This article by Dom Alcuin Reid appeared in yesterday’s edition of The Catholic Herald, and as always, we are pleased to present it on NLM, with the kind permission of the author and editors.
There is no doubt that Sacrosanctum Concilium, solemnly promulgated by Paul VI on December 4 1963 after receiving a vote of 2,147 in favour and four against from the world’s bishops gained such overwhelming support in the light of liturgical renewal begun in previous decades. Similarly, it is clear that it paved the way for a future that was unforeseen. For while the Constitution articulated sound theological and liturgical principles, in the words of Aidan Nichols OP it “carried within it, encased in the innocuous language of pastoral welfare, some seeds of its own destruction”.
“The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows,” we are taught. Nothing could be truer. Thus the Council stated that the Church “earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation [participatio actuosa] in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy”. In order to achieve this the Council called for pastors to be “thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy,” and to impart this spirit to their people through widespread liturgical formation.
The Constitution then articulated subsidiary principles and policies judged apposite for the implementation of its aims – a programme of moderate reform. “Sound tradition” was to be retained while remaining “open to legitimate progress”. Hence, while “the Latin language is to be preserved” in the liturgy, the extension of the use of the vernacular was allowed. “Legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands” were approved, “provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved.” The treasury “of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” and Gregorian chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services,” while “other kinds of sacred music” and peoples’ “own musical traditions” may be given a suitable place, etc.
These are balanced – indeed, innocuous – proposals for reform. Unfortunately, in their official and unofficial implementation the nuances that enabled the bishops so enthusiastically to adopt at the document at the Council were ignored. It can be said that when the revised Mass and other liturgical rites appeared – on paper, in their various translations and in their local implementation – they were a long way from what was envisaged by the bishops in 1963, even if authoritatively promulgated. So much so that on the Constitution’s 25th anniversary John Paul II observed that Sacrosanctum Concilium “has known the rigours of winter”. In its 40th year he spoke of “shadows” and “dark clouds of unacceptable ... practice” in respect of the celebration of the Eucharist. Benedict XVI judged it necessary to write about “the need for a hermeneutic of continuity...with regard to the correct interpretation of the liturgical development which followed the Second Vatican Council” in 2007.
That is not to deny that many have found in the reformed liturgy the source and summit of their Christian life: the new rites are valid. Nor is it to deny that aspects of these rites – such as the wider reading of the Word of God – are in accordance with the Council’s wishes and are advantageous. It is also happily true that the expectation of conscious participation in the liturgy – old or new – is now widespread.
It is, however, to assert that these past 50 years have not been the universal liturgical or ecclesial springtime for which many hoped. The ongoing decline in numbers attending Mass may have many causes, but the modern liturgy is not to the forefront in arresting it. It is also to submit that in marking the 50th anniversary of the Constitution an examination of conscience is in order. Is the liturgical formation of clergy and laity what the Council mandated? Do we participate in the liturgy as Sacrosanctum Concilium intended by participatio actuosa? Has sound tradition in fact been retained (so that we too can be nourished from its riches)? Are the contingent policies of 50 years ago helpful today? Out of fidelity to the Council itself might it not be time to take seriously the question of a “reform of the reform,” as Cardinal Ratzinger argued?
For the fundamental principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium interpreted in a hermeneutic of continuity – and not according to an indeterminate and subjective “spirit of the Council” – do provide authentic pathways for liturgical and ecclesial renewal. They are, as Crichton observed, grounded in the liturgical movement that sprang up in the early 20th century under the impetus of Pius X and with roots in the previous decades and centuries. They are fundamental also for the new liturgical movement of the 21st century – a movement which is open to legitimate progress while taking care that sound tradition be retained.
Dom Alcuin Reid is a monk of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France, and was the principal organiser of Sacra Liturgia 2013, an international conference held in Rome in June.