The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. | IgnatiusInsight.com
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was one of two documents issued on the same day, December 4, 1963, the first two documents issued by the Second Vatican Council. The other document, Inter Mirifica, is on social communication. Sacrosanctum Concilium is one of the most important documents of the Council, one that has been the least understood and, I believe, has wrought the most havoc - not by having been fulfilled - but by having been ignored or misinterpreted.
Now there should be no argument about the central intent of the Council concerning the liturgy. The Council actually spells out its intent, in paragraph 14 of Sacrosanctum Concilium: "Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations, which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy." The key words here are "full, conscious, and active participation." The Latin for "active participation" is actuosa participatio.
I did a little research into previous uses of that expression in papal and other ecclesial documents. The first papal usage was in 1903 by Pope St. Pius X, whose motto was "Omnia Instaurare in Christo" (To restore all things in Christ). He considered himself a pope of renewal. He was elected in August of 1903 and in November, he issued one of the first documents of his pontificate, a motu proprio called Tra Le Solicitudini, that is, "Among the Concerns." This was a document on the renewal of sacred music. In it, the Holy Father states, "In order that the faithful may more actively participate in the sacred liturgy, let them be once again made to sing Gregorian Chant as a congregation."
That's what the term "active participation" meant when it was first used in a papal document. But it had been used ten years earlier in another document, issued by Pius X before he was pope. He was the patriarch of Venice, and the document - as it turns out - was actually written by a Jesuit, with the wonderful name of Angelo dei Santi ("angel of the saints"). Sounds like a fictitious name.
In any case, the first use of actuosa participatio, i.e., active participation, referred explicitly and exclusively to the restoration of the congregational singing of Gregorian Chant. In 1928, Pope Pius XI reiterated the point in his Apostolic Letter, Divini Cultus. Nineteen years after that, in the Magna Carta of liturgical reform, Mediator Dei, issued by Pius XII, the same term was used with the same meaning. So until the Second Vatican Council, the term "active participation" referred exclusively to the singing of Gregorian Chant by the people.
No Innovations Unless the Good of the Church Requires Them
But back to the Council. In the same paragraph of Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 14, the Council continues: "In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else." So the Council itself defines the primary aim of liturgical renewal: full, conscious and active participation. How does the Council initially intend for the aim to be achieved? That, also, is not something we have to guess at or speculate on: "And, therefore, pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it by means of the necessary instruction in all their pastoral work." The Council's idea is clear: the liturgy is to be renewed by promoting more active participation through the means of greater education. Nothing whatsoever is said here about any kind of changes or reform of the rite itself. Later, when changes are discussed, the Council states in paragraph 23: "There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them." So no changes unless there is a real, proven, demonstrable need.
Paragraph 23 continues: "And care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing." Organic growth - like a plant, a flower, a tree - not something constructed by an intellectual elite, not things fabricated and tacked on, or brought back from ten centuries ago, or fifteen centuries ago, but an organic growth. That's what the Council itself said.
Paragraph 48 begins the chapter on the Mass. And the title of this chapter is interesting. It's not called "The Eucharist" or "The Mass"; it's called "The Most Sacred Mystery of the Eucharist." Even in the chapter title, you have the sense that what's important is mystery, sacredness, awe, the transcendence of God.
Paragraph 48 returns to the theme of greater awareness, a greater knowledge of the faithful, in order that they might enter more fully into the mysteries celebrated: "For this reason the Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ's faithful, when present at the mystery of faith should not be there as strangers or silent spectators. On the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers, they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing with devotion and full collaboration." Then, in paragraph 49, the document says, "For this reason the sacred Council, having in mind those Masses which are celebrated with assistance of the faithful, especially on Sundays and Feasts of Obligation, has made the following decrees in order that the sacrifice of the Mass, even in the ritual forms of its celebration, may become pastorally efficacious in the fullest degree."
Paragraphs 50 to 58 contain nine specific changes the Council had in mind for the renewal of the liturgy. But before we consider them, we must recall that when the Council made these proposals, it didn't dream them up overnight. Although this was the first document issued at the Council, it was not issued without long preparation. The modern liturgical movement began in the middle of the 19th century. It was given great impetus by Pius X himself, in the beginning of the 20th century, and by years of study, prayer, and liturgical congresses during the first half of the century. In fact, after Mediator Dei in 1947, there were seven international liturgical conferences, attended by liturgical experts, by pastors and by Roman officials. If you read the minutes of those meetings and the concrete proposals they made, you will see that what the Council outlines here is the fruit of those meetings. This is really the distillation of the prayer and reflection that was the culmination of the liturgical movement, which had existed for over a century prior to the Council.
What are the nine liturgical proposals, or the nine liturgical mandates, of the Council? Paragraph 50 says the rites are to be simplified and those things that have been duplicated with the passage of time or added with little advantage, are to be discarded. And, after the Council, this reform did take place in many ways. I think it took place to a much greater degree than the Council intended, but there are certain simplifications in the Mass that the Council clearly intended.
