The Reforms Intended by The Sacred Vatican Council

It is often mentioned that Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), did not envision the depth of changes that resulted from the liturgical reforms which followed the end of the Council.

One can does not find the ‘clown mass’ or sacrilegious desires within the text of SC’s that is sometimes claimed. One can find that Latin is to be preserved (SC, §36) and that Gregorian chant be given pride of place (SC, §116). The Holy Council itself never dictated the exact form of the Novous Ordo (NO), and only provided guidelines which are theological sound.

Yet, SC can be seen to give some sort of approval to the positive elements of the Liturgical Renewal movement which predated Vatican II and subsequently heavily influenced the NO’s final form. “… [T]he general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy must be studied in conjunction with the experience derived from recent liturgical reforms and from the indults conceded to various places.” (SC, §36)

The above referenced paragraph is not a strong argument to say that Vatican II did have in mind all the changes which happened subsequently, but it does at least present some new light.

Even if the final form of the NO was a result of post-councilor activities which cannot be fully found in SC, the timing of the document itself in coordination with liturgical experimentation, the reference in paragraph 23 and the that the Council desired reform, lends itself more strongly than is sometimes admitted to a high level of reform envisioned by the Council. This stance is seemingly taken by Thomas Merton in the opening pages of Seasons of Celebration, “The Constitution on Liturgy does not merely show the Church’s approval of what has already been done by the Liturgical Movement. It is the beginning of a broad and general Liturgical reform which, it is hoped, will accomplish the most striking and significant changes in every form of Catholic Worship.” It was the same Pope who ended Vatican II that also approved the NO when first issued.

No matter the stance we take on what level of reform the Holy Council desired, we can agree that the changes are guarded from grave error as part of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium’s teaching. SC does use teaching language§4 “… the sacred Council declares…”, §3 “…sacred Council judges…”, §87 “.. has seen fit to decree…” and throughout the text contains short statements of faith which are not meant to dialogue starters2 on top of listing norms to be followed.   

Thus, next time our consciences are presented with something that makes us uneasy about the liturgy we need to step back and reflect. A classic example may be paragraph 160 in the General Instruction of the Roman Liturgy, where it is stated, “The norm for reception of Holy Communion in the dioceses of the United States is standing. Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.” Instead of casting disquiet into our souls because kneeling is our preference, recalling that Benedict XVI himself started distributing communion to the faithful while kneeling,3 and then remembering that the Fatima seers received communion while kneeling4 we need reflect on peaceful things. Not every reform needs to be perfectly prudent for Vatican II to be called holy. What we can say though is that the reforms were caught up as the desire of an Ecumenical Council and subsequently approved the Church. The same reverence we have for other Councils should not be denied to Vatican II and its post-councilor developments. God will not judge us for following the guidance of an Ecumenical Council or officially promulgated Liturgy.

  1. Merton, Thomas, Seasons of Celebration. New York: Noonday Publications, 1977 (Originally Published in 1965).
  2. The General Instruction to the Roman Missal, §2 also takes the view that SC taught things. “What the Council thus teaches…” referring to the sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic Sacrifice in the Mass.
  3. Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, “Communion Received on the Tongue and While Kneeling”. Access March 10, 2023. services/ liturgy/details/ns_lit_doc_20091117_comunione_en.html.
  4. Reference the final apparition of the angel to the seers. It is to be noted that they were just following the norms of the time and place. 

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