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Taking a closer look at the council Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

By Patrick Gorman

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Mother Church Rejoices! With his typically optimistic words, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. Today, we share that same joy as we commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Council that Pope John frequently referred to as “a new Pentecost.”

The first document issued by the Council was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. It was one of only four Constitutions (which are of the highest rank of Church teachings) issued by the Council. The goals of the entire Council are laid out in the first paragraph: to increase the vigor of people’s Christian life, to adapt those things which may be changed to the needs of our own times, to promote Christian unity, and to help all people come to know Christ in the Church.

In order to do this, the Council Fathers felt it was particularly appropriate to address the Church’s liturgy — our public prayer. The reform, they said, must acknowledge that some elements of the liturgy are divinely instituted and should not be changed. However, they also acknowledged that those elements subject to reform “not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it” (paragraph 21).

The liturgical rites should be reformed so that “they express more clearly the holy things they signify” and people should be able to “understand them with ease” and “take part in the rites fully, and as befits a community” (paragraph 21). These goals would be aided by rites which are “marked by a noble simplicity…short, clear and unencumbered by useless repetitions” and the people should be able to understand them with ease (paragraph 33).

While maintaining a desire to retain the Latin language in the Mass, the Council opened the door to the use of the “Mother Tongue,” leaving the decision regarding the extent of its use to the Bishops in that region (in our case, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). Obviously, most walked through that door and the liturgy is now generally celebrated throughout the world entirely in the local language. Even with this dramatic change, the Council warns against arbitrary changes in the liturgy declaring that no person may change anything in the liturgy on their own (paragraph 22).

Perhaps the most significant reform for most people was the acknowledgment that the participation of the faithful is essential in the celebration of the liturgy. Some form of the word participation shows up six times in the first 20 paragraphs alone! This participation of the people is “called for by the very nature of the liturgy.” It is the “right and duty” of all of the baptized and it is “the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” (paragraph 14).

The Second Vatican Council is most often referred to with regard to the liturgy. Unfortunately, the liturgy often serves as the battleground as people of goodwill tenaciously hold on to their own preferences while dismissing the desires of others. One of the great lessons of the Second Vatican Council is one of examining the entire mystery of the Church, which is far beyond what one individual can imagine. The Church is both human and divine. The liturgy is both source and summit of the Christian life. The Mass is both sacrifice and meal. When we focus too much on only part of the mystery, we lose our balance. In so doing, we limit the Mystery of Faith into something of our own making rather than allowing ourselves to be converted by the fullness of that mystery.

Throughout the Year of Faith, I hope to write a number of columns for the Catholic Herald examining what the Second Vatican Council said about the liturgy and exploring how that has both been fulfilled and what still needs to be done.

Ultimately we have to remember what a colleague once told me: “The Second Vatican Council wasn’t about the changing of liturgical books, but the changing of human hearts.”

The most important thing we can learn from the Year of Faith, from the liturgy, and from the Lord himself is that as Christians we are called to continual conversion so that we may become ever more like the one whose name we bear — Jesus Christ.


Patrick Gorman is the director of the Office of Worship of the Diocese of Madison.