Roman Catholic Liturgical Renewal Forty-Five Years after Sacrosanctum Concilium: An Assessment
KEITH F. PECKLERS, S.J.
Next December 4 will mark the forty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which the Council bishops approved with an astounding majority: 2,147 in favor and 4 opposed. The Constitution was solemnly approved by Pope Paul VIthe first decree to be promulgated by the Ecumenical Council.
Vatican II was well aware of change in the worldprobably more so than any of the twenty ecumenical councils that preceded it.1 It had emerged within the complex social context of the Cuban missile crisis, a rise in Communism, and military dictatorships in various corners of the globe. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated only twelve days prior to the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium.2 Despite those global crises, however, the Council generally viewed the world positively, and with a certain degree of optimism. The credibility of the Church’s message would necessarily depend on its capacity to reach far beyond the confines of the Catholic ghetto into the marketplace, into non-Christian and, indeed, non-religious spheres.3 It is important that the liturgical reforms be examined within such a framework.
The extraordinary unanimity in the final vote on the Constitution on the Liturgy was the fruit of the fifty-year liturgical movement that had preceded the Council. The movement was successful because it did not grow in isolation but rather in tandem with church renewal promoted by the biblical, patristic, and ecumenical movements in that same historical period. The Pauline doctrine of the church as the Mystical Body of Christ, recovered at Tübingen in the nineteenth century, offered the theological grounding for the movement’s agenda. Speaking of the church as one body implied, and indeed demanded, an intimate link between worship and social concern. It was fitting, then, that the liturgical movement was founded in 1909 at a Catholic labor congress in Belgium, drawing on both the motu proprio of Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini, in which the Pope spoke of the liturgy “as the true and indispensable source for the Christian life,”4 and also on Leo XIII’s social encyclical Rerum novarum. Equally significant is the fact that the movement was founded by a former labor chaplain turned Benedictine monk, Lambert Beauduin, who would later serve as a sort of mentor for the founder of the U.S. liturgical movement, Virgil Michel. The two met in the early 1920s when Beauduin was teaching on the faculty of the Collegio Sant’Anselmo in Rome, and the young German-American Benedictine was a student of philosophy.
The United States liturgical movement exhibited the same sorts of social concerns and bridge-building efforts as its Belgian forebear. In the years of the great economic depression of the 1930s the movement in this country found a natural affinity with the Catholic Worker Movement. Subsequently it forged relationships with Friendship House, Catholic Action, and the Grail Movement. Catholic social activists became promoters of liturgical renewal, while the liturgical journal Orate Fratres regularly defended the Catholic Worker Movement in its editorials. Columnists like H. A. Reinhold challenged racism and a preferential option for the rich in favor of a social transformation, both within the church and beyond, that found its origins in the liturgy.
The Liturgical Reforms of Vatican II
The major theological, historical, and pastoral themes that marked the pre-conciliar liturgical movement came to play a significant role in the shaping of the Constitution on the Liturgy, and then in the implementation of the reforms under the leadership of the international Consilium. Thus, Vatican II was as much the ratification of the efforts of the liturgical movement as it was a point of departure for the liturgical renewal that has led us to the present day. The Constitution on the Liturgy strikes a careful balance between historical and theological foundations, between “sound tradition and legitimate progress.”5 In many respects it was a via media, a compromise document that attempted to appease both conservative and progressive camps.
But Sacrosanctum Concilium was also much more than a via media. In some cases it called for a complete revision of liturgical books, not a superficial editing of what was present in the Tridentine liturgy.6 While the Constitution did not use the term “inculturation,” it does acknowledge the need to allow for “legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples, especially in mission countries” (SC 37). Several paragraphs later the text is even more forthright: “In some places and circumstances, however, an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed” (SC 40). In other words, simply adapting the Roman Rite to particular cultures and circumstances may not be enough.
With the desire to recover “full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy” the Council took up once again discussion on the vernacular question that had first been introduced at the Council of Trent four centuries earlier. Argued in favor of the employment of local languages on the grounds of intelligibility,7 not surprisingly this proved to be one of the most hotly debated topics at Vatican II. Some bishops present at the Council contended that Latin, even if it was not understood by most, gave Catholics a special identity. Shifting to local languages, they argued, would be tantamount to abandoning Catholic orthodoxy. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York was one such bishop. Speaking on the matter during one Council session he cautioned against “an exaggerated historicism and a zeal for novelties.” He suggested that “confusion, astonishment, and injury” could ensue when the faithful “see the unchangeable Church changing her rites.” In fact, the Cardinal was not exactly the best Latinist present. During Council sessions it became so painful when Spellman stood up to address his colleagues in Latin that Vatican staff members were assigned to another microphone with the task of correcting the Cardinal’s Latin so that he could be understood. The Cardinal proposed a compromise: he would accept the vernacular for praying the Breviary (Divine Office), since he himself had difficulty in grasping what he was praying, but the celebration of Mass should remain in Latin.8 Everyone breathed a great sigh of relief when the eighty-four year old Patriarch of Antioch, Maximos IV, addressed the bishops in French, arguing that he was Catholic but not Roman Catholic, and that Latin was not the language of his liturgical tradition.9
Undoubtedly the shift toward vernacular worship represented one of the most profound developments that came out of the Council. It received an extraordinary amount of attention in the secular press – everywhere, from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to Sports Illustrated and Time. Catholic journalists voted the topic of “English in the Liturgy” the top religious story of 1964.10
The principle of collegiality among bishops was clearly operative in the Constitution: liturgical matters pertaining to the local church were best dealt with by episcopal conferences, or even by diocesan bishops themselves (see SC 22). Such liturgical de-centralization was justified by the fact that the diocesan bishop is empowered to shepherd his local church, and not merely to serve as a sort of district representative or middle manager. Thus the diocesan bishop, or an episcopal conference, should have the authority to make appropriate liturgical decisions that pertain to the particular local church in question.11 Nonetheless, an underlying tension around the issue of collegiality held sway during Council sessions, largely between bishops and cardinals of the Roman Curia suspicious of extending authority to episcopal conferences, as opposed to diocesan bishops, whose pastoral experience made them less threatened by such decentralization.
The division between the Roman Curia and diocesan bishops is well demonstrated in the recently published book by Archbishop Piero Marini, a former papal master of ceremonies. In his text, A Challenging Reform,12 Marini argues that resistance to the liturgical changes was largely centered in the Congregation for Divine Worship, which sought to maintain a monopoly on liturgical reform and approval of liturgical texts, based on a bureaucratic desire for control and on a conservative theology that distrusted the reforms of the Council. This tension was made most explicit in a letter signed by all the episcopal members of the French Liturgical Commission on the 7 February 1964 and sent to several dicasteries of the Roman Curia. The letter addressed the subject of liturgical translation as an issue of collegiality:
The Council did not decide that the Assemblies would propose this or that concession for the vernacular to be approved by the Holy See.... Neither did the Council state that the bishops’ conferences would submit translations for approval by the Apostolic See; it agreed that the translations would be approved by the bishops’ conferences, that is all.... People are saying that just two months after its promulgation, that the Constitution is beaten in the breach, that the decisions made by episcopal assemblies may be effectively neutralized by the Roman Curia, that the role of the bishops’ assemblies is being undermined at the very moment of its establishment by the Council, and that the decisions of the Council are being contested even before the Council has finished.13
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