The Liturgy Prior to Vatican II and The Council’s Reforms

The State of the Liturgy Prior to Vatican II

Although the liturgical renewal had percolated for approximately sixty years prior to Vatican II, it had had little impact on the laity in the parish setting. The vast majority of Catholic faithful recognized that they were attending the all-holy sacrifice of the Mass, and that they were receiving the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. The Mass did create an awe and reverence among the faithful. However, for the most part, they had the mindset of being observers of a great mystery. Only the priest (along with the altar boys) was seen as actively engaged in the Eucharist rite. Except at the consecration of bread and wine, when the faithful adored the elevated sacred species, accompanied by the ringing of bells, many of the faithful engaged in their own personal forms of prayer. They had little sense of asking forgiveness of their sins during the opening penitential rite, nor did they consciously offer themselves to the Father in union with Jesus during the offertory. There was little or no engagement with the scripture readings. Likewise, unless they were following along with a bilingual missal, which must be said was fairly popular, they would not be praying along with the celebrant, for they could neither hear him nor understand what he was praying in Latin.

The spiritual high point for the faithful was reverently receiving on their tongue Holy Communion, which they rightly believed was the body, blood, soul, and divinity of the incarnate and risen Son of God. However, they had little awareness that the privilege of receiving Holy Communion was founded upon their having participated in Jesus’s once-for-all sacrifice of himself to the Father for the forgiveness of sins and the outpouring of the divine life of the Holy Spirit. Significantly, while the faithful knew and believed that the one God is a Trinity of persons, their liturgical and personal prayer often primarily consisted of praying to the one (generic) God.[1] Only after Vatican II, with the revision of the rite and the use of the vernacular, did the faithful become more cognizant of the trinitarian nature of the liturgy and of their own ability to pray in a trinitarian manner. Although many, and probably most, of the faithful attended the liturgy with devotion, except in receiving Holy Communion, such devotion was not imbued with an informed understanding of the Eucharistic mystery.

Within this overall pastoral situation, a few particulars must be noted. First, while many priests celebrated Mass in a reverent manner, there were those who did not. The faithful were aware, and often pleased, that certain priests were able to “run through” the liturgy in fifteen or twenty minutes, especially on weekdays. A vivid description of the state of affairs prior to the Council is given in a blog post by Msgr. Charles Pope:

As for there being no abuses before 1970, dream on. All the old guys I trained under for the Latin Mass (back in the mid 1980s) told me that it was dreadful how the mass was celebrated in the old days: mumbled Latin, skipped prayers, half genuflections, not even waiting for the servers to finish before moving on to the next prayer; masses that should have taken a good 40 minutes to celebrate reverently were routinely done in 18 minutes. Communion was routinely distributed in larger parishes by priests, beginning immediately after the gospel, while the priest celebrant went on with the current Mass; sung liturgies were abhorred by most clergy and when they did sing them they were usually done in a horrible and tortured tone with indistinct pronunciation since they were not used to enunciating the Latin, but mumbling it. So when they sang, most just mumbled aloud. I have heard recordings from the time and can personally affirm that homilies were often skipped, even on Sundays. Most of the old guys said the Corpus Domini nostri prayer while they gave communion to as many as five people, mumbling it as a norm. The Liber Usualis had long been abandoned by most parishes and they used recto tono (usually 8th tone) chanting in its place . . . . People came late and left early and had legalistic notions that if they made it by the gospel they were safe. Leaving after communion was epidemic.[2]

Second, although the lectionary readings were read in the vernacular, the repertoire of readings was miniscule, especially from the Old Testament (only 1% of which appeared in the lectionary) and from the New Testament epistles, Acts, and Revelation (11%); even Gospel passages were limited (22%). One never obtained a sense of the entire Bible, nor of the individual Gospels. Scripture was foreign territory to most pre-Vatican II Catholics—Protestants knew their Bible, Catholics celebrated their Mass.

