Father Vagaggini’s Article On Liturgy Document

Following is a translation of an article on the document on the liturgy approved by the Fathers of the ecumenical council on Dec. 7. The article, by Father Cipriano Vagaggini, O.S.B., one of the papally appointed council “experts,” appeared in L’Osservatore Romano on Dec. 8.

The constitution De Sacra Liturgia has had a happy outcome.

Let us be frank: some months ago when the Fathers of the council received this schema there were many who were very favorably impressed. Nevertheless there were some who were more or less troubled by that inclination deemed perhaps too daringly aimed toward a little known and uncertain future.

Even among those most favorable toward the liturgy and to the schema, not all dared hope for such complete success. The first remarks in the discussion — always made with an admirable balance of the fullest freedom and of the most responsible discipline, for which the Church holds the key — could at times give the impression that a storm was gathering over the schema.

However, as the discussion progressed, ideas and standpoints cleared up rapidly. From opinions expressed in the hall, it readily appeared that the schema — though in a thorny field filled with problems as delicate as they were urgent — was moving forward with prudence and equilibrium, even if accompanied by a frank understanding of the needs of the Church in the world of today.

The Fathers made numerous comments about the preamble and Chapter I. Their remarks occupy fully 249 pages of large format. But the corrections requested by the overall majority were, in fact, minor ones, intended mainly to improve the wording and to complete it in some secondary manner. Thus, when the voting was reached, there was a favorable judgment that was, remarkably, virtually unanimous.

Therefore, Chapter I of the schema De Sacra Liturgia on “General Principles for Reforming and Fostering the Liturgy,” has had the honor, not scheduled, of representing the first fruits which the Second Vatican Council begins to offer to the world.

The liturgical movement has thus come to its highest point so far in its impressive upward trajectory. The spiritual and pastoral life of the Church, in turn, has reached a point whose consequences could be inestimable in the near future.

The General Structure

The first chapter of the Constitution on the Liturgy, in addition to a general preamble, in which the aim of the council is explained in the treatment of these matters, consists of five parts. The purpose of these is not at all that of giving a sort of treatise, not even theological or pastoral, of the liturgy. The purpose is only to establish the general principles in order to promote and reform it. Recourse is made to the theoretical, theological and pastoral bases only to frame the general norms of practical nature in their ideal perspective.

The argument is simple: from the nature of the liturgy stems its particular effectiveness to attain the meaning of the Christian life and thus we understand its exceptional importance in the life of the Church (Part I: Concerning the Nature of the Sacred Liturgy and of its Importance in the Life of the Church). We must thus put forth every effort to lead the people to full participation inwardly and outwardly; this presupposes in the first place a liturgical training of the clergy and an intense instruction of the people themselves (Part II: On Liturgical Formation and Active Participation). This also requires from the Church, where it is needed, a proper reform of the liturgy founded on clear principles and directives (Part III: On Reform of the Liturgy). It requires, furthermore, the development of the liturgical spirit in dioceses and parishes (Part IV: On the Need for Promoting Liturgical Life in the Diocese and the Parish), as well as an adequate diocesan organization, or national one to promote it (Part V: Promoting Pastoral-Liturgical Action).

The Liturgy, Goal and Source of the Church’s Activity

The first part (Nos. 5-13) is the general doctrinal foundation of the whole constitution in which the importance of the liturgy in the life of the Church is clarified by examining its very nature. The nature of the liturgy (Nos. 7-8) is seen as flowing from the nature and the work of Christ, as the “sacrament,” basic and indispensable to all worship and all sanctification of the world (No. 5).

From this first-born sacrament comes the sacrament which is the total Church herself (totius Ecclesiae tuae mirabile sacramentum), born from Christ that it might apply the work of His Redemption to men. The Church carries on this work first by means of the Holy Sacrifice and the other sacraments around which the whole liturgy is developed-always, as with Christ Himself, in an incarnate and sacramental structure.

Thus the liturgy appears “as the exercise of the priesthood of Christ, in whom, by means of outward signs, the sanctification of man is communicated and, in the manner proper to each, brought about; and at the same time the Mystical Body of Christ, Head and members, offers the entire public worship” (No. 7). Every liturgical action, therefore, is thus “the most sublime sacred action, superior in effect to any other action of the Church, by title and in degree” (No. 7) for the worship of God and the sanctifying of men.

