made liturgy the center of monastic life.
Despite his positive contributions, he never encouraged the essential liturgical principle full and active participation by the whole congregation. Despite this, reform in France soon found its way to Germany and later Belgium around the turn of the century.
Though Gueranger had an important part in the liturgical reform in Europe, many historians acknowledge the movement’s true founder as the Belgian Benedictine, Dom Lambert. Beauduin. A speech given by him at the Catholic Conference at Malines in 1909 marked the beginning of the Liturgical Movement.
Pius X and Spread of Liturgical Reform
Influenced by Pius X’s motu proprio, Beuduin called for complete and active participation of all Christians within the liturgy. He wanted to reach beyond the people of Belgium to all Catholics. To accomplish this, Beuduin wrote a missal for the laity. Later he organized his abbey to provide liturgical education and even published a journal, Les Questions liturgiques.
The Liturgical Movement soon spread beyond Germany, France, and Belgium. As the century continued, the liturgical reform came to the Netherlands in 1911 and Italy in 1914 and eventually throughout the rest of Europe.
The liturgical movement traveled across the Atlantic in 1926, under the efforts of Virgil Michel. As a student of Beuduin, he sought to promote liturgical piety in the United States. To endorse the movement, Michel founded the journal Orate Fratres and Liturgical Press at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. He once said, “Should not every devoted Catholic try to the utmost of his power to participate actively in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to follow the priest in mind and heart, to pray with him and act with him?”
Origin of 20th Century Liturgical Reform
While the liturgical movement originated and grew forth from the monastic centers in Europe, the Holy See was not detached from this development. At the beginning of the century, in 1903, Pius X held the liturgy in high esteem. In his motu proprio, Tra le sollecitudini, the pope referred to the liturgy as “the Church’s most important and indispensible source.” Papal support continued with Pius XI’s apostolic constitution Divini cultus in 1928. Released on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Pius X’s motu proprio, this document advocated an increased need for reform in liturgical music. The pope declared,
For the Liturgy is indeed a sacred thing, since by it we are raised to God and united to Him, thereby professing our faith and our deep obligation to Him for the benefits we have received and the help of which we stand in constant need. There is thus a close connection between dogma and the sacred Liturgy, and between Christian worship and the sanctification of the faithful.
Pius XI also states that task of the popes are to maintain the Liturgy like a custodian. In his 1924 bull Inter multiplices, he warned the Church of the dangers of modernism and upheld the notion of the liturgical growth as an organic development. Read in light of Divini cultus, the papal bull is not an ultramontane claim of papal power over the liturgy. Rather it is a warning to prevent liturgical reform from falling victim to antiquarianism.
Pius XII’s Mediator Dei
Papal impetus to the Liturgical Movement continued under Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei. Written in November 1947, this document solidified the relationship between the movement and the Holy See. The encyclical gave the Liturgical Movement official papal approval, yet at the same time warned against liturgical abuses. Mediator Dei became the first encyclical dedicated solely to the liturgy.
In defining the Sacred Liturgy and affirming liturgical piety as the center of the Christian life, Pius XII’s encyclical is viewed as the Magna Carta that set up the general reform in Sacrosanctum concilium. The conciliar document’s theme of the presence of Christ in the liturgy is declared in Mediator Dei. “In obedience, therefore, to her Founder’s behest, the Church prolongs the priestly mission of Jesus Christ mainly by means of the Sacred Liturgy, states Pius XII. This displays a striking similarity to a passage in Sacrosanctum concilium regarding the presence of Christ in the liturgy. According to the conciliar text, “The liturgy, then, is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ”.
Sacrifice of the Mass
Another major point given by Pius XII is the fact that the Liturgy should be seen as a sacrificial act. The salvific effects of Christ’s sacrifice are explained by the pope, “…it can be said that on Calvary Christ built a font of purification and salvation which He filled with the Blood He shed; but if men do not bathe in it and there wash away the stains of their iniquities, they can never be purified and saved.” By placing such stress on the sacrificial nature of the Mass, Pius hoped to prevent the faithful from error in viewing the liturgy exclusively as a memorial banquet.Sacrosanctum concilium reaffirmed the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice as well.
