Dec 15, 2012

Sacrosanctum Concilium: What we have done, what we have failed to do

Online Edition:
December 2012
Vol. XVIII, No. 9

Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council

Sacrosanctum Concilium:
What we have done, what we have failed to do

by Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth

Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth, executive director of the secretariat of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), addressed the biennial Gateway Liturgical Conference of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, held October 26. His address appears here with his kind permission. (Textheads added.)


As we keep the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and embark upon the Year of Faith (October 11, 2012), it would seem to be a good moment for an examination of conscience based on the teachings of the Council and their implementation. As you will know, the first utterance of the Council in the form of a major document was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which appeared December 4, 1963. Taking some of its major themes and observations, I would like to briefly outline something of a liturgical “state of the nation.” You will appreciate, I hope, that this is necessarily a personal view and that other commentators may quite legitimately see things differently.

In its introduction, the Constitution links the primary motives of the Council to the function and significance of the Liturgy: it states that the goal of the Council is to intensify the Christian growth of Catholics, to foster unity and to draw all people into the Church. It notes that the liturgy should contribute to this (SC §1). This is a very auspicious and important beginning, for it makes the essential link between the mission of the Church as a community of salvation and the liturgy, which both proclaims that salvation and brings us into an experience of it even in this life. For this reason, it is always something of a surprise to me that the liturgy is not immediately identified as a primary instrument of the New Evangelization, and that programs do not tend to see the fundamental importance of the liturgy in the endeavor of evangelization. The Constitution makes it clear at its outset that the liturgy, and especially the Eucharist, is the chief manifestation of the Church and it is both the cause and sign of unity (§2).

So often the Council is presented solely as innovation, as development and as renewal and yet it occurs to me that it principally needs to make sense to us as organic progression and continuity before we are able to grasp and digest the challenge of changing what needs to be changed. For me personally, the hermeneutical key of the whole document is to be found in paragraph 2. Here is the Council’s definition of the nature and purpose of the Liturgy — it is our participation in the Mystery of Christ, which is the Church. Reading through this single paragraph, we see that three tremendously important themes emerge:


… the liturgy, “through which the work of our redemption is accomplished,” most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church (§2).

Here Sacrosanctum Concilium reminds us of the truth that the Liturgy is ultimately about redemption and is in fact the manner in which redemption is applied to us and it is the supreme way in which the true nature of the Church is made manifest. I think in the minds of many of our people, the true salvific mission of the Church and the uniqueness of her supernatural aims are not yet comprehended as a result of a way that we celebrate the Liturgy. Put more simply, perhaps we might wish to say that the Liturgy is the most obvious way in which we as Catholics answer the question: what is the Church? We would want to answer with Sacrosanctum Concilium that the liturgy of the Eucharist, more than anything else, expresses the nature and mystery of the Church (§5).


It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek (§2).

Here we find contrasting characteristics which are carefully held in balance: human/divine; visible/invisible; active/ contemplative… It is my impression that too often, rather than experiencing both of these characteristics simultaneously (which is the true genius of the liturgy), we only seem to experience one of them. The overwhelming character of many Masses is still hopelessly horizontal and assembly-oriented — somewhere along the journey from the Council, we have accepted a Protestant model in our worship and the true ecclesial dynamic of what happens in the liturgy is still obscured to many of our people. This is particularly the case when we consider the character of the liturgy in its function of making accessible to us the life of heaven. In the earthly liturgy we share in the heavenly liturgy by way of foretaste, as we await its accomplishment (§2).

The manner of the celebration of the liturgy must always carefully take into consideration these important qualities which consequently determine the appropriateness of certain modes of celebration, not least of all in the manner of the priest in celebrating and preaching, the preparation of the readings and those who exercise liturgical ministries and the judicious selection and use of appropriate liturgical music, which is integral to the liturgy and the most powerful conveyor of liturgical culture.

The considerable challenge which all of this presents is not to be underestimated and requires the offering of the very best that we have in each of these important areas. Too often, the liturgy can seem to be hopelessly earth-bound and pedestrian rather than stimulating in us a thirst for God and all that He longs to give us. Keeping the challenge before us is an essential part of responding positively to it: Sacrosanctum Concilium outlines an immense vision for the liturgy — it is always easier to settle for less.


While the liturgy daily builds up those who are within into a holy temple of the Lord, into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ, at the same time it marvelously strengthens their power to preach Christ, and thus shows forth the Church to those who are outside as a sign lifted up among the nations under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together, until there is one sheepfold and one Shepherd (§2).

The Constitution is marvelously unambiguous in proclaiming that the liturgy should strengthen us for mission, so that the Gospel can be preached (and believed) in a more powerful way among the people of our time. The Church is missionary by nature and this essential character of the Church is displayed in her liturgy, not least in the fact that the liturgy is potentially a powerful proclamation of the truth that the message of salvation is for all people, this is the real sense of the universality which lies at the heart of the meaning of Catholicism. We are reminded that the task of the Church is also to call people “to faith and to conversion,” to prepare them for the sacraments and to win them to the works of love and to the apostolate (§9).

These are truths which are often obscured. False ecumenism has had a catastrophic effect in this sense — many Catholics now tend to see themselves (both individually and collectively) as just one subjective response to the human dilemma, whereas Sacrosanctum Concilium is telling us quite emphatically that the Church is God’s most effective response to the highly human dilemma of our continual need of His mercy and grace, while reliably pointing us continually towards our truest home in Him. Approaches to the liturgy that obfuscate this fundamental truth have a highly detrimental effect on the ecclesial sense of our people.

It is for this reason that the Church most frequently places the words of Sacred Scripture on our lips in the liturgy. Scripture is, after all, the largest single source of the liturgy (§24). I cannot help but think that singing more scripturally based texts at Mass would certainly be an improvement from some of the music which currently fills many collections of liturgical songs which are distinguished only by their notable lack of a true liturgical voice.

Any discussion of the liturgy since Vatican II must certainly contend with the important injunction relating to participatio actuosa (actual participation). If we can allow ourselves the luxury of a generalization, I think that it is in this area that the most considerable progress has been made.  It is now a well-established expectation on the part of our people that they will participate actively in the celebration of the liturgy. At times this can lead to the danger of activism, which is counter-productive; but in general, the passivity of the greater number of those present at the celebration of the liturgy is now thankfully a thing of the past.

The Constitution underlines, however, that for the liturgy to achieve its fullest effect, the faithful must take part with knowledge, actively and so fruitfully (§11). I think it is fair to say that the requirement of knowledge implies a catechesis that in many ways is yet to be undertaken. It also highlights the fact that the rightful full, conscious, and active participation of the Christian people in the liturgy can only be achieved by adequate instruction, above all, of the clergy (§14). This “liturgical instruction of the clergy,” we would also want to admit, is a work in progress, and some of the strangest notions concerning the liturgy are the province not of the laity but the clergy.

Reforms following the Council

In moving on to a consideration of the reforms that followed the Council and find their mandate in this Constitution, one of the principal considerations must be the realization of the desire that the paramount importance of Scripture be evident in our liturgy (§24). The revision of the Lectionary to facilitate the reading of a far greater part of the Scriptures has been widely recognized as one of the great fruits of the liturgical reform and our Lectionary has been adopted or adapted for use by many Christian communities beyond the full communion of the Catholic Church. The benefits of this are evident and our people have a far greater awareness of the central importance of the Word of God in our lives and the privileged place it occupies in the liturgy as there is now no element of the celebration of the liturgy, however brief or private, which does not envisage the reading of the Scriptures. I think we can confidently say that a “warm and living love for Scripture” has been fostered (§24).

Latin and the vernacular

We cannot be equally sanguine about the Council’s injunction that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites,” while the use of vernacular languages in the celebration of the Mass and sacraments is encouraged and regulated by competent authority (§36). Clearly the question of language loomed largely at the Council and it seems that the adoption of the vernacular was inevitable; but it seems equally clear that the total exclusion of Latin was neither desired nor envisaged. Certainly there is nothing to account for the visceral hatred of Latin that has characterized the liturgical approach of some who claim their authority from mandate of the Council.

While Latin has made something of a modest return, evidenced by Latin chants which now can be heard more frequently at Mass, the truth is that most parishes have had fifty years of the studious avoidance of anything Latin, lest there be a sense of the continuation of anything that was formerly found in the liturgy. The “hermeneutic of rupture” is most dramatic in this exclusion of Latin. Not only do we now have several generations of Catholics who cannot sing Credo III or the Salve Regina, more seriously, we have several generations of priests whose Latin is insufficient to cope with any element of Latin in the liturgy, let alone the celebration of the Mass in Latin in either form of the Roman Rite.

The place and importance of Latin is not determined by the choice of liturgical language. It is vitally important that we grasp this. Even in the case of an entirely vernacular liturgy, we still need Latin to be able to interpret so many of the sources of the liturgy, to say nothing of fundamental sources for both theology and philosophy. We shall have to recover a greater enthusiasm and competence in the teaching and learning of Latin if future generations of Catholics are going to be equipped with the necessary skills to explore the treasures of the Church’s ancient patrimony. In seminaries, the mandatory one year of Latin provides little more than the briefest introduction to the language. In places such as Kenrick-Glennon in this archdiocese where there is a greater requirement for the study of Latin, the students benefit across the board in their studies, and the Church has a future generation of priests who will be more skilled in this respect.

It is worth noting that Sacrosanctum Concilium envisages that every community of Catholics will know the basic chants in Latin, and will “be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (§54). The new English translation of the Missal, which contains more music than any of its predecessors, provides many of these chants, which may be sung in either Latin or English, thereby reinforcing the notion of a common musical repertoire among Catholics of the Roman Rite and for the first time a shared body of chants common to all Catholics who worship in English.

Ritual changes

It is certainly true to say that the Liturgy of the Hours, previously largely limited to the clergy, has become more genuinely the Prayer of the Church in the experience of not only priests and religious but also lay people (§84, ff). The injunction that pastors should ensure that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and solemn feasts seems to be observed rather more in the breach — in fact in parishes, Sundays and solemnities are the days when one is least likely to encounter celebrations of the Liturgy of Hours. More widespread attempts at the solemn celebration of the office with appropriate music and liturgical action are still beyond the liturgical experience of most Catholics and something of a rarity outside religious communities.

In relation to the celebration of the sacraments, I think it is generally the case that the reintroduction of the catechumenate for adults (§64-69) has revolutionized our understanding of the process whereby we welcome new members into the Church, in addition to restoring the Sacraments of Initiation to our celebration of the Easter Vigil. In this way, we also have a deeper understanding of baptism as the fundamental fact of our Christian identity and the true nature of the seasons of Lent and Easter (§109) in relation to the celebration of the Paschal mystery. It goes without saying that the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum, largely unknown to a previous generation, have happily now become the liturgical heart of the year for most Catholics (§102).

The true significance of the anointing of the sick and its place in our pastoral care of those who suffer or who are frail is certainly more widely understood (§72-75). Similar progress is evident in relation to marriage as a consequence of the revision of the marriage rite in a way that expresses more clearly the grace of the sacrament and the duties of the spouses (§77-78).  

The theological consequences of the revision of the Rite of Christian Burial do not seem to be so universally positive. Whilst it is true that the revision of the rite shows rather more clearly the Paschal character of Christian death (§81), the general character of many funeral liturgies has tended away from the notion of praying for the dead and those who mourn towards rather more secular notions of the celebration of the life of the deceased and the multiplication of tributes expressed in a liturgy that might seem more appropriate for a canonization. This is perhaps the clearest indication that the liturgical text is not the sole purveyor of liturgical culture.

If we are to consider the more negative impact of some aspects of our liturgical experience since Vatican II, we obviously need to consider our celebration of the Eucharist. The Constitution offers us a definition of the significance of the Eucharist and its relationship to our celebration and experience of the saving mysteries.  The text stresses that at the Last Supper Christ instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice as a memorial of His death and resurrection, in which Christ is consumed, “the mind is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given to us” (§47). I continually wonder whether this understanding of the meaning of the Mass is as present to our people as the Church would seem to be suggesting it should be? Perhaps the clue to thinking about this is to be found in the eminently practical injunction that follows this theological definition in the document? It is the suggestion that Christ’s faithful should not be “strangers or silent spectators” at this mystery, but with the priest should offer Christ and so learn to offer themselves (§48).

While progress has been made avoiding attitudes and behavior demonstrative of passivity, I would suggest that the idea that everyone present at the celebration of the Eucharist is in fact making the offering of their lives, which is in turn taken up into the unique offering of Christ which is His sacrifice, is a notion that is not particularly present to many of our people. This true expression of the offering made by the priesthood of the baptized and its intrinsic link to the offering made by the ministerial priest celebrating the Mass is essential — not only for an understanding of what is happening at Mass but also for the living of a truly Eucharistic life, which, beyond the bounds of our liturgical celebration, expresses itself in the consecration of the material world by our living as witnesses to God’s love and truth.

Looking ahead…

And so my whistle-stop consideration of a breadth of liturgical experience since Vatican II must necessarily draw to a close. Having traveled the English-speaking world very widely in preparation for the implementation of the English translation of the third typical edition of the Missale Romanum, and having experienced the liturgy in a wide variety of circumstances and styles, I would conclude that I have generally encountered a great desire for change, although not always among those who are directly responsible for the liturgy.

I think we are currently well placed to respond to this desire and this is evidenced by the fact that many things which were indicated fifty years ago, such as the singing of the Mass — and more particularly the singing of the Proper texts rather than the endless substitution of songs and hymns, are only now being seriously considered and implemented. It is earnestly to be desired that such developments continue to flourish and that an improved liturgical culture is accessible to everyone in the Church. Time will tell whether the musical resources necessary to the success of such a development flourish in our midst. If they do not, then I fear that many of the less desirable features of post-conciliar liturgical music may be here to stay.

For all who use the Roman Missal in English, our liturgy has changed over the past year. The change of text is indicative of the possibility of doing things differently, which will hopefully bring us nearer to a more faithful realization of the liturgy willed by the Church as expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium. It is true to say that considerable improvements in the liturgy have been in evidence in most recent years.

Crucial to this peaceful revolution has been the leadership and example of the present Holy Father, who has consistently studied and written about the liturgy in a long life of scholarship, which now informs his governance of the Church’s liturgical life. Much that he commends was already evident in aspects of liturgical scholarship from the early twentieth century onwards. In our own time, however, it is finally being received with the joy and enthusiasm that it merits.

A new generation of Catholics eagerly awaits a greater experience of the basic truth that the liturgy is always a gift that we receive from the Church rather than make for ourselves. As those most intimately concerned with the liturgy, you all have a highly significant contribution to make to this leitourgia, this work in which there are only participants and beneficiaries and no spectators. May God bless us all as we share in His work.


Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth, a priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster, England, has served since the fall of 2009 as executive director of the secretariat of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). He is a former professor of Ecclesiastical Latin and New Testament Greek at the Westminster Diocesan Seminary, and from 1998-2009 was chaplain to Harrow School, where he also directed choral music recording projects. He frequently lectures on the implementation of the new English translation of the Roman Missal.



Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth