Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fifty Years of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

Today is the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, on December 4, 1963. Understanding the primal importance of the liturgy, this was the first document approved by the Second Vatican Council and it followed a long and growing "liturgical movement," which extended back for many decades. Many prior popes and bishops, including St. Pope Pius X, had recognized the need for various reforms to meet people's desire for deeper appreciation of and greater lay participation in the Holy Mass.

One of those involved in the liturgical movement was Father Joseph Ratzinger, who was a peritus (advisor) to the Council (and later became Pope Benedict XVI). In his contemporary account, he described how important the sacred liturgy is and why the situation as it existed prior to the Council demonstrated an evident need for renewal.
[F]or the Church, divine worship is a matter of life and death. If it is no longer possible to bring the faithful to worship God, and in such a way that they themselves perform this worship, then the Church has failed in its task and can no longer justify its existence. But it was on precisely this point that a profound crisis occured in the life of the Church. Its roots reach far back. In the late Middle Ages, awareness of the real essence of Christian worhip increasingly vanished. Great importance was attached to externals, and these choked out essentials. (Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 129)
Although the Council of Trent eliminated some abuses that had crept into the liturgy over time and made some reforms to prevent new overgrowths in the future, Father Ratzinger noted that this created its own problems.
The main measure [after the Council of Trent] was to centralize all liturgical authority in the Sacred Congregation of Rites . . . This authority completely lacked historical perspective; it viewed the liturgy solely in terms of ceremonial rubrics, treating it as a kind of problem of proper court etiquette for sacred matters. This resulted in the complete archaizing of the liturgy, which now passed from the stage of living history, became embalmed in the status quo and was ultimately doomed to internal decay. The liturgy had become a rigid, fixed and firmly encrusted system; the more out of touch with genuine piety, the more attention was paid to its prescribed norms. . . . The baroque era adjusted to this situation by superimposing a kind of para-liturgy on the archaized actual liturgy. Accompanied by the splendor of orchestral performance, the baroque high Mass became a kind of sacred opera in which the chants of the priest functioned as a kind of periodic recitative. The entire performance seemed to aim at a kind of festive lifting of the heart, enhanced by the beauty of a celebration appealing to the eye and ear. On ordinary days, when such display was not possible, the Mass was frequently covered over with devotions more attractive to the popular mentality. . . . In practice this meant that while the priest was busy with his archaic liturgy, the people were busy with their devotions to Mary. They were united with the priest only by being in the same church with him and by consigning themselves to the sacred power of the eucharistic sacrifice. (Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 130-32)
Faced with this situation, as the bishops themselves could see in their own churches, the Council Fathers saw the need for liturgical renewal, including taking steps to make a reality the expressed desire of Pope Pius X for greater "active participation" on the part of the laity.
In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.

In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 21)
Clearly, then, this was not a "reinvention" of the Mass, nor was it the creation of a "new Mass," as that term is sometimes derisively used. As a matter of sacramental doctrine, there is one and only one Mass, just as there is only one God, one holy sacrifice of Christ, and one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Rather, as the text indicates, this was to be a restoration of the whole purpose of the liturgy – "when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects. . . . Such participation by the Christian people as 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people' (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism." (Id., 11, 14).

It is to their credit that our excellent priests at Blessed Sacrament have helped to make the blessings of Sacrosanctum Concilium a reality. And thanks to Bishop Loverde, and Bishops Keating and Welsh before him, that the sacred liturgy throughout the Diocese of Arlington is so reverent and fruitful. (Sadly, in some locales this is not always the case, as many of us discover when we travel during the holidays and go to Mass in some other diocese and/or as some others of us experienced back in the 1970s. Although the Mass is always holy – because Christ himself who is present in the Mass is holy – that much-needed reverence can sometimes be lacking.)

The fruits of Sacrosanctum Concilium are many, but understanding that our faith is a journey, there is still room for us to grow, to move ever closer to the Lord. As Pope Francis has been saying a lot in a variety of contexts, let us ask God for this grace in the sacred liturgy, to be more worthily disposed and to grow deeper in the love of Christ, the Holy Bridegroom of the Church.

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