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Advent/Christmas Circular Letter 2012

Vatican II and the Sacred Liturgy:
Renewing the Faith of the Church

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the first of the four major documents of Vatican II, begins with the words “Sacrosanctum Concilium”, this Sacred Council, and accordingly lays out the four general aims of the entire Council: First and foremost, the Council “desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful” (Sacrosanctum Concilium – hereafter, SC – 1). This aim, the renewal of the life of faith, was the “simplest and most fundamental lesson of the Council: namely, that Christianity in its essence consists of faith in God which is Trinitarian Love, and in a personal and communal encounter with Christ who orients and gives meaning to life” (Benedict XVI, Oct. 10, 2012). Through a deeper understanding and reflection on herself, her teachings, her liturgy and external practices, the Church through the Council wanted to renew the faith of the Church, that all might “rediscover the faith as a deep personal friendship with the goodness of Jesus Christ” (Benedict XVI, June 17, 2012) as opposed to a faith which had become merely a habit or external practice.

Further, the Council sought “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change” (SC 1), that is to say, to bring up to date the institutions and means of transmitting the one true Faith. In his opening address of the Council, Blessed John XXIII stated, “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration” (Oct. 11, 1962). Aggiornamento, or bringing up to date, one of the key themes of the Council, did not bear the sense of a change of doctrine or introducing new doctrine, but in continuity with the Tradition of the centuries, to penetrate and present this doctrine in a way accessible to modern thought and culture. “The Pope,” Pope Benedict comments, “wanted the Church to reflect upon her faith and upon the truths that guide her. But that serious and profound reflection…had to be the starting point for a new relationship between the Church and the modern age, between Christianity and certain essential elements of modern thought, not in order to seek conformity, but to show our world, which tends to distance itself from God, the requirements of the Gospel in all its greatness and purity” (Oct. 10, 2012).

The last two principal aims of the Council are closely related: “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; [and] to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church” (SC, 1). To grow in faith is to grow in a closer union with Christ, and hence, necessarily, with one another. This was the third aim of the Council, the unity of all Christians, especially those of the Catholic faith, through a deeper understanding of the faith and a more faithful and radical living out of all its implications for Christian life. Before He died, Jesus prayed for the unity of His followers, “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me” (Jn 17:21). As Jesus implies, it is the unity among His disciples which convinces the world. This unity among Christians is the greatest witness to those outside the Church of the Gospel of Jesus, the Gospel of love. Hence, the fourth aim of the Council, that the faithful, through a renewal and deepening of their own faith, which necessarily also includes a growth in charity, bear witness to the love of Christ which transforms hearts, and thereby draw others into that joyful union with Christ and one another.

With these goals in mind, the first focus of the Council was on the renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, for the Liturgy, especially the Holy Eucharist, is the source and summit of the whole of Christian life (cf. SC, 10). The term “liturgy”, literally public service, as used by the Council includes the seven Sacraments as well as the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours). These are the highest and most efficacious forms of prayer of the Church: “Because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, [it] is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy” (SC, 7). In the Liturgy, God is perfectly glorified through the public worship of the Mystical Body, both Head and members; additionally, the sanctification of man is both signified and effected. In Baptism, for example, the pouring of water signifies a cleansing from sin and actually does cleanse man from original sin. It also signifies the infusion of life, as in the living waters, and gives supernatural life.

All activity of the Church, all her apostolic and missionary works, her preaching and teaching and charitable works of service, are ordered towards bringing men to the Liturgy whereby God is glorified and men are sanctified. Furthermore, from the Liturgy men in turn receive the grace and strength to carry out all these apostolic works for God and His Church, and the strength to bear the Cross and sacrifice themselves for God and the salvation of the world.

In this Year of Faith, we want to reflect that the Liturgy and how it is celebrated has a most profound effect on the formation of the faith of the congregation. Lex orandi, lex credendi. This ancient saying, translated loosely, points out that the way in which we pray influences what we believe. If, for example, we regularly attend Holy Mass where no one genuflects, there is chattering in the pews and a general lack of reverence, our faith in the real and divine presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and our faith in the making present of His Sacrifice on the Cross at the consecration, will over time be weakened, and perhaps altogether lost. How we pray profoundly influences what we believe. Therefore, since the Vatican Council aimed at the renewal of the faith and Christian life of the Church, the first subject to be addressed was naturally a renewal of the liturgical forms.

