Introduction [of Document]
Chapter I: General Principles for Restoration and Promotion of the Sacred Liturgy
Chapter II:The Most Sacred Mystery of the Eucharist
Chapter III: The Other Sacraments and the Sacramentals
Chapter IV: The Divine Office
Chapter V: The Liturgical Year
Chapter VI: Sacred Music
Chapter VII: Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings
One of the first matters to be addressed by the Second Vatican Council was the question of how to reform the sacred liturgy of the Church. This had been a matter of widespread concern for decades, not only among “progressive” clergy and theologians, but throughout the general rank and file of those entrusted with pastoral duties. This concern was not confined to the rite of the Mass, but extended to sacraments, sacramentals, prayers, music and art. While it was inadmissible to alter any of the ancient doctrines pertaining to the form and efficacy of the sacraments, there was nonetheless a generally perceived need to reform the cultural modes by which the Church’s graces are administered.
More concretely, the exclusive use of the Latin language in liturgy posed an obstacle to the active participation by laity. Masses often became occasions for private devotion, so that there was a disconnect between the nominally public liturgy of the Church and the prayer experience of the laity. Even when prayers were translated into the vernacular, they included terms and concepts that were scarcely intelligible to most modern people, so that prayer effectively was little more than rote recitation. There was a need, therefore, to make the Church’s treasury of prayer more accessible to the modern mind, without compromising the revealed truths and mysteries to which prayer directs the soul.
As the Church in the twentieth century had expanded well beyond Europe and the Americas, liturgical forms grounded in Latin culture sometimes posed an obstacle to the propagation of the faith. The universality of the Church should preclude confining its message to a Latin European cultural manifestation, but instead it should be permitted to adapt its presentation according to various local cultures. For centuries, missionaries had been given special dispensations in the administering of sacraments in order to accommodate local cultural circumstances. What was now needed was universal flexibility in liturgical presentation, to adapt to an ever more culturally diverse and ethnologically changing Church. Even in the traditional Christian countries, Catholics found that the culture in the liturgy was alien to the culture of their daily lives. The liturgy, therefore, needed to be adapted to man as he is found in this age, not as he was centuries ago.
The key concepts of this liturgical reform program are inculturation and renewal. Inculturation means allowing existing human culture to inform the liturgy, as in fact happened when the ancient Greek and Roman rites were developed. Over time, to protect against abuses, and out of respect for ancient tradition, liturgical rites came to have an increasingly fixed form, to the point of being nearly inalterable. Meanwhile, the rest of human culture changed at an increasingly rapid rate, so that it was practically impossible for most modern Catholics to have the same appreciation of their liturgical heritage as their medieval predecessors. Art and music similarly tended to stagnate into relatively fixed baroque styles. The whole feel of Catholic liturgy was backward-looking on a cultural level, when in fact the purpose of liturgy is to point to the presence of Christ now in this age.
The means by which inculturation is to be accomplished was generally referred to as ‘renewal’ by moderates. Instead of creating new liturgical forms out of whole cloth, the Church should look into the wealth of her culturally diverse traditions, from Patristic testimonies to modern lay devotions, in order to give new life to the Church. This ‘renewal’ or ‘renovation’ will involve substantive new changes, so it is not simply a matter of exchanging one ancient tradition for another. Rather, the principles by which different cultural traditions were admitted throughout history into the life of the Church will now be given a more generous application, enabling Catholics throughout the world to recognize something of themselves in their Church. Although the Church has a divine mission, this mission is at the service of man, as Christ Himself came to serve. This does not mean man is to be indulged in everything, as some cultural practices are incompatible with the Christian faith or with the dignity of divine liturgy, but neither is he to be ignored or forgotten, subordinated to an arbitrary cultural uniformity.
The present document, Sacrosanctum Concilium (named for its opening words), is called a “constitution on sacred liturgy” (per the title of the conciliar schema). This designation indicates its solemnity and authority, as it is intended to be a definitive statement on liturgical practice for the entire Church, which will affect her interior life in a fundamental way. Recognizing such a document’s importance, the Council Fathers debated extensively on its specific content. It is not, then, to be set aside lightly as a set of guidelines or policy prescriptions. Rather, it expresses the definitive mind of the universal Church on how liturgy is to be adapted to the modern world in a manner consistent with her divine mission.
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In the document’s introduction, the Council emphasizes that the reform of the liturgy is not designed to detract from her divine mission, but in fact is subordinate to this mission:
It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek. (SC, 2)
Inculturation does not mean that the Church should become a thing of this world, for the Christian cannot be truly at home on earth, as he is made for the kingdom of heaven. Yet the kingdom of heaven is to be preached to the world and made visibly present through the Church. This involves engaging the world on a human level, though such practical action is subordinate to the goal of directing everyone to the interior contemplation that leads us to the life to come. The contemplative life will not be mentioned again due to the document’s subject matter, but we should keep in mind that all of the proposed reforms in liturgical practice are intended to facilitate religious contemplation, which is by no means to be abandoned or degraded in value.
As the vast majority of the Church Fathers were familiar only with the Roman Rite, only that rite is concretely addressed in this document. Accordingly, the specific ritual changes put forward are meant to apply only to the Roman Rite, though the same norms and principles of liturgical inculturation are to be employed in other rites when applicable.
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The Council explains the purpose of divine liturgy by referring back to “the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God.” This was accomplished by his passion, resurrection and ascension. From the side of Christ as he slept in death came forth “the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church” (citing the Roman Missal). (SC, 5) As the Father sent the Son, so did Christ send the apostles, so “that they might accomplish the work of salvation which they had proclaimed, by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves.” (SC, 6) The Council gives Biblical instances of this salvific work through the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist.
Christ is even now present in His Church, especially in liturgy. This presence is manifested in the Mass in various ways: (1) in the person of the priest (as defined at the Council of Trent); (2) under the eucharistic species; (3) in His word, “since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in Church;” and (4) when the Church prays and sings, for “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (SC, 7) These last two aspects will be emphasized by the Council’s liturgical reform, since a lack of lay participation and the inaccessibility of Scripture readings at Mass were real concerns. In this conception, the sacred liturgy is an act of Christ as priest and His Body the Church, fulfilling the divine mission of glorifying God and sanctifying man more perfectly than any other action of the Church.
Prior to approaching the sacred liturgy, men must be prepared in faith, penance, and “works of charity, piety and the apostolate.” Through such works the faithful, “though not of this world, are to be the light of the world and to glorify the Father before men.” (SC, 9) In order for the liturgy to fully achieve its effects of glorifying God and sanctifying man...
...it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain. Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects. (SC 11)
If most of the laity are not participating in the liturgy with any real understanding, their minds cannot be said to be attuned to their voices, and they are not able to fully cooperate with divine grace. If only a few among the many faithful are truly participating in the Church’s liturgy, God is less glorified. The Council urges priests not to be content with purely juridical criteria for lay participation in the Mass. Full participation entails awareness of what they are doing and active engagement. Although a more active role for the laity is in keeping with the modern democratic ethos, its justification rests on spiritual grounds, since sanctification must affect us interiorly if it is to be complete.
Before the Council, there was an effective disconnect between the liturgy as practiced by the priest and as experienced by the laity in attendance. The latter were engaged in private devotions that were directed toward the Mass yet not properly part of the Mass. Only relatively recently were there bilingual missals that permitted the laity to follow in the vernacular, though even then the priest was generally inaudible, making the laity more like passive witnesses than participants. As members of the Body of Christ, the laity ought to be participating in Christ’s priestly action, which is why the missals urged the faithful to “pray the Mass.” This is not to deny an important distinction in roles between the priestly celebrant (who acts in persona Christi and effects the Sacrament) and the lay members of Christ’s Body. Yet to deny any participation whatsoever to the laity in the Church’s supreme liturgical act would be to sever Christ’s Body from Himself, if such a thing were possible. For the Church to sanctify man, it must be incarnate, and engage man through determinate external forms in order to touch souls within. Liturgical participation need not always mean speaking aloud or performing gestures; what is essential is interior disposition. Yet the externals of the liturgy help direct this interior disposition, so that the laity and the priest are truly “on the same page,” not just in the missal.
This emphasis on the supremacy of the divine liturgy does not mean that popular or local devotions are to be disdained. On the contrary, the Council commends popular devotions that are in accord with Church norms, and acknowledges a “special dignity” to lawfully approved local devotions, provided they harmonize with liturgical seasons and the sacred liturgy. In fact, such local customs should direct the people to the divine liturgy, which is exalted above all. (SC, 13)
Lay participation in liturgy is not merely desirable, but rather is a right and duty of the faithful in virtue of baptism. The Christian people are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people.” (1 Pet. 2:9) For this reason, the Council places strong pastoral emphasis on this goal: “pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it... in all their pastoral work.” (SC, 14)
In order for this goal to be achieved, pastors themselves must understand the spirit of the liturgy. The Council accordingly decreed:
These decrees are the first definite rules or canons proposed by the Council, yet even these are rather broad principles, allowing for a wide range of possible applications. Most critical to the implementation of these decrees is determining what constitutes the proper understanding of the liturgy. After all, this Council itself will propose altering that understanding in the remainder of this constitution. In the second canon listed above, it is specified that liturgy “is to be taught under its theological, historical, spiritual, pastoral, and juridical aspects.” (SC, 16) This is certainly a comprehensive approach, but the content of such study depends on the theological and historical predilections of the professors or liturgical experts. Since liturgical study is supposed to inform even a priest’s spiritual formation, the entire clerical culture of the Church will be subject to the influence of liturgists. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the content of liturgical studies.
A more formal set of directives or norms, explicitly enumerated by the Council, is to govern the reform of the Sacred Liturgy. The purpose of these norms is to ensure that the divinely instituted elements of liturgy remain unchanged, while the changeable elements are modified so that there is better “harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy.” Also, the texts and rites should “express more clearly the holy things which they signify,” so that the Christian people can understand and participate in the liturgy “fully, actively, and as befits a community.” (SC 21)
The general norms are: (1) regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Apostolic See, and also the bishop when laws permit; (2) when conceded by law, some liturgical regulation may belong to territorial bodies of bishops; (3) no other person, not even a priest, may change anything in the liturgy by his own authority. (SC 22)
Proposed liturgical changes are to be examined cautiously, relying on careful study and on the experience derived from recent reforms and indults. “Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way organically from forms already existing.” (SC 23) A liturgical hermeneutic of continuity, it seems, is no invention of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but is found in the Council text itself. This concern for continuity across time is also to hold across space, for the Council adds: “As far as possible, notable differences between the rites used in adjacent regions must be carefully avoided.” A Catholic should have a relatively uniform liturgical experience throughout his life and during his local travels. Clearly, this is a prescription for gradual reform, not revolution.
