Defining terms: ‘In the spirit of Vatican II’

Q. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Dec. 4, 1963) is 50 years old this year. It seems that everyone has a different idea of what liturgy “in the spirit of Vatican II” is. What are some of your ideas about what “liturgy in the spirit of Vatican II” is?

A. Thank you for this question. Allow me to sketch out some characteristics of liturgy in the spirit of Vatican II as I see them. You might ask yourself if this list includes those characteristics that you might identify as your own.

Liturgy in the spirit of Vatican II is a biblically-based life-form.

The prayers and hymns of the Roman liturgy have long been drawn from scriptural sources, but the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy sought to increase the amount and variety of scripture readings at the Eucharist and in the other sacramental celebrations.

And putting the Scripture readings into the vernacular is more proof that today, the Bible is a book for everyone to read and understand. In this country, the early liturgical movement and the biblical movement were simply different facets of the same apostolate.

Liturgical pioneers like Augustinian Canon Pius Parsch were dominated by two ideas: the Bible as the people’s book and the liturgy as the people’s work. They insisted on the essential and intimate connection between liturgy and Scripture.

If “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” as St. Jerome said, then “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of the heart of the liturgy.”

Do we believe that liturgy remains the best commentary on Scripture, and that Scripture is the very foundation of the liturgy? This life-giving union of Scripture and liturgy is Vatican II’s challenging legacy to all who love the Word of God proclaimed and enfleshed in the Eucharist.

 Not a critique

Liturgy in the spirit of Vatican II is familiar, even predictable. This is not a negative criticism, but rather an acknowledgement that ritual activity requires people’s familiarity with its texts and structure.

The years immediately following the Second Vatican Council saw a great outburst of unapproved liturgical experimentation with texts, music and rituals in the so-called “underground Masses.”

But such practices of the 1960s are rare today for two reasons.

First, clergy and others can summon up only so much “creativity” in a lifetime. Second, too much change and variety make it difficult for texts, music and rituals to fit the worshippers like old shoes.

But “predictable” doesn’t have to mean “invariable” or “dull” or “boring.”

Perhaps those who lament monotony should become more familiar with the wealth of texts in the present Missal. Of course many of these texts are not found in the missalette. And there are many opportunities for our own creative efforts — once we learn the liturgical forms and the content to be expressed in them, for example, in the penitential act’s form C and the prayer of the faithful.

Liturgy in the spirit of Vatican II is lean, like a well-trimmed pork chop. This results from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’s statement that some liturgical elements “ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become pointless” (No. 21).

Thus, duplications, repetitions and obscurities were removed from liturgical texts and rituals so that their content and purpose could be seen more clearly. This is generally what has been accomplished in the liturgical books like the Lectionary for Mass and the Roman Missal.

What adds fat to our celebrations and clogs our liturgical arteries is the unrestrained verbosity of priest celebrants and commentators, music that does not fit the parts of the Mass, cutesiness, and, as Mark Searle wrote, “the idiosyncrasies of the presider and whoever else may be in position to impose their personal tastes on the style of celebration.”

Any room to maneuver?

But can ethnic and devotional customs be part of this rather lean Roman liturgy?

For example, having a birthday cake for Baby Jesus at the liturgy with children on Christmas, or children carrying flowers to the manger — even recent popes have had that at Christmas Eve Mass.

Can such practices be integrated smoothly into a liturgy that is trying to create an adult-Christ, paschal-mystery world? Should they be? If so, how?

Liturgy in the spirit of Vatican II is humble. Humus, earth, has given its name to humility, and that Christian virtue must be part of our Christian liturgy.

Humility means quality, appropriateness and authenticity in every word we speak, every note we sing or play, every action we perform, every object we use in our liturgy.

Christian liturgy requires a certain humility and earthiness, but also a certain richness and lavishness reflecting the splendors of the liturgical feasts and seasons.

What will be absent from liturgy in the spirit of Vatican II is sentimentalism, artificiality, pretense and theatricalism. With such things out the door, maybe — just maybe — there will be lots of room for lots of earthiness, for humility, in our liturgy, no matter to what heavenly heights it lifts us.

I like how a Way of the Cross booklet from the Liturgical Press begins: “To you, eternal Father, we now offer this tribute of our worship in a spirit of humility and with a contrite heart.”

Even with our liturgy now celebrated in the vernacular, the presence and work of Christ there remain mysterious, hidden, beyond human knowing, not subject to human control or agendas or expectations.

As the directory This Holy and Living Sacrifice (1984) states: “the Lord who comes to the Church in the Eucharistic banquet is also the God who is above all human experience” (No. 3). The God who took the initiative in salvation history fulfilled in Jesus Christ is the same God who now takes the initiative in making all of this present to us and for us in the liturgy. There is a mystery here, a mystery that we do not and cannot control, a mystery that invites our reverence.

Don’t expect to be dazzled

Liturgy in the spirit of Vatican II is not entertainment.

Certainly it may lift our sagging spirits and give us a rush of spiritual adrenalin, but liturgy does not guarantee us one “peak-experience” after another. Jesus never said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will dazzle you.”

Liturgy’s sacred words and actions present the nourishing fare that is Jesus Christ, in Word and sacrament, the one who shared our every human emotion, pain and suffering included. Thus, liturgy cannot be something that merely pleases our aesthetic sensibilities or flatters our egos.

If we shape the liturgy in our own image, we shall quickly tire of it.

Rather, the liturgy is to shape us in the living image of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior. And this is very different from something that will make us feel like we’ve just won the lottery.

 Caring for the person

Liturgy in the spirit of Vatican II is the primary form of the church’s pastoral care.

The reform of the sacramental rites of the church, which the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy called for in what is almost a refrain, “to be revised,” was intended to help us meet Jesus Christ in times of human need, so that, with him, we can pass through them and know the saving power of God.

The church’s sacramental rites and blessings are its way of caring for the whole person: body, soul and spirit.

The miracle of birth, physical and spiritual; the bonds of love; a healing touch; a shared meal. These human experiences are recognizable in the sacraments: baptism, marriage, anointing of the sick, Eucharist.

Sacraments in the spirit of Vatican II are not transfusions of divine grace into our souls; rather, they are liturgical actions that open us to God’s saving words and actions in decisive moments of human life. As such, they are the church’s best form of pastoral care. But if they are to be the best that they can be, humanly speaking, then they need our careful preparation.

 Aim is to be Christ-like

Liturgy in the spirit of Vatican II is the last stage of salvation history.

Where do I get this?

From the General Introduction to the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “After Christ’s glorious ascension the work of salvation is carried on above all through celebration of the liturgy, which with good reason may be called the final age in the history of salvation, since in the liturgy Christ is present to the church in many ways.”

In his book, “The Church’s Year of Grace,” Pius Parsch explains that “The church year is a very definite segment in the life of the mystical Christ. Our Savior lived an earthly life of some 33 years, but the mystical Christ will live, I know not how many millennia. He will live as the life of my soul, I know not how many decades. Each year . . . is a term in the school of God. Thus, we are learners in the liturgy’s school as long as we live.”

This is why the liturgical year is so important.

As we rehearse the mysteries of Christ in our own lives through the liturgy’s feasts and seasons, our likeness to Christ becomes more complete and perfect.

This is how salvation history continues in us, in each of us and all of us together, until he comes. 

Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. Johns Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbeys director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at or at St. Johns Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015. Father Michael enjoys giving workshops and presentations on liturgical topics to parish groups. Reach him at the email or postal addresses listed here.