Understanding and Celebrating Vatican II in the Midst of Liturgical Debate
Sacrosanctum Concilium Lights the Way on our Path of Christian Faith
Sometimes it is difficult to separate the signal from the noise when it comes to both Church teachings and the practice of the Catholic faith in our daily lives. A modern example of this difficulty concerns the July, 2021 apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of the Tradition) promulgated by Pope Francis. The Holy Father tells us that the liturgical books given to us following the Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II) are a “unique expression of the 'lex orandi' (or the ‘law of worship’) of the Roman Rite.” An implication of this teaching from the Holy Father is that Catholic priests must now have the permission of their local bishops to celebrate the “Extraordinary” or pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. This apostolic letter also essentially prohibits the establishment of any new groups or parishes focused on the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. So what is this all about?
The “Ordinary Form” of the Catholic Mass, which is the Mass celebrated after Vatican II in most places, is also known as the “Novus Ordo,” which means “new order.” This Mass has all the elements we have come to know and cherish over the past fifty-plus years in the practice of our faith. These elements include the introductory rites, the Liturgy of the Word (Mass of the Catechumens), the Liturgy of the Eucharist (Mass of the Faithful), the Rite of Communion itself, and the concluding rite. The current issue of debate has to do with the Novus Ordo somehow being pitted against what was known as the “Extraordinary Form” or Tridentine Mass, which was celebrated in the Church since the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, with the latest revisions appearing in 1962.
In Traditionis Custodes Pope Francis seemingly scaled back or reversed course on the permissions of his two papal predecessors, Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, to celebrate the “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass. Truth be told, in my estimation much of this permission structure involving celebration of the Tridentine Mass was to serve as an outreach to those disaffected Catholics who were also followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. This debate about the forms of the Holy Mass has also served as of late to question the very nature, essence, and integrity of Vatican II itself as the preeminent Church Council in over a century.
Unfortunately, in my observations concerning discussions pro or con concerning Vatican II, there appears to be little appreciation or knowledge of the seminal documents of the Council itself which fundamentally addressed the nature of Catholicism into which we were all baptized. Therefore, I would like to focus this Missio Dei reflection on some key elements of Vatican II in order to understand these contemporary dialogues and disagreements going on with the Mass, and moreover our Catholic faith itself. In order to have meaningful and informed debate about these issues we must first have a basic understanding of the central tenets of Vatican II as a Church Council.
Vatican II produced sixteen major documents that are essential reading for any person who wishes to consider and/or debate the Council or its implications in twenty first century Catholic life, including the “Ordinary” versus “Extraordinary” forms of the Mass. This reflection will focus on one of these major documents, the one most pertinent to the current debate over the Catholic Mass: Sacrosanctum Concilium (On the Sacred Liturgy). This central Council document as well as other Council documents can be accessed online at the following website:
What is Vatican II?
The Church’s twenty first Ecumenical Council, Vatican II, was the first Council since Vatican I convened a century earlier (1869-1870). Vatican II opened on October 11, 1962, after almost four years of preparatory work. The Council met in Saint Peter's Basilica during four time periods which each lasted between eight to twelve weeks, in the autumn months between 1962 and 1965. In the almost two millennia that preceded Vatican II, under the ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Church through its magisterium and communion of saints developed, interpreted, debated, and promulgated its sacred theology. As a culmination of explicating much of that which preceded it in context of contemporary times it not surprising that Vatican II produced sixteen major texts and 992 footnotes, comprising in total a sum of 103,014 words.
The doctrinal foundations of the Church relied upon by Vatican II, as Saint Cardinal John Henry Newman observed in his treatise on the development of ideas and of doctrines in 1845 over a century before Vatican II commenced, were a product of analysis from multiple perspectives and associations, which developed over time in the life of the Church. As noted by Nichols, Vatican II represented the coming together of many of the developments in theology “reminiscent of patristic theology at its best.” Taken as a whole, to use the framework in Catholic theology proposed by Newman, Vatican II proclaimed to the world the Incarnation of the Christ, and expounded in contemporary contexts the development of Church doctrine which followed the Incarnation, through the apostolic age and beyond to the Church Fathers, Doctors of the Church, the saints, the theologians, and of course the magisterium of the Church.
