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Understanding the Catholic Liturgy since Vatican II

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 Contents - Sep 2003AD2000 September 2003 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: The future of the Anglican Church - Peter Westmore
New auxiliary bishops appointed to the Sydney Archdiocese - Michael Gilchrist
News: The Church Around the World - AD2000
Dissident US group establishing a foothold in Australian parishes - Mary-Ruth Monsour
Catholic summer conferences in the United States: signs of hope - Richard Egan
Culture: Second 'Carnivale Christi' Catholic arts festival scheduled for Melbourne - Michael Gilchrist
Events: Hearts On Fire Vocations Congress for Melbourne Archdiocese - Joanne Grainger
Understanding the Catholic Liturgy since Vatican II - Dom Alcuin Reid OSB
Pope John Paul II calls for greater use of Latin - Denis Murphy
Homosexual conduct: how Gospel teaching can be distorted - Bill Muehlenberg
Letters: Not closing ranks (letter) - Alan Gill
Letters: Hidden agenda (letter) - Dr Arthur Hartwig
Letters: Liturgical choices (letter) - Marguerite Fennell
Letters: New Mass (letter) - Philip Robinson
Letters: Converts (letter) - Kevin Tighe
Letters: Selfhood (letter) - Robert Prinzen-Wood
Letters: Prophetic words (letter) - Errol Duke
Letters: Freedom to be born (letter) - George F. Simpson
Abridged Papal encyclicals available - Fr M. Durham
Letters: Correction - Chris Hilder
Books: OLD THUNDER: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, by Joseph Pearce - Scott J. Bloch (reviewer)
Books: Some Fell On Rock, by Fr John O'Neill - Fr Peter Joseph (reviewer)
Books: The Practical Preacher: Handy Hints for hesitant homilists, by Paul Edwards SJ - Anthony Cappello (reviewer)
Books: Great books at the best prices!
Reflection: A Christian response to bereavement: Jesus' ministry to the sick and dying - Fr Dennis Byrnes

The following article is a shortened version of a paper given by Dom Alcuin Reid OSB to "The Gregorians" - a Catholic Society of the University of Cambridge - on 6 March 2003. Dom Alcuin is a monk of Farnborough Abbey, England, and holds a PhD from the University of London for research into 20th century liturgical reform.

Many of the 20th century developments Dom Alcuin considers have had a detrimental influence on liturgical practices since Vatican II seem unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future. However, his analysis sheds light on how we have arrived at the present situation and what realistic possibilities there might be regarding the "reform of the reform" of the Church's Liturgy.

In the past 40 years or so, a grammatical shift has taken place in Catholic parlance. It is the use of the word "liturgy" without the definite article. Hence, one does not often hear or see the term "The Liturgy," let alone "The Catholic Liturgy" or "The Sacred Liturgy."

Catholic Liturgy is the public and official worship of Almighty God by the Church, as distinct from personal spiritual practices. Hence, the Liturgy comprises the Mass, the sacraments and the daily office.

From the earliest centuries the Church has developed, embellished and protected her celebration of these saving mysteries in her Liturgy.

This theological centrality, indeed theological priority of the Liturgy, is underlined by the ancient maxim lex orandi, lex credendi - "the law of prayer is the law of faith": the Church believes as she prays.

The Liturgy is nothing less than a constitutive element of Tradition (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1124), a central pillar of Catholic life and theology, to be treated with great respect and care.

This is why Catholics speak of the Liturgy, and capitalise the "L" or speak even of "the Sacred Liturgy," for the rites and prayers and sounds and gestures and things which express, indeed which sacramentally convey, the very substance of our faith, themselves enjoy a sacrality and a centrality that transcends their human origin.

This is not to deny that liturgical forms have developed and changed throughout history, but they do so according to the principle of organic development, which insists that any pruning of or grafting onto the organism that is the Liturgy is proportionate, is truly necessary, and shows the utmost respect for the received Liturgy (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 23, 50).

If we appreciate the import of the theological centrality of the Liturgy, we can see that fashioning and refashioning our own manner of worship is, in effect, tantamount to writing our own creed, omitting or adding beliefs according to our subjective perception. This was, of course, most clearly seen in the Protestant reformers' production of their own liturgies.

Sadly - no, alarmingly - this subjective notion of liturgy has become quite widespread in Catholic circles since Vatican II. For decades now, "liturgy groups" have prepared liturgies tailored for their worshipping community (freely moving beyond the even rather wide bounds set by the recent liturgical books), rather than preparing to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy as fully and as well as possible.

Such home-made liturgies run the risk that, instead of worshipping Almighty God, the community is simply celebrating itself.


So, what happened? How did this subjective notion of the Liturgy gain a foothold?

