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The good news of Vatican II

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This is the second in a series of articles exploring the gift and promise of Vatican II’s liturgical reform.

If you asked an average Catholic what happened at the Second Vatican Council, I suspect that most would focus on liturgical reform — specifically, how the language of the liturgy changed from Latin to the vernacular, and how more hymns were included at Mass.

Some might even recognize the structural changes that took place after the council to the Church’s liturgies. The Mass was simplified, an Old Testament reading was included, and there were new Eucharistic prayers introduced drawn from liturgical tradition.

The problem, of course, is that Vatican II did a lot more than change the liturgy. Yes, a consequence of ecclesial reform was a wider adopting of the vernacular. The Mass did change.

What is often forgotten is that Vatican II was not just worried about liturgical change. Rather, the Second Vatican Council was concerned to re-propose to the Church and therefore a liturgical or sacramental ecclesiology.

An ‘active participation’

Between 2,000 and 2,500 bishops attended each session of the Second Vatican Council, held
between 1962 and 1965. The council produced 16 landmark documents. CNS file photo

What is a liturgical or sacramental ecclesiology? In its opening paragraphs, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) describes the liturgy as integral to what it means to say the word “Church.” The Church’s liturgy is not just a series of ceremonies conducted by a priest. Rather, in every liturgy or sacrament, the Church’s deepest identity is being performed.

The Church, as the document notes, is both human and divine, situated in the world and yet directed toward the beatific vision. All that is human is meant to be ordered to the divine, and in the sacred liturgy, the Church in her members practices this cosmic renewal. To “be” the Church is therefore to celebrate liturgy, exercising one’s priesthood. Through liturgical celebration, believers receive strength to proclaim Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

In the liturgical act, the world sees the Church as she is meant to be seen: a communion of men and women dedicated to the adoration of the living God, gathered around Christ who is priest, prophet and king.

For this reason, the document upholds “fully conscious and active participation” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 14) in the liturgical act. The faithful are not attendees of a liturgical ceremony to which they are invited to behold. Rather, in the liturgies of the Church (especially the Eucharist), the faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood.

Fostering the Faith

Only after describing a comprehensive liturgical and sacramental vision of the Church does the document mention liturgical reform. Liturgical reform is not to be conducted as an exercise of antiquarians. It is not a restoration to a golden age of liturgical celebration. Liturgical reform is intended to foster the Faith in the kind of participation in the liturgical act that enables them to proclaim to the ends of the earth the saving mystery of Jesus Christ.

The remainder of Sacrosanctum Concilium offers guidelines for how this reform should be conducted. It should foster this participation of the faithful, while attentive to the Church’s Tradition of liturgical prayer. If you read these sections, you see the care that the Council Fathers took in articulating these principles.

In this article, I cannot attend to each of these principles. There are ones specific to the reform, and those devoted to a reform of each rite of the Church. Please read them!

What I want to focus on is three questions. First, why is the Church’s reform of the liturgy at Vatican II good news? Second, does this mean all reform is done? Third, what is part of Vatican II and what isn’t?

A liturgical creature

First, as should be clear, the Church’s reform of the liturgy at Vatican II is fundamentally good news. It is good news because of the deepening understanding that the Church is first and foremost a liturgical creature. She is made not for political wrangling but to become an icon of Christ’s self-giving love. To take part in the liturgy requires that all the faithful, both internally and externally, participate in the Church’s prayer.

Sacrosanctum Concilium remains therefore a prophetic document for the Church, its leaders, and all the faithful. Catholicism is not a private religion, one where a clerical caste performs rites of passages for the hoi polloi. Catholics are those called to transfigure the cosmos in love, and regular participation in the liturgy forms us in the sacrificial disposition to do this work. Such participation cannot be reduced to passive contemplation. It requires our flesh-and-blood bodies.

One can see why Vatican II’s focus on a liturgical and sacramental ecclesiology is good news, especially for those of us interested in a New Evangelization. As Pope Francis notes in Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), each of us is called to a missionary discipleship. Such discipleship flows from the liturgy, allowing us to transform every crack and crevice of the cosmos. It brings us to the liturgy where we offer to the Triune God everything.

A living Church

Second, the document testifies to us that future liturgical reform is possible. Some interpretations of Vatican II seem to imply that every liturgical reform made in the days following the council will stand forever. We may not. Remember the rationale for all liturgical reform. The purpose is to facilitate deeper participation in the liturgy by all the baptized faithful.

What is this participation? Let me concretize the question. At Vatican II, significant reforms were made for the rite of infant baptism. The reforms included simplifying the rite. For example, salt would no longer be placed upon the lips of the infant. This act, once meaningful to the ancient person, was considered meaningless to the modern. Further, text was added to the rite, encouraging the priest or deacon to explain what was happening to the parents.

This reform, though, may possess problems related to participation. First, it fails to recognize the capacity of the (post)modern person to understand “why” salt. Understanding, of course, is not reducible to the intellect. A mom and dad, seeing salt placed upon the lips of their child, may understand more about this salt than the Church’s reformers thought. Further, the use of speech in the rite may hinder rather than encourage the deepest kind of participation in the rite fostered by Sacrosanctum Concilium. The rite could be understood in the future as hindering rather than fostering participation. For this reason, a future reform of the rite of infant baptism could be attentive to the post-conciliar context and retrieve practices from before Vatican II.

The parameters of Vatican II

Third, we must learn to recognize what is part of Vatican II and what isn’t. Vatican II didn’t say that Latin was no longer in use. It allowed conferences of bishops to petition for use of the vernacular. Such use was and is good. But when Latin appears in the liturgy, it is not a return to a time before Vatican II. The same goes for chant. Chant remains, as Pope Francis has reminded us, the sacred music of the Church. Hymns can be used. But the total abrogation of chant in most parishes is not, strictly speaking, according to the mind of the council.

In the next article, I want to use these three categories to look more closely at some of the reforms proposed and enacted by Vatican II. What is good news? What could be changed? And what adoptions have our parishes made that are not really part of Vatican II at all?

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

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