Moderator’s note: Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, was promulgated on December 4, 1963. In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of this revolutionary document, Pray Tell is running a series of daily posts this week.
by Katharine Harmon
In 1986, liturgical movement pioneer Therese Mueller had an opportunity to reflect on liturgical renewal in her lifetime. Her daughter, Gertrud Mueller Nelson, had just published a new book on living the liturgical life in the family—titled To Dance with God. Therese Mueller was delighted that the next generation was translating the vision of liturgical movement advocates into the edgily modern world of the 1980s.
Therese and her husband, Franz Mueller, had been devoted advocates of liturgical education, participation, and promotion of family life. Therese was a frequent speaker at national liturgical events and at the local parish level. Through the 1940s and 1950s, she was frequently called upon to explain how she and her family adopted practices and customs throughout the liturgical year to teach the meaning of the liturgy and to participate in it, not only in liturgical worship in the Church, but in the daily life of the home. However, even with her daughter’s new book, Therese felt a certain disjunct between the years of the liturgical movement—full of hope and vision—and the years following the Council:
And then came the Second Vatican Council—the Council, which fulfilled hopes beyond our wildest dreams, but which also brought changes that made many people uneasy and even perturbed. No one asked for any more talks.
No one asked for any more talks, presentations, discussions…about living the liturgical life. Why? A strange dichotomy exists between the vision of the liturgical movement and the reality of the Catholic world following the Council. Rather than all the world being restored to Christ (Instaurare Omnia in Christo, St. Pius X’s motto), the world seemed far less under the influence of Jesus, with tangible evidence including dramatic drops in church attendance, in lessening attention to feast days and daily mass, and in fewer trips to the confessional. A number of Catholics, as Therese Mueller suggests—were perturbed, or alienated, or disheartened. Some could not reconcile the utter destruction of rules (e.g., swallowing anything less than three hours before communion) which heretofore the transgression of which had meant immediate transport to the Devil’s Door. And, while some parents watched their children grow in love for the liturgy, other parents watched their children turn away from their faith and their families, and turn toward drug abuse or atheism.
If the liturgical movement was a social movement, a spiritual movement, that sought to realize Christian society, teaching all the faithful to better be that Mystical Body of Christ and to bring Christ’s love to all corners of the earth…then the liturgical movement failed. It remains, as liturgical historian Keith Pecklers, SJ, so aptly named it, “the unread vision,” borrowing a leaf from T.S. Eliot’s haunting poem, “Ash Wednesday.”
Yet, a distinction needs to be made between the hopes expressed by the liturgical movement—and how these hopes were realized in the Council and through the institution of the principles of liturgical reform. What did the liturgical movement hope to change? While the changed experience of liturgical worship was the most tangible difference experienced by the faithful following the Council, the external changes were secondary to the internal conversion for which the liturgy called. The liturgical movement began with a vision for a new social order: learning the content of the liturgy and actively, intelligently participating in it, would prepare the faithful to be Christ for the world, united with each other, advancing peace and justice throughout the world. Allowing changes in rubric or translation to consume attention distracted and still distracts the faithful from attending to the function of liturgy, or the res (reality) of liturgy: unity in Christ.
How is a vision for a new social order articulated in the Council? In a papal bull delivered on December 25th, 1961, Blessed John XXIII convoked the Council with hope, seeking to “give the Church the possibility to contribute more efficaciously to the solutions of the problems of the modern age.” The Council was a moment for the Church to “fortify its Faith” and to “contemplate itself in its own awe-inspiring unity,” promote the “sanctification of its members,” and to offer the “lost, confused, and anxious” a sign of peace. The first paragraph of Sacrosanctum Concilium begins by articulating this hope more specifically. The Council sought to: 1) renew the lives of the faithful; 2) adapt those elements which are subject to change to the needs of the times; 3) inspire an ecumenical hope to foster unity among all Christians; 4) and invite all to hear the message of Christ.
With regard to the liturgy, as this opening paragraph concludes, these pastoral and ecumenical goals would be achieved by “reforming” and “promoting” the liturgy. What did these strategies of “reform” and “promotion” mean?
Liturgical movement pioneer and peritus at the Council, Msgr. Frederick McManus, provides some perspective regarding this two-fold principle of “reform” and “promotion” of the liturgy. In a commentary on Sacrosanctum Concilium, published in Worship in April 1964, McManus described “reform” as involving accommodation to present needs and circumstances, and as an acknowledgement of the “never-ending development of liturgical forms.” Meanwhile, “promotion” described the efforts of the liturgical movement:
“Promotion has reference to what is commonly called the liturgical movement or apostolate—the whole complex of endeavors to teach the meaning of the Eucharist and all the celebrations which depend upon it, to take full advantage of the didactic and formative influences of the liturgy, to develop the fullest active and sincere participation of all the people in the services of worship, to stir up the faith and the holiness of the people of God.”
McManus and many others had realized that, as the liturgical movement evolved through the decades of the twentieth century, promoting the liturgy and reforming or changing liturgical structure had become the same task.
