Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Sacrosanctum Concilium at 50

December 4 marks the 50th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the 2nd Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Perhaps few ecclesiastical documents have had such direct and long-lasting impact upon ordinary Catholic life as this one, adopted at the end of the Council’s second session and on the 400th anniversary of the conclusion of the Council of Trent.

I was in high school at the time. Our religion teacher assigned us chapters to read and report on to the class. My assingment was (of all things) the chapter on the Divine Office - the chapter that directed pastors "to see to it that the principal hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and on the more solemn feasts"! )

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was itself the fruit of decades of scholarly study and pastoral development that had already resulted in a number of liturgical reforms – among them, the reform of the Divine Office by Pope Saint Pius X in 1911, the reform of Holy Week by Pope Pius XII in 1955, and the introduction of afternoon and evening Masses and changes in the Eucharistic fast introduced by the same Pope during the 1950s. Earlier Pius XII had also issued the first encyclical devoted entirely to the liturgy, Mediator Dei. The fact that so much preparatory research and reflection on the liturgy had already taken place before the Council undoubtedly helps explain why the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was the very first of the Council’s documents to be adopted.

Sacrosanctum Concilium did not require Mass  “facing the people” (something it never even mentions and which was a legitimate option in the old rite, just as Mass with everyone facing the same way remains a legitimate option in the new). Nor did it mandate Mass entirely in the vernacular, but it did permit “a wider use” of languages other than Latin in the celebration of Mass, the sacraments, and other liturgical rites. Its principal concern was to highlight the centrality of the liturgy in the Church’s life as “a sacred action surpassing all others” and “a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy celebrated in the Holy City toward which we journey as pilgrims.” It declared that “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows.” For this reason, it sought “to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by it.” Hence, the Council’s concern to restore the liturgy in such a way as to promote “the full and active participation by all the people.”

What are some of the specific prescriptions of Sacrosanctum Concilium that have had a major impact on how we now worship? In addition to encouraging “full and active participation,” the Council highlighted the centrality of Scripture in the liturgy, especially in the Liturgy of the Word, and called for “a more ample, more varied, and more suitable reading from sacred scripture.” The eventual result was a completely new Lectionary, replacing the annual cycle of epistles and gospels with a 3-year cycle of Sunday readings, based on semi-continuous readings of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), with a 1st reading normally from the Old Testament and a 2nd reading from one of the epistles. On weekdays, every single day now has its own Gospel reading, preceded by a 1st reading (from either the old or new Testament) alternating in a two-year rotation. The importance of preaching during the Liturgy of the Word was also emphasized. Scripturally-oriented homilies are now the norm on Sundays and holy days (and here in the United States are common on weekdays as well). The Council also required the restoration of the “Universal Prayer,” in which intercession is offered for the varied needs of the Church and the world. The Council also re-introduced the practice of priestly concelebration and showed a modest openness to Communion being offered to the people under both forms. Both these practices are now quite common, much more common now than anyone would have anticipated 50 years ago.

Many of the unexpected changes ordinary Catholics experienced in the aftermath of the Council - for example, the decline in the quality of church music and the free-for-all adaptations introduced by individual priests on their own authority - were unanticipated in 1963 and have no warrant in either the words or the spirit of the Council. Unfortunately, such developments and reactions against them have divided the Church and often made the liturgy into an occasion of conflict and symbol of polarization instead of a sign and source of unity. That said, no one should underestimate the genuine spiritual and pastoral wisdom of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the very real benefits it has brought to the Church.

A different question, of course, is whether those benefits have been sufficient to respond to the Church's contemporary challenges, and the answer to that obviously has to be No. The advantages to be derived from enhancing people's participation in the Mass has to some extent been offset by the decline in attendance at Mass. Nobody anticipated that in 1963, when the Church was still basking in its post-war golden age. It would be unfair to blame the liturgical changes for the decline in Mass attendance. So many secular factors have obviously played a part. But neither have the changes been able to stem the tide of those secular changes. Perhaps some modest "reform of the reform" along the lines of what Sacrosanctum Concilium seems to have intended might have some merit. Perhaps the two currently co-existing forms of the Roman Rite - the ordinary and the extraordinary - could each influence the other for the better, But I suspect such enrichment, while desirable, would be modest, compared with the wider socio-cultural challenges facing the Church and faith itself in our post-modern world. 

As a practical matter, continued quarrels about the liturgy remain destructively divisive and do little to enhance the Church's life or advance her mission. Indeed, as Pope Francis has reminded us in Evangelii Gaudium: "an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy ... without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God's faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time" risks turning the Church's life "into a museum piece of something which is the property of a select few" (EV 95).

Responding to the immense challenges facing the Church and faith itself in our post-modern world is the task of the new evangelization - to which recent Popes have summoned us and for which Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is offering us a programatic blueprint. As "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed," the liturgy is inextricably essential to this new evangelization. As Pope Francis has again reminded us: "The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving" (EV, 24).

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