The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium)
was the first document produced by the Second Vatican Council,
and arguably the most influential. The everyday lives of millions
of Catholics around the world have been influenced by what it
had to say. It was approved by an overwhelming majority of the
Council Fathers (2,147 to 4), and promulgated by Pope Paul VI
on December 4, 1963. It set in motion the most far-reaching
liturgical reform in Catholic history.
In 1985, the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops
would look back and reflect that "the liturgical renewal is the
most visible fruit of the whole work of the Council." Pope John
Paul II, on the document's twenty-fifth anniversary, would agree:
"For many people the message of the Second Vatican Council
has been experienced principally through the liturgical reform."
Another 20 years have passed since that time, and interest
in the Constitution has not diminished but grown. On its fortieth
anniversary, Pope John Paul II opined that "With the passing
of time and in light of its fruits, the importance of Sacrosanctum
Concilium has become increasingly clear" (Spiritus et Sponsa, 2).
Pope Benedict XVI, as recently as June 2008, in a homily delivered
via satellite to the 49th International Eucharistic Congress
in Quebec, exhorted the faithful to study this document. "I
would like everyone to make a commitment to study this great
mystery [the Eucharist]," he said, "especially by revisiting and
exploring, individually and in groups, the Council's text on the
liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, so as to bear witness courageously
to the mystery."
In the popular imagination, the liturgical reforms of the Second
Vatican Council are associated with the tumultuous 1960s, when
"Times They Are A-Changin' " was on the radio, civil rights
protesters were in the streets, the Vietnam war was on the news,
and the sexual revolution was changing attitudes at a startling
pace. This is a false perception. The liturgical reforms of the
Second Vatican Council were not a product of the sixties. They
developed gradually and originated in a much earlier era.
A new concern with recovering the original meaning of
the liturgy surfaced in the nineteenth century in French and
German Benedictine monasteries. It developed into a worldwide
movement during the first half of the twentieth century. As early
as 1910, Pope Pius X called for active participation in the rites of
the Church, and solemnly identified the liturgy as "the indispensable
source of the true Christian spirit" (Tra le Solecitudini,
#220). His call for active participation was taken up by scholars
and pastors in parishes, monasteries, schools, and religious
houses around the world.
The Liturgical Movement, as it came to be called, began as
an effort to study and understand the liturgy. Gradually, it
became a movement of reform that sought to make the liturgy
more accessible to everyone. Pope Pius XII endorsed the
Liturgical Movement in the encyclical Mediator Dei, written in
1947. He also sponsored several important liturgical reforms in
the 1950s, restoring the Easter Vigil to its former glory on Holy
Saturday night and reforming the other liturgies of Holy Week
as well. The success of these efforts raised the expectations of
many, and when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican
Council, liturgy was the first item on the agenda.
Two words that capture the spirit of the liturgical renewal of the
Conciliar period are aggiornamento and ressourcement.
Aggiornamento is an Italian word that means bringing things up
to the present day. Pope John XXIII called for the Church to
update its presentation of its message. His call was motivated by
pastoral concern. He did not want the Church to lose touch with
the contemporary concerns and struggles of its people.
Ressourcement, a French word, means "back to the sources," that
is, the study of liturgical history reaching back to the early centuries.
Far from a sterile, archeological interest in the past, going
back to the sources was a springboard for renewal, asking new
questions of ancient texts.
At first glance, ressourcement may seem incompatible with
aggiornamento, but actually they are complementary. "Sound
tradition," protected by the Constitution (CSL, 23) is not simply
a matter of preserving "old stuff." By going back to the sources,
by studying and understanding the history of the liturgy, one
can discern what is essential, what must be handed on in order
to preserve the health of the Church in the present and sustain
it in the future. A keen appreciation for how the Church's message
is heard today, in turn, helps the Church pass on its living
tradition effectively, so that it can be grasped and owned by a
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has the standing of permanent
law, and in many ways it reads like a book of statutes. At
the same time, it is a theological statement. Many passages
embody commitments and beliefs that are profoundly theological
and inspiring, and well worth meditating on.
