Understanding the Catholic Liturgy since Vatican II

Understanding the Catholic Liturgy since Vatican II

Dom Alcuin Reid OSB

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.