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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
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
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
So, I called the company and they said, "We don't know; call 1-800-JUDAISM."
So I did. And I got an information center for Jewish traditions, and they
didn't know either. But they said, "You call this music teacher in Manhattan.
He will know." So, I called this wonderful rabbi in Manhattan and we had
a long conversation. At the end, I said, "I want to bring some focus to
this, can you give me any idea what it sounded like when Jesus and his
Apostles sang the Psalms?" He said, "Of course, Father. It sounded like
Gregorian Chant. You got it from us."
I was amazed. I called Professor William Mart, a Professor of Music at
Stanford University and a friend. I said, "Bill, is this true?" He said,
"Yes. The Psalm tones have their roots in ancient Jewish hymnody and psalmody."
So, you know something? If you sing the Psalms at Mass with the Gregorian
tones, you are as close as you can get to praying with Jesus and Mary.
They sang the Psalms in tones that have come down to us today in Gregorian
So, the Council isn't calling us back to some medieval practice, those
"horrible" medieval times, the "terrible" Middle Ages, when they knew
so little about liturgy that all they could do was build a Chartres Cathedral.
(When I see cathedrals and churches built that have a tenth of the beauty
of Notre Dame de Paris, then I will say that the liturgists have the right
to speak. Until then, they have no right to speak about beauty in the
liturgy.) But my point is that at the time of Notre Dame de Paris in the
13th century, the Psalms tones were already over a thousand years old.
They are called Gregorian after Pope Gregory I, who reigned from 590 to
604. But they were already a thousand years old when he reigned. He didn't
invent Gregorian chant; he reorganized and codified it and helped to establish
musical schools to sing it and teach it. It was a reform; it wasn't an
invention. Thus, the Council really calls us back to an unbroken tradition
of truly sacred music and gives such music pride of place.
The last thing I want to quote from the Council is paragraph 128, which
talks about sacred art and sacred furnishings: "Along with the revisions
of liturgical books . . . there is to be an earlier revision of the canons
and ecclesiastical statutes which govern the provisions of material things
involved in sacred worship. These laws refer especially 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 . . ." and so on.
What the Council Didn't Say
That's essentially what the Second Vatican Council actually said about
the renewal of the liturgy. Let me tell you what it did not say. The Council
did not say that tabernacles should be moved from their central location
to some other location. In fact, it specifically said we should be concerned
about the worthy and dignified placing of the tabernacle. The Council
did not say that Mass should be celebrated facing the people. That is
not in Vatican II; it is not mentioned. It is not even raised in the documents
that record the formation of the Constitution on the Liturgy; it didn't
come up. Mass facing the people is a not requirement of Vatican II; it
is not in the spirit of Vatican II; it is definitely not in the letter
of Vatican II. It is something introduced in 1969.
And, by the way, never in the history of the Church, East or West, was
there a tradition of celebrating Mass facing the people. Never, ever,
until 1969. It happened occasionally in Germany, in between the wars;
it was done sometimes at the castle where Romano Guardini would have his
group of students meet; it was done in Austria near Vienna by Pius Parsch
in a special church, in what he called a "liturgical Mass." That's an
odd expression, a "liturgical Mass." The Mass is the liturgy.
But in any event, I can say without fear of contradiction from anyone
who knows the facts that there is simply no tradition whatsoever, in the
history of the Church, of Mass facing the people. Now, is it a sin? No.
Is it wrong? No. Is it permitted? Yes. It is required? Not at all. In
fact in the Latin Roman Missal, which is the typical edition that all
the translations of the Missal are based on (not always translated properly,
but at least based on it) the rubrics actually presuppose the Mass facing
East, the Mass facing the Lord.
Now, for the first 25 years of my priesthood, I celebrated Mass like you
see it when you go to a typical parish: in English, facing the people.
It can be done reverently; I've seen it done reverently; I've tried to
do it reverently myself. But the last three years, after study and reflection,
I've changed. I actually think the Mass facing the people is a mistake.
But, even if it's not, at least this much we can say: there is no permission
required to say Mass facing God, facing the tabernacle, facing East, facing
with the people. And it should be given equal rights, it seems
to me, with Mass facing the people. It's been around for 1800 years at
least, and it should be allowed to continue. I happen to think it's symbolically
It's true that when the priest faces the people for the celebration of
the Eucharistic Sacrifice, there may be a sense of greater unity as a
community. But there is also a danger of the priest being the performer
and you being the spectator - precisely what the Council did not want:
priest performers and congregational spectators. But there is something
more problematic. You can see it, perhaps, by contrasting Mass facing
the people with Mass facing East or facing the Lord. I don't say Mass
"with my back to the people" anymore than Patton went through Germany
with his "back to the soldiers." Patton led the Third Army across Germany
and they followed him to achieve a goal. The Mass is part of the Pilgrim
Church on the way to our goal, our heavenly homeland. This world is not
our heavenly homeland. We don't sit around in a circle and look at each
other. We want to look with each other and with the priest towards
the rising sun, the rays of grace, where the Son will come again in glory
on the clouds.
