Mar 15, 2004

The Foundations of Liturgical Reform

Online Edition

– Vol. X, No. 1: March 2004


Sacrosanctum Concilium Anniversary Address

The Foundations of Liturgical Reform

by Francis Cardinal George

Editor’s note: As we reported in the


Adoremus Bulletin

, in observance of the anniversary of

Sacrosanctum Concilium

, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, a day-long conference sponsored by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW) was held at the Vatican on December 4, 2003.

The conference, which featured several speakers, opened with the reading of the new Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, which begins with the phrase from the Book of Revelation,

"The Spirit and the Bride"

. The Letter, published in AB

February 2004

, calls for an "examination of conscience" concerning the reception of

Sacrosanctum Concilium

. The Holy Father asks bishops and liturgists to build on the "riches" of the reform while also pruning "serious abuses" with "prudent firmness".

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago gave the initial address at the conference. Cardinal George, who heads the US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, is a member of the CDW and is US representative to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, which provides English-language liturgical texts. His address, which focuses on the philosophical background and foundation of the post-conciliar liturgical reform, is reprinted here with the cardinal’s kind permission.



The fortieth anniversary of the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium has prompted a flurry of meetings, discussions and symposia. It remains a document of keen interest to us because of the central and crucial role of the Liturgy in the life of the Church. The subject is broad and vast, however, and difficult to summarize in a forty-minute presentation. Other bishops, extremely competent in the field of Liturgy, have already treated this topic: I am thinking in particular of Bishop Tena Garriga, auxiliary of Barcelona, who gave a masterful address on Sacrosanctum Concilium in this very aula in the year 2000, in the context of the Jubilee Year celebrations.1 Quite recently, Cardinal [Angelo] Sodano, in a letter to the participants of the Italian National Liturgy Week (August 25-29, 2003) also gave an overview of Sacrosanctum Concilium, listing a number of areas of research that remain to be explored, namely, the relationship between:

1. creativity and fidelity

2. spiritual worship and life

3. catechesis and the celebration of the Mystery

4. presiding at the Liturgy and the role of the congregation

5. seminary formation and the continuing formation of priests.2

There remains yet another aspect of the liturgical reform that requires further study, the anthropological aspect. For this presentation, I think it might be fruitful to sketch out some of the main questions that present themselves in the philosophical and anthropological areas of the liturgical reform. It is my hope that the questions thus formulated might spark investigations that are more scholarly and in-depth in an area that requires inter-disciplinary collaboration. This approach also brings to the fore many pastoral considerations that have arisen from liturgical change.

My own belief is that liturgical renewal after the Council was treated as a program or movement for change, without enough thought being given to what happens in any community when its symbol system is disrupted. The liturgical calendar, for example is the place where time and eternity meet, when our experience or duration transcends itself through contact with the Creator of time and history. To change the liturgical calendar means to change our way of relating to God. Since time also conditions thinking for embodied spirits, whose reasoning entails a return to a phantasm, the doctrines of the Church’s faith, the thinking of the Church, will also be considered differently when liturgical time is changed. Pastorally, every bishop has been asked: "Since we no longer recognize certain saints on the Church’s calendar, why can’t the Church correct her teaching on sexual morality, on women’s ordination and on other difficult doctrines?"

A change in space, in architecture and in the placement of altars and other liturgical furnishings, has similar effect, as has a change in language, which carries and conditions our thinking and evaluating. A change in Liturgy changes the context of the Church’s life. Recently, introducing the changes mandated by the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal (third typical edition), I remarked that the changes were "minor". A lay woman of the Archdiocese of Chicago corrected me: "Cardinal, there are no minor changes in Liturgy". She is correct.

I would like to raise the question here in order to clarify the presuppositions of liturgical change and so to advance the liturgical renewal with self-conscious attention to the pastoral context as well as to liturgical theory. The questions are raised not to bring the renewal itself into question but to strengthen its call to the Church and its effects in the Church. This presentation will be guided by two questions: 1) Who is the subject of the Liturgy? and 2) How does that subject participate in the Liturgy? I will look at the subject from three more or less different angles: theological, philosophical and anthropological, in each case asking what has yet to be explored.

