As a former Anglican, Auxiliary Bishop Peter Elliott of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia, brings a unique perspective to the liturgical reforms that have taken place in the Catholic Church since the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

Bishop Elliott is the author of Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year and Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, both published by Ignatius Press, and he will be presenting a workshop on Sacrosanctum Concilium in January 2014, at Australia’s national liturgical conference. He responds here to questions from Register correspondent Judy Roberts on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium.


Who is paying attention to Sacrosanctum Concilium a half century after its promulgation?

Today, I believe Sacrosanctum Concilium is often regarded as a superseded document. The liberal liturgical establishments in various countries are celebrating the jubilee of Sacrosanctum Concilium. To me, some of what they are publishing seems condescending. Much of it has nothing to do with the doctrinal richness and vision of Sacrosanctum Concilium, just a rehash of old causes, such as feminist language, and other dated theories.

On the other hand, the “New Liturgical Movement” people and other younger Catholics inspired by Benedict XVI pay respectful attention to Sacrosanctum Concilium. Some say we need to go back to Sacrosanctum Concilium, not just as a first step in a process, but as the authoritative source for a thorough “reform of the reform.”

With the official recovery of the pre-conciliar liturgy, some traditionalists are re-examining Sacrosanctum Concilium. I hope they can recognize its continuity with the encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, and with all that was best in the pre-Vatican II liturgical movement.  In other words, they should not blame Sacrosanctum Concilium for all that followed in the years after the Council.


How would you summarize the message of Sacrosanctum Concilium, and how well was it communicated to the Church in 1963?

The heart of the liturgy is the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection made present in the “summit and source,” the holy Eucharist, and in the sacraments. Christian worship on earth, as the exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ, gives us a share and foretaste of the eternal worship of the Holy Trinity in heaven.

I am not sure how far these great principles in the doctrinal introduction to Sacrosanctum Concilium were communicated well. 

But Catholics did learn that many lost or obscured traditions from the “age of the fathers” would be restored, that they would be able to worship in their own language and that they would have access to a wider range of scriptural readings. Clergy welcomed the prospect of a revision of the Divine Office to meet pastoral conditions; and soon after Sacrosanctum Concilium, they were introduced to concelebration.

One message did come across clearly: that everyone should participate in the liturgy in a full, active and conscious way and that various roles and ministries would be restored. At the request of missionary bishops, the enculturation of worship was taken forward.


What reforms did we see that were never intended by the document or were taken too far?

What was never intended, or imagined, by the Council Fathers was Communion in the hand and receiving Communion standing. These practices began in the Netherlands soon after the Council, and, later, they were authorized, a shameful episode when breaking law led to making law. Can anyone seriously argue that these practices have deepened reverence for the blessed Eucharist? 

Then we come to what was never mentioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium, but soon spread everywhere after the Council — Mass facing the people. I eagerly supported that change, and I celebrate most Masses that way.

But now, after much reflection, I have second thoughts. Has this overemphasized the priest? Does it rest on the erroneous opinion that the Mass is a meal? Have we lost something? The mystery? So what was gained by all that expensive renovation of sanctuaries? We moved altars — but did we move hearts?

In a broader perspective, what really set in was the secularization of the liturgy. That led to the degradation of language, rituals, vessels and vestments, design, architecture and music. 

The Mass became a dialogue across a table, and Communion became a queue when people go and get something. Please do not tell me that a queue is a “Communion procession.”

Now, we face the urgent need to recover the sacred because Sacrosanctum Concilium never intended to secularize Christian worship, with all that dull ugliness and cold functionalism. As Pope Benedict taught, beauty is essential in all that pertains to the worship of the God, who is Beautiful, and that rests on Chapter 7 of Sacrosanctum Concilium.


Sacrosanctum Concilium says, “Before men can come to the liturgy, they must be called to faith and to conversion.”

It also talks about the faithful coming to the liturgy with “proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with Divine grace, lest they receive it in vain.”


Did some of the failures of the reform occur because these were not addressed before liturgical changes were implemented? 

Faith is at the heart of the matter, but let us not simplify this in some Western rationalist way. It is not a question of first we catechize and convert people and then they can participate in worship. If you look at the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), you see a gradual interaction between faith and worship running through the catechumenal process. Moreover, the liturgy, especially in the new, richer English translation, has an innate capacity to call people to conversion. My own conversion to Catholicism was partly shaped by the liturgy, Catholic and Anglican.


What do you see being recovered today that was lost in the reform, yet specified in Sacrosanctum Concilium?

The obvious recovery is the celebration of the classical Latin Mass or “extraordinary form.” For this, we thank Pope Benedict, and, note, we have been assured that Pope Francis has no problem with the old rite.

But when I was a young priest, we were led to believe that the pre-conciliar rite was forbidden, and I fell for that deceitful line. When I commenced service in the Vatican, the famous lay canonist Count [Neri] Capponi soon set me straight about the legality issue, later confirmed by Pope Benedict in Summorum Pontificum.

I learnt how to celebrate the usus antiquior (older use), and now I find it consoling, so prayerful. This struck me recently when I celebrated a solemn pontifical Mass to conclude the Christus Rex pilgrimage, an annual event in the state of Victoria involving many families and young people. As polyphony and chant soared to the vaults of the magnificent Gothic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in the city of Bendigo, I kept thinking, “But this is all about prayer . . . this is one big prayer . . ."

Nevertheless, I cannot claim to be “deeply attached” to the old rite. Yes, I love it, just as I love the Novus Ordo (celebrated properly) and the rite I helped prepare for the ordinariates for former Anglicans. I also love the venerable rites of the Christian East, particularly the Byzantine Rite. 

Love of the sacred liturgy of our Church is not like being married to one person!