These currents of thought, of ideas, of doctrinal essence inspired Pope Saint John XXIII to call for the Council, which culminated in the production of a series of seminal documents that considered the political, logical, historical, ethical and metaphysical developments of the Church, as well as discussions of conscience, again referencing back to Newman. In Vatican II we see the great and continuous tradition of the Church expressed directly from the Council’s very opening statement, issued before any of the major documents were composed and promulgated by Pope Saint John XXIII’s successor, Pope Saint Paul VI: “at the direction of the most blessed Pope John XXIII, we successors of the apostles have gathered here, joined in singlehearted prayer with Mary the Mother of Jesus, and forming one apostolic body headed by the successor of Peter.” From the Council’s very first pronouncement, therefore, we encounter first-hand the clarion call concerning the importance of Church tradition!
In essence, Vatican II was a gathering of the “successors of the apostles” bringing greetings to the world on October 20, 1962 as the Council proceedings began (during a rather nervous period for the world in that the Cuban Missile Crisis was then also unfolding). Fast forward to the ending of Vatican II over three years later, when Pope Saint Paul VI promulgated on November 18, 1965, Dei Verbum, in which we see a strong reaffirmation of the very heart of Church tradition in understanding Sacred Scripture, from whence all further discussion and analysis flows. Through Divine inspiration, and then proceeding through exegetical analysis in the Apostolic tradition, continuing through the centuries by further interpretation by the magisterium of the Church, Vatican II served as the latest culmination of this long tradition in proclaiming the Church’s sacred theology, and the apostolic mission to “teach all nations and to preach the gospel to every creature.”
On the Sacred Liturgy of the Church and Vatican II
Sacrosanctum Concilium (On the Sacred Liturgy) was promulgated by Pope Saint Paul VI on December 4, 1963. In the almost sixty years since its promulgation this Vatican II constitutional document has formed the basis for ongoing discussions and debate about the Catholic liturgy, the centerpiece of communal (and at times individual) worship within the Church, as we now see in full force with recent debates concerning the “Ordinary” versus “Extraordinary” forms of the Mass. Liturgy (in Greek “leitourgia”) specifically refers to a public duty, a service. It is during the liturgy where the beliefs, customs and traditions of the Church come together, ultimately in the celebration of the Eucharist at Catholic Mass. As noted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The liturgy has always undergone modifications throughout the centuries, there is only one unchangeable text and that is the text of Sacred Scripture...The Church has undertaken in every age to clothe the liturgy in words and rites which speak the ageless mysteries to their different time. Thus in her prayer as in her teaching, the Church fulfills her responsibility as teacher of truth to guard things old, that is, the deposit of tradition; at the same time it fulfills another duty, that of examining and prudently bringing forth things new (see Matthew 13:52; emphasis added).”
Recently in commenting on the legacy of Sacrosanctum Concilium Pope Francis observed that “after this magisterium, after this long journey we can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” Note Pope Francis’s connection in this observation with the current debate concerning Traditionis Custodes and the issue of the “Ordinary” versus “Extraordinary” forms of the Mass.
The central importance of the liturgy in the life of the Church was even noted by Protestant writers after the publication of Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963. For example, the noted Lutheran (and later Orthodox) scholar Jaroslav Pelikan stated contemporaneously that if Sacrosanctum Concilium “can be translated into action creatively and imaginatively – and that still remains to be seen – it will indeed, as the Council Fathers hope, contribute to the unity of all who believe in Christ.” This essential Vatican II document is astonishing both in its depth and breadth in fostering the core mission of the Church, as well as bringing together the clergy and laity in the exercise of Catholic faith. From its beginning, Sacrosanctum Concilium states the Council’s mission with regard to the place of Catholic liturgy in context of not only tradition in the Church, but also the times in which Vatican II was meeting:
It is the goal of this most sacred Council to intensify the daily growth of Catholics in Christian living; to make more responsive to the requirements of our times those Church observances which are open to adaptation; to nurture whatever can contribute to the unity of all who believe in Christ; and to strengthen those aspects of the Church which can help summon all of mankind into her embrace. Hence the Council has special reasons for judging it a duty to provide for the renewal and fostering of the liturgy. For it is through the liturgy, especially the divine Eucharistic Sacrifice, that “the work of our redemption is exercised.” The liturgy is thus the outstanding means by which the faithful can express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church. It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly endowed, eager to act and yet devoted to contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it. She is all these things in such a way that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek (cf. Heb. 13:14). Day by day the liturgy builds up those within the Church into the Lord’s holy temple, into a spiritual dwelling for God (cf. Eph. 2:21-22) – an enterprise which will continue until Christ’s full stature is achieved (cf. Eph. 4:13). At the same time the liturgy marvelously fortifies the faithful in their capacity to preach Christ. To outsiders the liturgy thereby reveals the Church as a sign raised above the nations (cf. Is. 11:12). Under this sign the scattered sons of God are being gathered into one (cf. Jn. 11:52) until there is one fold and one shepherd (cf. Jn. 10:16).