Practical Liturgical Reforms
Along with a deeper understanding in theology of the Mass, the Liturgical Movement also promoted pragmatic reform such as active participation for the laity. “The cooperation of the faithful is required so that sinners may be individually purified in the Blood of the Lamb,” stated Pius XII. Such cooperation could be facilitated by involving the laity. As previously mentioned, promotion of active participation started in the monasteries during the late 19th century. Publication of missals for the laity ensued at the turn of the century. This allowed them to follow along through prayer responses and singing along in the “dialogue Mass”.
A large majority within the Liturgical Movement agreed that the preferred understanding of the liturgy could not be reached until more vernacular was infused into the Mass. Many of the early pioneers of the movement such as Michel advocated for vernacular usage in the Mass. German bishops asked the Holy See, in 1949, to allow the epistle and gospel reading to be in the common language. By the 1950s more papal allowances permitted vernacular usage in the liturgy.Musicae sacrae disciplina, Pius XII’s encyclical on liturgical music granted hymns during Mass to be sung in the language of laity.
Issues with the Vernacular
Not all involved in the Liturgical Movement agreed on the amount of vernacular to be introduced into the liturgy. Many groups, like the English Liturgy Society in particular, welcomed the use of the vernacular and believed it should replace Latin in many rites including: baptism, anointing of the sick, and funerals.
An issue from usage of common language, raised by H.A. Reinhold, is faulty translations. He stated, “What I am personally afraid of …is a ‘commission’ of professors who know all about their fields but do not speak the language of the people…And that would be worse than what we have now, because it would falsify the spirit of our Roman Liturgy.”
Loss of meaning occurs when translating a biblical text into various languages. “The use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth,” proclaimed Pius XII on the importance of keeping Latin in the liturgy.
Another aim of liturgical reform in the 20th century dealt with sacred music. The Liturgical Movement sought a restoration to an unadulterated Gregorian chant. In the previous century, a method for renewal in sacred music began in Abbey of Solesmes. Here monks researched liturgical music and undertook the reinstatement of Gregorian chant in the Mass. While support for this style of music lacked uniformity, the majority in the movement endorsed Gregorian chant. In his motu proprio, Pius X called it the “supreme model for sacred music.”
Participation in the Mass
Further promotion of this style occurred with Divini cultus by which Pius XI encouraged an end to “silent spectators” and urged an active participation among the laity. “In order that the faithful may more actively participate in divine worship, let them be made once more to sing the Gregorian chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it,” the pope stated. His predecessor’s encyclical Musicae sacrae disciplina reaffirmed Pius X’s motu proprio. At the same time, Pius XII’s document displayed openness to development in sacred music. Yet, music must not become profane for the sake of mere exhibition in the liturgy. Rather, sacred music is an integral part of liturgy and must be given a high honor.
Lay Involvement with the Liturgy
Besides the external elements of the liturgy, the Liturgical Movement encouraged inward participation of the laity during Mass. According to Romano Guardini, the chief goal of the liturgy is not concerned with individuals showing reverence towards God. He states,
The liturgy is the Church’s public and lawful act of worship. It is performed and conducted by the officials whom the Church herself has designated for the post— her priests. In the liturgy God is to be honored by the body of the faithful, and the latter is in its turn to derive sanctification from this act of worship. Here the Catholic conception of worship in common sharply differs from the predominately individualistic Protestant style of worship.
In Mediator Dei, the pope encouraged Christian participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass. Such involvement takes place in laity’s offering of the bread and wine and of alms to the priest. Upon their behalf the priest offers the sacrifice. Through the liturgy and their sacrificial offerings the Christian becomes more attentive to the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Second Vatican Council
The activities of the Liturgical Movement culminated in the 20th century with the Second Vatican Council. Here the nature of the Church became better clarified. The Constitution, Sacrosanctum concilium, expanded upon the advocated reforms by the previous council. The conciliar document’s stress on the presence of Christ in the liturgy also harked back to Pius XII’s Mediator Dei.
Regarding Holy Scripture, in the 1950s, the movement sought for greater emphasis placed on the Word in the liturgy. Pius XII granted limited sanctions by having the epistle and gospel read in the vernacular, but only after said in Latin first. This allowed for greater attentiveness in Mass. Sacrosanctum concilium continued such reform in permitting use of the common language in places like the readings and some prayers. But the document still maintained to keep the Latin language as the norm in the liturgy.