Third, sermons were almost entirely moralistic in nature, focused on the fostering of holy and virtuous lives. In one sense, such moral teaching was good and necessary, for it did encourage the keeping of the God’s commandments. However, what was often absent was mystagogical catechesis, that is, the bringing to life the mysteries of the faith—the Trinity; the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus; the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; the Lord’s coming in glory; and the nature of the sacraments, including the Eucharistic liturgy. Thus, most of the faithful never grew in their understanding of the doctrines of the faith beyond what they learned from catechesis as children. Part of the problem was that few priests themselves ever actually came to understand and marvel at the mysteries of faith. Christianity was reduced to living a moral life, without the full doctrinal foundation on which a virtuous life is established and fostered.

Fourth, both the priest and the people faced east, ad orientem, and many churches were built facing the east. However, while today much is made of such a liturgical posture, at the time prior to Vatican II, hardly anyone, even priests, were cognizant of its theological significance.[3] The faithful were unaware that they were facing east because it is from the east that the risen Jesus is to come at the end of time, and that in celebrating the Eucharist they were eagerly anticipating his glorious return. What the people were aware of was that the priest had his back to the people, and that he was enacting the Eucharistic mystery such that they could not see and often could not hear it.

Having outlined the inadequate theological understanding and deficient liturgical practice immediately prior to Vatican Council II, when the need for liturgical renewal was increasingly recognized, we can now examine the Council’s response.

The Council’s Reforms

Given the momentum and the ecclesiastical approval already given to the liturgical movement, it is not surprising that the opening task of Vatican II was the renewal of the liturgy. The first document ratified by the Council was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 4, 2022). Because the Council desired to invigorate the Christian life of the faithful and to “adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change,” it saw “particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy” (SC §1).[4] The constitution proposed both the principles and the practical norms that were to govern the revitalization of the liturgy (SC §3). Particular notice should be given to the words “promotion” and “reform.” By reforming the rite, the Council judged that the liturgy could be more persuasively and credibly promoted, and so better achieve its sacred goal—the sanctification of the faithful. By its very nature, the Eucharistic liturgy is

the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows. For the goal of apostolic endeavor is that all who are sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in the Sacrifice and to eat the Lord’s Supper (SC §10).

Because of the supreme importance of the Eucharistic liturgy, the faithful must approach the liturgy with a proper spiritual disposition, so that their minds and hearts are “attuned to their voices.” Therefore, pastors must realize that “when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and lawful celebration. It is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects” (SC §11).

In this context the Council makes its central assertion:

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to the full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (1 Pet 2:9; cf. 2:4-5) have a right and obligation by reason of their baptism.

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy the full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered above all else, for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit. Therefore, in all their apostolic activity, pastors of souls should energetically set about achieving it through requisite pedagogy (SC §14).

Later, the Council emphatically concludes:

Zeal for the promotion and restoration of the liturgy is rightly held to be a sign of the providential dispositions of God in our time, as a movement of the Holy Spirit in His Church. It is today a distinguishing mark of the Church’s life, indeed of the whole tenor of contemporary religious thought and action (SC §43).

While the Council Fathers recognize that the liturgy must be celebrated in a valid and lawful manner, their primary concern is that the faithful actively participate, for only through such active engagement in word and action do they reap the graces that flow from the Eucharist. In restoring and promoting the Eucharistic liturgy, the Council is convinced that it is obediently bearing witness to a distinguishing mark of the Holy Spirit’s work in the contemporary Church. Not to have borne such testimony would be a defiant denial of the Spirit’s activity.

Having expressed its desire and confirmed its allegiance to the Holy Spirit, how did the Council hope to achieve its intended goal? Although it is not possible to analyze the full range of decrees and norms enacted in Sacrosanctum Concilium, here we will examine what we consider the most salient points. After providing texts from the document, we will offer an interpretive commentary.

1. The Council notes that “the liturgy is made of up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change.” The changeable elements ought to be revised if they do not harmonize “with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become less suitable” (SC §21).

2. The regulation of the liturgy is under the sole authority of the Church, principally the Apostolic See, but also including bishops’ conferences. “No other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (SC §22).

3. Thus, the Council decrees by its magisterial authority:

To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalms, antiphons, hymns, as well as by actions, gestures and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times a reverent silence should be observed (SC §30).

