Theology: Reflection on the Vatican II Document Sacrosanctum Concilium

A fake newspaper that shows what the headlines might have looked when the Second Vatican Council convened.
The Second Vatican Council convenes in St. Peter's Basilica.

It has been over thirty years since the Vatican Council began, since the renewal of the liturgy and the subsequent changes that have affected Catholic worship as we know it was first set into motion. I was born in 1979, more than a decade after these changes. I grew up knowing nothing different than the Mass that I know today, in the vernacular, which was the familiar language of English. I only know Mass, where the priest faces the people, not the other way around.

     Little did I know as a boy in Catholic grammar school that the liturgy and worship of my time and place had had a long and tumultuous history, a journey spanning two millennia, from the breaking of the bread recorded in Acts (2:2), to the Greek concept of koinonia, the Orthodox liturgy of the East, to the dramatic Papal displays of Medieval Europe to the Tridentine Mass so familiar to a whole generation of Catholics who came before me.
     So, reading the document on the liturgy from the Council today, more than three decades later, is very interesting because it is essential to go back to the source of what changed dramatically, a liturgy that had been practically unchanged since the Council of Trent. What has really changed, and what has really stayed the same? What did this document have to say, and how have we been faithful to it in our interpretations?

        Going back to the sources, you would think that the document would have eradicated Latin from the order of the Mass. Still, surprisingly, the document indicates that Latin is to be preserved in the liturgy (36.1). Like most church documents, it indicates a general statement but does not give pragmatic pointers on how this general directive will be carried out or to what extent. Preservation of Latin in the liturgy could mean Latin mass available in parish churches in the Novus Ordo rite, or it could mean including Latin phrases, like Agnus Dei, in the Mass, where appropriate. Both interpretations are used. In New Orleans, St. Patrick’s on Camp street has a mass in Latin.
   At Notre Dame Seminary, where I study theology, we sing the Tantum Ergo and we chant the Agnus Dei. There is no mention in Sacrosanctum Concilium (that I could find) about the preservation of Greek, especially the Kyrie. I have heard the anecdotal story of a bishop at the council who lamented that if they were going to take out any Latin from the liturgy, they had better keep the Kyrie, at least. We all laugh because Kyrie is the Greek word for Lord! And it is, in fact, the phrase that is often kept intact in modern liturgies. But it is not Latin!
       From the way people speak about the changes of Vatican II, one would think that the actual documents are a bullet list of what has to go and what has to stay. But that simply is not the case. The fact is that Sacrosanctum Concilium has little to say about how certain changes should take place, but rather it gives a theological underpinning that grounds the liturgy in a theological center. The document states that the Liturgy is the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” (10). The document posits the necessity of placing Christ at its center and involving the people of God in the Church’s worship (14). This is a bold statement, considering the priest and the altar server said the Mass parts for centuries. The document goes further and attempts to state how the Liturgy is not a private devotion “but are celebrations of the Church, which is the "sacrament of unity," namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops” (26).  This is a difficult section for American Catholics, especially because they like to pray the rosary during Mass, even for young people not raised before the Council. Catholics, as a whole, do not like to sing, and many Catholics like to sit in the back, away from the sanctuary. It should be noted, though, that the document does commend private devotion and the need to go into your private room to pray to God in secret (See paragraph 13 and Matthew 6:6). Still, at the same time, it stresses the need for public communal worship, the need to express the body of Christ publicly in our midst.  
        Even though a visible, physical sign of change in the liturgy was the implementation of the vernacular and the restoration of the walk-around altar, respectively, the bulk of the document has nothing to do with practical directives but rather is an exposition on the Christological center of the liturgical celebration as a sacred place where the presence of Christ in the Church is to be found (7).  The document changes language not just in the use of Latin or some other tongue, but it changes the language by using words like celebration and assembly, presider and proclamation.  It refrains from words like anathema and excommunication.  The renewal this document calls for is not necessarily a change in rubrics but a change in heart. The aggiornamento of John XXIII was not concerned with the problem of kneeling versus standing during the Eucharistic prayer, but rather puzzling over the question does the liturgy of the Church draw people into the “compelling love of Christ” and does it “set them on fire” (10)?
        Just as good theology is a story of God’s love, a good liturgy tells this same story of love in the cycle of ritual. For it is through the ritual telling of the story that we come to understand the message of the God-story. The ritual story is uncovered in the visible signs and symbols of the liturgy. For example, the “visible signs of the liturgy” should signify invisible realities, the presence of heaven in our midst (33).  We see the signs of worship through the seasons and hear the Gospel message: Advent, Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the ordinary days of the year.  The liturgy is the proclamation of salvation history, the coming together of the Christian community to share “in the communion of the breaking of bread and in the prayers” (see Acts 2:1-7).
        John XXIII opened the doors of the Church to let in some fresh air. I really admire him for allowing a spirit to blow into the hearts of believers, to take away our stony hearts, and to give us new hearts. I believe the Church today is a much more open place of worship than it was thirty or so years ago. We are still in transition, of course, which means it is excellent and healthy to reread the Council documents in light of where we are headed.

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