Paragraph 51: The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more fully. That has been accomplished by a greater number of readings from the Bible interspersed throughout the liturgical cycle, both in the Sunday and weekday cycles. Now, especially if you attend daily Mass, you have a much richer fare, if you will - a much expanded selection of Biblical readings.
Paragraph 52 says: "The homily is to be highly esteemed as part of the Liturgy itself." The Council called for a greater effort to have good homilies and I think the effort has been made. Whether the homilies are better or not, you can judge for yourselves. Paragraph 53 says that the Common Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful should be restored, and that's been done, too.
Paragraph 54 is a key paragraph: "In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue." What did the Council have in mind? Let's continue: "This is to apply in the first place, to the readings and to the Common Prayer. But also as local conditions may warrant, to those parts which pertain to the people." Yet it goes on to say, "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" - (that is, the unchanging parts, the parts that are there every day) - "which pertain to them."
So, the Council did not abolish Latin in the liturgy. The Council permitted the vernacular in certain limited ways, but clearly understood that the fixed parts of the Mass would remain in Latin. Again, I am just telling you what the Council said.
Paragraph 55 discusses receiving Communion, if possible, from hosts consecrated at the Mass in which you participate. That is often done or attempted in many parishes today, but it is difficult to do in a precise way. It's hard to calculate the exact number of hosts you will need. Also, you have to keep some hosts in the Tabernacle for the sick and for adoration. The Council also permits Communion under both species here, but under very limited circumstances. For example, "to the newly ordained in the Mass of the Sacred Ordination, or the newly professed in the Mass of Profession, and the newly baptized in the Mass which follows baptism." The Council itself did not call for offering both species to all the faithful all the time, but it did grant limited permission for it.
Paragraph 56 says that there are two parts of the Liturgy, the Word and the Eucharist, and that a pastor should insistently teach the faithful to take part in the entire Mass, especially on Sundays and Feasts of Obligation. That is, to consider the first part of the Mass, the Table of the Word, as a significant and essential part of the Mass, so you don't think you have gone to Mass just by coming after the Offertory and being there for the Consecration and Communion.
Paragraph 57 states that concelebration should be permitted; paragraph 58, that a new rite for concelebration is to be drawn up.
That is the sum total of the nine mandates of the Council for change in the ritual itself, although there are a few other pertinent paragraphs to mention here.
In paragraph 112, in which the Council speaks specifically of music, we read: "The musical tradition of the Universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art." That is a stupendous and shocking statement; the Council actually says that the Church's music is a treasure of art greater than any other treasure of art she has. Think about that. Think about Chartres Cathedral. Think about the Pieta. Think about Da Vinci's Last Supper. Think of all the crucifixes from Catalonia in Spain, and all the Church architecture and art and paintings and sculpture. The Council boldly says that the Church's musical tradition is a treasure of inestimable value greater than any other art.
But the Council would be remiss in making such a shocking statement without giving a reason for it: "The main reason for this preeminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy." What that means is this: it's wonderful to have a beautiful church, stained glass windows, statues, a noble crucifix, prayerful architecture that lift your heart up to God. But those are all surroundings of the Mass. It's the "worship environment," as they would say today. But it's not the Mass itself. The Council says that when the Mass itself is set to music, that's what ennobles music, which, itself, enhances the Mass; and that's what makes the musical tradition the most precious tradition of the Church.
Notice, however, that the Council implies what many Church documents have said explicitly - that the most perfect form of music at Mass is not the hymns, the so-called "Gathering hymn" and its antithesis - I guess you would call it the "Scattering hymn" - at the end. The most appropriate use of music at Mass, as seen by Church tradition and reaffirmed by the Council, is singing the Mass itself: the Kyrie, the Agnus Dei, the Sanctus, the Acclamations, the Alleluias and so on. Again, this isn't Father Fessio's pet theory; this is what the Council actually says. Paragraph 112 adds, "Sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is the more closely connected with the liturgical action itself." This reinforces my point.
Paragraph 114 adds: "The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care." Then in paragraph 116 we find another shocker: "The Church acknowledges Gregorian Chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services." That's what the Council actually said. If you are in a parish which prides itself on living the spirit of Vatican II, then you should be singing Gregorian chant at your parish. And if you're not singing the Gregorian Chant, you're not following the specific mandate of the Second Vatican Council.
Now, just a little footnote on the Gregorian Chant. In reflecting on these things about Church music, I began to think about the Psalms a few years back. And a very obvious idea suddenly struck me. Why it didn't come earlier I don't know, but the fact is that the Psalms are songs. Every one of the 150 Psalms is meant to be sung; and was sung by the Jews. When this thought came to me, I immediately called a friend, a rabbi in San Francisco who runs the Hebrew School, and I asked, "Do you sing the Psalms at your synagogue?" "Well, no, we recite them," he said. "Do you know what they sounded like when they were sung in the Old Testament times and the time of Jesus and the Apostles?" I asked. He said, "No, but why don't you call this company in Upstate New York. They publish Hebrew music, and they may know."
Read Part 2 of "The Mass of Vatican II"
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