Understanding the sacraments: Principles of reform

Vatican II liturgy restoration ensured faithful would experience an encounter with Blessed Trinity

Last month, in recognition of the Year of Faith, I introduced the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium). I began by looking at the constitution’s description of the liturgy in order to understand why the first document promulgated by the council was on the sacred liturgy.

This month I would like to look at the principles articulated by the constitution that guided reform of the liturgy.

The overarching concern of the council in its reform and restoration of the liturgy was to ensure that the faithful experience the full power of the liturgy, which is always an encounter with the Blessed Trinity. In the words of the constitution, “holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself … in order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy” (n. 21). To achieve this, the restoration was guided by five broad principles.

The first principle was that “all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (n. 14). This, according to the constitution, was “the aim to be considered above all else, for [the liturgy] is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” (n. 14).

This leads directly into the second guiding principle. In order for the faithful to participate fully, consciously and actively in the liturgy, the texts and rites should be reformed in such a way “that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community” (n. 21).

The third guiding principle outlined the sources and disciplines that should guide the reform and restoration of the liturgy. The constitution called for careful investigation “into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised.” This investigation should be theological, historical, and pastoral. It also should take into consideration “the general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy” as well as the experience “derived from recent liturgical reforms” (such as the reform of Holy Week in 1955).  Finally, and most importantly, any reform should on the one hand “retain sound tradition while remaining open to legitimate progress,” so “that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (n. 23).

The fourth guiding principle addressed the importance of sacred Scripture in the liturgy. The constitution summarized the role of sacred Scripture in the liturgy, listing three general areas. First, “it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung”; second, “the prayers, collects, and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force”; and third, “it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning.”

Thus, the council considered the promotion of a “warm and living love for scripture” essential to “the restoration, progress, and adaptation of the sacred liturgy” (n. 24).

Because of the power and importance of sacred Scripture, it called for an increased use of Scripture in the liturgy: “In sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from holy scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable” (n. 35). This is why, to give one example, we now have a three-year cycle of readings for the Sunday Mass and a two-year cycle of readings for weekday Masses.

The fifth principle specified that “the rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (n. 34).

In the phrase “distinguished by a noble simplicity,” the word “distinguished” is somewhat unfortunate. It translates the Latin word fulgere, which means to “flash” or “lighten like lightening.” Thus, the rites should “flash” and “radiate” with “noble simplicity,” with the very radiance of Christ who is the light of the world.

In subsequent chapters the constitution addressed in more detail the reform of the Mass and other sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours, sacramentals and devotions. All, however, were guided by these five global principles. These five principles give us a valuable insight into the council’s understanding of the nature of the liturgy itself, and so they provide us not only with information about the reform but also food for prayer and reflection that can enrich our own experience of the liturgy.

Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.