Is your Sunday Mass in accord with Vatican II? Most likely not!

In using the phrase “most likely not”, I mean that the overwhelming majority of Roman Rite parishes throughout the world, and especially in North America, have yet to comply with liturgical standards definitively established by the Second Vatican Council regarding the celebration of Mass.  Your parish very likely falls into that category.

Let’s start with an anecdote.

During one of my more recent visits to Rome, I stayed in a hotel near St. John Lateran, that majestic mater et caput omnium Ecclesiarum urbis et orbis.  I had originally planned to attend Sunday Mass at Santissima Trinita’ dei Pellegrini, the Traditional Latin Mass parish served by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP).  However, I changed plans in order to attend the Pope’s usual Sunday Angelus address at noon. So I trod the short distance to the Lateran Basilica, and arrived just in time for the 10:00 AM Sunday Mass, a Novus Ordo (Ordinary Form) liturgy celebrated mostly in Latin, with the readings in Italian.  The congregation was a multinational mix: French-Canadians, Indians, Koreans, Poles, Argentinians (more numerous in Rome these days), Filipinos, and of course, the ever-ubiquitous Americans and Italians were well-represented.  Without the help of pamphlets or worship aids, the people could follow along quite easily despite the language gap, thanks to a general familiarity with the rite.  The Penitential Rite was spoken, not sung, and even the children could figure out how to repeat kyrie eleison after the elderly monsignor.  Then with a strong and vibrant voice, that same elderly monsignor intoned in the melody of the Missa de Angelis the words Gloria in excelsis Deo

And then to my surprise, a large majority of the congregation responded in tune and with great vigor: et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis… The Koreans and Indians– Asians, non-Romance language speakers– issued forth their chant with especially high zest.  It was nice to see even the children– Filipinos, Italians, Canadians, etc.– singing with pleasant facility that richly textured melodic line qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram with heads lowered at the plea “receive our prayer”, as the priests in attendance removed their birettas and bowed their heads toward the altar crucifix, according to the traditional practice of the Roman Rite.  It almost seemed a splendidly perfect expression of the universal Church united in worship.  I say almost, because of all the people therein present, only one national contingent seemed completely lost, unable to enter fully into the mystery with the rest of the congregation.

Surprise, surprise: the Americans were the ones caught like deer in headlights.  Some muttered the Gloria to themselves in English (using the obsolete 1973 ICEL translation, revealing their scarce Mass attendance), while others stared off into space or took pictures, to the irritation of some of the older Italians and to the amusement of the undersigned.  Looking back, I know I should have been a little embarrassed, but the lively chanting of the other congregants was so refreshing that, at the time, I thought little of the American brutta figura.

The chanting of the Creed (Credo III) likewise elicited a similar reaction from the Americans, while the other groups displayed a clear focus and attention to the sacred liturgy.  At the minor elevation, the Americans glimpsed a landmark by which to re-orient themselves, which was followed by the priest’s invitation to chant the Lord’s Prayer.

More awkwardness ensued.  Some of the Americans tried to reach across the aisle to hold hands with the Italians, who generally don’t even use the orans posture at the Our Father.  The only other hand-holders were the Argentinians, unfortunately on the far side of the basilica.  It took the Americans a while (right around panem nostrum quotidianum) to realize that holding hands isn’t a universal practice, and it seems that they spent more time trying to hold hands than actually saying the prayer!  At least they were able to quietly pray the Lord’s Prayer in English, and correctly deduced that the quia tuum est regnum corresponds to “for the Kingdom, the power, and glory are yours…”

Now I ask the reader three questions:

*Is the use of Gregorian chant a normal feature of your parish’s liturgy?
*Is the use of Latin a normal feature of your parish’s liturgy?
*If you were to attend Sunday Mass at St. John Lateran, could you chant the Gloria, Credo, Pater Noster, and other ordinary Mass texts that pertain to the people?

