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Prof. Peter Williams, Sydney/Australia



Paul VI solemnly promulgated the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy on December 4, 1963. Next year will therefore mark the fortieth anniversary of this pivotal Council document that has resulted in the most comprehensive reform of the Roman Rite since the time of the Council of Trent. The enthusiasm and energy that was manifest in the early years of liturgical reform and change requires now some mature reflection and assessment as the voices that were preeminent in the liturgical reform after the Council now fade through the fluxion of time and the passing of the generations. In summary the Constitution emphasizes the following principles that remain at the core of the theological underpinnings that give "spirit and life" to the celebration of the liturgy.

  1. The heart of the liturgy is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – his redemptive work in the salvation of all expressed most adequately the phrase the Paschal Mystery.  

Nathan Mitchell recently wrote in the Amen Corner of the journal Worship:

"God offers to all human beings the possibility of becoming partners – full, equal participants – in the paschal mystery of Christ, the very mystery that is the content of Christian worship."


The liturgical documents of the Second Vatican Council remind us over and over again that the heart of all worship is the proclamation of the Paschal Mystery and the hope that those who gather in Christ’s name and form his body by virtue of their baptism might become actualized (to use a modern psychological concept) into the mystery of the life, passion, death and resurrection of this same Christ as they live out the mystery of their own lives. Christ’s own action of self-offering to the Father draws us into the mystery of his own life and nourishes us for the task of being his presence in the world.

  1. The celebration of the liturgy is always an exercise in the priestly office of Jesus Christ – head and members. This assembly gathered for the liturgy is hierarchically ordered to express the nature of the Church and thus becomes the most perfect manifestation of the Church as this mystery is expressed by the people of God each fulfilling his or her role according to that hierarchical ordering expressed in paragraphs 26 – 32 of the Constitution.  

There has been some misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of this hierarchical ordering of the liturgy, and this has resulted in the blurring of the distinct function and role of the ministerial priest, and created in the minds of some an artificial rivalry between the "priesthood of the faithful" and the "ministerial priesthood." This tension, real or perceived can only be addressed by the third principle articulated in the Constitution – sustained catechesis.

  1. Kathleen Hughes has written: "Catechesis is fundamental if the community is to be fully aware of what it is doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by its effects. (no 11) The clergy must receive appropriate liturgical instruction so that they may live the liturgy themselves (nos 14,18) and teach their communities its spirit and power. (nos.14,19)"  

The publication of the editio typica tertia and its General Instruction provide a golden opportunity for a comprehensive liturgical catechesis of the faithful. Above all our seminaries must provide sound liturgical formation and imbue in the seminarians a profound love and appreciation for the liturgical rites of the Church and train them to celebrate those rites with dignity and reverence.  


I would like for the remainder of this paper to focus on three areas that will impact upon us as we continue to proclaim the mystery of Christ through the Mass in the 21st Century – three areas that are currently contentious in the Church’s life: Texts, music and liturgical architecture. 

1. Texts

In 1970 with the publication of the Missal of Pope Paul VI the Catholic Church in Australia and in other English speaking countries has been celebrating the Mass in the vernacular. We now know that there was enormous pressure on those who were first entrusted with the task of translating the texts from the Latin into English. The result has been that whilst we now have English texts, the quality of those texts has been the subject of much criticism by serious scholars in linguistics, English usage and sacramental theologians, who have lamented the paucity of doctrinal content.


Even those directly engaged in the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) have admitted that the texts offered to the English speaking Church were inadequate on several grounds. The result has been for the liturgiologist a matter of some concern. Given that the liturgy is for most Catholic people their principal exposure to the public life of the Church, and for many their only opportunity to be exposed to any formation, then the body of prayers that make up the Church’s liturgy must be authentic and faithful in expressing the deposit of faith and the Latin tradition of the Church. The texts need to be elegant in style, elevated in theological and sacramental language, effectively proclaimable in the assembly, but at the same time to use Thomas Cramner’s phrase "understanded of the people." The Constitution on the Liturgy reminds us that the liturgy can and does "instruct" and that words will be at the heart of that instruction.


