Liturgical change at the Second Vatican Council: a report from 1963

Katharine Harmon posted a request for personal accounts of liturgical changes between, say, 1964 and 1969. Readers responded with many interesting comments.

But before liturgical changes appeared in parishes, they showed up at the Second Vatican Council itself. Joseph Ratzinger, then not yet a bishop, was a peritus (advisor) to Cardinal Frings of Cologne at the Council. He published an interesting account of the first session, from October to December of 1962, in the Irish pastoral journal, The Furrow, founded in 1950 and still in publication. I offer the following excerpts from his article, with kind permission of the journal’s editor.

In the spirit of Katharine’s historical enquiry, I am providing these excerpts with no further comment. A lot of ink has been spilled on whether Joseph Ratzinger is or was liturgically ‘progressive’, or whether he changed his views over time. Whatever the case, he was a theologian interested in the liturgy, and this account was written not long after the close of the first session of the Council, so it is an interesting look at history.

Excerpted with permission from The Furrow, May 1963
“The Second Vatican Council: The First Session”
by Joseph Ratzinger; translation by Fr William Meany

The purpose then of this paper, which was written at the insistence of certain friends, is comparatively modest: to bear testimony very simply to what we experienced, and especially to that discovery of the vitality of the faith in the Church which represents the actual “result” of the First Session of the Council. [p. 267]

The liturgical ceremonies of the opening day lacked that community quality which makes everyone feel he is included. Neither were they sufficiently compact. Is it really proper for 2,500 bishops, to say nothing of the many other members of the faithful, to be condemned to be mute spectators of a liturgy in which, apart from official liturgists, only the Sistine Choir has any voice? The active participation of those present was deemed unnecessary, a symptom, don’t you think, of a state of affairs that needed to be put right? And why, may I ask, had the Credo to be recited in full after the Mass, when there was room within the Mass itself for such a profession of faith? Why, to put another question, was a formal liturgy of the word necessary, seeing that there is an Epistle and Gospel in the Mass? And why was it necessary that litanies be sung in full when one can still recognize those places in the Mass where prayers of intercession can be inserted? Two liturgies had been juxtaposed without being properly connected. One could clearly recognise in this the dangerous archaism which imprisoned the liturgy of the Mass since the Council of Trent, so that one could scarcely any longer perceive the real meaning of its individual parts, or see that the Mass itself contains an enthronement of the Gospel, a profession of faith and intercessions. It must have instinctively occurred to the observer that a symptom of the success of the Council would be the degree by which the closing ceremonies differed from those of the opening day. From this point of view may not one regard it as a gratifying sign that, on the initiative of the bishops, on 8 December at the conclusion of the First Session, the responses and the Ordinary of the Mass were sung in unison by the bishops and all those present? [pp. 268 – 269]

It is not reading too much into the happenings of the opening day to say that they yielded yet another result – that “holy freedom of the Council”, as the Pope [John XXIII] later described it. The climate of the Council from the very outset bore the imprint of the broad-minded outlook of John XXIII, which in this respect differed sharply from the pope [Pius IX] of the First Vatican Council. Without using many words, the Pope encouraged frankness and candour as much by his personality as by what he said. This address was a sign that the neurosis of anti-Modernism, which ever since the turn of the century kept cropping up and exercising an excessively restricting influence, at least appeared to be on the way out, and a new consciousness was emerging. This was proved by the fact that discussions could take place in the church in a spirit of fraternal candour, without loyalty to the Faith suffering any hurt. [p. 272]

The Council was able to gather in the harvest which had ripened in the Church in its struggle during recent decades. In these days one understood how fruitful all that labour had been, though in the beginning few people appreciated it at its full value. [p. 275]

The ritual stiffness on which, as I tried to show in my comments on the liturgy of the opening day, the meaning of each single action as often scarcely grasped, defeats the attempt to make the Church’s worship once again a means of proclaiming the word of God in a manner that will have a meaning and appeal for our time. The same stiffness destroys the dialogue character of all liturgical ceremonies, the means by which God’s people are meant to worship Him together. This naturally implies that less stress is to be laid on private Masses and more on the celebration of the liturgy in common This is clearly expressed in the text [of Sacrosanctum Concilium], especially in the lapidary statement: “The dialogue Mass is to be preferred.” A corollary of this was the attempt to extend the practice of concelebration.

The discussion had its amusing side. Quite often glowing eulogies on Latin were delivered in heavy bog-Latin, while the most impressive champions of the vernacular could express themselves in good classical Latin. [p. 277]

It can hardly be denied that the sterility to which Catholic theology and philosophy has in many cases been condemned since the end of the Enlightenment was due, not least, to being tied to a language in which vital decisions of the human mind were no longer made. Theological decisions which were worked out and expounded in a dead language were often superficial and not really fertilized by contemporary thought. Theology of this sort was incapable of transforming itself. [p. 278]

7 comments

  1. Many thanks for posting this excerpt! I’ve so appreciated the many interesting pieces of evidence that have been shared.

    1. I am aware of course that the hopes and expectations Ratzinger then had were not fulfilled, but can you guide us to evidence that he would revise those opinions.

      1. Read his “Spirit of the Liturgy”. Read his preface to Dom Alcuin Reid’s “The Organic Development of the Liturgy”.

    2. There is evidence that the mature Ratzinger would, on the whole, agree with his words here. For example, take his speech as pope to the priests of Rome on February 14, 2013:

      ” After the First World War, Central and Western Europe had seen the growth of the liturgical movement, a rediscovery of the richness and depth of the liturgy, which until then had remained, as it were, locked within the priest’s Roman Missal, while the people prayed with their own prayer books, prepared in accordance with the heart of the people, seeking to translate the lofty content, the elevated language of classical liturgy into more emotional words, closer to the hearts of the people. But it was as if there were two parallel liturgies: the priest with the altar-servers, who celebrated Mass according to the Missal, and the laity, who prayed during Mass using their own prayer books, at the same time, while knowing substantially what was happening on the altar. But now there was a rediscovery of the beauty, the profundity, the historical, human, and spiritual riches of the Missal and it became clear that it should not be merely a representative of the people, a young altar-server, saying “Et cum spiritu tuo”, and so on, but that there should truly be a dialogue between priest and people: truly the liturgy of the altar and the liturgy of the people should form one single liturgy, an active participation, such that the riches reach the people. And in this way, the liturgy was rediscovered and renewed.”

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