An ancient aphorism advises, “As a person prays so that person believes.” The very manner of praying, worshipping, and ritually celebrating actually directs, guides and even forms a person’s beliefs.
It was truly providential then, according to Father Massimo Faggioli, professor at St. Thomas University in Minnesota, that the first published decree from the Second Vatican Council concerned the sacred liturgy. In his recent book, True Reform, the author proposes that later conciliar teachings on sacred Scripture, on ecumenism and interfaith activity, on the laity, on the church in the world, even on national episcopal councils, as well as other instructions, are first suggested in Sacrosanctum Concilium, which he views as Vatican II’s most consequential document. At the insistence of Pope John XXIII Mass was celebrated every morning of the council in one of the church’s several rites, insightfully stressing the connection between liturgy and ecclesiology, between the church’s prayer life and the church’s teaching life.
Thus, Sacrosanctum Concilium was sending a message to believers and to the world that Catholic worship should truly reflect all that the church is about. Liturgy should certainly signify the church’s relationship with God, but also the church’s relationship to the world at large, to other believers, to the assembled community, to the sacred ministers, even to the saints in heaven.
The Catholic appreciation of sacred Scripture, at least on a popular level, was frankly minimal before the council. The Bible was clearly Protestant territory for the average Catholic, Pius XII and Divinae Afflante Spiritu notwithstanding. The old liturgy reflected this. There were no Sunday readings from the Old Testament in the Tridentine Mass. On Sunday the Gospel would be read in the vernacular and a sermon sometimes preached on the text. But for daily Scripture and the first reading, worshippers were left to their missals. Thanks to the council, all Scriptures are read in the language of the people, the Old Testament is liberally incorporated, a homily is daily recommended, a moment of reflection is suggested. Such Scriptural generosity says a lot about the church’s attitude toward Holy Writ, toward the laity’s need to know the Bible, and toward the Jews who are recognized as important ancestors in the faith. While catechesis is not the main function of the liturgy, the Mass is indeed an opportunity when Scripture and Tradition can be re-assessed and re-affirmed.
The dramatic welcoming of the laity into so many aspects of the liturgy says much about the Church’s renewed appreciation of their baptismal priesthood. Mass in the language of the people is certainly an inclusive gesture toward the men and women in the pew. The encouragement of their responses clearly acknowledges their contribution. The General Intercessions give voice to the hopes and needs of the gathered people. The offering of the human products bread and wine from the midst of the assembly is a clear link with daily life in the world. Even appropriate standing, sitting and kneeling should give all a sense of unity with the action at the altar. Extending the sign of peace to one another is a simple sign of the church’s seriousness about lay dignity. Offering the chalice to the faithful is another inclusive sign that the church’s respect for the priesthood of her lay sons and daughters is genuine. Extending the chalice also has ecumenical overtones since reception from the cup was a hard fought Reformation practice.
Acknowledging that national episcopal councils may have some authority regarding the liturgy (holy days, vigil Masses, vernacular translations, altar girls, at al.) illustrates how liturgy can even reaffirm the essential hierarchical structure of the Church. Rome is not the sole source of liturgical discernment. The re-institution of the diaconate and the re-introduction of priestly con-celebration in the Latin Church are resounding statements on the nature and ranks of the ministerial priesthood.
When the liturgy, especially the Mass, takes seriously revelation in the Old and New Testaments, the church’s situation in the world, the baptismal dignity of the laity, the roles of the ministerial priesthood, the acts of bishops, along with other issues, then Catholic prayer is certainly confirming Catholic beliefs. As the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council is celebrated and its decree on the sacred liturgy is recalled, the church’s expanded appreciation of her inner nature is due in no small measure to her broadened comprehension of her hallowed rites.