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Father Nicholas Nelson: As Vatican II turns 60, what did the documents say?

This past Oct. 11, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II was the 21st ecumenical council. It was a gathering of most all the bishops from around the world, more than 2,600 in total. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

In the decades following the council, a lot of change took place, most noticeably in regard to the liturgy, and these changes were attributed to the council. People suggested that these changes were intended by the bishops at the council. And we can discuss whether these changes were positive or negative, but regardless of any person’s opinion, it’s important to know what the bishops actually approved of at the council. What do the documents themselves say? 

The first document approved by the bishops was on the liturgy. It is titled “Sacrosanctum Concilium.” For this column, I’d like to take a look at a number of the various liturgical changes that took place in the past 60 years and consider if that is truly what the council intended. What does SC actually say? 

What something is, what its purpose is, matters. If you asked your average Catholic “what is the Mass?” you will get various answers. Very rarely have I heard a Catholic correctly respond, “The Mass is a sacrifice.” SC says, “At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again” (47). At the Mass, we unite ourselves with the priest and offer the living Christ as a sacrifice to God the Father. 

At your average Catholic parish Sunday Mass, you will not hear any Latin. Whereas, SC says, “… the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (36.1). And oftentimes, Catholics will get upset if there is Latin in the Mass, especially if it’s something that they normally sing in English. SC says that English may be used. “Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (54). The Ordinary of the Mass includes the dialogue parts, as well as the chants that are present at every Mass, such as the Lord have Mercy, the Gloria, the Lamb of God, the Our Father, and even the Creed. The council desires that the people can sing those parts in Latin. 

We have become accustomed to the four-hymn sandwich at Mass. There is the Mass and then you add four melodic hymns to it. Whereas, SC says, “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (116). 

A desire for activism has permeated your average Catholic’s disposition at Mass. There is a temptation to want more and more people doing more and more things at the Mass, when in reality, our participation is most importantly an interior participation. The original word for “active” is “actuosa.” It means an “actualized” or “activated” participation. But this participation is first and foremost founded on the imprinted baptismal character of the individual. We cannot truly participate in Christ’s self-offering unless we are first incorporated into his body. SC says, “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence” (30). 

This quotation includes “reverent silence” as in integral part of the Mass. Therefore, “active participation” precludes any sense of activism. The participation the council desires is an intentional act of the will to unite oneself with the offering of the living Christ to God the Father. This is expressed and strengthened by exterior expressions, but these actions are not in themselves sufficient for the quality of participation desired by the council. 

SC itself wanted to guard against radical changes. It said, “Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (23). 

The documents produced by the bishops at the Second Vatican Council are a rich treasure. I encourage you to read them, especially Sacrosanctum Concilium. We need to know our faith and what Vatican II actually teaches and what it desired to do for the church. 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet and vocations director for the Diocese of Duluth. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].