If you answered “No” to any of the questions above, then your parish, like so many parishes in America, sadly hasn’t fully implemented the liturgical directives of the Second Vatican Council.  While the issues addressed in these questions do not exhaust the litany of problems in contemporary liturgical celebrations, they point to a fundamental gulf between the vision expressed in the Council’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium; henceforth SC), and the status quo of many Masses.  According to this vision– the true vision of the Council– many parishes across the globe are found wanting, and the Council’s directives are waiting to be honored.

I therefore encourage every and any liturgist, liturgical enthusiast, or liturgical minister to read Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Gregorian Chant

Let’s read what the Council has to say about music (English translations are mine):

Ecclesia cantum gregorianum agnoscit ut liturgiae romanae proprium: qui ideo in actionibus liturgicis, ceteris paribus, principem locum obtineat.

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as proper to the Roman liturgy: which therefore, in liturgical actions, under usual circumstances, it should hold first place. (SC 116)

So, the Council clearly states that Gregorian chant should hold the principem locum, or first place.  Now you will see that there is a qualification: ceteris paribus.  Literally, this means, “with all things being equal” (and you will see this phrase in the English translation on the Vatican website).  However, this rendering is strange to modern Anglophones and obscures the authentic Latin meaning.  Ceteris paribus is a juridical or legal term with roots in ancient Roman and ecclesiastical (canon) law (and therefore, a term with a very strict meaning); in context, it means “in normal circumstances”, “in usual cases”, or “barring extraordinary instances”.  It refers to situations which should be the norm.  Most schoolteachers could say, “ceteris paribus, I work in a classroom”, as the Pope could say, “ceteris paribus, I hold the weekly General Audience on Wednesdays”.  So, ceteris paribus, Gregorian chant should hold first place in the liturgy. Gregorian chant is therefore the standard for liturgical music in the Roman Rite.

Why is it the standard?  The Council gives the answer: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as proper to the Roman liturgy” (liturgiae Romanae proprium). That little word proprium veils a breadth of meaning.  First, is the idea of “ownership”.  What we own is called our “property”, and likewise, the Church in a special way considers Gregorian chant “her own” above all other genres of music.  Secondly, there is the idea of “appropriateness” or “fittingness”. The official English translation from the Vatican says “especially suited”.  These two ideas, ownership and fittingness, are inseparable in the word proprium.  Gregorian chant is not merely a part of liturgy or decoration to the liturgy: Gregorian chant is liturgy, for the historical development of the liturgy is inseparable from the history of chant.  Between them, therefore, is an integral organic unity, and to separate one from the other would diminish the fullness of both.

Now think of the normal Sunday Mass experience in your parish.  Does Gregorian chant hold the “first place” “in normal circumstances”?  For most American parishes, I would venture to say that Gregorian chant often holds novissimum locum, the last place, tragically replaced by compositions of commercial “church musicians” who abide by the low musical standards of contemporary pop.  Their works flood the pages of Oregon Catholic Press’ publications, most eminent of which is the Breaking Bread series, in which chant settings are marginalized to a few back pages.  In all this, the venerable patrimony of ancient hymns which developed organically with the Roman liturgy are swept away, and a lamentable cultural amnesia is imposed on the faithful.

Of course, SC goes on to say that “Other types of music, but especially polyphony” can be permitted, while enumerating the limited conditions under which new types of music can be introduced.  This, however, does not excuse the de facto wholesale shelving of Gregorian chant in so many parishes, which is completely unwarranted by the Council.

Use of Latin

Now let’s read what the Council says about Latin, the bulk of which is contained in SC 36 (again, translations are mine.  Article 36 has 4 subsections; only §1 and §2 are relevant to our discussion; §3 and §4 refer to the approval process for vernacular translations):

§1. Linguae latinae usus, salvo particulari iure, in Ritibus latinis servetur.
§1. The use of the Latin language, save instances of particular law, is to be observed in the Latin rites.

