Analysis -- the Revolution That Changed Everything
40 Years Later; Vatican Ii's Liturgical Reform Still Reverberates

By John L. Allen Jr.
National Catholic Reporter [Rome]
December 12, 2003

This is the first in an occasional series that will explore the impact liturgical renewal had on Roman Catholic life, look at the progress (and retrogression) over the years since the council, and look to the future of the liturgical landscape.

Forty years ago this month the Second Vatican Council issued what was to become a landmark document for Roman Catholicism, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Primarily the document called for the reform of the liturgy, and in 1963 much was made of the fact that the Catholic Mass was changing for the first time in 500 years. But as John Allen notes in his analysis below, liturgical renewal didn’t just change the Mass, it changed virtually every aspect of Catholic life.

Despite the fierce polemics that sometimes surround Roman Catholic worship -- whether the assembly should reply “and also with you” versus “and with your spirit,” where the tabernacle should be placed, and so on -- most parties seem to converge on one point: The liturgical reform unleashed by the Second Vatican Council 40 years ago, on Dec. 4, 1963, with the document Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), matters.

Indeed, most observers believe that Sacrosanctum Concilium triggered a holistic, rather than an additive, change in the Roman Catholic church. The liturgical reform didn’t simply create a new way of celebrating Mass and other rites, leaving the rest of church life intact; it changed everything, transforming the religious imagination and practice of two generations of Catholics.

Whether that has been for good or ill, and in what measure, largely frames the terms of today’s debate.

The liturgical revolution helped make others possible. Brazilian Cardinal Geraldo Agnelo, who served as secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship in the 1990s, said that Sacrosanctum Concilium created intense interest in the other changes flowing from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

“The fact that this was the first fruit of the council captured public attention for the other documents, because the Mass is something that matters to everyone in the church,” Agnelo told NCR in a Nov. 21 interview in .

In other words, it was the change in the Mass that alerted Catholics from to that something big was happening.

Reform of the liturgy, however, has not been one-directional. From the beginning, there have been battles over how much change is too much, whether embracing cultural diversity means distancing oneself from the sacred, and, perhaps equally important, who gets to decide. Early on, Pope Paul VI backed a broadly progressive vision, both in terms of content (supporting a move into the vernacular languages, for example, more sweeping than the council itself envisioned) and process (letting bishops’ conferences rather than Rome call many of the plays).

It is difficult to date the moment when this reform generated its equal and opposite reaction in a “counter-reform.” Some would say it came very early, with the July 1975 exile of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, the architect of the first wave of reforms, which he rammed through over the opposition of powerful forces in the Roman curia (some of whom never forgot and never forgave). Others say the scales tipped much later, somewhere in the mid-1980s, as the impact of Pope John Paul II’s episcopal appointments began to be felt across a wide range of issues. Still others bring things closer to the present, perhaps June 1994 when the revoked its approval of the revised American lectionary, or September 1997 when the turned down an English translation of the ordination rite. Some would even see September 1996, when conservative Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Est?vez arrived to head the Congregation for Divine Worship, as the turning point.

Such dating may be irrelevant. What is clear is that the reform has always made people nervous, and that has spawned various reactions.

Broadly speaking, there’s an avant-garde determined to press ahead at any cost, and at the outer edges it can spin off into liturgical practices well outside approved norms (“do-it-yourself” feminist liturgies, for example). A large middle regards the first wave of reform as well-intentioned but in some cases overenthusiastic, and has welcomed a gradual, organic pruning away of those excesses, coupled with a measured recovery of aspects of the tradition that were perhaps too hastily abandoned. A still more traditionalist sector sees this “restoration” as a more urgent and sweeping concern. At its outer edges, this current bleeds into the Society of St. Pius X and other groups who practice the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Mass.

These three options are like umbrellas, with space for different shades of opinion under each.

Ironically, observers in each of these camps usually agree on what the reform got right: a recovery of scripture, a greater sense of participation, and greater comprehension of the rites. Views diverge, however, over what the reform did wrong, what is needed to fix it, and how church authority should respond.