Mystical Body of Christ
Another theme found in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was the Nature of the Church as the Mystical Body. About twenty years prior to the council, the encyclical Mystici corporis christi examined the Pauline concept of the Church being the body of Christ. This provided great insight on the nature of the Church. Like the monks from Solemes and the popes, especially Pius X, the Council held sacred music with high esteem. Sacrosanctum concilium decreed, “The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being specially suited to the Roman liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride and place in liturgical services.” Furthermore, the document declares that the liturgy’s development must be organic. “Therefore no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority,” asserts Sacrosanctum concilium.
It is God who “wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” Through liturgical worship humans are sanctified and receive Christ in the Eucharist. Yet, because of the human aspect of the Church, abuses have entered into the liturgy. Because of this, reform is constantly needed. In the twentieth century, this renewal came in the form of the Liturgical Movement.
Established first in monastic hubs in Europe, the movement eventually gained papal momentum from the encyclicals Divini cultus and Mediator Dei. They promoted a return to early Christian liturgical practices and encouraged more usage of Scripture, Gregorian chant, and active participation of the laity during the Mass.
Cabie, Robert, and Aime Georges Martimort. “The Celebration of the Eucharist in the West from the Council of Trent to Vatican Council II.” In The Church at prayer: an introduction to the liturgy. New ed. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1988. 173-185.
Chupungco, Anscar J. Handbook for Liturgical Studies: Introduction to the Liturgy. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997.
Flannery, Austin. Vatican Council II: the Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents. New revised ed. Dublin; Northport, NY: Dominican Publications; Costello, 1996.
Guardini, Romano. The Spirit of the Liturgy. New York, N.Y: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998.
Jounel, P. “From the Council of Trent to Vatican Council II.” In The Church at Prayer Volume 1: Principles of the Liturgy. New ed. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1987. 63-84.
Pius XII. Mediator Dei: On the Sacred Liturgy. Encyclical Letter. Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1947.
Reid, Alcuin. The Organic Development of the Liturgy: the Principles of liturgical Reform and their Relation to the Twentieth-century Liturgical Movement prior to the second Vatican Council. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005.
Smith, Fidelis . “”Musicae Sacrae Discplina”: Pius XII’s Encyclical on Sacred Music .” The Musical Quarterly 43, no. 4 (1957): 461-479.
The Veneration and Administration of the Eucharist: the Proceedings of the Second International Colloquium on the Roman Catholic Liturgy organised by the Centre International d’Etudes Liturgiques. Southampton: Saint Austin Press, 1997.
 Ernest B. Koenker, “Objectives and Achievements of the Liturgical Movement in the Roman Catholic Church since World War II,” Church History 20, 2 (1951), 15.
 Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963), 2.
 Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy: the Principles of liturgical Reform and their Relation to the Twentieth-century Liturgical Movement prior to the second Vatican Council 2nd Ed.( San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005), 39.
The Veneration and Administration of the Eucharist: the Proceedings of the Second International Colloquium on the Roman Catholic Liturgy organised by the Centre International d’Etudes Liturgiques. (Southampton: Saint Austin Press, 1997), 123.
 RobertCabié and Aimé Georges Martimort, “The Celebration of the Eucharist in the West from the Council of Trent to Vatican Council II.” In The Church at prayer: an introduction to the liturgy, New ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1988), 183
Note: I originally wrote this article for a course on the Teachings of Vatican II during my Master’s degree. I have noticed across social media that some Catholics are misinforming others that to have married priests it would be a heresy. Married priests are a matter of discipline not relating to the tenets of our faith as outlined in the Nicene Creed.
By examining the Vatican II document on the priesthood, Presbyterorum ordinis, I hope the laity will a greater appreciation for the ordained life. I also hope this reflection will lead others to petition the Holy Spirit for guidance during these confusing times in the Church.
In the post-conciliar era, the Catholic Church has experienced both joys and tribulations. On the positive side the Church opened up to the world from a bulwark against polemical, rationalistic, and heretical tendencies to seeing itself as the “light” drawing humanity towards its ultimate end─ namely Christ. Yet, despite Pope John XXIII’s and the Council Fathers’ enthusiasm for reform, several developments in stark contrast to their intentions emerged after the Second Vatican Council.
According to Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, “it is not Vatican II and its documents that are problematic” (Messori, The Ratzinger report, 29). Hastily made translations of the texts and failure to properly interpret them considering the whole conciliar documents caused many Catholics to lose sight of the intended reforms.
