WASHINGTON — Catholics who witnessed the liturgical changes after the Second Vatican Council tend to recall two things about them: Mass in their native language, instead of Latin, and the priest facing the people.

As the Church marks the 50th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium on Dec. 4, Vatican II’s constitution on “The Sacred Liturgy,” it is clear that, significant as those initial changes were, it has taken decades to digest the document’s message and shape the reform.

Although much has been written about missteps and misinterpretations in the wake of the Council, even critics generally agree that a singular achievement has been increased participation in the Mass.

“It is hard for us, at a distance of 50 years, to realize what an ordinary Catholic Mass was like [before Vatican II],” said Helen Hull Hitchcock, a co-founder of Adoremus Society for the Renewal of Sacred Liturgy. “The people were devout and pious, but they did not hear the words of the Mass and did not see what the priest was doing. Only the altar boy made responses.”

Hitchcock said the Council Fathers were well aware that there were problems with the celebration of the liturgy and the way people were receiving it. “That had been known a long time. Pope Pius X in 1903 coined the phrase ‘active participation’ because people were not engaged in the actual liturgy itself.”

Pius X, Hitchcock continued, launched the liturgical movement that culminated at Vatican II with Sacrosanctum Concilium. “The point was that the people should fully and actively understand the liturgy because it is the primary source from which they derive their understanding of the Christian life. … That was the fundamental reason for the liturgical reform, and it was absolutely necessary.”

In September, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship issued “Stewards of the Tradition,” a statement marking the 50th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium. According to the bishops, “[The document] should be understood as a ‘keystone,’ with both a history leading to it and other developments flowing from it.”

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, the head of the liturgical committee, told the Register that, after 50 years, Sacrosanctum Concilium remains a guiding force as it continues to call the Church to a deeper appreciation of the liturgy, a deeper understanding and respect for the Liturgy of the Word and the full participation of the people in a community celebration that is both prayer and a source of evangelization.

Archbishop Aymond agrees that increased participation in the liturgy was among the good fruit of the Council. “Now there is a prayerfulness on the part of both people and presider. We are in solidarity of prayer.”


Eucharistic Understanding

Archbishop Aymond said he also thinks that Sacrosanctum Concilium has brought about a greater understanding of the theology of the Eucharist.

Father Douglas Martis, director of the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., said he is often impressed with the depth of questions laypeople ask him about the Eucharist. “A great deal of effort is being made in terms of catechesis and the actual celebration of the liturgy,” he said. “That’s enabling people to participate internally in a deeper way and to express it externally.”

The leaders of the liturgical movement, he said, wanted Catholics to be engaged intellectually. “Without intelligence, there is no such thing as worship,” he said, adding, “Active participation doesn’t mean doing things, so much as it means actualized participation, which means my entire person — body, soul, spirit — is engaged in this act of worship.”

Father Martis added that it is also important to note Sacrosanctum Concilium was talking about the extraordinary form of the Mass, celebrated in Latin, when it referred to “full participation.” That said, however, he thinks there has been great benefit from Mass in the vernacular.

“It has helped people in general understand better what’s going on in the liturgy. The mistake we made in the early years was thinking, ‘If the Mass was celebrated in the vernacular, people automatically would understand what was happening.’ As a result, we put less emphasis on catechesis. … Active participation is not what you’re doing on the outside, but what’s happening on the inside.”

Analysts of the reform also agree that another gain from Sacrosanctum Concilium was the greater use of Scripture in the Mass.

“Even when Scripture was read in the vernacular before the Council, there was a limited range at Mass,” Hitchcock said, adding that, now, the selections are much more broad and varied. The document specified, too, that homilies should be drawn mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources. “I think that has happened. … Most of the priests’ homilies are related to Scripture and expanding on the meaning of what has just been heard.”

Father Martis said yet another more recent fruit to come from Sacrosanctum Concilium has been that more laypeople are praying the Liturgy of the Hours and that more parishes are having regular Eucharistic adoration. “Fifteen years ago, I would never have imagined that,” he said.



Still, there is much that has drawn criticism and complaint in the last 50 years, leading some to blame the Council for things that largely were due to misinterpretation or failure to heed what Sacrosanctum Concilium actually said.

“Whenever you have change,” Archbishop Aymond said, “there are those who adhere to the changes in a respectful way and you have those who push the envelope.” What happened to sacred music and the use of Latin, despite Sacrosanctum Concilium’s call for their preservation, often are among the chief complaints in discussions about the way the Council liturgical changes were executed.

“When it comes to music, a phrase of Blessed John Henry Newman comes to mind: ‘loss and gain,’” said Auxiliary Bishop Peter Elliott of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia, author of Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year and Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite.

“What followed Sacrosanctum Concilium was a mess,” he explained. “Mass settings and hymns were absorbed into the worst elements of popular culture: vulgar songs, loud and coarse instrumentality, sentimental and shallow lyrics. This was a complete rupture from the continuity of our musical tradition.”

Although Bishop Elliott characterized as “junk food” much of what passes for music in Australian parishes today, he does see positive developments in the form of good compositions and the rediscovery of sacred music from the past, including a growing revival of Gregorian chant.


Reform of the Reform

Although Latin and the extraordinary form of the Mass nearly disappeared in the years following the Council, today they are being recovered, thanks in large part to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum.

According to Hitchcock, the Council anticipated that the extraordinary form would remain. “That is part of the Church’s heritage — and Latin the official language,” she said.

Even in places where the extraordinary form is not celebrated, however, liturgists are incorporating Latin into the Novus Ordo Mass. “I’m sometimes surprised — pleasantly so — when I go to parishes that do the ‘Holy Holy’ or ‘Lamb of God’ in Latin,” Archbishop Aymond said. “It does give the people an opportunity to retain the treasures of the past and also move forward to see some of the richness of today.”

Archbishop Aymond acknowledges that, in the wake of the Council, liberties were taken that were clearly not part of the document. In certain instances, liturgies became too informal and lacking in reverence and even the elements required for valid celebration.

“But I think we’re beyond that now,” he commented. “I lived through that age, and [we] have come out okay because people have been able to guide us to a deeper understanding of the Eucharist and the intent of the document.”

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.