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The fortieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) of the Second Vatican Council has been marked throughout the Catholic Church by a number of meetings and congresses, while new editions of the conciliar document have been published in commemoration of the event.

The significance of this commemoration

These initiatives have a deeper significance than the mere commemoration of an anniversary. In my judgment, they are an invitation to recall the guiding principles of the Constitution and to examine their reception and implementation in the different Particular Churches. The way of doing this has been clearly indicated by the Magisterium and set forth in detail in the Apostolic Letter Vigesimus Quintus Annus (VQA) and in other documents and statements of the Supreme Pontiff and the Holy See. The commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium should therefore be considered first and foremost as an invitation to God's holy people not to forget the past, to be conscious of the present and to be open to the future. The Holy Spirit who brought about the liturgical movement continues to act in the Church through the word and sacramental signs, sustaining her on her journey towards the Kingdom.

A joy to be experienced anew

The Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium was approved on 4 December 1963, at the conclusion of the Second Session of the Council, in the presence of Pope Paul VI, by a nearly unanimous vote of the Council Fathers (2147 votes for and 4 against). This was an unprecedented event in the history of the Church: no other Council had ever devoted a specific document to the liturgy. It was the first time that an ecumenical assembly dealt with the liturgy as a whole, its biblical and theological principles, and its concrete celebratory and pastoral aspects. The decision to give priority of place to the liturgy by making Sacrosanctum Concilium the first document promulgated by the Council should also be seen as deeply eloquent. Pope Paul VI was fully aware of its importance and meaning and gave expression to the joy of the whole Church: "Our heart rejoices in this. Here We see due respect being given to the scale of values and obligations: God in the first place; prayer as our first duty; the liturgy as the primary source of the divine life bestowed on us, the first school of the spiritual life, the first gift which we can give to the Christian people who believe and pray with us, and the first invitation to the world to break out in blessed and true prayer and to feel the indescribable regenerative power of singing with us the praises of God and the hopes of humanity, through Christ the Lord and in the Holy Spirit" (Address at the Closing of the Second Session of the Council, 4 December 1963).

Forty years after the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium we do well to recall Fr. Yves Congar's profound awareness of the significance of the event: "Something irreversable has clearly taken place in the Church" (Informations Catholiques Internationales, 183). I am profoundly convinced that this "irreversability" is entirely to be found in what the Spirit wished to say to the Churches (cf. Rev 2:7) through the conciliar Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. This is heart of our text, its deepest, its most enduring and, as the fruit of the Spirit working in the Church, its evangelical core.

The fortieth anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium is thus at the very least a summons to listen again to that word and to experience anew joy and heartfelt exultation for the gift of the Spirit to his Church.

The heritage of the past

Sacrosanctum Concilium was the high point of the renewal of the liturgy set in motion by the liturgical movement, which the Constitution itself recognized as a "sign of God's providential designs in our time, and as a movement of the Holy Spirit within his Church" (SC 43). To return to Sacrosanctum Concilium means not only to go back to a document of the Council, but also to the mature fruit of the long and demanding journey which led the Catholic Church back to the sources of her liturgy in order to be able "to undertake carefully a general restoration of the liturgy" (SC 21). To return to Sacrosanctum Concilium thus means above all not to forget today the heritage of the past and in particular the interest in, the study of, and the love for the liturgy which marked the history of the liturgical movement and which made possible a document which met with the interest and approval of nearly all the Council Fathers.



Sacrosanctum Concilium is structured in seven chapters preceded by a general introduction and ending with an appendix. The Council document contains not only doctrinal principles of great importance and fundamental themes of the liturgical renewal, but also concrete indications concerning the ritual celebration.

The sources of Sacrosanctum Concilium

An understanding of the Constitution requires familiarity with the sources from which it drew its authentic spirit, namely, the appreciation of the Christian mystery, the image of the Church as communion, and the liturgy as the ritual celebration of the mystery of salvation. Indeed, the Constitution is completely shaped by its biblical and patristic sources.