Fruits of the reform

Most Catholics have their own particular likes and dislikes about the reform, ranging from some of the new hymns to particular rites. Many experts think the new baptism ritual, for example, is among the more theologically and aesthetically satisfying. Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, told NCR that he likes the revised breviary, because it is shorter and thus allows more time for meditation instead of simple rote recitation of prayers. Others point to the runaway success of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (one liturgical expert said that RCIA all by itself refutes the fear that “things are going to hell in a hand basket” in the church).

Beyond matters of personal taste or individual rites, however, observers identified four large-scale fruits of the conciliar reform.

First, by incorporating scripture much more thoroughly into worship, especially in the lectionary, the collection of A, B and C cycle readings for the Sunday Mass, the Bible was restored to centrality in Catholic life after centuries of neglect.

“It put the attention of the church squarely on the Bible, and in a way that worked for everyone, not just the experts,” Agnelo said.

“Scripture scholars can pursue their studies, deepen their knowledge of the Bible, and that’s good. But when we talk about the liturgy, all the faithful are involved. All the baptized, all the confirmed, are there. It speaks to everyone,” Agnelo said.

Other observers agreed.

“A whole generation has heard scripture proclaimed in their own language week after week,” said John Page, former executive secretary of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).

“We were ignorant of the Old Testament, especially the psalms,” Page said. “Now the psalms are part of many people’s daily This has transformed Catholicism. Many people are now taking scripture courses.”

ICEL, which translates liturgical texts into English from Latin, became in the 1990s a lightning rod for liturgical controversies. Page’s 2002 resignation was seen as a victory for those who wanted to nudge ICEL into a more traditional, Roman-centered approach.

Second, experts say, the liturgical reform has resulted in a much greater sense of participation among the faithful.

“It isn’t worship conducted by the clergy around the altar, with the lay people in the nave watching. It is not a concert performed around the altar with the other people as spectators. There is not one single spectator,” said Arinze, who as head of the congregation for worship is the ’s point man on liturgical policy.

Arinze spoke to NCR during an exclusive mid-November interview about the Sacrosanctum Concilium anniversary.

“The lay faithful are given particular recognition by this document, and that is important,” Arinze said. “The average lay person today, compared to the average lay person 50 years ago at Mass, feels much more that ‘this is our thing.’ ”

Agnelo noted that this commitment to a more participatory style did not just spring up overnight.

“Pius XII already in 1946 had created a commission for liturgical reform,” Agnelo said. “In 1951, the pope ordered the reform of Holy Saturday, and it took effect in 1952. In 1955, the Easter triduum -- Holy Thursday, Good Friday, along with Holy Saturday -- was proclaimed.

“These reforms didn’t come from the pope in authoritarian fashion, but from a widely felt sense in the church that the time was right,” Agnelo said. “He saw that the people needed a real participation, that they couldn’t remain isolated and passive in front of the mystery of Christ.”

Observers of the American Catholic scene say that where parishes have worked hard at creating spiritually satisfying liturgies with a participatory spirit, there is often great dynamism that can actually vitalize other areas of parish life.

“People have a greater sense of the connection between liturgy and justice,” Page said. “It’s no accident that parishes with vital liturgies also tend to have soup kitchens, shelters, and so on. There’s been a great development in social reflection, that it’s not enough just to drop $10 in the collection basket.”

Third, observers believe that the transition into the vernacular languages has aided in understanding, as well as the sense that the liturgy speaks to the particular cultural experience of a given community.

“The mother tongue has come to stay, and it has brought good,” Arinze said.

“Granted, to understand is not everything, but it is an important element. Someone once said, ‘If you think the mother tongue is not important, why do you ask us for money in English rather than Latin?’ Obviously, if we understand what is said, it helps us worship,” Arinze said.

Finally, observers say that the revised liturgies are now closer to the original Christian experience.

“The simplification was a good thing … returning to the older way of celebrating, taking away things from the Middle Ages that had been integrated into the Mass but that were not essential,” said Cardinal Godfried Danneels, a former professor of liturgy at the Catholic University of Leuven. Danneels spoke to NCR in mid-November in .

