Vatican II: Sacrosanctum Concilium

In the 19th Century, the Liturgical Movement began to pick up steam as theologians called for a new liturgical piety, which flowed from the faithful's participating more fully in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by uniting their hearts and minds to the prayers and actions of the liturgy. This objective was greatly aided by the use of hand missals, which had the prayers in both Latin and English so that the faithful could more easily follow along. This Liturgical Movement was officially recognized by the Church in 1947, when Pope Pius XII released the Church's first liturgical encyclical, Mediator Dei, "The Mediator of God." It was during these years that Pius XII set up a commission to help with the reform of the Liturgy, and this was well before Vatican II; this commission was responsible for the restoration of the Easter Vigil among other things.

When Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council in January of 1959, Pius XII's commission was ended as the liturgy and its reform would be dealt with during the council. A new commission was eventually set up, being composed of bishops, priests, religious and scholars representing as territorially wide an area as possible. This commission was charged with drawing up a draft for the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to discuss and work from. The Constitution on the Liturgy was what came from all this work and it was the first document promulgated by Vatican II, giving a clear signal that the Sacred Liturgy is of primary importance to the Church and in it's own words, that "[t]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.” (SC, 10)

The first chapter discusses in a theological fashion the nature of the Sacred Liturgy, namely what is it. “From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.” (SC, 7) The Liturgy is the work of God, the action of Christ the priest who unites us to Himself in His sacrifice to the Father and thus brings about our redemption. It is in the Sacred Liturgy that we most fully encounter Jesus: crucified, died, risen from the dead and gloriously ascended into heaven.

The Church proceeds to speak of its desire for full, conscious and active participation in the Liturgy. This idea goes back to the beginnings of the Liturgical Movement in the late 19th century, and received official recognition from the Church in 1903 in Pius X's encyclical, Tra Le Solicitudine. Unfortunately many people have interpreted this in a way contrary to what the Church has said, by associating “full, active and conscious” participation with 'doing' something at Mass (Reader, Server, Usher, Extraordinary Minster of Holy Communion, etc...). However, the Council and the Popes since that time have repeatedly stated that to fully, consciously and actively participate means first and foremost to live a life in accordance with the Gospel so that when we are present at the Sacred Liturgy, we can enter into the true spirit of the liturgy by uniting our hearts with the prayers, songs, responses and gestures.

The Church then goes on to speak about the Holy Mass, the Divine Office (prayer-book of priests), the Liturgical Year, Sacred Art and Music. Of interest is the fact that Vatican II said, “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites,” (SC, 36) while allowing for the vernacular in the parts of the Mass that pertain to the people (readings, homily, prayers of the faithful). The Council never mentions the priest facing the people, as opposed to the 2,000 year old tradition of the priest facing the east, where Christ will come again in glory, or the removal of altars and altar rails. These three things, the use of vernacular languages, the priest facing the people and the removal of altars and altar rails, are probably the most obvious differences in post-Conciliar liturgies, even though the Council never addressed two of them, and stated that Latin is to be retained in the Latin Rite of the Church; it added: “Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (SC, 54)

Obviously what the Second Vatican Council says about the Sacred Liturgy is much richer and more exhaustive than what I have written here, but it is my hope that this brief article will propel you to prayerfully read the actual text. It can be found at: