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The changes to the Catholic Mass during Vatican II included making it less vertical and more horizontal; making it a meal (Holy Thursday) in addition to a sacrifice (Good Friday); allowing the priest to celebrate Mass with the people rather than saying it for them. The changes express who we are as a Church, how we worship God and how we act in the world.

Vatican 2 Today

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The Mass
Our Greatest and Best Prayer

What will the Catholic Church of the next generation look like? The future shape of the Catholic Church will be determined in large part by the decisions made some 40 years ago at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). None of those decisions had a more immediate effect on Catholics than those regarding the Mass. The great majority of Catholics first experienced the fruits of— Vatican II in their parish churches on Sunday mornings at the celebration of the Eucharist.

The essence of the Mass is, of course, timeless and changeless. But those of us old enough to remember the Sunday morning experience of the 1960s (no Saturday evening Masses then!) can testify that the Council radically changed the way we experience the Mass.

The 'good old days'

What was Mass like before the Council? If I close my eyes and remember the Latin Mass of my youth, the image that comes to mind is of a very reverent, mysterious, majestic ceremony unlike anything else in my daily life: different language, different garments, different gestures, different music (music that I can listen to now on CD performed by monks in great Gothic churches). Everything pointed heavenward to the transcendent God of majesty.

I know enough about human nature to realize that this memory of sight and sound is perhaps more nostalgic than accurate. When remembering past events we often overlook the negative elements of the experience. This is especially true when imaging a past that one has not experienced personally.

For example, when I watch a cowboy movie I envy those men and their idyllic life on the prairie. They did not have to worry about publication deadlines, the stock market or college tuition. But where did they do their laundry? How did they get their teeth fixed? How did they recharge their cell phones?

A similar situation can arise when people "remember" the pre-Vatican II Mass, the Latin Masses read from a missal which, for the most part, was issued in 1570 after the Council of Trent. I have fond memories of those Latin Masses; they helped form my faith and nurture my vocation to the Franciscan Order and to the priesthood. But when I examine those memories critically, I find that the "good old days" were not totally good.

Vertical and/or horizontal?

During high school and college I went to Mass to pray, but my prayer was not coordinated with the prayer of the priest at the altar. I was saying the rosary and other devotional prayers; the priest was saying the Mass. Of course, I stopped what I was doing and looked up at the ringing of the bell when the priest elevated the consecrated host. But other than that, the priest and I were not on the same page.

He was engaged in the official prayer of the Church, the liturgy, which was primarily the worship of the transcendent God of majesty (a "vertical" action). I was saying the rosary and other devotional prayers—prayers that were more focused on my concerns (a "horizontal" action). The priest prayed in Latin, God's language; I prayed in English, my language.

The bishops of the Second Vatican Council tried to bring these "vertical" and "horizontal" prayers together into one. They realized that the worship that is most pleasing to God is the worship that brings us to our full spiritual, mental and physical potential. As St. Irenaeus said: "The glory of God is the human person fully alive!" God cannot be worshiped (vertical) by those who are not concerned for others (horizontal).

Was the shift to a more "horizontal" liturgical style beneficial for our prayer and for our Church? Some Catholics think that the worship of the transcendent God of majesty (the vertical) has become too folksy, too casual, too irreverent—too horizontal. Others feel that the "new" Mass is indeed reverent and mysterious but in a way that is different from the former ritual which, while very reverent, was also largely irrelevant to people's daily lives. They would say that the "old" Mass honored the Glorified Body of Christ in heaven without sufficient concern for Christ's Body on earth, the Church.

This tension between the vertical and the horizontal is not new. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that their eucharistic assemblies "are doing more harm than good" (1 Cor. 11:17) because, while the community was attentive to the worship of God (the vertical), they did not connect that worship with care for the community, especially the poor (the horizontal).


A common work

The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that the Mass is the work of the priest and people together. The faithful are to "take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it" (11). The priest now speaks my language; I can understand the prayers. I can make the liturgical prayer my own and respond with faith: "Amen," "So be it," "Yes," "That's my prayer." I can see the face of the priest and he can see mine. I can follow his expressions of invitation, petition, praise and thanksgiving. I offer "the immaculate victim, not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him" (48).