Experts acknowledge that each of these gains can be pressed too far. The centrality of the Bible, if taken to extremes, can “Protestantize” Catholic life, creating a 20th-century version of Luther’s sola scriptura, loosening the bond with the church. “Active participation” can become a mantra for simply doing something for the sake of it, while the depth dimension of the liturgy is lost. The vernacular can become banal, and simplification can mean throwing the devotional baby out with the bathwater.

Nevertheless, when carried out with a deft touch, most observers seem to think the post-Vatican II liturgy is a gift.

“Real effort has been put in, and it has largely succeeded. When it’s done well, people’s lives can be transformed by our worship,” Page said.

What went wrong

One person’s deft touch, however, is another’s sacrilege.

Page, one of the architects of the reformed liturgy, believes that there were mistakes in the first wave of changes, but that things were settling themselves out before church authorities got in on the act.

“We had to implement the reform fairly quickly. The bishops at the council didn’t have a full understanding of everything they were opening up, the various possibilities they had created,” Page said. “Obviously when 1,000 years of worship in a certain style is transformed, there will be some messiness.”

“There was some influence of the zeitgeist in the 1960s and ’70s. Liberals were more dominant, and there were a lot of ‘creative’ things going on that were foolish rather than helpful. Much of the early music was banal, and sometimes people were making up their own prayers. People were celebrating Mass at the dining room table without vestments. Sometimes everybody would say the eucharistic prayers together, and so on. There were abuses, no doubt about it.

“Over time, things began to settle down, and a reflection started to take place,” Page said. “The sense of the faithful pushed us toward a celebration that was more reverent and uplifting, without losing the positive gains of the reform.”

This “settling down,” whatever one makes of it, was obviously not rapid, uniform or thorough enough for many in the church. During the 1990s, the Holy See and local bishops conferences began to take more direct control over liturgical questions, insisting on greater conformity with approved norms and a more “Roman” style. Bishops and liturgical experts who had championed the reforms began to be replaced with officials whose instincts ran in the direction of uniformity and fidelity to tradition.

That shift is clear, for example, from the line-up Arinze assembled for a Dec. 2 symposium of the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium in the . Several cardinals and prominent liturgists spoke, including Cardinal Francis George of , but no one who actually took part in the council itself or in the immediate post-conciliar reform. Also striking is the absence of Archbishop Piero Marini, the Vatican official who organizes papal liturgies, and someone identified with the more “liberal” view of liturgical matters now out of fashion.

One symbol of the new climate is the May 2001 document Liturgiam Authenticam, which promulgated new rules for liturgical translation, limiting possibilities for “inculturation,” meaning adaptation of texts and rites to local cultures.

Arinze told NCR the main message of Liturgiam Authenticam, which promulgated new rules for liturgical translation, limiting possibilities for “inculturation,” meaning adaptation of texts and rites to local cultures.

Arinze told NCR the main message of Liturgiam Authenticam is: “Please, be more faithful to the original Latin.” He argued that authority had to step in.

“It’s very hard to blame anyone, and no doubt people were acting on the basis of good motives,” Arinze said. “Still, looking back one can see there were problems with the way some translations into the various languages were carried out. … The same point holds true for the rites. We have insisted that the rites must be celebrated according to the approved books, that priests must not experiment or adapt the rites on their own initiative. This is not merely a question of power, but of the right of the faithful to receive the liturgy of the church rather than someone’s individual creation.”

Page, however, believes ecclesiastical authorities should have let the natural evolution already underway take its course.

“The issues were fear and control. They were listening to a certain segment of the church that felt the sky was falling in,” Page said. “I fear what they’ve done is to stop an authentic development and created a legalism that will work against the deepening of the church’s liturgical life.”

Critics of the reform, who have largely applauded the interventions, sometimes blame the liturgical reforms for a declining sense of the sacred, including confusion over the doctrine of the real presence -- that the bread and wine at Mass physically become Jesus Christ, not just a symbol. Some would link the reforms to declining Mass attendance, at least in the West.

Danneels doesn’t think so.

