This year marks 60 years since the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s landmark Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

To mark the 60th anniversary of the document, the ACU Centre for Liturgy is hosting Prof John Baldovin SJ, Professor of Historical and Liturgical Theology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry in Massachusetts, to give a lecture on the legacy of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the ways it has been received and implemented by the Church over the past 60 years.

In his lecture, Prof Baldovin will explore this theme by looking at the history of liturgical reform, whether the constitution has been faithfully received, and how Pope Francis’ recent statements on liturgical reform fit into this context.

In the lead-up to his arrival in Melbourne, Prof Baldovin spoke with us, offering some thoughts on Sacrosanctum Concilium and how Catholics can faithfully receive it today.

John Baldovin
Professor John Baldovin SJ. Supplied.

The history of liturgical reform: a sketch

The movement to reform the liturgy has a long and involved history, and it’s one we should appreciate when approaching the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

‘The reform didn’t just spring up out of nothing,’ Prof Baldovin says. ‘The movement really started in the 19th century among the Benedictines and then it took off with Pope Pius X, who had great interest in reviving both Gregorian Chant—which had fallen into a bad state—and frequent Communion for younger people.’

In some ways, though, the modern reform of the liturgy has even deeper roots than that, he points out. ‘If you look at what Pope Pius V tried to do with the Missal of the Council of Trent [c.1570], he said that we need to go back to the sources, look at the sources and see what we can find there to help reform the Mass.’

‘Well, they didn’t have the historical tools to do that,’ Prof Baldovin explains. ‘Modern historical research really hadn’t started, at least as we understand it. But by the mid–20th century there was an enormous amount of work that had been done.’

Another major step in the reform movement came with Pope Pius XII, who in 1947 issued the encyclical Mediator Dei on the liturgy. While this dealt with broad theological principles, there were a lot of details requiring attention, Prof Baldovin says, and for this the Pope established a liturgical commission. Some of the fruits of this were the reform of Holy Week liturgies and the Easter Vigil, and changes in fasting requirements before Mass.

‘So, there was a lot going on, even before the council,’ he says.

One of the reasons there was a movement for reform was because of widespread abuses in the pre–Vatican II liturgies. Prof Baldovin remembers as a child how often Holy Communion was not distributed at the actual time of Communion. ‘It was distributed either before Mass or after Mass. Or, while the priest was praying the eucharistic prayer, another priest would come out to the tabernacle, retrieve the Blessed Sacrament and start distributing Holy Communion.’

‘There was no logical connection—and that’s the way liturgy works—no logical, visual connection between the priest’s communion and the people’s communion,’ he says.

What the liturgical reforms wanted to restore were the fundamental meanings and symbolism of the Mass that had been so widely eroded—not simply for the sake of symbolism either, but so that the Church could receive the fullness of grace that was on offer in the Mass.

Recovering the vision

In the period following Vatican II, however, there were also deep and widespread abuses of the liturgy. Even following the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s Novus Ordo Missae in 1969 (the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite popularly in use today), the vision of Sacrosanctum Concilium was not received, he says.

‘I maintain—and this is my opinion—that it wasn’t the reform that was the problem but the way it was actually put into practice,’ Prof Baldovin says. ‘Because in the mid-1960s, all hell broke loose culturally, for lots of reasons … A lot of people thought they could do whatever they wanted to, that this was carte blanche, total freedom to do whatever you want.’

‘Let me put it this way: it’s not that the reform has been tried and failed. It hasn’t been tried. It hasn’t been adequately tried,’ he says.

During his lecture, Prof Baldovin plans to engage with a range of perspectives on this point, believing that lively debate on the issue is important.

One of the major theological points that Sacrosanctum Concilium brings to the fore, something that is often forgotten, he says, is that ‘The liturgy is the act of Christ first.’ It is Christ acting in and through his Body, the Church, to sanctify it and make it holy.

‘This goes right back to St Augustine,’ he explains. ‘This is nothing new or newfangled or anything of that sort … It’s an action of Christ in the Body of Christ.’

The constitution puts it like this:

Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ … in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members. From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree (§7).

Prof Baldovin says that, following this principle, we can see why the constitution also placed great emphasis on the ‘active participation’ of the faithful.

Because the liturgy is first and foremost the act of Christ, who sanctifies his Body, it is important that the people participate ‘fully aware’ of what’s going on. In and through the liturgy, Christ acts as the supreme font of grace from which his people can drink. As the constitution says, ‘in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain (§11).’

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While Christ is present in a ‘pre-eminent’ way in the Eucharist, he is also present in the ministry of the priest, the assembly of the people and in the Scriptures as they are proclaimed. One of the things that the reformed liturgy gave us, Prof Baldovin says, is more Scripture.

Instead of this rich theological vision, very often we have tended to ‘trivialise’ the liturgy, he says, making it ‘casual’ or ‘flippant’ in the name of enculturation.

‘There’s absolutely no question that holiness and reverence [are] the bottom line,’ he explains. This is why one of the things Pope Francis focused so much attention on in his recent apostolic letter Desiderio desideravi was the ‘art of celebration’, because when the liturgy is not celebrated reverently, the assembly is ‘robbed’ of the fullness of what is on offer (DD, §23).

Receiving the liturgy as a gift

With all the talk about reforming the liturgy, and with the sometimes heated debate about it, it’s very easy to forget what the liturgy is.

Prof Baldovin encourages us to ‘receive the liturgy as a gift from God, not as the creation of our own hands. It’s received from God.’

If Catholics want to live out the vision of Sacrosanctum Concilium in their own lives, he says, one of the ways they can do this is by learning to receive the liturgy as a gift, as the font of grace that it is, celebrating it ‘as reverently and as carefully as humanly possible’.

Prof John Baldovin’s upcoming lecture, ‘A Liturgical Reform in Peril? Sacrosanctum Concilium sixty years on‘ will take place in the Julien O’Connell Lecture Theatre at ACUs Melbourne campus at 5pm this Sunday 3 December. You can register to attend here. The event is free and open to the public.