October 29, 2012

Patriarch Maximos Saigh, head of the Melkite rite in Antioch, made his introduction to the Second Vatican Council by breaking a rule. Instead of speaking Latin as the rules required, the patriarch spoke unapologetically in French.

Although he was not a member of the Latin rite, Maximos argued that the Latin rite liturgy should not be restricted to Latin. Jesus led the Last Supper in Aramaic, a language that could be understood by all. "The Latin language is dead, but the Church is alive," he said. "The language used must be a living language, since (the liturgy) is meant for men and not for angels."

Maximos, largely unknown prior to the council where he made a considerable mark, received a warm response for his Oct. 23, 1962 talk.

A week later, another Church leader took the floor, also eventually breaking one of the council's rules. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office, blasted the schema on the liturgy, criticizing its acceptance of priestly concelebration of the Mass, its openness to distributing Communion under both species to the faithful and its permission for greater use of the vernacular.

"The rite of Holy Mass should not be treated as if it were a piece of cloth to be refashioned according to the whim of each generation," Ottaviani continued.

Speaking without a text because he was nearly blind, the cardinal went on, exceeding his 10-minute limit. After 15 minutes, the presiding cardinal rang the warning bell. Either Ottaviani didn't hear the bell or he ignored it.

Finally, his microphone was turned off and Ottaviani walked back to his seat humiliated, as the council fathers erupted in applause. It was two weeks before Ottaviani returned to the council.

The debate on the liturgy was a lively one. Between Oct. 22 and Nov. 14, council fathers made 328 spoken interventions and another 297 in writing. Despite all the talk, it was far from clear that a consensus was developing.

On the vernacular, for example, passionate arguments were put forward on both sides.

Those who favoured keeping the Mass exclusively in Latin said Latin gave the Mass an appropriate air of mystery and that it symbolized the global unity of Catholics. Some maintained that if the Mass was celebrated in the vernacular, Catholics would be prone to become like Protestants, whose churches were ever being split into smaller groups.


Latin, they said, was the clear precise language needed in which to best express Church teaching. "The sacred Mass should remain as it is," said Cardinal James McIntyre of Los Angeles. "Serious changes in the liturgy introduce serious changes in dogma."

The faithful who wanted to understand the Mass should use missals that contained translations of all the prayers, they said.

On the other side were those who favoured celebrating the Mass in the language of the people. Their main concern was pastoral: If people could understand the Mass, they could better participate in it.

In the early Church, the liturgy had been the way that the faith was taught. To have similar catechesis today, the Mass would have to be in the vernacular.

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani

The strongest arguments came from the bishops of mission dioceses in Asia and Africa. With the Mass in Latin, they said, it was extremely difficult to get local people to seriously consider becoming Catholic.

Observing the debate, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, wryly commented, "It was not uncommon that glowing panegyrics in favour of Latin were themselves delivered in laboured pidgin Latin, while the most forceful advocates of the vernacular could express themselves in classical Latin."


Ratzinger also maintained that the sterility of Catholic theology and philosophy in recent centuries was due, in no small part, to the fact that theologians and philosophers did their work in a dead language.

Debate continued on these and many other issues. The liturgy schema called for authority for local bishops to make at least some liturgical innovations suitable for their culture. Others promoted a massive overhaul of the Liturgy of the Hours, then known as the Divine Office.

During the more than three weeks of debate, opinions had seemed evenly divided between those who supported the reforms promoted in the proposed document and those who wanted everything to remain unchanged.


Finally, on Nov. 14, a vote was held. The vote was not one of final approval for the document, but rather for approval in principle. If approved, the document would go to a commission that would discuss which of the myriad of recommendations would be incorporated.

When the vote was announced, the council fathers were stunned. The document was approved by 2,162 of the fathers; only 46 voted against it. All the dissenting voices had come from a tiny minority of council fathers. Liturgical reform was going to proceed.

The revised document came back to the council in October 1963 for more discussion and refinement. Sacrosanctum Concilium - the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy - was overwhelmingly approved, the first major fruit of the Second Vatican Council.

Over the next several weeks, we will turn our attention to a closer look at what the constitution actually said.

(Information for this article was taken from The Rhine Flows into the Tiber by Ralph Wiltgen; History of Vatican II, vol. 2, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak; and Theological Highlights of Vatican II by Joseph Ratzinger.)