Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: A Project for Pray Tell?

As the readers of Pray Tell are well aware, we are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, on 4 December 1963. I would like to propose that we commit ourselves to a “re-reading” of that document, taking one article a week.

Depending on our interests and our expertise we might address three sets of questions to the text:

1) What did the Council Fathers intend by what they wrote in that particular article? This would be a primarily historical study in which we would re-visit the contexts leading to the creation of the text, both remote (the liturgical movement, ressourcement theology, the biblical movement, ecumenism) and proximate (the responses sent in to the preparatory commissions, the conciliar debates).

2) How has what the Council Fathers wrote in the particular article been “received” by the Church? This would involve both history and social sciences, with our contributions indicating perhaps what has happened in the worshiping communities we know, recognizing the danger of universalizing our individual experiences but also honoring the data gained.

3) What further trajectories have arisen/might arise from the article under consideration? This could involve theological and pastoral perspectives. The goal would not be unanimity of opinion but respectful conversation arising from a common starting point: the Council’s text.

I would ask those who would be interested in such a “re-reading” to indicate so by responding to this post. If you feel so moved, you might also modify or propose further sets of questions to pose to the text. If there is enough interest by next Saturday, I would take the responsibility for posting the article in Latin and English each Sunday and perhaps offering an initial commentary. If there isn’t enough interest, we still might wish to do such a “re-reading” on our own.

I look forward to your responses.

46 comments

  1. My high school senior theology classes will be reading this after we finish reading and discussing Lumen Gentium. We will follow and discuss with great interest, and perhaps their teacher can contribute to numbers 2 and 3 based on our class discussions. A wonderful idea!

  2. Michael:

    I agree that this is a good idea, a needed project. There is a GREAT richness in the document that is lost to people because they have not read the whole thing all the way thru; and/or they have only read pieces; or, maybe some well-read and knowldgeable person “re-write” the document in the style of “ELEMENTS OF RITE bY now deceased Fr Aiden Kavanaugh, a former St. Meinrad monk.

    One further thought: could the “study” include this question to each paragraph: WHAT VALUE is being upheld here?
    What would be some practical ideas for BETTER implementation?

  3. Somehow I think the focus should be on what many question, the loss of Latin altogether, although I don’t quibble that Pope Paul VI had the authority to allow for an all vernacular liturgy (and by the same token, Pope Benedict’s liberal allowance of the Tridentine Mass making it one of two forms of the one Latin Rite, as well as his encouragement of the Reform of the Reform); what Pope Benedict has called a “manufactured” liturgy verses “organic development of the Tridentine Mass; and inculturation, which in my book is the hardest thing to get my mind around and the easiest way to spark controversy.
    Given the fact that there has been good and bad in the last 50 years of liturgical history, might one also question the non-infallible aspects of SC and make some suggestions for future reforms, after all, there really isn’t much in SC that is infallible and immutable.
    One should also look at the preservation of chant or at least the promotion of Gregorian Chant and is this an unmet desire what the Council desired. Finally has there been a loss of the “sense of Sacred and reverence” and did SC really intend that if so?

    1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #3:
      So you think the focus should be on all your hobby horses, to the exclusion of the rest of the document? 🙂 (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) I hope you don’t mind if we take up the whole document.
      Pax,
      awr

  4. This sounds interesting but there are limitations to doing this without a strong emphasis on your first point. People tend to read these documents as a lawyer might, studying the literal words only without a broader grasp of what came before and the real that was then being addressed — and without the information that was then taken for granted but not spelled out explicitly. In other words, people tend to read these documents as fundamentalists read the Bible, citing chapter and verse without a sense of the time or the purpose or the broader idea. I’ve found that I’ve learned more about SC just being discovering ever more about the traditional Roman Rite, its use and culture, its common presentation, and the liturgical movement that led to the reexamination. This context provided me far more information than the words of the document itself.

    It is a purely speculative exercise but it might be interesting also to consider how the document might have been re-written had the authors had the capacity to see just ten years into the future. What would they have changed? How would the emphasis be different?

    1. @Jeffrey Tucker – comment #8:
      And, while we’re at that, let’s not forget the context of a long climate of fear and the overcoming thereof, too, as J Peter Nixon’s thesis published earlier on this site probed.