And so, in Mass celebrated in the traditional way, the priest does face
the people when he speaks on God's behalf to proclaim the Word and explain
it. And he does face the people when he receives their gifts. And then
he turns to face with the people and to offer those gifts up to our common
Father, praying that the Holy Spirit will come down and transform those
gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ. And when that most sacred act
takes place, the priest turns to offer the gifts back to the people. I
think that is much more dramatic. Whether I am right or not, all I'm asking
is a right to exist. If not peaceful coexistence, at least coexistence.
Now strange as it may appear, there is absolutely no permission required
to say Mass facing East. The Pope does it every morning in his chapel.
But there is such a taboo against it that most pastors would be afraid
to do it for fear they would be exiled to some lowly parish.
The Council also said nothing about moving the Tabernacle. It said nothing
about removing altar rails. It said nothing about taking out kneelers.
It said nothing about turning the altar around. It said nothing about
multiple canons. That, too, is an invention; a pure invention.
There has never been in the Church a choice of Eucharistic prayers at
a given ceremony or a given Church. In the East, there were two main Eucharistic
prayers. Generally, they were regionally different, or used on different
feasts. But in the Roman rite, the Latin rite, there has always been one
Eucharistic prayer. It was different in Milan, slightly; it was different
in Spain, slightly, the Mozarabic rite; and it was different in a few
other places - the Dominican Order and some others after the Middle Ages.
But there was only one canon, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman canon.
I happen to think it is the best. Not only because of the fact that when
I am saying it I am uniting myself with what was actually said by the
Fathers, and doctors, and saints, and mystics of the Church for hundreds
of years (more than a thousand years) - but because I think it is richer.
One problem, both at the time of the Council and after, is rationalism,
which the Holy Father has spoken against. This is the idea that we can
do it all with our own minds. The liturgists after the Council tried to
construct a more perfect liturgy. But you know something? When you've
grown up in a house and a room is added on and a story added on, a garage
is added on, it may not be architecturally perfect, but it's your home.
To destroy it and try to construct a new one out of steel and glass and
tile because that's the modern idea, is not the way you live a human life.
But that's what's happened to the liturgy.
Look at the other canons. First of all, when I celebrate Mass with the
Roman Canon, I've often had people come up and say, "What canon was that,
Father?" I say, "Well, that was the Roman Canon, the one that has been
used for about 1600 years." "Oh, I haven't heard that." Generally, you
get Canon Two. Why? Because it's the shortest. So, you can spend all kinds
of time with singing, and the commentators explaining things, and a long
homily, with big processions and greeters coming in and whatever else.
But for the Sacrifice of the Mass, the attitude seems to be "Let's get
that over as soon as we can with Canon Two."
Now, where did Canon Two come from? From what's called the Canon of Hyppolytus,
composed by a theologian who became a heretic, later was reconciled to
the Church and died a martyr. Around the year 215, he wrote an outline
of how Mass was celebrated in Rome. It was probably never used as a liturgical
text because in the early days of the Church there was no final, written
formalization of the liturgy, so this was an outline to be used by the
Thus, the Canon of Hyppolytus was perhaps never used as a canon. If it
was, it ceased being used at least 1600 years ago. Yet from the Council,
which says changes ought to come through organic growth and there should
be no changes unless necessary, we come to liturgists saying, "Oh, let's
pull this thing out of the third century and plug it back into the twentieth."
That's not organic growth; that's archeologism, specifically criticized
by Pius XII in Mediator Dei.
The Third Canon was entirely made up. There has never been a canon like
the Third Canon in the history of the Church, except in bits and pieces.
Father Vagaggini, with the help of Father Bouyer, I believe, actually
constructed it using their knowledge of liturgical history, which was
enormous. But they totally invented the canon. It would be like taking
piece of a carrot, a piece of a tomato, a piece of a peach and a piece
of some tree, then putting them together and saying, "Well, you see that?
It's organic." But it's not organic; it's constructed.
Canon Four is based on an Eastern Egyptian canon, still used in the Eastern
Church; and so, there is some justification for it. But it's seldom used
today because you can't use it with any other prefaces; it has more or
less dropped by the wayside.
The point is that the Council did not call for a multiplication of canons,
and I think there are lots of other reasons for sticking with the Roman
canon. Nor did the Council, as I mentioned, abolish Latin. It specifically
mandated the retention of Latin and only permitted the use of the vernacular
in certain circumstances. And, finally, the Council did not prohibit Gregorian
Chant, as you might be led to think from its absence in your parishes.
The Council actually prescribed Gregorian Chant to have pride of place.
Read Part 2 of "The
Mass of Vatican II"
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