I have been asked to share some of the articles I wrote this year (2013) as a member of the Beatitudes’ Vatican II Committee, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II. This first reflection is about "Vatican II and the Liturgy." 

Recently this month, our own Mary Becker graciously announced after Mass how grateful she was for our wonderful Beatitudes community. She had gone to a reunion at her alma mater, St. Mary’s College, and had heard many stories from her classmates who did not have the same good fortune in their parish liturgies. These women felt that the Church's hierarchy — beginning with Pope John Paul II and continuing under Pope Benedict XVI — had been suppressing many of the profound changes made to the liturgy at Vatican II. It need not have been so.

In his inaugural address (“Mother Church Rejoices,” 1962), John XXIII expressed his deep convictions regarding the nature and history of past councils and their centrality in the life of the Church. He hoped that Vatican II would address the issues and needs of the modern era. Indeed, this Council was among “the most ambitious and significant acts of the Catholic Church in the modern era.”

It may surprise some readers to learn that liturgical reform was not invented with Vatican II, fifty years ago. It started during the reign of Pius X (1903-1914), who promoted increased participation of the laity at Mass, and the revival of Gregorian chant. He especially encouraged young children to receive the Eucharist more frequently. Dom Lambert Beauduin, at the same time (in the early 1900s), worked to understand and renew the role of the liturgy as the principal prayer for all the baptized.

Remember how Mass used to be?  Since 1570 — and until Vatican II, the Tridentine Mass had been solidly in Latin.  Although universally offered, it was really only popularly received by Romans and others well schooled in Latin.  It was often weighed down with votive accretions and repetitions of prayers for the dead, to the saints, and to the Blessed Virgin, most of which were in the vernacular.

Many of us in the Beatitudes community grew up with the idea of a "sanctuary" behind the altar rail, off limits to laypersons. Inside that sacred precinct, the priest recited his Mass in Latin, facing the altar (away from the people). The congregation made some Latin responses (like "Et cum spirtu tuo," which altar boys [no girls allowed] joked about, as the answer to the question "What's the Pope's phone number?"), but otherwise remained totally silent. Some quietly prayed rosaries. Communion was on the tongue only and received kneeling at the altar rail.

The Council discussed liturgical reform for almost a month in the fall of 1962 — in its entirety and by chapters — and in each vote, resisted the opposition of the traditionalist minority: “the Council fathers were… becoming aware of their role and of the vast and unforeseen horizons of the Council itself.” Thus they adopted the use of vernacular language for most of the liturgy as an important way of “reestablishing contact with the common people, of proposing the gospel message in a comprehensible way…the local Church, or diocese, regaining its centrality as an authentic Christian community in which the profession of faith transcends the level of the individual….”

The Eucharist, which had been overly emphasized in the Tridentine Mass, became coounterbalanced by a new emphasis on the liturgy of the Word — reading and explaining the texts from scripture, most notably with Old Testament readings being proclaimed for the first time. Before it was over, the altar rails were removed and the priest said Mass behind the altar facing the people. He learned to give communion in the hand, and under both species (bread and wine) for those who wished.

The Council continued successfully to complete its work on Revelation, The Church in the World, The Church itself, its External Relations, The People of God, and its Mission; the Council bishops were ecstatic. But the American Catholic writer, James Carroll, raises this troubling point:

Yet Vatican II so dramatically failed to fulfill its promise that it registers very little in common memory today, even among Catholics whose faith it was meant to transform. Nevertheless, the changes it initiated were profound, and their current still runs below the surface of an uncertain church. For Catholics like me, the council retains life-shaping significance. Aside from the blessings of family, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Far more importantly, Vatican II, from its half-forgotten place in the past, still points to an urgently needed Catholic renewal.

And why was Mary Becker’s Beatitudes church so special in its profound espousal of Vatican II principles? See Part II, coming next.

— Ann McLennan


Books consulted:

  • Giuseppe Alberigo, A Brief History of Vatican II. Orbis Press, Maryknoll, New York: 2006.
  • Richard R. Gaillardetz, Catherine E. Clifford, Keys to the Council, Collegeville, Minnesota: 2012.
  • James Carroll, “The Catholic Church’s Lost Revolution,” Opinion, Boston Globe, September 3, 2012.