The Council's Call

A person’s first or last words are often the stuff of legend, and because their art makes speech memorable, poets seem especially sensitive to overtures and finales. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for instance, leaves us looking at the stars: each of the epic’s three canticles ends with that glittering last word, stelle. From pit to purgatory to paradise, the poet and his ghostly guide render us ready to rise to the stars, because Love moves heaven and opens the sky’s oculus, renewing our acquaintance with sun and star-shine. If Dante’s poem begins with us wandering lost in a dark wood, it ends with our saturation by Living Light. Still, while Dante’s last word is stars, his feetand oursare never far from earth. His final vision of Light pouring through the skies summons us to lift our hearts, to look up. Upward, Dante suggests, is the right direction for earthbound humanity.

Thus the Comedy closes with a liturgical gesture: Sursum corda, lift up your hearts.


First and last words ring in the memory, and this is no less true when one recalls the Second Vatican Council. The council’s first word to the world, on Dec. 4, 1963, was a liturgical one, for the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, SC), was the first significant document to emerge from the bishops’ deliberations. Its last word, issued on Dec. 7, 1965, was Joy and Hope (Gaudium et Spes, GS), known as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The council began by considering doxology before doctrine; it ended with an image of homecoming that called Christians to join forces with all who love and practice justice, to seek a haven of surpassing peace and happiness in their homeland, radiant with the glory of the Lord (GS 93).

Forty Years Later

Today, however, many American Catholics feel that a church adrift, rocked by scandal and polarized by ideology, has little to be happy about. But truth to tell, the atmosphere was not all that different 40 years ago. As a nation, on Dec. 4, 1963, we were still benumbed by the loss of President John F. Kennedy, cut down by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas 12 days earlier.

Gloom and doubt were the prevailing discourse in Time magazine’s report (12/6/63) on the conclusion of Vatican II’s second session. Under the ominous banner The Vatican Council: What Went Wrong, Time’s reporter cited the vacuum of inspiration created by John XXIII’s death and painted an unflattering picture of Paul VI as a vacillating Hamlet unable to make tough decisions. Describing the conciliar debates as lively but meandering, the report asked bluntly whether the progressive ideas expressed by many bishops in debate would ever be enacted as legislationin large part because the Decree on the Means of Social Communication, also passed on Dec. 4, 1963, was as much a step backward as the liturgical decree is a step forward. The communications decree, Time complained, not only tolerated state censorship of mass media but was railroaded through with scant discussion, undermining the council’s energetic endorsement of principles like collegiality, collaboration and consultative decision-making.

At one level, 40 years may seem to have spawned little change. Then as now, Vatican II’s debates and decisions were repeatedly reviewed, renegotiated and sometimes reviled. Yet it can hardly be doubted that over the past four decades, Roman Catholic worship has been utterly transformed everywhere in the world. In language, in ritual, in popular participation, in the blossoming of lay ministries, in Scripture, song and preaching, our liturgy today looks and feels quite different from the way it looked and felt at the end of 1963. Unquestionably, too, the energy that aroused reform and renewal has also engendered neuralgia and even liturgy wars among competing camps within the church. Here, however, I hope to summarize and celebrate SC’s great step forward by offering five reflections on its vision of a renewed Roman rite and on the enduring significance of its principles and provisions.

Causes for Celebration

1. Perhaps SC’s most often-quoted claim occurs in No. 14: All the faithful should be led to full, conscious, active participation in the liturgy, and such participation is required both by the nature of the church (as people of God) and by baptism as the priestly, sacramental source of every Christian’s right and responsibility to worship. This text became the cornerstone for all the ritual changes that followedbut what did it mean, and where did it come from?

Here, as always, history is a great illuminator. As a matter of fact, there have been few periods when the liturgies of the Latin West were not being reformed. Liturgical historians rightly recognize the Byzantinization of ritual and music in the city of Rome during the seventh century, the Carolingian reform of the ninth century, the Gregorian reform of the 11th century, the reorganization of liturgy at the papal court in the 12th and 13th centuries (the forerunner of our modern Roman rite) and the virtually nonstop tweaking and fine-tuning of liturgical books that followed the invention of printing in the late 15th century.