In respect of not only the Liturgy, but indeed with regard to many aspects of the life of the Church, some people are tempted to place an "X" on a date on a calendar somewhere prior to or during the Second Vatican Council before which all was bliss and after which all was disaster.

Such uncritical stances, understandable given the trauma so many people have suffered, nevertheless ignore historical reality. For good and bad may be identified in matters liturgical before, during and after the Council, though not in exactly equal proportions.

What may be described as a pietistic subjectivity, which did not disfigure the Liturgy or construct new liturgies according to individual taste, nevertheless meant that the constitutive element of Tradition which is the Sacred Liturgy was, by and large, ignored by many if not most people as the primary source of spiritual sustenance in living Christian life.

People attending Mass would "get on with their devotions" oblivious of the centrality and the wealth of the liturgical rites and prayers enacted before them.

The problem was sufficiently widespread to merit the attention in 1903 of the newly-elected Pope Pius X. Just three months into his pontificate he issued a document which underlined a fundamental principle of Catholic life: in order to live a truly Christian life one must draw one's spiritual nourishment from the Sacred Liturgy, the public and solemn prayer of the Church, through active participation in its rites and prayers.

This call for "active participation" was 60 years before the Second Vatican Council.

But there is "active participation" and "active participation," and here we begin to see where, well before the Council, some approaches to Catholic Liturgy began to go awry.

One must distinguish between "actual" (a better rendering of "active") and "activist" participation in the Liturgy.

At the beginning of the 20th century, activist participation - having as many people as possible doing as much as possible in the liturgical rites so that they are "involved" or "included" - such as one so often sees at Masses for children or school groups - was unknown and unimaginable.

At the end of the 20th century, however, it was actual participation - with the engagement of the mind and the heart in the liturgical rites having priority over doing things - that was more likely to be unknown.


Yet it did not take long for some to set out down the activist path. From the 1920s some enthusiasts placed too great an emphasis on having congregations actively make the responses to the priest at Mass in what became known as a "dialogue Mass."

Now there is nothing wrong with the faithful exercising their baptismal right to respond to the priest when he addresses them in the course of the Mass, and such sacral dialogue is itself meant to facilitate actual participation in the Sacred Liturgy. But the emphasis placed on energetically drilling people to make responses was somewhat disproportionate and, I suggest, laid the foundation for the notion that "doing things" was what was most important in the task of re-connecting people with the Liturgy.

Another activist fad popular with many was the novel idea that Mass should be celebrated facing the people, enabling everyone to see everything and thereby, purportedly, enabling them better to participate in it.

Apart from the fact that this innovation was based on flawed and antiquarian archaeological assumptions (see Msgr Klaus Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy), and that it fractured the tradition of both the Christian East and West which kept the altar and its attendant Eucharistic rituals at least at one remove from public gaze, thereby underlining the utter otherness and sanctity of the Blessed Eucharist, it brought about an expectation that participation in the Liturgy ought to be immediate, with nothing concealed or distant, thereby eroding at least one of those few mysterious elements of the characteristically sober Roman rite.

In addition, from as early as the late 1940s, there had emerged a principle of liturgical reform which one might call "pastoral expediency," based on the flawed assumption (propagated by the Austrian Jesuit scholar J. A. Jungmann) that the Liturgy as it had been received in the mid-20th century was essentially corrupt, and had been so since late antiquity.

Accordingly the Liturgy was to be refashioned to meet the needs of contemporary secular man. Thus, the meaning of the word "pastoral" came to denote the Liturgy being edited and rearranged according to the subjective needs of a passing age.

In this period, though, none of these principles got out of hand or was able to do severe damage to received objective liturgical tradition, but they were very much in the minds of those talking about and working on liturgical reform in the lead-up to Vatican II.

A word must be said about the vernacular.

Liturgical enthusiasts had long since argued for some use of the vernacular in the Liturgy. This, of course, is quite a different matter from the complete vernacularisation of the Liturgy, translating every last syllable into lowest common denominator speech.

For example, people argued, sensibly in my opinion, for the readings from Sacred Scripture to be allowed to be read in the vernacular - they are, after all, intended to be immediately comprehensible. Who, today, would seriously object to this reform if Latin had been retained for the other parts of the rite?

We can now begin to realise something of what happened to the Liturgy, namely that before the Second Vatican Council some flawed principles of liturgical reform were both espoused and, to a limited extent, allowed to influence reforms carried out on the Sacred Liturgy. But the major part of our answer is to be found in the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath.

Conservative document

The Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, of 4 December 1963, while calling for a general reform of the Liturgy, was essentially a conservative document. The Fathers of the Council, the world's bishops, would not have approved it had it have been otherwise.

For example, article 23 states that in the reform: "There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing."