The Council also remarks that liturgy should have a Scriptural emphasis, and that liturgical books should be revised promptly, under the consultation of experts and bishops. (SC 25)
Much has been made of the “vertical” and “horizontal” relations in liturgy, or to use the Council’s terms, the “hierarchic” and “communal” nature of liturgy. The constitution addresses the issue in these terms: “Liturgical celebrations are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church... namely the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.” (SC 26) The communal and hierarchic aspects are not antithetical, but complementary, because what makes us a united community is our obedience to the same bishop. Though liturgy is an act of the Church as a whole, yet it concerns “the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation.” (SC 26)
The Council expresses its preference for communal celebration, with active participation of the faithful, in contrast with “a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.” This is to be done in a way that is consistent with the “specific nature” of the rites. Note that the communal is contrasted with the private, not with the hierarchical. A criticism of the old Mass was that the priest conducted the liturgy no differently than if he were saying Mass in a private chapel. It was as if the laity were just spectators watching a private devotion. The cure to this condition, which was contrary to the liturgy’s essence as a public act of the whole Church, was to engage the participation of the faithful, not to abolish the distinction between priest and laity. Indeed, the specific nature of the rite requires certain acts to be performed by the priest alone, or at least to be led by the priest. Yet, as much as possible, the presence of the laity needs to be acknowledged, as well as their participation, so that the Mass is clearly a public act of worship, not a private act done in public.
While each must conduct only those parts of the liturgy proper to his office, the people as a whole “should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.” (SC, 30) Distinctions may be made on the basis of liturgical function and Holy Orders, and honor may even be paid to civil authorities, but there should be no special honors toward “any private persons or classes of persons.” (SC, 32) This is to emphasize that the liturgy is a public act of the Church.
“Although the sacred liturgy is above all things the worship of the divine Majesty, it likewise contains much instruction for the faithful.” (SC, 33) The didactic elements of liturgy include not only the explicit teachings in the Scripture readings and sermon, but also the prayers and songs, which are addressed to God in the name of all present. To improve the didactic nature of the liturgy, the Council provides several norms.
“The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s power of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.” (SC, 34) This principle is admirable enough, but it can admit of diverse applications. There is much room for interpretation in what makes a rite “simple” yet still “noble.” The emphasis on brevity and clarity could easily lead to banality in the liturgy. Also, it is a matter of judgment whether a repetition is useless. Further, the suggestion that there might be anything useless in the traditional Mass would seem to be incompatible with the reverence owed to that venerable rite. The potential for abuse under this norm is great, and the proper guard against such abuse is to recall that this is subject to the general norms mentioned earlier. Any liturgical changes must be done under the proper Church authority, and should take care to show an organic continuity with the existing rite.
The Council also prescribes that the “connection between words and rites may be apparent in the liturgy.” This is to be achieved by (1) having more varied and suitable Scripture readings; (2) including a sermon as part of the liturgical service, drawing its content from Scripture and liturgy; (3) giving short liturgical directives to the people during the rite; (4) having Bible services on vigils, Sundays, and other special days. (SC, 35)
Regarding the language of the Mass, the Council declares: “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” (SC, 36) Nonetheless, “the use of the mother tongue” in the Mass and the sacraments “may be of great advantage to the people,” so “the limits of its employment may be extended.” The use of the vernacular is granted “in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants”. There is no contemplation of a wholesale translation of the entire Mass into the vernacular. Each territorial ecclesiastical authority (i.e., bishop’s conferences) shall determine “whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used,” subject to approval by the Holy See. The Council does not require the bishops to permit the vernacular at all if they so decide. The only language that is explicitly mandated is Latin, not the vernacular, yet this constitution has been interpreted as though the opposite were the case.
“Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community.” Local customs may be accepted if they are “not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error,” and may even be incorporated into the liturgy, “so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.” (SC, 37) Regional variations in the liturgical books may be allowed, “provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved.” (SC 38) The territorial ecclesiastical authorities may specify local adaptations in administering the sacraments, liturgical language, music and art, “but according to the fundamental norms laid down in this Constitution.” (SC, 39) Again, those general norms require subjection to the authority of the Apostolic See, as well as a respectful continuity with the existing rites.
“In some places and circumstances, however, an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed.” (SC 40) In these cases, the territorial authorities are to submit their proposed liturgical adaptations of local traditions and culture to the Apostolic See for approval. The Holy See may then grant them the power to direct preliminary experiments with the proposed changes. This rule is clearly envisioned to have a very limited scope, to be applied in mission lands where there is still a strong attachment to local traditions that are different from the Church’s ordinary practice. Note that the reason for adaptation is presumed to be a strong traditional culture, not the normlessness of the postmodern West.
In order to promote liturgical restoration, the Council decreed that each territorial ecclesiastical authority should create a liturgical commission, assisted by liturgical experts including laymen, to regulate liturgical action under the direction of ecclesiastical authority. (SC, 44) Additionally, each diocese is to have, if possible, its own commission on sacred liturgy under the direction of the bishop (SC, 45), and commissions for sacred music and art. (SC, 46) The purpose of these commissions is to guarantee that the implementation of reforms is done with the guidance of relevant experts, including laymen, though always under the direction of ordinary ecclesiastical authority.
With hindsight, we may detect a degree of naivete in the expectation that the difficult and vaguely defined task of liturgical reform would best be implemented by commissions of liturgical experts. The broad diversity of opinions and social agendas of such experts were often unconsonant with the Council’s general desire for gradual, organic reform, respectful of ordinary ecclesiastical authority. Too often, liturgists thought that the Mass and sacraments were fitting means for imposing their pet vision of how the Church ought to be re-constituted, even if this was at odds with faith and tradition. In the absence of definite guidelines on the substance of liturgical reform or a clear structure of authority, the potential for abuse was great, and unfortunately was realized in many instances. Overreliance on expertism leads to social technocracy, which is antithetical to the organic development of a society.
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The Council declares that the Savior’s “eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood,” was instituted at the Last Supper. This was done “to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the ages.” This memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection is “a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.” (SC, 47) Note that the description of the eucharist as a banquet is not presented in opposition to its essentially sacrificial nature, which receives first mention. Indeed, the communal or sharing aspect of the eucharist consists precisely in the fact that Christ is sharing with us the sacrifice of his own Body and Blood as the paschal victim. The benefits of the eucharist, namely the inflowing of grace and promise of eternal glory, are precisely those which were obtained for us on the Cross.
Since the eucharist (which the Council calls “mysterium fidei”) is the means by which Christ expresses his love for the Church and the unity with the Church, it is fitting that the faithful “should not be there as strangers or silent spectators.” Instead, “they should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration.” Most strikingly, the Council says the faithful should offer the eucharistic sacrifice “not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him” and they should also “offer themselves.” (SC, 48) This effectively assigns a sacerdotal role to all of the faithful.
Lest it be thought that the Council is prescribing Lutheranism, orthodox Christianity has always recognized a common priesthood of the faithful as distinct from that proper to Holy Orders. The universal priesthood of orthodox Christianity is distinct from that of the Protestants in that it cannot be exercised independently of the ordained priesthood. Without the priest acting in persona Christi, there would be no real Victim (Hostia) to offer. Nonetheless, in the traditional Mass, the priest would sometimes say “offerimus,” to acknowledge that all present are offering the Victim to the extent that they are participating in the Mass. This participation, for most of the faithful, was generally accomplished through interior prayer and adoration, but the Council now wants this participation to be expressed more explicitly.
When the Council prescribes that the faithful should “offer themselves,” this is not meant in substitution or supplement of Christ as the sacrificial victim. Rather, we offer ourselves insofar as we are members of the mystical body of Christ. It is not in virtue of our merits, but of Christ’s, that this sacrifice has efficacy. This action is fitting to all Christians, for all are called to emulate Christ in giving up oneself for the sake of the salvation of the world. We cannot be in Christ unless we participate in this self-giving or caritas.
In order to achieve fuller participation by the faithful in the Mass, the Council issued nine decrees regarding Masses where the faithful are present.
First, the rite of the Mass should be revised so “that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as well as the connection between them, may be more clearly manifested and that the devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved.” (SC, 50) Note that there is no contemplation of changing the nature or purpose of the parts of the Mass, but rather of revising the rite so that the traditional nature and purpose can be more clearly perceived by the faithful, enabling them to participate more actively. The concrete means of achieving this end is to simplify the rites, “due care being taken to preserve their substance.” Further:
Parts which with the passage of time came to be duplicated, or were added with little advantage, are to be omitted. Other parts which suffered loss through accidents of history are to be restored to the vigor they had in the days of the holy Fathers, as may seem useful or necessary. (SC, 50)
The unnecessary duplication of parts can obscure the structure of the liturgical action. Omitting what is repeated elsewhere would not contradict the Council’s requirement to preserve the substance of the rites. Amplification of some parts may be justified on the grounds that this is a restoration of the Patristic liturgies and useful to the pastoral aims of the present. The Council leaves room for discussion as to which specific duplications are “of little advantage,” and when it is “useful or necessary” to restore a long-diminished part of the liturgy. As an actual example of each, we have: (1) the double Confiteor by priest and server, replaced by a single Confiteor by the priest and faithful; and (2) the restoration of the universal prayer or “prayer of the faithful,” which was formerly suppressed at all Masses except Good Friday.
In a second decree, the Council calls for a more diverse set of Scripture readings to be used at Mass over a cycle of several years. This is one of the more successfully implemented decrees of the Council. Formerly, there was always the same Epistle and Gospel reading for each Mass of the liturgical year. Now, there are two readings before the Gospel, and the readings repeat on a three-year cycle, allowing for many more different readings, especially from the Old Testament. The special theme of each Sunday and feast is not effaced, since they can still keep similar Gospel readings, though taken from different evangelists on different cycle years.
