November 19, 2012

As the years go by, it gets increasingly difficult to detect without research some of the shifts in thinking that occur in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. They have been part of us for so long and, indeed, a majority of today's Catholics have no recollection of the Church prior to the council.

So when the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC]) says, "By Baptism men and women are grafted into the paschal mystery of Christ" (SC6), we may forget that prior to Vatican II, Baptism was treated as a perfunctory ritual whose main purpose was to rid the soul of original sin.

Today, because of the council, we see Baptism much more positively as the means by which we first come to share in divine life.

Likewise, before the council, the sacraments were generally understood in formal terms as instruments of grace. God gives grace; we receive it. The council taught us to see sacraments as encounters with Christ. The old understanding was formal and juridical; the new understanding is personal and relational.

This does not mean that the old way was wrong. Indeed, it too can be expressed in ways that are theologically rich. The fathers of Vatican II never meant to overturn the teachings of Trent and earlier councils.

In the light of this new emphasis on the relational nature of the sacraments, Sacrosanctum Concilium 7 is one of the most important articles in the conciliar documents. "Christ is always present in his Church, especially in liturgical celebrations," the constitution states.

It then lists several ways that Christ is present in the liturgy - in the person of the priest, in the Body and Blood of Christ, in the sacraments, in Scripture and in the worshipping community. Christ's presence in the Church is so complete that when anyone baptizes another, it is Christ who performs the Baptism.

Christ is more than passively present in the liturgy; he is active. The liturgy is "an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ." Through the liturgy, God is glorified and people are sanctified in "this great work" that Christ performs in association with the Church. Finally, every liturgical celebration "is a sacred action surpassing all others" (SC7, emphases added).

Christ is always present in his Church, especially in liturgical celebrations. - Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7

'Christ is always present in his Church, especially in liturgical celebrations.'

Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7

Through its use of transitive words, the council makes clear that Christ is the chief agent in the liturgy. The Church does not so much invoke his presence as Christ prolongs the economy of salvation through our ritual and sacramental acts. In the liturgy, "full public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the head and his members" (SC7).

One of the ways that Christ is present is in the worshipping community. Sacrosanctum Concilium does not eliminate the distinction between the priest and the faithful. But the liturgy document takes seriously Jesus' words, "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18.20).


The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy takes a step beyond earlier papal documents in acknowledging that Christ is also present when the Holy Scriptures are read during the liturgy. This is the first hint of what was to become one of the great reforms of Vatican II - giving the Bible a much greater role in the life of the Church.

What Pope Benedict in 2010 referred to as "the profound unity of word and Eucharist" (Verbum Domini 54) found its earliest expression at Vatican II in Sacrosanctum Concilium before becoming a theme in other conciliar documents, especially the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.


Pope John XXIII had asked that the council work towards the restoration of visible Church unity. Overcoming the notion that the Bible was somehow Protestant and hands-off for Catholic laity was one of the clearest ecumenical initiatives of Vatican II.

Some of the council fathers were opposed to talking about the different forms of Christ's presence in the liturgy the way that Sacrosanctum Concilium 7 did. They maintained that Christ's presence in the Eucharist is of a wholly different and more exalted kind than these other forms of presence.

However, they were brought up short when it was pointed out that Pope Pius XII had spoken of different forms of Christ's presence in the same breath in his encyclical Mediator Dei 15 years earlier.


Liturgist Josef Jungmann wrote that Christ's primary manner of being is in his transfigured and glorified humanity. Christ is fully present in all these different modes, albeit in different ways.

Sacrosanctum Concilium thus gives the faithful a rich and diverse understanding of what it means to say that Christ is always present in his Church. We would narrow our understanding of both Christ and the Church if we were to give short shrift to any of these forms of his presence.

(Information for this article came from various sources including Rediscovering Vatican II: Liturgy by Rita Ferrone; Commentary on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy by Josef Jungmanns in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (vol. 1) edited by Herbert Vorgrimler; and Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II by Richard Gaillardetz and Catherine Clifford.)