The Eucharist: the background to Vatican II's liturgical reforms

The Eucharist: the background to Vatican II's liturgical reforms

Br Barry Coldrey

After the Protestant Reformations and the Council of Trent many Catholics prayed their own private prayers and devotions at Mass. Such people tended to be passive spectators represented by the priest, the altar servers and (perhaps) the choir. Apart from the homily, the only time when all might concentrate on the priest was at the Consecration.

The Eucharistic Prayer (Roman Canon) was said silently by the priest, but a server rang a bell before and at the Consecration so that all could give their attention to the central action of the Mass.

Over the succeeding centuries frequent communion among Catholics was rare although the Council of Trent had encouraged this practice. However, the notion of unworthiness was so deep-seated that many believed they must attend sacramental confession prior to every communion.

The liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) were not sudden innovations. The development of liturgical and Biblical scholarship over the previous half-century had laid the foundation for the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

As far back as the 16th century, the research of reformers led to a rediscovery of the Church Fathers of the late Christian Roman Empire, such as Cyril of Alexandria and John Chrysostom. Ancient liturgical texts provided evidence of full and active participation by all present at the Eucharist.

However, the liturgical revival grew strongly in the late 19th century for very good reasons as there was an explosion of European power, energy and conquest outside the European continent. Among Europeans abroad were scholars fascinated with discovering ancient civilisations, monuments and records in the Greek and Middle Eastern world where Christianity had had its origins.

* Ancient cities were excavated; ancient languages deciphered; ancient libraries (of clay tablets) were unearthed, sometimes surprisingly intact.

* Many writings previously lost to European scholarship were discovered, for example, the Didache (1873, Constantinople) to which reference has been made in earlier articles in this series.

* Numerous stone stele (tablets) were unearthed, some with Christian inscriptions. In the ancient world, many rulers had their decrees carved on stele in prominent places and many private citizens had their epitaphs carved in the same way.

It was during this period that the epitaph of Bishop Abercius was discovered in which he makes reference to the Eucharist. Scholars now knew more of the ancient world, more of the world of the Bible, the New Testament and the early Christian Church. This assisted the revival of liturgical and Scriptural studies.

In the early 20th century Pope Pius X encouraged these developments:

* He assisted the Benedictine monks at Solesmes (France) to restore Gregorian chant.

* He encouraged early First Communion for children and frequent communion by the adult laity

* He encouraged research into reform of the Breviary.

Catastrophic international events, notably World War I, the Great Depression and World War II, slowed liturgical developments and concentrated minds elsewhere.

However, Pope Pius XII, through his encyclicals on the Mystical Body of Christ (Mystici Corporis, 1943), the Sacred Liturgy (Mediator Dei, 1947), and Sacred Music (Musicae Sacrae, 1955), encouraged reform.

In the 1950s, prior to Vatican II, Pius XII initiated a number of changes:

* He revised the rites of Holy Week in 1956.

* He modified the Eucharistic fast (from the preceding midnight to one hour before communion) during the years 1953-57.

* He allowed late afternoon and even- ing Saturday Masses to encourage Catholics to fulfil their Sunday obligation to worship. The changes reflected the increasing pace and complexity of modern urban living.

* He introduced the Dialogue Mass in 1958 whereby people were encouraged to recite the Latin responses with the altar servers and to recite the Latin Gloria and Credo with the priest.

* Local languages replaced Latin in the administration of the sacraments.

Hence the 1950s were times of liturgical change paving the way for the reforms of Vatican II.

The following paragraph taken from Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is indicative of the Council's reforming thrust:

'The Church desires that Christ's faithful, when present at the Eucharist, should not be strangers or silent spectators. On the contrary É they should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing. They should be instructed in God's word, be nourished at the Lord's table and give thanks to God.'

Some of the major changes that followed the Council - not all of them explicitly spelled out or called for in the Liturgy Constitution - included the almost universal use of the vernacular and the discarding of Latin; Mass celebrated facing the people at an altar table rather than at an ornate main altar 'facing East'; the accompanying music was allowed to reflect local customs and cultures according to the principle of 'incultur- ation'; concelebrated Masses when more than one priest is present; and a greater prominence given to the Liturgy of the Word, including the prayers, readings and homily.

In the arrangement of the Mass, the two main parts, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, were clearly distinguished. Omitted from the pre-Vatican II Mass were the Last Gospel, prayers at the foot of the altar and various repetitions.

Reintroduced from earlier practices were the Prayers of the Faithful, the procession of the gifts and the sign of peace. Overall, there was greater emphasis on the congregation worshipping as a community.

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