Importance of Council’s Liturgy Action Stressed

The Second Vatican Council may be remembered in history as the council that brought the people back into the public worship of the Church.

On Oct. 31, with overwhelming approval of the final chapter of the document, the council completed its work on the 130-paragraph Constitution on the Liturgy, which was the first item on its agenda more than a year ago.

A few final modifications of the document are now being prepared by the council’s Liturgy Commission. These will be voted upon by the bishops during the next two or three weeks — time, it is hoped, for official publication by conclusion of the council’s second session on Dec. 4.

Even now it is possible to sum up the council’s nearly unanimous decision on the reform of Catholic worship:

—Permission for the use of the vernacular languages in countries where this will help the people’s understanding.

—Revision of all services so they will be simpler and clearer, with a greater part for the people, again with allowance for regional variations.

—A program of instruction for clergy and faithful in the meaning of worship.

A lengthy and formal document has been agreed upon. It will be Church legislation and exhortation. It will decree a project of change in the texts, prayers and rites by which Catholics worship God.

But what will this mean on Sunday morning in the average parish?

What has the council accomplished for the people in their life of prayer and worship?

Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the day on which the Church celebrates each week the triumphant resurrection of Christ from the dead. The best way to picture liturgical change resulting from the Second Vatican Council is to describe its impact on Sunday Mass, when community of believers comes together to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice.

If we look ahead one or two or three years — it could be more or less — the most obvious and striking change we can expect is the use of the vernacular languages or mother tongues in the Mass, replacing the Latin language in many parts of the service. To begin with, the readings from the Bible, Epistles and Gospels, will be in the language of the people.

The reading of the Bible at Mass is intended to be an announcement of God’s word to the people, yet up to now the official reading has been done by the priest, standing with his back to the people and speaking an unintelligible language. On Sundays, in fact, a makeshift repetition in English has been necessary if the people were to hear the word of God at all.

Almost as important, the parts of the people will be said or sung in their own language, and this reveals an aspect of Catholic worship that Latin has concealed. If there are prayers of the Mass to be said by the priest, there are also prayers which belong to the people. There is a kind of apportionment of roles: the priest has his part, the people have their part-and the people’s parts should be in the language they understand.

Thus the Gloria and Creed, the hymns of Christian joy and faith, will not be said in Latin by the priest, but in English by the people. The same is true of the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. In every Mass there is psalmody, verses from the Old Testament recited or sung between the Epistle and Gospel, at the beginning of Mass, at the Offertory of bread and wine, at Communion. All these, properly speaking, are the people’s song or prayer and may be permitted in the people’s language.

In some countries there has already been a revival of psalm recitation and singing; the psalms are, after all, the common hymns of Jews and Christians alike, composed under God’s inspiration. We can expect that their use in English at Mass will revive Catholic love of these sacred songs. Today they are largely unfamiliar, and their unfamiliarity suggests that a mere translation of Mass texts from Latin to English is no cure-all. This is the reason that the bishops of the council have decided that there must be programs of instruction, so that the words of worship may be understood — and thus said with meaning and prayerful purpose by the people.

A second feature of the Mass of the future will be a new approach to preaching, by which priests will be expected to make the sermon an integral and related part of the Mass itself, not a seeming interruption. This development should be helped along by two promised reforms in the rite of Mass, already agreed upon by the council:

The first is to make the “service of the word of God” (Epistle, Gospel, sermon) stand out distinctly in the structure of Mass, probably by having the priest lead this part of Mass from the bench or seat or even pulpit. The second is to provide a greater variety of Epistle and Gospel passages in a cycle of two, three or more years.

This does not mean that the priest will be bound slavishly to follow the Sunday Gospel text in his sermon. It does mean that he should preach in the context and setting of the sacred texts of Mass, trying always to relate an individual truth or doctrine of faith to the whole Christian message.

This, even apart from the liturgy, is one of the great lessons of the council, that doctrines may not be isolated one from the other, but must be integrated — the doctrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary seen in the mystery of God’s plan of salvation, the Church, for example.

If the preaching at Mass is always in the context of worship, it will never appear to be extraneous. And the Church’s way of teaching, through a yearly celebration of the mysteries of Christ, will have a chance to work. It will evidently be inappropriate to preach on the matrimonial impediments on the First Sunday of Advent or on improper books on the feast of Pentecost.

All this has ecumenical overtones, both the emphasis upon a real announcement of God’s word from the Bible and upon preaching at Mass. In theory the Church has never neglected this: the word of God is read to the people at every Mass. In practice, the reading, especially on weekdays, seems hurried and superficial, and the sermon an extra element. Protestants, who traditionally place great stress on God’s word, may see in this new development of Catholic worship something comprehensible and attractive.

Giving public worship back to the people, or better, bringing the people back into worship, involves action or participation. The revision of the Mass text and rite in the next few years will eliminate unnecessary additions (like the last Gospel or the prayers after Mass) and simplify complex parts (like the over-long Offertory prayers of the priest). But a simpler, clearer service will not be enough if the people do not take part actively and consciously.

This is the third aspect of liturgical growth that we may picture for the future. It has been called, and probably misnamed, the “dialogue Mass.” The point of course is that every Mass at which the people assist is, or should be, a dialogue Mass. Whether low Mass or high Mass, there should be a dialogue of prayer and response between priest and people. The priest leads and presides, the people respond.

In many places the faithful are well prepared for this development, urged by popes and bishops and priests for many years. Elsewhere it still seems a novelty, something for a special occasion or a special group.

The mistake has been to look upon the common response, recitation, and singing of the people as something exceptional, for example, with two Sunday Masses “dialogue Masses” and the rest silent services. There will always be a distinction between Masses with elaborate participation by the congregation, high Masses and low Masses with hymns and the like, on the one hand, and weekday Masses or Sunday Masses with smaller numbers present, on the other. But the people’s part is found in every Mass, at least in brief responses and recitation of prayers.

The council’s decision is that the missal of the future should clearly indicate the people’s part at Masses, whether responses, acclamations, psalms or chants. Thus a regular and ordinary pattern will be set up to give the people a chance at every Mass to express their common and public praise and worship. Nothing could be further from the intention of the bishops than that this would be a mechanical effort, vocal participation for the sake of mere change. But it is the one sure way of awakening priests and people to the community nature of Christian worship, in which all the members of Christ unite with Him in prayer to the Father in heaven.

These are broad aspects of liturgical development, all directed toward involving the laity more deeply in the Church’s public worship. The Constitution on the Liturgy is the first achievement of the council called by Pope John to renew and revitalize the Church. In the first days of the council in 1962 the opposition to liturgical change was fierce but, as it turned out, fractional — only the smallest minority of the bishops had any fundamental hesitations about bringing the people more fully into the services of worship.

Since the Second Vatican Council got underway, it has been generally agreed that its purpose is “pastoral,” but the meaning of the term is not always clear. If it means that the pastors or shepherds of the Church, the pope and the other bishops, are primarily concerned with the people’s needs rather than with the clergy or Religious, the council’s action on the liturgical renewal is pastoral. It opens up new opportunities for the people to have their faith and love of God deepened as they assemble Sunday by Sunday as the praying people of God.

Father Frederick R. McManus

Father McManus is the former president of the National Liturgical Conference in the United States, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, and an expert for the Second Vatican Council attached to the council’s Liturgy Commission, serving as secretary of a liturgical subcommission.

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