National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 16, 2004

-- Getty Images/Douglas McFadd

What we have done and what we have failed to do

40 years after Vatican II's call to liturgical renewal, we've still got a long way to go

December 2003 marked the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s landmark document on liturgical renewal, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

This is the second in an occasional series exploring the impact liturgical renewal has had on Roman Catholic life, looking at the progress (and retrogression) over the years since the council, and looking to the future of the liturgical landscape.


I was a junior in college in December 1963, deeply grieving the assassination just days before of John Kennedy, still grasped by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. barely four months earlier. The morning after the Second Vatican Council gave its overwhelming approval to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, I read the unofficial translation in The New York Times, and it all made such wonderful sense. Benedictines, women first and later men, had been part of my growing up.

I had followed eagerly Xavier Rynne’s New Yorker pieces along with the reporting of the council in earlier incarnations of the National Catholic Reporter as they chronicled the bishops’ rebellion (now there’s two words that one doesn’t often put together these days) against the Vatican-prepared draft of a liturgy document given to the assembly in 1962. Council participants then set to work to revise the prepared draft and construct a worthy document. Articles in Worship and Jubilee and Liturgical Arts and publications of the Liturgical Conference and all such good places had argued for what was needed and what was possible. Those who had 20-plus years of “liturgical weeks” behind them (the Godfrey Diekmanns, Ade Bethunes, Frederick McManuses, Gerard Sloyans -- that wonderful crowd, people who saw liturgy and justice and Bible and Christian formation as inseparable) were ready and had helped us be ready for the directions and the convictions of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

What a mess we are in now, 40 years later. Liturgy has become the battleground for other agendas in Rome and at home. We have had one after another Vatican appointment to matters liturgical of people with no academic or pastoral qualifications to run a liturgy office, an example eventually emulated here in the United States. Bad practices like “missalettes,” the can-do American answer to a completely misunderstood challenge, persist. No need to catalog all the woes.

Yes, much good work has been done. For instance, the scriptures opened more fully, the unimagined world of liturgical ministries, the high points of pastoral reform in “Pastoral Care of the Sick,” “The Order of Christian Funerals,” “The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults,” the expectation that the liturgy will be sung and the possibility of a fitting architecture. Even these achievements need to be tempered, however, with an awareness of how infrequently they are fully realized.

‘Yet it would be futile …’

We made a lot of mistakes as we began to implement the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Behind most of them was an American “let’s do it” impatience, a failure to respect the very things -- liturgy and the church -- we love. But how could we not make mistakes? There was so little experience to draw on. And there was such great enthusiasm. We didn’t want to hear that this was going to take lifetimes. Next month seemed too long.

In all this, we didn’t attend to the constitution’s own disclaimer: “Yet it would be futile to entertain any hopes of realizing this unless, in the first place, the pastors themselves become thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy and make themselves its teachers.” Did the bishops at Vatican II have the slightest notion of how true this was? Of how hard it would be? If I told you that here at Acme Construction our goal was 100 percent compliance with all safety laws and regulations, and added that we all understand that can’t happen unless the on-site supervisors become totally familiar with those laws and pass their knowledge and zeal to their crews, what would you expect?

Ah, but the safety laws could be written down and taught and supervisors who didn’t learn them and put them into practice could be … fired! No such thing for the liturgy. No such thing for the church. Those who have been made “liturgist for life” aren’t so easily motivated.

So the vast majority of the bishops, who had now received quite an education themselves, went back home with hardly a clue as to how “in the first place” the leadership in their seminaries and dioceses was to become imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy. And of course, they had other things to occupy them as the council’s renewal turned to other vital topics. On the U.S. scene, as one revised rite after another came from Rome and through the bishops and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a few master’s and doctoral programs came into being. Some seminaries got a glimmer that sacramental theology wasn’t in one world and rubrics in another and seminary ritual in yet another. Some dioceses set continuing education goals for the clergy and took these seriously, and nearly everywhere -- though many are gone now in all but name, and some in name too -- diocesan liturgy offices were established. Publishers published; some knew what it was supposed to be about, some didn’t.

Perhaps if the bishops and the rest of us had grasped how hard this imbuing would be, how long it would take even with singular concentration and an adequate budget, we would have done it differently or just muttered “never mind.” Instead, we charged into the field and let the weeds and wheat grow side by side. What about those weeds? An interesting thing is this: Most people I know who worked for liturgical renewal these last 40 years are extremely sensitive to the same abuses that have been denounced by those who wish the Second Vatican Council had never happened.

We all know the litany: chatty presiders, bad songs, poor preaching, sloppy ritual, living-room-like churches, on and on. We have worked not for but against all that, yet over and over we are blamed for it. In Rome and Washington, the ideological soul mates of the conservative complainers are reversing the council’s direction, doing all they can while they can to establish a pre-Vatican II mentality if not a pre-Vatican II liturgy. They believe that most of these abuses can be cleared out and law and order restored. The key to what they are about is their fear that the baby may have been thrown out with the bath water. That is, they fear we churchgoing Catholics have been losing crucial distinctions: most important, the distinction between the ordained and the nonordained and the distinction between hosts and wine and the body and blood of the Lord.

Yet if we have learned and experienced anything since Vatican II, it is that we do not live merely by making such distinctions. We do not live by the literal but by the mystery, the sacrament, the ambiguous deeds that constitute liturgy. Our many failures or abuses are best diagnosed from the vision of the council itself, not from an a priori rejection of its ever-hazardous reform. (But tell me please, where are all of these folks who can’t tell the ordained from the nonordained, the bread and wine from the body and blood of the Lord? I just don’t seem to come across them. Do they live primarily in fearful imaginations?)

Recovering our integrity

Something else happened to the Catholic church of the United States that had a great impact on the liturgical renewal. After the council, rather quickly we came into the era of specialization. Liturgist. Religious educator. Peace and justice advocate. Charity and relief worker. Pastoral care specialist. Scripture scholar and teacher. We got our separate diocesan departments, our separate periodicals, our exclusive organizations and conventions and conferences. We stopped talking to each other. Worse, we started talking about each other and not so kindly. The good thing was that many people got involved in these various activities and studies. The bad thing was that we lacked any sense for the relationships, for the ecclesial wholeness that could come only if we lived out the integration of all these and more.

Without being bound tightly to all the dimensions of formation, from the religious education of children to marriage preparation to adult study to preparation for joining the church, liturgy has nowhere to unfold, nowhere to be engaged and to make particular its richness and its challenge, and so a cycle is broken.

Without being woven with the structures of pastoral care for the sick, the mourning, the elderly, the disabled, the prisoners, the liturgy loses its texture, becomes isolated from the human condition that is its subject.

Without expecting everyone in the assembly to open the Sunday scriptures and wrestle with them, without the full use of homily and bulletin and other means to let God’s proclaimed word become fascinating, the liturgy is being built on sand, and we can only keep it standing for so long.

Without this rehearsal of the justice that otherwise terrifies us, the liturgy will at its best make us feel good (an awful betrayal) while next door the peace and justice committee struggles to get someone to notice.

None of this is to say that Sunday liturgy is a forum for teaching scripture, pushing causes, raising money, recruiting volunteers. It is not. But what it is, when it becomes in regular practice that which Vatican II envisioned, is the time and place that gathers and disciplines and grounds all that the assembly is and means to become.

The breadth of ritual practice

The focus of the liturgical renewal has been the Sunday Eucharist. Too often, however, we don’t acknowledge that Sunday Eucharist isn’t all and can’t be all. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has three chapters that deal with other rites: “The Other Sacraments and Sacramentals,” “Divine Office” (The Liturgy of the Hours), and “The Liturgical Year.” The norms and the goal of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy apply to these as well.

Our rituals are very human. They are made of time and sight, word, gesture, object, contact, movement, tone. They are made of all the stuff of human life and art. They exist in the community as it is variously ordered and they exist in each of us as individuals. They are thus subject to what can be amiss in our minds or hearts, what can be amiss in the ordering of the community and the persons who carry responsibilities. Rituals can become compulsive. Rituals can be used to reinforce oppressive relationships. They are very human and subject to human follies and abuses. But here’s the hard part: They are not easily put back in tune.

