Fr Fessio, who celebrates the NOM as VII described it, analyses Sacrosanctum Concilium and how it's been ignored.
By Fr Joseph Fessio, SJ
What the Second Vatican Council said about liturgy, what it didn’t say about liturgy, and the central intent of the Council concerning the liturgy
Editor’s note: This essay appeared originally in the September/October 2000 issue of Catholic Dossier and is based on a lecture on the liturgy given by Father Fessio in May, 1999.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was one of two documents issued on the same day, December 4, 1963, the first two documents issued by the Second Vatican Council. The other document, Inter Mirifica, is on social communication. Sacrosanctum Concilium is one of the most important documents of the Council, one that has been the least understood and, I believe, has wrought the most havoc – not by having been fulfilled – but by having been ignored or misinterpreted.
Now there should be no argument about the central intent of the Council concerning the liturgy. The Council actually spells out its intent, in paragraph 14 of Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations, which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” The key words here are “full, conscious, and active participation.” The Latin for “active participation” is actuosa participatio.
I did a little research into previous uses of that expression in papal and other ecclesial documents. The first papal usage was in 1903 by Pope St. Pius X, whose motto was “Omnia Instaurare in Christo” (To restore all things in Christ). He considered himself a pope of renewal. He was elected in August of 1903 and in November, he issued one of the first documents of his pontificate, a motu proprio called Tra Le Solicitudini, that is, “Among the Concerns.” This was a document on the renewal of sacred music. In it, the Holy Father states, “In order that the faithful may more actively participate in the sacred liturgy, let them be once again made to sing Gregorian Chant as a congregation.”
That’s what the term “active participation” meant when it was first used in a papal document. But it had been used ten years earlier in another document, issued by Pius X before he was pope. He was the patriarch of Venice, and the document – as it turns out – was actually written by a Jesuit, with the wonderful name of Angelo dei Santi (“angel of the saints”). Sounds like a fictitious name.
In any case, the first use of actuosa participatio, i.e., active participation, referred explicitly and exclusively to the restoration of the congregational singing of Gregorian Chant. In 1928, Pope Pius XI reiterated the point in his Apostolic Letter, Divini Cultus. Nineteen years after that, in the Magna Carta of liturgical reform, Mediator Dei, issued by Pius XII, the same term was used with the same meaning. So until the Second Vatican Council, the term “active participation” referred exclusively to the singing of Gregorian Chant by the people.
No Innovations Unless the Good of the Church Requires Them
But back to the Council. In the same paragraph of Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 14, the Council continues: “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.” So the Council itself defines the primary aim of liturgical renewal: full, conscious, and active participation. How does the Council initially intend for the aim to be achieved? That, also, is not something we have to guess at or speculate on: “And, therefore, pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it by means of the necessary instruction in all their pastoral work.” The Council’s idea is clear: the liturgy is to be renewed by promoting more active participation through the means of greater education. Nothing whatsoever is said here about any kind of changes or reform of the rite itself. Later, when changes are discussed, the Council states in paragraph 23: “There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them.” So no changes unless there is a real, proven, demonstrable need.
Paragraph 23 continues: “And care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” Organic growth – like a plant, a flower, a tree – not something constructed by an intellectual elite, not things fabricated and tacked on, or brought back from ten centuries ago, or fifteen centuries ago, but an organic growth. That’s what the Council itself said.
Paragraph 48 begins the chapter on the Mass. And the title of this chapter is interesting. It’s not called “The Eucharist” or “The Mass”; it’s called “The Most Sacred Mystery of the Eucharist.” Even in the chapter title, you have the sense that what’s important is mystery, sacredness, awe, the transcendence of God.
Paragraph 48 returns to the theme of greater awareness, a greater knowledge of the faithful, in order that they might enter more fully into the mysteries celebrated: “For this reason the Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at the mystery of faith should not be there as strangers or silent spectators. On the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers, they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing with devotion and full collaboration.” Then, in paragraph 49, the document says, “For this reason the sacred Council, having in mind those Masses which are celebrated with assistance of the faithful, especially on Sundays and Feasts of Obligation, has made the following decrees in order that the sacrifice of the Mass, even in the ritual forms of its celebration, may become pastorally efficacious in the fullest degree.”
