November 5, 2012

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was the first document approved at the Second Vatican Council. Unlike the council's other major documents, it sailed through the approval process fairly readily, although a tiny but vocal minority at first raised strenuous objections.

Sacrosanctum Concilium was approved by a vote of 2,158 to 19 on Nov. 22, 1963. That virtually unanimous vote by the council fathers should indicate, if nothing else, that Sacrosanctum Concilium was not a radical document.

This is not to suggest that the constitution did not break new ground. It did. But that new ground had been prepared in no small part by Pope Pius XII's 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei.

It was Mediator Dei that gave papal recognition to the liturgical movement whose insights and impact were discussed in my Oct. 22 article.

The overwhelming vote of approval for the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy hid the fact that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II would turn out to be the council's most controversial actions. Even today, nearly 50 years later, the deepest divisions in the Church are those focused on the liturgy.

Such divisions spring not so much from what the constitution said, but from how it was interpreted and implemented.

Further, just as the constitution itself said, sacred ritual stands at the core of Catholic culture and at the core of each person's relationship with God. Change the liturgy and you will disturb the central nervous system of the worshipping community and of the worshipping person.

In introducing the liturgy document, three key points need to be noted.

First, the purpose of the Vatican II liturgical reforms, it is often said, was to foster the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful. To put it that simply, however, is to quote the constitution out of context. What Sacrosanctum Concilium actually said was that the Church wishes to encourage "that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy" (SC 14, emphasis added).

Next week's article will examine how Vatican II understood the nature of the liturgy. Suffice it to say for now, however, that those words are a crucial qualification that clarifies what is meant by "participation."

Pope Pius XII delivers a radio message in 1943. His 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei helped pave the way for the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.


Pope Pius XII delivers a radio message in 1943. His 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei helped pave the way for the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.

Normally, we tend to see participation, especially active participation, as an external involvement in some activity or organization. To participate in the Knights of Columbus or Catholic Women's League, for example, one must actually do something, take some form of action that gets one visibly involved with other members of the group and its activities.

The type of participation discussed in Sacrosanctum Concilium, however, is, first of all, a participation of one's heart and soul in the liturgy. Once we have discussed the nature of the liturgy next week, we will be better positioned to discuss what Vatican II meant by full, conscious and active participation.

A second point in introducing this document is its very name. Sacrosanctum Concilium means "this sacred council" – the name is the first two Latin words in the text of the document.


The first paragraph of the constitution presents something more than the goals of liturgical reform; it lists the four basic goals of the entire Second Vatican Council:

  1. To impart greater vigour to the Christian life of the faithful;
  2. To examine those institutions that can be changed to adapt them to the needs of the current age;
  3. To foster Christian unity;
  4. To strengthen the Church in its evangelizing mission.

Although those are goals for the entire council, the council fathers, by placing them at the beginning of the Constitution on the Liturgy, also made them specific goals for liturgical reform itself. Any reform of the liturgy should strengthen the faith of Catholics, update what can and should be updated, strengthen the unity of the Church and have an evangelizing thrust. Those four goals are "cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy" (SC 1).


A third introductory point is that while many commentators noted that the liturgy constitution reflected the thinking of the encyclical Mediator Dei, there are important differences between the two documents.

A simple word count helps to show those differences. Mediator Dei, the longer document of the two, used the term "participation" five times while Sacrosanctum Concilium used it 16 times. The encyclical used the word "piety" 41 times while the conciliar document used it only nine times. Most significantly, Mediator Dei used the term "sacrifice" 112 times, while Sacrosanctum Concilium used it 11 times.

The two documents had different emphases, but they were complementary, not contradictory. It is in large part because Pope Pius XII had laid the groundwork and begun the process of liturgical reform that Vatican II was able to approve the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy more quickly and with less fuss than it did with its other major documents.