-- CNS/Nancy Wiechec

The reform of Vatican II was a call to look at our whole vocabulary of rituals and to begin the process of renewal. That meant grace at table as much as it meant the anointing of the sick. It meant the way we keep Lent as much as it meant the way we baptize. It meant the novena of the Sorrowful Mother as much as it meant ordination. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy called us to a painful stocktaking across the board. The task continues because even many weekly churchgoers have little sense of what liturgy is besides the Eucharist.

The Eucharist cannot be all. In fact, all the skills and arts we, the assembly, need to do the Sunday Eucharist are skills and arts we gradually hone through the rituals that punctuate our lives. For example: If the only time we become part of intercession is at the prayer of the faithful on Sunday, we’ll probably barely know what to do. But what is the ritual of evening or night prayer if it does not include intercession? There we hone the duty to intercede, the baptismal right to intercede, and that is what we bring to our Sunday task.

Such an understanding of ritual in our lives makes Lent far different from a six-week interlude where the most we can hope for is a lot of folks showing up for ashes and some of them deciding on some personal act of denial or discipline until Easter. Lent itself is a ritual that a community is year-by-year learning to do by heart. The motivation comes from the catechumens and their public presence, but it comes also from a gathering hunger to strive together for what baptized life is to look like, for getting back to the font, for clearing our sight and imagining and trying what it might be to live together the Gospel of Jesus. It is invigorating.

Intercession daily, Lent 40 days of the year: These are just two examples of the breadth of ritual beyond the Sunday Eucharist that we inherit, renew, keep.

The weight of experience and of scholarship seem to say: Get on with it! Work on building liturgy that will sustain and renew and strengthen the assembly because the world is ailing, as usual but more so, and we need to be about the things those who love the world dearly will pour themselves into.

We can use this 40th anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy to revisit the foundation and envision the renewal. Come back to n. 14 of the document and take in its wondrous insight, be made strong by its simple clarity and realism.

It says, “The church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations called for by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ (1 Peter 2:9; see 2:4-5) is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

“In the reform and promotion of the liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else. For it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit and therefore pastors must zealously strive in all their pastoral work to achieve such participation by means of the necessary instruction.”

All of the faithful’

Yes, all. It is a seemingly foolish assertion and from the start this has been watered down by those who suggest that the time isn’t right, that “the people aren’t ready for this.” Or it is suggested that this renewed liturgy is OK for some people, but for others, no? The quiet anonymity of the old rite, being left alone to pursue your own prayerful thoughts -- what’s wrong with that? (One wonders: Would all be so interpreted in “all are to abstain from fornication and murder”?)

Nothing has so eroded our all in these four decades as the allowance of the Tridentine rite. That took all the oomph out of all. It made liturgical renewal optional -- hardly what the council intended. Though few are attracted to the Tridentine rite, the ground seemed gone from under us. One’s as good as another. A liturgy for every taste ironically perpetrated by those who spent a generation ridiculing “guitar Masses.”

All is scary, but there it stands. Opting in or out was not intended. Here is what baptized people do. What helps greatly today is example: an assembly of ordinary Christians now thoroughly accustomed to liturgy in which no one is audience but all bear the responsibility for the liturgical deed. For those who do the “leading” that n. 14 demands, such a sense of common “responsibility for the liturgical deed” becomes the framework within which to discuss and slowly give shape to all that we do. It is the framework for everything from the Advent entrance rite to the repertory of songs fitting for use during holy Communion to how the collection is taken up. That’s what is important about this all.

‘Full, conscious and active participation’

Though these three adjectives early on came to stand for the whole renewal, they are somewhat forgotten now. Yet what n. 14 says in the first sentence of each of these two paragraphs about participation is defined by these three notions. In his 1997 pastoral letter “Gather Faithfully Together,” Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles attempted to deal with each of these words. He said in part:

“ ‘Full’ participation also means that a baptized person does not mentally weave in and out of the liturgy. Our duty is not just to be present; our duty is to be fully present. The songs are for singing, the scriptures for listening, the silence for reflecting, the intercessions for pleading, the Eucharistic Prayer for immense thanksgiving, the Communion for every kind of hunger and thirst satisfied in partaking together of the body and blood of Christ, and the dismissal for going out to love the world the way God does.

