Aggiornamento! — Hold That Thought… 15

If you thought aggiornamento was gourmet fettucini with peas, think again.

If you thought aggiornamento meant ditching the religious habit, not so fast!

If you thought aggiornamento was all about the priest turning around and facing the people during mass, hold that thought…

Aggiornamento, commonly translated as “getting up to date,” was a tag-name given to one of the four main goals of Vatican II: “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change” (Sacrosantum Concililum, 1).

Clearly, the most notable adaptation after the Council was the use of vernacular language in the Celebration of the Eucharist, regarding which the Council Fathers specified:

  • These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used; their decrees are to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See. And, whenever it seems to be called for, this authority is to consult with bishops of neighboring regions which have the same language. (SC, 36, 3)
  • Translations from the Latin text into the mother tongue intended for use in the liturgy must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned above. (SC, 36, 4)

A very popular liturgical adaptation, not stipulated in this document, was the priest’s celebrating the Mass verus populum, i.e., facing the people. Traditionally, the priest celebrated the Mass ad orientem (facing east). In most cases Churches were always erected with the altar facing toward the rising sun. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was an exception, because the topography — being built on a hill — made it impractical to construct the Basilica with the altar facing ad orientem.

Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) observes a common misunderstanding regarding the designations ad orientem and versus populum. In Spirit of the Liturgy, he explains that people think of them in opposing terms based on a false distinction, namely, whether the priest faces the people or has his back to the people. (Seriously, which one sounds better?). He goes on to say that, regardless of the position of the altar or whether the priest faces the congregation or not, the Eucharist is always celebrated ad orientem, because the focus is the Eucharist.

To explain, Ratzinger (I refer to him as such for his pre-pontifical writings) expounds upon the significance of facing east, in the direction of the rising sun. For Christians, the rising sun hearkens to the Rising Son — that is Christ’s resurrection on the third day. Facing toward the orient, then, is to turn our gaze toward the Risen Christ in hope of our rising with him on the Last Day (cf. John 6:40; Rom. 6:5). As the sun’s rising is a recurring event, it also reminds us of the Lord’s promise of his second coming. Consider the Advent antiphon: O Oriens!

The term “oriens” itself has rich significance for the people of God within the context of the Eucharistic celebration, as Ratzinger goes on to explain. It refers to our need for continual conversion as well as our need to focus our gaze on Christ. To orient is to align oneself in relation to a fixed point that is independent of the subject. In the Mass everything and everyone should be oriented toward Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

Recall the Council’s aim commonly referred to as aggiornamento: “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change.”

The implication is that we also need to respect those institutions that are not subject to change, most importantly, the Divine Institution, the one Christ instituted himself at the Last Supper. The Cardinal’s point is that Christ in the Eucharist is the focal point — the focal point of the liturgy and of our lives. It is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 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” (CCC 1327).

Still holding that thought? The word aggiornamento itself becomes relevant here. We can’t understand getting up to date if we don’t understand why this entails aligning ourselves. We cannot align ourselves without a fixed point of reference. For the Church that fixed point of reference always will be Christ.

Note also that the word “aggiornamento” comprises the Italian words a (ad) and giorno. Toward the day. Which day are we talking about here? That’s a relevant consideration. In God’s time — ex tempore — that day is fixed. Whether it is the first day of creation, third day on which Christ rose from the dead and the first day of the new creation, the eighth day on which Christians are baptized, or the Last Day on which we will rise and face our Lord and God — God sees all those days at once. Our hope is to join God in eternity for one, everlasting, Happy Day.

I feel a song coming on.

In these posts on the 4 aims of Vatican II, my aim is look beneath the surface of reform and consider the deeper, more essential point. As often happens, when we look at change we tend to overlook the substantial element amidst the change that does not change. The change is never about the change itself but what remains the same beneath the change.

Getting up to date is not about reforming the Church to fit our modern structures. It is about getting ourselves up to date, converting ourselves, and orienting our lives toward Christ. After all, if the Council’s aim was to bring the Church into the modern world, then it’s also all about you if you look at it from this perspective: bringing you closer to Christ.


  1. At the Blue Mosque, last August, in Istanbul, after seeing the prayer hall and the niche facing Mecca:

    Me: Excuse me, Mr. Guide, can I ask a question?
    Guide: Why yes, of course.
    Me: When the Imam leads the faithful in prayer, which way does he face?
    Guide: Why, towards Mecca, of course.
    Me: The same way as the faithful?
    Guide: Yes, of course.
    Me: Do the faithful think he is turning his back on them?
    Guide (sadly looking at the crazy American), no, of course not, why do you ask this?
    Me; Oh, thank you, just an an intra-Catholic Church thing.

  2. Nuns are powerful women! The poster girls of women’s lib! Especially love the pics of the Sisters of Life playing volleyball at the beach. I went to my first Latin Mass on the Feast of the Assumption and found it right that the priests were ad orientum….all of us facing the Eucharist which is the reason we were there in the first place. I know of at least 2 priests who now say the Novus Ordu Mass ad orientum. It’s nice to see them bringing elements of the more traditional into today’s Mass.

    • I believe you mentioned at one point that attending a Latin Mass was on you list of things to do. I still have not attended an extraordinary right (Tridentine) Mass, but interestingly enough, I was just invited to one today. I’m looking forward to it.

  3. My only problem with Mass in the vernacular is that in my town pretty much everyone spoke the same language, English, and we all went to Mass together. Now that our Hispanic population has grown, our new members are separated in a different Mass. We hardly get to see them our know them. Speaking with them in broken English and spreading cheer with a smile or handshake seems better than being segregated into separate groups. The Latin with translations available in other languages would at least allow us to interact with these members.

    • I’ve noticed the same problem in several parishes. I am glad, though, that many parishes are doing as much as they can to accomodate the hispanic community. If churches were not at least offering them the alternative of spanish speaking Masses, they would be leaving the Church in droves.

      Our country has a long history of “ethnic churches.” It takes time for people of different cultures to integrate into the melting pot.

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