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The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. | Part 2 | Part 1


Pope John Paul II Addresses the Bishops


So, that is what the Council actually said. I've been saying this now for several years. Because I've been saying it and other things, Archbishop Weakland has called me a "papal maximalist," but a year and a few months ago I was with him at an all-day meeting in Chicago on the liturgy. It was a very congenial meeting, actually; there were eight or nine of us there. And towards the end, they were discussing a document, the Pope's address to the bishops of the Northwest in 1998. Remember, in 1998 all the bishops of the United States went to Rome for their Ad Limina visit. For one whole year, as each group of bishops came, the Holy Father spoke to them on how to interpret the Second Vatican Council in a way that will lead us into the Third Millennium.

It happened that when the bishops from the Northwest came – from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho - the Holy Father spoke on the liturgy. Archbishop Weakland and others were not particularly happy with what the pope said. And so I took the occasion in the afternoon to say to Archbishop Weakland, "You know, Archbishop you've publicly called me a papal maximalist. You published an article in America magazine in which you used that title for me. But you know, I can't help it. The Pope keeps agreeing with me."

Here's what the Pope said to the bishops of the Northwestern United States: "The two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of the Savior is a call to all Christ's followers to seek a genuine conversion to God and a great advance to holiness. Since the Liturgy is such a central part of the Christian life, I wish today to consider some aspects of the liturgical renewal so vigorously promoted by the Second Vatican Council, as the prime agent of the wider renewal of Catholic life." So, the Council itself wanted to renew Catholic life. And within that, it wanted to renew the liturgy. The Pope is saying here that as we look toward the year 2000, we must go back and see what the Council wanted for liturgical renewal, because that is the prime agent of the wider renewal of Catholic life.

He continues: "To look back over what has been done in the field of liturgical renewal since the Council is first to see many reasons for giving heartfelt thanks and praise to the Most Holy Trinity for the marvelous awareness which had developed among the faithful of their role and responsibility in the priestly work of Christ and his Church. It is also to realize that not all changes have always and everywhere been accompanied by the necessary explanation and catechesis. As a result, in some cases there has been a misunderstanding of the very nature of the Liturgy, leading to abuses, polarization, sometimes even grave scandal."

The Pope generally speaks diplomatically, especially to bishops. These are pretty hard words, and this is the introduction, so obviously he's going to give some guidelines for avoiding this polarization, this grave scandal and these abuses. He says, "After the experience of more than thirty years of liturgical renewal we are well placed to assess both the strengths and weaknesses of what has been done . . ." (listen carefully now)" . . . in order more confidently to plot our course into the future, which God has in mind for His cherished people." The Pope, here, speaks to our bishops, looking toward the new millennium and says, in effect, Here is what I think is the plan God has for all of his people as we move to the next millennium. And, specifically, here is the liturgical blueprint that, I, the Holy Father, believe we are to follow.

"The challenge now," he continues, "is to move beyond whatever misunderstandings there have been and to reach the proper point of balance, especially by entering more deeply into the contemplative dimension of worship, which includes a sense of awe, reverence and adoration which are fundamental attitudes in our relationship with God."

What does the Pope say we must do to restore balance? Enter more deeply into the contemplative dimension of worship. Can you contemplate when you've got drummers up in the sanctuary? Where do we find the sense of awe? Not in this "chatty" stuff at Mass: "Good morning, everybody." Does that inspire a sense of awe? "Have a nice day." The Pope mentions reverence and adoration. Standing is a sign of respect; but kneeling is a sign of adoration. The Pope says we must restore the sense of adoration.

The Pope says to the liturgists and the bishops, "The Eucharist gathers and builds the human community, but it is also ‘the worship of the Divine Majesty'." That's from Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 33. He continues: "It is subjective in that it depends radically upon what the worshippers bring to it, but it is objective in that it transcends them as the priestly act of Christ himself to which he associates us, but which ultimately does not depend upon us."