The subject of the Liturgy considered from a theological point of view

A. Who is the subject of the Liturgy?

Sacrosanctum Concilium 7, continuing in the tradition of Mediator Dei [Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical on the Liturgy], defines the Liturgy as the exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. Hence it is the whole Christ, Head and members who are the subject of the Liturgy. The text goes on to say that the earthly Liturgy is a participation in the heavenly one (SC 8); this affirmation expands the subject of the Liturgy to include the heavenly host of angels and all the saints. Since the first section of Sacrosanctum Concilium (the nature of the Liturgy and its significance in the life of the Church) is deliberately brief, these very important points are not further developed. Aspects of the theology of the Liturgy were taken up again in Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum, and the area of liturgical theology has been the subject of serious reflection in the last forty years.

The greatest magisterial development of this issue, however, can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This surely fits under the category of development of doctrine, because the Catechism’s treatment of the subject of the Liturgy takes a significant step forward that is at once disarmingly simple and wonderfully profound. The Liturgy is Opus Trinitatis, the work of the Holy Trinity (CCC 1077, title).3

While Sacrosanctum Concilium focuses on the Christological aspect of the Liturgy, the new Catechism meditates at length on the role of the Father and of the Holy Spirit as well. In fact, it is the relatively lengthy section on the Holy Spirit (CCC 1091-1109) which makes a remarkable contribution to a new Trinitarian understanding of the Liturgy. While the Catechism cites Sacrosanctum Concilium 8 verbatim on the heavenly Liturgy (CCC 1090), it also goes a step further by devoting nine paragraphs (CCC 1136-1144) to the question "Who celebrates the Liturgy?"

First of all there are the celebrants of the heavenly Liturgy: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the persons of the Trinity are the primary actors in the Liturgy. Then come the heavenly powers, all creation, biblical saints, the martyrs, the all-holy Mother of God and the great multitude of the elect. The earthly Liturgy exists not by itself, but in relation to the heavenly Liturgy. The celebrants of the sacramental Liturgy include the entire Body of Christ extending through time and space, then the local celebrating assembly, ordered hierarchically in such a way that each person has his proper role.

Clarity about the theological subject of the Liturgy is crucial. In the post-conciliar period, a limited understanding of the "People of God" has often led to a limited, horizontal concept of the subject of the Liturgy. Hence it is extremely important that this wonderfully complete vision of the Liturgy, earthly united to heavenly, become better known and then internalized and lived.

B. Theologically, how does the earthly Liturgy participate in the heavenly Liturgy?

The question of participation is perhaps the overriding preoccupation of Sacrosanctum Concilium. The text refers over and over again to a participation which is sciens, actuosa, fructuosa, conscia, plena, pia, facilis, interna, externa, and so on. But how does that participation take place?4

Here the conciliar document is rather reticent. Here also the last forty years have given us examples of participation which range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Once again, it is the Catechism which makes significant strides in this area. The Church participates in the Liturgy by synergy. This idea comes from the fruitful synthesis of Father Jean Corbon, whose insights in his book The Wellspring of Worship5 … appear later in the Catechism. Participation is the common work or synergy between divine initiative and human response. The agent who makes participation possible is the Holy Spirit. "When the Spirit encounters in us the response of faith which He has aroused in us, He brings about genuine cooperation. Through it, the Liturgy becomes the common work of the Holy Spirit and the Church" (CCC 1091).

The Holy Spirit prepares the faithful for the reception of Christ (CCC 1093-1098), recalls the mystery of Christ (CCC 1099-1103), makes present the mystery of Christ (CCC 1104-1107) and brings about that communion which is an anticipation of the fullness of communion with the Holy Trinity (CCC 1107-1109). In fact, the most intimate cooperation, or synergy, of the Holy Spirit and the Church is achieved in the Liturgy (CCC 1108). Without insistent reference to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Eucharist might easily come to be imagined as a recreation of the Last Supper, a sort of memorial tableau, rather than a re-presentation in unbloody, symbolic forms of the sacrifice of Calvary.

