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Reflections on Vatican II – Constitution on the Liturgy

In preparation for the Jubilee Year of 2025, Pope Francis encouraged a return to the documents of Vatican II, refreshing awareness of the fruits of that Council. To encourage your own study of those documents, Fr Peter Wygnański here continues a short series of articles about the four major constitutions.

It is a curious thing that, of all the documents from Vatican II, the Constitution on the Liturgy creates the most division and yet is the simplest to understand. This paradox suggests that controversies arise from presumptions about the text, rather than the text itself. All the more fruitful it is, then, to let Sacrosanctum Concilium speak to us afresh and maybe even surprise us.

Sacrosanctum Concilium is built on an ancient foundation, the belief that liturgy is centred on the saving action of Jesus Christ which is made present at the Mass.(§2) Amongst the richness of our faith, sometimes we need to be reminded that first and foremost we believe in a person, an event, by which we know God, can be made holy, and be saved.

This event, the self-offering of God himself to us, is the heart of our liturgy and worship of God: As the mediator between God and humanity, Christ offers us the fullness of divine worship through the paschal mystery of His passion, death, resurrection, and ascension.(§5)

Since the time of the apostles, the Church has consistently followed the instructions of the last supper, given under the shadow of the cross, to celebrate the Eucharist by which Christ’s self-sacrifice is made real for us each time Mass is celebrated. By the power of the Holy Spirit,(§6) Jesus comes to us in the Word of God proclaimed, acting through the person of the priest, and in giving Himself to us time and again in the Eucharist.(§7)

Taking part in the Mass, then, is not about an effortlessly received experience of joy or consolation, but the summit of the Christian life and source of abundant grace, an opportunity to actively unite ourselves with the moment of Christ’s self-offering which is made present for us.(§10)

These themes, fundamental to Sacrosanctum Concilium, help us to understand the liturgical reforms described by the document. The essence of the Mass just described comes from Jesus’ own instruction and so it has an ancient mystery that can never be changed, least of all to suit the fashions of the day. If this is forgotten, it is possible to be surprised by how ‘traditional’ the document is: far from abandoning Latin, the document preserves Latin as the primary liturgical language, affirming that all the faithful should be familiar with it for the basic parts of the Mass.(§55)  

Likewise, the document affirms the importance of the musical tradition of the Church, noting that Gregorian chant should be given pride of place (§116), supported by the uniquely significant pipe organ. (§120) It is only in the context of such love for the treasures of the liturgy that the reforms to open up that wealth to all can be understood.

There are elements of the Church’s liturgy that can be refreshed if that helps those taking part better to unite themselves with God’s saving action.(§10) All living things require trimming from time to time if they are to flourish, and so the liturgy can be rediscovered and renewed. For this reason Vatican II encouraged more frequent reception of Holy Communion,(§55) gave the option of celebrating the Mass in different languages, especially with regards to scripture readings which assumed a more prominent role.(§36) The document also allowed for celebrating other sacraments in local languages too,(§63) and encouraged wider celebration of Morning and Evening Prayer.(§89)

The liturgical reforms encouraged the faithful gathered in the liturgies to take part by means of responses, songs, actions and gestures, but crucially these are not what is meant by ‘active participation’ but exterior ways of encouraging true, interior, participation in the liturgy, uniting ourselves with the Sacrifice of the Mass.(§30) Minds should be attuned to voices. (§11)

Returning to the council document in this way helps avoid two extremes; the first arises as a response to failures in implementing reforms, believing they went too far and cultivating an idealistic view of what liturgy was like before Vatican II. We must never forget that it was the experience of so many who found themselves unable to share in the treasures of the liturgy which stirred the Church to long for opening up those riches to the whole of God’s holy people. Out of love of those riches, it is equally important to avoid the view that the Church has not gone far enough, as if the liturgy needs to be freed from the ‘shackles’ of tradition. As the Church continues to discover how to best live out the blessings of Vatican II, great generosity is required to acknowledge the need to grow, to recommit to learning how to truly participate better in the liturgy. This is how we enter, with the whole of our being, into communion with Christ and communion of the Church, rediscovering the beauty, the power, and the historical, human, and spiritual riches of the Liturgy.

Click below to read the other articles in the series:

Reflections on Vatican II – Divine Revelation


Reflections on Vatican II – Light of the nations


Reflections on Vatican II – Church and the Modern World