Sacrosanctum Concilium Turns 50
Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, discusses the significance of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.
VATICAN CITY — Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, turns 50 on Dec. 4. The main aim of the document was to achieve greater lay participation in the Catholic Church’s liturgy.
In this exclusive interview with the Register, Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, discusses the significance of the constitution, its fruits after half a century and how to address some of the problems that followed its promulgation.
What did Sacrosanctum Concilium set out to achieve? Why was it needed?
Sacrosanctum Concilium was the first document promulgated by the Second Vatican Council on Dec. 4, 1963. It was the fruit of a long process of growing thought from the early 1800s which is generally known as the “Liturgical Movement.” This document, of course, calls upon sources further back than this. For more than 100 years prior to this moment, however, there was a desire to enrich people’s appreciation and experience of the liturgy of the Roman rite. Both St. Pope Pius X and Pope Pius XII played a great part in this. They sought to help people understand the liturgy and to participate in it better, so that the liturgy might bear even greater fruit in their souls.
In response to this growing movement, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy wanted, above all, to put the Church’s liturgy on solid theological foundations, based on the exercise of the priesthood of Christ in the mystical body, which is the Church.
The Council Fathers wished to deepen the Christian life of the faithful and to strengthen the ecclesiological significance of worship with the understanding that, in the words of the document itself, “the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist is 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).
In the liturgy, it is Christ himself who is at work. It is where he manifests, makes present and communicates his work of salvation. The renewal of the liturgy wanted, above all, to provide a fresh understanding of this — not least, the meaning of the rites, a deeper theological grasp of what the words and the signs mean, which ultimately is about what God does, what God accomplishes when the sacred liturgy is celebrated.
One particular phrase, which is often associated with this renewal, is that of “active participation.” In fact, this wasn’t something that was first expressed in this document. It had its origins in St. Pope Pius X’s teaching on the liturgy from 1903. This does not mean that everybody needs to be running around doing things.
No, participation happens, first of all, at a much deeper level, in the mind and the heart, and this is greatly assisted when a person understands what is happening in the sacred liturgy. Why was this needed?
Well, it is clear that not everyone understood what was going on when they went to church. Not everyone was aware of the part they were playing as a “priestly people.” That is not to say that they weren’t praying, but just that, in the main, they would have found it very difficult to pray along with the priest or to understand why various things were done in the liturgy.
What would you say have been the fruits of the constitution?
Sacrosanctum Concilium was the first document and, therefore, a highly significant signal to the Church and the world from the Second Vatican Council. It was a clear reminder that all things begin in and through the Lord in worship and in prayer. There is no substitute for this.
What God does in the liturgy is what we have to do in the world beyond it — the manifesting of the mystery of Christ to others. This is very succinctly expressed today when the deacon says at the dismissal at Mass, “Go, and announce the Gospel of the Lord!” It has to be said that, for many, the message of the Second Vatican Council is seen through the liturgical renewal that took place in the 1960s. Some say that the success of the liturgical reform is to be found in the fact that it has brought the liturgy closer to the people. Another way of perceiving that, however, is to understand that it was seeking to bring the people closer to the liturgy. I believe that it did.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church paints a wonderful picture of what happens when we celebrate the liturgy — and strikingly begins with the mystery of Pentecost, the significance of which should not be overlooked.
Pentecost is the culmination of Jesus’ paschal mystery, where the crucified and now risen and ascended Lord lavishes on the world the Spirit with which he himself was anointed. What Jesus did in one time and place, therefore, is extended to every time and place through his Holy Spirit.
Indeed, this extension is the Church, that is, the assembly of all whom Jesus draws to himself when he is lifted up. This understanding is greatly assisted by good catechesis at every level. Within the English-speaking world, for example, the recent publication of the third edition of the Roman Missal in English offered a great opportunity for dioceses to revisit this. Many catechetical resources were produced then which are excellent educational tools still. Much of the faith is communicated through the liturgy, so a deeper understanding of what is going on there is an enrichment of one’s faith.
The vast majority of practicing Catholics are very grateful to be able to pray the Mass in their own language, to understand easily what is said and to appreciate the gestures. There is no doubt that it has greatly assisted people’s growth in the spiritual life.
One of the great desires of the Council, for example, was to make the Scriptures more prominent in the life of the Church. Well, the concepts within the prayers of the Missal are taken from sacred Scripture. It could, therefore, be said that in teaching people to pray in this way, you are bringing them closer to the word of God. What an immense gift that is!
I also think that the liturgical reforms are of great assistance to people who are seeking faith. Many people are spiritually adrift and seeking something more in life. Having a liturgy that is sacred yet comprehensible helps them to find a home in the Catholic Church.
This will become increasingly more important in the future, especially if our culture in the West continues its move away from its Christian foundations.
Some argue that, although it has borne fruit, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has been “instrumentalized and subjectified.” If this is true, why did this happen, and what is being done to restore the exact interpretation of this document and to advance the mission it set out to accomplish?