In a nutshell, the Roman rite is far more commonly in a state of reform than in a state of stasis. By the 17th century, scholars were busy collecting, editing and publishing liturgical manuscripts from libraries throughout Europe, and popular participation in the liturgy was being promoted in parts of Italy and France. Soon the papacy itself became actively engaged in liturgical reform. Thus, for instance, Benedict XIII’s ritual booklet Memoriale Rituum (1724) allowed significant structural simplifications of the Holy Week liturgies in small parish churches, while Benedict XIV advocated a complete overhaul of liturgical music in his encyclical Annus Qui (1749). Such papally sponsored initiativesfocused on improving church music, enhancing the quality of celebration and enabling the people’s participationwere still being advanced on the eve of Vatican II. Thus Pius XII restored the Easter Vigil in 1951 and reformed all of Holy Week by 1955.

In sum, every single principle espoused by SCthe integral role of music in celebration, the need to adapt ritual to meet changing pastoral conditions, the importance of respect for local cultures and for the rich variety of ritual families of both East and West, the related recognition that every language is liturgical, the essential link between ritual legibility and popular participation, the pressure to avoiduseless repetition, the charge to revise texts and rites in light of sound scholarshipall these can be documented by a host of papal initiatives launched and sustained from the early-18th to the mid-20th centuries.

History thus reveals that there was nothing especially abrupt or revolutionary about Sacrosanctum Concilium. If the postconciliar reshaping of Roman Catholic worship caught many by surprise, it is perhaps because more than two centuries of papal proposals for reform had gone largely unheeded.

2. What was extraordinary was SC’s refreshing willingness to trust people, their cultures and their readiness for ritual reform. SC recognized that the baptized belong to the church by first belonging to its worship. Believers grow up, as it were, speaking liturgy, and they do so in a rich variety of dialects and cultural idiomsthus SC’s bold decision to authorize norms to adapt liturgy to the native temperament (ingenium) and traditions of peoples (Nos. 37-38). Hence, too, its recognition that an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy may be required in some places (No. 40).

Despite the optimism of the council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the cultural adaptation of the liturgy remains a sensitive issue, especially in light of recent instructions from the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. For example, the rules for translating liturgical texts proposed in 2001 in Liturgiam Authenticam (LA) are a spectacular example of ecclesiastical micromanagement that may well turn the already difficult process of crafting a worthy, idiomatic and memorable English liturgy into an endlessly unedifying sideshow.

Still, we should not turn a blind eye to the real progress that has been achieved. Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visits reveal a remarkable sensitivity to local culture and custom in the liturgyshown, for instance, in the sounding conch shells and native dances that accompanied his canonization of Juan Diego in Mexico during the summer of 2002. And even LA admits, a bit resentfully, that the vernacularizing of the Roman rite, which had snowballed even before the council ended, is an indelible fact of life in the modern church. If the council’s document embraced native customs rather cautiously, Liturgiam Authenticam acknowledges that vernaculars are here to stay, that translations are a permanent part of the liturgical scene.

3. Unquestionably, then, SC 36-40 is among the council’s greatest contributions to Roman Catholic liturgical renewal. But equally important, in my view, are No. 7, whose theme is the many modes of Christ’s presence in liturgical celebrations, and No. 48.

Why is that theme important? Because it prevents our understanding of presence (including eucharistic real presence) from becoming narrow, reductive and idolatrous. It alerts us to the fact that sacraments are subtle; when they signify, they simultaneously reveal and conceal. Hence, while delivering God’s gift, they maintain distance, the irreducible otherness between us and a God whose unutterable nearness can never be fully comprehended or controlled. Sacramental presence does not entrap God within human or ecclesial action, but shows instead how God draws near, giving us everything in Christ and the Spirit through the concrete facts of flesh and historyin the pathos of the body, in the radiance of water, wine, bread, salt, oil, hearing, touch, taste, sight, smell and motion. Similarly, SC 48 affirms that at Mass the (lay) faithful truly offer the sacrifice not only through the hands of the priest but together with him. Thus, the whole assembly, priest and peopleeach fulfilling all and only those ministries that belong to themoffers the eucharist. St. Augustine said it well in City of God the church itself is offered in what it offers.