A third decree announces that the homily should become a proper part of the liturgy, not to be omitted on Sundays and holy days. Its subject matter should be faith and morals, based on an exposition of the Scriptural readings. (SC, 52)
The fourth decree explicitly calls for the restoration of the “common prayer” or “prayer of the faithful”. The laity are to participate in this prayer for intercessions on behalf of the Church, civil authorities, those in need, and for all mankind and its salvation. (SC, 53) Such a broad universalism was already existent in the Good Friday intercessions, which included prayers for various classes of unbelievers.
The fifth decree gives more definite form to the proposed usage of the vernacular during the Mass. When a congregation is present at Mass, “a suitable place may be allotted to the mother tongue.” The readings and the common prayer should be in the vernacular, and “as local conditions may warrant,” any parts which pertain to the people should also be in their tongue. (SC, 54) This is really just common sense, given the Council’s stated aims that the people should benefit from Scripture during the liturgy and should understand what they are praying. Thus the only parts of the Mass that need to be in the vernacular are the readings and the parts that involve verbal response by the people. The implementation of the use of the vernacular is subject to Article 36 of the Constitution, discussed previously, which emphasized the primacy of the Latin language and subjection to proper ecclesiastical authority.
The present article confirms this desire to preserve Latin, saying, “Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” The Ordinary of the Mass includes the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus/Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei. Although the faithful are now to always participate in the recitation or singing of these parts, it is still fitting that they should be able to do so in Latin (or Greek, in the case of the Kyrie). This is because the Latin forms of these prayers were familiar and dear even to those who knew no Latin, and it was not necessary to be fluent in Latin to understand the essential meaning of these prayers. A likely exception in this list is the Credo, which is not properly a prayer, but a profession of faith, given in elaborate and technical language. This was one of the first parts of the Ordinary to be translated to the vernacular after the Council, since it is obviously necessary for the faithful to understand what they profess to believe. The other hymns, however, can be sentimentally understood even by those who know no Latin, so their translation is not necessary, and indeed is inadvisable, as it controverts the Council’s desire to promote continuity in liturgical tradition. Even today, many parishes have preserved or restored the use of Greek for the Kyrie and Latin for the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, though seldom consistently. Their beauty is sufficient testimony in their favor.
A sixth decree recommends that holy communion be offered to the laity at all Masses after the priest’s communion. This is conciliar confirmation of a practice first espoused by Pope St. Pius X. Prior to that, it was a matter of theological dispute how frequently the laity should be offered communion, which was generally only one or several times a year. By the time of the Council, it was already customary in many places for the laity to receive communion weekly, even daily. This realized in practice a long-held ideal, expressed in the Catechism of Pope St. Pius V, that the faithful should receive communion daily. The Council commends this practice, in view of its objective of encouraging more perfect participation by the laity. Still, note that lay communion is explicitly prescribed to be distinct from and posterior to the priest’s communion.
The present article also makes the following provision for the reception of communion under both kinds:
The dogmatic principles which were laid down by the Council of Trent remaining intact, communion under both kinds may be granted when the bishops think fit, not only to clerics and religious, but also to the laity, in cases to be determined by the Apostolic See, as, for instance, to the newly ordained in the Mass of their sacred ordination, to the newly professed in the Mass of their religious profession, and to the newly baptized in the Mass which follows their baptism. (SC, 55)
The Council of Trent solemnly defined (Thirteenth Session, Canon 3) that the whole Christ is contained under each species (those of bread and wine), as opposed to the Utraquist heresy, which held the reception under both species was necessary for salvation. This heresy is condemned and the correct doctrine is expounded at length in the twenty-first session of that ecumenical synod. That entire teaching remains intact (literally, “untouched”). We should note in particular that the Council of Trent declared that those who receive the Sacrament under one species receive it whole and entire, and are not defrauded of any grace. Also, it anathematizes anyone who says “that the holy Catholic Church was not induced, by just causes and reasons, to communicate, under the species of bread only, laymen, and also clerics when not consecrating.” These teachings are unchanged, and anyone who says otherwise is promoting his own teaching, not that of the Second Vatican Council.
We should note, however, that the Council of Trent did not absolutely forbid reception of communion under both kinds. Rather, it asserted that reception under one species was sufficient for those not performing the consecration of the Host, and that the Church was justified in declining to offer both species to the laity. The Greeks and others permitted reception of communion under both kinds, and were not judged to be heretics on this account by the Latin Church. What is impermissible is to assert that such reception is necessary to complete reception of the sacrament.
The Latin tradition of having distinct forms of reception for the consecrating priest and those in attendance (i.e., laity and non-consecrating priests) emphasizes the difference between the Eucharist as Sacrifice and the Eucharist as Sacrament. As Sacrifice, only the priest can act in the person of Christ, who is the sole true Priest offering the one worthy Sacrifice of his Body and Blood at Calvary. The perfection of the Sacrifice requires consecration and reception of both species by the priest. The reception of the Eucharist as Sacrament, however, requires only one species, as Christ is received whole and entire under either form. This is why the Sacrament can be exposed for adoration under only one species, and why those receiving the Eucharist as Sacrament are not receiving imperfectly if it is only under one kind. Note that the distinction is not between priest and laity as such, for even non-consecrating priests may receive under only one species. Rather the distinction is between the Eucharist as Sacrifice and as Sacrament.
The Second Vatican Council proposes that there may be special occasions where it is fitting for those not consecrating the Host to receive communion under both kinds. This may deemed appropriate for those being ordained to the priesthood, in order to reflect their new power to consecrate the Sacrifice, or for those professing religious vows, in order to symbolize their marriage to Christ and their desire to participate fully in his life of self-sacrifice, by drinking from his chalice. Even the laity might receive under both kinds in order to symbolize the universal priesthood they enter by making their baptismal vows. Such exceptions may be granted by bishops as determined by the Holy See.
The Council proposes the reception of communion under both kinds only in highly restricted circumstances, where such reception is consonant with the special event and does not give occasion to the error that reception under one kind is a less perfect or incomplete form of the sacrament. Allowing regular or arbitrary reception under both kinds at ordinary Masses is inadvisable, since it can create the impression that something additional is accomplished by reception of the second species. Also, the practice of allowing a special clique of non-consecrating clergy and laity to receive under both kinds can obscure the relevant distinction between the Eucharist as Sacrifice and as Sacrament. This is why the Council wisely did not so much as hint at the desirability of either practice.
In the seventh decree, the Council describes the two parts of the Mass as “the liturgy of the word and the eucharistic liturgy.” The reformed Roman rite would explicitly be divided along this line, instead of the former “Mass of Catechumens” and “Mass of the Faithful.” Yet the Council mentions these two parts only to emphasize their unity in a “single act of worship.” (SC, 56) Thus the faithful are to take part in both halves of the Mass, not just the liturgy of the word, where they have more verbal participation.
The Council’s emphasis on the unity of the liturgy is intended to move away from the ancient distinction that still remained to a degree in the traditional rite. During the time of Roman persecution, Christians made sure that the uninitiated catechumens were not exposed to the sacred mysteries before baptism. Only as full members of the Church could they actively participate in the Mass of the Eucharist. This practice was long abandoned by the Middle Ages, yet the Mass still bore some marks of this distinction, as there was more verbal interaction with the servers and laity in the first part of the Mass, while the second part was entirely priestly in action. Yet the Council recalls that all of the baptized ought to participate in the Mass of the Eucharist, so that there is no reason for this residual distinction between the two parts of the liturgy, especially as practically all in attendance are baptized. Further, a major theme of this Constitution (and indeed of the entire twentieth-century liturgical movement) is to encourage full participation in the public liturgy by all the baptized Catholics in attendance. This participation should be from start to finish, so there is less distinction between the two parts of the liturgy.
It is difficult not to be excited and enthusiastic about these liturgical reforms proposed by the Council. They seem to be genuinely oriented toward enhancing and improving the Mass, and we can only wonder what such a Mass might look like, since the actual reforms were generally more radical, aesthetically destructive and theologically dubious than anything the Council outlined. This is generally attributable to the anti-authoritarian tendencies of the post-Conciliar period, exhibited in unauthorized liturgical experimentation that was later accepted as a fait accompli. Even today, when the chain of command has been generally restored, we find that priests enjoy considerable discretion in their liturgical practice, contrary to the general norms of the Council, which entrusted liturgical decisions to territorial conferences of bishops, subject to the approval of the Holy See.
The eighth and ninth decrees provide for broader application of priestly concelebration at Mass. Concelebration was always common in the East, but in the West this practice was limited to Masses at the ordination of priests and bishops. This had not always been the case, as in the early Middle Ages there were concelebratory Masses on major feasts and station days. Objections to the legitimacy of this practice were answered by St. Thomas Aquinas. (Summa Theol. III:82,2) The Council seeks to restore a wider use of concelebration in order to manifest “the unity of the priesthood.” (SC, 57)
The Council does not give a general indult, but instead allows the use of concelebration only in these determinate cases: (1) Holy Thursday; (2) council’s synods or bishops’ conferences; (3) benediction of an abbot. Further, at the discretion of the local ordinary, there can be concelebration (4) at conventual Mass; (5) “at the principal Mass in churches when the needs of the faithful do not require that all priests available should celebrate individually;” and (6) at priests’ meetings. The Holy Thursday liturgy naturally lends itself to concelebration, as it recalls the original priestly community of Christ and the Apostles. The second, fourth, and sixth cases are also eminently suited for concelebration, as they are occasions of emphasizing the communal unity of the priesthood. The extension of concelebration to Masses of benediction for an abbot is obviously analogous to the existing practice of allowing it for the ordination of bishops. The fifth case assumes that the traditional distinction between High Mass and Low Mass would be preserved, in which case, priests of the same church may concelebrate in the High Mass if they are not needed to celebrate other Masses that day. Today we can only dream of such an oversupply of priests.
The diocesan bishop has the authority to determine which Masses will be concelebratory, yet each priest retains the right to celebrate his own Mass, “though not at the same time in the same church as a concelebrated Mass, nor on Thursday of the Lord's Supper.” (SC, 57)
A new rite of concelebration would be drawn up and added to the Roman Missal. (SC, 58) As it turns out, this rite actually places more emphasis on priestly unity than the traditional Latin form, since only one priest speaks words of consecration at a given time, rather than have several priests attempt to speak synchronously. For an early discussion of the implementation of the new rite, see: John Symon, “The New Concelebration Rite,” The Furrow (1965), 16(6):353-57.
