Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

On the 40th Anniversary of the Constitution 'Sacrosanctum Concilium' on the Sacred Liturgy

by Pope Saint John Paul II

Descriptive Title

Apostolic Letter on Sacred Liturgy


Pope John Paul II calls for new study of the Catholic liturgy in this apostolic letter. It was released on the 40th anniversary of the Vatican II constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. The Pope observes that this conciliar document contains the fundamental instructions on which authentic liturgical renewal should be based.

Publisher & Date

Vatican, December 5, 2003

1. "The spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.' And let him who hears say, 'Come.' And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price" (Revelation 22:17). These words of the Book of Revelation resound in my mind while I recall that some forty years ago, exactly on December 4, 1963, my venerable predecessor, Pope Paul VI, promulgated the Constitution "Sacrosanctum Concilium" on the Sacred Liturgy. What else, in fact, is the Liturgy if not the unisonous voice of the Holy Spirit and of the Bride, the Holy Church, who cry to the Lord Jesus: "Come"? What else is the Liturgy if not that pure and perennial source of "living water" to which any one who is thirsty can freely obtain the gift of God (cf. John 4:10)?

Indeed, in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council, first fruit of that "great grace of which the Church has benefited in the 20th century,"1 the Holy Spirit has spoken to the Church, not ceasing to guide the disciples of the Lord "to the whole truth" (John 16:13). The celebration of the fortieth anniversary of that event is a happy occasion to rediscover the profound themes of the liturgical renewal desired by the Council Fathers, to assess its reception and to look toward the future.

A Glance at the Conciliar Constitution

2. With the passing of time, in the light of the fruits that it has brought, one sees ever more clearly the importance of the "Sacrosanctum Concilium." In it are luminously delineated the principles that are the foundation of the liturgical praxis of the Church, and they inspire healthy renewal in the course of time.2 The Liturgy was placed by the conciliar Fathers in the context of the history of salvation, whose end is human redemption and the perfect glorification of God. The redemption has its prelude in the wonderful divine gesture of the Old Testament and was brought to fulfillment by Christ the Lord, especially through the paschal mystery of his blessed passion, death, resurrection and glorious ascension.3 Yet it has need not only of being proclaimed but lived, and it is this that happens "through the Sacrifice and the Sacraments, on which the whole of liturgical life is based."4 Christ renders himself present in a special way in liturgical actions, associating the Church to himself. Every liturgical celebration is, therefore, the work of Christ the Priest and of his Mystical Body, "integral public worship,"5 in which one participates, as a foretaste of the Liturgy of the heavenly Jerusalem.6 Because of this, "the Liturgy is the summit toward which the action of the Church tends and, at the same time, the source from which all its virtue emanates."7

3. The liturgical perspective of the Council is not limited to the intra-ecclesial ambit, but open to the horizon of the whole of humanity. In fact, in his praise of the Father, Christ unites in himself the whole community of men, and he does so in a singular way through the praying mission of the "Church, which praises the Lord incessantly and intercedes for the salvation of the whole world, not only with the celebration of the Eucharist, but also in other ways, especially with the recitation of the Divine Office."8

From the perspective of "Sacrosanctum Concilium," the liturgical life of the Church assumes a cosmic and universal breadth, marking in a profound way man's time and space. In this perspective one can also understand the renewed attention that the Constitution gives to the Liturgical Year, the way through which the Church recalls the paschal mystery of Christ and relives it.9

If the Liturgy is all this, with reason the Council affirms that every liturgical action "is a sacred action par excellence, and no other action of the Church equals it efficacy to quite the same degree."10 At the same time, the Council recognizes that "the sacred Liturgy does not exhaust all the action of the Church."11 In fact, on one hand, the Liturgy implies the proclamation of the Gospel, and on the other calls for Christian witness in history. The mystery proposed in preaching and catechesis, received in faith and celebrated in the Liturgy, should mold the whole life of believers, who are called to be its heralds in the world.12

4. In regard to the diverse realities implied in the liturgical celebration, the Constitution pays special attention to the importance of "musica sacra." The Council exalts it indicating as its end "the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful."13 In fact, sacred music is a privileged means to facilitate an active participation of the faithful in the sacred action, as already desired by my venerable predecessor St. Pius X in the motu proprio "Tra le sollecitudini," of which this year is the centenary. Precisely this anniversary has recently given me the occasion to confirm that, according to the directives of "Sacrosanctum Concilium,"14 music must conserve and increase its role in liturgical celebrations, taking account of the character itself of the Liturgy as well as of the sensibility of our time and of the musical traditions of the different regions of the world.