The Constitution on the Liturgy did not give practical measures for the renewal of the Liturgy; rather, it laid out principles which were to serve as guidelines for the commissions later to be summoned for the actual reform of the liturgical forms. Perhaps the most important principle for the renewal of the liturgical forms given by the Council was that it should help both clergy and faithful to a more “conscious and active participation” in the liturgical celebrations (SC, 14). “In the restoration and promotion of the Sacred 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” (SC, 14). Unfortunately, this has been also one of the most misunderstood principles of the Council. “The revision of liturgical forms has remained at an external level, and ‘active participation’ has been confused with external activity” (Benedict XVI, June 17, 2012).

Active Participation: Encountering Jesus

Active participation does not mean being a lector or Eucharistic minister, leading the songs or any other external action of the faithful. These things might even prove a distraction for some. Rather, “by means of the necessary instruction” (SC, 14) of clergy and laity alike, the faithful are to grow in the understanding of the Liturgy, the meaning of the words, prayers and gestures, so “that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain” (SC, 12). In other words, pastors were to be trained, the congregation was to be given catechesis by their pastors on the Liturgy, and the rites were to be reformed in such a way so as “to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects” (SC, 12). Pope Benedict summarizes saying, “The renewal of the external forms desired by the Council Fathers was intended to make it easier to enter into the inner depth of the mystery. Its true purpose was to lead people to a personal encounter with the Lord, present in the Eucharist, and thus with the living God, so that through this contact with Christ’s love, the love of His brothers and sisters for one another might also grow” (June 17, 2012).

From these texts it is clear that without an understanding of the most essential meaning of the Mass and the rites, we cannot participate as fruitfully. Though it is not the intention of this article to give an in-depth catechesis on significance of the liturgical rites, it is helpful to understand the most essential meaning of the Mass as taught by Sacrosanctum Concilium. One of the best places to start for further study is the Catechism of the Catholic Church; Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia is also highly recommended. On the OA website is a three part “Mystical Catechesis on the Mass” based on Cardinal Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy.

As said above, one main fruit of the Liturgy should be a personal encounter with Christ. For Jesus is really present in various manners and degrees in the Liturgy. “Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations” (SC, 7). It is His presence and action in the liturgical celebrations which makes them so efficacious and more perfect than any other prayers or works of the Church. When we participate in the Holy Mass, a Baptism, the Liturgy of the Hours or any other liturgical event, we are very much aware of the priest and those around us. But are we aware of the presence of Christ in a unique way?

He is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the Same now offering, through the ministry of priests, Who formerly offered Himself on the cross” (Council of Trent), but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the Sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). (SC, 7)

Though Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is normally the only one we refer to as “real”, nevertheless, as Pope Paul VI states (and Pope John Paul II often quotes), this “is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes Himself wholly and entirely present” (Mysterium Fidei, 39). As the Vatican Council states above, when we listen to the readings, we can close our eyes and reflect, it is Jesus who is speaking to me through the voice of the lector. And when a nurse gives an emergency Baptism to a child in the hospital, it is Jesus who is present and baptizes the child, cleansing him of sin and filling him with grace. If we pray the Liturgy of the Hours before Mass, Jesus is here with us praying the Psalms and singing the canticles in and through us. The realization of the true spiritual presence of Jesus can aid us in our prayer and help us to unite ourselves more consciously with Him. Liturgy is therefore a privileged place of prayer, for where there is Liturgy, there is Jesus.

To participate fruitfully in the Liturgy, one must have the proper dispositions. Already before Holy Mass we can come a few minutes early to pray, to put away all distractions, and to ask the holy angels to prepare us to participate in these great mysteries worthily and devoutly. Let us realize that at every Holy Mass, we are entering into the presence of thousands of angels and joining them in their exalted hymn of praise. St. John Chrysostom writes, “Reflect upon whom it is that you are near and with whom you are about to invoke God—the Cherubim. Think about the choirs you are about to enter. Let no one have any thought of earth, but let him loose himself of any earthly thing and transport himself whole and entire into heaven. Let him abide there beside the very throne of glory, hovering with the Seraphim, and singing the most holy song of the God of glory and majesty.” It is also helpful to read the readings and the Gospel before Holy Mass, so that we may better be instructed by the word of God during Mass, adding our own personal considerations to the teachings in the homily.

What is the actual “Sacrifice” of the Mass?

Of all liturgical events, the highest and most efficacious for the sustenance of Christian life is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is precisely under this aspect of sacrifice which brings out the deepest meaning of the Sacrament. “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, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection” (SC, 47). Unlike the Passion Plays or other “imitations” or dramatizations of the Passion of Christ, the Mass transposes into symbolic language and makes present the reality: the sacrifice of the Cross is made truly present at the consecration of every Holy Mass.