We see in these words of Sacrosanctum Concilium an appeal to Sacred Scripture and Church tradition centered upon the sacrifice of the Eucharist which lies at the center of the Catholic Mass, no matter what its “form.” This central tradition within the Church was a focus of The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome before 235 AD, during the patristic period. This publication was an attempt early in Church history to combat heresy and provide instruction concerning Church liturgy. What is most central to remember in this domain is that through its long traditions and history, from the earliest apostolic prayers, to the development of the Roman Rite and its liturgical modifications through the centuries, both pre and post-Vatican II, the liturgy is a central legacy of the living Church and its dogma.
This legacy has been refined and promulgated by Church Councils and proclamations by the magisterium over the centuries; by liturgical movements such as that inspired by Prosper Guéranger in the monastery of Solesmes in the nineteenth century; to the works of the successors of Saint Peter, such as Pope Saint Pius V at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, Popes Saint Pius X and Pius XII in the twentieth century; and ultimately to date in the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium at Vatican II. From the earliest days of the Church to the present in 2022 the liturgy remains the centerpiece of Catholics coming together in worship, in sacrifice, and in prayer. Or, as the American representatives of the Church magisterium put it: “The Church has undertaken in every age to clothe the liturgy in words and rites which speak the ageless mysteries to their different times.”
Catholic Liturgy in 2022, and a Recent Decree by Pope Francis
In the over half-century since the conclusion of Vatican II, although there continues to be liturgical and other refinements and changes in the Church visible, the foundations of Church theology remain strong – as the Church continues to analyze, to proclaim, and to bear witness to divine revelation. This strength, found in the ever-present inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is buttressed by the doctrinal underpinnings of the Church, the traditions of the Church, and the ongoing legacies of those who proclaimed the Good News (Luke 9:1-9). This unbroken legacy extends from the time of Christ, through the ages of those who followed the apostles and Church Fathers, to the present time under the pontificate of the two hundred sixty fifth successor to Saint Peter, Pope Francis.
A very recent example of the Church’s integrative position when it comes to the liturgy is illustrated powerfully when on February 11, 2022 Pope Francis signed a decree which promulgated that Church Institutes such as the Fraternity of Saint Peter are not affected by Traditionis Custodes. Why did Pope Franics make such a proclamation? Because the pope recognized the fidelity of the Fraternity of Saint Peter to the Church, and “their desire to remain faithful to the Roman Pontiff and their trust in the Church.” Pope Francis also noted that such fidelity should be “preserved, protected and encouraged.” Further, the Holy Father noted that pre-Vatican II liturgical books were integral to the founding the Fraternity and provided for in its constitution. When approached from a spiritual and not a political perspective, therefore, we see first hand in Pope Francis’s latest February, 2022 decree an affirmation of liturgical integrity in unbroken form — both before and after the advent of Vatican II — to this very day.
As we contemplate on Pope Francis’s words in Traditionis Custodes and its implications concerning the status of the “Ordinary” versus “Extraordinary” forms of the Mass in 2022, let us also reflect on Sacrosanctum Concilium produced by Vatican II, which continues to light our path in full appreciation of the Catholic liturgical practices that remain central to our lives of faith. In Jesus Christ there is no “old” or “new” Catholic liturgy, there is always and only communal worship within the Church centered upon the sacrifice of the Eucharist.
Abbott, W.M. (1966). The Documents of Vatican II with Notes and Comments by Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Authorities. America Press, Inc.
Catholic News Agency. “For Pope Francis, the liturgical reform is irreversible.” Retrieved February 12, 2022 from: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/for-pope-francis-the- liturgical-reform-is-irreversible-49803.
Easton, Burton Scott (1934). The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. Archon Books.
Francis, Pope. Traditionis Custodes. Retrieved February 18, 2022 from https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/20210716-motu-proprio-traditionis-custodes.html.
FSSP. “Official communiqué of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.” Retrieved February 21, 2022 from https://www.fssp.org/en/official-communique-of-the-priestly-fraternity-of-st-peter/.
Newman, John Henry (1845). “An Essay On The Development Of Christian Doctrine.” Retrieved February 15, 2022 from: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/development/.
Nichols, A. (1991). The shape of Catholic theology. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Pelikan, J. (1966). “A response.” In Abbott, W.M. The documents of Vatican II with Notes and Comments by Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Authorities. America Press, Inc.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The Theological Vision of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Roman Missal.” Retrieved February 12, 2022 from: http://usccb.org/prayer-and- worship/the-mass/roman-missal/theological-vision-of-sacrosanctum-concilium-and-the-roman-missal.cfm.