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While, for most Catholics, the Council’s changes to the Mass are the most noticeable reform of public worship, this same Constitution prescribes no less exhaustive changes to the administration of sacraments and sacramentals. These changes have sometimes received inadequate attention by critics of post-Conciliar reforms, especially since they are essential to the life of Catholic faith. When we see the contrast between the actual reforms and those proposed by the Council, we can hardly be less scandalized than by the liturgical abuses at Mass.
The Council is fully aware that the sacraments, in addition to administering grace, serve as forms of instruction in the faith. For this reason, it is extremely important “that the faithful should easily understand the sacramental signs.” (SC, 59) By the same token, inappropriate changes in the administration of the sacraments may obscure their true meaning or substitute an erroneous meaning in the minds of those hearing the words spoken. Thus any change in the sacramental rites must retain the orthodox meaning of the sacraments and express this clearly, not invent a new meaning in an attempt to change the sacraments. The essential meaning and sacramental form was already defined at Trent for baptism (7th session), confirmation (7th session), the eucharist (13th session), penance (14th session), extreme unction (14th session), holy orders (23rd session), and matrimony (24th session). The Second Vatican Council nowhere presumes to alter this solemn teaching, so it is manifestly inappropriate for any liturgist, no matter how learned, to dare where an ecumenical synod would not.
In the matter of sacramentals, however, the Church has considerably more flexibility in altering the rites, since these are not divinely instituted means of administering grace, but rather “sacred signs” that signify (principally spiritual) effects obtained by the Church’s intercession. (SC, 59) The most common sacramental is sprinkling with holy water, which signifies the effect of a priestly blessing upon the faithful. Even here, nonetheless, rites should be consonant with the faith, so that an inappropriate symbol will not lead people into error.
The Council justifies the need to reform the rites of sacraments and sacrementals in the following terms:
With the passage of time, however, there have crept into the rites of the sacraments and sacramentals certain features which have rendered their nature and purpose far from clear to the people of today; hence some changes have become necessary to adapt them to the needs of our own times. (SC, 62)
Note that the Council’s intent is not to alter the nature or purpose of the sacraments and sacramentals, but to make these clearer to modern people. The reason for the present state of obscurity is not in any objective deficiency in the traditional rites. Rather, the symbols and language used by the ancient rites, while well suited to the culture in which they arose, are not clearly intelligible to most modern people. The effectiveness of a symbol is determined not by its intrinsic nature alone, but by its intelligibility to those who are to receive it.
The first aid to intelligibility is the use of the vernacular in the rites of sacraments and sacramentals. This is to be done, the Council says, in accordance with the norms of Article 36, which said that the use of Latin is to be preserved, yet the vernacular may be allowed “in readings, directives, and in some prayers and chants.” New rites with local adaptations may be proposed by bishops’ conference, and are subject to approval by the Holy See. However, such locally adapted rites must include include the instructions prefixed to the rites. (SC, 63) These are the so-called “general norms” that were found in the Rituale Romanum, and later replaced with more detailed instructions.
The 1964 edition of the Rituale Romanum implemented the reforms proposed in a very conservative fashion. The 1964 edition is nearly identical in content to the 1962 edition, except in the rite of matrimony. Most of the substantive changes come in the form of liturgical directives (added to the vernacular editions) which the priest may interject during the rite. Much more dramatic changes were later promulgated for all the sacraments: holy orders (1968); baptism (1969); marriage (1969); confirmation (1971); extreme unction (1972); confession (1973); and the eucharist outside of Mass (1973). Critical examination of these new rites has been generally confined to schismatically oriented traditionalists. I reserve discussion of these changes for another work, but will note here that Pope Paul VI addressed scruples about the validity of holy orders by solemnly defining the words of the essential form in the new rite. Meanwhile, we may review the brief norms for ritual reform proposed by the Council.
First, the Constitution calls for the restoration of the catechumenate for adults. (SC, 64) This has been one of the more successful reforms of the Council, resulting in what is known in the English-speaking world as the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. This process is generally used by lapsed Catholics or converting Protestants to become catechized in preparation for Baptism (if needed), Holy Communion and Confirmation, though it is also offered for the continuing education of confirmed Catholics. Given the Council’s emphasis on ensuring the faithful understand what they profess to believe, it is fitting that this ritual reform should receive pride of place and bear the most fruit.
In accordance with the restoration of an adult catechumenate, the Constitution orders that the rite of baptism be given in a form appropriate to adults, while the traditional rite of infant baptism should be revised to take explicit account of the fact that the baptized is an infant. Prior to the Council, the godparents took the baptismal vows on behalf of the infant by proxy. Supposing the infant was named John, the priest would ask, “John, will you be baptized?” and the godfather would answer as if he were John. This oddity is a result of the fact that the rite of baptism was originally intended for adults making a profession of faith prior to Christian initiation. Since infants can make no such profession, the introduction of infant baptism required this legalistic proxy.
Given the Council’s emphasis that the faithful ought to understand what they believe, it is natural that the baptismal rites should be reformed to reflect the presence or absence of such understanding. For an adult, baptism is allowable only after making a voluntary and sincere profession of faith, repenting of his personal sins. An infant, by contrast, being free from personal sin, may receive the grace of baptism freely and unconditionally. Yet we should not pretend that the infant has made a profession of faith; rather, we will have the godparents promise to raise that child in the faith. It is only in Confirmation, which is allowable at the age of reason, that the child can voluntarily confirm the vows of baptism and begin a life of faith with understanding.
The Council also calls for a shorter rite to be drawn up for use by catechists in mission countries, or even lay faithful, who may baptize if there is danger of imminent death and no priest or deacon is available. (SC, 68)
After the Protestant Reformation, the Church developed a rite for “supplying what was omitted in the baptism of an infant.” This was to be used for converting children who had been baptized validly by Protestants, yet had lacked many of the traditional Catholic ceremonies of baptism. This modified rite was nearly identical to the normal baptismal rite, except it omitted the baptism itself (since a valid baptism cannot be repeated) and altered language in order to indicate the child had already been baptized. Thus the priest did not command the devil to depart, for that would be to deny the efficacy of the child’s baptism. Still, the modifications were minimal, so the supplying rite seemed to imply that the child was only just now being received into the Church. This was especially inappropriate in the case of supplying omissions for those who had been baptized as Catholics, but in a short rite due to expediency.
Accordingly, the Council proposes that the supplying rite be revised in order to make explicit that the child has already been received into the Church prior to this rite. More precisely, it should be replaced by a new rite altogether, rather than be a modification of the infant baptismal rite. Further, there should be a new, distinct rite for (non-infant) converts who were validly baptized. It should say that they are now admitted into communion with the Church. (SC, 69)
The ecclesiology reflected in these baptismal reforms is perfectly traditional. An infant who was validly baptized in a non-Catholic rite lacks nothing to be in communion with the Church, since such a person is free from original and personal sin, and is incapable of voluntary disobedience to the Church. The convert, by contrast, though validly baptized, is out of communion with the Church due to personal sin and disobedience. His baptism lacks nothing, yet he lacks communion with the Church, which the proposed new rite will supply. This reform actually clarifies an ambiguity in the traditional ritual, treating two distinct classes of people with appropriately distinct rites.
In practice, the rite of Communion for validly baptized converts is administered upon completion of the adult catechumenate prescribed earlier.
The rite of Confirmation is to be revised so it is explicitly part of Christian initiation, so it begins with a renewal of baptismal promises. (SC, 71) In the ancient Church, initiation was performed in a single ceremony, with baptism followed by confirmation and the first eucharist. As the Church grew, it was no longer possible for a bishop to be present at every baptism, so there came to be a delay between baptism and confirmation. As the practice of infant baptism arose, this delay came to be a period of several years, awaiting the child to reach the age of reason, so he could confirm his baptismal vows. In many Catholic countries, confirmation was not completed until after first communion, as the eucharist was encouraged even among those who, though too young to make a profession of faith, nonetheless could discern the Eucharist from mere bread. As confimation became associated with the completion of Catholic catechesis, it became customary to postpone it until the teenage years, to encourage completion of Catholic schooling. The Council proposes to restore Confirmation to its role as a part of Christian initiation. This renewal has led some dioceses to restore the original order of initiation, with Confirmation preceding first Holy Communion.
Regarding Penance, the Council says only that the rite should be revised to “more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament.” (SC, 72) There is not the slightest indication that the Church’s understanding of the sacrament’s nature and effect is at all altered.
The Council calls for a wider application of the Sacrament of “Extreme Unction, which may also and more fittingly be called ‘Anointing of the Sick.’” (SC, 73) Note that here, as elsewhere, the Council does not propose abolishing the traditional name of the Sacrament. Still, the new name is more appropriate, since the sacrament was never strictly limited to those about to die immediately. The custom of postponing this sacrament until death was imminent was motivated by a desire to help ensure the salvation of those receiving the last eucharist or Viaticum. However, with modern medicine, those with serious health problems are frequently not lucid or even conscious in the final hours or days before death, so it is not practicable to wait until the patient is in extremis. Furthermore, the custom of postponing the sacrament gave rise to the perception that this is a sacrament for death, which is why it has been colloquially called the “last rites,” as if it were a formality associated with death. On the contrary, the sacrament is intended to strengthen the life of the soul, and in some cases even the body. Preparation for possible death remains an essential aspect of the sacrament, and the Council still requires that it be administered to those “in danger of death from sickness and old age.” However, it is possible for the elderly and infirm to face such danger on more than one occasion, and it would be contrary to the nature of the anointing as a strengthening sacrament to reserve it only for occasions when death is a practical certainty. In fact, the Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries attest to a wider application of the sacrament among the sick.
In keeping with the aim of distinguishing the Anointing of the Sick from a death rite, the Council notes that the Anointing and the Viaticum may be performed as separate and distinct rites, or as part of a continuous rite, depending on circumstances. (SC, 74) The Viaticum, unlike the Anointing, is reserved for the point of death (or last moment of consciousness), to remit all sins. There also may be different versions of the Anointing rite, depending on the condition of the sick person. (SC, 75)
The Council calls for the revision of the rites of Ordination, without making any specific prescriptions, except: (1) the bishop’s opening address may be in the vernacular, and (2) all bishops present may simultaneously lay on hands when consecrating a bishop. This is the only places where the Council specifically recommends the use of the vernacular in a sacrament’s rite, and here only as an option. The simultaneous laying on hands by multiple bishops during consecration is in keeping with ancient practice, where a bishop was consecrated by two or more bishops. These modest changes give no hint of the dramatic revision to the rites of ordination and consecration that would take place, to the point that some traditionalists have questioned the validity of the rite for bishops. This is an example of how certain liturgical and ecclesiological agendas were pushed during the post-Conciliar period, without any explicit mandate from the Council. The present Constitution prescribes very little in the way of revising Ordination, yet that sacrament was revised most extensively.