“I don’t agree with that,” Danneels said. “The texts have not been much changed. The Roman Canon [the eucharistic prayer from the Tridentine Mass] is more or less present in the other prayers. There is nothing that is lacking.”

At the same time, Danneels said, he shares concern for occasional lack of reverence and depth.

“Sometimes in our normal way of celebrating we emphasize the community, which is a good thing, but the Mass can never be simple conviviality,” Danneels said. “We must not forget that we are praying, not just celebrating.”

Agnelo, who helped engineer much of tightening-up during his service from 1991 to 1999, insists that it does not add up to a “roll-back” on reform.

“There’s no need to change course, because the reform was something desired by the council,” Agnelo said. “Of course, one has to understand clearly what the reform was about. … The rites have to help us. They should never be a cause of division.”

Arinze believes one priority for the future is a restoration of Latin -- not the pre-conciliar, Tridentine rite, but use of Latin in the reformed liturgy.

“The church never said not to have Mass in Latin,” Arinze said. “Speak with your parish priest. When I was archbishop in , I begged the priests, please, if you are in a rural area, say a Mass in Latin at least once a month. If you are in a city where have you six or seven Masses every weekend, why not have at least one of them in Latin? It’s unfortunate that this doesn’t happen more often. Why all the rigidity?”

‘Servants of the mystery of Christ’

Arinze said his office is also working on cleaning up “abuses,” meaning liturgical practices that violate the norms established by church authorities.

“Many people are disturbed and unhappy in liturgical matters because, as they would put it, I went to Mass last Sunday and my parish priest did something very funny at the altar. Or he did something not just funny, but something that I consider unacceptable,” Arinze said. “We priests and bishops have a duty. We are servants of the mysteries of Christ, not masters.”

A document on liturgical abuses is due out soon from Arinze’s office as well as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“It is not going to be a dry catalogue of abuses. It will speak about what we believe and why we worship in the way that we do based onthose beliefs,” Arinze said. “It is making good progress, and I think people will be happy with it. We are doing everything we can not to delay it.”

Page isn’t convinced that Latin is the way to go.

“It would be the least attended Mass in the parish,” he said. “We have to be pastorally realistic.

“I haven’t seen most of the abuses that are being talked about for 20 or 30 years,” Page said. “Both the texts and the music were finding the right level. Authority chose this very moment to pull the curtainnsion of what happens in the Eucharist?” he said. “The problem is one of content. For example, is it really the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or just a symbol? We have not achieved inner comprehension.

“What’s necessary is a very deep catechesis,” Danneels said, arguing that this must be the work of the church atall levels, and for years to come. “The how of liturgical celebration has been resolved; what’s necessary now is attention to the what.”

He expressed confidence, however, that the problems can be solved. Danneels’ bottom line was unequivocal.

“Good liturgy works.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

Liturgical Renewal at a Glance

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) officially launched liturgical renewal in the Roman Catholic church with the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, on . The liturgy document was one of the 16 key documents issued by the council.

The energy of liturgical reform helped generate other aspects of church renewal called for by the council.

Liturgical reform was neither easy nor trouble free. From the beginning there were battles over how much change was too much, whether cultural inclusion (such as the use of the vernacular) meant downplaying the sacred, and who decides.

For the first time in many centuries, liturgical issues were decentralized, with bishops making decisions that shaped liturgy in their national churches and dioceses. Roman Catholicism was no longer a liturgical monolith, but a multifaceted, diverse church.

Basically three groups represent the liturgical spectrum: 1) An avant-garde determined to push liturgical reform to the limit, with many practices outside approved norms; 2) A large middle that regards the first wave as well-intentioned but overenthusiastic and has welcomed a gradual return to recovery of aspects of the tradition too hastily abandoned; and 3) a small but vocal traditionalist camp that sees “restoration” as an urgent, sweeping concern needed to essentially save orthodox Catholicism.

Liturgical renewal has brought about dramatic changes in Catholic life: Greater familiarity with the Bible, worship in the native language and renewed sacramental rites (the new rite of baptism, and the rites for welcoming new Catholics, for example) are just a few.


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