    2. @Jeffrey Tucker – comment #8:
      In other words, people tend to read these documents as fundamentalists read the Bible, citing chapter and verse without a sense of the time or the purpose or the broader idea. I’ve found that I’ve learned more about SC just being discovering ever more about the traditional Roman Rite, its use and culture, its common presentation, and the liturgical movement that led to the reexamination.
      Granted, Jeffrey. But be prepared that SC, if not relegated to either a fundamentalist specimen in amber or a didactically presumed affirmation of precedent documents, is a living and evolving source of illumination that may shine just as thoroughly upon praxes that don’t align with any one particular mindset. This reality has to be acknowledged as intellectually honest and possible.

    3. @Jeffrey Tucker – comment #8:
      Agreed with Jeffrey on the tendency to fundamentalism–many Catholics have this approach–many conservatives but not only those folks. Count me a skeptic on an overreliance on point one.

      Make it a living examination. Assess SC frankly given what we know now, where the strengths and weaknesses of the reform were, and possible future avenues of renewal. I would trust the varied readership here to give it a more thorough treatment than I received on my web site six years ago.

    4. @Jeffrey Tucker – comment #8:
      I can see Jeffrey’s point, which could also be made in a progressive interpretation of SC and the OF. However, keep in mind a practical purpose of the Vatican II documents is to justify the musical and liturgical goals of our parish music programs. Far from being “fundamentalist”, we simply want people to pay any attention at all to the documents. A point read strictly sometimes means the justification of a difference between the Mass of the day being a “sing along with our favorite songs” and a liturgy that really reflects the prayer of the day. It also provides a demonstration that a parish musician is trying to be as objective as possible, and not submit everything to his/her sense of “bon goût”.

  5. It might be interesting to distinguish perspectives that the Constitution provides on all liturgy (e.g. §§ 1 through 20) from those focused specifically on the reform of the liturgy.

    Some of the Constitutions differed greatly from the preparatory schemas that the curia had provided in advance of the Council. I had thought that this was not the case with Sacrosanctum Concilium. Is the preparatory schema available for review?

    In any case I will join in with pleasure.

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #9:
      Good question. Does anyone have access to Concilii Vaticani II synopsis in ordinem redigens schemata cum relationibus necnon patrum orationes atque animadversiones: Constitutio de sacra liturgia Sacrosanctum concilium

      Author: Francisco Gil Hellín
      Publisher: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (January 1, 2004)
      ISBN-10: 8820975246
      ISBN-13: 978-8820975241

      ?

      1. Paul F Ford : @Jonathan Day – comment #9: Good question. Does anyone have access to Concilii Vaticani II synopsis in ordinem redigens schemata cum relationibus necnon patrum orationes atque animadversiones: Constitutio de sacra liturgia Sacrosanctum concilium Author: Francisco Gil Hellín Publisher: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (January 1, 2004) ISBN-10: 8820975246 ISBN-13: 978-8820975241 ?

        Paul, I do, and will be happy to provide information/reproduce the parts you are interested in, as time permits.

  6. Great idea! I will certainly be reading and I hope I may have something to contribute. And we have the benefit of seeing 50 years of implementation. How might we re-write it (purely speculatively of course!)

  7. This sounds like an interesting little project. Though Jeffrey Tucker is quite right on the issue of interpretation. For instance, the directive that the people should be able to make all the responses in Latin is today viewed by many as a “conservative” article aimed at the entrenchment of Latin. But it was really a mark of liberalization at a time when most people weren’t able to make any responses at all, never mind the language, and plenty thought they shouldn’t really be allowed to do so at all.

  8. Good idea – count me in, also. Agree with Mr. Tucker’s basic thought on interpretation that ties in to your schema – history supported by the context/writings of those involved (currently re-reading Bugnini’s Reform of the Liturgy); reception; further trajectories. Agree with your response to one commenter based upon my experience of teaching history and liturgy…..if you bring only a *closed and made up mind* to the study of history, you are doomed to learn nothing and only repeat the mistakes of history. It also makes your proposed schema impossible.

  9. A useful tool that I have found for the study of Vatican II is the intratext website which has the connections between all the words of an English translation of the Vatican II documents.

