Sacrosanctum Concilium: A Work in Progress
Sacrosanctum Concilium: A Work in Progress

Sacrosanctum Concilium: A Work in Progress

Editorial FAITH Magazine November-December 2013

“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52)

December 2013 marks two significant and related anniversaries. Fifty years ago, on 4 December, Paul VI solemnly promulgated Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the liturgy. This document wams the starting point for the reform of the liturgy that took place after the Council. And on the first Sunday of Advent it will be two years since the new translation of the Roman Missal came into use. Both these events have had a profound impact on the life of the Church in these isles.

There are different interpretations of how these two anniversaries relate to each other, and in large part these depend upon how well one is disposed to the new translation. In it the Latin original of the Roman Missal is rendered into English “integrally and in the most exact manner” (Liturgiam Authenticam 20). For some the “hyper literalism” of the new translation, with its unfamiliar words and complex sentence structures, put an end to a brave experiment in inculturation which, it is claimed, had been envisioned and inaugurated by Sacrosanctum Concilium and which had shaped much of the Church’s liturgy in the years after the Council. Others would argue that the introduction of the new translation was part of a necessary “reform of the reform”. Binding the prayers ofthe liturgy more closely to the words of the original Latin of the Roman Rite brought a much-needed objectivity to the Church’s liturgical life. It was a necessary corrective to the liturgical excesses enacted in the name of the spirit of the Council. In short, in the period after the Council there had been a great deal of bad liturgy that was too subjective and too self-indulgent and this state of affairs needed to be set right. What had gone wrong in the reform of the liturgy called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium now itself needed to be reformed.

''Just as the sunlight descends from on high and brings a flower to life and makes it flourish, so too the love of God brings us to life and makes us flourish. And is it impossible to explain that God takes the initiative, that his love comes before our human efforts, that his love is prevenient?''

A Deeper Continuity

Though we would err towards the latter interpretation it should also be noted that both readings imply an element of discontinuity between these two anniversaries. Without wanting to oversimplify the development of liturgical theology over the last half century, it is important to stress that below any superficial differences there lies a much more profound continuity between the Council’s project of liturgical reform and the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal.
In his frequently quoted address to the Roman Curia of 22 December 2005, Benedict XVI made the following remarks regarding the Second Vatican Council:
On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

These remarks are fully applicable in the Church’s liturgical life. In this edition of Faith magazine the finer details of the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium are taken up in an article by Jeremy Driscoll OSB and so we shall leave these matters in his more expert hands. However, Sacrosanctum Concilium is a document of the Second Vatican Council and it has to be read within the overall context of the Council’s aims and objectives. The wider purpose of the Council was what Blessed John XXIII called the “aggiornamento” of the Church. But what precisely does this evocative Italian word mean? In his address at the solemn opening of the Council, Blessed John XXXIII explained exactly what he meant by this term: “That which most interests the Council is that the sacreddeposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught in a more efficient form.” The updating or “aggiornamento” of the Church did not mean jettisoning unpalatable parts of the Catholic faith in a vain attempt to be more with it; it meant a more effective proclamation of the same gospel that the apostles received from Christ and that has been handed down in and by the Church ever since – in Benedict XVI’s words “the continuity of the one subject-Church”. In 21st-century jargon we might talk about a rebranding, or a repackaging, of the essential truths of the Catholic faith so that they might speak to modern culture.

Active Participation

In the light of this wider purpose it becomes apparent that the liturgical reforms envisioned by Sacrosanctum Concilium, however well or badly they may have been implemented, were motivated by a desire to make the prayer life of the Church more accessible. This document desired that the laity be led to a “fully conscious and active participation” in the Church’s liturgy. In fact this is the “aim to be considered before all else” (SC 14). However, it is necessary to understand what exactly this means. Benedict XVI, in his message for the Closing Mass of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, made some important distinctions:
The Council promoted the full and active participation of the faithful in the Eucharistic sacrifice… The renewal of external forms, desired by the Council Fathers, was intended to make it easier to enter into the inner depth of the mystery. Its true purpose was to lead people to a personal encounter with the Lord, present in the Eucharist, and thus with the living God, so that through this contact with Christ’s love, the love of his brothers and sisters for one another might also grow. Yet not infrequently, the revision of liturgical forms has remained at an external level, and “active participation” has been confused with external activity.