Paragraphs 50 to 58 contain nine specific changes the Council had in mind for the renewal of the liturgy. But before we consider them, we must recall that when the Council made these proposals, it didn’t dream them up overnight. Although this was the first document issued at the Council, it was not issued without long preparation. The modern liturgical movement began in the middle of the 19th century. It was given great impetus by Pius X himself, in the beginning of the 20th century, and by years of study, prayer, and liturgical congresses during the first half of the century. In fact, after Mediator Dei in 1947, there were seven international liturgical conferences, attended by liturgical experts, by pastors and by Roman officials. If you read the minutes of those meetings and the concrete proposals they made, you will see that what the Council outlines here is the fruit of those meetings. This is really the distillation of the prayer and reflection that was the culmination of the liturgical movement, which had existed for over a century prior to the Council.
What are the nine liturgical proposals, or the nine liturgical mandates, of the Council? Paragraph 50 says the rites are to be simplified and those things that have been duplicated with the passage of time or added with little advantage, are to be discarded. And, after the Council, this reform did take place in many ways. I think it took place to a much greater degree than the Council intended, but there are certain simplifications in the Mass that the Council clearly intended.
Paragraph 51: The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more fully. That has been accomplished by a greater number of readings from the Bible interspersed throughout the liturgical cycle, both in the Sunday and weekday cycles. Now, especially if you attend daily Mass, you have a much richer fare, if you will – a much expanded selection of Biblical readings.
Paragraph 52 says: “The homily is to be highly esteemed as part of the Liturgy itself.” The Council called for a greater effort to have good homilies and I think the effort has been made. Whether the homilies are better or not, you can judge for yourselves. Paragraph 53 says that the Common Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful should be restored, and that’s been done, too.
Paragraph 54 is a key paragraph: “In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue.” What did the Council have in mind? Let’s continue: “This is to apply in the first place, to the readings and to the Common Prayer. But also as local conditions may warrant, to those parts which pertain to the people.” Yet it goes on to say, “Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass” – (that is, the unchanging parts, the parts that are there every day) – “which pertain to them.”
So, the Council did not abolish Latin in the liturgy. The Council permitted the vernacular in certain limited ways, but clearly understood that the fixed parts of the Mass would remain in Latin. Again, I am just telling you what the Council said.
Paragraph 55 discusses receiving Communion, if possible, from hosts consecrated at the Mass in which you participate. That is often done or attempted in many parishes today, but it is difficult to do in a precise way. It’s hard to calculate the exact number of hosts you will need. Also, you have to keep some hosts in the Tabernacle for the sick and for adoration. The Council also permits Communion under both species here, but under very limited circumstances. For example, “to the newly ordained in the Mass of the Sacred Ordination, or the newly professed in the Mass of Profession, and the newly baptized in the Mass which follows baptism.” The Council itself did not call for offering both species to all the faithful all the time, but it did grant limited permission for it.
Paragraph 56 says that there are two parts of the Liturgy, the Word and the Eucharist, and that a pastor should insistently teach the faithful to take part in the entire Mass, especially on Sundays and Feasts of Obligation. That is, to consider the first part of the Mass, the Table of the Word, as a significant and essential part of the Mass, so you don’t think you have gone to Mass just by coming after the Offertory and being there for the Consecration and Communion.
Paragraph 57 states that concelebration should be permitted; paragraph 58, that a new rite for concelebration is to be drawn up.
That is the sum total of the nine mandates of the Council for change in the ritual itself, although there are a few other pertinent paragraphs to mention here.
In paragraph 112, in which the Council speaks specifically of music, we read: “The musical tradition of the Universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.” That is a stupendous and shocking statement; the Council actually says that the Church’s music is a treasure of art greater than any other treasure of art she has. Think about that. Think about Chartres Cathedral. Think about the Pieta. Think about Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Think of all the crucifixes from Catalonia in Spain, and all the Church architecture and art and paintings and sculpture. The Council boldly says that the Church’s musical tradition is a treasure of inestimable value greater than any other art.
But the Council would be remiss in making such a shocking statement without giving a reason for it: “The main reason for this preeminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.” What that means is this: it’s wonderful to have a beautiful church, stained glass windows, statues, a noble crucifix, prayerful architecture that lift your heart up to God. But those are all surroundings of the Mass. It’s the “worship environment,” as they would say today. But it’s not the Mass itself. The Council says that when the Mass itself is set to music, that’s what ennobles music, which, itself, enhances the Mass; and that’s what makes the musical tradition the most precious tradition of the Church.