Pope Benedict XVI liked to point out that the liturgical reforms needed to be understood ever more deeply “on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relation to daily life” (Sacrosanctum Caritatis, 52) .
The liturgy not only helps form Catholics in their prayer; it also imparts the faith, gives a deeper appreciation of the exercise of the priesthood of the baptized and helps to refocus the Church’s missionary outreach — all of which are themes central to the teaching of the Council.
It is true to say, however, that, in some places, due to a lack of understanding of what the Constitution of the Liturgy was really saying, that some unfortunate developments during these years have lead, in some instances, more to a spirit of entertaining people than leading them in prayer and a profound understanding of God’s salvific action in the liturgy.
The liturgy is more about what God does than what we do! We are taking part in something very sacred. However, in some places, changes to the celebration of the liturgy were made that were neither authorized by Sacrosanctum Concilium, nor by the pope, nor by the bishops. In that sense, therefore, one can see that the liturgy was, in certain parts of the world, “instrumentalized” and “subjectified,” in that some people took this moment of change as an opportunity to try and modify the liturgy into whatever they wanted it to be. That is not what liturgy is.
We must always remember the cautionary words of St. Paul to the Church in Corinth, whose liturgical practices had become utterly bizarre. He reminded them, when talking about the Eucharist, that what he had passed on to them in faithfulness had, in fact, been received by him directly from the Lord himself. It was not of his own making. It came directly from Christ.
The liturgy is not only a sacred, but also a Divine, institution — and something that is not fanciful or of our making or which suits our moods. Also, there is never a good reason for poor liturgy or liturgical performance. This is a moment of serious encounter with God, above all else.
C.S. Lewis once noted: “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather, it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.” As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this document, I think it is true to say that there is a greater understanding today of what this constitution was all about. A new generation that did not live through the changes that immediately followed the Council has arrived, and there is much less interest in liturgical experimentation and novelty.
Given the difficulties of living the faith in modern times, I think many people are not interested in seeing the liturgy as entertainment or as something that needs to be constantly changed. They just want to draw close to God and to pray; they want to be nourished by the sacraments and to be strengthened, so that they can live their lives as faithful disciples of Jesus. This is a special moment that is bearing a rich harvest.
Is a further document needed to redress and remove the abuses that took place after the Council?
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in assisting the Holy Father and in cooperation with the world’s bishops, has a unique perspective on the celebration of the liturgy throughout the world. Sacrosanctun Concilium is a Council document, so will stand without alteration.
In recent years, however, and in response to questions and concerns, our congregation has already done a great deal to respond to evident abuses and to clarify certain issues. Two documents are particularly significant. First, the long-titled “Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest,” which was jointly issued by eight Vatican offices in 1997. And second, the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, which was published by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 2004.
These two documents clarify many aspects of the liturgical practice that the Church wishes to see adhered to, and they have played an important role in the modification of many eccentric liturgical practices. Of course, there are other documents too, regarding specific matters, but which are too long to list here.
It is often said that things move slowly in the Church, but as I meet bishops and groups from different parts of the world, I am becoming more aware that liturgical formation is improving greatly, not least in seminaries. I also detect that bishops have become more sensitive to the right of the faithful to be able to celebrate the liturgy in its integrity and that they are working to ensure that this is the case in practice.
In short, I would say that there is not a pressing need at the moment for a further document to address liturgical abuses. It is to be remembered that the local bishops are responsible for the moderation of the liturgy in their dioceses and ensuring that good catechetical programs for liturgical formation are available to priests and laity alike.
What are the Holy Father’s views on Sacrosanctum Concilium and his views on the liturgy in general?
It would be a little presumptuous of me to speak in terms of the Holy Father’s “views” regarding Sacrosanctum Concilium. What is incontrovertible is his adherence to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, of which the liturgy was a central factor.
From a practical point of view, the Pope keeps a close eye on the work of the Roman congregations, which includes the work that we are involved in. His first utterance on the liturgy since his election can be found in his address to the Bishops of ICEL [International Commission on English in the Liturgy], who met in Rome recently. I haven’t had the opportunity to read all that he has ever written or said on the matter. However, one only has to experience the dignity with which he celebrates Mass, both at the solemn occasions in St. Peter’s as well as in the privacy of his own chapel, to realize the deep reverence he has for the sacred liturgy and the prayerfulness with which he comports himself and inspires others who are present. He is a model for us all, bishops and priests alike.
What is also clear, in the overall view of things which he expresses, is his emphasis on the need for Christ’s followers to live their faith in a genuine way, and in so doing, to reach out to those who are in need and to help draw others into a friendship with Jesus.
As Sacrosanctum Concilium reminds us, the spring from which this flows is in the Eucharist, the source and the summit of the Church’s life and activity.
Edward Pentin is the register’s Rome correspondent.