In the Magisterium of the Church — in particular in Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Catechism of the Catholic Church — the liturgical subject is clearly delineated from a theological point of view, and the question of participation at its most profound theological level is wonderfully illustrated. Much remains to be done to communicate this teaching more effectively and to internalize it, but the teaching itself is clear.

What is less clear is its philosophical underpinnings. Under this rubric we will consider the nature of the human person who celebrates the Liturgy.

The subject of the Liturgy considered from a philosophical point of view

A. Who is the personal subject of the Liturgy?

The human person as the subject of the Liturgy can be considered philosophically from three points of view. First, Sacrosanctum Concilium refers to the individual subject of the Liturgy simply as homo. It is clear that the text is referring to man as such, in a generic sense. The fields of study here are the philosophy of man and epistemology. The questions are: what is the nature of the human person and how does he know? These are areas which the Council did not have explicitly on its agenda.

Secondly, Sacrosanctum Concilium also uses the term fidelis [faithful], or man as a Christian believer. The discipline here is theological anthropology; the conciliar constitution, Gaudium et Spes, took some first steps but their use of terms such as "modern man" and "the modern world" lack a clearly defined framework for their interpretation, a lack that has had unfortunate effect for the development of liturgical forms in the postmodern mass culture (See Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II, pp. 18-21, 168). In this situation the question becomes more specific: how does the believer know divine realities?

Thirdly, anthropologists have coined the phrase homo liturgicus, since we are dealing with man as he lives and acts in a liturgical context. This is a new category of philosophical investigation, unknown to the Council Fathers, where the waters are not yet completely charted. The philosophical question now is: how does man, who believes, know divine realities as communicated in the Liturgy?6

These questions point to vast and complex fields of study, the investigation of which is urgently needed in order to be in a better position to address contemporary questions of liturgical reform. We can do no more than give a brief historical sketch here of some of the main themes in these areas of philosophical anthropology and note the questions they raise.

1. Pauline anthropology

Saint Paul’s letters reveal a sophisticated anthropology, although difficult to put into a system. He speaks of the various constitutive elements of the human person as soma (body), sarx (flesh), psyche (soul), pneuma (spirit), nous (mind), and kardia (heart). How does the Christian, considered under these polyvalent aspects, know the world around him? How does he grasp the things of God?

2. Patristic anthropology

In patristic ascetical theology, one frequently finds a description of the soul as tri-partite: the logikon or rational part, the thumikon or irascible part, and the epithumikon or concupiscible part. How does man, understood in this way, respond to the exterior world? How does he apprehend reality, if not by means of reason, emotion and sense perception? Here is a classic synthesis that will remain a constant point of reference throughout the centuries.

3. Thomistic anthropology

When Saint Thomas asks the question of the specific powers of the soul (I, q.78, a.1), he takes the triple distinction of the tradition (the soul described as rational, sensitive and vegetative) and develops it with extraordinary subtlety and insight. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, we can say that the vegetative part includes nutritive, augmentative and generative elements; the sensitive part includes the five exterior senses as well as five interior senses (common sense, fantasy, imagination, and the estimative and memorative senses); and the intellectual part includes such aspects as memory, understanding, and will.

It would be worthwhile for his tightly ordered reasoning to be unpacked and explained for the sake of the non-specialist, for here is a very sophisticated analysis of how man knows, how he perceives both interior realities and the exterior world in which he lives. This kind of philosophical reasoning could be very helpful in trying to understand how homo liturgicus perceives natural and supernatural realities.7

4. Enlightenment anthropology

In terms of epistemology, the Enlightenment rationalist position affirms that reason alone is the source of knowledge and the ultimate test of truth. Revelation as a specific source of knowledge is denied. Human powers other than reason, such as sense perception, imagination and intuition are downplayed. While positive elements of rationalist thought can be seen in a rejection of prejudice, ignorance and superstition, the logical consequences of the rationalist position sooner or later lead to the profound secularization experienced in the western world today.