Notice, however, that the Council implies what many Church documents have said explicitly – that the most perfect form of music at Mass is not the hymns, the so-called “Gathering hymn” and its antithesis – I guess you would call it the “Scattering hymn” – at the end. The most appropriate use of music at Mass, as seen by Church tradition and reaffirmed by the Council, is singing the Mass itself: the Kyrie, the Agnus Dei, the Sanctus, the Acclamations, the Alleluias and so on. Again, this isn’t Father Fessio’s pet theory; this is what the Council actually says. Paragraph 112 adds, “Sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is the more closely connected with the liturgical action itself.” This reinforces my point.
Paragraph 114 adds: “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care.” Then in paragraph 116 we find another shocker: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian Chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” That’s what the Council actually said. If you are in a parish which prides itself on living the spirit of Vatican II, then you should be singing Gregorian chant at your parish. And if you’re not singing the Gregorian Chant, you’re not following the specific mandate of the Second Vatican Council.
Now, just a little footnote on the Gregorian Chant. In reflecting on these things about Church music, I began to think about the Psalms a few years back. And a very obvious idea suddenly struck me. Why it didn’t come earlier I don’t know, but the fact is that the Psalms are songs. Every one of the 150 Psalms is meant to be sung; and was sung by the Jews. When this thought came to me, I immediately called a friend, a rabbi in San Francisco who runs the Hebrew School, and I asked, “Do you sing the Psalms at your synagogue?” “Well, no, we recite them,” he said. “Do you know what they sounded like when they were sung in the Old Testament times and the time of Jesus and the Apostles?” I asked. He said, “No, but why don’t you call this company in Upstate New York. They publish Hebrew music, and they may know.”
So, I called the company and they said, “We don’t know; call 1-800-JUDAISM.” So I did. And I got an information center for Jewish traditions, and they didn’t know either. But they said, “You call this music teacher in Manhattan. He will know.” So, I called this wonderful rabbi in Manhattan and we had a long conversation. At the end, I said, “I want to bring some focus to this, can you give me any idea what it sounded like when Jesus and his Apostles sang the Psalms?” He said, “Of course, Father. It sounded like Gregorian Chant. You got it from us.”
I was amazed. I called Professor William Mart, a Professor of Music at Stanford University and a friend. I said, “Bill, is this true?” He said, “Yes. The Psalm tones have their roots in ancient Jewish hymnody and psalmody.” So, you know something? If you sing the Psalms at Mass with the Gregorian tones, you are as close as you can get to praying with Jesus and Mary. They sang the Psalms in tones that have come down to us today in Gregorian Chant.
So, the Council isn’t calling us back to some medieval practice, those “horrible” medieval times, the “terrible” Middle Ages, when they knew so little about liturgy that all they could do was build a Chartres Cathedral. (When I see cathedrals and churches built that have a tenth of the beauty of Notre Dame de Paris, then I will say that the liturgists have the right to speak. Until then, they have no right to speak about beauty in the liturgy.) But my point is that at the time of Notre Dame de Paris in the 13th century, the Psalms tones were already over a thousand years old. They are called Gregorian after Pope Gregory I, who reigned from 590 to 604. But they were already a thousand years old when he reigned. He didn’t invent Gregorian chant; he reorganized and codified it and helped to establish musical schools to sing it and teach it. It was a reform; it wasn’t an invention. Thus, the Council really calls us back to an unbroken tradition of truly sacred music and gives such music pride of place.
The last thing I want to quote from the Council is paragraph 128, which talks about sacred art and sacred furnishings: “Along with the revisions of liturgical books . . . there is to be an earlier revision of the canons and ecclesiastical statutes which govern the provisions of material things involved in sacred worship. These laws refer especially to the worthy and well-planned construction of sacred buildings, the shape and construction of altars, the nobility, placing and safety of the Eucharistic tabernacle, the dignity and suitability of the baptistery . . .” and so on.
What the Council Didn’t Say
That’s essentially what the Second Vatican Council actually said about the renewal of the liturgy. Let me tell you what it did not say. The Council did not say that tabernacles should be moved from their central location to some other location. In fact, it specifically said we should be concerned about the worthy and dignified placing of the tabernacle. The Council did not say that Mass should be celebrated facing the people. That is not in Vatican II; it is not mentioned. It is not even raised in the documents that record the formation of the Constitution on the Liturgy; it didn’t come up. Mass facing the people is a not requirement of Vatican II; it is not in the spirit of Vatican II; it is definitely not in the letter of Vatican II. It is something introduced in 1969.