The purpose of the liturgical reforms envisioned by Sacrosanctum Concilium was to lead the Church and her individual members into a deeper, more interior, grasp of the content of the Catholic faith. The intention is to give us greater access to our faith and so make it more available to us, and through us to the world at large. And here the continuity between Sacrosanctum Concilium and the introduction of the new translation becomes apparent.

  “That which most interests the Council is that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught in a more efficient form”

The New Translation

The “hyper literalism” of the new translation throws up all sorts of words and concepts that sound unfamiliar to those of us who are immersed in the work-a-day world. But these concepts and words are part of our Catholic faith. It is almost as if the new translation forces us to trip over the content of our faith. The words of the prayers at Mass are among the most public and available manifestations of the Catholic faith. They are, if you like, the front windows of the shop, and the new translation with its admittedly sometimes specialised language – and in fact precisely because of this language – sets out all the wares of the Church’s faith for public inspection. This is perhaps a change of tactic but it is nonetheless a real attempt to make the Catholic faith available. As such thenew translation is profoundly consonant with the project of the Second Vatican Council.

One cannot go through all the prayers of the Mass in this short editorial but a few examples will suffice. Take the term “consubstantial”, which appears in the new translation of the Creed. Certainly this word needs to be explained, but it also provides a doorway into the drama of the Arian crisis. It opens up the great debate about the identity of Christ that convulsed the Church in the fourth century. And the laity have a right to know about this: clergy have an obligation to preach on this and share the patrimony and history of the Catholic faith with those in their care. It is patronising and demeaning to suggest that the laity aren’t interested.

A second example might be the words “my sacrifice and yours”, which the priest speaks at the Offertory. One might misunderstand these words and imagine that the priest is somehow placing himself on a pedestal. But in truth this distinction between the sacramental sacrifice offered by the priest in the person of Christ and the sacrifice offered by the laity must be maintained if we are to come to a true appreciation of the specific dignity and importance of the lay vocation.

Finally, let us touch upon an example that will crop up in December and has been cited as one of the most egregious instances of impenetrable theology-speak. On 8 December, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, in the Prayer over the Offerings the priest will say these words: “As we profess her [Mary], on account of your prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin, …”

The notion of “prevenient grace” may be a fine scholastic distinction, but the life of a Christian is the life of grace. How can we expect our people to lead good Christian lives if we don’t catechise them about grace? Nor is grace such an impossibly abstract concept to explain. Fr Holloway, the founder of the Faith movement, used to talk about grace as “the sunshine of the soul”. Just as the sunlight descends from on high and brings a flower to life and makes it flourish, so too the love of God brings us to life and makes us flourish. And is it impossible to explain that God takes the initiative, that his love comes before our human efforts, that his love is prevenient?

Work Still to be Done

In the two years since the introduction of the new translation the vast majority of Catholics in these isles have simply accepted it. However, if the goal of liturgical reform is a deeper holding of the Catholic faith we would be wrong to assume, just because the new translation is being used, that its implementation is now complete. The new translation itself was an enormous work and the saying of the prayers of the Mass in this translation in our churches is an important milestone, but a vast amount of work remains to be done.

The new translation does lay out the riches of our faith in a very public way, but our people now need a continuing catechesis. This is not some sort of sterile giving of dictionary definitions for the more difficult vocabulary. These difficult words and phrases and the way they fit together give us a way into the whole body of the Catholic faith and therefore provide an opportunity for a completely renewed catechesis. Such a catechesis will embrace the whole of the Catholic faith and will be both stimulated and reinforced, Sunday by Sunday, by the things we do and say at Mass.

The Importance of Continuity

The deep continuity that runs from Sacrosanctum Concilium up to and through the new translation is simply a fact. However, the awareness of this fact has a salutary function. Those who understand it are insulated against liturgical fashions that, rightly or wrongly depending on the human element in the Church, may come and go. As Catholics we are not ricocheting from one liturgical extreme to another. In this important post-conciliar period we are primarily called to ensure “that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught in a more efficient form”. And though the Church’s liturgy is so much more than just a catechetical tool, it nonetheless embraces this desire to communicate the faith.

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