Stewards of the Tradition – Fifty Years after Sacrosanctum Concilium
A statement by the Committee on Divine Worship. © 2013 USCCB.

Fundamental and Foundational Principles

Fully half of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy underscored important theological and liturgical principles "for the promotion and reform of the liturgy" (no. 3). In this light, we see the continued importance of the Constitution's principles for promotion and reform (nos. 5-46) in connection with the revised translation of the Roman Missal in 2011 and the ongoing work of the translation of other liturgical books. It is important to reread the entire Constitution through the following four theological and liturgical principles; indeed, they should be kept in mind when studying and celebrating the Liturgy:

  1. The Presence of Christ in the Liturgy (nos. 5-13)
    First and foremost, these paragraphs present Christ as the unique mediator and instrument of our salvation (nos. 5-6). The classical adage from St. Leo the Great is relevant here: "[W]hat was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries" (Sermon 74, 2: PL 54, 398). The following paragraph (no. 7) on the manifold presence of Christ and his priestly action in the Liturgy lays a theological foundation for liturgical ministry, namely, that it is Christ himself who is present and active in the Liturgy: in the priest who acts in persona Christi capitis; in the proclaimed Word (the Scriptures); in the song and prayer of the gathered assembly; and, above all, in the Eucharistic species itself, the Body and Blood of the risen Lord Jesus. This reality of Christ acting in and through us in the liturgical act is a consolation and a grace because it is Christ's work, not ours. It is also a challenge, reminding us that we need to celebrate the Liturgy with care and reverence, so that our ministry reflects Christ himself through the gifts and talents he has given to each of us. At the same time, however, the Church continues to await Christ's return in glory. Even as we encounter Christ present in the Liturgy, indeed because of that, we also look forward to the fulfillment of his Paschal Mystery in the world to come, as we cry out, "Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus."

  2. Liturgical Participation (nos. 14-20)
    One of the Constitution's most influential propositions was its statement that "the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations called for by the very nature of the liturgy" (no. 14). The Liturgy always has been and always will be about our taking part, our experiencing again and again, through rites and prayers, the central events of our redemption and sanctification in Jesus Christ. At various moments in the history of the Liturgy, this participation has taken on different forms, some more visible than others. From as far back as St. Justin Martyr (mid-second century), this interior level of participation has been enacted in the Liturgy through the contribution of a variety of ministries carried on by a variety of ministers. The liturgical reform had as its aim the "full, conscious, and active participation" of the faithful at an interior level that would be manifest in outward signs and tangible expressions. We commend the great strides that have been taken to invite such engagement over the past fifty years: catechesis on the Liturgy that has shaped the role of the liturgical assembly, the service of the faithful in a great variety of liturgical ministries, and the devotion of so many to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. These are but a few of the many signs expressive of our interior renewal and participation. The great care taken in the catechetical preparation for the implementation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, demonstrates that the faithful take their participation seriously as a means to draw closer to Jesus Christ. We encourage continued zeal in fostering such participation in the mysteries we celebrate. Just as Jesus invited the disciples to "put out into deep water" (Lk. 5:4), so each of us is invited to be more "deeply imbued with the spirit of the liturgy" (no. 29).

    In order to enable more readily the participation of the faithful, the Constitution also proposed the simplification of the rites when necessary. Part of the reason for this is to underscore the "noble simplicity" of the Roman rite, which had been encumbered by what were judged to be unnecessary duplications and accretions over the centuries. Because the various signs and symbols are able to speak more clearly, the faithful are able to participate more deeply.

  3. Proclamation of the Word (no. 51)
    One of the greatest graces of the conciliar reform has been the expansion of the biblical texts in the post-conciliar Liturgy. Because the Word of God is truly inspired and, like Christ, both human and divine (cf. Dei Verbum, no. 13), the Church rightly understands it as the soul of theology (cf. Dei Verbum, no. 24). When the Sacred Scripture is proclaimed within the Liturgy, it becomes an ecclesial event of the risen Christ addressing his people. Indeed, the Liturgy "brings about the most perfect actualization of the biblical texts, for the liturgy places the proclamation in the midst of the community of believers, gathered around Christ so as to draw near to God" (Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Section IV, C, 1). With the reform of the Liturgy, the rituals of the sacraments have been enriched by the Liturgy of the Word, which was not previously a regular part of the sacraments. This turn to the Word within the Liturgy has been a key factor in the growth of biblical literacy among Catholics in the past fifty years.

    The foundational and essential character of Scripture drives us to continue "to promote that warm and living love for Scripture" called for by the Constitution (no. 24). The 2012 USCCB document Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily is one recent effort for promoting this love, especially among the clergy. We are grateful for all the ways, great and small, that you have worked to encourage the Word, through bible studies, prayer groups, and personal lectio divina. To paraphrase St. Jerome, to know Scripture is to know Christ, and, therefore, to be well prepared for celebrating the Liturgy more fully and more deeply.

  4. Inculturation and the Liturgy (nos. 37-40)
    One of the many ways in which God's grace in the Liturgy has been made more accessible to the faithful is through various means of inculturation. The Constitution suggested adaptation of the Liturgy to various cultural circumstances in order to foster the participation of the people. Translation of liturgical texts into vernacular languages, for example, has been a monumental success, making the words of the Liturgy more understandable to those present. We should continue to consider ways in which the Liturgy can be legitimately adapted to the various cultures of our people. We also recognize that the Liturgy has a culture all its own, which can have a great influence for good upon society, and each of us must be open to the power of the Liturgy to shape and form our hearts and our lives to be more like Jesus Christ.