In Sacrosanctum Concilium sacred Scripture is taken as the norm and criterion for understanding the liturgy and reforming its praxis. "In order to achieve the renewal, development and adaptation of sacred liturgy it is essential to promote that heartfelt and living love for sacred Scripture to which the venerable tradition of Eastern and Western rites bears witness" (SC 24). An increased knowledge of Scripture and the liturgical reform are thus closely linked. The ancient mystagogical texts testify that knowledge of the liturgy is nothing other than knowledge of Scripture. The relationship between Scripture and the liturgy finds clear expression in the Constitution: "It is from Scripture that the actions and signs derive their meaning"(SC 24).

If Scripture is the source from which the renewal of the liturgy must draw, the earliest liturgical praxis of the Church of the Fathers, the pristina sanctorum Patrum norma, is to be considered the rule and inspiration of the reform itself. The liturgical praxis of the Churches of the Fathers became the primordial form of the Christian liturgy against which the liturgical life of the Church in every age is called to measure and evaluate itself. Precisely for this reason the liturgy needs to return to its original simplicity: "the rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity. They should be brief and lucid, and free of pointless repetitions..." (SC 34). Again: "the rites are to be simplified, due care being taken to preserve their substance. Parts which with the passage of time came to be duplicated, or were added with little advantage, are to be omitted. Other elements which were lost through accidents of history are to be restored in accordance with the early tradition of the Fathers" (SC 50).

The nature of the liturgy

The return to biblical and patristic sources does not only involve ritual forms, but leads to an understanding of the nature of the liturgy itself. Sacrosanctum Concilium does not begin by setting forth a concept of liturgy, but by indicating what occurs in the liturgy: "it is the liturgy through which, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, the work of our redemption is accomplished" (SC 2). By means of the liturgy, then, believers come to experience the paschal mystery of Christ in its entirety. The Constitution then points to the effects of the liturgy, which "daily builds up those who are in the Church, making of them a holy temple of the Lord, a dwelling-place for God in the spirit, until they reach the measure of the stature of the fulnness of Christ" (SC 2).

Together with the fundamental idea of the liturgy as the accomplishment of our redemption in the perspective of the great patristic tradition, the Constitution presents some underlying observations, partly innovative, aimed at a better understanding of the theology and the unfolding of liturgical celebrations. Among these should be noted the indissoluble unity between the descending movement of sanctification and the ascending movement of worship (SC 5-7), the centrality of the paschale mysterium (SC 5-6), the importance of Christ's presence in the Church and in a special way in the liturgy: "Christus Ecclesiæ suæ semper adest, praesertim in actionibus liturgicis" (SC 7). Christ's presence in the celebrating community is certainly one of the main themes of the Constitution.

Summit and source

Reflection on the nature and the effects of the liturgy leads to perhaps the best known passage of the Constitution, which has become a genuine theological axiom: "the liturgy is the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed and the source from which all its power flows" (SC 10). In other words, for Sacrosanctum Concilium the essential purpose of the Church is to make believers sharers in the paschal mystery, a mystery which is manifested and fully accomplished when the Church is gathered in the liturgical assembly, especially on the Lord's day, for the Eucharistic synaxis. The primary elements of the ecclesiology of Vatican II, set forth later in Lumen Gentium, are found in several fundamental texts of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy regarding the relationship between liturgical celebration and the Church. In those celebrations "there is an outstanding manifestation of the Church" and "in some way they make present the visible Church constituted throughout the world" (SC 41-42; cf. 2, 5-7).

