It is widely assumed that the main goal of the Second Vatican Council was liturgical reform. Although that supposition is not entirely true, it is not entirely false, either. As in all things, Context is key.
To be sure, the four main goals of the Council, namely:
- Renewal: to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful
- Aggiornamento: to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change
- Ecumenism: to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ
- Evangelization: to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church
are presented at the outset of the Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” Sacrosantum Concilium. The initial paragraph of this document concludes, stating:
“The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.”
One does not have to search deeply into the document in order to ascertain what those cogent reasons are. The very next paragraph tells us that the liturgy is “the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.” Most notable, in this regard, is the specific emphasis the document places on the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist as the preeminent means “through which the work of our redemption is accomplished.”
In Sacrosantum Concilium, the Council makes it very clear from the beginning that the immutable foundation, from which all reform, renewal, or getting up to date, and every effort to evangelize or promote Christian unity flows, is Christ himself present in the source and summit of our faith, the Eucharist.
This is not a willy-nilly reform. To understand the thought of the Church, one must think with the heart of the Church; that is and always has been through, with, and in Christ as Alpha and Omega, ever present within his Mystical Body. In the Church, we are all part of that one Body, through our participating in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is none other than Christ himself. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (1324; cf. LG 11) and “the sum and summary of our faith: Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.” (1327) The Eucharistic Christ is the true Spirit of Vatican II.
The Church’s aim, “to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful,” vitam christianam inter fideles in dies augere, is eminently Eucharistic. Since this proposed “vitam augere” stems from the Bread of Life, the Council sought to give the faithful the proper means to participate more conscientiously and and fully in the liturgical life of the Church. That is why the Council Fathers saw it fit to propose adaptations to the liturgy.
Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.
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; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work. — Sacrosantum Concilium 14
Necessary instruction means education, and the liturgy itself educates. One of the problems that caused some confusion at the onset of liturgical reform was translation (tradere, tradere: the same word means both to translate and to betray). Please bear with me, I am going somewhere with this.
Translations involve interpretation. The intent is to transmit the meaning or spirit of the original text to the reader in another language in the most meaningful way. At times some of the original meaning can be lost in the translation. Unfortunately, the translator may unwittingly sacrifice the original intent of the text in order to convey the sense that he sees most fitting for the intended reader. Here is an example that ties in well with what we have been saying with regard to the Eucharist imparting ever increasing vigor into the life of the faithful through their participation in the liturgy.
Ite! Missa Est!
For years we heard the dismissal “Mass is ended. Go in Peace!” To the faithful in the pew, the message was clear: “Okay, it’s over. We can go now,” after the procession of course, and probably best to wait until after the music is finished — just to be polite.
That translation is imprecise. Incidentally, the word Mass, which we commonly use to refer to the Eucharistic Celebration, is derived from words of dismissal, Ite! Missa est! “Go forth! You have been sent.”
Sent, like apostles (the Greek word apostellein, means to be sent forth). In other words, after participating in the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass and receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist, the Church sends us forth with the commission to be apostles. It makes sense, therefore, that the adaptations intended to allow greater participation in the liturgy, imparting “an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful,” so that they could extend the life of the Church as well-fortified, enthusiastic apostles.
“Vitam Christianam augere” — to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful. Latin packs a lot of meaning into just a few words. Once again, these words contain implicit reference to the Eucharist: the source and summit of our faith. Christian life grows when it receives its proper nourishment, through the Eucharist.
In sum, to understand the reforms of Vatican II, we need to understand it’s aims. The aims of Vatican II, must be understood within the right context. That context is only properly understood when we consider the heart of Church thinking, which always seeks accord with the heart of Christ and Christ’s heart is apostolic. The heart of our apostolic vigor, therefore, must be the heart of Christ himself. For he is the one who nourishes us, teaches us, and sends us forth to live the Gospel and extend his Kingdom with the witness of our lives, united to his.
We return to the Eucharist also, as Christ taught us, in memory of him. Our succes as apostles depends on our ability to bear this in mind: the vigor of Christian life will continue to grow and flourish to the extent that we continue to draw our strength from Christ in the Eucharist.