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Vatican II on the Liturgy: Overview & General Norms

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 10, 2010

Having briefly introduced the concerns of the Council Fathers, let’s take a closer look at the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium, leading up to the General Norms which the Council promulgated to guide liturgical reform. Following an introduction which attempts to balance the need for revision with fidelity to tradition, the Constitution on the Liturgy is divided into seven chapters:

  1. General Principles for the Restoration and Promotion of the Sacred Liturgy;
  2. The Most Sacred Mystery of the Eucharist;
  3. The Other Sacraments and the Sacramentals;
  4. The Divine Office;
  5. The Liturgical Year;
  6. Sacred Music;
  7. Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings.

There is also an Appendix on the Revision of the Calendar. These divisions show the scope of the document. Perhaps the most important thing to be said from our vantage point is that while what we have now in the areas of chapters 3, 4 and 5 bears a reasonably close resemblance to what the Council called for, things are quite otherwise with chapters 1, 2, 6 and 7. Thus, if we were to attempt to guess what Vatican II said from what we see in these areas today, we will be nothing short of astonished when we read the actual text of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

This astonishment will be nowhere more evident than in rereading the first sub-section of the very first chapter, on “The Nature of the Sacred Liturgy and Its Importance in the Church’s Life”. Consider:

Every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree. (7)
In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle. (8)
The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows. (10)
From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, grace is poured forth upon us as from a fountain, and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God to which all other activities of the Church are directed, as toward their end, are achieved with maximum effectiveness. (10)

Without arguing here for any particular change or expressing a preference for any particular rite, I believe most deeply committed Catholics now would agree that the community-oriented liturgical celebrations so common today, which in many dioceses and parishes seem more concerned with a light-hearted celebration of the congregation itself than with glorifying the most high God, do not derive their fundamental inspiration from words such as these. In any case, this seems to be the judgment of Pope Benedict XVI.

There are in fact five sub-sections in this all-important first chapter (General Principles). The first sub-section calls for a clear focus on the Paschal Mystery at the heart of the Church’s life and liturgy, with a concentration on Christ’s presence in the minister, the Word, and—above all—the Eucharist. This is so important that “pastors of souls must, therefore, realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the laws governing valid and lawful celebration. It is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it” (11). The second sub-section calls for appropriate training in seminaries and other programs so that all priests and future priests will be well-equipped to promote this sort of active participation. Sub-sections four and five deal briefly with the promotion of liturgical life in the diocese and parish and with the development of commissions on the liturgy to foster true liturgical renewal at the level of the conference, the diocese and the parish. Some will cringe at this, but only because—in the event—such commissions were mostly hijacked by those with ideas of their own.

The third sub-section, entitled “The Reform of the Sacred Liturgy”, sets forth the basic path of restoration and renewal for the liturgy which the Council proposed:

The liturgy is made up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These latter not only may be changed 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 less suitable. In this restoration both texts and rites should be drawn up so as to express more clearly the holy things which they signify. (21)

The Council declared in its first General Norm that the “regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See, and, as laws may determine, on the bishop” (a principle frequently ignored with results we have all witnessed). The Fathers also insisted on careful theological, historical and pastoral study of each part of the liturgy to be revised. One may also question the pastoral wisdom which informed these theological and historical studies in the years to follow.

But in this same section of General Norms there was one principle which has, in fact, been successfully implemented:

Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from it that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung. It is from the scriptures that the prayers, collects, and hymns draw their inspiration and their force, and that actions and signs derive their meaning. Hence in order to achieve the restoration, progress, and adaptation of the sacred liturgy it is essential to promote that sweet and living love for sacred scripture to which the venerable tradition of Eastern and Western rites gives testimony. (24)

Here, apart from continuing quarrels over the translation of Scripture, it is universally acknowledged (indeed, it really cannot be denied) that the use of Scripture in the Novus Ordo is substantially greater and more thorough than before. The faithful are exposed to significantly more of the Bible at Mass over the two and three year cycles of readings. In this one area, at least, the intentions of the Council have been fulfilled.


Previous in series: Vatican II on the Liturgy: Introduction
Next in series: Vatican II on the Liturgy: Particular Norms & the Eucharist

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 13, 2010 2:26 PM ET USA

    The documents of ecumenical councils are not proposed to the Church as matters for debate. For these summaries of the documents of Vatican II, we are not accepting Sound Off! posts which criticize what the Council said. Any magisterial document could be criticized for not saying what someone wished; this is hardly the point. However, comments on any deficiencies in my summaries are most welcome here, while strategies for how to proceed in the future are best discussed later.

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