Liturgical Renewal, 50 Years Later

Rupture, Continuity and Reform of Sacrosanctum Concilium


On Dec. 4, the Church will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first great document of the Second Vatican Council: the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. This is one of the most controversial documents of the Council, not least because of the manner of its reception by the Church in the last half century.

On the one hand, this very controversy points to the importance of the subject. As Pope Benedict XVI clarified: "The question of liturgy is not peripheral: The Council itself reminded us that we are dealing with the very core of the Christian faith" ("The Ratzinger Report," 120). The laudable purpose of the Council Fathers at Vatican II was to guarantee that the faithful would be able to experience "full, active and conscious" (SC, 14) participation in the rituals of the liturgy, especially that of the Mass.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the manner of reception of the teachings at Vatican II has occasioned, at best, difficulty in implementing the vision of the Council — and at worst, downright chaos in the prayer life of the Church, especially the Mass.

Again, Pope Benedict stated when he was a cardinal: "I am convinced that the ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves today results in large part from the collapse of the liturgy. The liturgical reform produced extremely grave damage for the faith" ("Restoring the Liturgy: How We Must Proceed, Part 2," Inside the Vatican, 2005, 95).

What went wrong? The liturgical reform was originally undertaken to open the treasures of the Catholic faith to the greatest number of people possible. The richness of the Roman Missal, the sublimity of Church music and active participation in the sacramental act of Christ were its purpose. Sacraments encapsulated in rituals are instruments of Jesus’ flesh and by Divine institution lead people through Jesus’ flesh to a participation in his divinity. Yet even Pope Benedict recognized a liturgical collapse.

The reaction to what happened in 1963 has been interpreted using three standards: rupture, continuity and reform.

Those who see Vatican II as a rupture think and act on the decrees, including the one on the liturgy, as though there was a new age initiated in 1963 that completely repudiated all that had gone before it. This new age was based on the exaltation of the subjective self as opposed to the objective world. This led to liturgy becoming a celebration of the community. Active participation meant actually creating the ritual on a daily or weekly basis, often by committee, and so liturgy was self-made.

"When liturgy is self-made, however, then it can no longer give us the proper gift it should be: the encounter with the mystery that is not our own product, but, rather, our origin and source of life. Then the community is celebrating only itself, an activity which is utterly fruitless" (Ratzinger, Milestones, 148).

No human development is completely a rupture with the past. The past is a prologue to the future and must take it into account. The ritual expresses eternal realities, and for that reason, liturgy must be approved by the Church — and not even the priest and bishop can make it up as they go along.

Many who saw the post-conciliar liturgy as a rupture still make reference to a so-called "spirit of the Council" to justify this practice. Every document since 1963, including Sacrosanctum Concilium, is clear: "Therefore, no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority" (22, 3).

In the view of those who see the Council as a rupture with the past, active participation (participatio actuosa) is rooted in the authority of the self and is a merely external celebration of the unity and solidarity of the community responding to the spirit of the age.

Continuity is the recognition of the former rituals as being extremely important. In fact, the extraordinary form of the Mass is now freely permitted in the Church. This recognizes the Divine, eternal character of the ritual of the liturgy as it has grown over the centuries in both the Eastern and Western Churches.

The Roman rite, which was more or less stabilized after the Council of Trent, is a rich expression of the life of faith of the Church. As well, too emphatic an emphasis on the unchangeable character of this rite fails to recognize the fact that the prayer life of the Church is a living expression of faith, which may have variations. After all, there were many rites in the West before the Council of Trent, all recognizable as expressions of Catholic prayer life. There was the Ambrosian rite in Milan, the Gallican rite in France, the Mosarabic rite in Spain, the Sarum rite in England and the various rites of religious orders, including the Dominican rite.

Many of these were preserved by the Church after the establishment of the Roman rite, following the Council of Trent. Pope Paul VI was at pains to point out that if there was a problem interpreting the present ordinary form of the Mass, it should always be interpreted in favor of continuity, not rupture. Such homogenous development cannot lead to rupture, but to growth. It is not a denial of the past, but enrichment.

Active participation in this context must include a reference to the reality of the transcendent God and the Trinity, the vertical dimension that has always been the cornerstone of Catholic theology.

Reform is more what the Council Fathers had in mind. Liturgical reform, here, is neither a denial of the past nor a slavish repetition of it. Instead, they had in mind a renewal of devotion and interior participation in the mystery the Mass represents.

If the vernacular languages were allowed or new musical settings were approved, this was not to be a denial of Latin or of music like Gregorian chant. It was recognition that new forms could express the same realities. Pope Benedict called for a "reform of the reform." He clearly expressed the fact that, though the new Roman Missal has improvement (for example, the rich Scripture readings of the Lectionary), whatever fruit gained from this must be a springboard to the faithful interiorly offering themselves with the Lord in his sacrifice and being changed by him through grace using the rituals of the Mass.

"There is no doubt that this new Missal, in many respects, brought real improvement and enrichment; but seeing it as a new construction over against what had grown historically, forbidding the results of this historical growth, thereby makes liturgy appear to be no longer a living development, but a product of erudite work and juridical authority; this has caused enormous harm" (Ratzinger, Milestones, 148).

In this interpretation, the active participation so longed for in 1963 does not mean endlessly doing or saying things exteriorly at Mass. It certainly does not mean creatively making up the liturgy as one goes along to conform to one’s own needs.

"Active participation," here, means an interior action in which people allow themselves through the sacrifice of Christ to offer their hearts with him and be interiorly changed by him to know as God knows and love as God loves.

The liturgy forms the prayer life of both the celebrant and the people. "Everything, then, comes together: the horizontal and the vertical, the uniqueness of God and the unity of mankind, the communion of all who worship in spirit and in truth" (Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, 49).

The process of this reform initiated by Pope Benedict has yet to bear mature fruit. "What God has begun, may he bring to perfection."

Dominican Father Brian Mullady, STD,

is a mission preacher and adjunct professor

at Holy Apostles College and Seminary

in Cromwell, Connecticut.