A moderate Enlightenment position would grant worship some role in human life, since religion has as its purpose, according to this point of view, the inculcation of moral virtue. Thus religious instruction, not the worship of God, was seen as the central point of church services. The Liturgy thus risks being reduced to a pedagogical aid.

There are studies today in German8 and English9 which argue that the roots of the 20th-century liturgical movement, and hence of the post-conciliar liturgical reforms as well, lie in the Enlightenment, with all the attendant positive and negative consequences. These studies merit serious attention.

For our purposes, the question here is how man, understood in this rationalistic sense, interacts with the world and understands supernatural realities.

5. Romantic anthropology

It is not surprising that the extraordinary force of Enlightenment thought would provoke an equal and opposite reaction. The Romantic response was to emphasize all those things that rationalism denied: sense experience, imagination, intuition, sentiment. This experiential emphasis became the hallmark of a new movement in art and literature. In the life of the Church, the positive aspects of this movement were a rediscovery of the Medieval period, a new God-centeredness, and a high theology of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. Romanticism is not without its negative consequences, however, such as piety without dogma, subjectivism, an exaggerated emphasis on feeling, and a kind of deification of "cosmic nature". How does man know? The romantic answer might be: He feels.

6. Contemporary period

The contemporary period seems to be heir to this dichotomy between the Enlightenment and Romantic movements. The dominant view is still a rationalist one, but the vigor of the romantic reaction is striking. It is ironic that the Holy Father, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, would have to defend reason itself in the face of a massive movement of popular culture toward New Age spiritualism. In the area of the Liturgy, this same dichotomy finds expression in a multitude of ways. The reality is a complex one, different in different places, but liturgical polarization between a rationalist and a romantic position is common, and few people have the tools necessary to move beyond the present impasse.10

A curious concept which seems to be in the air we breathe, an idea born of evolutionary theories and the experience of scientific progress in the 19th and 20th centuries, is that man is always progressing, getting better and better. The myth of human progress replaces salvation history. It is said that modern man is more advanced than in ages past, and therefore cannot be understood according to categories of earlier times. While it is true that technological changes have revolutionized the way we live, how true is it that the nature of man has changed?

Sacrosanctum Concilium can give the impression of ambiguity in this regard, referring frequently to the need to adapt liturgical structures and forms to the needs of our time (SC 1), to contemporary needs and circumstances (SC 4). It is also necessary to explore the question of how man needs to adapt to the demands of the Liturgy, as well as how Liturgy adapts to the demands of modern man.

B. How does the personal subject participate in the Liturgy?

Given the polyvalent reality which is man, and the difficulties of formulating how the individual subject knows, it is with some caution that we approach the topic philosophically of how the human person participates in the Liturgy. Sacrosanctum Concilium appears to set up a dual approach. First of all, the Christian people must understand, then they will be able to participate.

Words most frequently used for understanding are intellegere and percipere. To foster this understanding, there is a heavy emphasis on catechesis and instruction (cf. SC 35/3). Our understanding of the Liturgy should be readily accessible or easy (facile) (cf. SC 21, 50, 59, 79, etc.). If we apply the tri-partite anthropology discussed earlier, it seems that the conciliar text is emphasizing a rational understanding of ritus et preces. The aspect of intuition and imagination is not discussed, nor the apprehension of reality by sense experience. In all fairness it should be said that Sacrosanctum Concilium does not pretend to give an exhaustive treatment of liturgical epistemology, nor could the Council Fathers have possibly imagined the pastoral situations that would arise in subsequent years which would require a more nuanced and sophisticated treatment of this topic.

By understanding the Liturgy more easily, so the reasoning goes, the Christian believer is better able to participate in it. While the conciliar text mentions interior as well as exterior participation (SC 19), and states that sacred silence is also a form of participation (SC 30), the emphasis is on verbal response and physical gesture (SC 30), and in fact, the post-conciliar experience is one of an extremely verbal Liturgy with much activity going on. The more profound understanding of participation, not in the external, visible sense, but in the sacramental, internal and invisible dimension11 is not elaborated by Sacrosanctum Concilium.

