Reflections on Sacrosanctum Concilium’s 50th Anniversary
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Reflections on Sacrosanctum Concilium’s 50th Anniversary

Reflections on Sacrosanctum Concilium’s 50th Anniversary

Jeremy Driscoll, OSB FAITH MAGAZINE November-December 2013

Fr Jeremy Driscoll OSB is a monk of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. He has worked as a consultant to the US Conference of Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy and for the Congregation for Divine Worship in the Vatican. His books include Theology at the Eucharistic Table and What Happens At Mass. Here he offers insights into the scripturally based teaching on sacred liturgy as promulgated in Sacrosanctum Concilium during the Second Vatican Council.

On 11 October 2012 St Peter’s Square in the Vatican was filled with tens of thousands of faithful celebrating a Mass that marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II. This same Mass opened the Year of Faith that Pope Benedict wished to be celebrated from then until the Solemnity of Christ the King in 2013. In his homily at that Mass the Holy Father strongly urged on the Church a new round of deeper appropriation of the texts of the Vatican Council. This celebration also marked the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Pope Benedict likewise urged renewed attention to this precious text as, among other things, a tool of interpretation and appropriation of the documents of the Council. This Mass was also taking place as anevent within the Synod of Bishops then in session on the topic of the New Evangelisation. The bishops were well aware that the New Evangelisation is about carrying forward the concerns of the Council.

The Council and the Liturgy

Fifty years ago on 4 December 1963 the first of the Council’s documents was promulgated by Pope Paul VI. It was the document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. The reform of the liturgy is tied up with the purpose of the entire Council. It is important to measure the significance of what is implied by this claim. The Council’s liturgy and the Council’s teaching are inextricably intertwined. (Both opponents and defenders of the Council seem to operate from a profound intuition that such is the case.) This intimate connection between the reform of the liturgy and the whole Council was solidly indicated already in the document’s title, which has no specific reference to liturgy, but is simply Sacrosanctum Concilium, “This Sacred Council”. The word sacrosanctumis already an expression of faith by the Council Fathers. Theirs was not just a meeting of a group of corporate leaders. Something holy was under way. The gathering was at God’s doing.

''The paschal mystery, then, is the central work of Christ; it is usefully delineated here as his passion, resurrection and ascension. But not only that; this work is immediately associated with us. His dying destroyed our death; his rising restored our life.''

They discerned the purpose for which they had gathered to be fourfold: (1) to impart vigour to the Christian life of the faithful, (2) to adapt to our own times those structures subject to change, (3) to promote unity among Christians, and (4) to strengthen whatever serves to call all people into the embrace of the Church. On the basis of this they stated: “The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.”[1]

With this brief article I want simply to make a reverent and grateful nod in the direction of Sacrosanctum Concilium on the 50th anniversary of its promulgation. I am grateful for what Pope John Paul II called “the great grace bestowed on the Church in the 20th century”.[2] I take to heart the deeper round of appropriation of the Council documents that Pope Benedict urged on the Church at the opening of the Year of Faith.

The Language of Sacrosanctum Concilium

It can perhaps be useful to say something about the kind of language employed in this document and, indeed, in all the documents of the Council. This style of language is already part of the Council’s message. It is well described by Pope John Paul II in Tertio Millennio Adveniente: “The Council’s enormously rich body of teaching and the striking new tone [emphasis in the original] in the way it presented this content constitute as it were a proclamation of new times. The Council Fathers spoke in the language of the Gospel, the language of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.”[3] When we remember that the Pope had been a bishop-participant in the Council, we can think he is perhaps recalling that many of the bishopsthere were surprised when they first saw drafts of documents in this new style. They were expecting a more juridical style – language that excluded errors and defined truths in our troubled times, just as previous councils had done. But the Pope notes that what he calls “the striking new tone” of the documents is a proclamation of new times. Careful attention to this striking new tone leads us to the event of the Council that wanted to declare new times in the life of the Church and in the life of the Church for the world.

This new tone is the language of Scripture, a tapestry of citations and allusions woven together in such a way that what the Council teaches will appear ultimately as the Scripture applied to the point in question. In this way Scripture becomes the ultimate authority for what the Council authoritatively teaches. The Fathers of the Church used Scripture in this same way, and it is their style of doing so that is used now to express what Pope John Paul called “the Council’s enormously rich body of teaching”.

The Paschal Mystery

Let us take just one example of this striking new tone and rich teaching. Chapter one of Sacrosanctum Concilium begins at Paragraph 5. Paragraphs 5 and 6 are formed by a beautiful combination of scriptural texts that are a description of God’s redemptive work as culminating in the paschal mystery. It begins: “God who ‘wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim 2:4), ‘who in many and various ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets’ (Heb 1:1), when the fullness of time had come sent His Son (Gal 4: 4), the Word made flesh (John 1:14), anointed by the Holy Spirit, to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart (allusion to Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18), to be a “bodily and spiritual medicine” (Ignatius of Antioch), theMediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5).”