We now come to the culmination of this reasoning: therefore, although “the liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church” (No. 9) “it is nevertheless the summit toward which all the actions of the Church tend, and at the same time the source from which it draws all its strength” (No. 10).

However, be it understood that for the liturgy to obtain its fruit in each of the faithful, it is indispensable that they not only refrain from placing an obstacle to this, but that each cultivate the spiritual life intensely by meditation, prayer, penance and the faithful fulfillment of one’s own state of life even outside of worship (Nos. 11-13).

The liturgy does not suppress any indispensable activity of the spiritual or apostolic life, but baptizes them and orders them to the end of divine worship and human sanctification by full participation, spiritual and external, in the sacred actions; while under another aspect it brings these other works to fulfillment, by joining them in the sacred action. This is a fundamental and magnificent doctrine. One can see the tremendous consequences of this doctrine, taken seriously and lived, for the Christian life.

This doctrinal section not only codifies solemnly many doctrines already touched on in the encyclical Mediator Dei, but in some points clarifies and develops them. For example, in seeing the nature of the liturgy as the work of Christ Himself, the first sacrament (come sacramento primordiale), and as the work of the Church, the general sacrament established by Christ; secondly, in putting into more relief the double aspect of the liturgical action, as worship rendered to God and as the holiness which God effects in man; likewise in accentuating the fact that the liturgy is structured in sensible signs; and especially in the doctrine that the liturgy is the goal and source of the Church’s activity.

Liturgical Formation and Teaching of the Liturgy

He who sees the liturgy in the light of the council will not find it hard to understand the truth that the Church is anxious to bring to the people and to live intensely such a treasure (No. 14), and then to see how she is preoccupied in seeing that the clergy is fully instructed (Nos. 15-18); otherwise, this spirit cannot be passed on to the faithful (Nos. 19-20).

The contents of Article 19 are particularly important, not so much by the fact that here is it decreed that henceforth the liturgy is to be considered among the major disciplines in the ecclesiastical curriculum, but more by the directives given for the method of studying and teaching it. The council wants it to be taught “both from a theological and historical aspect, as well as a spiritual, pastoral and juridical aspect.” And a total concept of liturgy is to be taught, as it has become clarified in the last 20 years.

We are far removed from identifying liturgical science with knowledge of the rubrics or even from a history of the rites. This is a point which is consequential not only for the instructors of the liturgy, but also for the liturgical formation of the clergy.

The council recommends then that “professors of the other theological disciplines, especially of dogma, of spiritual theology and pastoral, integrate into each subject the Mystery of Christ and salvation history, so that the lines of relation can be clearly seen between each other branch and the liturgy, for greater realization of unity in priestly formation.”

Also here we touch on a theoretical and fundamentally practical problem: that of the unity of the different branches of theology and of their reflections on priestly formation. It is said that this unity of the ecclesiastical sciences is sought in the fact that each must illustrate a fundamental common object: The sacred history summed up in the Mystery of Christ

If this is done in the proper manner, they all show themselves as links of every branch of knowledge to the liturgy. In fact, what is the liturgy except the actuality, under the veil of the sacramental signs, of the Sacred History of Christ present and working among us? That which the Bible proclaims as the Mystery, which dogma contemplates systematically, the spiritual life lives and the apostolate teaches and passes on to men. Thus the science of liturgy … is manifested in the formation and in the life of the priest, as the science in which is made actual all the truths of the other sciences. …

The Principal Directives of Liturgical Reform

We are now at the heart of the schema on the liturgy. If the liturgy is a complex of signs, of its very nature, it is essential that these signs manifest their meaning in such a way that the people might comprehend them easily in order to participate fully in the supernatural realities (No. 21). This is the bedrock principle of all liturgical reform.

The norms which follow from this are grouped in four sections: general norms (Nos. 22-25), norms derived from the hierarchical and communal nature of the liturgy (Nos. 26-32), norms derived from its didactic and pastoral nature (Nos. 33-36), norms derived from the necessity of adapting the liturgy to the genius and traditions of various peoples (Nos. 37-40).

The general norms establish the competent authority of liturgical reform, the principle of tradition and of legitimate progress, and the connection between liturgical reform and Biblical mentality, and affirm, in conclusion, the necessity of reform of the liturgical books.