What is needed, therefore, is a more unified vision of man and a more profound understanding of liturgical participation. The human person understands the Liturgy by means of reason, without a doubt. The best and brightest intellect has ample material for reflection in the rich complex of truths which the Liturgy expresses. At the same time, the human person experiences the Liturgy through emotion and feeling, through an aesthetic appreciation of beauty, through the intuitive making of connections, through associations which take place on the subliminal level. This kind of human knowing should not be undervalued. And finally, man experiences the Liturgy through the five senses, which is the human foundation of the sacramental system. This sensory experience has the capacity to open up spiritual realities, as the famous text of Tertullian says:

The body is washed so that the soul may be freed from its stains; the body is anointed, so that the soul too may be consecrated; the body is signed, so that the soul too may be strengthened.12

In addition to a renewed philosophical investigation of the nature of man and how he participates in the Liturgy, a third field of study which is extremely important is that of cultural anthropology.

The subject of the Liturgy from the point of view of cultural anthropology

A. Who is the subject of the Liturgy?

The cultural anthropologist examines not only the individual subject, but also the communal subject of the Liturgy, that is, the ritual assembly. In the Liturgy the celebrating community is usually a heterogeneous gathering of people: old and young, rich and poor, "male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile" (as Saint Paul would say), from every level of society, gathered together not because of some common human element, but because God, who transcends every human category, calls them together. For such an unlikely combination of people to act together as one, something extraordinary must take place. From the theological point of view, what happens is the synergy between the Holy Spirit and the Church which we spoke about earlier. From an anthropological and sociological point of view, what happens is a specific kind of ritual behavior.

B. How does that subject participate in the Liturgy?

The ritual assembly participates in the Liturgy according to a complex set of rules and roles. The activity is ceremonious, formal, repetitive. What happens this Sunday is the same as what happened last Sunday, for authentic ritual functions according to disciplined patterns of habit and continuity. This kind of participation avoids spontaneity and on-the-spot adaptation in favor of the predictable and the familiar. The vehicle of expression includes words, but relies more heavily on symbols and symbolic actions. The more profound symbols have many levels of meaning, are "opaque" in that sense, are not susceptible to superficial and easy understanding. Symbols are always self-involving, objective in a way that incorporates the subjective. The qualities of beauty and holiness are communicated by signs which are the product of the highest cultural achievement. Immersion in the ritual action takes the participants out of themselves and transforms them.

On the other hand, numerous and rapid changes in ritual forms can produce estrangement and anomie; an experience reported by many of the faithful in the post-conciliar years.

In recent decades, ritual activity has been the object of study by the relatively new discipline of social anthropology. This discipline began to come into its own a decade or so after the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, and thus the valuable insights of social anthropology simply were not available at the time of the drafting of the conciliar text and the formulation of the liturgical reforms, although we can see perhaps an oblique reference in the assertion that liturgical change must respect the general laws of the structure and mens of the Liturgy (SC 23).

Aidan Nichols observes: "The postconciliar Consilium ad exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia was wound up in 1975 through absorption into the Congregation for Divine Worship, that year coinciding more or less with a real turning point in the anthropology of religion as new schools of thought began to emphasize meaning, not explanation, the non-rational as well as the rational, and ritual’s transformative power: all of which led to a new respect for the formal, ceremonious ordering of rite"13.

From the point of view of social anthropology, it is not self-evident that simplicity in ritual form is more effective than complexity. It is not clear that a sign which is immediately intelligible will be more effective than a multi-faceted symbol which reveals its meaning only over time. In short, simplifying ritual action will not necessarily bring about the greater understanding and more active participation desired by the Council.14

Further work in the area of social anthropology, then, could provide insight into the many open questions concerning liturgical participation.


