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Regarding the constitution on the sacred liturgy Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

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The liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council was grounded in centuries of Church tradition, in the Council of Trent, in the writings of the popes of the 20th Century, and in developing scholarship and practice throughout the world.

The first document promulgated by the Second Vatican Council was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. This document is one of only four constitutions issued by the council. Constitutions are the most authoritative and important documents issued by the council.

The purpose of the council

In his address opening the council, Pope John XXIII declared that there was no need to call a council simply to ratify doctrine that already has been established by other councils. In fact, no Church doctrines were changed by the council.

Instead, he said, “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another” (emphasis added). He charged the council to find ways to spread the message of Jesus Christ to a modern society.

The council continues

Pope John XXIII died on June 3, 1963, before any documents were published. When a pope dies during a council, it is suspended indefinitely until the new pope determines whether or not he should reconvene it. Immediately upon his election as Pope John’s successor, Pope Paul VI declared that the council would continue. The council reconvened in the fall of 1963.

Imagine the difficulty of review, changing, editing, and accepting a document with over 2,000 participants involved in the process. All told, the council Fathers voted on various parts of the Constitution 95 times! On December 4, 1963, in the presence of Pope Paul VI, the final, public, and definitive vote was held and it passed by an astonishing majority of 2,147 to four.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

Like our American Constitution, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy describes a vision — in this case the Church’s vision of the liturgy. It also names general principles of the liturgy as well as specific areas which are in need of reform. It is not involved with the minute details of the liturgy, leaving them to the pope and bishops to address at a later time.

Since it was the first document issued, a brief preamble describes how the council intended to follow the direction given in Pope John’s opening address given 14 months earlier. This is reflected by the Latin title of the document which is taken from the first two words of the document, Sacrosanctum Concilium (translated, “This Sacred Council”). The preamble is followed by seven chapters.

The longest (chapter one) addresses “General Principles for the Restoration and Promotion of the Sacred Liturgy.” Other chapters deal with the Eucharist, the other sacraments and sacramentals, Liturgy of the Hours, the liturgical year, and sacred music, art, and furnishings. A brief appendix declares the council’s openness to some revisions in the Church and civil calendars.

The general principles

The first 14 articles are a magnificently concise exposition of the Church’s rich and multifaceted liturgical theology. It stresses the liturgy as an action of Christ and his Body — head and members; it describes the Real Presence of Christ in the sacraments, the Word, the priest, and the people; it refers to the liturgy as the source and summit of the Church’s activity; and it reminds us that the earthly liturgy is a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy in which we hope to share one day.

Perhaps the most well-known principle is stated in article 14: “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” The Constitution says that this participation is “demanded by the very nature of the liturgy,” and is the “right and duty” of all of the baptized. It also is “the aim to be considered before all else” (all from article 14).

None of this is new! It has been the consistent teaching of the Church from the beginning. This time, encouraged by the worldwide gathering of bishops who so overwhelming supported these principles, and fueled by the enthusiasm of parts of the Mass being prayed in the “mother tongue,” the reform spread like wildfire!

In upcoming articles I hope to discuss the general principles in more detail. Following this, additional issues will be discussed, including the revision of the Mass, the language of the liturgy, and sacred music.

Next article: Meeting Christ in the liturgy.


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