A change of major importance is found in No. 22. First it is affirmed that the competent authority for liturgical reform is the Holy See alone, and, by law, the bishop. Then is established this principle that through a concession of law, this can apply also to episcopal authority, territorial, supradiocesan, even national. To this authority, in the following chapters is allocated the execution, application, and local adaptation regarding the liturgy, and that the Holy See does not intend any longer to reserve to itself exclusively this right as it did after the Council of Trent.

It is a great new step because it sanctions the foundation of a decentralization in the area of liturgy in favor not so much of the individual bishop (this could perhaps result in excessive variety), as of this territorial, supradiocesan, authority. The possible results are evident of an adaptation of the liturgy to local necessities, more in keeping with very different concrete situations.

But what will this supradiocesan territorial authority be? The text purposely chooses a generic formula: They are “competenti assemblee episcopali territoriali di vario genere legittimanmete constituite” [various types of properly constituted assemblies of territorial bishops]. It might be that provincial councils, regional conferences of bishops, or even national conferences would conform to the text.

So as not to preclude any possibility, no decision was made. Actually, the situation varies from country to country. National episcopal conferences, whose importance is tending to increase a great deal in the life of the Church today, not only do not have the same structure and the same effectiveness everywhere, but do not yet even have a definite juridical authority. Perhaps the council will clarify this later on.

The Social Nature of the Liturgy and Liturgical Reform

From the social and hierarchical nature of the liturgy (No. 26) five pivotal norms of reform are drawn: each time that it is possible, external participation of the community in the celebration of the rites will be preferred to an individual and private form (No. 27). Every participant in the liturgical drama will do completely and only his part (No. 28); this holds equally for the ministers, the lectors, the commentators, and the schola cantorum (No. 29).

Active participation of the faithful must be encouraged, especially by the responses, the acclamations, and the hymns (i canti) (No. 30) and must be so marked in the rubrics (No. 31). Finally, “in the liturgy, except for the distinctions for liturgical office and of other honors due to civil authorities according to liturgical law, there must be no differentiation between persons or conditions, either in the ceremonies or in external pomp” (No. 32). Suffice it to consider the so-called “classes” often in use in the celebration of weddings and funerals to understand the intent of the Church here.

Pastoral Nature of the Liturgy and Liturgical Language

Having affirmed the didactic and pastoral nature of the liturgy (No. 33), the council arrives at three norms of reform. Before all and necessarily, the rites ought to be clear and simple, to be understood easily by the people (No. 34). Then follows a norm of more lengthy, varied and better chosen Biblical selections in the liturgy (No. 35, 1). From this norm will result a revision, somewhat extensive, for the liturgical season after Pentecost, in the selection and distribution of the Biblical readings in the Masses and Office.

Accompanying this same norm is a new insistence on the necessity of a homily and of a liturgical catechesis, and a hint at the opportunity to organize into a liturgical rite the so-called Bible vigils (No. 35, 2-4). Finally from the same didactic and pastoral nature of the liturgy, the next norm examines the question of language. The text of article 36 follows:

“1. The use of the Latin language, except by particular dispensation, is to be preserved in the Latin rites.

“2. But since the use of the vernacular very often can be very helpful to the people in Holy Mass or in the administration of the sacraments and in other parts of the liturgy, a larger role is conceded to the vernacular, especially in the lessons, instructions, in some prayers and in some chants, according to the norms laid down in the following:

“3. It will be the right of the territorial authority mentioned in Article 22 paragraph 2 in reference to the norms above, consulting, if the case suggests this, the bishops of the neighboring regions having the same language, to determine the manner and use of the vernacular language, with the reservation that their acts are to be examined — in other words, confirmed, by the Apostolic See.”

For the moment the general principle is affirmed. But its importance is basic. The chapters on the Mass, the sacraments and sacramentals, and Divine Office will determine then the limits which the council will permit in the use of the peoples’ language in these rites, while the episcopal territorial authority will then decide the limits of local adaptation.

It is noteworthy that this question was the most discussed in all the debate on the liturgy. Eighty-one speakers were heard. Their opinions take up more than 100 solid pages. Three tendencies were manifested: Some wanted no concessions to the vernacular; some wanted permission to say everything in the vernacular for all who want it; some wanted to maintain the basic principle of Latin, but also to open the door noticeably to the vernacular tongue. The majority were of this middle view, which was that followed by the schema. Thus the way of prudence and of apostolic boldness were amicably united. The Second Vatican Council, officially introducing bilingualism into the life of the Latin liturgy, takes a memorable stride in history.

The Liturgy and Adaptation to Traditions of Peoples

The council laid special stress on the pastoral and didactic nature of the liturgy. Thus it was not able to avoid facing with apostolic fortitude another grave and urgent problem flowing from this: that of the adaptation of the liturgy itself to the legitimate traditions and religious associations (genio) of various peoples. Behold with what firmness the principle is proclaimed: “The Church, when it is not a question of the Faith or the common good, does not intend to impose, even in the Liturgy, a rigid uniformity. Moreover, it requests and promotes the characteristics and gifts of various races and peoples.

“It looks favorably on everything in the customs of these people that is not inseparably bound up with superstition and error, and, if it can, it protects and conserves them. Thus sometimes it admits these customs into the liturgy itself, provided they can be harmonized with the authentic liturgical spirit.” This is the first time that the principle of adaptation so firmly established by the sovereign pontiffs since Benedict XV in the mission fields is solemnly applied to the liturgy also.

The first general norm which is deduced in the area of liturgical reform is that the Holy See, publishing the liturgical books which will be normative for all who follow the Roman Rite … will not exact a rigid uniformity in the single particulars of every rite, but will leave a certain margin to free choice (No. 38). In each area the territorial authority will decide the width of this margin (No. 39).

The second norm goes further: If it becomes apparent (No. 40) that in certain regions the problem arises of a more profound adaptation than that foreseen in the official editions of the liturgical books; in this case the bishops of the territory are exhorted to study the problem and to make concrete proposals to the Holy See. In turn the Holy See will provide, if it thinks it good, permission for future experiments.

This is a daring proposal. Let us think of the seriousness of the problem, for example in certain mission countries of Africa and Asia. Prudently, but with apostolic freedom, the way is opened for a possibly slow but profound adaptation of the Roman Rite to the local needs of peoples who, in the development of their civilization and their emotional reactions, owe little or nothing to the Roman tradition, however noble and glorious it is.

The pastoral zeal which John XXIII has so providentially instilled in the Fathers of the council, and the great unspoken law of the Church: “Salus animarum suprema lex” [the salvation of souls is the supreme law], have strengthened them to look unflinchingly at these horizons: Duc in altum [Lead upward].

The last two sections of this first chapter confirm the necessity of promoting the liturgical life in the dioceses (No. 41) and in the parishes (No. 42), and of organizing the liturgical revival by creating appropriate diocesan, interdiocesan or national associations (Nos. 4346).


The first chapter of the Constitution on the Liturgy is the most important one in the document, as it contains the fundamental principles. The following chapters on the Mass, the sacraments and sacramentals, on the Divine Office, the liturgical year, sacred furnishings, sacred music and sacred art only apply these principles, though even these do not get down to details. In a word, if the Constitution will be like the Magna Carta, serving as a guide for the fulfillment of liturgical reform, this first chapter is like the soul of the Magna Carta itself.

As soon as the text is promulgated definitively by the Holy Father, liturgists, pastors, and canonists will devour the work not only to interpret it in detail, but to cull from it its profound spirit and to translate it into the practical life of the Church. This labor will bear sound fruit.

This chapter on the general principles for promoting liturgical reform, though it might seem revolutionary, is not an unexpected bolt from the blue. It is rather a seed which falls on a well prepared field, a welcome rain which will restore a parched earth. The mystical field of the Church has been thirsting — indeed in almost every bit of soil — in hope of this fertile rain. True, the awareness of this has varied according to situations, but basically this thirst has been an intense one everywhere. It was not in vain that the liturgical movement was at work now for 50 years, and it has reached every shore. The rousing vote on this chapter is proof of it.

This evidence gave joy to the heart of every liturgist who had the good fortune to assist in these discussions on this matter. The liturgical vision is now a force sweeping through the Church and is integrated with the pastoral, missionary, spiritual, and ecumenical movements — the great movements which quicken the Mystical Body of Christ in our days.

For those who have considered the liturgical movement as something very marginal in the life of the Church, attendance at these discussions has been a revelation.

Many, however, will repeat what one prelate, representing a whole continent, proclaimed in the council hall: “Let us welcome the schema on the liturgy joyfully. We finally have what our pastoral and missionary anxiety has so long awaited.” And what part of the Church ought not be considered as in missionary or pastoral anxiety?