4. The liturgical rites, without losing their substance, “should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions” so that the faithful may more easily comprehend their nature (SC §34; cf. §50).

5. The Council also decrees:

The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way a more representative part of the sacred scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years (SC §51).

6. In the light of the expansion of the biblical readings, the Council speaks of the importance of the homily:

By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are to be expounded from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year. The homily, therefore, is to be highly esteemed as a part of the liturgy itself. In fact, at those Masses which are celebrated on Sundays and holidays of obligation, with people assisting, it should not be omitted except for a serious reason (SC §52).

7. Regarding the use of Latin and of the vernacular, the Council provides the following norms:

The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use may be made of it, especially in the readings, directives and in some prayers and chants (SC §36).

Nonetheless, care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them (SC §54).

8. Because of its importance within the Eucharistic liturgy, the Constitution devotes an entire chapter to sacred music:

The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and word, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. Therefore, sacred music is to be considered the more holy, the more closely connected it is with liturgical actions, whether making prayer more pleasing, promoting unity of minds, or conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites (SC §112).

Drawing from the liturgical renewal that preceded the Council, the Constitution states that “the Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being specially suited to the Roman liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” Nonetheless, other forms of sacred music are permitted, “especially polyphony” (SC §116). The Council recognizes that

In certain countries, especially in mission lands, there are people who have their own musical tradition, and this plays a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason, their music should be held in proper esteem and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their religious sense but also in adapting worship to their native genius (SC §119).

Finally, “the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church.” However, “other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship,” provided they “are suitable, or can be made suitable for sacred use” (SC §120).

Vatican II thus magisterially promulgated a proper and authentic renewal of the Eucharistic liturgy. The Council not only embraced the Spirit-inspired liturgical renewal, but also brought this renewal to its mature and authentic culmination. All of the Council’s decrees and norms bear upon its governing principle—that of promoting the faithful’s active participation in the Eucharistic liturgy. In so doing, the Council Fathers confirmed and secured the rightful exercise of the faithful’s baptismal priesthood.

It is crucial to recognize that the Council Fathers never thought in terms of rescinding the Tridentine Mass, precisely because it was that rite that they were revising and rejuvenating. If they had suppressed the old rite, it would mean that they were creating an entirely new rite. They would then be employing a hermeneutic of discontinuity. Rather, they were engaging in a strong hermeneutic of continuity: the old rite was to continue in a revised form. Because of this hermeneutic of continuity, they never considered the possibility of the unrevised rite continuing to be celebrated. Such an option would have never entered their minds. For the Council, the revised Eucharistic liturgy would simply be the Roman rite of the Catholic Church.[5]

To oppose the Council’s intent as expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium is implicitly, if unintentionally, to fault the overarching principle of the entire Council, aggiornamento—not the creating of a new Church but the renewing of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Such opposition also inherently denies the validity of the liturgical renewal as a genuine work of Holy Spirit in the contemporary Church. That being said, the practical implementation of Vatican II’s liturgical renewal included, as we will now see, both achievements and disappointments.[6]

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the second installment of five on the renewal of the liturgy. You can find a link to the first installment at the bottom of this page.

[1] The faithful of course prayed the Our Father on their own. However, in the Tridentine Liturgy, only the priest recited the Our Father, with the server reciting the final petition, “sed libera nos a malo,” followed by the priest’s “Amen.”

[2] “When Liturgy Goes Off the Deep End,” June 19, 2011.

[3] See Larry Chapp, “An ‘ad orientem’ Church in An Age of Horizontalism,” Adoremus (March 24, 2023),

[4] All quotations from Vatican II and subsequent magisterial texts up to 1975 are, unless otherwise noted, taken from A. Flannery (trans. and ed.), Vatican Council II, vol. I, The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, New Revised Edition (Northport, NY: Costello, 1975).

[5] This is why it is misleading to argue, as do some promoters of the Tridentine Mass, that this rite has never been abrogated. We return to this point in the fourth installment of this series.

[6] For a more ample theological assessment of Sacrosanctum Concilium and its reception since the Council, see Jeremy Driscoll, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” in Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering (eds.), The Reception of Vatican II (Oxford University Press, ), 23-47.