And, by the way, never in the history of the Church, East or West, was there a tradition of celebrating Mass facing the people. Never, ever, until 1969. It happened occasionally in Germany, in between the wars; it was done sometimes at the castle where Romano Guardini would have his group of students meet; it was done in Austria near Vienna by Pius Parsch in a special church, in what he called a “liturgical Mass.” That’s an odd expression, a “liturgical Mass.” The Mass is the liturgy.
But in any event, I can say without fear of contradiction from anyone who knows the facts that there is simply no tradition whatsoever, in the history of the Church, of Mass facing the people. Now, is it a sin? No. Is it wrong? No. Is it permitted? Yes. It is required? Not at all. In fact in the Latin Roman Missal, which is the typical edition that all the translations of the Missal are based on (not always translated properly, but at least based on it) the rubrics actually presuppose the Mass facing East, the Mass facing the Lord.
Now, for the first 25 years of my priesthood, I celebrated Mass like you see it when you go to a typical parish: in English, facing the people. It can be done reverently; I’ve seen it done reverently; I’ve tried to do it reverently myself. But the last three years, after study and reflection, I’ve changed. I actually think the Mass facing the people is a mistake. But, even if it’s not, at least this much we can say: there is no permission required to say Mass facing God, facing the tabernacle, facing East, facing with the people. And it should be given equal rights, it seems to me, with Mass facing the people. It’s been around for 1800 years at least, and it should be allowed to continue. I happen to think it’s symbolically richer.
It’s true that when the priest faces the people for the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, there may be a sense of greater unity as a community. But there is also a danger of the priest being the performer and you being the spectator – precisely what the Council did not want: priest performers and congregational spectators. But there is something more problematic. You can see it, perhaps, by contrasting Mass facing the people with Mass facing East or facing the Lord. I don’t say Mass “with my back to the people” anymore than Patton went through Germany with his “back to the soldiers.” Patton led the Third Army across Germany and they followed him to achieve a goal. The Mass is part of the Pilgrim Church on the way to our goal, our heavenly homeland. This world is not our heavenly homeland. We don’t sit around in a circle and look at each other. We want to look with each other and with the priest towards the rising sun, the rays of grace, where the Son will come again in glory on the clouds.
And so, in Mass celebrated in the traditional way, the priest does face the people when he speaks on God’s behalf to proclaim the Word and explain it. And he does face the people when he receives their gifts. And then he turns to face with the people and to offer those gifts up to our common Father, praying that the Holy Spirit will come down and transform those gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ. And when that most sacred act takes place, the priest turns to offer the gifts back to the people. I think that is much more dramatic. Whether I am right or not, all I’m asking is a right to exist. If not peaceful coexistence, at least coexistence.
Now strange as it may appear, there is absolutely no permission required to say Mass facing East. The Pope does it every morning in his chapel. But there is such a taboo against it that most pastors would be afraid to do it for fear they would be exiled to some lowly parish.
The Council also said nothing about moving the Tabernacle. It said nothing about removing altar rails. It said nothing about taking out kneelers. It said nothing about turning the altar around. It said nothing about multiple canons. That, too, is an invention; a pure invention.
There has never been in the Church a choice of Eucharistic prayers at a given ceremony or a given Church. In the East, there were two main Eucharistic prayers. Generally, they were regionally different, or used on different feasts. But in the Roman rite, the Latin rite, there has always been one Eucharistic prayer. It was different in Milan, slightly; it was different in Spain, slightly, the Mozarabic rite; and it was different in a few other places – the Dominican Order and some others after the Middle Ages. But there was only one canon, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman canon. I happen to think it is the best. Not only because of the fact that when I am saying it I am uniting myself with what was actually said by the Fathers, and doctors, and saints, and mystics of the Church for hundreds of years (more than a thousand years) – but because I think it is richer.
One problem, both at the time of the Council and after, is rationalism, which the Holy Father has spoken against. This is the idea that we can do it all with our own minds. The liturgists after the Council tried to construct a more perfect liturgy. But you know something? When you’ve grown up in a house and a room is added on and a story added on, a garage is added on, it may not be architecturally perfect, but it’s your home. To destroy it and try to construct a new one out of steel and glass and tile because that’s the modern idea, is not the way you live a human life. But that’s what’s happened to the liturgy.
Look at the other canons. First of all, when I celebrate Mass with the Roman Canon, I’ve often had people come up and say, “What canon was that, Father?” I say, “Well, that was the Roman Canon, the one that has been used for about 1600 years.” “Oh, I haven’t heard that.” Generally, you get Canon Two. Why? Because it’s the shortest. So, you can spend all kinds of time with singing, and the commentators explaining things, and a long homily, with big processions and greeters coming in and whatever else. But for the Sacrifice of the Mass, the attitude seems to be “Let’s get that over as soon as we can with Canon Two.”
Now, where did Canon Two come from? From what’s called the Canon of Hyppolytus, composed by a theologian who became a heretic, later was reconciled to the Church and died a martyr. Around the year 215, he wrote an outline of how Mass was celebrated in Rome. It was probably never used as a liturgical text because in the early days of the Church there was no final, written formalization of the liturgy, so this was an outline to be used by the celebrant.
Thus, the Canon of Hyppolytus was perhaps never used as a canon. If it was, it ceased being used at least 1600 years ago. Yet from the Council, which says changes ought to come through organic growth and there should be no changes unless necessary, we come to liturgists saying, “Oh, let’s pull this thing out of the third century and plug it back into the twentieth.” That’s not organic growth; that’s archeologism, specifically criticized by Pius XII in Mediator Dei.
The Third Canon was entirely made up. There has never been a canon like the Third Canon in the history of the Church, except in bits and pieces. Father Vagaggini, with the help of Father Bouyer, I believe, actually constructed it using their knowledge of liturgical history, which was enormous. But they totally invented the canon. It would be like taking piece of a carrot, a piece of a tomato, a piece of a peach and a piece of some tree, then putting them together and saying, “Well, you see that? It’s organic.” But it’s not organic; it’s constructed.
Canon Four is based on an Eastern Egyptian canon, still used in the Eastern Church; and so, there is some justification for it. But it’s seldom used today because you can’t use it with any other prefaces; it has more or less dropped by the wayside.
The point is that the Council did not call for a multiplication of canons, and I think there are lots of other reasons for sticking with the Roman canon. Nor did the Council, as I mentioned, abolish Latin. It specifically mandated the retention of Latin and only permitted the use of the vernacular in certain circumstances. And, finally, the Council did not prohibit Gregorian Chant, as you might be led to think from its absence in your parishes. The Council actually prescribed Gregorian Chant to have pride of place.
Pope John Paul II Addresses the Bishops
So, that is what the Council actually said. I’ve been saying this now for several years. Because I’ve been saying it and other things, Archbishop Weakland has called me a “papal maximalist,” but a year and a few months ago I was with him at an all-day meeting in Chicago on the liturgy. It was a very congenial meeting, actually; there were eight or nine of us there. And towards the end, they were discussing a document, the Pope’s address to the bishops of the Northwest in 1998. Remember, in 1998 all the bishops of the United States went to Rome for their Ad Limina visit. For one whole year, as each group of bishops came, the Holy Father spoke to them on how to interpret the Second Vatican Council in a way that will lead us into the Third Millennium.
It happened that when the bishops from the Northwest came from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho – the Holy Father spoke on the liturgy. Archbishop Weakland and others were not particularly happy with what the pope said. And so I took the occasion in the afternoon to say to Archbishop Weakland, “You know, Archbishop you’ve publicly called me a papal maximalist. You published an article in America magazine in which you used that title for me. But you know, I can’t help it. The Pope keeps agreeing with me.”
Here’s what the Pope said to the bishops of the Northwestern United States: “The two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of the Savior is a call to all Christ’s followers to seek a genuine conversion to God and a great advance to holiness. Since the Liturgy is such a central part of the Christian life, I wish today to consider some aspects of the liturgical renewal so vigorously promoted by the Second Vatican Council, as the prime agent of the wider renewal of Catholic life.” So, the Council itself wanted to renew Catholic life. And within that, it wanted to renew the liturgy. The Pope is saying here that as we look toward the year 2000, we must go back and see what the Council wanted for liturgical renewal, because that is the prime agent of the wider renewal of Catholic life.
