The 'New' Liturgy at Age 40

BURKE, Va.—Janice McKibben was a young adult at the time of the Second Vatican Council. She recalls the controversy at the time when the Mass was beginning to be celebrated in English, and even today she hears a certain nostalgia for the Latin.

There was much confusion, much pain, and great suffering over the new liturgy.

But she adapted readily to the changes.

Half a lifetime ago, the Mass looked and sounded very different. The priest faced the same direction as the people. There were two Scripture readings and the same cycle of readings was repeated each year. And it was not unusual for members of the congregation to pray devotions, such as the rosary, during Mass.

Today the priest is turned to face the people. More of the Scriptures are read, because of the three-year cycle of readings, the additional reading on Sundays and the introduction of the Responsorial Psalm. And the congregation almost universally participates through vocal prayer and more singing throughout the Mass.

What put these changes in motion was Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the first major document issued by the Second Vatican Council. The document's 40th anniversary was Dec. 4.

“My feeling is the Mass is the Mass, and they made it more wonderful, and more community and more beautiful so that people can follow it,” McKibben said. “It's more important to people than it was before. [The Tridentine rite] was still you and the Lord, but it was more isolating than this. People would say their prayers and walk out and that was it.”

Sacrosanctum Concilium was issued along with Inter Mirifica, a document on the media and both were followed by 14 other documents during the next two years.

But it was the 130-paragraph Sacrosanctum that took the first spotlight and that has deeply affected the life of the Church through its revival of the Mass and the other sacraments, liturgical experts say. Liturgical reform had been under way for at least a century, but until Sacrosanctum the Mass had undergone no official, universal change since 1570, after the Council of Trent.

“The fathers of Vatican II published the constitution on the liturgy before they published the constitution on the Church. It was a shot heard ‘round the world,” said Capuchin Father Edward Foley, professor of liturgy and music and chairman of the department of word and worship at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “They built the most unexpected, inventive, prophetic liturgical document the Roman Church has ever seen.”

Mother Tongue

Most noticeable was the change called for in Article 36. Although the council said the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites, the “use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people.” It therefore allowed its wider use.

Overall the change from Latin to the vernacular has been “marvelous,” said Deacon Owen Cummings, professor of scriptural and liturgical theology at Mount Angel Seminary near Portland, Ore.

“I don't want to get into the debate about translations and so on. I think something has been lost in translation; many people would admit to that. But the overwhelming success of the English-language Mass is simply a statement of fact,” he said.

“While I was catechized prior to the council and had a great love for the Mass—even though I was an altar boy in a sense one didn't appreciate what was going on because it was in Latin,” he said. “I think of my parents, who were uneducated [and] didn't know Latin but were very devout. I recall with great pleasure how much my mother got out of Mass [in English] simply because it was immediately intelligible and accessible to her.”

The use of the vernacular has facilitated another key theme in the document, that of “full and active participation,” a concept first articulated long before the council by St. Pius X, pope from 1903 to 1914.

“I think in a general kind of way, externally, people are participating more,” said Dominican Father Giles Dimock, professor of sacramental and liturgical theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. “The liturgy is in their own language, which I think most people are happy with, and I think the main lines of other sacraments in terms of the reform have been successful.”

Father Foley said one of the greatest changes with the new rite is the incorporation of more Scripture. Paragraph 51 of Sacrosanctum states: “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God's word.”

“We're not biblically literate, but we're biblically conversant in a way we never were,” Father Foley said. “Think about the preaching 40 years ago. By and large preaching in the Catholic Church today is scripturally based. Back then they gave sermons, so it could be on somebody's moral agenda, it could have been on a current dogma, it could have been catechetical; it didn't have to have any connection with the liturgy. That's radically different.”

Another theme from Sacrosanctum is that of “noble simplicity” in the rite itself, with fewer repetitions and ritual gestures, and also with regard to sacred art, as noted in paragraphs 124 and 125:

“Ordinaries, by the encouragement and favor they show to art that is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display … The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained. Nevertheless their number should be moderate and their relative positions should reflect right order. For otherwise they may create confusion among the Christian people and foster devotion of doubtful orthodoxy.”

But the whole area of Church art has been problematic since the council and the interpretation too one-sided, Father Dimock said.

“Why are our churches so barren? Why are there no images, no mosaics, no freschi, no statues? It's nowhere clear in any of the Vatican documents that all artwork was to disappear,” he said.

Father Foley suggested two possible causes.

“If you take the phrase by Pius XII that the liturgy is done by Christ, head and members, then you have to make Christ and the assembly strategically central. Many folks interpreted that as a kind of whitewashing of the churches,” he said. “Also, in the United States there was a great document on environment and art in Catholic worship; unfortunately all of the illustrations in the original publication were from one person who has a monastic heart.”

Continuing Reform

Music is another problem, Father Dimock said. Although Gregorian chant is to be given pride of place (Sacrosanctum, paragraph 116), it has in fact almost completely disappeared, he said.

He sees the key to completing the reforms as enriching Church music and architecture, and to give more prominence to where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.

“That has a great deal to do with the atmosphere and the attitude with which we approach the holy liturgy,” he said. “The Holy Father heavily emphasizes the sacred, transcendent, eschatological dimension, and those dimensions need to complement the horizontal, which are true.”

Deacon Cummings, too, sees the need for developing the “vertical dimension”—the people-to-God dimension alongside the person-to-person relationship—in fulfilling the vision of Sacrosanctum.

“If we were to bring to the revised rite as it is just now all the warmth of devotion and attention, all the care to the solemnity of the celebration that's already in place in terms of the rite,” he said, “that's the one thing that would bring to completion what the liturgical reform lacks.”

Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.