The promotion of liturgical education

If the nature of the liturgy and its importance in the life of the Church are such that "no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy" (SC 7), one can appreciate the pressing invitation of the Constitution to promote the liturgical education of Christians. Training the faithful to understand the liturgy means enabling them to come into contact with the very heart of the Christian mystery. Hence the statement that "the liturgy is the first and necessary source from which the faithful can imbibe the true Christian spirit" (SC 14). To define the liturgy as the first source and the necessary source from which Christians can derive the spirit of their faith is to reaffirm the essential bond which exists between Christian life and the liturgy. The liturgy is not first and foremost a doctrine to be learned, but an inexhaustable source of life and light for understanding and experiencing the Christian mystery. For the Constitution, the Church must provide all Christians with an authentic liturgical life, since the quality of their faith life demands a profound harmony between what the liturgy hands on and the reality by which they live, in accordance with the liturgical formula cited by the Constitution: "that they may hold fast in their lives to what they have received by faith" (SC 10).

Participation in the liturgy

This is the Church's desire as expressed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: "Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy" (SC 14). The desire for a plena et actuosa participatio of the faithful in the liturgy is one of the major themes of the document. Pastors especially are invited to work for an "active participation, both inward and outward, of the faithful" (SC 19). This invitation expresses the Church's concern that the faithful "take part in the sacred action consciously, devoutly and actively" (SC 48, 11). By insisting on the quality of participation in the liturgical celebration, the Constitution forcefully reaffirms that in the liturgy of the New Covenant every Christian is fully a leiturgos, inasmuch as the offering of his life, in communion with the sacrifice of Christ which took place once for all, is the spiritual worship pleasing to God. The existential offering thus calls for conscious, full, active, interior and exterior partecipation in the sacramental offering. Consequently the Christian who celebrates his faith must give primacy to interiorization, that is, to a personal appropriation of what he hears and does in the liturgy. Only authentic interiorization will ensure an exteriorization capable of expressing what is most deeply experienced. This is the fully active way of experiencing the liturgy desired by Sacrosanctum Concilium.

"For many people the message of the Second Vatican Council has been experienced principally through the liturgical reform", as Pope John Paul II has stated in Vigesimus Quintus Annus (No. 12).

Today too the message of the Council continues to enter the life of the Church through a liturgy understood and experienced in the spirit of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Forty years after its promulation the Constitution on the liturgy remains a point of reference for the Church's progress.

The reform of rites and texts

The Council Fathers did not limit themselves to stating the altiora principia of the liturgy, but, given the inseparable relationship between theoretical principles and the unfolding of the rites, they were also prompted to discuss the practical aspects of the liturgical action, since in ritual the Spirit and the Bride, the Church, act jointly through visible signs.

No liturgical problem was overlooked. All aspects of the liturgy were discussed with courage and farsightedness, and a solution was found for each in the genuine ecclesial tradition and its biblical and patristic bases, in order to meet the new demands of pastoral activity and to foster the formation of the people of God and their devout, conscious and communal participation in the liturgy.



The decisions of Sacrosanctum Concilium were enacted with the publication of the liturgical books and with appropriate guidelines, and truly it can be said that "the vast majority of the pastors and the Christian people have accepted the liturgical reform in a spirit of obedience and indeed joyful fervour. For this we should give thanks to God for that movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church which the liturgical movement represents" (VQA 12).

As a result, "while the reform of the liturgy desired by the Second Vatican Council can be considered already in progress, the pastoral promotion of the liturgy constitutes a permanent commitment to draw ever more abundantly from the riches of the liturgy that vital force which spreads from Christ to the members of his Body which is the Church" (VQA 10).

The image of the church

The liturgy is the most complete expression of the mystery of the Church, so that it can be said that the Christian community, by its way of living the liturgy, expresses and manifests its experience of the Church. For this reason, the permanent commitment to the pastoral promotion of the liturgy must continue and advance towards its chief goals: active participation, spiritual formation, ministerial corresponsibility. This also remains the perspective of the liturgy for the future. It is a question of expressing and building up an image of the Church, the People of God, which celebrates the Mystery: the image of a Church which is manifested in the actual daily community which celebrates Sunday, which experiences the rhythms of the liturgical year, which draws life from its own feasts and particular traditions, and which is concerned for the poor in its midst. The People of God in its totality is a priestly people and, with due respect for the distinction between ordained and non-ordained ministers, all lay men and women are liturgical subjects capable of liturgical ministry in its various forms.

Anyone who reads Sacrosanctum Concilium with spiritual understanding can grasp its profound underlying intuition: the conciliar liturgical reform does not involve the renewal of rites alone, but of the Church as a whole. Consequently, the concrete reception of the liturgical reform does not only call into play the renewal of the liturgy, but even more so the Church's fidelity to the Gospel. Only in this way, will the law of prayer be not only the law of faith, but also the law of being and acting in the Church.

Active participation

In the first phase of the implementation of the reform, participation necessarily took on a mainly external and didactic aspect, which often degenerated into a sort of "participationism" at all costs and in every way possible. Clearly, this could prevent the discovery and assimilation of the values and the deeper aspects of the Mystery. An overreaction to the state of extreme passivity which marked the participation of the faithful in the so-called "Tridentine Mass" has led in recent decades to a perhaps excessive insistence on exteriorization in the liturgy. The need was felt to express feelings and show emotions, in an attempt to give the liturgy a mood largely of festivity and joy. But Christian liturgy is not simply the sum of a group's emotions, much less an assortment of personal and collective feelings. Rather, the liturgy is a time and place for interiorizing words and sounds which are heard, appropriating gestures made, assimilating texts spoken and sung, and letting oneself be penetrated by images and scents perceived.

As one of its main duties, the pastoral promotion of the liturgy will need to respond to the desire expressed in many ways, frequently unspoken, of rediscovering a liturgy which is a time of reflective hearing and interiorization of God's Word listened to, meditated on and prayed. A liturgy which is a time of prayer and an authentic experience of encounter and reconciliation with God, oneself and the Christian community to which one belongs. A liturgy which is a place in which each believer is progressively shaped by the mystery he celebrates and by the faith he confesses. Only thus can the liturgical assembly truly become the maternal womb of the Church, as the Fathers and the liturgy itself have understood it to be from the beginning. The maternal womb of the Church where Christians are born, grow, are nourished by the Word and the Bread, in order to grow to their full stature.

A pastoral promotion of the liturgy thus needs to pay attention in celebration to "being" rather than simply "doing", and thereby to move towards a rediscovery of the liturgy as a "vital force which spreads from Christ to the members of his Body which is the Church" (VQA 10) and as an experience of the Spirit. In a word, a qualitative leap is needed, in order to arrive at the genuine spirit of the liturgy.

The quality of signs

Today more than ever, if the celebrating community is to be more fully an image of the Church, in addition to active participation and ministerial corresponsibility it is essential to promote spiritual formation and the quality of signs: the sign of the assembly "which in some way gives hospitality to Christ and to the people he loves" (Address to Bishops from the Provence- Mediterranean Region, 5), the sign of the Word of God, singing, music, silence.

This also calls for a better appreciation of the places where the celebration takes place, such as the baptismal font, the ambo, the altar and the celebrant's chair. These express the womb where Christians are born of the Holy Spirit, the setting where Christians live and grow, the space where Christians experience communion with Christ and with their brothers and sisters. As such they are an expression of the Church herself.

For all this to happen, ordinary pastoral promotion of the liturgy will have to deal patiently with the increasing "illiteracy" of the men and women of our time regarding the fundamental contents of the Christian faith. An illiteracy which is growing, often even among Christians who regularly take part in the Eucharistic community. I am deeply convinced that in the next decades the pastoral promotion of the liturgy and catechesis will need more and more to take the form of an authentic mystagogy, appropriating its aims, nature and method. The ability to understand a sign is not something extrinsic to the quality of the sign itself, but an integral part of it. In the final document of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops marking the twentieth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, the Synod Fathers pointed to mystagogy as a major element for the renewal of the liturgy: "Catechesis must once again become a path leading into liturgical life (mystagogical catechesis), as was the case in the early Church".