State of Affairs with the Catholic Priesthood
Poor execution in the reforms called for by the council had adverse effects on the external visage of the Church, particularly regarding the priesthood. A study showed that worldwide the numbers of registered active diocesan priests diminished from 35,000 in 1966 to 21,000 in 2005 (Schoenherr).
Due to such a figure, many people lament over the Church’s situation and Her seeming decline. Yet, the present time should not be a time for despair among Catholics. The Holy Spirit is continually working within the Church, albeit not always according to man’s time. Every pope since the council has fervently called the faithful to a life of holiness. It is through this sanctification of the individual that authentic ecclesial reform occurs.
A reading of the conciliar documents would also be of great advantage to the laity. In doing so, Catholics can discover the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council (Messori, 40). To combat the “crisis” of the priestly shortage, a proper appreciation of the priesthood is essential. By becoming acquainted with the conciliar text on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum ordinis, Catholics will gain knowledge of the role of the ministerial priesthood and its connection to Church life.
At the beginning of the conciliar text, a distinction is made between the common and ministerial priesthood. The entire baptized are called to share in the priestly office of Jesus. Participation in this type of priesthood occurs through the offering up of spiritual sacrifices to the Lord. Yet, the Council Fathers state, “the Lord also appointed certain men as ministers, in order that they might be united in one body in which ‘all the members have not the same function’” (Romans 12:4). Endowed with the sacred power of Orders, these men have the authority to forgive sins and offer sacrifices on behalf Christ’s name (PO art. 2).
Acting in Personi Christi
Priests are also sharers in the ministry of the bishops’─ to a lesser degree. Together they act in authority given by Christ to sanctify and build up the Church (PO art. 2). An indelible mark is made on a priest’s soul upon receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This special imprint allows select ordained men to act in the person of Christ the Head. The prime way priests act in Persona Christi is by the confecting of the Eucharist. According to the Council Fathers, “The ministry of priests is directed to this and finds its consummation in it (PO art. 2). A more thorough treatment of this topic will be addressed later in the paper.
Though the sacrificial nature of the priesthood seems to be highly spiritual and sacramental, priests are not to be aloof from the world. On the contrary, the conciliar document proclaims that, while being “set apart” in a specific way from the People of God, they are not detached from humanity (PO art. 3). Christ came to live in among men in all ways but sin, in order to save all men. Priests are called to live in a similar way. “Their very ministry makes a special claim on them not to conform themselves to this world; still it requires at the same time that they should live among men in this world as good shepherds,” declare the Council Fathers (PO art. 3).
The Ministry of Priests
After learning about the nature of the priesthood, the ministry of priests can be addressed. A major component of their office is the role priests carry out for the Church. “For since nobody can be saved who has not first believed, it is the first task of priests as co-workers of the bishops to preach the Gospel of God to all men,” states the conciliar text (PO art. 4). Easily overlooked as a priestly function solely done from the pulpit, priests are not called to preach to their congregation in that way alone. Through both word and deed priests spread the gospel message to all.
Reflecting on this point calls to mind a talk I had with my cousin about preaching the gospel as a priest. He recently got ordained, but our talk occurred during his time in seminary. My cousin shared his fears about sharing the gospel in everyday concrete situations with his future parishioners. He worried his shyness would hinder the spreading of the gospel to others. However, the decree on the ministry and life of priests says, “Thus the ministry of the Word is exercised in many different ways according to the needs of the hearers and the spiritual gifts of preachers” (PO art. 4). I assured my cousin, that charisms given to him by the Father would assist in preaching to meet his parishioners’ needs.
Instruments of God
Besides the task of ministering the Word of God to all mankind, priests share in the unique priesthood of Christ. Through the special grace received by the Holy Spirit during the sacraments of Orders, priests are able to administer sacraments to make Christ present to individual assemblies of the faithful. This is most perfectly done with the celebration of the Eucharist. “Hence priests teach the faithful to offer the divine victim to God the Father in the sacrifice of the Mass and with the victim to make an offering of their whole life, proclaim the Council Fathers (PO art. 5).
During the Rite of Ordination to the Priesthood, the newly ordained men receive a paten and chalice from the bishop. These items demonstrate the importance and primacy of the priest’s role in confecting the Eucharist. After my cousin’s ordination when asked about the most important function of the priest, he mentioned that consecrating the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ as being the “most basic and essential role a priest can ever do”.
