(Editor’s note: This is the third of six talks that local religious leaders gave at St. Ambrose University in Davenport on Oct. 10, the vigil of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Deacon Frank Agnoli is the Davenport Diocese’s Director of Liturgy and of Deacon Formation.)
By Deacon Frank Agnoli
“This sacred Council has several aims in view….”
So begins the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy — Sacrosanctum concilium. On Dec. 4, 1963, it became the first document from the council promulgated by Pope Paul VI. It passed by a vote of 2,147 to four.
So much for the “prophets of doom.”
As the first document, it began by laying out the council’s mission. First, ad intra: to re-invigorate, re-energize the Christian life. Second, ad extra: to promote unity among Christians and to strengthen our perpetual mission to evangelize. And, in order to accomplish this vision, to adapt to modern life those aspects of the Church subject to change.
With those ends in mind, the council Fathers first turned their attention ad intra — to the liturgy. “… [T]he summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; [and] the font from which all her power flows” (10).
Of all the changes that followed the council, these are perhaps the most visible — and the ones that have affected the people of God the most. As such, we should not be surprised that the reforms called for by the council — and the ways in which the reforms have been carried out — have engendered strong reactions.
Perhaps, in necessarily broad strokes, I can lay out what has been accomplished … and what remains as unfinished business.
On the one hand, we have embraced the council’s call for the full, active participation of all in the liturgy. Lay liturgical ministries have blossomed. In what would have been unheard of just a half century ago, women and girls routinely proclaim the word, assist at the altar and distribute Communion. Well, at least in most parishes and dioceses in this country. But not all.
On the other, we have tended to reduce participation to the external, to frenetic activity. We have not yet fully realized the council’s vision that the liturgy is the work of Christ’s entire body — he the head, and we the members.
It is not just the work of liturgical specialists, cleric or lay. And we have not yet put the focus where it needs to be: on internal participation, on fostering the dispositions of gratitude and self-offering, of receptivity to encounter and transformation. On making parishes, as John Paul II said, true schools of prayer … of the interior life.
On the one hand, the council’s call for a simplified and understandable liturgy has been largely realized. Especially in the shift from worship in Latin to the use of the vernacular languages.
On the other, perhaps we have gone too far. Are our liturgies too rational, too wordy? Have we reduced our participation to mechanically receiving Communion (often from the tabernacle), rather than offering ourselves with and through Christ — to be transformed as the gifts of bread and wine are transformed — and then receiving from what has been offered? Have we lost our sense of ritual, of the bodily and sacramental, of the numinous? Of awe?
This transition to worship in the vernacular has not come easily. Translation is a messy business. Early translations are rightly criticized for being — in places — trite, theologically lacking and uninspiring. New translations are rightly criticized for being — in places — stilted, overly formal and distant.
On the one hand, the council’s call to lavishly open up the treasures of the Scriptures to the faithful has for the most part come to pass. The revised lectionary has been one of the great successes of Vatican II — and not just for Catholics. Before the council, Catholics would hear mostly selections from Paul and Matthew … and almost nothing from the First Testament. Now we hear from all four evangelists — more from Paul — and regularly from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.
On the other, while we are hearing more Scripture proclaimed at the liturgy, our preaching remains anemic at best. And, as I watch people with their faces buried in missalettes, I wonder: Have we embraced the teaching that it is God who speaks when the Scriptures are proclaimed; and that in the proclamation of the Gospels, it is Christ who is really, truly present to us?
On the one hand, the council called for greater inculturation of the liturgy. Music, the visual arts and architecture from around the world and from our own contemporary culture have profoundly enriched the way we worship.
On the other, we forget that rather than being only ex-pressive, liturgy is im-pressive. It forms us. Therefore, the liturgy does not belong to any one of us — or any one community or culture.
Part of entering into the liturgy is dying to ourselves — and our particular preferences or desires — and, in a sense, giving ourselves over to the liturgy of the Church to be changed, molded and transformed by it.
Unfortunately, too often, rather than praying the liturgy of the Church, presiders (and other ministers) — whether from the right or from the left — insist on doing their own thing. And in the process they distort the Gospel, and de-form the faithful.
But if we think that Sacrosanctum concilium is just about liturgy, we miss the bigger picture. It is here that we see one of the key principles of the whole council: the primacy of baptism. That is why the council, in teaching that the liturgy is the joint action of the body of Christ, calls all the baptized to be fully active … to do all (but only) that which is ours to do — each with our own role or office, arranged hierarchically — not in terms of some being better/more important/or more holy than others — but like a body, the parts all working together, each part making its unique contribution to the well-being (or not) of the whole. A roundtable, not a pyramid.
We are shortsighted if we see the Constitution on the Liturgy to be just about making minor (or even major) adjustments to Catholic worship; no, there is something more here. The Constitution — and the documents that followed — are about who we are as Church. They get at the core of our identity.
No wonder that they generated such debate (and even resistance on the part of some) then — and continue to do so now.