Liturgical presidency

The quality of signs requires first of all quality in the presidency of the celebration. The one who presides before the assembly is not simply looked at, but also appreciated and judged by the way he discharges his role, which is carried out in persona Christi. At the same time this presidency cannot be exercised without consideration for the quality of the assembly and apart from an ability to respond to the expectations of the People of God. Indeed, the presider in some way also presides in persona Ecclesiæ.

Renouncing anything that calls attention to himself, a presbyter shaped by the authentic spirit of the liturgy will preside over the synaxis "as one who serves" (Lk 22:27), in the image of the One of whom he is a poor sign. For this reason the quality of liturgical presidency, at its noblest and most fruitful, will go well beyond that of the simple art of presiding, of mere savoir faire, in order to become a principle of communion, in the deep conviction that the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is found only in the fullness of the Church.

The beauty and the dignity of worship

At the dawn of the third millennium it is necessary to project the image of a Church which celebrates, prays and experiences the Mystery of Christ in the beauty and dignity of her celebrations. A beauty which goes beyond esthetic formalism, and is based on a "noble simplicity" capable of bringing out the relationship between the human and the divine in the liturgy. Here we see at work the dynamic of the Incarnation: what the only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth, has accomplished visibly, has passed into the Church's sacraments. Beauty must reveal the presence of Christ at the center of the liturgy, which can be all the more evident when celebrations bespeak contemplation, adoration, graciousness and thanksgiving.

"Honour and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary" (Ps 96:6). The Psalmist does not only sing of the radiant beauty of the Lord's dwelling-place, but elsewhere proclaims: "Full of honour and majesty is his work" (Ps 111:3). What other reality of the Church is called to create and express beauty like liturgical space and liturgical action? Not only places but actions, i.e., gestures, posture, movements and vesture, should manifest harmony and beauty. Liturgical gestures are called to express beauty inasmuch as they are gestures of Christ himself.

By its beauty too, the liturgy will continue to be the source and summit, and the school and norm of the Christian life.



"We make this appeal...", Pope Paul VI stated on the eve of the first implementation of the liturgical reform, "Dedicate supreme care... to the knowledge, explanation, and application of the... norms by which the Church wishes... to celebrate divine worship. This is not an easy thing, but something quite delicate; it calls for a direct and methodic approach; it demands your personal, patient, loving and truly pastoral attention. It involves changing many habits...; it means making every assembly of the faithful a more active school of prayer and worship...; in a word, it means associating the People of God to the priestly liturgical action. We repeat: this is something difficult and delicate, but let us add: something necessary, obligatory, providential, renewing. And we also hope: consoling. It will take years, but there is a need to start, to start anew and to persevere, so that the assembly will regain its solemn, unanimous, pleasing and sublime voice".

This is a "charge" which remains timely for the pastoral promotion of the liturgy, one to be accepted with renewed commitment, like that of the ancient people of God in the desert of the Exodus, which, despite the signs of God's benevolence and activity, also experienced moments of nostalgia, opposition and resistance. The people of God is always on pilgrimage and all of us need to walk forward with joy, certain that the Spirit surrounds us like a cloud and guides us like a column of fire. May we experience the liturgy of the Council as the column of fire of the Spirit who continually renews the heart of the Church on her pilgrim way towards the Kingdom, filling her with beauty ever new, with joy and hope.


† Piero Marini
Titular Archbishop of Martirano
Master of the Liturgical Celebrations
of the Supreme Pontiff



1 Article taken from the "Presentation" written by Archbishop Piero Marini for the volume Renouveau liturgique – Documents fondateurs, Centre national de pastorale liturgique, Editions du Cerf, Collection Liturgie n. 14, Paris, 2004.