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Celebrating Liturgica Music

Vatican II Reforms

Forces leading up to the Council

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries liturgical scholarship flourished providing a much better understanding of the history of liturgy. Many older manuscripts were discovered and interpreted, shedding light on the earlier forms of celebration. The science of comparative liturgics emerged where the various forms of Western liturgy were studied alongside Byzantine and other Eastern traditions. This led scholars to see the common roots of all Christian worship and to desire a return to purer, more primitive forms. This scholarship indicated that the liturgy of the Council of Trent was unlike earlier liturgies in some of its characteristics, and prominent scholars, such as Joseph Jungmann, began to recommend liturgical reform.

In the 1950's a series of reforms of the liturgies of Holy Week were promulgated by Pope Pius XII. Older, more traditional forms of these celebrations replaced the late medieval versions of the Missal of Pius V; in general, this restoration was well received. It also became apparent that the extreme inflexibility of the Tridentine liturgy left no way to adapt the celebrations to changing conditions of a later age. In addition, there were many who called for the use of the vernacular languages since it proved pastorally effective in Orthodox and Protestant churches. Despite these factors, there was no immediate crisis that caused a general call for a council of reform.

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The Second Vatican Council

In a move that came as a total surprise, the newly elected Pope John XXIII called for a general council of the Catholic Church on January 25, 1959. In its first session in 1962, this Pope set a tone of extreme openness in debate and a pastoral approach to reforms. The scope of topics discussed was so broad as to defy a brief summary; three of the more important areas were the relationship of the Catholic Church with other Christian denominations, the increased role of the laity in the ministry of the Church, and a complete reform of the liturgy. When the council closed in 1965 under the leadership of Pope Paul VI, it had produced 16 extensive documents.

The council's liturgical document, "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," was one of the first issued and its principles were implemented even while the council was still in session. It was the first time in history such extensive revisions in liturgical practice were made all at once. The far ranging reforms called for a restoration of traditional forms of liturgy while at the same time allowing for adaptations for modern pastoral needs. This document was quite explicit in calling for changes that would allow the congregation to participate fully in the liturgical action rather than being silent spectators.

To accomplish the first goal restoring traditional forms, the Constitution prescribed a simplification of liturgical rites so their original structure could become clear, especially by removing accretions from later periods of history. It also reinstated the normal use of traditional liturgical ministries of deacon[1], reader and acolyte. In terms of style it called for the avoidance of repetition and long prayer texts in the spirit of Roman simplicity and sobriety.

At the same time the Constitution prescribed some rather innovative changes in the spirit of serving the pastoral needs in a modern age with many different cultures using the Roman rite. Although it called for a retention of Latin as a language of worship, it recommended the use of vernacular languages where they would be pastorally helpful. While maintaining the traditional lectionary system of Scripture reading, it provided for an innovation where the readings were distributed among a three year system (instead of a single year) so that people could become familiar with a wider number of Biblical passages. In contrast to the Council of Trent, the Constitution allowed for flexibility in creating variations and adaptions of ritual elements.

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The Missal of Paul VI

The changes envisioned by the Constitution of Sacred liturgy were embodied in the Missal of Paul VI promulgated in 1969. Ironically, the use of a "missal" — a single book collecting all the texts for the celebration of Mass — was made obsolete as a ritual book by its promulgation. The new rite reinstated the use of the traditional liturgical books: the sacramentary, lectionary, and chant books, so that the missal now became a reference rather than a book actually used for celebration.

The Mass of Paul the VI restored one ancient element that had been missing from the Roman liturgy since the time of Gregory I — the intercessory prayers concluding the Liturgy of the Word described by Justin Martyr in 150 A.D. Rather than prescribe a particular text, it allowed individual communities to write intercessory prayers based on local needs for each celebration concluded with a collect prayer improvised or composed by the presider. Interestingly, the model forms of the intercession given in the new missal are in the style of the Byzantine litany form rather than the old Roman form of intercession found in the liturgy of Good Friday throughout the history of the Roman Rite. In general, there are many optional elements which are chosen depending on the pastoral situation, such as the various forms of the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass.

The new missal provided a number of new Eucharistic Prayers for the presider to choose from in addition to traditional Roman Canon. One is a reworking of the ancient Eucharist Prayer of Hippolytus. In all the Eucharistic Prayers the epiclesis is more explicit, but retains the traditional Roman split form of calling down the Holy Spirit on both the gifts and the people. The communion and concluding rites retain the same form that had been in use since the time of Gregory I, although the medieval accretion of the "Last Gospel" was suppressed.

Although the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy called for the continued use of Latin along with the optional use of vernacular texts, it gave no clear indication which parts should ordinarily be said or sung in Latin. Due to the great popularity of vernacular worship, very many parishes use Latin sparingly, if at all.

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Music Since Vatican II

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy recommends the continued use of Gregorian Chant while admitting other musical styles. The Missal of Paul the VI gives the option of using all the traditional Gregorian proper chants, but allows for very general alternatives, such as the rubric for the entrance chant: "The antiphon and psalm of the Graduale Romanum or The Simple Gradual may be used, or another song that is suited to this part of the Mass, the day, or the season, and that has a text approved by the [local] conference of bishops."[2] The great latitude in choice is amplified in that some conferences of bishops have not provided a set of approved texts, but instead have published elaborate guidelines in choosing such texts and music, as in the US Bishops' document, "Music in Catholic Worship."[3]

Taking almost the opposite approach of the regulations of the Council of Trent, the Vatican II liturgical documents present many options to be determined by the local church, the presider and other ministers at a particular celebration of liturgy. This allows great pastoral flexibility, but at the same time assumes the documents have been studied carefully by those thoroughly imbued with the spirit of liturgical tradition. Unfortunately, choices are often made with little attention to the documents, invoking the general permissive "spirit" of the Vatican II reforms. While some communities celebrate liturgy with great care using the traditional Gregorian repertoire and other forms of music sharing its character, very many parishes use a variety of songs of poor quality that seem to have little connection with any liturgical tradition.

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Selected Bibliography

The Documents of Vatican II: with Notes and Comments by Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Authorities. Ed. Walter M. Abbott, trans. by Joseph Gallagher. Piscataway, NJ, 1966.

The Liturgy Documents: A Parish Resource, Third Edition. Ed. Elizabeth Hoffman, et al. Chicago, 1991.

The New American Sunday Missal. Ed. Bernard Benziger. Cleveland, 1975 [An English translation of Sunday and holy day texts of the Missal of Paul VI.]


Joseph Metzinger

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[1] The restoration of the diaconate was the result of another Vatican II document, "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," usually referenced by its Latin incipit, Lumen gentium.

[2] General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Par. 27. reprinted in The Liturgy Documents, Third Edition, edited by Elizabeth Hoffman, et. al. Chicago, 1991.

[3] See pages 277-312 in collection cited above.