15/7/12 – Fifty Years Since Vatican II: “Back to the Future”

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum ConciliumDuring this Year of Grace, we have been invited to revisit the constitutions of the Second Vatican Council, which began fifty years ago this year.  The first of these constitutions was on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

While the liturgical changes that occurred after Vatican II appeared to be a significant departure from how the liturgy had been celebrated, they were not intended to be new innovations.  Rather, they could be described more as going “back to the future”.

St Justin (Martyr)
An account of the celebration of Mass given by St Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) recounts many elements still included in the Mass today, and in much the same order (including the taking up of a collection!)

Over the course of many years prior to Vatican II, increased research and scholarship within the Church saw it uncover and rediscover much more of its earliest history than it previously knew.  The Church came to a greater understanding of how the liturgy was celebrated in the first few centuries.  The accounts of saints and martyrs, the sermons of bishops, ancient missals, manuscripts and other artefacts helped the Church develop a clearer picture.

As such, when the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy was developed and promulgated at the Second Vatican Council, it called for the Church to restore earlier liturgical practice, to draw upon the earliest traditions as the foundation for any liturgical reforms that were to take place.  Some of those reforms were explicitly named in the constitution, while others grew out of the general principles that were provided.

The increased participation of all the people in liturgical celebrations, the use of vernacular languages, increased use of scripture, and changes to the Christian initiation of children and adults are just some examples of reforms put forward in Sacrosanctum Concilium that find their origins not as new ideas of the twentieth century, but in the liturgical celebrations of the Church before it had even gained the approval of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.

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