The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) produced 16 documents – 4 Constitutions, 3 Declarations and 9 Decrees. They are found in the Abbot-Gallagher print edition published in 1966, which became available in digital form in 2012. The text of the documents, with a 40 page appendix of Papal speeches and a 40 page index, comes to a total of 793 pages.
I plan to produce a short summary of each Council document over the next number of weeks for the benefit of those who have not been able read the documents in full. My objective is to encourage people to learn more about the Council as the voice of the Church interpreting the signs of the times for the People of God.
The first document to be approved was Sacrosanctum Concilium, on the Sacred Liturgy. It was approved on December 4, 1963 with a final vote of 2147 in favor and 4 against.
This document explains itself in these words: Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people” (1 Peter 2, 9) is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, the full and active participation of all people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit. (n.14)
By way of promoting active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as by actions, gestures and bodily attitudes. (n.30)
In the interest of promoting conscious and active participation of the faithful in the liturgy, the Council opened the door to a greater use of the local language in the liturgy. Having stated that the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites, the Council added, But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments or other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its use may be extended. This extension will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters (n.36)
The Council noted that the liturgy is made up of divinely instituted unchangeable elements, and elements subject to change (n.21). It left the way open for liturgical development in accordance with the creativity of local culture and traditions. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community. Rather she respects and fosters the spiritual adornments and gifts of the various races and peoples. (n.37) Provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is maintained, the revision of liturgical books should allow for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples, especially in mission lands. Where opportune, the same rule applies to the structuring of rites and the devising of rubrics (n.38)
The Council set up a commission to implement the changes it prescribed, and immediately the liturgy began to look different, especially the celebration of the Mass. The altar rail separating the people from the sanctuary was removed. The priest stood at the altar facing the people, and addressed them, and God, in a language the people understood.
At first the central prayer of the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer, was still recited by the priest alone in Latin. But it soon became clear that the central prayer of the Mass had to be in a language the people understood in order to fulfill the goal of conscious and active participation decreed by the Council. Within a few years the entire Mass was being celebrated throughout the world in the mother tongue of the participating people.
During the years after 1963 the liturgical commission introduced other changes, with men and women as readers of the sacred texts in the liturgy, men and women ministers assisting the priest in distributing Holy Communion at Mass, altar boys and altar girls assisting the priest at the altar, and other changes that promoted the full conscious and active participation of the people.
The Constitution on the Liturgy is probably the Council document that most visibly impacted the life of the ordinary members of the Church. It stated in action what other documents would say in words, that by Baptism the ordinary members have a right and a duty to take an active part in the life and liturgy of the Church. The Constitution on the Liturgy was the Council’s way of saying to the ordinary faithful, “It is your Church, and it is your Liturgy. You must be actively involved in order to live up to your baptismal calling”.