Assessment of the liturgical reforms of the Council


This is the fourth in a series of articles exploring the gift and promise of Vatican II liturgical reform.

Ideologues struggle to make subtle distinctions. A political ideologue who identifies as a conservative, for example, will often be unable to recognize the good of his liberal counterpart. Every dimension of the liberal worldview is false to the conservative ideologue.

While such an ideology is pervasive in the political sphere, it has also seeped into discussions around the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Either the council’s reforms are entirely good or entirely evil. Both positions ultimately suffer from ideological biases.

The Catholic position, which I seek to articulate in this column, is that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II are both intrinsically good and, at times, flawed. This does not mean that the whole Church should or should return to the pre-conciliar period. On the contrary, it opens up space for a non-ideological approach to assessing the state of the liturgical life of the Church.

Active participation

First, liturgical reforms are intrinsically good. They are intrinsically good because they fostered the kind of participation that the magisterium sought to inculcate from the twentieth century onwards.

The term “active participation” was first used in Pope Pius X’s 1903 apostolic letter. Tra Le Sollecitudini. While some have asserted that the language of active or real participation is primarily interior, this is not the case. The document argues for the primacy of Gregorian chant precisely because chant is the kind of music that can be sung by the whole congregation (unlike Mozart’s lyrical liturgical compositions).

of Pope Pius XII Dei Ombudsman (1947) continues to use the term “active participation”, enriching its meaning. Again, the lay faithful must actively participate by singing Mass. But they must know and recognize the different parts of the Roman missal. At Low Masses – those where there is no choir – the congregation may sing appropriate hymns. At high masses – where there is a choir – they must be able to sing the hymns and propers of the mass.

At the Second Vatican Council, the call for a reform of the Eucharistic liturgy was aimed at encouraging active participation. We hope for a simplified Eucharistic liturgy with a view to greater participation — both interior and exterior — of the baptized faithful.

However, sometimes after the Council, there has been a misunderstanding of this active participation. Active participation does not mean that everyone should have a particular role – apart from serving as a member of the assembly – at a Eucharistic liturgy. Such participation cannot be reduced to frenetic activity.

Active participation was an authentic recuperation of what it means to belong to the baptized faithful. The sacrifice of the Mass is an occasion for contemplation. But it is also a time for the baptized faithful to offer that sacrifice of praise inherent in Christian existence. We are priests, prophets and royal figures destined to transform the cosmos into a space of love through Jesus Christ.

Reformed eucharistic rites facilitated this heightened sense of liturgical identity for the baptized faithful. Yes, the Second Vatican Council was often too optimistic about the ability of liturgical reform to put an end to individualism and secularization. Liturgical reform is not a universal medicine that cures the various diseases of modernity.

Acknowledge the wrongs

That said, the most devout of the baptized faithful — who regularly attend Mass — have benefited from vernacular worship. When the Eucharistic Prayer is recited aloud, we have incorporated its images into our prayer lives. We understand that raising our voice in song to God is part of the loving sacrifice we offer to the Triune God in our families and at work.

Council reforms are intrinsically good.

And yet, once we have professed the goodness of reforms, we must also recognize that those reforms might be incomplete. Sometimes reforms can go wrong here or there.

For example, at the Second Vatican Council, three Eucharistic prayers alongside the Roman Canon (what we call Eucharistic Prayer I) were introduced. Eucharistic Prayer II of the Roman Missal is inspired by a text found in a 3rd century document entitled “The Apostolic Tradition”. Eucharistic Prayer II is beautiful, asking the Spirit to descend on the gifts like dew, referring to the manna in the desert.

Over the following decades, historians of the liturgy recognized that the Council Fathers were wrong. This prayer is probably not from the 3rd century but from the 5th century. It is probably not composed by Hippolytus of Rome but first appears in Syriac.

Does this mean that the reform was bad? No, only if you are an antique dealer. The prayer itself is beautiful. The inclusion of additional Eucharistic prayers in the treasury of the Church is good. Yes, priests should pray the Roman Canon more often during liturgies and Sunday feasts. But the existence of a beautiful prayer, which the Church has the power to compose, based on patristic thought, does not destroy the reforms.

It is still necessary to recognize that the Council was sometimes mistaken on certain historical points. We should not hide how some of the wrongs were implemented too quickly. Other reforms are possible in the centuries to come.

A developing liturgy

Yes, the Holy Spirit was in Vatican II. How present the Spirit is in the Church today. But the presence of the Spirit does not mean that everything that happens because of a Council must remain so forever and ever, amen. Such assumptions lead to idolatry rather than renewal. This work of studying the history and theology of the liturgy is the task of scholars. One day, reforms may be introduced in future editions of the Roman missal or other Church rites.

This is all OK. This is not an attack on the Council. It is not a question of abandoning the Council.

It is development.

For this reason, we must allow ourselves to criticize certain reforms without demanding a return to the pre-conciliar rites. It has too often been assumed, for example, that simplicity leads to better participation. Whether the Council Fathers were aware of it or not, participation is not reduced to understanding exactly what is happening. The use of salt, for example, in the baptismal liturgy of children was eliminated by the reforms. The application of salt before baptism was considered too superstitious, a symbol that modern man could not understand.

We now understand that participation is not reducible to an act of cognition. There is aesthetic participation, the contemplation aroused by what is beautiful. There is a participation based on bodily worship of God. Isn’t that how people with mental and physical disabilities often participate?

In short, yes, we lay faithful can understand salt.

So, let’s abandon ideology. Let us recognize that the reforms were intended and were intrinsically good for the Church. Recognize at the same time that errors could have been made and that future reforms could rectify these errors.

In the next chronicles, it will be a question of applying this approach to thorny problems linked to the liturgy of today. Beginning with the direction the priest faces during the Eucharistic prayer.

Note: In the previous column (“Why Liturgy Generates Such Conflict,” Faith, Feb. 6-12), I assigned a relative position to Dr. Peter Kwasniewski that he noted in his personal correspondence that he didn’t have. He believes that the Reformed liturgies are valid and have generated spiritual fruits in the lives of believers. I apologize to the readers and to Dr. Kwasniewski for misrepresenting his position.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.


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