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

Rereading Sacrosanctum Concilium in Its Historical Context

As we entered into the Year of Faith, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI invited the Church to attentive reflection on the documents of Vatican II. As we study anew the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, we cannot help but to appreciate it in light of what followed after it at the Council, namely the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). These four constitutions together form the backbone of Vatican II, and should always be seen in relation to each other.

In addition, it is important to recall that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was the fruit of the evolution of the Church's teaching on the Liturgy, especially from the early years of the last century. The reformed Liturgy was the result of extensive historical scholarship and reflection on pastoral needs, and it was carried out by the specially-created Consilium under the direction of the Sacred Congregation of Rites (later to become the Congregation for Divine Worship) and Venerable Pope Paul VI. Among numerous examples, we cite two.

The first example is from the pontificate of Pope St. Pius X, who, in his 1903 landmark statement on music in the Liturgy, Tra le Sollectudini, stated that the purpose of the Liturgy is "the glory of God" and "the sanctification and edification of the faithful" (no. 1). St. Pius X also made the concept of liturgical participation a matter of papal teaching: "[T]he faithful assemble for… acquiring this [true Christian] spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church." This 1903 motu proprio emphasized that music sung by the assembly (in addition to music sung by a choir) was an important means of participation in the Sacred Liturgy. Tra le Sollecitudini clearly set a standard for subsequent magisterial documents.

The second example is that of Venerable Pope Pius XII, who believed the liturgical movement was a sign of God's providential work and a movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church, drawing the faithful closer to the mysteries of the faith and the riches of grace that flow from active participation in the Liturgy (cf. Discourse to the Participants in the First International Congress of Pastoral Liturgy at Assisi, September 22, 1956: AAS 48 [1956], 712). Pope Pius XII undertook some revision himself in a particular way with the restoration of the rites of Holy Week and the Easter Vigil (1951-56). Two of this Pope's many encyclicals—Mediator Dei (1947), on the Sacred Liturgy, and Mystici Corporis Christi (1943), on the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ—were highly influential on the thinking that undergirded the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, and, in fact, were valuable building blocks for its drafting.

We believe that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy should be understood as a "keystone," with both a history leading to it and other developments flowing from it.  For example, the praenotandae (introductions) to all the rites as revised after Vatican II are important sources for theological, liturgical, and pastoral teaching on the contents of the revised rites. In addition, other magisterial documents on the Liturgy since Vatican II continue to shed light on the Constitution's vision of the Sacred Liturgy. For instance, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Blessed John Paul II's Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), the Instruction of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), and the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortations of Pope Benedict XVI—Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), on the Eucharist in the Life and Mission of the Church, and Verbum Domini (2010), on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church—are examples of the ongoing authoritative teaching about the Sacred Liturgy and the celebration of the Eucharist, all in continuity with Sacrosanctum Concilium.