Thursday, July 5


"Ad Fontes": Towards a Liturgical Renaissance

A "renaissance," of course, is a re-birth, and intellectual renaissances happen from time to time when people, returning to the original sources of their ways of thought, discover that these sources should be read in a new light. It seems to me that many, perhaps even most, Catholics have a very poor understanding of what Vatican II desired for the liturgy: we read Vatican II today (if we read it all) in light of the new Mass which we now celebrate, but I would like to spend some time exploring how, if we read the Council again, in light of the Tridentine Mass which the Council Fathers knew, our understanding of Vatican II may change.

Taking a note from Dan, whose recent reflection on the motu proprio "Summorum Pontificum" reminded us so well that Benedict, by opening up the riches of traditional liturgy more widely, is giving the Church the opportunity to renew the way we celebrate the Mass of Paul VI and beatify it with the customs and spirit of that traditional liturgy, I would like to start posting small sections from the Second Vatican Council's decree on the liturgy, "Sacrosanctum Concilium," including my own brief thoughts and inviting others.

First, though, a little background. Reading the comments today, I was reminded that most Catholics probably do not know how the decrees of the Second Vatican Council became, four years after that council ended, the "Novus Ordo Missae" which we celebrate today. In the words of a commentator on the Council in 1966, "The Constitution [on the Sacred Liturgy] can, after all, only be a skeleton law. Its execution, and through it its decisive work of reform, has in the meanwhile been handed on to the Consilium ad Exsequendam Constiutionem de Sacra Liturgia," or Consilium for short. The way in which the new order of Mass was formulated by the Consilium committee, and especially the way in which the new order of Mass was implemented in much of Europe and America, was not seldom at variance with the express wishes of the Council itself.

For instance, I remember a church youth group that did a presentation on Vatican II. In this presentation, they explained that before the Council, the Church used pipe organs; but, "Vatican II did away with them." To make the point, two guys used fake chain saws to destroy a fake, paper pipe organ.

But what did the Council really say, in this example, about pipe organs?
Paragraph 120 of Sacrosanctum Concilium,
"In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things."

So, as many people already know, what it is commonly thought that "Vatican II did" is often expressly opposed to what the Council actually decreed. Hopefully, we can look more closely at the history of how the new order of Mass was formulated, and the bishops' initial reaction to the new order of Mass when it was first celebrated experimentally in the Sistine Chapel during the Synod of '69. But, for now, I think the most valuable contribution we can make towards a liturgical renaissance is to read carefully, over the next few months, the actual text of Sacrosanctum Concilium and, above all, to appreciate the vision of the Council itself, leaving behind those ideologies which desire, against the Council's wishes, to progress beyond it or retreat to a place before it.

Selection from Sacrosanctum Concilium, pp. 1 & 2

1. "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.
The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy."

2. "For the liturgy, "through which the work of our redemption is accomplished," (Secret of the ninth Sunday after Pentecost) 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. 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 (Cf. Heb. 13:14). 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 (Cf. Eph. 2:21-22), to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ (Cf. Eph. 4:13), 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 (Cf. Is. 11:12) under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together (Cf. John 11:52), until there is one sheepfold and one shepherd (Cf. John 10:16)."

Brief Reflection

First, it is worth noting that this constitution is not dogmatic in nature.

What strikes me about these two paragraphs is the emphasis on eros and agape which was brought out so clearly in Benedict's encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Of course, it is important that we understand that Benedict, and here the sacred council, was not talking about "eros" in the sense of "erotic" that English commonly uses, but in the sense of the love which desires and stands in need. Speaking of eros in this respect is speaking of our neediness before God: we desire God's love as our bread, with a desire so strong that it is a true need: we will be less human and impossibly unhappy without that love. But in the "sacrifice of the eucharist," God's love does become our bread when the bread becomes the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ: and this allows us to love God and the world with agape, with the love that gives of itself selflessly. Scholastics speak of faith which allows us to hope, to believe that God does love us, and then hope which allows us to love: this is the essential cycle of Eros and Agape: we stand in need of intimacy with God, the liturgy supplies us that Divine Intimacy with the Eucharistic Lord, really present, and that enables us to love God unto self-sacrifice and love neighbor with heroic charity.

The liturgy therefore plays an essential role in the Christian life. It does not, however, constitute the Christian life, it enables the Christian life. I can only appreciate that the Council laid out this essential contextualization of the Liturgy before it proceeded to discuss the specifics of liturgy: this is sage advice that should protect us all from the far too frequent error of confusing liturgical celebration with the sum of the Church's, or the Christian's, life.

The whole of paragraph two describes the Church "not in its juridical structure, but in its sacramental character," in the words of Josef Jungmann. For this reason, the Church, which through the liturgy plays an essential role in mediating the Christian life, is decribed as a sacrament and as an image of Christ its Bridegroom, also being, like Him, "divine and human" in its essence and the place where the heavenly is present as the earthly.

The liturgy is thus rooted in the Church for the sustenance of the Christian life. The liturgy, whatever it is, must therefore be a place where Christ is encountered as Divine Love; it is therefore not primarily for instructing or evangelizing the faithful, but vivifying them. But it vivifies us to live the Christian life, and cannot constitute the whole of that life: we must always avoid the temptation to collapse into liturgical navel-gazing, but rather encounter Christ and by that live a life of love of God and neighbor so powerful that, without the encounter of the liturgy, it would not be possible.

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