We must hope that forty years of experience since the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium will lead us from a kind of naïve innocence to a wisdom shaped by pastoral shrewdness. The difference between the two, of course, is the knowledge of good and evil. Experience teaches us that in this area, which is so vital to the Church’s life, an interdisciplinary approach can bear much fruit. While much work has been done in the area of liturgical theology, not enough has been done in the fields of philosophy, epistemology and cultural anthropology. In addition to wise pastoral action in liturgical matters, what is also necessary is renewed theoretical study, serious and in-depth, of these open questions which I have tried to delineate. This has to be part of a critical re-reading of the Constitutions and other documents of Vatican II in light of such development in understanding and of the experience of the past forty years. Thank you.



1 Tena Garriga, Pere. "La sacra liturgia fonte e culmine della vita ecclesiale" in: Il Concilio Vaticano II: Recezione e attualità alla luce del Giubileo, Roma 2000, 46-65.

2 Angelo Sodano. "For the celebration of Italian National Liturgy Week" in: L’Osservatore Romano, English edition 39 (September 24, 2003) 4.

3 Father Jeremy Driscoll throws light on this with his comment that the Christian taking part in the Liturgy is "a person who can participate in the community of Divine Persons", indeed who is "created for this in the image of the Divine Persons" (Jeremy Driscoll, "Liturgy and Fundamental Theology", in Ecclesia Orans, Anno XI, 1994/1, p. 79).

4 Contrary to popular, and sometimes academic, misconceptions, active participation in the Liturgy is not first of all saying, reading or taking part in rites. It is primarily, essentially and indispensably the devotion of mind, heart and will elicited and brought into vital contact with Christ through the rites. The Latin word "devotio" signifies consecration to God (O. Casel, The Mystery of Christian Worship, p. 36). For the Liturgy to be fruitful in a person’s life there has to be a subjective dimension; those taking part must cooperate with and accept inwardly the act of Jesus the Priest by their devotion (cf. Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 28, 29; CCC 2563).

5 Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, New York 1988.

6 The implications of this question, though not as yet fully taken account of by many liturgists, have begun to be spelled out by anthropologists such as Victor Turner who writes, "If ritual is not to be merely a reflection of secular social life, if its function is partly to protect and partly to express truths which make men free from the exigencies of their status-incumbencies, free to contemplate and pray as well as to speculate and invent, then its repertoire of liturgical actions should not be limited to a direct reflection of the contemporary scene" (Victor Turner, "Passages, Margins and Poverty: Symbols of Communitas" in Worship 46, [1972] p. 391). Traditional Liturgy, precisely because of its archaic quality, has power to modify and even reverse the assumptions made in secular living; the archaic is not the obsolete".

7 See Jeremy Driscoll, "Deepening the Theological Dimensions of Liturgical Studies", in Communio 23, Fall 1996, pp. 513-4. This article shows how pre-rational instincts and rhythms make possible an expression of God’s Word in human words.

8 Waldemar Trapp. Vorgeschichte und Ursprung der liturgischen Bewegung: vorwiegend in Hinsicht auf das deutsche Sprachgebiet, Regensburg 1940.

9 Aidan Nichols. Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of its Contemporary Form, San Francisco 1996.

10 A noteworthy exception to this is the paper delivered by Stratford Caldecott at the Fontgombault Liturgical Conference in July 2001, entitled: "Liturgy and Trinity: Towards an Anthropology of the Liturgy" in: Looking Again at the Question of the Liturgy with Cardinal Ratzinger, Farnborough 2003, pp. 36-48.

11 Cf. the masterful analysis of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem’s theology of sacramental participation by Enrico Mazza, Mystagogy: A Theology of Liturgy in the Patristic Age, New York 1989, pp. 150-164.

12 Tertullian, De Carnis Resurrectione 8.

13 Nichols, Looking at the Liturgy, 57.

14 Further and well-documented evidence for this is given by Dr. Tracey Rowland (Culture and the Thomistic Tradition, pp. 27-29, 168, n. 69 on p. 175) where she outlines the dilemma created when, in the wake of Vatican II, and because of some assumptions of the architects of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the forms of the Liturgy come to be dominated by the postmodern mass culture.



Francis Cardinal George