The principle of inculturation is applied only to the Sacrament of Matrimony, since every culture in the world has its own marriage customs, and the Church desires to respect these customs if there is anything praiseworthy in them. In this spirit, the Council even allows territorial conferences of bishops to draw up their own marriage rites, as long as the priest explicitly requests and obtains the consent of both parties. The most important aspect of revising the Roman matrimonial rite is “to more clearly signify the grace of the sacrament” and “emphasize the spouses’ duties.” (SC, 77) The existing Roman rite did not mention much in the way of spousal duties; in fact, only the wife’s duties were mentioned during the blessing of the ring. These were only to keep faith with her husband, and to be at peace with and obedient to God, and to live with him in mutual love. There is no mention, for example, of the duty to raise their children in the faith. Also, the formula “Ego conjugo vos in matrimonium” appeared to suggest that the priest effected the sacrament, when in fact the form of this sacrament is the consent of the parties. These deficiencies were considered sufficiently serious that they were amended even in the 1964 Rituale Romanum, which otherwise was identical with the 1962 rites.
The rite of matrimony should ordinarily be performed within a Mass, after the homily and before the prayer of the faithful (there is no Creed in a nuptial Mass). The “prayer for the bride” that was usually added to such Masses may be said in the vernacular (this is part of the nuptial Mass, rather than the sacramental rite proper). It is to be revised to explicitly state the mutual duties of husband and wife. (SC, 78) This is to dispel any misconception that only the wife is obligated to remain faithful to her spouse.
When the ceremony of matrimony is performed outside of a Mass, the epistle and Gospel from the nuptial Mass are to be read first. (SC, 78) Note that the Council did not envision adding a third reading to the Mass.
The Council calls for the revision of the rites for sacramentals, in keeping with the general principle of encouraging lay understanding and participation. The revised rites should take modern culture into account. New sacramentals may also be introduced to meet local needs, as recommended by the territorial conferences in Article 63. (SC, 79)
In order for there to be wider availability of sacramentals, the Council declared: “Reserved blessings shall be very few. Reservations shall be in favour only of bishops and ordinaries.” (SC, 79) Various sacramental blessings, e.g., of rosaries, scapulars, and other devotional objects, were reserved to specific religious orders. That is, only a member of said order could give that kind of sacramental blessing. Now, the only reserved blessings would be for bishops and other ordinaries. This meant all the faithful would have access to every sacramental, subject to the judgment of their local ordinary. Yet those reserved to the bishop or ordinary would be “few,” which meant that every priest could licitly administer most sacramentals on his own authority. (If he had done so previously, it would have been illicit but valid.) Deacons may administer sacramentals only where explicitly prescribed by law.
Yet the Council went further in making the sacramentals more widely available, allowing even “qualified lay persons” to do so, “at least in special circumstances and at the discretion of the ordinary.” (SC, 79) This provision was not without controversy, as over 150 Fathers asked for this provision to be suppressed, while many others asked for a clarification of which lay persons were “qualified,” and what constituted “special circumstances.” This caution was prudent, as we have seen a post-Conciliar tendency to make permissible lay participation become the norm even when it is unnecessary, as with “extraordinary” lay ministers of the Eucharist.
In response to these concerns, the conciliar commission for this Constitution said, “by the nature of sacramentals they are not reserved to clerics,” so “the Church can depute a layperson to give a blessing in the name of the Church.” When the commission refers to the “nature” of sacramentals, it means that there is nothing contradictory to the essence of a sacramental in lay administration of it. A sacramental is a blessing that has the efficacy of a prayer of the Church. It does not, of its nature, require the priestly power, but in order for it to be a prayer of the Church, it can only be administered either by a priest, or by one duly delegated by proper authority (i.e., the bishop or ordinary) to pray on behalf of the Church. Anyone lacking such delegation does not pray on behalf of the Church, so the sacramental is not valid. Lay persons do not have an intrinsic power to perform sacramentals. On the other hand, they are not incapable of receiving such delegated power from the Church. Historically, lay administration of blessings usually came from those in religious orders. For much of the medieval period, most monks were not also priests, yet they could give blessings believed to have sacramental efficacy. Here, however, the Council seems to be opening the door for a much broader lay adminstration of sacramentals.
Yet the conciliar commission insisted that its wording already provided adequate protection against abuse. In every phrase of the provision, restraint is indicated: “some sacramentals,” “special cirumstances,” “discretion of the ordinary,” “may be administered,” “qualified lay persons.” Further specification would be inappropriate, since the Council only proposes general provisions, leaving the specifics to a post-conciliar commission. Given the amount of resistance and reservation that was shown toward lay administration of a mere sacramental, we can appreciate how greatly the post-conciliar implementation outstripped the expectations of the Council Fathers.
The Council calls for a revision to the rite of Consecration of Virgins in the Pontificale Romanum (which includes rites of ordination, consecration and blessing), but gives no reason. (SC, 80) In its implementation, the revision restored the ancient practice of consecrating lay women living in the world (not in religious orders) as virgins. Such practice persisted in baroque Spain, though it was not officially sanctioned. Lay women would wear a habit and adopt a monastic rule, while living chastely in her own house. The modern rite of consecration of virgins living in the world does not prescribe the rule of any religious order, but only that the vow of virginity be kept, and that the virgin should pray on behalf of the faithful in her locality.
There is to be a single rite of religious profession used by all religious orders. Profession should be made within the Mass. (SC, 80)
Consecrations of virgins and religious professions were traditionally classified as sacramentals, since they are not efficacious ex opere operato as are proper sacraments. Nonetheless, they are certainly efficacious for those voluntarily participating (i.e., making the vows), and St. Thomas even held that such profession may effect the remission of sin. This was certainly the ancient monastic understanding, as religious vows were considered a sort of baptism, in the sense of initiation into the perfect Christian life. This is why modern theologians of repute, even before the Council, opined that professions and vows might be considered something more than sacramentals. The Church recognizes this elevated status by including the professions in her public liturgy, the Mass, rather than treating them as private devotions.
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The revision of the Divine Office (literally, “divine duty”) has been of little interest to lay Catholics, since it is only said by priests and religious, while the laity are rarely exposed to it. Yet this was not always the case. In many parts of the world, the liturgy of the hours was known even to the laity, to the extent that daily devotional life revolved around it. The hours of Matins, Lauds, and Vespers were honored by the laity in their prayers and hymns, and in the case of Vespers it was common for the faithful to attend the office in church, especially on Sunday. Although lay participation in the Divine Office had subsided by the twentieth century, the Council’s reform of this prayer deserves serious attention, since it is the daily prayer of every parish priest, and does more than anything to shape the spirituality of our pastors.
The content of the Divine Office was found in the Roman Breviary, which consisted of several components. First was the Psalter, which distributed the 150 Biblical Psalms to be said at prescribed hours throughout the week. Next was the Proper for each liturgical season, and the Proper for each saint’s feast. Then came the Common, which could be applied to entire classes of persons, such as Apostles, Martyrs, Abbots, Virgins and so forth. The Proper of Common prescribed for a given day and hour could consist of readings, prayers, lessons, hymns, psalms, and antiphons. There were also special offices, such as the Office of the Blessed Virgin, and the Office of the Dead, as well as various local offices.
The Divine Office was performed at the traditional Roman hours of the day. First came Matins (“dawn”), which concluded the nightly Vigils. It was immediately followed by Lauds (“praises”). Then came the conventional Roman hours of Prime (“first,” around 6 AM), Terce (“third,” around 9 AM), Sext (“sixth,” noon), None (“ninth,” or 3 PM). This was followed by Vespers at sunset, and the Compline before retiring.
The last reform of the Roman Breviary had occurred under Pope St. Pius X, as prescribed by the First Vatican Council. This reform organized the regular weekly prayers under the category of Ordinary, so that the multitude of saint’s propers did not obscure the original usage of the Divine Office, allowing the entire Psalter to be recited weekly. This work of simplifying and rationalizing the Office was then recognized as only a preliminary step. The Second Vatican Council would continue this effort, and at the same time apply its general norms for liturgical reform.
The Council proposed restoring the traditional sequence of the hours, so that the Office of each hour is said at the time indicated by its name. Also, “account must be taken of the conditions of modern life in which those who are engaged in apostolic work must live.” (SC, 88) In view of these goals, the Council decreed the following norms:
The reader is excused for failing to see much connection between the first goal of Article 88 and the norms of Article 89. ‘Matins’ means “morning” or “dawn,” yet it is to be adapted for any time of day. Priests are allowed to skip two of the afternoon offices, and have discretion as to which one they will say when. This hardly seems like a restoration of the traditional times and sequence of the hours. Instead, the Council’s emphasis is on the second goal, accommodating the Divine Office to a busy modern schedule. Thus Prime is suppressed, so as not to conflict with morning business, and two of the three afternoon offices may be suppressed to avoid conflicts with afternoon business. Our clock-driven modern schedule does not allow for much flexibility, and it is often set by circumstances indifferent to the demands of the Divine Office, so the Council has imposed temporal flexibility on the latter. This action is a concession to the secularization of daily life. In Muslim countries, the day still revolves around the five calls to prayer. When living abroad, however, Muslims find it difficult to conform their discipline to a secular schedule. The Church similarly finds herself living in a world that is indifferent to the rhythm of daily prayer, even in nominally Catholic countries, making this disciplinary concession practically necessary.
The above mentioned abridgement of the daily Office now made it impossible to complete the Psalter in a week. Accordingly, the Council proposes distributing the Psalms over a longer period of time. (SC, 91) It is left unclear how the Psalms are to be completed in a fixed amount of time when there are optional suppressions of some afternoon hours.