This is why it's so important that liturgical law be respected: an objective act is taking place. "The priest, who is the servant of the liturgy and not its inventor or producer, has a particular responsibility in this regard, lest he empty the liturgy of its true meaning or obscure its sacred character," says the Holy Father.

Then he talks about "The core of the mystery of Christian worship." Is the core of the mystery of Christian worship a sense that we are the people of God? Is it feeling united with each other? Spiritual bonding? Not according to the Pope, who says, "The core of the mystery of Christian worship is the Sacrifice of Christ offered to the Father and the work of the Risen Christ who sanctifies his people through the liturgical sign." The sacrifice of Christ, sanctification. That's what the Pope says. Remember, he's looking now to lead the Church in the new millennium liturgically. He continues: "It is, therefore, essential that in seeking to enter more deeply into the contemplative depths of worship, the inexhaustible mystery of the priesthood of Jesus Christ be fully acknowledged and respected."

There is a movement to refer to the celebrant as the "presider," instead of the "celebrant" or the "priest." Now it's true, he is a presider. But that's an abstraction; and I think there's an agenda behind the abstraction. You see, all the Sacraments need someone who presides: at Confirmation, at the Eucharist, at Confession - and at Baptism. And who can preside at Baptism? The priest is the ordinary minister and presider, but under certain unusual circumstances a layman - man or woman - and even a non-Catholic can preside at Baptism. And, so, I believe some people want to get us in the habit of thinking of the priest as a presider primarily because that's an abstract term, which could include women.

What does the Pope say about the matter? "The priest, therefore, is not just one who presides, but one who acts in the person of Christ." You see, only the priest can act in persona Christi capitis, in the name of the Bridegroom (Jesus) over against the Bride (the Church) in the nuptial act, which is the Mass.

Full, Conscious and Active Participation

The Holy Father next discusses three attributes of the liturgy: full, conscious and active participation. Remember that I began by reading paragraph 14 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which states that the purpose of the Council in renewing the liturgy was to achieve full, conscious, active participation? Well, those words can have different meanings. It is very interesting to find out what the Pope thinks they mean, as he tells us what he believes God is calling the Church to do in the liturgy in the new millennium.

First, he talks about the fullness of participation. "The sharing of all the baptized in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ is the key to understanding the Church's call for full, conscious and active participation. Full participation certainly means that every member of the community has a part to play in the liturgy. And in this respect, a great deal has been achieved in parishes and communities across your land. But, full participation does not mean that everyone does everything. Since this would lead to a clericalizing of the laity and a laicizing of the priesthood, and this was not what the Council had in mind."

What does he mean by "clericalizing the laity"? It's the idea that, for example, the lector, the server at the altar, or the cross-bearer participates more actively than the mother with her child in the back of church. It's the idea that being more like the priest in the sanctuary somehow makes you participate more fully. But the Pope says no to that idea. No, the "clericalizing of the laity" and the "laicizing of the clergy," whereby the priest doesn't do priestly things but sits while lay people are distributing the Eucharist, are not what the Council had in mind, says the Pope.





"The liturgy, like the Church, is intended to be hierarchical and polyphonic," he says. Not concentric and egalitarian, but hierarchical and polyphonic: "Respecting the different roles assigned by Christ and allowing all the different voices to blend in one great hymn of praise." I'm not saying there shouldn't be lectors and acolytes, and so on. There should be. But the point is, it's not how close you get to the altar that determines how fully you participate. If that were the case, then those who aren't ministers of some sort at Mass would be second-class participants. That's not what the Council meant, says the Pope, by full participation.

Then the Pope comes to active participation. "Active participation certainly means that in gesture, word, song, and service all the members of the community take part in an active worship, which is anything but inert or passive. Yet active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness, and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily or following the prayers of the celebrant and the chants in music of the Liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way, profoundly active. In a culture that neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural."