The recent publication of the 5th Instruction Liturgiam authenticam as the definitive document that provides guidance upon which all translations of the Latin are to be based would appear to be a response to a perception that the liturgical translations in English (and perhaps also in other language groups) in recent years has resulted in a "dumbing down" of the liturgy. The current impasse on the question of texts perhaps reflects the desire of all sides in the debate to "get it right" so that our liturgical forms might have dignity, accuracy and provide a ready tool to assist not only the people of God to worship but also to act, as worship so often does, as a vehicle to evangelize those seeking to know God and the things of God.


Words are powerful and in an increasingly electronic age that relies more and more on the audio and visual experience we must ensure that the words we express in the liturgy are well chosen, and above all the right words, and words that will speak to the people of the 21st century and make sense of their experience of life in Christ. Not only that, but they must be words also that will also lodge in their memory – both corporate and individual so that they can be reclaimed and expressed whenever the need arises. After all liturgical prayer is ritual prayer and the success of ritual prayer is its ability to lodge itself permanently in the hearts and minds of those who verbalize it. The strength of the way in which the "Our Father" is said or sung gives testimony to that fact. Worthy liturgical texts that are the public prayer of the Church will achieve those ends and help to sustain this generation of Catholics and the next.


2. Music


Chapter VI of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was devoted to the reform of Sacred Music. The Council Fathers identified the centrality of music in the liturgical celebrations. Music simply is not an added extra or indeed purely an adornment. As they stated: "A liturgical service takes on a nobler aspect when the rites are celebrated with singing, the sacred ministers take their parts in them, and the faithful actively participate." (113) Given the historical circumstances in which the Constitution was drawn up the Council Fathers identified both Gregorian chant and polyphony as having a special place in the liturgical rites of the Church along with the pipe organ as the principal instrument of accompaniment. The provision was also made for pastoral reasons, for the adaptation and the infusion of local musical traditions into the liturgy in what is broadly described as "mission lands."


The pastoral demand for a vernacular liturgy (in missions lands as well as those that might not be designated strictly "mission") meant that most of what appears in Chapter VI was overtaken by the development of a large corpus of new music, much of it contemporary in style, plus recourse to musical compositions emanating from other denominations who had considerable experience of worshipping in the vernacular. This was certainly the case in English speaking countries. There were attempts in the production of some early ritual music books to foster some Latin chant and to keep aspects of the tradition alive, but largely this has not been successful in the average Catholic parish either in the first, second or third worlds.

In assessing the current challenges that face the musical life of the Church in Australia the following issues are identified as requiring some degree of reflection.

  1. Given the prominence of music in the liturgical life of the Church, has the Church itself adequately resourced those responsible for its "performance" Sunday by Sunday? The Constitution recommended, "… higher institutes of sacred music be established wherever possible." (115) The average parish musician is most often a volunteer with varying musical abilities and needs guidance and formation in both the liturgy and in the practical aspects of music so that sound pastoral, liturgical and musical judgments can be made.


  2. Has the time come to undertake a comprehensive review of what it is that we sing in our Sunday assemblies? Whilst it is true that in Australia we have moved from simply singing hymns/songs to also singing the Ordinary of the Mass there is wide diversity in the quality of texts as well as music. As Music in Catholic Worship states so bluntly: "To admit the cheap, the trite, the musical cliché often found in popular songs for the purpose of instant liturgy is to cheapen the liturgy, to expose it to ridicule, and to invite failure." Is there still a place for the great "treasury of inestimable value" in music to find _expression in our liturgical celebrations? Should we critically review musical genres? Have compositional styles found their way into the repertoire of the Church that mitigate against the singing of the assembly? Are texts theologically sound and what of the quality of poetry and prose?


  3. Has enough attention been given to the musical culture of our nation? What is meant by that is: - have we largely become a "listening" people rather than a "singing" people? Australians do not automatically break into spontaneous singing at public events. Certainly the inherited Catholic culture from Ireland that was so formative of the development of Australian Catholicism was not disposed to a vigorous musical _expression in the liturgy. Aside from a few devotional hymns the culture from a musical point of view was largely silent. The influx of migrants from cultures where music has enjoyed a far more central role in the liturgical life of the Church whilst enriching the life of the many local parishes has also contributed to the polarization that is all too evident with some members of the assembly singing and a vast majority not singing at all.


