I just recently returned to my home in Maryland after attending the Living the Catholic Faith Conference in Denver, CO where I had the great privilege of delivering an address called “Ten things every Catholic should know about Vatican II.” I’d like to share some of the presentation and my experience with you.
Since so many Catholics have but limited knowledge of Vatican II, the first half of the presentation dealt with the basics – the what, when, why, and how of the Council.
Of these four basic questions, the “why” of the Council is the one I consider to be the most important, because if we don’t know why the Council was called — or put another way, if we don’t know what the Council hoped to accomplish — we are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to interpreting its teachings correctly.
For insight on the Council’s mission, it is helpful to turn to the Opening Address of Pope John XXIII:
The salient point of this Council is not a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church,” the Holy Father told the bishops present in Rome for the Council’s inaugural session. “The sacred deposit of faith has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and is presumed to be well known and familiar to all.
OK… So the sacred deposit of faith is presumably well known by all, but that’s not enough, is it? The answer is no, it’s not. You see, our Catholic faith isn’t just meant to be known, it’s meant to be lived!
And so the Second Vatican Council was called in order to take the timeless truths of our Catholic faith as defined by popes and councils past, and to present them to the world anew; expressing them in ways that modern men and women from all walks of life could most readily understand, and most importantly would find relevant and be able to employ amidst all of the distractions, all of the challenges and indeed all of the new opportunities that exist in the world as we know it.
Now it’s very important we get this right; the Council was called to present the deposit of faith to the world anew — not to present a new deposit of faith to the world; a very big difference and a mistake that far too many people make.
The second half of the presentation was the one that really hit home for those in attendance. It was dedicated to the Council’s view of liturgical reform; a topic that easily could have taken up the entire hour and then some. So getting right to the point I offered the following:
- Removing the altar rails and kneelers from so many of our churches
- Stripping our sacred places of sacred statues, sacred art and other ornamentation
- Getting rid of Gregorian Chant
- Introducing the Folk Mass, and instruments like tambourines and drums
- Inviting parishioners to receive the Most Holy Eucharist in their hands
- Turning the priest around to face the people
- Building new churches to resemble theatres in the round
- Moving the tabernacle from the high altar to places of relative obscurity
- Stripping the Liturgy of the Latin language
What do all of these things have in common? None of them — not one — was even remotely suggested much less encouraged by the Second Vatican Council. Not one.
Some individuals were clearly taken aback to discover that the Council didn’t author these innovations, in fact, one very kind and sweet lady approached me afterwards in tears saying that she was “blown away” by what she had learned.
So why have we moved so far away from the Council’s view of liturgical reform in general — from the elimination of the Latin language, to the introduction of pop music, to a veritable army of laity putting on robes, crowding our sanctuaries, and calling themselves “ministers?”
The reason I suggested to those in attendance is largely this:
We haven’t taken the time to understand what the Council Fathers truly meant by encouraging “fully conscious and active participation on the part of all the faithful in the Sacred Liturgy.”
Given that the Liturgy is “the summit toward which all of the Church’s activity is directed, the font from which all of Her power flows,” (cf SC) and the very centerpiece of our Catholic lives, we spent a little more time on this one topic than any other — more than I can fully relate in this space — but here are some highlights.
The Council Fathers tell us very plainly that pastors of souls “must zealously strive” to promote active participation through “the necessary liturgical instruction” of the faithful.
Now, this instruction does not entail things like telling Agnes to put on the white robe and to join in the opening procession while Walter reads the parish welcome statement. That’s not liturgical instruction; that’s choreography! Yet isn’t this the extent of the instruction that most of us have received in many places over the last forty years?
Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2007 Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, that the kind of instruction the Council had in mind is most properly considered “mystagogical catechesis;” a catechesis that illuminates for us — to the extent that it is possible — the Mass as sacred mystery. It is a liturgical instruction that aids in drawing us in and conforming us in a personal way to the mystery being celebrated; a mystery which is nothing less than the saving action of Jesus Christ Himself.
I think the part that really struck a chord with so many of those present was in learning that fully conscious and active participation in Holy Mass is not a matter of doing things at all; but rather it is participation in nothing less than sacred mystery.
That is why Pope Benedict said in Sacramentum Caritatis, “The active participation called for by the Council must be understood on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated…”
You see, when we boil our participation in Holy Mass down to “doing” alone — and let’s be honest, this has been done ad nauseam since the Council closed – getting caught up in things like reading at the lectern, singing in the choir, carrying up the gifts, serving as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, offering the sign of peace to 27 of our closest neighbors right in the middle of the Mass…
If we confine our understanding of participation to these externals alone, it cannot be said that we are truly engaged in fully conscious and active participation.
Why? The answer is simple; because sacred mystery by its very nature cannot be so confined.
Based on the attendees’ reaction I can say that the Holy Spirit is prodding the “sleeping giant,” as John Paul II often called the laity. Catholics want to know the truth about Vatican II. They want to know what Holy Mass really is. They want to rediscover a sense of the sacred, and they are willing to take steps to do so. There is great reason for hope!
Of the literally hundreds of individuals that spoke with me after the presentation, only one was unhappy with what he heard; a white haired aging little priest who shall remain nameless. He let me know that he found my presentation “very slanted,” but when I asked him if he meant to say “slanted toward what the Council actually taught,” pointing out to him that the Holy Father himself would concur with everything I suggested, he put his cards on the table.
“I don’t agree with the pope; John Paul II and Benedict XVI are not Vatican II popes,” he exclaimed!
I have to say, it really was refreshing. If all dissenters, especially those among the clergy, would only do the same we’d all be better off. At least that way the battle lines would be clearly drawn for all concerned.