Vatican II & the Sacred Liturgy

Deacon Scott Maentz Vatican II, Year of Faith


The first document of the Second Vatican Council was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,  Sacrosanctum Concilium. All Church documents get their names from the first two words of the text, or sometime the first three words if there is a older document that begins with the same words. The official language of the Church is still Latin, so even to this day documents are written and named in this ancient language and then translated into the vernacular.

The first paragraph of Sacrosanctum Concilium set the tone for not only the document on the liturgy, but for the entire council.

The Sacred Council has set out to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more closely to the needs of our age those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call all mankind into the Church’s fold. Accordingly it sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.

Probably the most visible sign of change that came about from the council centers around the liturgy.  It is very hard to miss things like the change in orientation of the priest at the celebration of the Eucharist and the rapid shift from the use of Latin to an almost completely vernacular liturgy.  I would argue that these outward changes are only changes on the surface level. The goal of the council was to reform the liturgy in such a way that the Church could achieve the goals set out in this first paragraph. They are lofty goals.

First the council set out to give more vigor to the Christian life. In many ways I believe changes in the liturgy have achieved this goal.  Since more people are able to understand what is being said when we gather for Eucharist each week, more people have been able to enter more deeply into the prayer. That being said, there are still those who hold on to a minimalistic approach when it comes to the Eucharist.  Every weekend at mass I am disturbed by the numbers of the Christian faithful who walk out of our celebration before we have finished.  It takes much more than a simple change in language to call people to a greater vigor when it comes to prayer and action in the Christian life. While it seems strange to me that so many people hear the words of our common prayers week after week and they don’t sink in, I must admit that I never really paid attention to the words of the Eucharistic Prayers until I was in high school. Once I started to listen, I began to understand much more about my own faith and to find ways each day to live it.

The second stated goal was to adapt those things that are able to be changed to our modern age.  My own observations is that we have made great strides forward in this area by adapting the liturgy to various languages and cultures around the world.  One of the great blessings of having attended Mundelein Seminary in Chicago was the international nature of our student body. As a result we often celebrated the liturgy in different languages, with different musical styles, etc. This taught me two things. First, it allowed me to see with more clarity the elements of the liturgy that remained the same, no matter what culture. This allowed me to then see how my own American culture influenced how I had been taught to pray.  Much of what we see each week at the mass is more of a product of culture rather than of liturgical form.  Second, it showed me the richness that is present in our church. It is much richer than it would be if we were limited to practicing the faith in one culture alone.  The danger, however, is when parts of any culture are at odds with our faith or our tradition. One thing that often disturbs me in the US Catholic Church is how much our worship resembles a protestant service. It should not surprise anyone that there is an underlying protestant culture in the United States that permeates everything we do. The founding documents of our country resemble very closely the Presbyterian Book of Order. While we share much in common with other Christians, there are some significant differences that Catholics ought not  forget. One other area of our culture that has crept into the liturgy that I do not find useful is that we have become more and more casual, even in church. While I would never be one to argue that someone should be denied entrance to the church because of the way they are dressed, I would make the argument that we have forgotten that Sunday liturgy qualifies as a formal occasion.

The third goal of promoting Christian unity is one that is just as important now as it was when the council was in session. It is a great scandal that Christians are separated into as many different groups as we are. Vatican II opened the door for much more dialogue when it comes to Christian unity than anyone could have imagined at the time.  Catholics have made significant progress when it comes to ecumenism. These days I often hear those who lament that we seem to have back away from the kinds of ecumenical dialogue and interaction that characterized the time immediately following the council. In many ways I share the sentiment that we have not made greater progress towards unity.  Some of this may stem from an overly optimistic attitude that believed our differences could be easily resolved. Focusing on our common belief and practice as Christians is certainly praiseworthy and valuable in the realm of ecumenism, but I think we must admit that there are real differences that have to be worked through, some of which go back 1,000 years. While I am still optimistic that we will continue to move towards closer unity, I don’t expect a perfect unity to appear overnight.

The last goal is one that we have had since Jesus gave us the great commission, that being to draw all mankind into the Church in order that they may be saved. My guess is that we will have that goal before us until the second coming of Christ.

When you read this first paragraph, what is your response? How well has the reform of the liturgy done in accomplishing these goals over the past 40 years in your opinion? I look forward to your thoughts.