Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: Article 39

Vatican website translation:

39. Within the limits set by the typical editions of the liturgical books, it shall be for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to specify adaptations, especially in the case of the administration of the sacraments, the sacramentals, processions, liturgical language, sacred music, and the arts, but according to the fundamental norms laid down in this Constitution.

Latin text:

39. Intra limites in editionibus typicis librorum liturgicorum statutos, erit competentis auctoritatis ecclesiasticae territorialis, de qua in art. 22 § 2, aptationes definire, praesertim quoad administrationem Sacramentorum, quoad Sacramentalia, processiones, linguam liturgicam, musicam sacram et artes, iuxta tamen normas fundamentales quae hac in Constitutione habentur.

Slavishly literal translation:

39. Within the limits established in the typical editions of the liturgical books, it will be for the competent ecclesiastical territorial authority (concerning which see article 22 § 2) to define adaptations, especially concerning the administration of the Sacraments, as well as the Sacramentals, processions, liturgical language, sacred music and arts, nevertheless according to the fundamental norms which are held in this Constitution.

In a remarkable departure from earlier practice in which almost all regulation of liturgical practice for the Roman rite was controlled by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, with a few issues left for the determination of a local Ordinary, here the Council Fathers relegate to territorial bishops’ conferences the competence to deal with issues of liturgical adaptation, presumably because they would have first-hand experience concerning how liturgical sign systems would best communicate the meaning of the gospel in the cultures in which they live. It would be interesting to gain some sense of how the various territorial authorities have exercised their competencies in adapting the editions typicae of the liturgical books to their own areas for the sacraments and sacramentals, how they have promoted or curtailed liturgical processions in the light of cultural norms in their areas, what they have learned about translation of liturgical texts into the vernacular, and how they have promoted and overseen the development of sacred music and arts. Pray Tell readers may wish to discuss whether and how this norm has been lived out over the past fifty years and what we might suggest for the future in the light of this experience.


  1. Readers interested in the development of the articles on inculturation may wish to look at Varietates Legitimae and two commentaries on it: “The Forgotten Instruction” by Kenneth J Martin and “Varietates Legitimae” by Mauro Paternoster. (Neither were available in academic libraries a year ago, perhaps confirmation of the ‘forgotten’ status of this document compared with its successor.)
    As MJ has noted SC39 gives greater authority to local bodies than had been enjoyed for many many years. Where I suspect many of the frustrations come is in regard to persons and groups hoping that the more radical adaptations of SC40 might be as freely left to local authorities. While the first millennium might have recognised more clearly the local bishop as chief liturgist SC does take some steps towards a more inculturating and dialogical stance.

    Valeer Neckebrouck, (‘Théologie progressiste et inculturation de la liturgie’, QL 77 (1996) 52-76) has usefulfully observed the degree of diversity of celebration that emerged in the first 30 years after the Council. It is interesting that anthropologists seem to recognise greater diversity than liturgists.

    Being a little more topical, I notice the statue of Our Lady near the altar at Francis’s inauguration Mass, something I suspect from the South American inculturation/adaptation of the Liturgy.

  2. “processions”

    How interesting that virtually every Sunday mass in the US seems to have an end-of-mass procession, but I can’t point to any laws or guidelines that govern them. Not that I am requesting any, but it’s interesting.

    At the end of weddings around here, there seems to be a custom of a relatively well-ordered process, in which first the bride and groom exit down the center aisle, then the remainder of the wedding party, then the family of the bride and groom who are seated in the frontmost pew, then the second pew, then the third, and on back through the church, a row at a time. A participatory procession. More participation in that procession than in most Station of the Cross processions around here.

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #2:
      I know you didn’t request a reply regarding end of mass processions, but in case anyone is interested they are mentioned in regard to Stational Masses. (Caeremoniale Episcoporum, 170)

  3. I believe the custom of placing a statue of Our Lady near the altar at papal Masses and the singing of one of the Marian antiphons before the final procession began under Benedict XVI. Maybe before? It was done at Pope Benedict’s Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s.

  4. While it is possible that article 39 had in mind the processions within particular liturgical rites (like Mass), I think the thrust of the article was more toward the territorial bishops’ conference determining things like Rogation Day processions (perhaps to be continued in rural dioceses but allowed to fall into disuse in urban ones), Corpus Christi processions, penitential processions (like some of the Holy Week processions in Spain), etc.

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