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”.
There are many stories about Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the people who wanted to help her in her work for the poor. I particularly remember the story of the well-dressed young woman who approached Mother Teresa and told her that she wanted to share in her work.
Mother Teresa silently prayed for guidance as she replied to the woman: “Here is how you can share my work. Begin with the sari. Next time you are buying a sari, buy a less expensive one, and the money you save, bring it to me for the poor”. From then on, the woman always bought less expensive clothing and brought the money she saved to Mother Teresa. That woman’s life was changed for good.
Mother Teresa, by her simple suggestion, taught that woman a new virtue, the virtue of living in solidarity with the poor. To be in solidarity with the poor does not mean you have to live among the poor. It means that you keep yourself aware of the poor and needy, and let that awareness influence you in your decisions, especially in your use of money and resources.
Mother Teresa’s formula is very simple: if you have more than you need to live, then spend less on yourself, and share what you save with those who do not have enough to live. I try to be in solidarity with the poor by helping the food pantry and soup kitchen in my neighborhood, and by supporting two other international charities who work for the poor and needy overseas in less developed countries.
Solidarity is a word that is fairly new in Catholic circles. Most people will first remember hearing it as the name of a new trade union formed at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland in 1980 the year after Pope John Paul II visited his native country. But the word had appeared earlier in 1967 in the Encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples).
In that letter the Pope wrote: “There can be no progress towards the complete development of humankind without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity”. Pope Paul went on to explain that this meant people meeting people, nation meeting nation as brothers and sisters, as children of God. “In this mutual understanding and friendship, in this sacred communion, we must also begin to work together to build the common future of the human race” (n.43).
Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (Social Concern) (1987) devoted many words to the need for solidarity among people and nations. He described the imbalance in our world where the greed for profit and the greed for power dominate the relations between people and nations, where the strong exploit the weak, and the strong grow stronger at the expense of the weaker.
The Pope pleaded for solidarity to replace the imperialism and exploitation which hold sway in our world. He insisted that solidarity is not a vague feeling of compassion for the distressed, but a firm determination to do what is necessary so that the goods of this world, which are meant for all, should be shared by all. He added these words: “Avoiding every type of imperialism, the stronger nations must feel responsible for the other nations, based on the equality of all peoples and with respect for the differences” (n.39).
To be in solidarity means seeing yourself not only as a member of a particular family and nation, but as a resident of this earth, responsible not only for yourself but for those whom you can help in any way. As Pope John Paul explained, solidarity means being committed to the common good, “That is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (n.38).
The human race continues to grow in numbers, but no matter how many we are, no matter how varied we may come to be, we are all children of the one human family, brought into being by the Creator in solidarity with all the other inhabitants of our world, composed of the same interstellar dust from which we and everything else in our universe have been formed.