As the text continues its movement, it arrives at a first climax by using for the first of many times an expression that will be of major importance for the theology developed here and for the renewed liturgy. It is the expression “paschal mystery.” Note its careful placement within the whole development: “The wonderful works of God among the people of the Old Testament were but a prelude to the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God. He achieved His task principally by the paschal mystery of His blessed passion, resurrection from the dead, and the glorious ascension, whereby ‘dying, he destroyed our death and, rising, he restored our life’. For it was from the side of Christ as He slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth ‘thewondrous sacrament of the whole Church’.”[4] The paschal mystery, then, is the central work of Christ; it is usefully delineated here as his passion, resurrection and ascension. But not only that; this work is immediately associated with us. His dying destroyed our death; his rising restored our life. Then an explicit and crucial piece of ecclesiology is inserted into the text, based on a vivid Gospel image well developed by the Fathers: “the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church” emerges from the crucified Lord’s pierced side. The Church is born as part of the paschal mystery. This is a first step in a development towards the claim that the Church’s liturgy likewise springs forth from that same paschal mystery. She iscalled a “wondrous sacrament”.
Paragraph 6 develops this by focusing on the risen Lord’s relationship to his apostles. I like to say – in part to catch people’s attention, but I mean it – that the words “as” and “so” are the most important words of Jesus’ teaching. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” “As you and I are one, Father, so may they be one in us.” “As the Father sent me into the world, so do I send you.” And so forth. There are many of these. When we take them seriously, we see that a tremendous transfer is being revealed and accomplished: nothing less than the divine relationship between Father and Son is completely transferred to us. The “as and so” construction, so crucial to Jesus’ own revelation, is used to open Paragraph 6. “Just as Christ was sent by the Father, so also He sent theapostles, filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Something marvellous is stated here. Just as Christ was sent, so also are the apostles. This is the tremendous transfer. And the transfer finds its climax in the Church’s liturgy. Christ sent the apostles to proclaim his death and resurrection to every creature so that, the document continues, “they might accomplish the work of salvation which they had proclaimed, by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves”. This too is an enormous transfer. The work of salvation accomplished in the death and resurrection of Christ is still being accomplished through “sacrifice and sacraments”. Baptism is described as being “plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ”. Then the Eucharist is named as a proclamation of the death of the Lord until he comes. Thedevelopment reaches a beautiful conclusion with Pentecost as the day “when the Church appeared before the world”. And what does this Church look like? Those who heard Peter’s preaching were baptised, and – again in the words of Scripture – “they continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of bread and in prayers … praising God and being in favour with all the people” (Acts 2:41-47).

In the final move of this paragraph, the Council document strikingly declares the Church’s direct continuity with these apostolic beginnings. It says: “From that time onwards the Church has never failed to come together to celebrate the paschal mystery…” And those celebrations are a description of our liturgy: “…reading those things ‘which were in all the scriptures concerning him’ (Luke 24:27), celebrating the Eucharist in which ‘the victory and triumph of his death are again made present’, and at the same time giving thanks ‘to God for his unspeakable gift’ (2 Cor 9:15) in Christ Jesus, ‘in praise of his glory’ (Eph 1:12), through the power of the Holy Spirit”. In 1963 this was enormously rich teaching in a striking new tone. We have absorbed a good deal of it in 50 years, but preciselybecause the teaching is so saturated with Scripture, we dare not claim we have exhausted its meaning and can go on now to further thoughts. This way of conceiving things is of perennial importance for the Church.

The concept of paschal mystery has had enormous influence on the shaping of the new liturgical books and celebrations. Later in this document the Council Fathers will call for a revision of the liturgical year with a clear centre in the paschal mystery as exposed during Lent and Paschaltide. A renewed sense of Sunday is likewise called for because “the Church celebrates the paschal mystery every eighth day”.[5] The rite of burial should be revised to show more clearly the paschal character of Christian death.[6] The revision of sacraments and sacramentals is to be done so that the faithful “…are given access to the stream of divine grace which flows from the paschal mystery of thepassion, death, the resurrection of Christ, the font from which all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power”.[7] The restoration of the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults flows from this principle and is specifically called for in Sacrosanctum Concilium.[8]

And there can be no question that one of the great theological achievements of the Missal of Paul VI is the way in which the paschal mystery emerges with clarity as the centre of the liturgical year and, indeed, as the centre of every celebration of the Eucharist. We can measure this achievement by studying individual texts and gauging their cumulative effect, but a simple statistic can indicate what I am pointing to. In the Missal of Paul VI the word “paschal” in various of its forms occurs 120 times. In the preconciliar missal of 1962 it occurs 17 times. In the English-speaking world the intended impact of the Missal of Paul VI was weakened by the habitual translation of paschale as “Easter.” But “Easter” means only resurrection, whereas “paschal” means death, resurrection,ascension, and the wondrous sacrament of the Church all at once. In our new English translation of the Mass we hear “paschal” again and again in our prayers in conformity with what the reformed liturgy intends – a striking new tone, enormously rich teaching.


[1]Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 1.
[2]Novo Millennio Ineunte, 57.
[3]Tertio Millennio Adveniente 20.
[4]SC 5.
[5]SC 102-111.
[6]SC 81.
[7]SC 61.
[8]SC 64-71.


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