He continues: “To look back over what has been done in the field of liturgical renewal since the Council is first to see many reasons for giving heartfelt thanks and praise to the Most Holy Trinity for the marvelous awareness which had developed among the faithful of their role and responsibility in the priestly work of Christ and his Church. It is also to realize that not all changes have always and everywhere been accompanied by the necessary explanation and catechesis. As a result, in some cases there has been a misunderstanding of the very nature of the Liturgy, leading to abuses, polarization, sometimes even grave scandal.”
The Pope generally speaks diplomatically, especially to bishops. These are pretty hard words, and this is the introduction, so obviously he’s going to give some guidelines for avoiding this polarization, this grave scandal and these abuses. He says, “After the experience of more than thirty years of liturgical renewal we are well placed to assess both the strengths and weaknesses of what has been done . . .” (listen carefully now)” . . . in order more confidently to plot our course into the future, which God has in mind for His cherished people.” The Pope, here, speaks to our bishops, looking toward the new millennium and says, in effect, Here is what I think is the plan God has for all of his people as we move to the next millennium. And, specifically, here is the liturgical blueprint that, I, the Holy Father, believe we are to follow.
“The challenge now,” he continues, “is to move beyond whatever misunderstandings there have been and to reach the proper point of balance, especially by entering more deeply into the contemplative dimension of worship, which includes a sense of awe, reverence and adoration which are fundamental attitudes in our relationship with God.”
What does the Pope say we must do to restore balance? Enter more deeply into the contemplative dimension of worship. Can you contemplate when you’ve got drummers up in the sanctuary? Where do we find the sense of awe? Not in this “chatty” stuff at Mass: “Good morning, everybody.” Does that inspire a sense of awe? “Have a nice day.” The Pope mentions reverence and adoration. Standing is a sign of respect; but kneeling is a sign of adoration. The Pope says we must restore the sense of adoration.
The Pope says to the liturgists and the bishops, “The Eucharist gathers and builds the human community, but it is also ïthe worship of the Divine Majesty’.” That’s from Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 33. He continues: “It is subjective in that it depends radically upon what the worshippers bring to it, but it is objective in that it transcends them as the priestly act of Christ himself to which he associates us, but which ultimately does not depend upon us.”
This is why it’s so important that liturgical law be respected: an objective act is taking place. “The priest, who is the servant of the liturgy and not its inventor or producer, has a particular responsibility in this regard, lest he empty the liturgy of its true meaning or obscure its sacred character,” says the Holy Father.
Then he talks about “The core of the mystery of Christian worship.” Is the core of the mystery of Christian worship a sense that we are the people of God? Is it feeling united with each other? Spiritual bonding? Not according to the Pope, who says, “The core of the mystery of Christian worship is the Sacrifice of Christ offered to the Father and the work of the Risen Christ who sanctifies his people through the liturgical sign.” The sacrifice of Christ, sanctification. That’s what the Pope says. Remember, he’s looking now to lead the Church in the new millennium liturgically. He continues: “It is, therefore, essential that in seeking to enter more deeply into the contemplative depths of worship, the inexhaustible mystery of the priesthood of Jesus Christ be fully acknowledged and respected.”
There is a movement to refer to the celebrant as the “presider,” instead of the “celebrant” or the “priest.” Now it’s true, he is a presider. But that’s an abstraction; and I think there’s an agenda behind the abstraction. You see, all the Sacraments need someone who presides: at Confirmation, at the Eucharist, at Confession – and at Baptism. And who can preside at Baptism? The priest is the ordinary minister and presider, but under certain unusual circumstances a layman – man or woman – and even a non-Catholic can preside at Baptism. And, so, I believe some people want to get us in the habit of thinking of the priest as a presider primarily because that’s an abstract term, which could include women.
What does the Pope say about the matter? “The priest, therefore, is not just one who presides, but one who acts in the person of Christ.” You see, only the priest can act in persona Christi capitis, in the name of the Bridegroom (Jesus) over against the Bride (the Church) in the nuptial act, which is the Mass.
Full, Conscious and Active Participation
The Holy Father next discusses three attributes of the liturgy: full, conscious and active participation. Remember that I began by reading paragraph 14 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which states that the purpose of the Council in renewing the liturgy was to achieve full, conscious, active participation? Well, those words can have different meanings. It is very interesting to find out what the Pope thinks they mean, as he tells us what he believes God is calling the Church to do in the liturgy in the new millennium.
