In the fall of 1965, when I was a junior in high school, my home parish of Saints Peter and Paul in South Omaha was making plans to build a new church.
Our pastor, Monsignor John Juricek, who had been with us since the 1920s, had planned on a building much like the original Gothic style church, with a long nave. The sanctuary, cordoned off by a Communion rail, would contain an altar against the front wall. Plenty of niches for statues and a choir loft on the back wall were also in the drawings.
But that year everything seemed to be changing in the Church, and for the decade that followed. One Sunday, Monsignor spoke at all the Masses to announce that the old design would not do. The bishops were meeting in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. It was clear things would be different. Monsignor felt an obligation not to build a church that would be outdated. Change was coming and we had to plan accordingly. The church would be in a fan shape. The altar would face the people. There would be no Communion rail separating the altar from the people.
Monsignor wanted people to know that the liturgical changes decided at the Council had been talked about for a long time, but never officially. He recalled reading books in the seminary about the way early Christians celebrated the liturgy. There was quiet discussion about the value of bringing some of those practices back, particularly if they were lost treasures to be recovered. As I discovered later in my studies of Christian worship, discussions about restoring the liturgy of the early Church dated back to the 16th century.
In fact, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council were deliberate in choosing the date of December 4, 1963, to issue their first document, the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”. It was exactly 400 years ago to the day that their predecessors in the 16th century met for the final time at the Council of Trent and asked Pope Pius IV and his successors to carry on the reform of the Mass. But that work was incomplete, as only one cardinal was tasked to do it and he had limited resources and knowledge of the liturgy.
Now four centuries later, the bishops at Vatican II could complete the aspiration of their ancestors not only to reform and renew but to restore the Roman liturgy to its earliest form by taking advantage of the scholarship done in the 19th and 20th centuries which rediscovered many of the writings of the Fathers of the early Church. That is why they could describe their efforts as being in continuity with an unbroken tradition of the liturgy.
In less than two months, Pope St. Paul VI established a commission (Consilium) of 50 cardinals and bishops along with 200 experts from around the world. The pope gave them two tasks. They were to revise the liturgical books in accord with the norms established by the Council and provide resources to educate priests and the laity about the renewal.
With the work of the Consilium in a decade after the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” Catholics witnessed a reform and restoration of the liturgy on a scale that has no precedent in the history of the Church, as you will see in the timeline below.
Admittedly, there were bumps in the road with such a massive undertaking. Clearly, there was unevenness in the preparation of priests and people. What was really missing was the link between renewal of the liturgy and the movement to authentically renew the Church. Without that deeper link to the renewal of the Church, the restoration of the liturgy easily became a matter of cosmetic changes. And for some that meant making the Mass “relevant” and largely unattached from the spiritual development of Catholics that the Council envisioned. This led to abuses and what Pope St. John Paul II called “outlandish innovations,” in his letter (“Vicesimus Quintus Annus”) marking the 25th anniversary of the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.”
Some of these abuses at times fostered disrespect for authentic liturgical renewal or caused confusion. Happily, this situation has been addressed through ongoing education and catechesis about the true spirit of the reforms.
In that same letter, the late pope also observed that while “the vast majority of the pastors and the Christian people have accepted the liturgical reform in a spirit of obedience and indeed joyful fervor,” there was resistance to the reforms. Some people, he noted, considered religious practice to be a private affair, so they resisted the call for active participation of the faithful, preferring to be left alone. And then there were others who did not believe that the Church could reform the liturgy, for, as he put it, “they turned back in a one-sided and exclusive way to the previous liturgical forms which some of them consider to be the sole guarantee of certainty of faith.”
Yet, despite all of this, the late saintly pope urged us not to lose sight of the enormous positive effect the renewal of the liturgy has had for the Church, with the wider use of Scripture, prayers in the common language of people, the increased participation of the faithful, the ministries of laypeople. These, he noted, are all signs of the “movement of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.”
In Part V we will conclude this series by recapping the principles of liturgical renewal that guided the reforms ushered in by the Second Vatican Council.
• September 1964: Directives were published on how churches should be arranged architecturally to adapt to the reforms. The setting for Mass was to include a presidential chair, a lectern (ambo), the altar facing the people in the body of the church, the nave.
• March 1965: Documents were issued permitting Communion under both kinds for the faithful and concelebration by priests.
• March 1967: An instruction on sacred music was issued.
• June 1968: A revised Lectionary and a new Missal with new eucharistic prayers were published. In this same year, we saw the beginning of a partial use of the vernacular, which became complete in 1971.
• 1969: A new liturgical calendar, and new rites for funerals, infant Baptism, and marriage were issued.
• November 1970: The Liturgy of the Hours was revised.
• January 1972: The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was published.
• January 1973: Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist were introduced.
• December 1973: The new form of the Rite of Penance was issued.