50 yrs. After SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM
Fifty years ago (12/4/1963) the fathers of Vatican Council II issued the first of its official pronouncements intended to bring the Church face to face with the contemporary world. Blessed Pope John XXIII who called the Council called it aggiornamento, often translated into English as bringing up to date. That first document called from its opening Latin words Sacrosanctum Concilium is perhaps better known as the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. It has since been identified by many commentators of the Council as the first issue addressed by the fathers because it was considered the least controversial on the one hand, while on the other there had been more than fifty years of theological groundwork previously prepared as the foundation for the basic teachings of that Constitution, starting with Dom Lambert Beauduin ‘s address to the National Congress of Catholic Action at Malines, Belgium in 1909 and embraced by such as Odo Casel, Pius Parsch, Romano Guardini and many more too numerous to mention all of whom contributed to what become known as the Liturgical Movement and which led to the 1947 Encyclical of Pope Pius XII Mediator Dei which was the first Papal Encyclical dedicated to the issue of Liturgy. Bear in mind that before Vatican II Pius XII had already started some ritual reforms with the 1955 changes he made for Holy Week.
Up until Vatican II, the Church had been using a liturgy largely formulated by the Council of Trent of the Sixteenth Century, and finally fixed in the Western Rites church in the Seventeenth Century, i.e. an era when the Latin language was more widely familiar than in the Twentieth Century as well as before the outbreak of modern science and the philosophic enlightenment and the changed mentalities they generated. The liturgy, which lives and breathes by means of meaningful symbols, by Vatican II was generally recognized to be in need of reform. As stated at the time by Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez of Santiago, Chile during the Council’s discussions: “The Sacramental signs are not to conceal the mysteries of faith but to reveal them” Note: the objective was not to depart from Tradition, but to recognize that liturgy is an organic reality, able to be modified and grow without losing contact with the underlying mysteries it provides.
The key ideas of Sacrosanctum Concilium which the faithful were asked to absorb and make their own were that the Liturgy, in particular the Eucharist is the summit and source (fons et culmen) of the very life of the Church, i.e.of all truly Christian activity; that all priests (baptized ) offer worship together (i.e. each contributes) under the authority of the ordained priest (who acts in persona Christi); and that the key to this is “active participation” (actuoso participatio –urged as far back as Pope Pius X in his 1903 Motu Proprio).
The Constitution gave rise to many wonderful ritual reforms which were finally available to us in 1970, e.g. we now pray together in a language we can readily understand (in all seven sacraments). God’s inspired Word in the Biblical readings have now been increased threefold, presumably giving us a much greater familiarity and benefit from Sacred Scripture. Greater opportunities are now available for participation in the fullness of the sacramental sign of the Eucharist in the sharing of not only the loaf that is broken but the cup that Jesus directed we drink of. We have access to a meaningful variety of prefaces and canons. Where there might be a plurality of ordained priests, e.g. religious communities or synods of the ordained, the ancient rite of concelebration has been restored. There is now opportunity for a prayer of the faithful, which presumably embraces the current needs and desires of the particular assembly gathered. These are but some of the organic changes the Constitution gave rise to.
For those who lived through the period of the ritual changes, there was the very real challenge of letting go of old habits and opening up to the Spirit of the times. What is terribly important to grasp is that the ritual changes were not an end in themselves. To borrow the words of Winston Churchill, the ritual changes were not the end but the end of the beginning. The fruits of Sacrosanctum Concilium have not yet been attained! So, e.g. in the nineteen seventies when we first encountered the changes, we heard a lot from the pulpit about active participation, and while it may well continue to be debated exactly what that means, it remains critical if the liturgy is to be the summit and source of our lives as Christians. Yet this reminder seems to have fallen into a prolonged period of silence, and many attendees continue to do so as passive mute witnesses to the Sacred Mysteries before them. Article 48 of the Constitution, e.g. teaches that the faithful should take part “ per ritus et preces id (=eucharisticum mysterium) bene intelligentes” which is generally understood to mean that participation in one’s mind only is inadequate. Rather, all are called to conscious, prayerful and active participation in the liturgical action. Joining together in the action is primary. The quest for liturgical meaning and spiritual growth among the faithful to a point where it is the font and source of the very life of the Church/people of God remains ongoing. Sacrosanctum Concilium provides us with principles and reminds us of this goal and expectation – always still to be obtained.