Whereas the priest formerly said Mass for the people, now he celebrates the Eucharist with the people. For or with— small words, but a big change. And the faithful, for their part, are asked to move from watching to doing—again, a big change. And just as it takes more knowledge, skill and effort to play basketball than it does to watch a basketball game, it takes more knowledge, skill and effort to celebrate and participate in the Eucharist than it does to watch the priest say Mass. The "new" Mass brought with it new responsibilities.

Adding Holy Thursday to Good Friday

When I went to the Latin Masses years ago, I would imagine myself kneeling at the foot of the cross as Jesus died for my sins. I tried to offer my life as he offered his. I had learned from the Baltimore Catechism: "The Mass is the sacrifice of the New Law in which Christ, through the ministry of the priest, offers Himself to God..." In the 1950s, at most Masses no one other than the priest received Holy Communion. Even though Pope Pius X had encouraged frequent Communion in 1905, it took about 50 years for the practice to become common in American parishes. In the days when few people received Holy Communion, it was logical to describe the Mass in reference to Good Friday—sacrifice.

Vatican II wished to restore Holy Thursday to the picture: "At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of his body and blood" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 47; emphasis added). Holy Thursday implies a meal—eating and drinking. But Catholics had been used to going to Mass for so many years without receiving Communion that, for many of us, Communion seemed something added to the sacrifice of the Mass. If it took decades for frequent Communion to become common practice, we can expect it to take a similar length of time for the "meal" dimension of the Eucharist to be integrated with the "sacrifice" dimension. Even today, many Catholics think of receiving Holy Communion in terms of their individual reception of the host rather than a communal sharing of a sacred meal.

At meals we eat and drink. Many Catholics have been so thoroughly taught that Christ is received whole and entire under the form of bread that they see no reason to drink from the cup. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states: "Holy Communion has a fuller form as a sign when it is distributed under both kinds. For in this form the sign of the eucharistic banquet is more clearly evident and clear expression is given to the divine will by which the new and eternal Covenant is ratified in the Blood of the Lord, as also the relationship between the eucharistic banquet and the eschatological banquet in the Father's Kingdom" (281). We receive the bread, and we become the Body of Christ. The cup is the sign of how this comes about: Drinking the Blood of Christ, we pledge our willingness to pour out our blood, our lives, in service to one another—even as Christ did on the cross.

The sign of the eucharistic banquet

For the reforms of the Second Vatican Council to bear fruit, the "sign of the eucharistic banquet" must be evident at every Mass. What does a banquet look like? This is a difficult question for those accustomed to fast food, eating alone or snacking in front of the TV. We can forget that a meal is more than just consuming food. Think of Thanksgiving dinner. While your family likely has its own particular customs, I expect that the general shape of the celebration is fourfold:

(1) The extended family gathers together.

(2) We catch up on news and family happenings.

(3) We move to the table, say grace, and eat and drink.

(4) We say our goodbyes and return to our family homes.

The eucharistic banquet has this same fourfold shape, and this meal "shape" of the Eucharist has changed what we do at Mass:

(1) First of all we gather. We come together with other members of the parish.

(2) We listen to the Scriptures and the homily. We hear of God's wondrous deeds and are moved to gratitude.

(3) We place ourselves at the Lord's Table with the apostles and all those who have shared the Eucharist throughout the centuries. We join with the priest in remembering the great deeds of salvation and ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine—and to change us—into Christ's Body: "Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ" (Eucharistic Prayer III). And then we come forward to eat the bread and drink from the cup.

(4) Finally we are sent forth to live the mystery we have celebrated: to be Christ's body for the world, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the ill and visit the imprisoned (Matthew 25:35-36).

More than rearranging the furniture

The changes in the Mass brought about by the Second Vatican Council were not merely cosmetic. The arguments about things that might seem to be superficial—the various opinions for or against Latin, inclusive language, kneeling, ministry, bowing at Communion—are actually about something much deeper, more important and much more elusive. They are about reverence, community and tradition. They touch deep-seated convictions about who we are as Church, how God is to be worshiped and how we are to act in the world. It is the answers to these questions that will shape the Church of future generations.

Question Box:

• What change in the Mass since the Second Vatican Council makes the most sense to you? If you lived through the changes, what was most difficult for you to understand? to adjust to?

• Is your current experience of liturgy more "vertical" or "horizontal"? How much do you think this depends on the priest and other parish leaders? on the members of the parish community?

• What will you do to increase your own full and active participation in the liturgy? How will you help encourage your community to participate more fully?



NEXT: Seven Sacraments, One Mystery by Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.


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