In short, the themes of the liturgical movement are the themes of Sacrosanctum Concilium. They can be seen clearly in the sections describing General Principles (“I. The Nature of the Sacred Liturgy and its Importance in the Church’s Life”; “II. The Promotion of Liturgical Instruction and Active Participation,”) and within the General Norms (“III. The Reform of the Sacred Liturgy”). We’ll examine a selection of these themes below.
Baptismal Identity: The liturgical life in which the Church comes together begins with Christian Baptism (SC 6). By virtue of our baptism, Christians are called and commissioned to be as Christ would be. The importance of baptismal identity flowed from a retrieval of patristic ecclesiology. European scholars in the late nineteenth century began retrieving the notion of the Church as a living organism, the body of Christ, rather than a juridical institution alone. As Virgil Michel, OSB, would describe in a 1930 article titled “True Christian Spirit,” “Thus membership in the Church is not confined to the minimum discharging of a debt, but implies an active participation in the life of the Church. To be a member of the mystic body of Christ means always to be a living member, and to cooperate actively in the life of the whole.” Baptism, then, did not mean receiving a membership card which allowed one to exchange good confessions for eucharistic grace, but inscribed a dynamic way of being. Christian baptism demanded active participation in the Christ life.
Mystical Body of Christ/People of God: Christ is present in the gathered assembly, as well as the presider, the Word, and the Eucharist itself (SC 7). Complete worship is “performed by the mystical body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members.” (SC 7). Being a member of the Mystical Body implied a different way of being at Mass. This might mean abandoning the comforts of personal prayer for the prayer of the community. Grace Schutte, a lay person writing for Orate Fratres in 1933, described taking up this baptismal call: “One feels a stronger bond of union with other members of the Mystical Body of Christ, for when we join in the Church’s official prayers, we are raised above the sphere of the personal. We no longer pray for ourselves alone, but in the name of all those who are united to us in the mystical union of Christ and His Church.” In the General Norms drawn from the Hiearchic and Communal Nature of the Liturgy, one sees the stress on liturgical services as having to do with the whole body of the Church, and a preference for communal celebrations rather than private: “Liturgical services are not private functions but are celebrations of the Church which is ‘the sacrament of unity,’ namely, the holy people united and organized under their bishops.” (SC 26).
Role of Devotions: This change in what people might do during Mass reflects the tension amongst Catholics between “traditional” devotional customs (novenas, meditative prayer books) and “praying the Mass.” Praying the Mass meant attending to the ritual of the Mass in an intelligent way, usually with the aid of a missal, a tool which was becoming much more widely available for use by lay people. Such prayer did not necessarily mean anything but mental participation. But at least “following along” with the aid of a missal meant that the liturgy itself was transferred to the center of importance for the life of the faithful, and that the nature of the liturgy was embraced, not only as providing a space for prayer, but as an act of prayer. Liturgical movement advocates, such as Ellen Gates Starr, writing in 1929, saw the rich formation inherent in liturgical prayers of the Mass as a stark contrast to the “mediocrity and vagary in private devotions.” While Sacrosanctum Concilium highly recommends the “Christian people’s devotions,” such devotions are to harmonize with liturgical seasons, accord with the liturgy, be derived from it, and lead the people toward it, as “the liturgy by its very nature is far superior” to any string of rosaries or forty hours’ devotion (SC 13).
Liturgical Formation and Instruction: In preference to the variety of activities which might be taking place during a Mass, the collective body of the faithful praying together at Mass awakened new possibilities for formation. The rich food of the liturgy taught the mystery of salvation, with prayer and gospel tracing salvation history through the course of the liturgical year, while text and ritual described how the faithful became united to Christ and to their neighbors.
To some extent, education about the liturgy and education gleaned from the liturgy describe the central strategic principle of the liturgical movement. Everything about the liturgy in the twentieth century demanded a new way of seeing—and doing—things. Education was crucial, and people “studied” the Mass in many different ways—from Study Clubs organized amongst Catholic parishes or colleges, to preparing the texts of the Missal before attending, to talking about the readings with children (as Therese and Franz Mueller did with theirs), to reading Catholic journals and newspapers.
Such liturgical education needed to take place on both the “external” and “internal” levels. On the one hand, people needed to become familiar with the very structure of the Mass: the various ritual elements, the readings, the liturgical year. One might need various types of knowledge to accomplish this, including, at least at the beginning of the liturgical movement, a familiarity with liturgical Latin. However, the end of the liturgy was even more important. The heart of the liturgy, which all the rubrics, vestments, texts, and chants adorned, was nothing less than the reality of the Mystical Body of Christ. Education called for conversion: a changed way of being by being in liturgical worship.
One can see a suggestion of this “external”/ “internal” view of the liturgy in Sacrosanctum Concilium when it describes the need for pastors of souls to form the faithful in “external” and “internal” liturgical instruction. This suggests that not only should the faithful be cognizant of the meanings of external ritual forms (and this implies preference for participation in the rite itself, not in singular devotions), but be aware of internal formation—or perhaps sacramental formation—afforded by participation in the rite (SC 19).