Moreover, in order to understand how closely the first chapter of the Constitution on the Liturgy also touches on the problem [of Christian unity], it is enough to know the importance of the liturgical view in what another authoritative Father, speaking in the name of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, called the new method of the ecumenical dialogue with our separated brothers. It is no wonder the observers were so highly interested in the discussions on the liturgy, which one might have assumed were foreign to their interests.

It is not unusual, on the other hand, that the liturgical question stands out as intimately tied to all that is vital in the Church today. We know that life, particularly the life of the Church, is one: the liturgy is one of its fullest and most characteristic expressions.

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4 Responses to Father Vagaggini’s Article On Liturgy Document

  1. Lydia says:

    “The constitution De Sacra Liturgia has had a happy outcome”-but not for everyone: because in offering the Novo Ordo Mass in the vernacular and with all the changes that came with it, no option was left to those who wanted to to keep the Traditional Mass. It was a all-or nothing-accept the new, or leave. Fifty years later, and Archbishop Müeller saying “Outside (the) sole orthodox interpretation unfortunately exists a heretical interpretation, that is, a hermeneutic of rupture, (found) both on the progressive front and on the traditionalist one. Both agree on refusing the Council; the progressives in their wanting to leave it behind, as if it were a season to abandon in order to get to another church, and the traditionalists in their not wanting to get there, as if it was the winter of Catholicity,” implying that those, including the Traditionists who reject Vatican II and the loss of the Traditional Latin Tridentine Mass are heretics. That implication is a very serious one: the Catholic Church bends over backwards and opens it’s arms wide to any form of Eucmenism and outside faiths, but chastises and publicly rejects and rebukes any members within that have any diverging opinions. Even the FSSP, the Traditionist organization welcomed by Benedict the XVI is treated poorly-they are not allowed to have a SINGLE church in the Archdiocese of New York by Cardinal Dolan, so afraid are they of the Traditional Mass being practiced, even by those that like the FSSP accept Vatican II. Traditional Catholics have been and continue to be disenfranchised by the Catholic Church for fifty years, and with people like Archbishop Müeller, and Cardenal Dolan around, nothing will change anytime soon.

  2. Brendan Kelleher svd says:

    Lydia, go and study history. The reform of the Mass that occurred after Trent, and it was in its own way a codification and reform, was a compromise brought about by historical circumstances. Further it was based on a limited use of a limited selection of liturgical texts from what we now know to be a far richer lliturgical tradition. Fr Cipriano Vagaggini knew the tradtion in all its breadth and richness probably far better than those who produced the Roman Missal you seem to believe is the absolute standard.
    I was born and brought up in the pre-Vatican II era, and served Mass in Latin for almost ten years before the reforms promoted by Sacrosanctum Concilium began to be implemented. I am a missionary priest in Japan, where I have served for close to 40 years and know from experience the numerous positive effects of the Conciliar liturgical reform.

    • WIlliam Smith says:

      Brendan, more was lost from the implementation of the so-called reforms of Vatican 2 than the Latin of the Latin Mass. Here is a question for you to think about. Would the saints who founded the American Church recognize the Bride of Christ as She exists today? What would the martyrs of Japan think if they were miraculously restored to life and invited to an Mass as it is practiced now? No doubt they would be disgusted and shocked to see countless teeny boppers in skimpy shorts popping bubblegum during the words of consecration. They would be horrified by this and numerous other little acts of sacrilege that make up the spiritual life (or lack therof) of the modern Catholic Church. Once the fortress of faith, the modern Catholic Church has become a place of experimentation, innovation, and love of modernity over love of God. The crisis of sexual abuse is merely an outward sign of an inward re-orientation and turning away from God. I think of the traditionalists and how they were virtually treated as pariahs – there was and is no room in the inn for them. Japan was once overflowing with conversions. This is not the case today and for good reason.

    • Roberto Sanchez says:

      “It is not a question of Restoring a valuable masterpiece, in some cases it will be necessary to provide NEW structures for ENTIRE NEW RITES, it will be a NEW CREATION”.
      Abp. Annibale Bugnini Secretary of the Concilium.

      The Catholic Church condemned the creation of an entirely new rite:

      “If anyone says that the received and approved rites of the Catholic Church may be changed into ENTIRELY NEW RITES, by ANY church pastor WHOMSOEVER: LET HIM BE ANATHEMA.
      (Council of Trent, Session VII, Canon XIII, PP. Paul III, 1547

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