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Catholic Voice
  October 17, 2011   •   VOL. 49, NO. 18   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

Vatican II gave most force to changes in liturgy

The adumbrations of liturgical renewal begun in the 18th and 19th centuries, which then developed into a full-fledged movement involving the intervention of the Church’s highest teaching authority to direct it and move it forward, received its most forceful impetus with the Second Vatican Council.

It is significant that the first of the 16 documents to issue from this council was precisely the Dogmatic Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (along with that on the use of the modern means of social communication, “Inter mirifica” — “Among the wonderful”). We can see how the council received the ideas from the movement leading up to it and enhanced and developed them further.

The concept of active participation was certainly a central one, with the phrase occurring some 14 times throughout the document. Often it occurs alongside other qualifiers, such as “full” and “conscious.” This concept should be understood in light of the vision of the council that the variety of ministries exercised in the liturgy expresses the reality of the Church as a living body, each part of the body carrying out its proper function. The fact that St. Paul used this very image (cf. 1 Cor 12) suggests that this is a perennial challenge.

Various liturgical roles should be exercised in a way that expresses the corporate unity of the worshipping community. Secondly, “active” need not mean “doing something.” For example, when the reader is proclaiming a lesson or the choir is singing a piece, everyone else present participates by actively listening. Perhaps a good translation for the Latin word actuosa here would be “engaged”: We are present to the liturgical action, allowing it to seep down into the depths of our consciousness.

This thinking of the council becomes evident by reading this pivotal phrase alongside another frequently occurring one: that of the “restoration” of the Sacred Liturgy. By this term the council fathers articulated their vision of restoring the liturgy to what it was always meant to be: Catholics at Mass engaged in understanding and praying the liturgy with heart and mind, and this active engagement expressed in their reciting and singing the parts of the Mass proper to them, rather than sitting (or kneeling, as the case may be) as passive observers, saying their own private prayers. That is, personal devotion is to enhance one’s full, active and conscious participation at Mass, not substitute for it.

This, then, is how we can understand the council’s allowance for a greater use of the vernacular at Mass. It did so, however, within a paradigm of continuity by calling for preserving the use of Latin in the liturgy as well. Hence, Sacrosanctum Concilium states at No. 36:

The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the mother tongue . . . frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings . . . and to some of the prayers and chants.

This paradigm of continuity was the guiding principle for all aspects of liturgical reform, as, for example, with the form of the Mass itself: “care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (n. 23).

There can be no doubt that the use of the vernacular has made the biblical and liturgical riches of the Mass more accessible to Catholics. At the same time, the council’s mandate regarding the retention of Latin also holds out great advantages, two of which I will mention here.

First, there is a tradition of sacred language. We still use some words from Hebrew (Amen, Alleluia, Hosanna) and Greek (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison) in the liturgy, although Latin has been commonly used since the Fourth Century. These were the languages of prayer of our ancient ancestors in the faith, and their retention in the liturgy gives us a sort of road map tracing us back to our roots and helping to solidify our corporate identity as the People of God of the New Covenant.

There is no question of not knowing what we are saying when we pray these words, while at the same time the use of sacred language “expresses the inexpressible” and a sense of mystery: we are doing something that is rooted in our daily lives, but is far greater.

Secondly, given the ease of travel and patterns of migration, the council was very prescient in advocating a common language for Catholics, as a way of fostering a sense of communion that belongs to no one national culture but is the cultural patrimony of all Latin-rite Catholics, regardless of land or language of origin. This is a reality we know well here in the Diocese of Oakland.

Greater use of the vernacular


Regarding the organic development of the celebration of the Mass, the council mandated a number of other changes besides greater use of the vernacular, which likewise had the purpose of enriching the worship of the Church.

Among these, enhancement of the place of the Word of God in the Church’s worship stands out most of all. The new Lectionary for Mass, with its expanded readings, revives the ancient usage of including a lesson from the Old Testament at Mass in addition to the Epistle and Gospel (during the Easter season, though, the first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles and the second from the Book of Revelation).

This renewed emphasis is expressed in other ways as well, such as the call for the homily to be an integral part of the liturgy rather than an extrinsic element introduced as if from the outside, and the restoration of the Prayer of the Faithful to conclude the Liturgy of the Word.

The paradigm of continuity, or organic development, applies equally to music in the liturgy. Continuing the direction set forth by Pope Pius X and continued by his successors, the council encouraged the singing of Gregorian Chant according to its Latin texts, as well as vernacular texts.

In fact, it mandated that Gregorian Chant be given the first place in the Church’s repertoire of liturgical music (principium loci, commonly translated as “pride of place,” means, literally, “the first place”). The council, however, did not rule out the use of other forms of sacred music — mentioning specifically polyphony — as well as further development of liturgical music. Such development, though, would have to preserve a sense of organic development of sacred music, incorporating new elements from different cultures in a way that preserves the character of the sacred rather than contrasts with it, in keeping with the three defining characteristics first articulated by Pope Pius X (holiness, beauty and universality).

Small hymnal issued


In order to further this goal, in 1974 Pope Paul VI issued a small hymnal, Iubilate Deo, containing simple chants for parts of the Mass and standard Latin hymns for use by the faithful at parish Masses. The subtitle given to it by G.I.A. publication, charged with publishing it in this country, makes its purpose clear: “Easy Latin Gregorian Chants for the Faithful According to the Intent of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [of the] Second Vatican Council.”

This vision of the council has been reiterated in the key documents on the liturgy ever since, including the current General Instruction of the Roman Missal. At No. 41 the GIRM repeats the teaching of the council on this point, and reiterates its practical application:

Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, set to the simpler melodies.


The Council, of course, did not loose sight of the fundamental purpose and vision of the Church’s worship: the sanctification of the People of God. At No. 42 in Sacrosanctum Concilium, it makes an explicit connection between liturgy and evangelization: “efforts . . . must be made to encourage a sense of community within the parish, above all in the common celebration of the Sunday Mass.”

In addition to the sounds of language and music, however, the liturgy — now as always — also emphasizes the proper place of silence. As Pope Benedict XVI explains in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, written prior to his election to the Papacy: “We respond, by singing and praying, to the God who addresses us, but the greater mystery, surpassing all words, summons us to silence. . . . For silence to be fruitful . . . it must not be just a pause in the action of the liturgy. No, it must be an integral part of the liturgical event” (p. 209). Silence is integral to the liturgy, that is, it is just as important as the sound, necessary for fostering the participation of the heart. This kind of silence is also a form of active participation in the liturgy. As such, it is equally essential for building up that “sense of community within the parish,” which is effected and signified in a most privileged way at the celebration of Sunday Mass.

It is a sense of belonging to the community of the Church — which in real, concrete terms means the community of the parish — that the faithful will persevere in prayer and in the practice of their faith, putting that faith into action and spreading it to others. Certain lay movements and ministries which have developed since the Council have helped to realize this vision, even though the council did not explicitly speak of them. We can think, for example, of the ministries of hospitality and bereavement and the formation of small faith communities within parishes, not to mention the blossoming of movements such as Cursillo, Renewal in the Holy Spirit (Charismatic Prayer Movement) and Marriage Encounter.

We can take all this as a sign of the active and efficacious movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church since Vatican II, animating all members of the Body of Christ to realize its vision of renewal of Church life, each according to their own particular vocation and state in life.

Who we are as members incorporated into the Body of Christ finds its highest expression in the Church’s worship. We will reflect further on this in the next article.

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