The phrase salvo particulari iure, obviously, refers to particular, not general cases.  SC is general law, mandating broad principles to be observed ceteris paribus.  The Council, however, protects certain rare, particular instances where the Church already allowed for vernacular languages in the liturgy.  Such cases occurred in far-flung mission lands, where indigenous peoples had difficulty learning European languages, whereas the educated missionaries could become proficient at native tongues.  Dispensations from Rome allowed Mass to be celebrated with the priest’s parts in Latin and the people’s parts in the local vernacular. Places where this occurred include China and the Iroquois/Algonquin missions in North America.

Yet “save these instances of particular law,” Latin usage is still to be observed.  The precedent of local adaptations in poorly supported mission lands does not apply to areas which have received in large scale the patrimony of Western culture.  In any case, Latin was still used in the mission lands and was never completely abolished.  Ironically, after the Second Vatican Council, the use of Iroquois/Algonquin in the liturgy vanished.

§2. Cum tamen, sive in Missa, sive in Sacramentorum administratione, sive in aliis Liturgiae partibus, haud raro linguae vernaculae usurpatio valde utilis apud populum exsistere possit, amplior locus ipsi tribui valeat, imprimis autem in lectionibus et admonitionibus, in nonnullis orationibus et cantibus, iuxta normas quae de hac re in sequentibus capitibus singillatim statuuntur.

§2. But since the use of the vernacular, whether in Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, may not infrequently be very useful to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended, in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to regulations on this matter to be codified specifically in following chapters.

Be attentive to the cautious construction of the conciliar text.  Introductions of new things are always mentioned as a possibility (possit), never as an imposition or as a rule to be followed semper et ubique. The implication is that the former practice can never be considered inherently bad, deficient, or lacking in any way.  The Council Fathers were always mindful never to disparage the received liturgical tradition, for this tradition sustained the piety and sacramental life of innumerable saints.  Furthermore, if one reads all of SC, when the introduction of a novelty is proposed, the Apostolic See (that is, the Pope) is always the final approval authority, for it pertains to the Church, not to individual priests or laypeople, to guard and regulate the Sacred Liturgy (SC 22).

This cautious attitude toward innovation is especially made manifest in these norms which govern introduction of the vernacular into Mass.  While SC specifically names “the readings and directives” as well as “some of the prayers and chants” as possibilities for vernacular introduction, it refers to such introductions as extending the limits of its employment.  The text itself implies a limit to vernacular use in the administration of sacraments, and thus continued usage of Latin!  The Council in no place foresees developments such as a Eucharistic Prayer recited entirely in the vernacular, let along a whole Mass without use of the venerable Latin texts!

One of the “regulations on this matter to be codified specifically in following chapters” is Article 54:

Linguae vernaculae in Missis cum populo celebratis congruus locus tribui possit, praesertim in lectionibus et “oratione communi”, ac, pro condicione locorum, etiam in partibus quae ad populum spectant, ad normam art. 36 huius Constitutionis. Provideatur tamen ut christifideles etiam lingua latina partes Ordinarii Missae quae ad ipsos spectant possint simul dicere vel cantare.

In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue, especially in the readings and “the common prayer,” but also, as local conditions warrant, to parts which pertain to the people, according to the norm in Art. 36 of this Constitution. Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the Christian faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.

The “common prayer” mentioned here will later become the “Prayers of the Faithful” in the Missal of Paul VI. The most important, part, however, is in bold.  Here the Council states in the clearest terms that the faithful must know how to participate in the Mass using the Latin language.  The Council is unequivocal on this matter, with no room to misinterpret a plain reading of this article.  Simply put, those persons who cannot “say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” are out of step with Vatican II.

Why Latin at all?

Didn’t Vatican II abolish Latin?  Doesn’t the openness willed by Pope John XXIII when he convoked the Council mean that we should break from the past?

