Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Unfinished Business of Vatican II

TCRnews.com has re-printed an interesting piece from "This Rock" magazine by Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio. Dr. D'Ambrosio brings up a number of the liturgical good fruits of the Council, such as the expansion of the liturgical readings to include many from the Old Testament, etc. I think some of the points he raises are worth charitable and informed debate, though perhaps as a matter of particularities rather than general principles -- for example, how active participation is currently manifested, how the liturgical calendar was revised, or the question of silent prayers by the priest. Overall a good piece which can be a reminder of much that was good.

I quote the section of his article dedicated to the question of the liturgy below. For the entire article see: The Unfinished Business of Vatican II

The Liturgy

If there is anything that Catholics in the pew know about Vatican II, it’s that “Vatican II changed the Mass.” But when asked to enumerate those changes, most mention the disappearance of Latin and the priest facing the people and not much more.

Interestingly enough, neither of these effects were mandated by the actual text of the council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC). But many other things were. First of all, the issue at hand was not only the Mass but the entire liturgy which includes all the public, official prayers of the Church. The Council wanted to renew every aspect of liturgical life–the Mass, all the sacraments, the divine office, the Roman Calendar, and the sacramentals or blessings of the Church as contained in the Roman Ritual. Without in any way wanting to discourage the life of devotional prayer that characterized Catholic piety (rosary, novenas, the stations of the Cross, etc), it wanted to assert the superiority of liturgical prayer over all other activities and once again make the entire liturgy the source and summit of Christian life (SC 7-10). It wanted to restore a greater communal meaning and experience to all liturgical celebrations and encourage the active, conscious participation of the laity in them as well. This active participation, in fact, was the aim to be considered before all else in the revisions the council mandated for all dimensions of the liturgy (SC 34).

The actual revision of liturgical books was a task that went beyond what the council could achieve in its four short years. So a post-conciliar commission was appointed, known as “the Concilium,” that carried out the revisions, with final texts requiring the approval of the Roman Pontiff prior to promulgation.

There is much controversy among loyal Catholics about the translations of texts and the way in which changes were implemented. To address these issues would go beyond the scope of this article. But undoubtedly there have been many wonderful achievements that are often today simply taken for granted. The first to note would be the revised lectionary (SC 35). Prior to the Council, there was very little of the Old Testament ever read in the Mass of the Roman rite. In the new lectionary, in contrast, we have an Old Testament reading in every Sunday Mass which is carefully coordinated with the gospel in such a way that they illumine each other. They, together with the psalm and epistle, are arranged in a three year cycle so that Sunday Mass-goers hear the highlights of the entire Bible over three years. A similar cycle of daily readings helps daily communicants able to review the most salient passages of the entire Bible in two years. The council’s desire that the people of God be exposed to a much richer diet of God’s word in the liturgy has been accomplished.

In a similar way, the liturgy of the hours (SC 83-101) went from a one week to a four week cycle of psalms. The antiphons and readings for the seasons of the year and saints days give all who participate a profound access to the Catholic tradition. The Office of Readings is filled with substantial biblical passages with accompanying selections from the Fathers, Doctors, and councils that dovetail both with the biblical reading and the Feast or liturgical season being celebrated.

A few other solid liturgical achievements should also be briefly noted: 1) the restoration of concelebration (SC 57) and a greater sense of the liturgy as a communal rather than just a personal act; 2) a revision of the calendar that keeps our focus more on the paschal mystery and the seasons than on saints’ memorials; 3) the revised rite of blessings or sacramentals (SC 79) that powerfully brings the liturgy into daily, secular life with rites that in many cases laity can lead; 4) the restoration of the Eucharistic prayer to an audible prayer (it used to be whispered and called “the Secret”) standing at the center of the celebration and the introduction of several Eucharistic prayers in addition to our beloved Roman Canon.

Yet there is much left to do. The principle underlying the revision of the Roman Rite was supposed to be “noble simplicity”(SC 34). Many seem to have interpreted this to mean “casual simplicity.” The Fathers of the Council had no intention to encourage lack of reverence or a lessening of a sense of awe and amazement by making the liturgy more accessible and understandable. Yet it is hard not to notice a ho-hum attitude on the part of many clergy and laity which is discernable through word, posture, dress, and facial expression when participating in the official worship of the Church.

The criterion that was to be highest of all in carrying out liturgical reform was “the full, conscious, and active participation” of the laity in the liturgy (SC 14). In fact, the phrase “active participation” occurs 15 times and can be said to be the refrain of the council’s Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy.

We see much more outward participation now than we did prior to the council–lay lectors, ushers, even extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, offertory processions, musicians, etc. Yet this more extensive outward participation had as its aim encouraging a more intensely inward, spiritual engagement in the liturgy. Speaking of the laity’s participation in the Mass, the Council says: "Offering the immaculate victim, not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, they should learn to offer themselves." (SC 48). The council mandated changes in the sacramentals and the liturgy of the hours in part so that they could be fruitfully and regularly used by the faithful to sanctify every dimension of life and every hour of the day. Yet few laity even know of the existence of the revised “Book of Blessings” or have any idea how to participate in the liturgy of the hours.

This ultimate goal of the council’s liturgical reform–the inner, life-changing participation of the faithful in every aspect of liturgical life-- is still far off on the horizon. The next great frontier to conquer over the next several decades must be the spiritual appropriation of the liturgical teaching of the council. It is one thing to rewrite texts. It is quite another to transform hearts. But if we fail to press on to the level of the mind, heart and daily life, we will have betrayed the true intent of the council fathers and of the Holy Spirit himself. Clearly, evangelization, catechesis, and spiritual renewal of clergy and laity alike will be required to move beyond reform of rites to renewal of lives.

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