5. Another fertile topic of development, addressed by the conciliar Constitution, is that concerning sacred art. The Council gives clear indications that worship will be able to shine by the decorum and beauty of liturgical art, and that it will continue to have a prominent place in our days. To this end, it will be opportune to provide initiatives for the formation of the various skilled workers and artists, called to be occupied in the construction and the embellishment of the buildings assigned to the Liturgy.15 At the base of such orientations emerges a view of art and, in particular, of sacred art, which places it in relation to "the infinite divine beauty, which must be expressed in some way by the works of man."16

From Renewal to Greater Deepening

6. With forty years of hindsight, it is opportune to assess progress to date. Already on other occasions, I have suggested a type of examination of conscience in regard to the reception of the Second Vatican Council.17 Such an examination cannot disregard the liturgical-sacramental life. "Is the Liturgy lived as 'source and summit' of ecclesial life, according to the teaching of 'Sacrosanctum Concilium'?"18 Has the rediscovery of the value of the Word of God, which the liturgical reform has brought about, found a positive affirmation in our celebrations? To what degree has the Liturgy entered the concrete living of the faithful and to what degree does it reflect the rhythm of the individual communities? Is it understood as a means of holiness, as an inner force of apostolic dynamism and ecclesial mission?

7. The conciliar renewal of the Liturgy has its most evident expression in the publication of the liturgical books. After an initial period in which there was a gradual insertion of renewed texts within liturgical celebrations, it became necessary to go more profoundly into the riches and potential that they represent. Such profundity must exercise the principle of total fidelity to Sacred Scripture and Tradition, authoritatively interpreted in particular by the Second Vatican Council, whose teachings were confirmed and developed in the subsequent Magisterium. Such fidelity obliges above all those who, with episcopal office, have "the duty to present the worship of the Christian religion to the Divine Majesty and to regulate it according to the precepts of the Lord and the laws of the Church"19; it involves at the same time the whole ecclesial community "according to the diversity of states, offices and actual participation."20

In this perspective it is more necessary than ever to promote the liturgical life within our communities, through an adequate formation of the ministers and of all the faithful, in view of that full, conscious and active participation in the liturgical celebrations envisioned by the Council.21

8. What is necessary, therefore is a liturgical pastoral program carried out in complete fidelity to the new orders. Through them there has been a renewed interest in the Word of God according to the orientation of the Council which called for a "more abundant, more varied, and better selected readings of Sacred Scripture."22 The new lectionaries, for example, offer an ample choice of Scriptural passages, which constitute an inexhaustible source from which the People of God can draw. Indeed, we cannot forget that "in listening to the word of God, the Church is built and grows; nor can we forget the wonderful deeds that God has performed in the history of salvation, by mystical truths reflected in the signs of liturgical celebration."23 Within the celebration, the Word of God expresses the fullness of its meaning, stimulating Christian life in a continual renewal, because "that which is heard in the liturgical action is later acted in life."24

9. A special remembrance is made of the Resurrection of Christ on Sunday, the day of the Lord. The Resurrection is at the center of liturgical life, as "the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year."25 Undoubtedly notable efforts have been made in pastoral care, so that the value of Sunday is rediscovered. However, it is important to stress this point, as "the spiritual and pastoral riches of Sunday, as it has been handed on to us by tradition, are truly great. When its significance and implications are understood in their entirety, Sunday in a way becomes a synthesis of the Christian life and a condition for living it well."26

10. The spiritual life of the faithful is nourished by the celebration of the liturgy. It is from the Liturgy that the principle that I enunciated in the Apostolic Letter "Novo millennio ineunte" must be lived: "training in holiness calls for a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer."27 "Sacrosanctum Concilium" interprets this urgency prophetically, stimulating the Christian community to intensify the life of prayer not only through the Liturgy, but also through "pious exercises," so long as they are in harmony with the Liturgy, almost as if they derived from it and lead to it.28 The pastoral experience of these decades has consolidated this intuition. In this connection, precious was the contribution given by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments with the Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy.29 Then, I myself with the Apostolic Letter "Rosarium Virginis Mariae"30 and with the institution of the Year of the Rosary wished to make explicit the contemplative riches of this traditional prayer, which has been long established in the People of God, and I recommended its rediscovery as a privileged way of contemplation of the face of Christ in the school of Mary.


11. Looking at the future, there are several challenges to which the Liturgy must respond. In the course of these forty years, society has undergone profound changes, some of which put the ecclesial commitment strongly to the test. We are faced with a world in which the signs of the Gospel are being attenuated, including in regions of long Christian tradition. It is the time of new evangelization. The Liturgy is directly addressed by such a challenge.

At first glance, it seems that the liturgy is marginalized in a society that is amply secularized. However, it is a fact that, despite the secularization, in our time a renewed need of spirituality re-emerges, in so many forms. How can one not see in this a proof of the fact that in the inner being of man it is not possible to cancel the thirst for God? There are questions that find an answer only in a personal contact with Christ. Only in intimacy with him every life acquires meaning, and can arrive at experiencing the joy that made Peter say on the mountain of the Transfiguration: "Master, it is well that we are here" (Luke 9:33 par).

12. Given this longing for the encounter with God, the Liturgy provides the most profound and effective response. It does so especially in the Eucharist, in which it is given to us to be united to the sacrifice of Christ and to be nourished from his Body and his Blood. It is necessary, nevertheless, that the Pastors do so in a way that the meaning of the mystery penetrates in consciences, rediscovering and practicing the "mystagogic" art, so dear to the Fathers of the Church.31 It is their task, in particular, to promote worthy celebrations, giving due attention to the different categories of people: children, youth, adults, the elderly and the disabled. All must feel welcome in our assemblies, so as to be able to breathe the atmosphere of the first believing community: "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to prayers" (Acts 2:42).

13. An aspect that must be cultivated with greater commitment within our communities is the experience of silence. We have need of this "to receive in hearts the full resonance of the voice of the Holy Spirit, and to unite more closely personal prayer with the Word of God and with the public voice of the Church."32 In a society that lives ever more frenetically, bewildered by rumors and distracted in the ephemeral, it is vital to rediscover the value of silence. It is no accident that beyond Christian worship, meditation practices are spreading that give importance to recollection. Why not undertake, with pedagogical audacity, a specific education in silence within the confines of the Christian experience? Before our eyes must be the example of Jesus, who "rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed" (Mark 1:35). The Liturgy, among its different moments and signs, cannot neglect that of silence.

14. The liturgical pastoral program, through the introduction to the various celebrations, must instill the taste for prayer. It will do so, surely, taking into account the capacity of the individual believers, in their diverse conditions of age and education; but it will do so seeking not to be satisfied with the "minimal." The pedagogy of the Church must be able to "dare." It is important to introduce the faithful to the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours that, "because it is the public prayer of the Church, is a source of piety, and nourishment for personal prayer."33 It is not an individual or private action "but belongs to the whole Body of the Church. [...] If therefore the faithful are convoked for the Liturgy of the Hours and if they gather together, uniting their hearts and their voices, they manifest the Church that celebrates the mystery of Christ."34 This privileged attention to liturgical prayer is not placed in tension with personal prayer, rather it assumes and requires it,35 and combines it well with other forms of community prayer, especially if recognized and recommended by the ecclesial Authority.36

15. The duty of Pastors is indispensable, in education in prayer and in particular in the promotion of the liturgical life. It implies a duty of discernment and guidance. These is not perceived as a principle of rigidity, as opposed to the need of the Christian spirit to abandon itself to the action of the Spirit of God, who intercedes in us and "for us with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26). Rather, through the guidance of Pastors, a principle of "guarantee" is realized, foreseen in the design of God for the Church, being governed by the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The liturgical renewal realized in these decades has demonstrated how it is possible to combine a norm that ensures the Liturgy its identity and its decorum, with room for creativity and adaptation, which render it close to the expressive needs of the various regions, situations and cultures. By not respecting the liturgical norm, one arrives at times at even serious abuses that put in shadow the truth of the mystery and create disturbance and tensions in the People of God.37 Such abuses have nothing to do with the authentic spirit of the Council and are to be corrected by Pastors with an attitude of prudent firmness.


16. In the life of the Church, the promulgation of the liturgical Constitution has marked a stage of fundamental importance for the promotion and the development of the Liturgy. The Church that, animated by the breath of the Spirit, lives its mission of "sacrament, that is sign and instrument of the intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race,"38 finds in the Liturgy the highest expression of its mystery and reality.

In the Lord Jesus and in his Spirit the whole of Christian life becomes a "living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God," authentic "spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1). Great, indeed, is the mystery that is realized in the Liturgy. It opens to earth a glimpse of Heaven and the community of believers is raised, in harmony with the singing of the heavenly Jerusalem, the perennial hymn of praise: "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua. Hosanna in excelsis!"

A "liturgical spirituality" is developing at this beginning of the millennium, which makes one become aware of Christ as first "liturgist," who does not cease to act in the Church and in the world in the strength of the paschal mystery continually celebrated, and associates the Church in himself, in praise of the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

With this wish I impart to all my Blessing from the depth of my heart.

From the Vatican, 4 December of the year 2003, twenty-sixth of Pontificate.



1 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter "Novo Millennio Ineunte," (6 January 2001), 57: AAS 93 (2001), 308; cf. Apostolic Letter "Vicesimus Quintus" (4 December 1988), 1: AAS 81 (1989), 897.

2 Cf. n. 3.

3 Cf. n. 5.

4 N. 6.

5 N 7.

6 Cf. n. 8.

7 N. 10.

8 N. 83.

9 Cf. n. 5.

10 N. 7.

11 N. 9.

12 Cf. n. 10.

13 N. 112.

14 Cf. n. 6.

15 Cf. n. 127.

16 N. 122.

17 Cf. Apostolic Letter "Tertio Millennio Adveniente" (10 November 1994), 36: AAS 87 (1995), 28.

18 Ibid.

19 Conc. Ecum. Vat. II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church "Lumen Gentium," 26.

20 Conc. Ecum. Vat. II, Constitution on Sacred Liturgy "Sacrosanctum Concilium," 26.

21 Cf. n. 14; John Paul II, Apostolic Letter "Vicesimus Quintus" (4 December 1988), 15: AAS 81 (1989), 911-912.

22 N. 35.

23 "Ordo Lectionum Missae," 7.

24 Ibid., 6.

25 Conc. Ecum. Vat. II, Constitution on Sacred Liturgy "Sacrosanctum Concilium," 106; cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter "Vicesimus Quintus" (4 December 1988), 22: AAS 81 (1989), 917.

26 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter "Dies Domini" (31 May 1998), 81: AAS 90 (1998), 763.

27 N. 32: AAS 93 (2001), 288.

28 Cf. n. 13.

29 Vatican City, 2002.

30 Cf. AAS 95 (2003), 5-36.

31 Cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter "Vicesimus Quintus" (4 December 1988), 21: AAS 81 (1989), 917.

32 "Institutio Generalis Liturgiae Horarum," 213.

33 Conc. Ecum. Vat. II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy "Sacrosanctum Concilium," 90.

34 "Institutio Generalis Liturgiae Horarum," 20.22.

35 Cf. Conc. Ecum. Vat. II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy "Sacrosanctum Concilium," 12.

36 Cf. ibid., 13.

37 John Paul II, Lett. enc. "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" (17 April 2003), 52: AAS 95 (2003), 468; Apostolic Letter "Vicesimus Quintus" (4 December 1988), 13: AAS 81 (1989), 910-911.

38 Conc. Ecum. Vat. II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church "Lumen Gentium," 1.

Translated by ZENIT

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