Especially in our noisy world, we need to have silence. Especially in our world where it is hard to pray, we need to have contemplative adoration. In a world that doesn't respect the liturgical cycles and seasons, we need to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension on a Thursday, not on a Sunday. Precisely because we have to be counter-cultural, we need to say there's something more important than the workday. It's our feast day.

Finally, the Holy Father discusses conscious participation. He says, "Conscious participation calls for the entire community to be properly instructed in the mysteries of the liturgy" - the Council's main instruction - "lest the experience of worship degenerate into a form of ritualism. But it does not mean a constant attempt within the liturgy itself to make the implicit explicit, since this often leads to verbosity and informality which are alien to the Roman Rite and end by trivializing the act of worship."

Conscious participation, then, is not a multiplication of commentators telling us what's happening as the Mass goes along; it's not laid back informality and the trivializing of the liturgy. That's why I think it may seem like a small thing, but it's a very bad to begin a liturgy by saying, "Good morning, everyone." That's not how you begin a sacred liturgy. You begin a sacred liturgy, "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," or better yet, "In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti."

The Holy Father continues: "Nor does conscious participation mean the suppression of all subconscious experience, which is vital in a liturgy which thrives on symbols that speak to the subconscious, just as they speak to the conscious. The use of the vernacular has certainly opened up the treasures of the liturgy to all who take part." There is, then, a positive value to the vernacular. "But," the Holy Father continues, "this does not mean that the Latin language, and especially, the Chants which are so superbly adapted to the genius of the Roman rite, should be wholly abandoned."

What, then, does the Pope say about full, conscious, active participation? That it should be hierarchical, that there should be quiet, and worship in awe and reverence, and that there should be a place for Latin and, certainly for Chant in the liturgy. I submit to you that in most parishes across this country that's not what you habitually find at the ordinary Masses for the people. Thus, although the Pope doesn't say it in so many words, he is of the opinion that the way Mass is currently celebrated doesn't conform fully to the mandates of the Council, as intended by the Church for the next century.

We have now two extremes and a moderate position. One extreme position is the kind of informal Mass, all in English, facing the people, with contemporary music, which does not at all correspond with what the Council had in mind. But it is legitimate, it is permitted; it is not wrong. And we have on the other extreme those who have returned, with permission, to the Mass of 1962 and, as others have noted, it is thriving and growing. But it is not what the Council itself specifically had in mind, although it is the Mass of the ages.

Then you have the moderates. Those in the middle. Me and a few others. But I am going to insist on my right as a Catholic and as priest to celebrate the liturgy according to the Council, according to the presently approved liturgical books, to celebrate a form of the Mass that therefore needs no special permission-and which in fact cannot be prohibited-what I've called "the Mass of Vatican II."

This essay appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of Catholic Dossier and is based on a lecture on the liturgy given by Father Fessio in May, 1999.



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Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
The Spirit of the Liturgy page
For "Many" or For "All"? | From God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Music and Liturgy | From The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer | From The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
On Saying the Tridentine Mass | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Reform or Return? | An Interview with Rev. Thomas M. Kocik
Does Christianity Need A Liturgy? | From The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy | Martin Mosebach
Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord: Pope Benedict XVI and the Liturgy | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
The Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Rites in Today's World | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.




Fr. Joseph D. Fessio, S.J. is the founder of Ignatius Press.

He entered the Jesuit Novitiate in 1961 and was ordained a priest in 1972. He completed his undergraduate work in philosophy at Gonzaga University in 1966 and earned two Master’s degrees (philosophy, theology) from the same institution. He received a Doctorate in Theology in 1975 University of Regensburg, West Germany, where his thesis director was Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. Fr. Fessio’s thesis was on the ecclesiology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Fr. Fessio taught philosophy at Gonzaga and the University of Santa Clara, California and theology at the University of San Francisco before founding the Saint Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco in 1976. Two years later he founded Ignatius Press. He is now theologian in residence at Ave Maria University in Florida.



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