Daily Devotions of a Priest
Liturgy of the Hours also holds an important place in a priest’s daily life. Clergy are required to pray at least five times a day. “By their fulfillment of the Divine Office priests themselves should extend to the different hours of the day the praise and thanksgiving they offer in celebration of the Eucharist,” states the conciliar document (PO art. 5). Through the official prayer of the Church, priests pray to God on behalf of the Church. For me, this shows how much of a priest’s work goes unnoticed. Until a few years ago, I lacked an adequate understanding of the Divine Office and never knew bishops and priests were bound to recite five “hours” daily.
In addition to administering the sacraments, priests constantly strive for holiness in their personal lives. To aid them the Church gives them a prescription for saying Liturgy of the Hours on a regular basis. It is through liturgical prayer that priests continue to offer thanksgiving to God daily.
Along with the liturgical function of the priest, they are also given authority given by Christ to lead God’s people. As mentioned by the Council Fathers, “For the exercise of this ministry, as for the rest of the priests’ functions, a spiritual power is given them, a power whose purpose is to build up” (Po art. 6). But this building up of the Church must be done in charity.
Role of Teaching the Faithful
Instructing the laity in Christian doctrine becomes another essential task for the priest. “Very little good will be achieved by ceremonies however beautiful, or societies however flourishing, if they are not directed towards educating people to reach Christian maturity,” states the Second Vatican Council (PO art. 6). Priests should provide service to people both individually and communally. Regarding the former, priests have a special duty to care for the elderly and infirmed. For the latter, article 6 of the document reiterates the importance and centrality that the Eucharist has in building up the Christian community.
One final point on this topic that I found interesting pertained to a priest’s inability to take a political stance. The text declares, “In building up a community of Christians, priests can never be the servants of any human ideology or party” (PO art. 6). For in publicly advocating a certain political agenda, there is a potential for priests to succumb to the logic and notions of the temporal world. They should be promoting the Gospel message to all people, not getting wrapped up in passing ideologies.
While the ministry of the priesthood often involves interaction with the laity, priests have a relationship with the clergy as well. A unity exists among priests and their bishop by nature of the Sacrament of Orders.
Unity in the Person of Christ
Due to the sharing of the same priesthood, bishops should respect their priests as brothers and friends (PO art. 7). Furthermore, those holding episcopal offices are urged to listen to the needs of their priests. But the relationship does not work one-way. “Priests for their part should keep in mind the fullness of the sacrament of Order which bishops enjoy and should reverence in their persons the authority of Christ the supreme Pastor,” demands the conciliar text (PO art. 7).
At my cousin’s Ordination Mass, after the examination of the candidates they pledged obedience to the local bishop. Many family members asked my cousin which parish he would be assigned to. In response he said, “Wherever my bishop decides to place me”. A priest obeying the bishop is necessary to maintaining proper management of a diocese and preventing confusion in doctrine.
The Priestly Life
Now that the ministerial aspect of the priesthood has been addressed, the rest of the paper will expound upon the life of priests. From the onset of the third chapter of Presbyterorum ordinis, the call of priests to holiness is emphasized. As the gospel of Matthew puts it, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (PO art. 12). It is through a holy life that priests garner a fruitful fulfillment of their ministry. Specifically, they obtain holiness through the threefold exercise of their priestly office─ priest, prophet, and king.
Regarding the priests’ sacrificial function, the work of our salvation is continually carried out. Because of this, the Council Fathers strongly encourage daily celebration of the Eucharist by priests (PO art. 13). Moreover, they are called to be available for administering Confession whenever a member of the faithful reasonably requests. I think that all Catholics need to read this portion of the document, for it concretely states that the laity has the option to ask for Penance at any time, as long it is a reasonable time.
Oftentimes, Catholics miss out on this sacrament. They might make the excuse that their schedules do not match up with allotted confessional times. A priest’s purpose is to serve the congregation in a sacramental way. He does this by striving to always assist those in need as best as possible.
Prophetic Office of the Clergy
The second distinguishing way priests attain holiness is through exercising their prophetic office. This can be done through daily reading of the scriptures. “If they strive at the same time to make it part of their own lives, they will became daily more perfect disciples of the Lord,” proclaims the document (PO art. 13). In addition to mediating upon the Word of God, priests are called to teach to faithful what they read. A homily is a great way for priests to instruct their parishioners on the message contained in Sunday’s scripture passages.
