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Towards an Authentic Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is taken from Cardinal Sarah’s July 5 presentation to Sacra Liturgia UK and is reprinted with his permission. 

In his message dated 18th February 2014 to the symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Holy Father, Pope Francis, observed that the marking of fifty years since the promulgation of the Constitution should push us “to revive the commitment to accept and implement [the] teaching [of Sacrosanctum Concilium] in an ever fuller way.” The Holy Father continued: “It is necessary to unite a renewed willingness to go forward along the path indicated by the Council Fathers, as there remains much to be done for a correct and complete assimilation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy on the part of the baptized and ecclesial communities. I refer, in particular, to the commitment to a solid and organic liturgical initiation and formation, both of lay faithful as well as clergy and consecrated persons.”

The Holy Father is correct. We have much to do if we are to realize the vision of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council for the liturgical life of the Church. We have very much to do if today, some fifty years after the Council concluded, we are to achieve “a correct and complete assimilation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” […]

What is the Sacred Liturgy?
But first we must consider a preliminary question. That is the question: “What is the Sacred Liturgy?” Because if we do not understand the nature of Catholic liturgy, as distinct from the rites of other Christian communities and of other religions, we cannot hope to understand the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, or to move towards a more faithful implementation of it.

In his Motu Proprio Tra le sollecitudini (22 November 1903) Pope Saint Pius X, taught that “the holy mysteries” and “the public and solemn prayer of the Church,” that is, the Sacred Liturgy, are the “foremost and indispensible fount” for acquiring “the true Christian spirit.” St Pius X therefore called for a real and fruitful participation in the Church’s liturgical rites by all. As we know, this teaching and this exhortation would be repeated by article 14 of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Pope Pius XI raised his voice to the same end some twenty-five years later in his Apostolic Constitution Divini Cultus (20 December 1928), teaching that “the liturgy is indeed a sacred thing, since by it we are raised to God and united to Him, thereby professing our faith and our deep obligation to Him for the benefits we have received and the help of which we stand in constant need.”

Pope Pius XII devoted an Encyclical letter, Mediator Dei (20 November 1947) to the Sacred Liturgy, in which he taught that: “The Sacred Liturgy is…the public worship which our Redeemer as Head of the Church renders to the Father, as well as the worship which the community of the faithful renders to its Founder, and through Him to the heavenly Father. It is, in short, the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members” (n. 20).

The Pope taught that the “nature and the object of the sacred liturgy” is that “it aims at uniting our souls with Christ and sanctifying them through the divine Redeemer in order that Christ be honored and, through Him and in Him, the most Holy Trinity” (n. 171).

The Second Vatican Council taught that through the liturgy “the work of our redemption is accomplished” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2), and that the liturgy “is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.”

“From this it follows that 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” (n. 7).

Following on from this, Sacrosanctum Concilium taught that the liturgy “is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper” (n. 10).

It would be possible to continue this exposition of the magisterium’s teaching on the nature of the Sacred Liturgy with the teaching of the post-conciliar popes and of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But for the moment let us stop at the Council. Because it is very clear, I think, that the Church teaches that Catholic liturgy is the singularly privileged locus of Christ’s saving action in our world today, by means of real participation in which we receive His grace and strength which is so necessary for our perseverance and growth in the Christian life. It is the divinely instituted place where we come to fulfil our duty of offering sacrifice to God, of offering the One True Sacrifice. It is where we realize our profound need to worship Almighty God. Catholic liturgy is something sacred, something which is holy by its very nature. Catholic liturgy is no ordinary human gathering.

I wish to underline a very important fact here: God, not man is at the center of Catholic liturgy. We come to worship Him. The liturgy is not about you and I; it is not where we celebrate our own identity or achievements or exalt or promote our own culture and local religious customs. The liturgy is first and foremost about God and what He has done for us. In His Divine Providence Almighty God founded the Church and instituted the Sacred Liturgy by means of which we are able to offer Him true worship in accordance with the New Covenant established by Christ. In doing this, in entering into the demands of the sacred rites developed in the tradition of the Church, we are given our true identity and meaning as sons and daughters of the Father.

It is essential that we understand this specificity of Catholic worship, for in recent decades we have seen many liturgical celebrations where people, personalities and human achievements have been too prominent, almost to the exclusion of God. As Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote: “If the liturgy appears first of all as the workshop for our activity, then what is essential is being forgotten: God. For the liturgy is not about us, but about God. Forgetting about God is the most imminent danger of our age” (Joseph Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, Collected Works Vol. 11, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2014, p. 593).

We must be utterly clear about the nature of Catholic worship if we are to read the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy correctly and if we are to implement it faithfully. For the Fathers of the Council were formed in the magisterial teachings of the twentieth century popes that I have cited. St John XXIII did not call an Ecumenical Council to undermine these teachings, which he himself promoted. The Council Fathers did not arrive in Rome in October 1962 with the intention of producing an anthropocentric liturgy. Rather, the Pope and the Council Fathers sought to find ways in which Christ’s faithful could draw ever more deeply from the “foremost and indispensable fount” so as to acquire “the true Christian spirit” for their own salvation and for that of all men and women of their day.

