Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



Peace Be With You

"The New Roman Missal: A Time of Renewal - Part One: Where It All Began"


by Bishop Blase J. Cupich

(From the Aug. 18, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)

(This fall we will begin using a new version of the Roman Missal for Mass with a new translation. This will be the first major change in the language used for Mass since the Second Vatican Council. Bishops have been encouraged to seize this moment as a fresh opportunity to deepen the liturgical renewal begun by the Council 40 years ago.

Over these next three issues of the Inland Register I want to provide an historical overview of the issues and circumstances that led to the renewal of the liturgy by the Second Vatican Council. Understanding our past will help us better appreciate how this present moment is but another step in the trajectory of renewal initiated by the Council. It will also help to keep us focused on the authentic principles of liturgical renewal, allowing us to continue the work begun nearly a half century ago.)

Part One: Renewal of the Church through Renewal of the Liturgy

Why did the bishops at the Second Vatican Council call for a renewal of the liturgy?

Simply put, the bishops believed it was the best way to reinvigorate the Church. Nowhere is this link between the reform of the Church and the renewal of the liturgy more clearly stated than in the opening paragraph of the Constitution on the Liturgy, the document outlining the liturgical reforms. This is what they said in this first document of the Council:

This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.

The point is clear. The bishops at the Council were primarily concerned about reforming the Church so that she could be faithful and effective in proclaiming Christ to the modern world. Yet, they understood that the reform of the Church had to begin with a renewal of the Church’s prayer and worship.

It is important to recall that for various historical reasons, the Church was becoming increasingly isolated from world events, or at least it appeared so. Some expressed the concern that the only time the Church seemed to engage the world was to offer criticism or condemnation. Pope John XXIII and many bishops called for a new approach to the world.

For the Church to be a credible “light to the nations,” it had to stress its solidarity with the human family and reach out to it with love and concern. It was time to replace the medicine of severity with the medicine of mercy, as the elderly pope said at the opening session of the Council in 1962. The bishops reclaimed the importance of this witness as part of the Church’s mission to the world. In speaking to the world they made it clear that believers in Christ share with the members of the human family the same joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of this age.

The reform of the liturgy thus became the means to more fully express, build up and sustain the Church as a community of faith for its own benefit and as a witness of human solidarity for the world.

Perhaps the most noticeable result of this new emphasis on the communal nature of the Church and its witness of solidarity came with the development of new designs by Church architects. Their plans for renovations and new churches gave greater attention to the needs of the assembly as it gathered and worshiped as the Body of Christ.

In particular, the design and location of the altar was changed to reflect this. Once distanced from the people and in an area off-limits to them, the altar was now to be designed and situated so that people could understand that at Mass, Christ takes the initiative. He, in the symbol of the altar, gathers the people around as members of His Body to join in His offering of praise to the Father.

The deep divisions among Christians was a another challenge facing the Church. It could no longer be dismissed as a non-action item, as though the Catholic Church could just bide its time and wait for non-Catholics to make the first move and return to the fold. This approach would not do. The discord among Christians was undermining the spread of the Gospel and giving scandal to the world. Worse yet, it openly contradicted the will of Christ, who prayed on the night before He died that “they all may be one.”

To move ahead in this area, and make the proclamation of the Gospel more effective, the active promotion of Christian unity had to become part of the Church’s self-understanding of what it means to be faithful to Christ.

As a result, Catholics were encouraged to gather with our “separated brothers and sisters” in prayer and non-Eucharistic forms of worship. In this new ecumenical environment, various liturgical reforms considered at the Council of Trent but rejected lest they be interpreted as a compromise to those attacking the Church (e.g., Communion from the cup and Mass in the vernacular), could now be reassessed on their own merits.

The Church also faced the challenges of adapting to the changes in the world order in those times. The world was no longer going to be dominated by the West. Colonialism had given way to the emergence of new nations in Asia, Africa and South America.

The Council responded by calling the Church to a new openness toward these non-western cultures, particularly when it came to worship. The Church now considered it important to pursue inculturation. This meant reexamining and being open to how the spirituality of these cultures and traditions could legitimately contribute to the worship of Catholics in these emerging nations and to the universal Church. The former rule of strict and rigid uniformity in the liturgy now gave way to an openness to legitimate diversity.

Finally, perhaps the most serious challenge facing the Church was internal, the need to invigorate the Christian life of each individual believer. Many bishops were becoming increasingly concerned that a good number of Catholics were questioning the significance of the Christian faith and religious practice.

Such doubts arose particularly in Europe following two brutal world wars, fought for the most part between “Christian countries.” People wondered if faith and religion really mattered. How could it be that the Gospel of Christ, the Prince of Peace, preached and celebrated among these people for nearly 2000 years, did not have a greater impact on these “Christian nations”? Many asked: “Does it really matter if we are disciples of Christ if this is how we treat each other?”

The goal of reinvigorating the faith lives of Catholics, however, could only begin by reconnecting the spiritual lives of people to the liturgy.

Over the centuries, a split developed in this regard. Literally and figuratively, the laity became distanced from the public worship of the Church. The priest did virtually everything.

The rites were in a language unknown to most. The accumulation of ritual actions, many of which had their origins in the royal courts of Europe, made the meaning of rites even less accessible to the common person. The people were reduced to passive attendance as silent spectators.

As a result, the sacramental life of the Church was no longer, at least in practice, the primary source of nourishment for the spiritual life of people. Instead of relying on the transforming power of the Eucharist as the source of their spiritual lives, people did their best to find nourishment in individualistic piety and personal devotions.

In view of this, it is not surprising that the bishops called for a renewal of the liturgical life of the Church that would lead to the full, active and conscious participation of the faithful.

This would require both reform and restoration. The reform began with the call for a return to the noble simplicity of the Roman rite. Those features that had crept in over time had to be removed so that the rites would be short, clear, not weighed down by useless repetitions.

The aim was to make sure that ordinary people could understand what is going on without much explanation. But, it was also important to return to those forms of worship which the Church had in its rich treasury of liturgical tradition of the Roman rite.

This restoration came in a variety of ways: the revival of Holy Week services, the Rites of Christian Initiation and the Easter Vigil, the reestablishment of the Liturgy of the Word with a greater selection of Scripture readings, the return of ministries by the laity at Mass.

These forms and aspects of the Roman rite served the Church well over the ages as a perennial source of nourishment for the spiritual lives of believers and needed to be restored. As a result, when the renewal as reform and restoration took place, the Church was able to honestly say that the reformed Mass was both a witness to an unbroken tradition of the Roman rite and an improvement on the former one (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 2000, #6).

This overview of the history behind the liturgical renewal shows how the reforms familiar to us today can be traced back to some very concrete challenges facing the pope and the bishops a half century ago. It was their decision to address these important issues that led them to embark on the path of liturgical renewal.

Or, to put it another way, it would be a mistake to think that the renewal of the liturgy was just a matter of tinkering with some formalities by introducing a few ritual and ceremonial changes, giving the Church a liturgical facelift, or modernizing the Mass. This was not about change for the sake of change. The reform of the liturgy is but the first step in a renewal of the entire Church as it continues on its pilgrimage throughout the ages with its mission to be a “light to the nations.”

Next month we will look at the status of the liturgical renewal thus far. Without question, the agenda of the renewal is still with us. We should not be surprised by this as we take into consideration the very complex history of the renewal and the serious challenges the Church realized it would face in this modern era.

We also have to admit candidly that there have been some bumps in the road along the way. We have faced some difficulties during this time of liturgical renewal through misunderstanding, abuse and some resistance.

At the same time, as the late and now Blessed Pope John Paul II noted in his letter marking the 25th anniversary of the Constitution on the Liturgy, these difficulties “should not lead anyone to forget that the vast majority of the pastors and the Christian people have accepted the liturgical reform in a spirit of obedience and indeed joyful fervor. For this we should give thanks to God for that movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church which the liturgical renewal represents.”

That encouraging note should be kept in mind as we move forward with the renewal of both the liturgy and the Church in our time.


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