by Mary Kearns

pope-massIn many parishes the majority of people are quite happy and at home with the liturgy which is understood to be a “community meal” or some sort of memorial celebration of the Last Supper. Sacrosanctum Concilium or The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on December 4th 1963 and published along with the other fifteen documents that make up the Constitutions, Decrees and Declarations of the Second Vatican Council.  

 Most lay people did not read Sacrosanctum Concilium. It was filtered down to us gradually over the next years when we attended retreats or lectures or did a course in Catholic doctrine. Perhaps more significantly, this document was used by some in order to progressively introduce many changes into the Mass. By degrees we came to accept Catholic liturgy as no longer the same the world over, but something that could be different from parish to parish and even from church to church within the same parish. Many people including priests had no problem with that. 

Sacrosanctum Concilium is often wrongly blamed for abuses in the sacred liturgy. It is due not to the document itself, but to its misunderstanding and misinterpretation that some liturgical irregularities and even abuses have occurred and continue to occur. 

The heart of the Mass is the paschal mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is his offering of himself to the Father for the redemption of humanity. The purpose of the liturgy is directed towards this “summit and source.” We focus wronglywhen we allow the artificial multiplication of external actions to distract to the extent that the liturgy lapses almost into parody. Much has been written about this problem.

Let us look at it from another angle. It surely cannot be denied that for most Catholics before the changes brought about in the wake of Vatican II, the heart of their worship was always the Mass. If we strip away all the things that people say are wrong or right in the liturgy we are left with one astounding fact. Mass is not “ours” – it is an action of God himself.

Much of the confusion centres on the phrase “full, conscious, active participation” which was used to describe the ideal involvement of the laity in liturgical celebrations. In The Spirit of the Liturgy the present Holy Father deals in detail with how these words should be interpreted.

The real “action” in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God himself…God himself acts and does what is essential. He inaugurates the new creation, makes himself accessible to us, so that through the things of the earth, through our gifts, we can communicate with him in a personal way.

The irony is that while the Council Fathers’ intention was the make the Mass more meaningful to the faithful, the reality experienced is often quite the opposite and many lay people would admit they can no longer find the heart of the Mass. How then do they find the heart of their worship? 

Those who assist at Mass have different ways of dealing with this. Some feel deep grief and a sense of loss. Nevertheless, their faith tells them that the no matter what way liturgy is celebrated, the heart of Mass is and always has been the same. 

In many parishes however the majority of people are quite happy and at home with the liturgy which is understood to be a “community meal” or some sort of memorial celebration of the Last Supper. These people are often involved with the parish, for example providing special liturgies for children or for special events. A general sense of well-being is sought and this is often to be found in the music and songs chosen to which the congregation often responds with applause.

A further group is made up of those whose heart is very much in devotions. The Church would be impoverished without these excellent parishioners. They can always be found at Eucharistic Adoration and often assemble regularly to say the rosary or attend other prayer groups. These are the people who are daily Mass-goers and who visit the Church frequently to light candles and pray. They have many prayer cards and novena leaflets which they distribute and are always to be counted on to intercede for special intentions. Because fewer priests are involved with practices other than Mass, responsibility often falls on these good people to assist in various ways, perhaps in the preparation of the sanctuary area and altar. Unfortunately due to lack of training this can result in deficiencies and mismanagement when liturgical norms are not adhered to.

So what was it like when lay people did experience the heart of the Mass? Was there a sense of being spiritually nourished, inspired and uplifted? Did people believe they were in the presence of God – did they worship and adore him with their heart and soul?

We are told by liturgical experts that in the years before the Second Vatican Council, ordinary lay people did not understand what was happening at Mass and because of this they usually substituted their own intercessory prayers and petitions during the liturgy. Apparently there was no sense of being involved apart from when the congregation left the pews and processed up to receive Holy Communion kneeling at the altar rails.

But is this an accurate picture? Talking to older people who clearly remember what going to Mass was like in the years before the changes, it emerges that the theory commonly held by liturgical experts regarding the ordinary Catholic is largely erroneous. In pre-Vatican II days, people knew that the heart of their faith was the Mass. They were aware that something tremendous was happening and they responded to this with great attention and reverence. When it comes to grasping what Mass means, can anyone say they really comprehend the great mystery being enacted before their eyes? What is the right attitude in the face of such a reality? Surely if we really believe we should be filled with awe and reverence?

Staying with the heart of the problem it is obvious where the fault lies. The spiritual reality of Mass is not being recognised. Nowadays, the expectation seems to be that liturgy should come under the joint dominance of understanding and sensation in order to have significance. In line with secular culture many Catholics have adopted knowledge and feeling as the way in which they want to participate in liturgy. In other words we now have to understand what we are doing and we have to feel good about it. The degree of respect formerly given to faith and obedience which were synonymous with Catholicism is now given to knowledge and emotion. For this reason liturgical initiatives are often added to make liturgy meaningful because the real meaning has become obscured.

Nonetheless, despite appearances and various external activities Mass is always the same in essence. In their hearts, those who always knew this still know it. The depth of meaning is often revealed in the way words are used. For the most part, no matter how often we hear the Mass referred to as “Sunday Eucharist” or a “liturgical celebration” we will still always simply say we are “going to Mass.”






Cardinal Burke Synod







corpus christi

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