The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Part I)

I’ve been wanting to take this website to a more academic level, something that still meets my goal of inspiring thought in those of you who read this, but also meets my newer desire to write things worthy of being read. I have nothing against writing just for the heck of it–the blog revolution is a great thing if for no other reason than it became an unconscious revival in writing. But I find myself continually more and more conscious of the number of times the word “I” appears in my writing, and personally I’d like that number to dwindle. So to begin my journey towards more meaningful writing, I’m going to spend some time writing about historic worship documents. It could be nothing more than a vain attempt to disprove the perceived futility of my degree, but I like to think of it more as a way to introduce some important history to those of you who didn’t get a chance to spend hours reading old, boring documents in school.

Obviously, the fact that I studied them in school says they’re not quite as boring to me as many people might find them. Actually, they’re filled with great insight that is usually quite pertinent to the things we’re wrestling with in the present church, and when it comes to the direction of the church, we can usually get a pretty accurate heading by looking in the past and following a similar path. History in general is a really great thing, because it is a key that unlocks the understanding both of ourselves and to some degree our future. In the church, we rely heavily on history in the formation of our doctrinal beliefs. Not that history is itself a source of truth, but more that it is a ‘lens’ in which we can interpret the Bible more accurately. John Wesley is regarded as the author of The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, in which he lists Scripture as the basis of all we believe, and then lists tradition (history), experience, and reason as the different methods we use to help refine our Biblical interpretations and the corresponding doctrinal beliefs derived from those interpretations (more on interpreting the Bible in a future post… remind me). All that to say I believe it is important that not only clergy, but all Christians should have at least some basic knowledge of historical worship documents and their role in our methods of worship and doctrinal beliefs.

To begin this series, I’d like to start with what is unquestionably the most influential worship document of the 20th Century, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, more commonly referred to as Vatican II. Vatican II was a Vatican council convened under Pope John XXIII in 1963 and eventually promulgated under Pope Paul VI in 1964. This document signified huge steps forward in the thinking of the Roman Catholic church, and in many ways has had vast effects on protestant worship as well, reaching across both denominational and doctrinal lines to help push modern worship into a more effective role which celebrates Christ as the head of the church, promotes active participation in the liturgy, and helped to reinforce the priesthood of all believers. Without question the single biggest change this document brought about was the conversion of mass from Latin to the common vernacular. No longer were priests forced to perform liturgy in Latin, but in fact they were directed to perform these functions in the vernacular so that all could understand the meaning and purpose behind the mass.

You can read the Vatican II document here. It’s lengthy, and for everyone’s sanity I’ve broken the document up into multiple articles. For today, Let’s look at the Introduction and Chapters I and II. Basically I’ll be going through the document point by point in a Eugene Peterson style, extrapolating the central truths in each point and rewriting them in shorter, to-the-point explanations. I’ve added personal comments in parenthesis.

  1. We need to reform our worship to add “vigor to the Christian life of the faithful” and adapt our worship practices to make them relevant to today’s culture.
  2. The liturgy (Keep in mind all churches have a liturgy. In your church you might call it the order of service, but we all have one. Some are just much more formulated than others.) is a means for believers to express the mystery of Christ in their lives. It reminds us of the mystery of Christ, daily builds the believer in their relationship with Christ, and yet also manages to strengthen their power to preach Christ.
  3. What we say in this document you should do in your church. Some of it will even apply to protestant churches, but we don’t write rules for them, they just may happen to apply.
  4. We’re not trying to obliterate 2,000 years of history with this document. We just think in some cases we need to do things a little differently.

Chapter I – General Principles for the Reform

  1. Jesus Christ was sent by God and anointed by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel to the poor, heal the contrite of heart, and become the mediator between God and mankind. He was both fully human and fully divine, lived a perfect, sinless life, died to destroy our death and rose again to restore our life.
  2. Christ sent the apostles to do his work after him, namely proclaiming that Christ’s death and resurrection has freed us from Satan’s grip. The faithful are adopted into the family of God, and become “true adorers whom the Father seeks”. The faithful meet together to proclaim the paschal mystery (Christ’s death and resurrection) through eucharist, read the Scriptures, and “give thanks to God for his inexpressible gift in Christ Jesus, in praise of his glory, through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
  3. Christ is always present in the church, particularly in its liturgical celebrations. (Here comes the Roman Catholic part–remember they believe in transubstantiation.) Christ is present in, and in fact becomes the elements of the sacraments. Specifically, the cup and bread actually become Christ’s body and blood; also when a priest baptizes someone it is actually Christ who baptizes them. He is also present whenever the church prays and sings. The recipients of these sacraments are made holy because Christ has become the sacraments which are partaken. Because we believe this, the liturgy is therefore an exercise of the priestly office of Christ, and is a sacred action surpassing all others.
  4. The earthly liturgy is a taste of the liturgy that is to come in the next life.
  5. The liturgy is not the only action of the church. Evangelism is also a vital part of what the church does.
  6. That being said, the liturgy is still the “summit” of activity in the church and the fount from which the church’s power flows. It’s purpose is to build the believers up in their faith, and “to be one in holiness”. Therefore, from the liturgy, and especially the eucharist, grace is poured out as from a fountain, and is the source of the most effective way to human sanctification.
  7. In order for that to happen, however, the faithful must come in correct attitudes, and the pastors must realize and ensure that people participate actively and are fully aware of the reasons they do things within the liturgy.
  8. The liturgy is not the only component of the spiritual life, however. The faithful must also pray, both corporately and individually, and must daily take up their cross and follow Christ.
  9. We think it’s also important to emphasize personal devotions of the believer, so long as these devotions are in harmony with the teachings and doctrine of the church. It’s especially great if the devotions correlate to what we’re doing and learning in church.

Chapter II – Promotion of Liturgical Instruction and Active Participation

  1. The liturgy only truly reaches its power when those involved are actively participating in what they’re doing. Above all else, this is the desire of this reform. It should be the goal of all pastors to facilitate this active participation in the liturgy. In order for that to happen, however, the pastors themselves must first be “thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy and make themselves its teachers.”
  2. Professors must also be thoroughly trained for their work in instructing on the liturgy.
  3. Liturgy will be one of the primary courses of study in seminaries and religious academic institutions. It should be taught from the theological, historical, spiritual, pastoral, and canonical aspects (Wesleyan quadrilateral, anyone?). Also, those teaching other subjects should strive to relate their subject to this learning as much and often as possible.
  4. Those working and studying in seminaries will be given a liturgical formation in their spiritual life. They will understand and practice these liturgies, as well as devotions pertaining to them, so that seminaries will be “thoroughly permeated by the spirit of the liturgy.”
  5. Priests should seek as much understanding of the liturgy as possible, so they may share that understanding with the faithful.
  6. Pastors must zealously and patiently instruct the faithful on the meaning of the liturgy and the active participation within it. However, not everyone is the same–they should take into account age, condition, way of life, and stage of religious development when instructing on the liturgy.
  7. Radio and tv broadcasts must be marked by discretion and dignity, especially when the Mass is broadcast. The Vatican will appoint a specific overseer to help ensure this.

It’s not perfect, but not too bad for Catholics, huh? I’ll let you in on a secret: their doctrine is a lot better than protestants give them credit for! Part II to follow…