However, in the words of Father Aidan Nichols OP, Sacrosanctum Concilium "carried within it, encased in the innocuous language of pastoral welfare, some seeds of its own destruction."

That is, in calling for such things as local adaptation and inculturation of the Sacred Liturgy, it provided those who implemented the reform and who operated from questionable principles with a foothold from which they could proceed to ignore the intention of the Fathers of the Council to authorise an organic development of the Roman rite - including some pastoral adaptations, while retaining its integrity - and proceed instead with the construction of a new liturgy more suitable to the needs of modern man as this was then perceived.

The five years following the promulgation of Sacrosancturn Concilium were certainly not the most stable period of the Church's - or indeed of the world's - history. In fact, one could not have chosen a more unsuitable period to carry out a general liturgical reform.

By the above term "questionable", I mean not intended by the Council Fathers and/or not in harmony with article 23 of the Vatican II Constitution, quoted above.

The pre-eminent example is that nowhere did the Council call for, suggest the consideration of, or even discuss the reform of the Canon of the Mass (now called "First Eucharistic Prayer").

Only one of the more than 2,000 bishops raised the question on the Council floor, and it got nowhere. But within four years Pope Paul VI promulgated three alternatives (Eucharistic Prayers 2-4) which were the products of the personal enthusiasm of individuals supposed to be working to implement the Council's mandate.


The removal of many of the prayers of the Missal (see Fr Anthony Cekada, The Problems with the Prayers of the Modern Mass), the radical recasting of the calendar, and many other reforms enacted in the name of the Council (vernacularisation, communion in the hand, etc), similarly find no authorisation in it.

In 1996 I asked the Fathers of the Council then living their opinion of the reform. Cardinal Franz Kšnig, the emeritus Archbishop of Vienna and a leading liberal at the Council, replied: "It was the concern and the intention of the Council to give a 'right of domicile' to the native tongue beside the Latin language. This led the way that Latin was abandoned in many countries and the native language only was used. At present Latin should be stressed and be more used in the Western world."

By the time the faulty vernacular editions of the new liturgical texts were published in the 1970s, another phenomenon had long since influenced celebrations of the Liturgy, partially because of the years of liturgical uncertainty and change, and partially due to the spirit of the age.

I refer, of course, to that rampant liturgical subjectivism noted earlier in this article.

Liturgy had to be self-consciously "pastoral," "living" or "dynamic" and all manner of gimmicks were employed to produce the desired atmosphere or effect.

This is not to deny that many individuals and communities sought - and continue to seek - to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy according to the new liturgical books as faithfully as possible. The Church owes such people a good deal, for they have kept the flame of the Sacred Liturgy alight in a very dark age indeed.

What, then, needs to be done?

The firstly, there needs to be a good deal of study and respectful debate and frank examination of what took place and why - including a readiness to admit that some things have gone seriously wrong.

Secondly, we should return to the sources of the Liturgical Movement and recapture its spirit and thirst for liturgical piety as well as its profound reverence for the theological centrality of the Liturgy.

Such classics as Dom Beauduin's Liturgy the Life of the Church, or Romano Guardini's The Spirit of the Liturgy, both happily in print, ought to be revisited. They cannot but both illuminate the larger question of how to chart the future as well as soundly ground our personal liturgical formation.

Thirdly, it is essential that each of us in whatever way we are able, work to bring about the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy as well as possible. The Liturgy should be an encounter with the true, the beautiful and the good. We must not shrink from excluding, or insisting upon the exclusion of, anything that is doubtful, ugly or simply bad in the rites, prayers, sounds, vestments, vessels, music, buildings, translations and homilies - and everything else which we use to worship Almighty God.

Fourthly, the celebration according to the traditional liturgical books from prior to the Council must be freely available to clergy and laity alike. This cannot but support and inform the necessary task of re-sacralising the Sacred Liturgy.

Encouraging signs

The signs that the Holy See is taking this problem seriously are encouraging.

At his General Audience of 26 February this year, Pope John Paul II stated: "It is necessary to discover and to live constantly the beauty of prayer and of the Liturgy. We must pray to God with theologically correct formulas and also in a beautiful and dignified way. In this regard, the Christian community must make an examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and hymnody will return once again to the Liturgy. They should purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated."

And in his April 2003 Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, he lamented the "dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice" that have eclipsed the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy since the Second Vatican Council. The same encyclical promises a new document "including prescriptions of a juridical nature" in respect of the Sacred Liturgy, because "no one is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands; it is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly, and with disregard for its sacredness and its universality."

As has been stressed, the question is not a peripheral one, given the theological centrality of the Liturgy, and given that liturgical subjectivity risks, no, leads to, theological subjectivity. The Catholic faith, however, is not a subjective religion.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 16 No 8 (September 2003), p. 10

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