Of course, from reading the above quotations from the Council itself, the answer to the first question is a thunderous “NO”.  And when we speak about Pope John’s vision for the Council, especially concerning the language in the Church, we should avail ourselves of his oft-forgotten, oft-ignored final Apostolic Constitution, Veterum Sapientia.  In it, he extolls the virtues of Latin, praises its superiority and suitability in ecclesiastical use, and mandates a renewal of Latin studies in theological institutes and for seminaries. Promulgated on 22 February 1962, on the eve of the Council, this short Apostolic Constitution dispels any myth or ideological fantasy that sees Pope John abolishing, restricting, or making optional the Latin language. This brief document succinctly enumerates the reasons for keeping this language of “characteristic nobility” in use for ecclesial purposes.  I refer the reader to both the Latin text and to an English translation; it’s a quick, easy read that provides an authentic hermeneutic for interpreting the liturgical reform instigated by the Council.

The way forward

I will not go into the details as to why there is such a huge disjoint between the will of the Council on one hand, and modern liturgical practice on the other.  For that, one would have to go into the history of the liturgical reform beginning with Pius X (+1914), continuing with the great strides in the reign of Pius XII (+1958), and analyzing the influences of key figures at the Council (especially Annibale Bunigni), and their continued work during the post-conciliar period.  One will see how these latter approaches deviated from the organic development and scholarship fostered in the pre-conciliar period, and how the liturgical reform was given to the hands of a committee who applied unsound principles while compiling the Missal of Paul VI.

Nor are all the problems in the liturgy today reducible to the near-death of Latin and Gregorian chant. Certainly, these problems are of great importance, but they do not exhaust all the questions raised by the concrete path taken by the liturgical reform.  The magisterium of John Paul II, for example, condemned problems such as the unwarranted proliferation and habitual use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, illicit variations to the Mass, liturgical dancing, lay people performing priestly functions, and other desacralizing actions which ultimately detract from focus on the Eucharistic Lord.

I will make this observation: ironically, the places where the Council’s liturgical principles are best obeyed are the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) communities of today.  There is a palpable sense of the sacred, an understanding of adoration, and zealous adherence to cultural patrimony of the Church.  Congregants know the chants and prayers of the Church in their original forms (i.e., in Latin), as decreed by the Council.  They also are well-catechized because they so often must justify their attachment to the usus antiquior.

That is not to say that the Traditional Latin Mass needs no further development: it too must remain open to nourishment according to principles enumerated by the Council.  For example, one of the great developments in the Missal of Paul VI is the use of two scriptural readings, proclaimed in the vernacular, before the Gospel.  In the TLM, only an Epistle passage is read (or chanted in Epistle tone) prior to the Gospel; exposure to the Old Testament comes only intermittently through the various proper prayers and hymns of each day.  Yet the evolution of the TLM cannot be frozen in 1962; in fact, some variations are taking shape.  For example, certain TLM-exclusive orders read or chant the Epistle in the local language, while others have reintroduced the Second Confiteor prior to communion.

The issue of liturgical reform is wide in scope, and more time is needed to resolve the problems which resulted in its wake. While Vatican II is “only” 50 years old, we must remember that the Church thinks in centuries, not years or decades.  The Council of Trent took hundreds of years to take effect in some places. But this is no excuse to slow the recovery of Vatican II’s true vision.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI showed us the correct interpretation of the Council, and we must resolutely follow their teaching.  This is not an easy task: it requires effective catechesis from pastors of souls, a humble receptivity from the laity, and a vigorous desire to follow the Church from them both.  More fundamentally, remembering that the Church is Ecclesia semper reformanda (Ignatius of Loyola), this monumental endeavor requires conversion: a re-turning of oneself to the voice of the Holy Ghost, who speaks to men through the Church.

How can we know if you and your fellow parishioners are going in the right direction?  I propose a simple example.  Let’s return to that Sunday Mass at St. John Lateran: don’t be like the Americans!  Be like the rest of the nationalities there present; be above nationality; be universal; be Catholic.

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