From Trent to Vatican II — ongoing reform Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Nov. 01, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

By Patrick Gorman

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While the liturgical reforms promulgated by the Second Vatican Council were unexpected by many people, the seeds of the reform actually were planted centuries earlier at the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The Council of Trent was a monumental moment for the Church. Held in the decades following the Reformation, the council sought to define, unite, and codify many of the Church’s dogmas and practices. In terms of the liturgy, the most significant task that they accomplished was directing the pope to standardize and revise the books for the celebration of Mass.

Pope (St.) Pius V accomplished his charge by issuing the first Roman Missal. The technological advance of the printing press (invented around 1440) allowed for wider publication and quicker distribution of the Missal. Scholars and theologians studied the resources available in the Vatican Library and prepared the new Missal which, in Pope Pius’ words, “restored the Missal itself to the original form and rite of the holy Fathers” (from Quo Primum, the papal bull promulgating the new Missal in 1570).

‘To restore all things in Christ’

Over time, various popes made slight changes to the Missal, but it remained more or less intact until the Twentieth Century. Pope (St.) Pius X was elected in 1903 and chose the motto “To restore all things in Christ.” He had a particular interest in the liturgy and sacred music and was aware of the “Liturgical Movement” which was growing in Europe and North America throughout the second half of the Nineteenth Century.

He is best known for his encouragement of the frequent reception of Holy Communion. Through his leadership the centuries-old practice of the faithful rarely receiving Communion at Mass was reversed. He also lowered the age that children could receive Holy Communion from 14 to seven years old.

Only three months after becoming pope, St. Pius X issued an instruction on sacred music called Tra le sollicitudine (titles from Church documents normally come from the first few words of the document itself; in this case, “Among the cares”). This is an important document that affects Church music to our own day.

In the preamble he wrote of the Mass “in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.” These sentiments became seeds for the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reform which emphasized the participation of the faithful (see Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, nos. 10, 11 and 14).

Reforming in continuity

A few decades later Pope Pius XII cautiously continued the liturgical reforms. While space prohibits enumerating all of his reforms in this article, the most influential were the reforms to the liturgies of Holy Week which he instituted in 1955. He also permitted wider use of the local language in liturgies that were not a Mass. These reforms had a significant impact on the discussion of liturgy at the Second Vatican Council

Pope Benedict XVI often has spoken of two models of interpretation of the Second Vatican Council — one of misunderstanding, which he refers to as “rupture” in which it appears that the Church abandoned traditional ways and started anew. The other model is one of “continuity,” in which Vatican II built on the Tradition of the Church as it underwent reforms and proclaimed the faith to modern people with a fresh voice.

Clearly, the Second Vatican Council was of the latter model. The entire Twentieth Century set the stage for the council and, in a more universal view, the Church had been heading towards this council for two millennia. Pope John XXIII made this clear in his speech which opened the Second Vatican Council:

“Illuminated by the light of this Council, the Church — we confidently trust — will become greater in spiritual riches and gaining the strength of new energies therefrom, she will look to the future without fear. In fact, by bringing herself up to date where required, and by the wise organization of mutual co-operation, the Church will make men, families, and peoples really turn their minds to heavenly things.”

The next article in this series by Gorman will be The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. For the first article in the series, visit

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