Sacrosanctum Concilium Turns 50


VATICAN CITY — Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, turns 50 on Dec. 4. The main aim of the document was to achieve greater lay participation in the Catholic Church’s liturgy.

In this exclusive interview with the Register, Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, discusses the significance of the constitution, its fruits after half a century and how to address some of the problems that followed its promulgation.


What did Sacrosanctum Concilium set out to achieve? Why was it needed?

Sacrosanctum Concilium was the first document promulgated by the Second Vatican Council on Dec. 4, 1963. It was the fruit of a long process of growing thought from the early 1800s which is generally known as the “Liturgical Movement.” This document, of course, calls upon sources further back than this. For more than 100 years prior to this moment, however, there was a desire to enrich people’s appreciation and experience of the liturgy of the Roman rite. Both St. Pope Pius X and Pope Pius XII played a great part in this. They sought to help people understand the liturgy and to participate in it better, so that the liturgy might bear even greater fruit in their souls.

In response to this growing movement, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy wanted, above all, to put the Church’s liturgy on solid theological foundations, based on the exercise of the priesthood of Christ in the mystical body, which is the Church.

The Council Fathers wished to deepen the Christian life of the faithful and to strengthen the ecclesiological significance of worship with the understanding that, in the words of the document itself, “the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2).

In the liturgy, it is Christ himself who is at work. It is where he manifests, makes present and communicates his work of salvation. The renewal of the liturgy wanted, above all, to provide a fresh understanding of this — not least, the meaning of the rites, a deeper theological grasp of what the words and the signs mean, which ultimately is about what God does, what God accomplishes when the sacred liturgy is celebrated.

One particular phrase, which is often associated with this renewal, is that of “active participation.” In fact, this wasn’t something that was first expressed in this document. It had its origins in St. Pope Pius X’s teaching on the liturgy from 1903. This does not mean that everybody needs to be running around doing things.

No, participation happens, first of all, at a much deeper level, in the mind and the heart, and this is greatly assisted when a person understands what is happening in the sacred liturgy. Why was this needed?

Well, it is clear that not everyone understood what was going on when they went to church. Not everyone was aware of the part they were playing as a “priestly people.” That is not to say that they weren’t praying, but just that, in the main, they would have found it very difficult to pray along with the priest or to understand why various things were done in the liturgy.


What would you say have been the fruits of the constitution?

Sacrosanctum Concilium was the first document and, therefore, a highly significant signal to the Church and the world from the Second Vatican Council. It was a clear reminder that all things begin in and through the Lord in worship and in prayer. There is no substitute for this.

What God does in the liturgy is what we have to do in the world beyond it — the manifesting of the mystery of Christ to others. This is very succinctly expressed today when the deacon says at the dismissal at Mass, “Go, and announce the Gospel of the Lord!” It has to be said that, for many, the message of the Second Vatican Council is seen through the liturgical renewal that took place in the 1960s. Some say that the success of the liturgical reform is to be found in the fact that it has brought the liturgy closer to the people. Another way of perceiving that, however, is to understand that it was seeking to bring the people closer to the liturgy. I believe that it did.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church paints a wonderful picture of what happens when we celebrate the liturgy — and strikingly begins with the mystery of Pentecost, the significance of which should not be overlooked.

Pentecost is the culmination of Jesus’ paschal mystery, where the crucified and now risen and ascended Lord lavishes on the world the Spirit with which he himself was anointed. What Jesus did in one time and place, therefore, is extended to every time and place through his Holy Spirit.

Indeed, this extension is the Church, that is, the assembly of all whom Jesus draws to himself when he is lifted up. This understanding is greatly assisted by good catechesis at every level. Within the English-speaking world, for example, the recent publication of the third edition of the Roman Missal in English offered a great opportunity for dioceses to revisit this. Many catechetical resources were produced then which are excellent educational tools still. Much of the faith is communicated through the liturgy, so a deeper understanding of what is going on there is an enrichment of one’s faith.

The vast majority of practicing Catholics are very grateful to be able to pray the Mass in their own language, to understand easily what is said and to appreciate the gestures. There is no doubt that it has greatly assisted people’s growth in the spiritual life.

One of the great desires of the Council, for example, was to make the Scriptures more prominent in the life of the Church. Well, the concepts within the prayers of the Missal are taken from sacred Scripture. It could, therefore, be said that in teaching people to pray in this way, you are bringing them closer to the word of God. What an immense gift that is!

I also think that the liturgical reforms are of great assistance to people who are seeking faith. Many people are spiritually adrift and seeking something more in life. Having a liturgy that is sacred yet comprehensible helps them to find a home in the Catholic Church.

This will become increasingly more important in the future, especially if our culture in the West continues its move away from its Christian foundations.


Some argue that, although it has borne fruit, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has been “instrumentalized and subjectified.” If this is true, why did this happen, and what is being done to restore the exact interpretation of this document and to advance the mission it set out to accomplish?

Pope Benedict XVI liked to point out that the liturgical reforms needed to be understood ever more deeply “on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relation to daily life” (Sacrosanctum Caritatis, 52) .

The liturgy not only helps form Catholics in their prayer; it also imparts the faith, gives a deeper appreciation of the exercise of the priesthood of the baptized and helps to refocus the Church’s missionary outreach — all of which are themes central to the teaching of the Council.

It is true to say, however, that, in some places, due to a lack of understanding of what the Constitution of the Liturgy was really saying, that some unfortunate developments during these years have lead, in some instances, more to a spirit of entertaining people than leading them in prayer and a profound understanding of God’s salvific action in the liturgy.

The liturgy is more about what God does than what we do! We are taking part in something very sacred. However, in some places, changes to the celebration of the liturgy were made that were neither authorized by Sacrosanctum Concilium, nor by the pope, nor by the bishops. In that sense, therefore, one can see that the liturgy was, in certain parts of the world, “instrumentalized” and “subjectified,” in that some people took this moment of change as an opportunity to try and modify the liturgy into whatever they wanted it to be. That is not what liturgy is.

We must always remember the cautionary words of St. Paul to the Church in Corinth, whose liturgical practices had become utterly bizarre. He reminded them, when talking about the Eucharist, that what he had passed on to them in faithfulness had, in fact, been received by him directly from the Lord himself. It was not of his own making. It came directly from Christ.

The liturgy is not only a sacred, but also a Divine, institution — and something that is not fanciful or of our making or which suits our moods. Also, there is never a good reason for poor liturgy or liturgical performance. This is a moment of serious encounter with God, above all else.

C.S. Lewis once noted: “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather, it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.” As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this document, I think it is true to say that there is a greater understanding today of what this constitution was all about. A new generation that did not live through the changes that immediately followed the Council has arrived, and there is much less interest in liturgical experimentation and novelty.

Given the difficulties of living the faith in modern times, I think many people are not interested in seeing the liturgy as entertainment or as something that needs to be constantly changed. They just want to draw close to God and to pray; they want to be nourished by the sacraments and to be strengthened, so that they can live their lives as faithful disciples of Jesus. This is a special moment that is bearing a rich harvest.


Is a further document needed to redress and remove the abuses that took place after the Council?

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in assisting the Holy Father and in cooperation with the world’s bishops, has a unique perspective on the celebration of the liturgy throughout the world. Sacrosanctun Concilium is a Council document, so will stand without alteration.

In recent years, however, and in response to questions and concerns, our congregation has already done a great deal to respond to evident abuses and to clarify certain issues. Two documents are particularly significant. First, the long-titled “Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest,” which was jointly issued by eight Vatican offices in 1997. And second, the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, which was published by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 2004.

These two documents clarify many aspects of the liturgical practice that the Church wishes to see adhered to, and they have played an important role in the modification of many eccentric liturgical practices. Of course, there are other documents too, regarding specific matters, but which are too long to list here.

It is often said that things move slowly in the Church, but as I meet bishops and groups from different parts of the world, I am becoming more aware that liturgical formation is improving greatly, not least in seminaries. I also detect that bishops have become more sensitive to the right of the faithful to be able to celebrate the liturgy in its integrity and that they are working to ensure that this is the case in practice.

In short, I would say that there is not a pressing need at the moment for a further document to address liturgical abuses. It is to be remembered that the local bishops are responsible for the moderation of the liturgy in their dioceses and ensuring that good catechetical programs for liturgical formation are available to priests and laity alike.


What are the Holy Father’s views on Sacrosanctum Concilium and his views on the liturgy in general?

It would be a little presumptuous of me to speak in terms of the Holy Father’s “views” regarding Sacrosanctum Concilium. What is incontrovertible is his adherence to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, of which the liturgy was a central factor.

From a practical point of view, the Pope keeps a close eye on the work of the Roman congregations, which includes the work that we are involved in. His first utterance on the liturgy since his election can be found in his address to the Bishops of ICEL [International Commission on English in the Liturgy], who met in Rome recently. I haven’t had the opportunity to read all that he has ever written or said on the matter. However, one only has to experience the dignity with which he celebrates Mass, both at the solemn occasions in St. Peter’s as well as in the privacy of his own chapel, to realize the deep reverence he has for the sacred liturgy and the prayerfulness with which he comports himself and inspires others who are present. He is a model for us all, bishops and priests alike.

What is also clear, in the overall view of things which he expresses, is his emphasis on the need for Christ’s followers to live their faith in a genuine way, and in so doing, to reach out to those who are in need and to help draw others into a friendship with Jesus.

As Sacrosanctum Concilium reminds us, the spring from which this flows is in the Eucharist, the source and the summit of the Church’s life and activity.

Edward Pentin is the register’s Rome correspondent.

Read more:

Still Learning From Pius X, 100 Years Later


Foe of Modernist Heresy Has Many Lessons for Today

On Tuesday, the Church began commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Pope St. Pius X. But despite nearly a century since his passing, his writings continue to be consulted to this day.

Pope St. Pius X in 11905

Pope St. Pius X in 1905

Born in 1835 to a poor family in northeast Italy, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto was elected Roman Pontiff in 1903 and served as Successor of Peter until his death on Aug. 20, 1914, the day Germany invaded Belgium at the beginning of World War I.

The first pope to be canonized since the 16th century’s Pope St. Pius V, he had a strong devotion to Our Lady, was deeply pastoral, and had a fervent love for the poor. Today, he is best known for his rejection of modernist interpretations of Catholic doctrine and his promotion of traditional devotional practice and orthodoxy.

Commemorating the anniversary, L’Osservatore Romano this week paid tribute to his life with text and pictures. One reflection proposed some similarities between him and Pope Francis. It noted Pius’ disdain for ecclesiastical triumphalism, his sober and modest style, and it claimed that, like Francis, he had a “more pastoral than magisterial interpretation of the role of Peter.” It recalled how Pius XII paid tribute to him at his canonization, describing him as a “country priest” – a label also given to Pope Francis.

The newspaper also pointed out that both popes were elected under extraordinary circumstances: Pope Francis after the retirement of Benedict XVI, and Pius X after Austria-Hungary Emperor Franz Joseph vetoed, via proxy, the election of the favourite in the 1903 conclave, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla.

The Vatican newspaper contended that the similarities between the two popes end there, adding that the times in which Pius X lived are “too distant with respect to those of today.”

But many continue to refer to Pius’ prolific writings, which they continue to see as relevant as ever to today’s relativist and increasingly secularist societies. His most famous encyclical, “Pascendi Dominici Gregis” (Feeding the Lord’s Flock), promulgated in 1907, was enormously influential in its condemnation of modernism, a movement that had evolved via currents in 19th-century Protestantism.

The document aimed to counter the movement’s belief that even solemnly defined Church teachings could change over time, and its sympathy with secularist conceptions of the separation of Church and state.

Pascendi Dominici Gregis has many striking passages, not least his solemn warning that modernists wish to “lay the axe not to the branches and shoots, but to the very root, that is, to the faith and its deepest fires.” Then, having struck at this root of immortality, he adds, “they proceed to disseminate poison through the whole tree, so that there is no part of Catholic truth from which they hold their hand, none that they do not strive to corrupt.” He stresses that agnosticism is the movement’s “philosophical foundation”, and one whose natural end is relativism and atheism.

Three years later, in 1910, St. Pius required all priests, religious superiors and seminary teachers to take an oath against the modernist heresy, a requirement that Pope Paul VI abolished in 1967.

* * *

A less well-known though still often-quoted text of Pius X is from a 1910 letter to French bishops titled, “Our Apostolic Mandate”. Also a powerful rebuttal of modernism, today it is sometimes cited not only to counter today’s post-modernist culture but also to shed light on what many see as secularist thinking that has entered parts of the Church.

Written primarily as a response to “Le Sillon”, a French political and religious modernist movement that tried to bring Catholicism into greater conformity with French socialist ideals, the papal letter takes a stand against ideas that modern society holds inviolable: an erroneous concept of human dignity, liberation from authority, and democratization of the Church. Regarded as both wise and uncompromising, it serves as a rallying cry to French bishops to guard their flock in staying true to the Church’s teaching in the face of doctrinal error.

“Catholic doctrine tells us that the primary duty of charity does not lie in the toleration of false ideas, however sincere they may be,” Pius X explains, adding that although Jesus was “kind to sinners and to those who went astray, He did not respect their false ideas, however sincere they might have appeared.”

“He loved them all,” Pius says, “but He instructed in order to comfort them.”

Jesus, he continues, “was as strong as he was gentle” and “He reproved, threatened, chastised.” He lifted up the lowly, but “not to instil” rebelliousness and disobedience. Jesus did not announce a “reign of an ideal happiness from which suffering would be banished,” Pius adds. “He traced the path of the happiness which is possible on earth and of the perfect happiness in heaven, the royal way of the Cross.”

Such teachings are “eminently social” he says, and show Jesus Christ as someone “quite different from an inconsistent and impotent humanitarianism.”

St. Pius X doesn’t hold back from reprimanding Catholics who seek to establish “the reign of love and justice” on earth based solely on the uniting influence of a “generous idealism and moral forces drawn from whence they can.”

He reminds them that establishing the “Christian City” needs much more than a “vague idealism and civic virtues”, and instead requires “the sufferings of millions of martyrs, and the light given by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the self-sacrifice of all the heroes of charity, and a powerful hierarchy ordained in heaven, and the streams of Divine Grace – the whole having been built up, bound together, and impregnated by the life and spirit of Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God, the Word made man.”

He goes on to deride the values derived from the French Revolution – “Liberty, Justice, Fraternity, Love, Equality” – so favoured by the Sillon movement. Such values rest on “an ill-understood human dignity”, he says, leading to a “seductive confusion,” a “tumultuous agitation” and a “sterile” end that brings “socialism in its train.”

He expresses concern that such thinking among Catholics aims to create a “One World Church” which shall have “neither dogmas nor hierarchy, neither discipline for the mind, nor curb the passions, and which, under the pretext of freedom and human dignity, would bring back to the world [the] reign of legalized cunning and force, and oppression of the weak and of all those who toil and suffer.”

He addresses the problem of democracy, and while his thinking on this subject would probably be unpalatable to many Catholics today, he puts his finger on perhaps why, today, public opinion of democratic institutions has reached such a low ebb.

At that time there was a growing belief, and one which holds sway today, that a government’s authority derives from its people, and which the people have the right to revoke. But such a view was condemned by Leo XIII, Pius recalls, who restated that Catholics believe the right of government “derives from God as its natural and necessary principle.”

“If the people remain the holders of power,” Pius says, “what becomes of authority? A shadow, a myth; there is no more law properly so-called, no more obedience.” The result, he argues, is a society that “will have no masters and no servants. All citizens will be free; all comrades, all kings.” But then any precept would eventually be viewed “as an attack upon their freedom”, he says, and subordination to any form of superiority “would be a diminishment of the human person, and obedience a disgrace.”

Presciently, St. Pius says he fears worse is to come. “The end result of this developing promiscuousness, the beneficiary of this cosmopolitan social action, can only be a Democracy which will be neither Catholic, nor Protestant, nor Jewish,” he says. Instead it will “be a religion [more] universal than the Catholic Church, uniting all men to become brothers and comrades at last in the “Kingdom of God”, “We do not work for the Church, we work for mankind.””

With this in mind, Pius X encourages the bishops to “carry on diligently with the work of the Saviour of men by emulating His gentleness and His strength.” He urges them to “preach fearlessly their duties to the powerful and to the lowly” and to “form the conscience of the people and of the public authorities.” He further calls on the bishops to “ take appropriate measures, with prudence but with firmness also” with regards the Sillonists, and ends by calling on the Church to pray that the Lord may cause them to understand the “grave reasons” for any particular sanction placed on them.

Pius X was a prolific writer during his 11 years as Pope, penning 16 encyclicals all of which can be read in English on the Vatican Web site here. While some passages are clearly suited to another era, for many Catholics St. Pius X’s uncompromising style makes welcome reading in a world where the modernist heresy has long taken hold.

(August 22, 2013) © Innovative Media Inc.
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