The theological heart of the Constitution is to be found in
the concept of the Paschal Mystery. The death, Resurrection, and
glorification of Jesus is the mystery par excellence that the liturgy
celebrates. The Paschal Mystery is presented as the principal way
in which our Lord redeemed us (CSL, 5) and the mystical reality
into which we are plunged by our Baptism (#6). It is the reason
why believers have gathered for Eucharist since the time of the
apostles (#6), and the wellspring of all the sacraments (#61).
Throughout the document, one also finds a vigorous theology
of the Church. The liturgy is the "summit and source" of the
life of the Church (CSL, 10). The whole mystical Body of Jesus
Christ, head and members, performs the liturgy (#7). Liturgies
are not private functions but expressions of the Church (#26),
with diverse and complementary ministries and offices that
work together for the good of the whole (#27-29). The document
gives a picture of the bishop, the diocese, the parishes, pastors,
and all the baptized forming an organic, ordered unity (#41-42).
On the practical level, the Constitution encourages the
establishment of diocesan commissions for liturgy, music, and
art (CSL, 45-46), as well as territorial commissions and institutes
for education in pastoral liturgy (#44). Thus, its theological
vision is supported by structures to make the best use of the
Spirit's diverse gifts.
When reading the Constitution today, it is important—as it is
in reading any historical document—to understand its context.
For this purpose, commentaries can be helpful. The most venerable
and detailed commentary on the Constitution can be found
in Volume I of the Commentaries on Vatican II (Herder, 1967).
Written by Josef Jungmann, SJ, a peritus at the Council, the
commentary analyzes the text article by article. More recent
commentaries, such as Pamela Jackson's An Abundance of Graces (Hillenbrand, 2004) or my own Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist, 2007) summarize the contents of the document more
briefly and also show how it has been interpreted and implemented
since the Council.
The structure of the document gives clear evidence that it
was meant to serve as a blueprint for renewal. It begins with a
short introduction that states the goals of the Council overall.
Such a statement is found in no other document of the Second
Vatican Council, and it is quite important for understanding the
Council as a whole, as well as for understanding why the liturgical
work of the Council was central to its agenda. The largest
and most detailed chapter of the Constitution is the first, entitled
"General Principles for the Restoration and Promotion of
the Sacred Liturgy." It is followed by chapters devoted to the
Eucharist, the other sacraments and sacramentals, the Divine
Office, the liturgical year, sacred music, and finally, sacred art
and furnishings. An appendix on the revision of the calendar
appears at the end.
The text of the Constitution is full of references and allusions
to the liturgical developments of the preceding hundred
years. Some notes are provided (citations from scripture, the
Church Fathers, liturgical texts, and the Council of Trent), but
for the most part, it is simply assumed that the well-educated
reader will know the background. What are some of these allusions?
We have already mentioned the call for participation
found in the writings of Pius X. It appears often in the Constitution.
Another example is the expression "noble simplicity" (CSL, 34).
The expression comes from the influential essay "The Genius of
the Roman Rite," published by Edmund Bishop near the turn of
the twentieth century. Bishop argued that the Roman rite is characterized
by a noble simplicity, soberness, and sense. The Council
Fathers wanted to honor and preserve this fundamental quality
of the Roman rite while reforming the liturgy. Noble simplicity
wasn't merely an attractive idea on its own merits. It was a considered
judgment, based on the study of liturgical history.
Following Mediator Dei, the Constitution enumerated ways
in which Christ is present in the celebration (CSL, 7). It also spoke,
however, of Christ's presence in his word—a form of "presence"
not mentioned in Mediator Dei. This addition to a well-known
list would have leapt to the eye of the document's first readers.
Why was it added? It was included to foster ecumenism. One
might press the question even further and ask: Why was the liturgy
document concerned with ecumenism? Look at the introduction,
where the aims of the Second Vatican Council as a
whole are identified (#1), and you will find the answer.
Some of the provisions of the Constitution refer to liturgical
practices so familiar today that we may take them completely
for granted, such as Holy Communion under both forms (CSL,
55) or concelebration (#57). But these provisions were initially
controversial and their acceptance hard won. Thus, when we
see very cautious and limited permissions in these areas, we
should remember that they were big steps at the time. Further
development took place gradually over the years that followed
Some provisions of the Constitution, such as the call to
inculturate the liturgy (CSL, 37-40), have generated a rich and
nuanced discussion that is still going on vigorously around the
globe. While the document states that the Church has always
welcomed and sponsored the native genius of diverse peoples,
this should not blind us to the fact that the call to adapt the liturgy
to various cultures was a remarkable and noteworthy development.
Pope Pius XII and Pope John XXIII both expressed
interest in welcoming the genius of all peoples, but the inclusion
of this provision in the Constitution raised the Church's commitment
to inculturation to a higher level.
At times, the Constitution seems to represent both sides of
a discussion. This is especially true with respect to Latin. Among
the Council Fathers were strong views in favor of the vernacular
and in favor of Latin, and both are represented (CSL, 36.1/36.2).
A "both-and" approach is also evident in the section on music.
New musical compositions are welcomed (#121) and a variety of
instruments may be used (#120), but Gregorian chant is warmly
recommended (#116) and pipe organs are affirmed (#120).
To carry out of the Council's directives in the Constitution, a
host of practical decisions had to be made after the Council—by
the Pope, the consultative bodies that advised the Pope, the conferences
of bishops, and so on. It could not have been otherwise.
The Constitution set a huge project in motion—one that is still
going on today.
Since the Constitution's appearance in 1963, there have
been five official instructions on its proper implementation.
They give specific permissions and guidance in carrying out the
reform. Three of these instructions appeared in quick succession:
Inter Oecumenici (1964), Tres Abhinc Annos (1967), and
Liturgicae Instaurationes (1970). The other two appeared much
later: Varietates Legitimae (1994) and Liturgiam Authenticam(2001). These are Vatican documents, written for the worldwide
Church. There are also other documents—written by Popes,
Episcopal Conferences, and individual bishops—that provide
inspiration and guidance in carrying out the mandate of the
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.
Many crucial conciliar reforms are not explicitly mentioned
in the pages of the Constitution. A few examples would
be the position of the priest at the altar (Mass facing the people
is endorsed in Inter Oecumenici), greater use of the vernacular
(see Tres Abhinc Annos), and the inclusion of women in liturgical
ministries (Liturgicae Instaurationes established this officially).
It's also worth noting that the Constitution does not discuss
eucharistic adoration; its primary focus was the celebration of
the Eucharist. The document to consult concerning a renewed
understanding of adoration would be Holy Communion and
Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass, issued in 1973.
The special virtue of studying the Constitution is that it is like
the hub of a wheel. One can see, radiating outward from it,
countless works of fidelity by the praying Church. Not only Popes
and bishops, pastors and religious, but all faithful Catholics have
a part to play in its vision and mission. Within all the baptized is
the call and privilege to be caught up in the work of the liturgy:
the eternal praise of the Father by the Son, through the Holy
Spirit. If at times we fail to do our part as well as we should, it
remains, nevertheless, a great work and a vibrant calling.
In the next issue of Pastoral Liturgy®, we will look at the
spirituality of the Constitution.
1. What has been your experience of reading or studying primary
texts, such as Church documents, historic statements, or books
of the Bible? What challenges have you faced in making sense of
such texts? What has helped you to gain a better understanding?
2. Everyone brings their own perceptions to the task of reading
and interpreting Church documents. Sum up in a few words your
general impression of worship in the period after the Second
Vatican Council. What questions does your experience raise
3. As you read the Constitution, what surprises you? What do
you see, on the other hand, that seems self-evident or familiar?
Are there particular words or phrases that "jump off the page"
as you read them?
4. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy calls the liturgy the
"summit and source" of our life of faith (CSL, 10). To what
degree does this describe your experience? Does it correspond to
the attitude of people in your parish? Why or why not?
5. Full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy is a
value stressed by the Constitution (CSL, 14, 19, 27, 30, 48, 121).
What are some factors that assist your participation in the
liturgy? What impedes your participation in any given
6. Look up the passage which speaks of the various ways that
Christ is present in the liturgy (CSL, 7). Which of these do you
find easiest to experience in a heartfelt manner? Which is the
most challenging for you?