These celebrations have provided an opportunity for the Church to properly assess the achievements of the council as well as to discuss areas in which the council may have fallen short. In addition to articulating both the successes and failures of Vatican II, these celebrations have provided the framework by which to discuss the impact of the council on the life of Holy Mother Church as well as positing what impact the council may have on the future of the Church.

In addition to these celebrations, in his Christmas address of 2005, then Pope Benedict XVI provided a significant hermeneutic (or lens) through which to view the work of the Second Vatican Council. He spoke about the hermeneutic of continuity between the work of the council and the life of the Church before and after the council. The “hermeneutic of reform,” of renewal, sees “the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.”

And then he noted that certain sectors of culture and society sought to separate Vatican II from the history of the Church and promoted a hermeneutic of discontinuity focused on the spirit of the council, not the truths of the documents themselves: “The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts…. In a word: it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the council but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim.”

This gap between the texts themselves and the allusive spirit of the interpreter created an opportunity to respond to every whim in the life of the Church.

The framework provided by both Pope Benedict and the Church’s historical celebrations creates the context for an overview of the first document promulgated by the council fathers, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. It can be rightly argued that this document more than others suffered under the hermeneutic of discontinuity presented to the world in the context of the spirit of the document opposed to what the document actually outlined and promulgated. Despite the confusion sometimes created by this misreading of the document, Sacrosanctum Concilium remains integral to the Church’s organic development of the liturgy.

The council fathers wisely began the deliberations of Vatican II with the sacred liturgy precisely because of its significance in the life of the Church. 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” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 2).

After articulating the nature of the liturgy, which is to build up and strengthen the body of Christ, the document prepares to articulate principles whereby the liturgy may be renewed chiefly so that the liturgy may be that source which imparts “an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful” (No. 1). Before providing concrete principles by which this renewal should be governed, the council fathers exhorted a respect for and adherence and obedience to the tradition of the Church.

Jesus’ Priestly Office

The principles used to assist the Church in liturgical renewal involve, first, an understanding of the nature of the sacred liturgy. At the heart of what the Church celebrates in the sacred liturgy is a continuation of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ and an expression of His mission to bring about salvation and reconciliation for the whole world.

The Church’s perennial teaching is that the redemptive work of Christ continues in the life of His spouse, the Church, who cooperates concretely in the mission of the Savior through sacramental life. The council states: “Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of the priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,’ but especially under the Eucharistic species” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 7).

The council fathers are able to define the liturgy as “an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ” (No. 7). Through His priestly office Christ is able to sanctify men who are in turn able to fittingly adore God. The liturgy as an action of adoration and sanctification allow men to experience here on earth a foretaste of the glories of heaven and consequently requires from the faithful knowledge and spiritual understanding of what is happening when they are present at the sacred liturgy.


Having established foundational principles for the renewal of the sacred liturgy, the document articulates norms for its renewal based on more general aspects of the nature of the liturgy: the communal nature of the liturgy, catechetical and pastoral aspects of the liturgy.

The document concludes the articulation of norms by mapping out the adaptation of the liturgy to the cultural realities in which it would be celebrated. The remaining sections of the document are given over to a discussion of each of the seven sacraments and sacramental realities beginning with the most holy Eucharist. Here the council fathers offer a re-articulation of traditional Catholic theology regarding each of the sacraments and applying the principles set forth at the beginning of the document.

After addressing each of the seven sacraments, the document addresses the importance of sacred art and furnishings. So, too, the council fathers give attention to the liturgical year, the Divine Office and sacred music.

The significance of Sacrosanctum Concilium comes not only from the comprehensive discussion of the whole of the liturgical life but also from the various misunderstandings about the sacred liturgy that developed as a result of a misreading of the document.

Chief among these misunderstandings regards the “full, conscious, and active participation” of all the faithful. This has been understood more often than not as an exhortation to involve more lay faithful in the work of the liturgy when the document makes no specific reference to how this might be implemented.

Furthermore, having already articulated the importance of tradition in rooting and guiding the renewal of the sacred liturgy, this particular phrase, having already appeared in magisterial documents, involves an interior preparation and awareness and has very little to do with exterior functions.

The document speaks eloquently about the importance of the ongoing use of and formation in the Latin language (see No. 36). While allowing the use of the vernacular in the celebration of the sacred liturgy, there is a clear exhortation for the preservation of the use of Latin in the liturgy.

Finally, while it has become normative to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass facing the congregation, nowhere in the documents was it suggested or mandated that the Church abandon the ancient practice of celebrating holy Mass ad orientem — that is, facing the east.

Clear Directions

While the spirit of Sacrosanctum Concilium has been trumpeted to allow a variety of abuses to sacred celebrations, the document itself has provided the Church with clear directions to better assist all the faithful in fruitful celebrations of the sacred mysteries.

The exhortation for better knowledge of the rites and rituals of the faithful has provided the impetus for many in the post-conciliar period to strive for greater knowledge about the rituals so that they might more deeply penetrate the mysteries celebrated therein. So, too, the exposure to more sacred Scripture has brought the richness of biblical language more comprehensively into the liturgy.

As the Church now moves beyond these historical celebrations and reflections, she is presented with an opportunity to return to the actual content of the document itself and to authentically execute the desire of the council fathers for a deeper appreciation of the Church’s liturgical life. With the pontificates of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, who has publically committed himself and the Church to the liturgical insights and direction of his predecessor, the Church will be able to more authentically engage the dynamics of liturgical renewal articulated by the council.

The understanding of the council fathers that the celebration of the Church’s liturgical life was the source and summit of all her activities is still very much operative today as it was at its promulgation.

What Sacrosanctum Concilium provides, within the framework of restored tradition and sound doctrine, is the opportunity to assist the faithful in experiencing more deeply and richly the incarnate wisdom and love of God.


Msgr. C. Eugene Morris, a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese.