Sixty years ago Monday, Pope St. Paul VI promulgated the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium.
The final version of Sacrosanctum concilium was approved on Nov. 22, 1963, the day of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The Council fathers voted in favor of its promulgation, on Dec. 4, by 2,147 votes to 4.
Of the 16 documents of Vatican II, Sacrosanctum concilium has had arguably the most direct impact on the lives of Catholics around the world due to its focus on the liturgy.
The text set in train a series of momentous events that have affected generations of Catholics, including the promulgation of a revised rite of the Mass in 1969, the wide-scale reordering of churches, and a bitter, decades-long “liturgy war” between supporters of the pre- and post-conciliar rubrics.
Throughout, Catholics have debated to what extent changes have reflected the intentions of the Council Fathers as expressed in Sacrosanctum concilium. That discussion continues to this day.
So, what did the constitution say? And how does it still shape the Church’s understanding of the liturgy in the 21st century?
Here are six highlights to mark the text’s 60th anniversary.
The liturgy and Christ’s priesthood
“Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members” — Sacrosanctum concilium, 7.
Pope Francis repeatedly referred to this section of the constitution in his 2022 apostolic letter on liturgical formation, Desiderio desideravi.
He wrote that it “beautifully” captured the “theological sense” of the liturgy, with its emphasis on “the priesthood of Christ, revealed to us and given in his Paschal Mystery, rendered present and active by means of signs addressed to the senses (water, oil, bread, wine, gestures, words), so that the Spirit, plunging us into the paschal mystery, might transform every dimension of our life, conforming us more and more to Christ.”
He also cited it in his discussion of the ars celebrandi, or art of celebrating the liturgy. He said that the expression’s “sense becomes clear if we refer to the theological sense of the liturgy described in Sacrosanctum concilium n. 7.”
Font and summit
“…the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows — Sacrosanctum concilium, 10.
This passage was echoed in another Vatican II constitution, 1964’s Lumen gentium, which described the Eucharistic sacrifice as “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life.” This was, in turn, cited by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which famously described the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life.”
“Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” — Sacrosanctum concilium, 14.
Pope Benedict XVI dedicated a whole section of his 2007 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum caritatis to the interpretation of “active participation,” a translation of the Latin phrase actuosa participatio.
The German pope said that “participation” had sometimes been misunderstood as referring “to mere external activity during the celebration.” In fact, he wrote, “the active participation called for by the Council must be understood in more substantial terms, on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to daily life.”
The role of bishops
“Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop” — Sacrosanctum concilium, 22.
This statement is the first of the “general norms” established by the Council Fathers in a section of the constitution dedicated to “the reform of the Sacred Liturgy.”
Benedict XVI cited the passage in his letter to the world’s bishops accompanying the 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum. He told the bishops that his new norms on the celebration of the Mass prior to the reform of 1970 did “not in any way lessen your own authority and responsibility, either for the liturgy or for the pastoral care of your faithful.”
He added: “Each bishop, in fact, is the moderator of the liturgy in his own diocese.”
“In the motu proprio,” Francis wrote. “I have desired to affirm that it is up to the bishop, as moderator, promoter, and guardian of the liturgical life of the Church of which he is the principle of unity, to regulate the liturgical celebrations.”
Revising the rite of Mass
“The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, may be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved” — Sacrosanctum concilium, 50.
Pope Paul VI cited this passage in his 1969 apostolic constitution Missale Romanum, promulgating the new revised version of the Roman Missal, which contains the text of Masses celebrated in the Roman Rite.
Sixty years on, liturgical scholars continue to discuss this critical sentence’s precise meaning and remain divided over whether it was calling for an expansive liturgical revolution or a modest evolution.
“Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise” — Sacrosanctum concilium, 83.
This declaration comes at the start of a chapter dedicated to the Divine Office, or Liturgy of Hours — a reminder that the constitution tackled many other important topics besides the Mass (including the liturgical year, sacred music, and sacred art).
Bishop Erik Varden, a Trappist monk and the Prelate of Trondheim in Norway, told The Pillar that the passage struck him as “the most essential part of Sacrosanctum concilium.”
“It is a wonderful, endlessly fascinating statement,” he said via email Dec. 4. “By means of it the Second Vatican Council reminded us that liturgical worship is essentially mystic incorporation — through Christ, with him, and in him — into the ineffable communion of the Blessed Trinity.”
“This theological dimension must ever remain a criterion for liturgical practice, even more for liturgical change. It reminds us that the liturgy is not a human project; it is a work of divine transformation, a novitiate for eternity.”