“In addition, our participation is to be ‘conscious.’ We must enter with great openness into the chant and song, the processions and gestures, the words and silences of the liturgy. ‘Conscious’ participation is opening every part of ourselves -- body, mind and spirit -- to what we do at the liturgy. We stand consciously and with attention. If we reach out our hands to the body and blood of Christ, we do so with grace, mindful of our hunger and the world’s hunger, and of God’s goodness. … Because we died to our old selves and became alive in Christ, we gather on Sunday, not as isolated persons, but as the church, with its diversity of cultures, languages and races. This is difficult for those accustomed to think of themselves as autonomous individuals -- workers, taxpayers, citizens. But here, the liturgy is celebrated by the assembled church.

-- CNS/Andy Carruthers

“Cultivate, then, your deep awareness that it is not so many individuals who are standing here singing, but the church. It is not individuals who are coming forward to the table, but the church. It is not even individuals who are going forth to live to the Word they have listened to and the body and blood of Christ they have eaten and tasted. It is the church going forth as a leaven in the midst of the world God loves. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the whole renewal.

“ ‘Active’ is the third quality of the baptized person’s participation. Please do not see ‘active’ as the opposite of ‘contemplative.’ Some of our activity at liturgy is contemplation. Part of the genius of the Roman Rite is that it presumes a beauty on which our spirits can feast. If we have too often seen ‘active’ as ‘busy,’ … see the wealth of silence, as well as the powerful reading of scripture, and preaching and singing of psalms to engage our contemplation.”

As Mahony illustrates, there is practical content to each of these three qualities of our participation. They can’t be reduced to a checklist of good participation. But they have implications for the order and flow of Sunday Eucharist. They suggest ways to teach about the liturgy. They suggest to those with responsibility for preparation of the liturgy some measure of progress or its lack -- not certainly Sunday by Sunday, but over the long haul.

The all and the “full, conscious and active participation” aren’t drawn together in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy by the whim of a pope or council. They aren’t summoned from the ancient history as a model for the present. None of that was necessary. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council simply recognized what liturgy is, then the all and the “full, conscious and active” became clear and necessary. If we are going to talk about what a carpenter does, we’ll look at what is necessary: material, tools, skills. The nature of carpentry calls for those. And the nature of liturgy calls for all to participate fully, consciously, actively. Without material, tools, skills, you don’t have carpentry. Without all taking part fully and consciously and actively, you don’t have liturgy. It isn’t something we can do anything about! That’s what liturgy requires.

That is not to say that a room full of people singing “Happy Birthday” with gusto and great sincerity would be liturgy. It would be ritual, though, and what Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy recognizes is that our liturgy can’t be done as if it were some other kind of human activity. It is ritual activity or it isn’t liturgy.

This is the hard part. It is comparatively easy to put on a performance. Or to teach well. Or to edify. Or to inspire. Or to raise people’s spirits and make them feel worthwhile again. Or even to create community around something as common as a joke or as profound as suffering. In our society the doing of these sorts of things is almost always a matter of the one or few active and responsible persons doing work for or toward the recipients, the audience, the clients, the consumers. Whatever else it may be, it isn’t what the council called liturgy. It may be good; it may be wonderful. Or not.

If the implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is to continue, those charged to prepare and to minister at the Sunday liturgy will move beyond the notion of audience, of “we” and “them,” of givers and receivers. Liturgy is an assembly of the baptized doing those deeds we know how to do, deeds we come to know in our bone and muscles -- “by-heart” deeds then. Deeds we truly know in our hearts. Everyone in the room is responsible, everyone is to come prepared and hungry for the task.

‘Right and duty by reason of baptism’

This is strong. First, it won’t allow baptism to be a deed over and done. Never. Baptism made us all those good things -- a chosen race, God’s own people. We came out of baptism entitled and obligated. Both. And “such participation” -- the full and conscious and active kind called for by liturgy -- is indeed that “both,” entitled and obligated, right and duty. We do it because we may and we do it because we must. We’re entitled. We’re obligated. This is not about “attendance.” It is about participation that is full, conscious and active.

Strange that this should threaten some who came into offices of one kind or another after the council and now act as if liturgy were the ground where the sorting out gets done: You baptized, you get over there and don’t worry, your part is easy. You ordained, up front, and here are your lines.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy gives us a foundational understanding of the renewal. It isn’t worried that we’re going to forget about ordination. It is very worried that we’ll continue to minimize baptism, continue to act as if baptism were about what happened yesterday and has nothing to do with what’s to happen tomorrow.

So as we go on renewing the liturgy in our parishes, it becomes important that those to be baptized -- adults, youth, children, infants -- be present to the assemblies in their preparation and finally when they pass through the waters. Strong rites of initiation make believable what the council intended: “It doesn’t end here. Now you may and you must learn with all of us old baptized people that participation in our liturgy is: full, conscious, active. You may and you must. Both. Always.”

Whatever compromises happened in the committees that composed this document, however hard going it might be as the next generation or two struggles with implementation of this vision, please get it straight and get it clear right now. “In the reform and promotion of the liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.”

No “except.” No “until.” Not “except when somebody threatens schism.” Not “until the going gets hard and you can’t figure out how light will ever dawn on Ms. X or Bishop Y.” The highest possible voice of the Roman church thus clearly gave the reform of the liturgy not only its mandate but that which “before all else” is the measure of the work handed to us: full and conscious and active participation by all.

It comes gradually as good work is done to prepare and in every ministry. It comes with letting good ways become “by-heart” for all. It comes with trusting the assembly. It comes with repetition of all that is strong enough to bear the weight of repetition. It comes as we begin, each of us, to need the assembly, the word, the prayer of intercession and of thanksgiving, the holy Communion. It comes when right in front of our faces we see ourselves and others making the connections between what I do here and what I must do out there. It takes a long time.

In the local assembly, it takes a long time. And it takes a steady hand and a sense of humor, like everything worth doing.

“It is the … source of the true Christian spirit.”: What is “it”? It isn’t “liturgy.” “It” is that which the council is mandating, this “full and active participation” of all the faithful. Such participation is not “a” source, not even “an important” or “a vital” source of the true Christian spirit. It is primary, the first source. It is indispensable, that without which there isn’t going to be the true Christian spirit.

Maybe they said too much, got carried away. Maybe they forgot they’d have to answer to those saying, “Yeah, but what about martyrs, huh?” “And what about good example?” “And what about catechisms and theology?” “And what about those who preside?” “And what about … God? Is participation more important than God?”

But hold on! The council didn’t say the “only” source of the spirit. The reason for not facing the council’s assertion comes from somewhere deep in many of us. We have tried to be church without such a habit of full, conscious, active participation, without all of us growing up to take responsibility for and to take life from the rituals of our lives in assembly and household. Much of how we understand relationships between persons in the church and between aspects of Christian community life is geared in fact to finding whatever we can of the true Christian spirit somewhere other than in the liturgy we do together. The situation has been askew for ages and we are often quite comfortable to leave it so. A bird in the hand … Better the evil you know …

But perhaps what the Second Vatican Council put forward is a path to putting ourselves and our church with all its various manifestations into a way of living at once more natural and more Gospel-like. We can take a deep breath. We can go on from here.

It helps, always, to remember that the goal of all this isn’t the liturgy, let alone the institution, but rather something more like the remaking of the world (that’s who we are, after all) into the reign of God. The liturgy whereby we eat and drink, we breathe and touch, we communally and not always so willingly clothe ourselves in “the true Christian spirit,” is the whole breadth of rites that we make our own to meet morning and night, life and death, and all the hefty tasks of the baptized.

Forty years! Doesn’t that have a ring to it?

Gabe Huck was for many years director of the Chicago archdiocese’s Liturgy Training Publications, where he worked from 1977 to 2001. He now lives in New York City and writes regularly for Celebration, a liturgy resource published by National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company. A longer version of this article will appear in Liturgy, a quarterly publication of The Liturgical Conference.

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 2004

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