Active, Intelligent Participation: Importantly, liturgical instruction is paired with active participation, and active participation was closely paired with ownership of liturgical language. At first, Catholics were encouraged to use Missals to aid in “assisting” at Mass by following along in the Latin, while resources such as Mary Perkins Ryan’s 1940 text, Learn Your Catholic Language, encouraged the faithful that they really could learn some Latin. Yet, new Latin-to-English missals soon became the best-selling editions (and thus prompted publishers to produce more versions). Furthermore, reliance on a Missal also seemed somewhat problematic—could one only participate in Mass if one had purchased a liturgical decoder ring? Increasingly, Catholics wondered if participation might not only mean reading along but speaking out loud (through the Dialogue Mass or Missa Recitata, in which portions of the prayers and Mass ordinary were recited by the congregation along with the priest and servers). And, still further, Catholics began to wonder if the surest way to active participation was to remove completely the barrier of language and pray the Mass in the vernacular. Liturgical pioneer Fr. Hans Anscar Reinhold, among many others, became convinced that use of the vernacular would become invaluable for effectively and immediately making the Mystical Body of Christ known in any context, and in the modern world.
Cultural Adaptation: This move to the vernacular, then, became the adopted strategy of the liturgical movement. The central statement on the vernacular in Sacrosanctum Concilium describes the “great advantage” that the use of the vernacular might have for the People of God (SC 36). However, the shift toward the vernacular was not only a move to improve educational potential and promote active participation, but was also a legitimization of cultural media in the modern world. Latin was no longer a common, public medium for conversation; Latin was elite, privatized, and academic. If liturgical worship took place in the communal, public assembly, how could its primary medium be divorced from the cultural context, qualities, and talents of its participants? Thus Sacrosanctum Concilium’s general norm for “Adapting the Liturgy to the Temperament and Traditions of Peoples” is, implicitly, attending to this thrust of the liturgical movement to attend to cultural particularity. The importance of using the vernacular would be felt even more deeply in “mission” territories.
Source and Summit: Finally, Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us that the liturgy was the “indispensable source from which the faithful” were to derive the “true Christian spirit” (SC 14). Liturgical movement pioneers had relied on this motto, drawn from Pius X’s motu propio (Tra le sollecitudini, 1903). Virgil Michel would take Pius X’s words a step further in a “syllogism,” a philosophical conclusion, which first appeared in 1935:
“Pius X tells us that the liturgy is the indispensable source of the true Christian spirit. Pius XI says that the true Christian spirit is indispensable for social regeneration. Hence the conclusion: The liturgy is the indispensable basis of Christian social regeneration.”
The liturgy is the source of Christian social regeneration. It is the summit to which the Lord “draws the faithful and sets them aflame,” in which grace is poured forth upon us “as from a fountain,” and inspires the faithful to “hold fast in their lives” that which they have grasped by faith (SC 10). More succinctly, the liturgy is “the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed” and “the source from which all its power flows” (SC 10).
The liturgical movement sought to enliven and realize a restored social order led by the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. Sacrosanctum Concilium articulates this desire by describing the liturgy as the context in which the Church—the People of God—become sign for all the world, pointing to Christ. Pointing is not passive participation. Active, intelligent participation in the liturgy prompts us to active, passionate care and concern in the world through social justice and outreach. Liturgical pioneers, such as Fr. Reynold Hillenbrand, saw this fundamental ground of the liturgy as the location for formation of the Mystical Body of Christ acting in the world. At the 1943 National Liturgical Week, Hillenbrand claimed, “The mystical body provides the compelling reason, the driving force to set things right. The Body is one, a living Whole. What one group suffers, all suffer. We must see Christ in all His members. We must have a deep, intimate, living conviction of it. And we will acquire that conviction at Mass, where we are one at Sacrifice!”
Just as Therese Mueller saw continuity and rupture between the liturgical movement and the experience of the Church immediately following the Council, divided perception of liturgical renewal continues in the present. Forty years after Sacrosanctum Concilium was issued, Joyce Ann Zimmerman, CPPS, observed the coalescence of opposing “sides” which each lamented the status of the liturgy. One “side” bemoaned the “loss of transcendence,” while another “side” waited impatiently for “true social activism.” Fifty years after Sacrosanctum Concilium, both sides continue to be disappointed. The liturgical movement, however, had bigger plans than promoting either beautiful liturgy or social activism; its eschatological hope could see no separation between the two. Liturgical movement pioneers expressed their hope through action, and saw their hope realized in key thematic principles and norms in Sacrosanctum Concilium itself. Perhaps we in the present should not be disappointed, but borrow a leaf from their vision by heeding our baptismal call, actively participating in the Christ-life, and being that sign of Christ’s love in the world. We can continue to hope…that the liturgy may bring us beyond ourselves to that true transcendence which brings us to communio with God and neighbor.
Katharine E. Harmon, Ph.D., is Lecturer in Theology at Marian University in Indianapolis. She is author of the 2013 Liturgical Press book There Were Also Many Women There: Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the United States, 1926-1959.