A parishioner mentioned that my series of articles on the Eucharist triggered memories about the way Mass was celebrated before the Second Vatican Council. One of them related to how Communion was distributed: “Right after the consecration,” he noted, “the associate priest would come out and begin distributing Communion, using hosts from the tabernacle, as the pastor continued with the Mass. The pastor would do the same for the associate when he was celebrating Mass.”
This practice reduced the time it took to distribute Communion. Masses, scheduled every hour, had to be over in 30 to 40 minutes, given the high rates of attendance.
All of this may seem strange to us now, but that is because the Council’s reforms of the liturgy created an awareness that at the Eucharist, we are not mere onlookers whose only role is to receive Holy Communion. In fact, Pope Pius XII wrote in “Mystici Corpus,” 20 years before the Second Vatican Council, the sacraments are not something the priest does by himself as the representative of Christ. Rather, as he put it, the Church acts in the sacraments as “an organically structured priestly community” forming “as it were, one mystical person” with Christ, the head. Pius XII was not inventing a new teaching. From the earliest centuries of the Church, the Fathers spoke of the Eucharist in terms of Christ joining the sacrifices of our lives with his own on the cross to the point that we are changed. St. Leo the Great explained it this way: “The effect of our sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ is to change us into what we receive.” In other words, the Eucharist is not a one-way street, something given to us. We, too, give. Our sufferings, our sacrifices, as joined to Christ’s, contribute to the great work begun on the cross.
Once we understand this central idea, it is easy to see why the Council identified the following four principles to give direction to the restoration of our worship and shift the emphasis away from seeing the sacraments as ceremonies conducted by the priest that we attend passively only to receive something.
1. Full, active and conscious participation in every liturgy.
As an action of the Church, with Christ as head of the body, some basic changes had to be made to ensure the full, active and conscious participation of all members: a) using an understandable language as we worship, moving from Latin to the vernacular, b) redesigning of churches to foster interaction among the people, such as a fixed altar from which the priest would face the people, c) introducing rituals, postures and actions, such as recitation of the creed, processions of gifts and the Gospels, the sign of peace, reciting in unison the Lord’s Prayer, singing together and periods of common silence to promote a sense of unity among the members of the community.
2. Liturgy as an event of dialogue: God proclaims and the people respond. The Council stressed that the liturgy is an event of dialogue by opening greater access to the entire Bible with a three-year cycle of readings on Sundays and a two-year rotation for weekdays. Each reading is followed by a response of the people with a psalm and an acclamation. In the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest proclaims and people respond in the preface, the acclamation and the Great Amen. Attention is always to be given to the congregation by having a homily at all Masses, recognizing the particular needs and levels of understanding of those present. It is a reminder of the ancient Roman principle that “sacraments are for people.”
3. The rites and symbols of worship are to be clear, understandable and simple.
The Council restored the liturgy in accord with the principle that the Roman rite is characterized by noble simplicity. As a result, the multiple signs of the cross and repeated genuflections from the prior liturgy were removed. Likewise, emphasis was given to restoring the cup for the assembly, to using bread that looked more like bread, and to the altar as the symbol of Christ in the church. For this reason, the tabernacle was to be taken from the main altar and placed in a separate space or room within the church. This was not to de-emphasize the sacrament. Instead, by calling for a place apart from the altar, the aim was to give special attention to the reserved sacrament, while restoring the importance of the altar as the symbol of Christ.
4. The diverse but unified functions of the assembly.
The Council opened the possibility of various roles for the laity within the liturgy. Cantors, readers, special ministers of the Eucharist, greeters, servers and others have become commonplace in our liturgies. Priests should not assume these roles if qualified people are available. These roles do not replace the need for full, conscious and active participation of the assembly, but rather, with the presider, those serving in these ways animate the participation of all.
I opened this series of reflections as a resource for the three-year eucharistic revival we have begun in this country by observing that we would do well to attend to the Holy Father’s letter, “Desiderio Desideravi.” Our eucharistic revival must be in tune with his call “to rediscover, to safeguard, and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration” as a means to more fully appreciate “the beauty of the Christian celebration and its necessary consequences for the life of the Church.” As one bishop reminded me, the Second Vatican Council taught that the Eucharistic celebration, not the sacred host in the monstrance, is the source and summit of Christian life. In fact, the rites of the Church insist that adoration of the Blessed Sacrament must lead to and draw from the celebration of the Eucharist in the Mass. It is in the sacred liturgy that we encounter the crucified and risen Lord and are invited to participate in the Paschal Mystery by sharing in his work of saving the world. This is the core of our eucharistic faith, for, as the Holy Father observes: “The Christian faith is either an encounter with Him alive or it does not exist.” Therein lies the true sense of mystery in the liturgy, that we are given a share in the salvific work of Christ by being more deeply initiated as members of His body.
It is in the sacred liturgy that we encounter the crucified and risen Lord and are invited to participate in the Paschal Mystery by sharing in his work of saving the world.
We saw in these weeks how the scholarship and research of the liturgical movement in the 20th century recovered sources from the earliest days of the Church, which inspired Pope Pius XII to begin a restoration of our worship. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council not only continued this work but, made liturgical renewal the centerpiece of reforming the Church, guided by the ancient principle, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” “the Church believes as she prays.”
The Council was a watershed event that brought about enormous change for the Church and the world. We have achieved much in these past five decades. The revised rites help to make our communities vibrant, allowing each of us to express in our own lives and manifest to others the saving presence of Christ in the world through the Church. This was the goal of the Second Vatican Council. But it would be a mistake to read this history only in terms of human progress or change. As I noted earlier, Pope St. John Paul II called the liturgical renewal a movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church. That means the renewal is what God wants. It is prompted by the Spirit of Christ and the providence of God.
His words echo what the Fathers said at the Council: “Zeal for the promotion and restoration of the liturgy is rightly held to be a sign of the providential dispositions of God in our time, as a movement of the Holy Spirit in His Church. It is today a distinguishing mark of the Church's life, indeed of the whole tenor of contemporary religious thought and action” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” 43).
The effort we put into liturgical renewal according to the Council is what God wants. Not often do we have such a specific, clear and authoritative statement about what God desires of us, but here it is in words that are unequivocal and uncompromising. Let that be our source of encouragement as we commit ourselves to a eucharistic revival that once again takes up the work of liturgical renewal with Spirit-filled zeal.