Lastly, the kingly role of priests relates to how they govern and direct the People of God. An image that the Council Fathers drew upon with respect to this function was Christ the Good Shepherd. Like a shepherd that guides and cares for his sheep, priests need to develop a similar care for their parishioners. The conciliar text says, “They [priests] set up a steadfast hope for their faithful people, so that they may be able to comfort all who are in distress by the exhortation wherewith God also exhorts them” (PO art. 13). Priests are called to be sacrificial putting their congregation over themselves.
Spiritual Gifts Priests Receive
Priests also rely on several spiritual gifts in daily life to assist them in carrying out ministerial work. Among the first virtues mentioned by the Council is humility. The Council Fathers proclaim, “Therefore the true minister of Christ is conscious of his own weakness and labors in humility” (PO art. 15). As the Church’s representative of Christ, it makes sense that such a virtue is expected of priests. Jesus humbled himself by taking on the form of man and served his disciples. Likewise priests are called to serve the faithful.
A second virtue in the priest’s arsenal for holiness is obedience. Only through complete union within the hierarchical system of the Church can a priest’s ministry come to full fruition. Practically speaking, this includes reverence towards their bishop and the Pope and submitting to their will. The conciliar document concisely explains the significance of these two spiritual gifts in a priest’s life, “By this humility and by responsible and willing obedience priests conform themselves to Christ. They reproduce the sentiment of Jesus Christ who ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a servant …and became obedient unto death’” (PO art. 15).
A key gift to the priesthood along with the virtues of humility and obedience is celibacy. On this point, many people contest the necessity for priests to maintain a celibate life after being ordained. The Council even states that the nature of the priesthood does not mandate celibacy (PO art. 16). For a time married priests existed in the Western Church. Yet, tradition from the early Church, even in the Eastern churches, bishops practiced chaste living. Moreover, the conciliar text gives a multitude of reasons why celibacy is in harmony with the priesthood. For instance, “By preserving virginity or celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven priests are consecrated in a new and excellent way to Christ”, declares the Council Fathers (PO art. 16).
Furthermore, as an eschatological anticipation of Heaven, celibacy represents undivided loyalty to the Church. Married to the Church, priests are fitted into a broader fatherhood in Christ, by which the People of God become their spiritual children (PO art. 16).
Time for More Married Priests?
A common hindrance to those contemplating the priesthood, in the Latin rites, revolves around the inability to marry and have kids of their own. But viewing celibacy in this way helps a person better understand the Church’s perspective. I have friends in the seminary who have struggled with that very issue about family and children. Ultimately what got them through such struggles was studying the Church’s teaching and understanding on celibacy.
In addition to the spiritual gifts, priests need some external and practical aids in their life. During the rite of ordination, the bishop commands the new priests to be highly educated and ready to answer questions presented by future parishioners. To meet this need, they should pursue continued study, aided first and foremost by sacred Scripture (PO art. 19).
Another concrete help for priests in daily living is a just compensation for their work. The Council Fathers continue by saying, “Moreover, priests’ remuneration should be such as to allow the priest a proper holiday each year. The bishop should see to it that priests are able to have this holiday” (PO art. 20). This struck me as the most interesting of all the articles in Presbyterorum ordinis. Usually the words vacation and priest are never uttered in the same breath. However, I think that Council Fathers saw the importance of pointing out that priests need rest just like any normal human. Even the Lord demanded that people be repaid fairly for their hard work.
Renewed Appreciation for the Priesthood
A pessimist might view the Second Vatican Council as a complete failure for the Church. Confusion about doctrine and a dwindling number of priests occurred in the years following the council. While a contradiction between the intention of the conciliar texts and its application in the world ensued─ hope is not lost. At the end of the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, the Council Fathers reiterate Christ’s consoling words, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (PO 22).
Along with continual reliance on the Lord, a keen study of Presbyterorum ordinis will create a deeper love and appreciation for the priesthood in the faithful’s hearts. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium seeks to properly implement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. For when executed correctly, the understanding of the conciliar teaching will foster an ecclesial environment with fruitful vocations, especially those to the priesthood.
Messori, Vittorio. The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985. Print.
Second Vatican Council, Presbyterorum ordinis: The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (7 December 1965).
Schoenherr, Richard A. “Numbers Don’t Lie: A Priesthood in Irreversible Decline.” Commonweal 122 (1995): 11-14. Print.
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.