For many, if not most, Catholics the Mass is the touchstone of their faith. It is the external sign of being a good Catholic. Participation in the liturgy is more than just going to church. It is physical communion with the Body of Christ. It is where we encounter Jesus in the Eucharist, in his word and in his people.”
With Pope John XXIII’s reminder that “the Christian life is not a collection of ancient customs,” many of the council fathers accepted the proposition that fundamental elements cannot be changed but that everything else is changeable and “ought to be changed with the passing of time to express more clearly the holy things which they signify.”
In addressing the fathers at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pope Paul VI explained that “the liturgy was the first subject to be examined and the first too, in a sense, in intrinsic worth and importance for the church.” It belongs to the essential nature of the church. It is how we express who we are. It is the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed.
It is no surprise therefore, that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) was the first document approved by the pope and the council. Debate on the schema began early in the first session and concluded in the second session. Final voting took place Dec. 4, 1963 (2147 to 4) and it was promulgated by Pope Paul VI, who earlier had voted for the schema as Cardinal Giovanni Montini.
Far from starting from scratch, the council had the benefit of the work of many liturgical scholars who were part of a movement for renewal of the liturgy that began in Belgium in the latter part of the 19th century and flourished in the early 20th century. The movement emphasized making the liturgy active, fruitful and meaningful, rather than obscure and mysterious.
Pope Pius X’s permitting earlier First Communion for children, encouraging more frequent communion and fuller participation in the Mass were the movement’s first fruits. Early in the 20th century daily missals in the vernacular became available enabling lay people to have a better understanding of the meaning of the liturgy.
Many of the council fathers felt that Pope John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento (updating) certainly applied to the liturgy which had last been reformed in an agricultural era for people with different intellectual interests and worldviews, a time dominated by monastic spirituality. Liturgy tended to be the work of the clergy whose preaching skills often left much to be desired.
When the constitution was finalized it emphasized the pastoral nature of the liturgy and the importance of renewal insuring that the laity would not be present as strangers and silent spectators, but knowing, devout and active participants, by making the meaning of the liturgy and its elements more understandable through the use of the vernacular. In fact, the constitution states that full, active participation is to be considered before all else because the liturgy is “the indispensable source from which the faithful derive the true Christian spirit.”
In addressing the importance of preaching, the council stressed that the homily should expound the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of Christian life from Scripture. The constitution emphasizes the great importance of scripture in all liturgical celebration and encourages Bible study groups and a return to the ancient Christian practice of Bible services.
Revision and simplification of sacramental rites was also directed together with celebration in the vernacular. Again, it was emphasized that conscious, active and fruitful participation enhances the important function of sacraments in strengthening and expressing faith and building up the Body of Christ.
For the laity, experiencing the renewed liturgical rites as they were phased in was the first realization that what was going on at the Council was more than holy talk. These early changes were only the first waves made by the Barque of Peter as it sailed into new and unchartered waters.