The revision of the Latin Psalter, already begun, is to be completed, taking “into account the style of Christian Latin, the liturgical use of the psalms including the singing of the psalms and the entire tradition of the Latin Church.” (SC, 91) It should be emphasized that revising the Latin Psalter was not something undertaken lightly. There were no revisions from the time of St. Jerome until the twentieth century, so venerable are the ancient forms considered. The Psalter is not only part of Scripture, but the core of the prayer life of the Church in the Divine Office. When a modern revision, translating Masoretic Hebrew into Classical Latin, was published under Pope Pius XII in 1945, its adoption was resisted by many religious. The new revision of the Psalter, which was part of the Nova Vulgata completed in 1969, restores much of the traditional Gallican wording and Vulgate grammar, so that it is closer to the traditional Latin Psalters than the 1945 revision was.
Although the Psalter in the Nova Vulgata uses the Masoretic numbering of the Psalms rather than the Septuagint-Vulgate numbering, the latter is employed in the schema for the Divine Office as of the 2000 edition. The revised schema was first promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1971, as part of the new “Liturgy of the Hours,” as the Roman Breviary was now called. The new Office distributed the Psalms over a four-week cycle.
Three psalms and fifty-nine other verses were removed from the Office. This is the first time any Psalms have been omitted from the Divine Office. The missing Psalms are 57, 82, and 108 (Vulgate numbering). The omitted psalms and verses all have similar themes, as they are prayers for the punishment of the enemies of God’s people. On their face, they appear to be curses such as are forbidden to Christians, so the Church prudentially suppresses their public recitation in order not to give the appearance of encouraging a practice contrary to Christianity. In fact, the curses are legitimate appeals to divine justice, not demands for vengeance against wrongs done to oneself. Psalm 108 (109 in MT), the most graphic of the “cursing” Psalms, is actually directed against those who “remembered not to show mercy,” and “loved cursing.” (108:16-18) This condemnation of those who defraud the poor and exploit the weak is consistent with Christ’s stern admonition against those who would cause his “little ones” to sin. (Matt. 18:6)
Besides the omitted Psalms, there are three Psalms (77, 104, 105 in Vulgate) that are reserved for special liturgical seasons. So, for much of the year, the Psalter is not completed.
The Psalms for Terce, Sext and None (“the little hours”) are now all the same, so nothing is omitted if only one of these hours is observed. (Prior to the reform of St. Pius X, the Roman Breviary prescribed readings from different parts of Psalm 118.) By the same token, there is little incentive to observe more than one of these hours, so they can be effectively consolidated into a “midday” office.
The Divine Office traditionally included lesson readings, prescribed solely for Matins, which was divided into three nocturns. These readings were usually teachings of the Church Fathers or episodes in lives of the saints. Readings taken from Scripture were often fragmentary or abbreviated. The Second Vatican Council prescribed that there should be more accessible Scripture readings (i.e., more complete readings), and a better selection of lessons from the Fathers. Also, the legends of the saints should be made historically accurate. The presence of historically false statements in these readings was widely known for centuries, but there remained the difficulty of distinguishing definitely false statements from those that were merely improbable or doubtful. Devotional reflection on these legends remained morally edifying to priests and religious, since they provided idealistic examples of the heroic life of faith. As this liturgy was now prescribed for the edification of the laity in the vernacular, it was important for the Church not to give the appearance of espousing historically false claims.
In the postconciliar Liturgy of the Hours, Matins now has no Psalms. This is a significant break with tradition, as historically most Psalms were reserved for Matins. Such a change was likely motivated by a desire to make more Psalms available to hours when the laity were likely to attend.
Hymns are to be restored to their original form. (SC, 93) This alludes to some misguided post-Tridentine revisions to the Roman hymnal, which conformed the language to Ciceronian Latin and even changed the meaning in some places. The traditional early medieval hymnal, the great musical treasury of the Church, is to be restored, “as far as may be desirable.” The hymns should “be purged of whatever smacks of mythology or accords ill with Christian piety.”
Article 94 seems to be at odds with the temporal flexibility described earlier, saying “it is best that each of [the offices] be prayed at the time which corresponds most closely with its true canonical time.” This provision is part of the original schema presented to the Council, before protests were raised about the difficulty for those in pastoral ministry to keep all of the hours. The above mentioned suppression of Prime (since it effectively duplicated Lauds) and optional omission of two “little hours” were amendments introduced at the Council. The latter change was the result of a compromise among several positions: (1) the practical need to reduce the number of offices obligatory on those in pastoral ministry; (2) the desire to practice the offices at the hours corresponding to their names; and (3) the desire to have a single breviary for both secular clergy and religious orders. Since those in contemplative orders wished to preserve the discipline of prayer at all the traditional hours, the three “little hours” were retained, but for secular clergy they were effectively a single “midday service” that could be performed any time in the afternoon.
Religious communities that were obligated to keep the Office in choir were still bound to “say the entire office” if they were orders of canons, monks or nuns. (SC, 95) Thus the religious orders could still keep the discipline of all the hours. Cathedral or collegiate chapters said those parts imposed on them by law. Those religious who are in major orders must recite individually whichever hours they do not pray in choir.
The Council chose to emphasize that the Divine Office is a public prayer, “the voice of the Church, that is, of the whole mystical body publicly praising God.” (SC, 99) Only priests and religious are obligate to pray the Divine Office, but laity are also allowed and encouraged to do so, as had been the custom for various parts of this liturgy over the centuries. Further, priests are encouraged to say at least some part of the divine office in common, even if they are not obligated to choral office. (SC, 99) This emphasis did meet some resistance among the bishops, as the Divine Office, despite its public character, had effectively become a deeply personal prayer for priests. It thus seemed to be a private duty, specific to the character of the priesthood. To popularize the Office for lay participation might derogate from the devotional life of priests. Yet the proponents of the conciliar schema argued that a priest must maintain a life of private devotional prayer in addition to his public liturgical duties, the Mass and the Divine Office.
The tension between the Office’s aspects as public prayer and priestly devotion appears again in the Council’s prescription for the use of the Latin language. “In accordance with the age-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office.” (SC, 101) Yet this preference for Latin seems to be at odds with the Council’s exhortation that much of the Office, especially Vespers, should be celebrated in common with the laity on Sundays and feasts, and celebrations with laity should be in the vernacular. Among clerics and religious, personal exceptions may be granted by superiors allowing the Office to be prayed in the vernacular, even in choir. Such exceptions are justified if “the use of Latin constitutes a grave obstacle to their praying the office properly.” Again, the Council shows much reticence and restraint in granting the use of the vernacular, but in the post-conciliar era, the exception would become the rule, and the Church would become almost completely de-Latinized in her public prayer.
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The Council gives only vague guidelines for the reform of the liturgical calendar. This is in keeping with Pope Paul VI’s desire that only general or fundamental principles of reform should be defined by the Council, with specifics to be worked out by post-conciliar commissions. Yet in the case of the Divine Office we saw that some rather definite rules were issued regarding the omission of hours, as this was a matter of deep concern to the bishops. We might interpret the lack of similar specificity regarding the liturgical calendar as reflecting a perception that this reform was a less pressing need.
Regarding the liturgical seasons in general, the Council says only:
The liturgical year is to be revised so that the traditional customs and discipline of the sacred seasons shall be preserved or restored to suit the conditions of modern times. Their specific character is to be retained so that they duly nourish the piety of the faithful who celebrate the mysteries of the Christian redemption and, above all, the paschal mystery. (SC, 107)
This is vague to the point of meaninglessness. Traditions are to be “preserved or restored,” yet should “suit the conditions of modern times,” which suggests the introduction of novelty. The “specific character” of the sacred seasons is to be retained, which seems to imply that no liturgical season will be suppressed, as in fact would occur with the Septuagesima, Epiphany, and Pentecost seasons. Once again, the degree of post-conciliar reform seems to have been uncorrelated to any mandate expressed by the Council.
The post-conciliar commission did give reasons for its suppression of Septuagesima. It said the pre-Lent period “had no special character of its own” and “robbed the penitential season of Lent of its novelty before it even began.” Unfortunately, the suppressed seasons were not replaced with anything besides a generic “Ordinary Time,” so that the once overcrowded Church calendar is now structureless outside the seasons of Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter.
As with the reform of the Mass, the Council allowed that adaptations “necessary because of local conditions” could be made to the calendar. This was to be done in accordance with Articles 39 and 40; i.e., through territorial conferences of bishops and with papal approval.
One generally acknowledged problem with the traditional liturgical calendar was the proliferation of saints’ feasts of various grades, which tended to interrupt or supersede the liturgical season. Therefore, the Council decreed that “the Proper of the Time shall be given due preference over the feasts of the saints.” (SC, 108)
Only the Lenten season gets specific treatment in this Constitution. The Council identifies two characteristics that should be emphasized: “the recalling of baptism or the preparation for it, and penance.” (SC, 109) The baptismal aspect had fallen into neglect to some extent, so the Council proposed restoring more ancient custom in this regard. Regarding penance, catechesis should point out “the social consequences of sin,” yet also emphasize that penance is “a detestation of sin because it is an offence against God.” The faithful should also be taught about the Church’s role in penitential practices and the need to pray for sinners.
In order to further emphasize the communal or ecclesial aspect of Lenten penance, the Council says that “penance should be not only internal and individual but also external and social.” (SC, 110) It should be promoted “in ways suited to the present day, to different regions, and to individual circumstances.” Such adaptations are determined by the authorities in Article 22, which are the Pope (for the whole Church), the bishop (for the diocese), and the territorial conferences of bishops, to the extent such authority is conceded by law. The Constitution gives no specifics on the nature of these adaptations, but only demands that “the paschal fast must be kept sacred. It should be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday, and where possible should be prolonged throughout Holy Saturday.”
In actual implementation, the postconciliar reforms of Lenten practice have effectively all but abolished obligatory penance. In most countries, there is no required fasting except on Good Friday and perhaps Ash Wednesday. Abstinence from meat, for centuries a defining characteristic of Lenten penitence throughout the Catholic (and Orthodox) world, has been abandoned on all days except Lenten Fridays in many places. To be sure, the local churches urge the faithful to take up alternative penitential practices, but such broad discretion practically removes the obligatory character of the penance. Further, individualization of penance derogates from the public character of the Lenten practice, which the Council wished to emphasize. Its concession to “individual circumstances” referred only to those in situations that made observance of the traditional fast or abstinence unduly difficult.
Regarding the proliferation of saints’ feasts, the Council reiterates that the veneration of saints and their relics is praiseworthy, but their feasts should not take precedence over those that “commemorate the very mysteries of salvation.” Accordingly, “many of them should be left to be celebrated by a particular Church, or nation, or family of religious.” (SC, 111) Only those of truly universal importance should have a universal feast day.
