Although in recent years much has been done to spread an accurate knowledge of the teaching of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, we are still a long way from Pope Benedict XVI’s desire that the faithful everywhere, led by their pastors, would rediscover the riches of the sixteen conciliar documents. The Year of Faith became a year of disbelief, humanly speaking, as we witnessed the almost unprecedented abdication of the papal throne and the accession of a new pope whose words and actions have been interpreted and misinterpreted in a dizzying whirl of media attention that has certainly not been characterized by a patient reassessment of the doctrine of the last ecumenical council—much less the doctrine of the twenty ecumenical councils and the fullness of Tradition that preceded it.
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgated of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 4, 1963). If I may borrow a rhetorical strategy from Fr. Fessio, here is what your local liturgical scene would look like if we were all following, to the letter, the teaching of Vatican II:
1. The Eucharist would be perceived by all as a “divine sacrifice,” in which, as in the Church herself, action is subordinated to contemplation (cf. SC 2). The Mass would be understood to be, and would be called, a “holy sacrifice” (SC 7, 47, et passim) and the liturgy in general “a sacred action surpassing all others,” whose purpose is “the sanctification of man and the glorification of God” (SC 10; cf. 112). Indeed, the liturgy would seem like a foretaste on earth of the heavenly liturgy of the new Jerusalem (SC 8).
2. The faithful would be well catechized and well disposed to receive the sacraments fruitfully (SC 11), and would understand the nature of the liturgy and how to participate well in it (SC 14), led by the example and instruction of the clergy (SC 16-19): “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” (SC 48). In this way, they would be unlike the majority of Catholics today, who, according to many surveys, are unaware that the Mass is the re-presentation of the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary or that the Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ—and who also don’t sing very much, in spite of decades of cajoling.
3. The liturgy would look much as Catholic liturgy has looked for centuries, since “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (SC 23).
4. The ordained ministers would be the only ones performing the actions they are supposed to do, while the laity would be involved in those ways that pertain to them: “in liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy” (SC 28; cf. 118).
5. No one, “even if he be a priest,” would ever “add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (SC 22.3).
6. The use of the venerable Latin language would be a frequent and appreciated occurrence, since “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (SC 36.1). The vernacular, of course, will be utilized, but only for certain parts of the liturgy (SC 36.2), and the clergy would remember the Council’s request that “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 which pertain to them” (SC 54).
7. Liturgies would frequently be celebrated in their most noble form, namely, “solemnly in song” (SC 113). Most of the singing would be closely connected with the actual texts of the Mass (cf. SC 112, 113) and the music would be such as “adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” (SC 112). There would be an important role for trained choirs or scholas, which preserve and foster the treasure of sacred music—a treasure of inestimable value (SC 112, 114-115). The people, for their part, would sing acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs—and everyone would observe reverent silence at the proper times (SC 30). None of the texts of the songs would be in any way objectionable from a doctrinal point of view, since they would be drawn directly from Scripture or the liturgy itself (SC 121).
8. Notably, Gregorian chant, being “specially suited to the Roman liturgy,” would be given “pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116). Other forms of sacred music would not thereby be excluded—such as, preeminently, polyphony (ibid.). And of course, the pipe organ would be “held in high esteem” as “the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things” (120). Other instruments would only be used if they “are suitable or can be made suitable for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful” (ibid.). Hence, such instruments as piano, guitar, and drums, which, in the Western world, originated in profane settings and are still associated with genres like jazz, folk, and rock, would never be used for sacred music. None of this is surprising, since the Council Fathers announced their purpose of “keeping to the norms and precepts of ecclesiastical tradition and discipline, and having regard to the purpose of sacred music, which is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful” (SC 112).
9. Communion under both kinds would be rare—e.g., to newly professed religious in the Mass of their religious dedication or to the newly baptized in the Mass that follows their baptism (SC 55). Similarly, concelebration would be relatively rare (SC 57).
10. Sunday Vespers would be a much-loved weekly occurrence, to which large numbers of faithful flock: “Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually” (SC 100).
11. The liturgical year would be of enormous importance in the life of the community, marked by the observance and promotion of each season’s traditions and customs (cf. SC 102-110). Images and relics of the saints would be publicly honored (SC 111). Sacramentals and popular devotions would abound, such as Eucharistic Processions, Adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, the Brown Scapular, and customs connected with saints’ days, because all of these things deepen the spiritual life of the faithful and help dispose them to participate more fully in the sacred liturgy (cf. SC 12-13).
12. The church architecture and furnishings would be “truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world” (SC 122), “turning men’s minds devoutly toward God” (ibid.). There would be nothing that could disturb or distract the faithful, since the bishop would have “carefully remove
Is this what you experience, week in, week out?
Is not the monumental failure to implement much of Sacrosanctum Concilium a scandal?
What became of the great promise of the original liturgical movement? It is hard to escape the impression that Sacrosanctum Concilium was largely a dead letter within a year or two of its promulgation. Should we be happy or sad about that? Indifference seems to be far the greatest reaction. And surely that is unworthy of Catholics.
If those of a more traditional mind have pointed out ambiguous or problematic passages in the conciliar documents (including Sacrosanctum Concilium), they would also be the first to recognize the abundant presence of traditional doctrine—nearly all of which has been systematically ignored or even contradicted in the name of the “spirit of Vatican II.” Pope Benedict’s Christmas Address of December 22, 2005, where he systematically exposed and refuted the false understanding of Vatican II, is one of the milestones of the postconciliar Magisterium and has changed the entire conversation about the Council. There can no longer be a serious discussion of the Council or of the liturgy that does not bring in the expressions the Pope introduced on that occasion—the “hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity” and the “hermeneutic of reform in continuity” (referred to in some later documents simply as the “hermeneutic of continuity”). The conversation has been decisively reoriented. What has yet to be reoriented is the way the Mass is celebrated in most places.
I have been quite surprised throughout my adult life that the places where these points from Vatican II are most being lived, week in and week out, are the chapels of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter and similar communities, where the traditional Roman Rite is exclusively celebrated. This is not to say that the usus antiquior itself embodies every recommendation made (for better or for worse) by the Council Fathers, but rather, that the grand theological vision of Sacrosanctum Concilium—the centrality, dignity, and solemnity of the sacred liturgy, with the devout chanting of its prayers by priest, schola, and people—is being lived out in these communities, and in very few others. That should give us considerable food for thought.
While proponents of the new liturgical movement have reservations about many of the formulations in Sacrosanctum Concilium, it is nevertheless obvious that both those who adhere to the usus antiquior and those who promote a “reform of the reform” model are far more faithful to the explicit teaching of the Council than any of the progressives have been. In the past fifty years, we have seen the rigorous implementation of the suppositious “spirit” of the Council and of its weaker and woolier passages. Now that the Year of Faith has ended—a year full of many surprises—let us continue to pray for and work towards the implementation of the best and clearest of the Council’s teaching.
On December 4, 2013, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican II documents on the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) Dr. Peter Kwaskiewski of Wyoming Catholic College pushed this post on the web, and we reprint it here with his permission.