  4. What impact is the use of electronic medium particularly in the realm of sophisticated audio systems going to have on the celebration of liturgy? Already there is widespread use of such technologies in celebrations and the danger lies in the liturgy becoming yet another form of entertainment where the body of believers are purely observers and passive participants. Several years whilst undertaking research on this topic a leading liturgical musician from the United States rather ominously commented that "active participation" in the liturgy within twenty years might be manifest simply by people humming along to the CD! There is an urgent need for those in the liturgical field to examine these questions in particular.  

3. Liturgical Architecture.


The final issue that relates to the challenges we face in celebrating liturgy in the 21st century is that of the buildings we inhabit for worship. The Council Fathers included in Chapter VII of the Constitution a brief statement on buildings. "When churches are to be built, let great care be taken that they are well suited to celebrating liturgical services and to bringing about the active participation of the faithful." (124) This one sentence was to be expanded in subsequent liturgical documentation that provided very clear guidelines about the design and appointments of church buildings.


Church buildings serve two purposes. Principally they are places where the baptized community gathers to celebrate their life in God through the liturgical rites of the Church. Secondarily, they serve as places where people come individually to pray and to engage in private devotion, one of the hallmarks of Catholic identity. In a burst of zeal to restore the public prayer of the Church to the faithful many church buildings underwent partial or extensive renovation in the years after the Council. Some of these efforts were sensitive to the architectural integrity of what already was, and other attempts were not quite so successful and displayed an insensitivity that often resulted in many people lamenting the loss of their sacred places in which huge investment had been made.


In the planning and construction of new church buildings the words of the Council Fathers again are to be taken seriously:

      "The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as its every own but has admitted styles from every period…"

For reasons of practicality and often also driven by economics many new church structures were multi-functional complexes. Liturgical space was utilitarian in conception and there was a shift away from the monumental to the domestic. To suggest that there is no place for post-modern architectural styles to be admitted into liturgical design runs contrary to the way in which the Catholic Church has always embraced and encouraged the cutting edge of the creative arts. Rather what is essential is that today’s architect needs to be properly briefed on the requirements of church buildings as places of public cult, private devotion and the place where many people come to seek an experience of the transcendent reality that we call God.


Perhaps it is time to revisit many of the decisions that were made and effected on our church buildings in attempting to accommodate the demands of the new rites and ask whether what was deemed appropriate in the early stages of the reform is still valid today. Given that in many cases the structural changes were made before many of the liturgical books in the vernacular were published should these changes be reviewed in the light of pastoral experience over a thirty-year period?

As with music some questions need to be raised again about our places of worship and need critical and mature reflection:

  1. Are our church buildings beautiful? Do they reflect the "noble simplicity" spoken of by the Council Fathers? Do the altar, ambo, chair and other furnishings have integrity in design and fabrication?


  2. Given the recent publication of a new Directory on the place of popular devotions in the life of the Church and a resurgent interest by many of the laity in private prayer and devotion, do our church buildings adequately provide for meeting these needs, in terms of both religious iconography and the orientation of the space.


  3. Are the vessels, vestments and other liturgical items used in the celebration of liturgy expressive of all that is best in our worship of God? The Constitution reminds us "In encouraging and favoring art that is truly sacred, Ordinaries should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. This principle is to apply also in the matter of sacred vestments and appointments." (124)  



The liturgical agenda for the beginning of the 21st Century is by no means exhausted in a discussion of the three areas I have nominated here. In my judgment they loom as the subjects that most attract comment and engender discussion in the populist Catholic magazines, newspapers and web sites. In a recent conference on assessing the influence of the Second Vatican Council reference was made to what degree has the Council actually been properly "received" by the Church.


I think it undeniable that the vernacular celebration of the Latin rite has been an outstanding pastoral success in facilitating the people of God to grasp what I outlined at the beginning of this short paper in realizing their identity as the Body of Christ. However, problems remain about how best to execute that liturgy particularly in the areas of text, music and environment. My hope would be that an informed, intelligent and above all charitable conversation might be initiated about these matters so that we might understand what it means to "worship in Spirit and in Truth."





Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved