The Second Vatican Council and the liturgy
The Year of Faith, which began on Oct. 11, 2011, and concludes on Nov. 24, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council as well as the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It also coincides with the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that was held in October 2012 to consider the theme of “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.”
One of the recommendations for the Year of Faith is to study and reflect on the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The first document promulgated by the Council was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, often referred to as Sacrosanctum Concilium, which are the first two words of the Latin text.
Why did the council begin with the liturgy? In its introduction, the Constitution lists the council’s four aims: “(1) to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; (2) to adapt more closely to the needs of our age those institutions that are subject to change; (3) to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; (4) to strengthen whatever can help to call all mankind into the Church’s fold.” The intent of the council, then, was to address not just Catholics or even Christians, but the entire world.
The Constitution then explained that, in view of these four aims, it was beginning with the liturgy: “Accordingly it sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.” It then listed several reasons. First, it is through the liturgy that we are saved and sanctified: “For it is the liturgy through which, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, ‘the work of our redemption is accomplished.’” Second, the liturgy manifests the Church in her fullness: “It is through the liturgy, especially, that the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.” Third, the liturgy equips all of the faithful to proclaim the Gospel, for “it marvelously increases their power to preach Christ and thus show forth the Church…a sign under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together until there is one fold and one shepherd.”
The Constitution also formulated what has become the standard definition of the liturgy:
“The liturgy then is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. It involves the presentation of man’s sanctification under the guise of signs perceptible by the senses and its accomplishment in ways appropriate to each of these signs. In it full 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.”
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy also gives us a good sense of all that the liturgy includes. It is divided into seven chapters, and the chapter titles offer a good summary of what the Church means when she speaks of the liturgy:
- Chapter I: General Principles for the Restoration and Promotion of the Sacred Liturgy;
- Chapter II: The Most Sacred Mystery of the Eucharist;
- Chapter III: The Other Sacraments and the Sacramentals;
- Chapter IV: The Divine Office;
- Chapter V: The Liturgical Year;
- Chapter VI: Sacred Music;
- Chapter VII: Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings.
In subsequent columns we will look at each of these chapters in some detail.
Before his ascension, Christ promised his disciples that he would be with them always (Matthew 28:20). This promise is fulfilled pre-eminently in the liturgy, as the Second Vatican Council taught: “Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations.” He is present in the Mass in four ways: the assembly, the minister, the Word, and especially in the eucharistic species. Therefore, the liturgy, says the Constitution, “is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows.” It is no surprise, then, that the first document promulgated by the council was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is available online at:
Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.