What Did the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council Intend?
We must explore the intentions of the Fathers of the Council in more detail, particularly if we seek to be more faithful to their intentions today. What did they intend to bring about through the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy?

Let us begin with the very first article of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which states: “This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church” (n. 1).

Let us remember that when the Council opened liturgical reform had been a feature of the past decade and that the Fathers were very familiar with these reforms. They were not considering these questions theoretically, without any context. They expected to continue the work already begun and to consider the “altioria principia,” the higher or fundamental principles of liturgical reform, spoken of by St John XXIII in his Motu Proprio Rubricarum Instructum of 25th July 1960.

Hence, article one of the Constitution gives four reasons for undertaking a liturgical reform. The first, “to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful,” is the constant concern of the Church’s pastors in every age.

The second, “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change,” may cause us to pause and reflect, particularly given the zeitgeist of the 1960s. But in truth, if it is read with that hermeneutic of continuity with which most certainly the Council Fathers intended it, this means that the Council desired liturgical development where possible so as to facilitate an increased vigor to Christian life. The Council Fathers did not want to change things simply for the sake of change!

So too, the third reason, “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ,” might cause us to pause lest we think that the Fathers wished to instrumentalize the Sacred Liturgy and make of it an ecumenical tool, to render it simply a means to an end. But can this be the case? Certainly, after the Council, some may have tried to do this. But the Fathers themselves knew that this was not possible. Unity in worship before the altar of sacrifice is the desired end of ecumenical endeavor. The liturgy is not a means to promote good will or cooperation in apostolic works. No, here the Council Fathers are saying that they believe that liturgical reform can be part of a momentum which can help people to achieve that Catholic unity without which full communion in worship is not possible.

The same motivation is found in the fourth reason given for liturgical reform: “to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church.” Here, though, we move beyond our separated Christian brothers and sisters and consider “the whole of mankind.” The Church’s mission is to every man and woman! The Fathers of the Council believed this and hoped that more fruitful participation in the liturgy would facilitate a renewal in the Church’s missionary activity. […]

I have spent some time considering the first article of the Constitution because it is very important that we do read Sacrosanctum Concilium in its context, as a document which intended to promote legitimate development (such as the increased use of the vernacular) in continuity with the nature, teaching and mission of the Church in the modern world. We must not read into it things which it does not say. The Fathers did not intend a revolution, but an evolution, a moderate reform.

The intentions of the Council Fathers are very clear from other key passages. Article 14 is one of the most important of the whole Constitution: “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the Sacred Liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work. Yet it would be futile to entertain any hopes of realizing this unless the pastors themselves, in the first place, become thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy, and undertake to give instruction about it. A prime need, therefore, is that attention be directed, first of all, to the liturgical instruction of the clergy.”

We hear the voice of the pre-conciliar popes here, seeking a real and fruitful participation in the liturgy, and in order to bring that about, the insistence that a thorough instruction or formation in the liturgy is urgently necessary. The Fathers show a realism here that was perhaps forgotten afterwards. Let us listen again to those words of the Council and ponder their importance: “it would be futile to entertain any hopes of realizing this (active participation) unless the pastors themselves, in the first place, become thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy, and undertake to give instruction about it.”

At the beginning of article 21 we also hear the Fathers’ intentions very clearly: “In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the Sacred Liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself.” “Ut populus christianus in sacra Liturgia abundantiam gratiarum securius assequatur…” When we study Latin we learn that the word “ut” signifies a clear purpose that follows in the same clause. What did the Council Fathers intend? —that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the Sacred Liturgy. How did they propose to do this? —by undertaking with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself (“ipsius Liturgiae generalem instaurationem sedulo curare cupit”). Please note that the Fathers speak of a “restoration,” not a revolution!

One of the clearest and most beautiful expressions of the intentions of the Fathers of the Council is found at the beginning of the second chapter of the Constitution, which considers the mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist. In article 48 we read: “The Church… earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration. They should be instructed by God’s word and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s body; they should give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.”

My brothers and sisters, this is what the Council Fathers intended. Yes, certainly, they discussed and voted on specific ways of achieving their intentions. But let us be very clear: the ritual reforms proposed in the Constitution such as the restoration of the prayer of the faithful at Mass (n. 53), the extension of concelebration (n. 57) or some of its policies such as the simplification desired by articles 34 and 50, are all subordinate to the fundamental intentions of the Council Fathers I have just outlined. They are means to an end, and it is the end which we must achieve.

If we are to move towards a more authentic implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, it is these goals, these ends, which we must keep before us first and foremost. It may be that, if we study them with fresh eyes and with the benefit of the experience of the past five decades, we shall see some specific ritual reforms and certain liturgical policies in a different light. If, today, so as to “impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful” and “help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church,” some of these need to be reconsidered, let us ask the Lord to give us the love and the humility and wisdom so to do.

Cardinal Robert Sarah

Cardinal Robert Sarah

Cardinal Robert Sarah was born in Guinea, West Africa. He was made an Archbishop by Pope Saint John Paul II, a Cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI, and named the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis in 2014.