    For example this is the first page of Sacrosanctum Concilium

    http://www.intratext.com/IXT/ENG0037/_PM.HTM

    If one presses on the word Sacred you get a list of all the occurrences in all the documents of Vatican II, e.g. in Dei Verbum the first is:

    1 Pref, 1 | proclaiming it with faith, the sacred synod takes its direction

    with sufficient surrounding words that one has a good idea of what might be the topic and way that it is used.

    Of course clicking on each example takes you to that place in the document.

    I have generally found literary approaches at least as useful as historical approaches when it comes to the study of Sacred Scripture.

    I also like word frequency counts. It is common for example in Saint Paul to find God and Christ at the top of the frequency list, and Spirit a little further down in the list. Obvious Vatican II was about the Church!

    Here is the list of the top 50 intratexted words (obviously excluding pronouns, etc.) in Vatican II documents.

    1 church 1133
    2 god 1000
    3 christ 902
    4 life 642
    5 men 505
    6 may 459
    7 spirit 445
    8 human 406
    9 sacred 391
    10 holy 361
    11 world 347
    12 man 345
    13 faithful 319
    14 people 319
    15 way 313
    16 faith 296
    17 religious 295
    18 priests 284
    19 christian 266
    20 love 266
    21 work 260
    22 council 254
    23 lord 254
    24 bishops 253
    25 especially 253
    26 social 236
    27 time 236
    28 order 227
    29 good 225
    30 divine 207
    31 things 207
    32 apostolate 203
    33 gospel 201
    34 new 198
    35 word 192
    36 special 187
    37 charity 186
    38 body 181
    39 catholic 180
    40 spiritual 180
    41 common 179
    42 apostolic 176
    43 community 161
    44 father 161
    45 office 161
    46 salvation 160
    47 see 160
    48 unity 159
    49 family 154
    50 authority 153

  10. A terrific idea, Michael. As a late onset Catholic I only came across this document while studying Clare Johnson’s new course on liturgy taught online at the Australian Catholic University. There are elements of SC that struck me as rather radical and surprising. At the very least it is clear the writers thought something was terribly wrong with what was extant in the Church.

    I’m looking forward to seeing each article explored and commented upon here.

  11. This sounds really promising – thank you Michael.

    As a preliminary, may I offer the information that at the time of the Council I was a member of an enclosed community that produced and mailed altar breads to many churches, large and small. in many parts of England and Wales. When the “fasting from midnight” rule was abrogated at the end of the first session, the demand for altar breads rose three-fold.

    The change in the rule was probably envisioned for the benefit of the priests: the enthusiastic response from the laity, and the impressive take-up of the option must surely have influenced at least some of the Bishops in their understanding of the real hunger of laypersons for greater participation.

      1. @Jeffrey Pinyan – comment #35:
        Sorry, Jeffrey. A senior moment. Yes, the three hour fast was allowed with the reformation of the Easter Triduum which I think was 1956, and was extended to the per annum regulations quite soon afterwards. The 3 hour fast was reduced to 1 hour in 1962. We were suddenly engulfed with huge demands for extra breads! And this demand was sustained. We had been sending out 6000 breads each day on average but had to produce 20,000, while the priests’ larger bread or the used-for-Benediction wafer numbers remained the same.

        Replying to Rita,#36, some priests over-order breads, to be on the safe side. And they will quote the no of breads they’ve ordered as the total number of Holy Communions – very obvious when they return a total of 4000 per fortnight or whatever unlikely exact round number thy order, and mostly use.

    1. @Mary Wood – comment #34:
      Beautiful witness, Mary!

      I’ve never seen any study which takes altar breads as a measure, yet it’s perfectly concrete and reasonable to use as an indication of the change.

  12. Dear Friends, Fr. Anthony felt that there was such a positive response that we should begin right away rather than wait till next Sunday. So he posted my invitation to re-read article 1 today and has invited me to post article 2 on Thursday, presumably with a Monday/Thursday alternation for the other articles. I look forward to reading your comments, whether trying to determine what the Council Fathers meant (historical), how what they wrote has been received (historical and social sciences), or what trajectories the text set off or need to be furthered now some fifty years later (theological and pastoral).

  13. Count me in, too.

    May I suggest that we use the original Latin text as the starting point. English translations sometimes miss important nuances.

  14. For those of us who are not able for whatever reason to participate in courses, this would be a valuable and excellent way of continuing education for both laity and clergy. Thank you for your suggestion and the work it entails.

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