The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the Cross…and because it applies its fruit… The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The Victim is one and the same: the Same now offers through the ministry of the priest, who then offered Himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered Himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the Cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner…this sacrifice is truly propitiatory.” (CCC, 1366-67)

At every celebration of the Holy Mass, therefore, we are sacramentally present at Calvary. Jesus, who as a divine Person acts outside of time, offered Himself in His humanity in obedience to the Father “once and for always” on the Cross in a bloody manner; at the Mass, this same offering of Himself in obedience is made present at the consecration, with all its weight and consequences, with the very same self-giving and self-emptying love for the Father and for man. It is one offering, an eternal offering, into which we enter through the sacramental “making present” in the Holy Mass.

“Conscious and active participation” in the Mass involves more than kneeling in our pews and making the responses. “The Church earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration” (SC, 48). But how does one collaborate with the Sacrifice of the Mass? The Constitution on the Liturgy states, “By offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves” (SC, 48). As the Catechism explains, “The Eucharist is also the sacrifice of the Church” (CCC, 1368). At the offertory, we can lay all our trials and worries, our joys and thanksgiving, our cross and difficult situations, our family and petitions, our very selves on the paten to be offered at the consecration with Jesus to the Father. “The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with His total offering, and so acquire a new value” (CCC, 1368).

Our participation in the Holy Mass reaches its fullness when we approach the altar to receive Holy Communion. “Eucharistic communion brings about in a sublime way the mutual ‘abiding’ of Christ and each of His followers: ‘Abide in Me, and I in you’ (Jn 15:4)” (John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 22). In Holy Communion, Jesus desires to be loved by us, to be one with us. He gives Himself wholly to us and wants us to be there wholly for Him for at least some minutes, abandoning all other concerns, closing our eyes and conversing from the heart with Him alone. Unlike common bread which is transformed into our flesh, in Holy Communion, when received with loving devotion, Jesus transforms us into Himself and overcomes our selfishness. He gives us strength to live out His life, a life for others. If possible, even after Mass if we are able to stay some minutes in silent thanksgiving for this great gift of Jesus Himself, our Communions will bear much greater fruit and become a guiding strength for our day.

Our active participation in the Liturgy, however, cannot be limited to the time spent in Church; it needs to be translated into daily life. In the Liturgy, when we participate actively, our faith is nourished and formed. “Faith in the Lord is not something that affects only our minds, the realm of the intellectual knowledge; rather, it is a change involving the whole of our existence: our feelings, heart, mind, will, body, emotions and human relationships” (Pope Benedict, Gen. Audience, October 18, 2012). We ask ourselves, do I allow the Liturgy to form me, to form and inform both my faith and my life? Or does the media, the internet or the culture about me have a greater space in my life? In this Year of Faith we want to strive to grow in our faith, to make it the central reference point of our lives, especially through a more frequent and conscious participation in the Holy Mass.

Inseparable Bond between Faith and Charity

Christian faith is always closely related to charity. “Faith in God who is love, and who drew near to man by becoming incarnate and giving Himself on the Cross to save us and reopen the doors of heaven, tells us clearly that man’s fullness consists in love alone” (ibid.). Through our active and attentive participation in the Liturgy, therefore, we hope to be so transformed so as to become an authentic witness of Christ’s love to the world around us. “Through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all” (SC, 48). Our relationships with our family and others will grow and become more loving and harmonious, our life more consistent with the demands of the Gospel. In this way, person by person, the goals of Vatican II are most effectively realized: the greater union of Christians among themselves, and the drawing of others by the force of the witness of a life transformed by Christ into that joyful communion with God. “By its union with Christ, the People of the New Covenant, far from closing in upon itself, becomes a ‘sacrament’ for humanity, a sign and instrument of the salvation achieved by Christ, the light of the world and the salt of the earth (cf. Mt 5:13-16), for the redemption of all” (John Paul II, EdeE, 22).

Whether we prefer the Ordinary Form or the Extraordinary Form of the Holy Mass, our main concern is whether or not we are being drawn into the mystery, whether we are learning to offer ourselves with the Sacred Victim and allowing ourselves to be transformed by the love of Christ through a deep and personal encounter with Him in the Liturgy. This is the goal of the reform of the Liturgy, that every Christian will encounter Christ and His love, and thus be drawn and transformed into that self-giving love, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Our Blessed Mother, Mary, the woman of faith and woman of the Eucharist, is the greatest model of a soul who gives herself entirely to God, who is open for His word and allows Him to act on and through her. May she teach us, especially in this Christmas season, so to participate in the Holy Mass, that like her, we may become living tabernacles of Jesus and His word, and may bring Him into this world which no longer is open for God.