First, he talks about the fullness of participation. “The sharing of all the baptized in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ is the key to understanding the Church’s call for full, conscious and active participation. Full participation certainly means that every member of the community has a part to play in the liturgy. And in this respect, a great deal has been achieved in parishes and communities across your land. But, full participation does not mean that everyone does everything. Since this would lead to a clericalizing of the laity and a laicizing of the priesthood, and this was not what the Council had in mind.”
What does he mean by “clericalizing the laity”? It’s the idea that, for example, the lector, the server at the altar, or the cross-bearer participates more actively than the mother with her child in the back of church. It’s the idea that being more like the priest in the sanctuary somehow makes you participate more fully. But the Pope says no to that idea. No, the “clericalizing of the laity” and the “laicizing of the clergy,” whereby the priest doesn’t do priestly things but sits while lay people are distributing the Eucharist, are not what the Council had in mind, says the Pope.
“The liturgy, like the Church, is intended to be hierarchical and polyphonic,” he says. Not concentric and egalitarian, but hierarchical and polyphonic: “Respecting the different roles assigned by Christ and allowing all the different voices to blend in one great hymn of praise.” I’m not saying there shouldn’t be lectors and acolytes, and so on. There should be. But the point is, it’s not how close you get to the altar that determines how fully you participate. If that were the case, then those who aren’t ministers of some sort at Mass would be second-class participants. That’s not what the Council meant, says the Pope, by full participation.
Then the Pope comes to active participation. “Active participation certainly means that in gesture, word, song, and service all the members of the community take part in an active worship, which is anything but inert or passive. Yet active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness, and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily or following the prayers of the celebrant and the chants in music of the Liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way, profoundly active. In a culture that neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.”
Especially in our noisy world, we need to have silence. Especially in our world where it is hard to pray, we need to have contemplative adoration. In a world that doesn’t respect the liturgical cycles and seasons, we need to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension on a Thursday, not on a Sunday. Precisely because we have to be counter-cultural, we need to say there’s something more important than the workday. It’s our feast day.
Finally, the Holy Father discusses conscious participation. He says, “Conscious participation calls for the entire community to be properly instructed in the mysteries of the liturgy” – the Council’s main instruction – “lest the experience of worship degenerate into a form of ritualism. But it does not mean a constant attempt within the liturgy itself to make the implicit explicit, since this often leads to verbosity and informality which are alien to the Roman Rite and end by trivializing the act of worship.”
Conscious participation, then, is not a multiplication of commentators telling us what’s happening as the Mass goes along; it’s not laid back informality and the trivializing of the liturgy. That’s why I think it may seem like a small thing, but it’s a very bad to begin a liturgy by saying, “Good morning, everyone.” That’s not how you begin a sacred liturgy. You begin a sacred liturgy, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” or better yet, “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.”
The Holy Father continues: “Nor does conscious participation mean the suppression of all subconscious experience, which is vital in a liturgy which thrives on symbols that speak to the subconscious, just as they speak to the conscious. The use of the vernacular has certainly opened up the treasures of the liturgy to all who take part.” There is, then, a positive value to the vernacular. “But,” the Holy Father continues, “this does not mean that the Latin language, and especially, the Chants which are so superbly adapted to the genius of the Roman rite, should be wholly abandoned.”
What, then, does the Pope say about full, conscious, active participation? That it should be hierarchical, that there should be quiet, and worship in awe and reverence, and that there should be a place for Latin and, certainly for Chant in the liturgy. I submit to you that in most parishes across this country that’s not what you habitually find at the ordinary Masses for the people. Thus, although the Pope doesn’t say it in so many words, he is of the opinion that the way Mass is currently celebrated doesn’t conform fully to the mandates of the Council, as intended by the Church for the next century.
We have now two extremes and a moderate position. One extreme position is the kind of informal Mass, all in English, facing the people, with contemporary music, which does not at all correspond with what the Council had in mind. But it is legitimate, it is permitted; it is not wrong. And we have on the other extreme those who have returned, with permission, to the Mass of 1962 and, as others have noted, it is thriving and growing. But it is not what the Council itself specifically had in mind, although it is the Mass of the ages.
Then you have the moderates. Those in the middle. Me and a few others. But I am going to insist on my right as a Catholic and as priest to celebrate the liturgy according to the Council, according to the presently approved liturgical books, to celebrate a form of the Mass that therefore needs no special permission-and which in fact cannot be prohibited-what I’ve called “the Mass of Vatican II.”
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