The Liturgy Debate of Vatican II: A Look Back

COMMENTARY: Sixty years later, ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’ remains a vital reference point.

A public session of Vatican II
A public session of Vatican II (photo: Public domain)

After more than three years of preparation, the Second Vatican Council began in October of 1962, with ambitious goals for fostering a renewal in the Church’s mission in the modern world. But how would the Council make such ideals a reality?

We can get an important glimpse of how the Council would carry out its daunting task in the first document that came up for debate. This text was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which later became what we know today as Sacrosanctum Concilium.

At the fourth general meeting of the Council on Oct. 22, 1962, the Italian Franciscan Father Ferdinando Antonelli, who was secretary of the Commission on the Liturgy, presented a summary of the eight-chapter draft to the Council Fathers. He spoke of the urgent need for a revision and adaptation of liturgical texts and ceremonies, as recognized by most of the Church’s pastors and the unanimous opinion of experts.

Additionally, he pointed out a very serious pastoral motive: The faithful had, over the centuries, become mute spectators in the liturgy. Father Antonelli noted that the idea of fostering a more active participation among the faithful had already been present earlier in the 20th century, during the pontificate of Pope Pius X. This pope, with his motto Instaurare omnia in Christo (“to restore all in Christ”), had given a new impulse to the liturgical renewal that itself had already been well underway the century before.

As the secretary of the liturgical commission stated, the draft had sought to determine the general principles for liturgical renewal, taking the “greatest care” to preserve the Church’s liturgical tradition, while at the same time helping the clergy and laity to enter more deeply into the precious treasure of the Church’s sacred worship.

From this perspective, the draft on the liturgy, as well as Vatican II’s final constitution on the liturgy, were not profoundly new in content. These texts had a clear inspiration from Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on the liturgy from 1947, Mediator Dei.

In that document, Pius XII ― in a manner that foreshadowed the Council Fathers at Vatican II ― wanted to help the Church to avoid viewing the liturgy as simply an accumulation of rites and ceremonies and, rather, see it more profoundly as an action of Christ the High Priest. The preparatory commission for the liturgy, inspired by this document, along with the Church’s rich Tradition ― including the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas ― had desired that the text might put special emphasis on the mystery of Christ at the center of divine worship.

Upon this foundation in the Church’s spiritual heritage, the Council debates would bring to light a multitude of ways in which the Church’s liturgy might be suitably adapted.

Representatives of the Church in the non-Western world, present in greater number and variety than ever before in a Council, played a key role in these deliberations. Various Council Fathers from this broad area of the globe expressed the desire that, through the liturgy, the Church might present herself as truly ‘catholic’ or universal and not simply Western.

There was widespread appreciation for the emphasis, in the draft up for debate, that the Church does not want to impose rigid uniformity, but instead to conserve the elements of each culture that are not bound up with error. Such concern for adaptation in the Church’s liturgy did not just apply to the so-called mission territories; Council Fathers from traditionally Catholic areas also realized that there was a need to help the liturgy become more accessible to the faithful.

These desires for liturgical reform quickly focused on a key theme: the language of worship. The draft document had affirmed the importance of conserving the Latin language, but it also stated the value of a greater use of the language of each people, “especially in the readings and admonitions, and in some prayers and hymns.”

A great many Council Fathers, from all over the world, forcefully promoted the celebration of the liturgy in their mother tongue. Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa, the first modern native African cardinal, speaking in the name of all the African bishops, expressed his gratitude on the Council floor for the proposed draft. He spoke of the great pastoral benefit that would come, were the draft approved, “because it provides non-Western cultures the possibility of offering divine praise, in their own way ...”

Argentinian Bishop Enrique Rau, desiring to express the sentiments of Latin America, affirmed that “modern people” want to understand the sacred words and gestures. He asked aloud how the faithful could consciously and piously participate in the liturgy if they do not understand the sacred words. Advocates of the greater use of the native tongue could point to instances in history in which the Roman liturgy had been celebrated in other languages: for example, in the ninth century when Sts. Cyril and Methodius received permission to celebrate the liturgy in the Slavic language.

However, such sentiments were not shared by all. Several Council Fathers voiced their appreciation for Latin and expressed their concerns about the problems that might arise from the translation of the liturgy into the vernacular.

Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of New York, applauded the desire to foster active participation, but also expressed his concern that certain “experiments” in adaptation might scandalize the faithful. He felt that the faithful might be able to participate in the Latin Mass with the use of a missal. Cardinal James McIntyre of Los Angeles stated that Latin is an “exact, clear and unchangeable language” for precisely articulating the Church’s teaching. He asserted that this language was fully in keeping with the universality of the Church and capable of overcoming nationalism and political divisions. He feared that, due to the way ordinary language can be easily subject to change, its use might endanger the immutability of the Church’s doctrine.

The debate regarding liturgical language went on at length, over several sessions, even after the general secretary of the Council openly pleaded with the assembly “to speak no more of the Latin language, since much, much, has already been said!” In the popular imagination, the Council has come to be seen as a triumph of the vernacular language over Latin. The actual teaching of the Council is in fact more nuanced.

A year later, when presenting a revised draft of the document on the liturgy to the Council floor, the liturgical commission wanted to make clear that it wanted to choose a middle way between the opposing perspectives. As Spanish Bishop Enciso Viana explained, the commission acted so that those who wanted the entire Mass in Latin could not impose their opinion on others and vice versa. Indeed, Sacrosanctum Concilium declares that the Latin language is to be preserved in the Roman liturgy, while it also acknowledges that the use of the mother tongue might be extended since it may be of “great advantage” to the faithful. In the latter case, the Council noted that the translations would need to be approved by the relevant Church authorities as well as the pope.

The debate regarding Latin was just one of various liturgical issues that the Council Fathers discussed. Intense back-and-forth also occurred regarding such topics as the extent of the authority of the bishops, the possibility of receiving Communion under the species of both bread and wine, and concelebration. In these and other areas, the Council sought to remain faithful to the Church’s Tradition, while at the same time facilitating that this same Tradition might enter more deeply into the minds and hearts of the faithful.

In striking this balance between continuity and renewal, the Council manifested a deep care and sensitivity for holding on to the sacred treasure of the Church’s worship. Such diligence, as we know all too well, has not always been present in the implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Nonetheless, 60 years later, this constitution on the liturgy remains a vital reference point. In the case of liturgical language, the document invites us to appreciate the great pastoral advantage of the vernacular, while not losing sight of the continued significance of the Latin language as a privileged means for expressing the Church’s faith. In many other ways, the document invites us to hold fast to the sacred mysteries that the Church celebrates and engage in these mysteries ever more consciously and devoutly. Keeping to this text and its authentic spirit, the Church’s liturgy can truly be, as the Council intended, “the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2).