4. In short, Sacrosanctum Concilium suggests that the best way to understand the relation between priest and people is not as a dividing line but as a series of concentric circles. As Edward Hahenberg has written in Ministries: A Relational Approach (Crossroad, 2003), our early efforts to reclaim the liturgical ministry of lay persons in the church were perhaps sidetracked by a tendency to use ordinationrather than baptismas the primary way to understand Christian priesthood. We sought an extension of the ordination franchise, so to speak, one that would grant lay women and men a priesthood of their own. Vatican II wisely insisted that for everyone, including the ordained, the most radical sacrament of incorporation into Christ’s priesthoodand hence into liturgical participation and ministryis baptism (SC 14). The keystone of Christian service, of sacerdotality, is, was and remains communion with Christ in his church. Thus, while each presbyter and bishop is surely a priestly person, not every priestly person is an ordained presbyter or bishop.

In sum, ministry arises from within concentric circles of communion that flow from baptism, and not from a dividing line that invites turf wars or shouting matches.

5. A final point. Critics today sometimes claim that our postconciliar worship lacks beauty, that Sancrosanctum Concilium unwittingly fostered a rite marked by the worst aspects of a discredited Enlightenment aesthetic that exalts rationality and utility over mystery and complexity. But in fact SC 8 sees the church’s earthly liturgy as a pilgrim’s journey, driven by desire, toward the holy city of Jerusalem, where Christ sits at God’s right. Liturgy is an ecstatic, even erotic act that embodies God’s own passionate, excessive self-gift by repeating it in our own time and place. Ecstatic, erotic? Yes, indeed: it is God’s own excessive generosity, that finally draws us toward those stars that Dante invited us to look up and see.

Lift Up Your Hearts

God is thus present among us as eros, ecstasy and excess, and God’s unconditional generosity summons our own. In liturgy, the commerce between God and us achieves almost embarrasing intensity and intimacy, for there the Holy One is revealed in breath, bone and blood, in saliva and stammering word, in songs sung off-key, in hands roughened by work and worry.

Is that beautiful? You bet it is. As Dante knew, the path to paradise passes through pit and purgatory. If a renewed liturgy draws us toward the holy city of Jerusalem, it does so by first returning us to earthto the bustle and nitty-gritty of daily life, to our cancers and chemotherapies, to our beautiful children and our sometimes sputtering marriages. There is where we hear the call, Lift up your hearts! There is where we see, as in the Paradiso, the Light Supreme, uplifted...the snow unsealed by the sun.

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11 years 11 months ago
My thanks and congratulations to Nathan D. Mitchell for his excellent retrospective on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s landmark document on the liturgy (“The Council’s Call,” 1/19). Many of my students in the 1960’s were surprised that my liturgical studies had enabled me to predict what the council should do and most of what it did do. As Mr. Mitchell points out, the constitution was not a radical document in terms of what was needed. It is distressing to hear young priests with no sense of history criticize the council document. The liturgical reforms that Mr. Mitchell cites are of uneven quality, depending on the leaders who inaugurated them, and, more important, the resources at their disposal. With the earlier work of liturgical reformers like Parsch, Jungmann, Klauser et al., we had excellent resources and excellent people on the commission.

11 years 11 months ago
Your cover photo, intended to accompany Nathan Mitchell’s enlightening article, made me laugh! Not identified, it reminded me of old churches and chapels I had visited throughout Europe: two candles on one end of the altar, a small floral arrangement on the other end and occasionally an arrangement on the floor. “The Council’s Call” was better illustrated by the art of Gerard Quigley that accompanied the article inside the magazine. At least it included people, although, as far as I can tell, not women.

11 years 11 months ago
Nathan Mitchell’s fine, positive article (1/19) on the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium nonetheless provokes a mighty “Alas!” He comments ever so briefly on the rules for translating liturgical texts (Liturgiam Authenticam). Anticipating the product of the literal translation demanded by this document can only make one very sad—and wish that our worn sacramentaries from the 1970’s could be laminated for continued use. Or will we, after all, be driven to plead for a return to Latin altogether? If only the sideshow Mitchell foresees would delay the product indefinitely!


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