Homily no. 53 – ‘Vatican II: Sacrosanctum Concilium’

Sac Conc[Its being Remembrance Sunday, and with our remembrance, too, before God, of our parish’s deceased loved ones this/last evening, the readings at Mass speak volumes.  They speak directly of Israel’s growing faith in the Resurrection (“relying on God’s promise that we shall be raised up by Him”) and then of Our Lord’s own teaching on the reality of the Resurrection.  We take comfort from this for those who have died marked with the sign of faith.]

The fact that we hear such wonderful readings from Scripture is a direct result of the work of the Second Vatican Council.  We have been thinking over the past couple of weeks about the major ‘constitutions’ of the Vatican II — the greatest and most recent Council of all the bishops the Church to have gathered, which took place 50 years ago.  The first document that it agreed on, at the end of its 2nd session, December 1963, was the Constitution on the Liturgy, called Sacrosanctum Concilium.  It was a document that has had far-reaching and not always easy consequences, especially on the changes that occurred to the Mass.  Yet, the Council Fathers were sure that something needed to be done, to assist the people to take part consciously in the Mass, especially in those (missionary) areas of the Church where Latin was simply not a part of the heritage and never had been.  There was a desire for a simplification of the rites, and the removal of unnecessary repetitions.

Of course it is hard for those of us under, let’s say, 50, to have any recollection of the Mass as it was celebrated prior to Vatican II, unless we have specifically made a habit of attending celebrations of Mass in the Tridentine rite, which is perfectly permissible.  If you have never experienced Mass in the pre-Vatican-II rite, then you might be surprised at how different Mass was (in its externals) in the previous rite to the present rite.  The essence of the Mass remains unchanged, as it has done since the Last Supper: that Christ offers His Sacrifice in the Mass, just as He did on the Cross, allowing Himself to be present to us, and give the graces of His Death and Resurrection, and His very self as food for our soul in Holy Communion.

One of the Council’s decisions was to allow a greater freedom with regard to the use of the local language in the Mass, as opposed to the timeless, traditional language of Latin.  Our missal for the Latin rite is still Latin in its original, but translations are allowed, and most Masses are now celebrated in the local language.  The Council taught that Latin was to be preserved, alongside the use of the local language, and that the people retain a good use of Latin in Mass, but sadly this intention of the Council was not adhered to.

Another decision of the Council, as I mentioned, was to make far wider use of the Scripture at Mass.  Pre-Vatican II there was only 1% of the Old Testament and 17% of the New Testament read at Mass; now, adding together Sundays and Weekday Masses (over the 3yr/2yr cycles) there is 14% of the Old Testament and 72% of the New Testament read; a vast improvement.

The Council also desired that elements such as the Homily and the Bidding Prayers be restored to Mass; concelebration was permitted more widely and also permission for the laity to receive the Blood of Christ as well as the Body of Christ at Holy Communion.  After the Council, the revised Missal also restored elements such as the Offertory Procession and the Sign of Peace, whose usage had been lost.  And, again, after the Council there were to be more than one Eucharistic Prayer: not only what we now call Eucharistic Prayer no. 1, but three others, each adapted from ones in ancient use.

Certainly from the priest’s point of view the rites were simpler.  I have never learnt to say the Old Rite, as there has never been a request for me to do so, but of course if asked to, then I would.  But it is far more complicated a ceremony, at least as far as the priest is concerned.  But the main desire of the Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium was that the people could take greater part.  Not in the sense necessarily of “doing things” at Mass, but simply by being able to participate consciously in what was happening.  Too often before the Council the people were praying private devotions in parallel with the Mass offered by the priest.  Now, of course, this was done with great piety, respect, and reverence, and with immense recognition of the awesome mystery of Jesus’s Sacrifice in the Holy Mass.  But, nevertheless, the people were missing out on the grandeur of the prayers actually being offered.  Much criticism has been levelled at the changes effected subsequent to the Council on the Mass, perhaps a ‘loss’ of the wonder and awe.  But, to be honest, as society has moved at such speed in the past 50 years, I believe that had the Council not made its guidance for the changes to the Mass, we would have struggled even more than sometimes we do now, to keep people faithfully attending Mass each Sunday.  Let’s pray that the Spirit always open our hearts to the immense blessings that Jesus offers us in a worthy celebration of Mass, in dignity, prayer and humility before Him, truly present.

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About Fr Philip Miller

I'm the Catholic Parish Priest at St Augustine's, Hoddesdon, Herts, UK, in the diocese of Westminster. This cycle of homilies is one of my contributions to this parish's life in the 'Year of Faith' (Oct 2012 - Nov 2013) called for by Pope Benedict XVI to renew the Church's understanding of the faith.
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