Vatican II, 40 Years Later: "Sacrosanctum Concilium"

Monsignor Peter Elliott on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

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MELBOURNE, Australia, MAY 1, 2003 ( Forty years after the Second Vatican Council, ZENIT is asking Church leaders and prominent laity to reflect on some of the main documents of the gathering.

Here, ZENIT spoke with Monsignor Peter Elliott about «Sacrosanctum Concilium,» the pastoral constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

Monsignor Elliott is the author of «Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite» and «Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year,» widely used manuals published by Ignatius Press. He is episcopal vicar for religious education, professor at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, and a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

Q: What were some of the good things that «Sacrosanctum Concilium» produced?

Monsignor Elliott: The council document was the mandate for post-conciliar liturgical reform and most of the reforms are good, especially better celebrations of the sacraments, concelebration, the reform of the Divine Office and the wider use of the vernacular.

Q: Why did liturgy go awry so much in the post-conciliar era?

Monsignor Elliott: Basically, the work of the liturgical movement and Pius XII in «Mediator Dei» on the meaning and spirit of the liturgy was not properly assimilated before the council.

The opening doctrinal section of «Sacrosanctum Concilium» is brief, because it presupposes «Mediator Dei.» Then, after the council, the «changes» were brought in an authoritarian way, hastily, often without respect for popular piety and what people valued. Extremists and cranks soon moved in, experimenting, innovating and pushing people around. They moved many altars but not so many hearts.

I also believe that some changes to the Mass went beyond what the council Fathers envisaged in «Sacrosanctum Concilium,» and this is the very area where we still encounter problems. We also need to remember that the late 1960s and 1970s was an era of cultural modernism, marked by overconfidence, radical chic and bad taste.

Q: Are the liturgical problems behind us?

Monsignor Elliott: There has been some stabilization and the revised Roman Missal and General Instruction should help, but there are still widespread problems — sloppy ceremonial, verbosity, vulgar music, disobedience and sheer ignorance.

In some areas, in Australia for example, Church «renovators» are still destroying our patrimony and alienating people. These renovators are rushing their projects through before the Catholic people discover what is in the revised directives — for example, the location of the tabernacle.

I hope that the Vox Clara committee will put one problem behind us — the poor English translations. We have suffered 30 years of banal and inaccurate texts. That scandal is on par with the mistranslated vernacular Bibles that spread errors at the time of the Reformation. It has played into the hands of the Lefebvrists and it is a major source of banal liturgy in English-speaking countries.

Q: Would rapprochement with the Eastern Churches help the liturgy in the West?

Monsignor Elliott: I would hope so, because we have much to learn from the East a sense of mystery, transcendence, the liturgy as a taste of heaven. The Eastern Churches also understand the liturgy as an action, both divine and human.

In the West we often want to control, plan, even manipulate worship, so it centers more on us than on God. Liturgy becomes what we do, rather than the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.

Q: One observer suggested that the liturgy should have been the last thing changed after Vatican II, rather than the first thing. Is this a fair observation?

Monsignor Elliott: Not really, because this is an academic hypothesis. The historical reality was otherwise. The liturgical movement and reforms initiated by Pius XII converged with the pastoral needs of mission territories, and that made liturgical reform a priority for Blessed John XXIII and the council Fathers.

Unfortunately, when people think of Vatican II they focus on liturgical change because that was the visible effect of the council they experienced in parishes. They should not forget the other great achievements of the council, such as the universal call to holiness, collegiality, ecumenism, the permanent diaconate and a richer theology of marriage.

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