The modern lay Catholic may be excused for thinking that the saints’ feasts have been abolished. They are almost never obligatory, and are usually not even promoted by local churches. In fact, many of the major saints’ feasts have been retained on the Roman calendar, though some have been moved. In the new ranking of liturgical feasts imposed in the 1969 reform, there are “solemnities,” “feasts,” and “memorials,” in descending order of priority. Solemnities are high holy days pertaining to the mysteries of faith. “Feasts” are holy days pertaining to less significant events in the life of Christ and the Blessed Virgin, as well as the feasts of the most important saints. Only the Holy Apostles are commemorated with “feasts” in the new calendar. All the other major saints, no matter how illustrious and renowned, are in the third tier called “memorials.” The memorials of the important saints are “obligatory” only in the sense that they must be honored in the liturgy of that day, which is usually a weekday Mass with sparse attendance.
The demise of saints’ feasts is attributable not only to their liturgical demotion (since most bishops’ conferences will not make memorials obligatory, or even feasts for that matter), but also to the indifference, even hostility, of modern culture to interrupting the work week with a holy day. Even secular holidays are typically moved to a Monday, since the needs of business get priority over honoring a special day. The cultural loss goes beyond having far fewer days off, as man becomes more enslaved to industrial and post-industrial capitalism, but extends to a failure to structure the year in Christian terms. For many centuries, Christians measured the seasons according to the saints’ feasts, even when discussing secular matters. Now these feasts are gone even from Catholic liturgical practice, at least for most laity. Veneration of the saints provides a palpable connection with the Catholic heritage of generations past, and reminds the laity that they are part of a Church that extends into heaven. It is surely no accident that wherever Catholic devotion is strong, there is visibly prominent veneration of the saints.
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The Council extols the musical tradition of the Church as “a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art,” since it is “a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.” (SC, 112)
The Council mentions Pope St. Pius X in particular as one who “explained more precisely the ministerial functions exercised by sacred music.” This is an allusion to the 1903 Motu proprio called Tra le Sollecitudini, where the Pope spelled out in detail the essential aims and qualities of sacred music. The aims of sacred music are as follows:
The Pope accordingly defined that sacred music should share three essential qualities with the liturgy: sanctity, goodness of form, and universality. The first two qualities would spontaneously produce the last. Sanctity excluded any music that was profane in itself or in the manner it was presented. Goodness of form required that sacred music “must be true art,” in order for it to have efficacy; in other words, it must be technically sound. Lastly, it must be universal in the sense of having general characteristics such that “nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good.” Various nations may admit their special forms of music into liturgy, but such forms must be subordinate to these general principles. The Pope adds:
These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.
On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.
Following this principle, the Pope found that Classic Polyphony, which was perfected in the sixteenth century by Palestrina, “agrees admirably with Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music.” “Modern music” (what we would today call “classical”) is also accepted, insofar as it “furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety and gravity.” However, great care must be taken in adopting modern music, as it “has risen mainly to serve profane uses.” Liturgical music should “be from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces.” Least suitable is “the theatrical style, which was in the greatest vogue, especially in Italy, during the last century.” This is an allusion to the melodramas, operettas and comic operas that were popular in the nineteenth century. The Pope finds fault with the “intrinsic structure,” “rhythm” and “conventionalism” (this last applied only to the earlier compositions, until about 1865), as incompatible with the requirements of liturgical music.
The Second Vatican Council agrees that the purpose of sacred music “is the the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.” It is “the more holy, the more closely connected it is with the liturgical action, whether making prayer more pleasing, promoting unity of minds, or conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.” (SC, 112)
The language to be used should be in conformance with the Constitution’s general norms (Article 36), as well as those specified for the Mass (Article 54), the Sacraments (Article 63), and the Divine Office (Article 101). (SC, 113)
Choirs should be developed, especially in cathedral churches, and whenever sacred liturgy is to be accompanied by chant, all the faithful should participate, per Articles 28 and 30. (SC, 114)
“The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being specially suited to the Roman liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” Other kinds of music, “especially polyphony,” are included as long as they accord with the principles of Article 30. (SC, 116) That article encouraged lay participation in hymns, while also calling for reverent silence at proper times. Thus the music should not be such that it excludes lay participation, by being overly difficult to sing.
In countries where their musical tradition plays a great part in religious and social life, such music “should be held in proper esteem and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their religious sense but also in adapting worship to their native genius.” (SC, 119)
“The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, for it is the traditional musical instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendour to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up men's minds to God and higher things.” (SC, 120) Still, other instruments are permissible, with consent of the territorial bishops’ conference. This can be done only for such instruments that “accord with the dignity of the temple” and “truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.”
Texts sung should be in conformity with Catholic doctrine, drawn from Scripture and liturgical sources.
While the Council makes a brief nod toward the principle of inculturation in liturgical music (SC, 119), for the most part its determinate prescriptions appeal to the traditional musical heritage of the Church. Indeed, it would have been foolish to do otherwise, as even unbelievers recognize the solemnity and richness of Latin Catholic music. The Council repeatedly emphasizes solemnity as an important value for sacred music, in striking contrast with the banalities that were promoted in the post-conciliar period. The quality of liturgical music has always varied greatly by region, even by parish, but in the post-conciliar period there was a systematic attempt, especially in the English-speaking world, to displace most or all the traditional Catholic hymns in favor of Protestant hymns or newly created songs, nominally in “the spirit of Vatican II,” but really in the spirit of hostility to Latin culture, and even to the very ethos of solemnity and transcendence. The significance of this abuse cannot be understated, for music can often do more to shape the liturgical experience than even the text of the prayers. When music conveys that the Church no longer regards the Mass as a deeply solemn, serious event oriented toward God, public devotion is in danger of ruin. Apart from negative religious implications, the drift toward more vapid musical forms evinces a broader hostility to high culture as such, an attitude that is as destructive of the moral development of humanity as any heresy.
By and large, the faithful did not embrace these musical reforms, as is proven by their lack of participation in the new hymns. Rather, such sweeping changes have been advanced by a liturgical music industry that foists proprietary compositions upon parishes at substantial prices, in replacement of much richer musical treasures that are in the public domain. To replace polyphony with pseudo-folk (a genre unknown outside of modern Catholic liturgy) is akin to replacing fine cuisine with fast food, yet more is at stake than bad taste. The Mass loses its distinctively Catholic feel, so that the Church finds herself cultureless, or even worse, ashamed of her great cultural contributions. If Catholics will not sing Catholic hymns, who will sing them?
The Council did not envision a countercultural suppression of the Church’s musical heritage, and devoted little time to the issue of musical reform. Yet music and other artistic forms can have a tremendous impact on liturgical experience, and even on Catholic identity.
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What we have said of music applies also to sacred art, for here again the Catholic tradition is without peer. The magnificent beauty of Renaissance and baroque art has never been surpassed. Modern schools of art have progressed in terms of advancing concepts, but not in improving beauty. On the contrary, modern art has frequently earned the criticism of sacrificing beauty for the sake of concept, even willfully rejecting beauty as an artistic value.
Yet beauty is an essential value for sacred art, as the Council declares repeatedly: it is “oriented toward the infinite beauty of God;” artistic works “should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world;” and “sacred furnishings should worthily and beautifully serve the dignity of worship.” (SC, 122) This does not mean that sacred art is confined to a particular artistic style, for the Church “has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples.” (SC, 123) Still, it would be clearly unacceptable to admit those types of modern art that are indifferent or even opposed to beauty as an artistic value.
The aesthetic sensibility espoused by the Council steers a middle course between baroque ostentation and pretentious ugliness. On the one hand, artworks (including vestments and ornaments) “should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display.” (SC, 124) In the baroque period, ecclesiastical art risked becoming a distraction from Christian spirituality, as it became so splendidly ornate and intricate that it seemed to be a glorification of wealth rather than beauty. Proper religious art should direct the viewer toward contemplation of the divine, rather than merely delight the senses. The Council was now calling for some moderation in the adornment of churches, in keeping with a proper Christian orientation as well as to avoid giving scandal to modern man, who regards ostentation as morally ignoble.
Still, at the same time, churches should remove any artworks “repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense.” (SC, 124) This is a clear repudiation of the aesthetic of deliberate ugliness or barren simplicity, which is sometimes defended by pretentious claims to conceptual profundity. Sacred art may employ modern techniques or styles, but only to the extent that these do not conflict with the aesthetic values of the Catholic faith. Many art styles were devised in conscious opposition to traditional culture, as a deliberate repudiation or falsification of the ideal of beauty in art. Such styles introduce deliberate asymmetry, disorder, or apparent lack of technique, ostensibly in order to jar the viewer and evoke some deep insight. Regardless of the validity of such pretensions, they have no place in art which is intended to reflect the beauty of the God who imposes order over heaven and earth.
The reader undoubtedly knows all too well that post-conciliar Catholic churches have become monuments of geometric plainness or outright ugliness. When tourists flock to admire a Catholic church for its artistic beauty, it is invariably one of the traditionally Gothic, Renaissance or baroque cathedrals. No similar admiration is shown for the new modern monstrosities, which shows that modern art is actually more out of touch with modern popular sensibility than traditional Catholic art. Indeed, this is unsurprising, as much of modern art is designed to be inaccessible, and it is considered a sign of mediocrity for art to be “pretty.” Yet “pretty” is what people expect from art as a bare minimum. The most that can be said of much modern art is that it is “clean” or “neat” or “nice,” that is, free from irregularities. Yet it is generally lacking in positive decorative beauty, or in any indication of an overarching heavenly order. As with the destruction of Catholic music, this cultural loss is more than a move to bad taste. Catholic churches no longer look distinctively Catholic, so Catholics have lost another important aspect of their cultural identity, an aspect that was once admired even by those outside the Church.
The Council recommends continuing the practice of keeping holy icons in church to be venerated. “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.” (SC, 125) This means not putting saints’ altars by the sanctuary, save the altars of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph.
It is the local ordinary who passes judgment on works of art, after giving a hearing to a diocesan commission on sacred art, other experts, and commissions mentioned in Articles 44-46. Ordinaries are also responsible for ensuring “that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or dispersed; for they are the ornaments of the house of God.” (SC, 126) There is not the slightest hint here of the willful iconoclasm that followed the Council. If anything, the Council’s modest reform seems to be intended primarily for new churches; it is decidedly not a call for the destruction or dispersal of existing furnishings.
More concretely, the Council calls for a “revision of the canons and ecclesiastical statutes which govern the provision of material things involved in sacred worship.” Such laws pertain to “the worthy and well planned construction of sacred buildings, the shape and construction of altars, the nobility, placing, and safety of the eucharistic tabernacle, the dignity and suitability of the baptistery, the proper ordering of sacred images, embellishments, and vestments.” (SC, 128)
The motivation of such changes is liturgical: “Laws which seem less suited to the reformed liturgy are to be brought into harmony with it, or else abolished; and any which are helpful are to be retained if already in use, or introduced where they are lacking.” (SC, 128) Note that the Council speaks only of modifying or abolishing laws regarding sacred art, not disposing of existing artworks. Nonetheless, the eventual guidelines released by the post-conciliar commission would be wrongly construed by many priests and bishops (motivated by their own aesthetic preferences) as calling for the systematic destruction or removal of baroque furnishings from Catholic churches.
The above mentioned changes to laws governing sacred art are found in the revised Ordo Missae of 1969, in a special section dealing with the construction and adornment of churches in conformity with the reformed liturgy. This section, Chapter V, was prepared by a subcommission on sacred art. Regarding altars, it says only: “The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there.” As liturgical instructions from that time and later have reiterated, this is only a preference; it is “not absolutely indispensible,” especially since lay participation is already encouraged in the Liturgy of the Word and the use of the vernacular. Still, virtually every parish in the world has at the very least added a freestanding altar; in many cases, they have also destroyed or removed existing altars and reredos.
The mania for freestanding altars was motivated by a desire to encourage lay participation in every part of the liturgy. In the 1960s, it was commonly asserted by liturgical scholars that this had been the original posture of the liturgy in the earliest centuries, notwithstanding the fact that none of the Eastern churches use such a form. More recent archaeological inquiry has shown that this thesis was in fact mistaken, and the ad orientem position, with both priest and laity facing the direction from which Christ is expected to return, is the more ancient position. The notable exception of St. Peter’s, where the priest faces the people, is a result of the oddity that the church’s doors face the east rather than the west. What is essential is not that the celebrant faces the people, but that he faces east.
Many modern liturgists claim that the traditional form is opposed to lay participation, since the priest “has his back to the people,” thereby seeming to exclude them. This criticism is liturgically ill-informed, for in fact the priest and laity express their unity by facing in the same direction. No one says that a lay person “has his back” to all the people in the pews behind him, even though this is technically correct. It is understood that all the lay people face the same direction for a common purpose, so they are not excluding each other. The priest also faces that direction, for he too is worshiping, and is not the object of worship. Liturgy does not have the same dynamic as when a public speaker or teacher faces his audience, for then the speaker or teacher is the center of attention. In the Mass, the center of attention is Christ upon the altar. For this reason, the posture of priest and laity is theocentric in the traditional rites, but in the versus populum form, the posture becomes seemingly anthropocentric. There is, to be sure, the advantage that the laity can more clearly see the actions being performed at the altar, but these actions were known even before the reform.
Another artistic change directly related to liturgical reform was the restoration of the use of white vestments (optionally) instead of black for funerals, to emphasize the resurrection. This aligns Latin practice with that of the Eastern Orthodox, but its real motivation has to do more with modern discomfort about the reality of death. This is shown by the fact that black vestments are no longer used even for Good Friday or for All Souls’ Day, where they are still nominally prescribed.
Regarding the other postconciliar changes in Catholic art, perhaps the less that is said the better. Most of the extreme abuses have been abandoned, but there is still a pervasive banality to liturgical art, which is too heavily influenced by Protestant-capitalist pragmatism at best, and indulgent in deliberately non-beautiful modern pretentiousness at worst. It is ironic that the movement away from ostentation has led to an equally immodest love of conceptual inaccessibility, as if the worth of art was proven by the public’s inability to appreciate it. The democratization of art has not improved the participation of the people, but has alienated them, and served only to destroy the hierarchical, structured order inherent in traditional Catholic art.
The radical reformation of Catholic art should not be downplayed as purely a matter of taste. While there is certainly a subjective element to the evaluation of art, the Council also acknowledges that art leads us to the contemplation of objective values, such as divine beauty, order and harmony. The denial that these attributes have any value or objective reality is subversively anti-theistic, and indeed many of the modern styles of art were conceived in such a spirit. Rightly or wrongly, when people walk into a church, the art and architecture instantly convey an impression of the religious devotion of that church. Traditional Catholic art shows that Catholics believed in the beauty, order and splendor of a creation directed toward the divine. Modern art tends to be much more minimalist, even when it is reverent. It points to the human rather than the divine, to function rather than “useless” beauty. The problem is not with this or that painting technique, but with the underlying attitude or ideology conveyed by a style of art.
Art impresses ideas on us so forcefully that a radical change in a church’s art and furnishings can only appear to reflect a change in religious belief, even if not a word of dogma or discipline has changed. Indeed, I believe that traditionalist Catholics would not have been nearly as scandalized by the post-conciliar liturgical reforms if only the art, architecture and music had been permitted to stay the same. Prose is always prosaic, so changes in the liturgical texts would not have offended the ear as much as modern art offends the eye that expects beauty and reverence in the house of God.
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Throughout this commentary, I have contrasted the modest, sober, and eminently reasonable reforms proposed by the Second Vatican Council with the excessively radical iconoclasm implemented in the post-Conciliar period. Part of this disparity is attributable to the composition of the post-conciliar commission responsible for developing the specifics of the reform. At times, it seems to have exceeded its mandate and even contradicted the will of the Council. Yet even the official reforms of the post-conciliar commissions on liturgy and the sacraments were mild in comparison with the sweeping culture change that overtook many in the Church. Indeed, in many cases, we cannot lay any blame at all on the post-conciliar commissions, for they had not even completed their work before all sorts of abuses in the name of Vatican II had become widespread. The more liberal bishops and theologians sought to use the Council as a sanction for their peculiar ideas, ignoring the caveats and restraints that had been imposed by their conservative brethren. More broadly, we might point to a change in the culture at large toward a more egalitarian, anti-authoritarian bent.
The most destructive aspect of the post-conciliar liturgical reforms was the effective abandonment of the principle that changes should be gradual and organic. Cardinal Ratzinger repeatedly criticized the view of many reformers that the Church’s culture could be changed on paper by scholars, rather than be permitted to develop naturally among the faithful. “In the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it as in a manufacturing process with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.” (Preface to The Reform of the Roman Liturgy by Msgr. Klaus Gamber, 1993) This was true not only of the improvised liturgies by dissidents, but even of the official liturgical books that came from Rome. Instead of modest corrections and improvements, there was a an attempt to re-engineer the Church’s culture from the top down, in conformity with the ideological preferences of scholars. These works “show far too many signs of being drawn up by academics and reinforce the notion that a liturgical book can be ‘made’ like any other book.” (Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith, Ignatius Press, 1981, pp. 84-85.) The liturgical calendar gives ample evidence of “the armchair strategy of academics, drawing up things on paper which, in fact, would presuppose years of organic growth,” evincing a tone-deafness to the rhythms of Catholic life that people had come to expect. (Ibid., pp. 81-82.) The new missal, similarly, “was published as if it were a book put together by professors, not a phase in a continual growth process. Such a thing never happened before. It is absolutely contrary to the laws of liturgical growth.” (Ibid., p. 86.) This point should be emphasized, for neither in the Latin Church nor in any of the various Eastern rites, nor indeed in any traditional religion outside of Christianity, has there been an attempt to invent new liturgical forms out of whole cloth. Instead, religious ritual develops with the people, so they are attuned to it and it is never foreign to them. The new liturgy was a foreign object invented by scholars who often had little feel or respect for popular devotion. Any “reform of the reform” should seek to restore this continuity, while there are still many alive who remember the traditional life of faith.
The remorse that Cardinal Ratzinger later Pope Benedict XVI and others have shown toward post-conciliar reform does not necessarily entail an abandonment of the principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium. As we have seen, this Constitution repeatedly appealed to the traditional ethos of solemnity and holiness, and exhibited a hermeneutic of continuity in its call to give pride of place to traditional forms. Reform does not mean anything goes. Just because a reform is juridically possible, that does not mean it is liturgically apt. One of the main principles of ressourcement theology was the recognition that religious practices must be considered in their concrete historical manifestation, not just as abstract philosophical or juridical ideals. In a purely Scholastic metaphysical analysis, the only thing essential to the Mass are the material gifts and words of Institution. If we stopped there, we might say that it would suffice for a priest to say the words of Institution over bread and wine, and that would be a Mass. This interpretation reduces the words of Institution to “magic words,” and makes the Mass a purely functional, culturally lifeless procedure. Although the Scholastic definition of the matter and form is technically correct, this does not mean we should have free play with the rest of the Mass. As Cardinal Ratzinger commented at length:
At this point Modernists and Traditionalists are in agreement: As long as the material gifts are there, and the words of institution are spoken, then everything else is freely disposable. Many priests today, unfortunately, act in accordance with this motto; and the theories of many liturgists are unfortunately moving in the same direction. They want to overcome the limits of the rite, as being something fixed and immovable, and construct the products of their fantasy, which are supposedly ‘pastoral,’ around this remnant, this core which has been spared, and which is thus either relegated to the realm of magic, or loses any meaning whatever. The Liturgical Movement had in fact been attempting to overcome this reductionism, the product of an abstract sacramental theology, and to teach us to understand the Liturgy as a living network of tradition which had taken concrete form, which cannot be torn apart into little pieces, but has to be seen and experienced as a living whole. Anyone like myself, who was moved by this perception in the time of the Liturgical Movement on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, can only stand, deeply sorrowing, before the ruins of the very things they were concerned for. (30 Giorni, 12, 2004)
The attempt to construct liturgy artificially, without respect for the historical development of tradition, rejects a fundamental principle of the ressourcement theology that motivated the reform movement at Vatican II. Until the liturgy and other trappings of the Church’s cultural life are restored to continuity with perennial Catholic tradition, we will be plagued by the ugliness and banality that ensues wherever liberal-minded social engineers leave their fingerprints. A purely functional, pragmatic implementation of liturgy, art, or music is a hopeless contradiction. Things of the soul must be touched only by those who have not lost sight of the soul.
© 2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org