Liturgy Matters — 50th anniversary of liturgical changes

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

What important event happened 50 years ago this month?

Most of us are aware that this year is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. His life and tragic death has been the subject of countless stories and documentaries. Those of us old enough to remember recall exactly where we were and what we were doing at the time.

However there was another event that took place 50 years ago that is arguably one of the most significant liturgical events in history. On Dec. 4, 1963, the Second Vatican Council, the College of Bishops with the pope, the highest teaching authority of any in the church, released the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (CSL). This document more than any other before or since has impacted the way we celebrate Mass, most profoundly for the laity.

What are some of these significant elements?

  • We can participate in the Mass as more than a “silent spectator” (CSL 14, 48).
    The CSL called for the full, conscious and active participation of all the people, their right and their duty by reason of their baptism (14). Prior to that time, the people in the pew were silent during the entire Mass: no responses, no communal prayers and no sung parts. Only the servers or the choir responded to the priest’s dialogues or sang parts of the Mass.
    Today our participation is not only verbal and musical but our posture and gesture contribute to our active involvement as well.
    Perhaps more importantly, the CSL called for “conscious” participation, stressing the importance of catechesis so we could be fully engaged in mind and heart (11, 19). We understand that the Mass is communal prayer, celebrated by the Body of Christ, the church, with Christ our Head and not by the priest alone (7, 26, and 27). The texts of the Mass are plural, “we, “us,” “our.” The priest addresses them to the Father in our name.
  • The liturgy may be celebrated in the vernacular, the language of the people, instead of Latin only.
    In order for the people in all parts of the world to engage in the liturgy the CSL stressed the importance of a spirit of inculturation beginning with the language of the liturgy itself. The constitution pointed out that hearing the texts of prayer and Scripture in their own languages and being able to respond would be a great advantage. The CSL called for the extended use of the “mother tongue” in each country (36).
  • We understand Christ’s presence in the liturgy not only in the consecrated bread and wine and in the priest celebrant, but also in the sacraments, the proclamation of Scripture and in the church itself, the Body of Christ (7).
    This expansion of our understanding of how we experience Christ when we celebrate the liturgy enriches our faith and helps us to see the liturgy as the “source and summit” of all activity of the church (10). For example, when we hear the readings, it is not the lector’s, deacon’s or priest’s words we hear but the word of God.

The constitution called for an increase in the amount of Scripture we hear at Mass (51). Prior to this we heard just two readings from Scripture during Mass, the Epistle and the Gospel and the same set of readings was proclaimed each year on the given Sunday. With the introduction of a new Lectionary in 1971, the amount of Scripture we heard was dramatically increased. There were now three readings and a responsorial Psalm each Sunday, as well as an expanded three-year cycle of readings proclaimed in the language people could understand.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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