After the Second Vatican Council, the Church experienced radical changes everywhere, but most notably in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Particularly at the parish level, the Mass went from all-Latin to all-English, almost overnight. The priest was turned around, so the people could see what was happening on the altar more easily and so that they could “actively participate”. This also helped to give the Mass a Last Supper sort of feel, so that the sacrificial nature of the liturgy was heavily downplayed. No longer was interior participation seen as good; instead, the view predominated that the people must perform external functions so as to achieve the “full, conscious, and active” participation that Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s text on the liturgy, called for. Now the congregation not only MUST say the responses (which had been permitted but not mandated in some quarters before the Council), but they also should read the readings in front of the congregation, sing in the choir, carry the Book of the Gospels to the altar, receive the Blessed Sacrament in their unconsecrated hands, and even help distribute the same Eucharist themselves, because to do any less would be failure to actively participate. Chant as the primary liturgical music was scoffed at. After all, wouldn’t that be a detriment to “full, conscious, and active participation”? Chant was promptly replaced, in most places, by banal, trite English songs whose lyrics mainly dealt with community, and the warm fuzzies of God’s love, and “breaking bread” and “sharing the cup”. Thus, with all of this added together, the Mass was stripped of any transcendence or mystery. The idea of awe in the presence of the Holy Eucharist was snuffed like a match under a shoe, and belief in Transubstantiation has plummeted to devastating lows.
The question which follows is inevitable: How did such radical changes occur? How did the Church go from having a liturgy which was described by Fr. Faber as “the most beautiful thing on this side of Heaven”, and which movies of old loved to showcase, to a liturgy that’s Protestant in style and which, as commonly celebrated, fails to point to what it even is?
A interesting question, certainly, and while there are those who hypothesize about Freemasons having been behind it all (which may be true for all we know, but it’s impossible to say), I’m going to suggest a simpler, twofold explanation:
Firstly, that the Council’s document, Sacrosanctum Concilium itself, is to blame. This may surprise some, and quite understandably. After all, Sacrosanctum Concilium said the Mass would still be mainly Latin, and Gregorian chant would be given pride of place, and there would be “no innovations unless the good of the faithful surely and certainly required them”, and it never said the priest should be turned around! All that is true. How, then, am I supposed to blame the document if it seems “traditional” enough? You’ll see.
Then my second hypothesis would be that the radical changes occurred because notable change was occurring at all.
Hypothesis 1: Sacrosanctum Concilium Itself Is Somewhat Problematic
While it’s true that this document seems traditional enough, it’s quite vague in a number of places and can be read in either a conservative or a progressive light. For example, the text says, with regard to the use of the vernacular, that it could be used “in such places as the readings and directives, and for some of the prayers and chants” (SC 36, 2). This doesn’t seem to imply the whole Mass, certainly, and that would please the traditionalist. Yet after suggesting parts in which to use the vernacular, it says the extent to which the vernacular is applied will be determined by “competent authority” (SC 36, 3), then subsequently approved by the Holy See. The progressive could read that part and go, “Oh, nice, this gives us some lee-way!”
Or what about Gregorian chant? The text says that it should be “given pride of place” since it is “specially suited” to the Roman liturgy. Thus, if a traditionalist were reading the document, he’d be relieved by such statements. But then, if we look closely, the text doesn’t simply say “Gregorian chant should be given pride of place”, it says, “other things being equal, it should be given pride of place” (SC 116), and it says that “other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30″ (116). Yet article 30, which is used as a “check” for the usage of non-chant music, is itself vague and could mean almost anything depending on the disposition of the reader.
Even the statement, “There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them” (SC 23), often thrown around by traditionalists, could easily be discarded by progressives with the argument that these innovations are required! Furthermore, the progressive liturgist could have an absolute field day with the sentence, “in the restoration and promotion of the Sacred Liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is to be considered before all else” (SC 14). Is it really any wonder that laypeople perform so many priestly functions these days? After all, aren’t they “actively participating” which was the chief goal of the Council’s liturgical reforms?
In all likelihood, most of the Council Fathers weren’t expecting the liturgical reforms we got. Even Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X, voted in favor of Sacrosanctum Concilium and he was apparently in favor of having the Liturgy of the Word/Mass of the Catechumens in the vernacular. I’d be willing to bet that at least a good number of the Council Fathers were expecting the Mass to be mostly the same as it previously was. But the Council’s text affords way too much liberty, and honestly, I’d say that “being loyal to the liturgical reforms as envisioned by Vatican II itself” is much easier said than done.
Hypothesis 2: Radical Change Happened Because Change Was Happening At All
My second idea concerning the radical change of the liturgy is that fact that the Mass was being notably changed at all. Now, we mustn’t think that from the Middles Ages to 1965 the missal had undergone no revisions whatsoever. It certainly had, and you can research them if you want, but none of them were so extensive that they changed the order of the Mass itself. To the untrained eye, the Mass in 1400 AD would look nearly identical to the Mass in 1962. Considering that the Mass had been like that for centuries, possible even a millennium, it’s not hard to believe that the idea cemented that the Mass was untouchable, that it couldn’t be changed.
Fast-forward to the Second Vatican Council. Wouldn’t it make at least some sense that as soon as the idea of genuine liturgical reformation was brought up, the progressives were leaping for joy? You can almost picture their excitement: “Changing the unchangeable? How can it be? We might actually expand horizons? Be given legitimate OPTIONS with regard to liturgical celebration, in contrast to the scrupulous rubrics of the current missal?”
And thus, everything became fair game. All options were explored, experimentation encouraged, and everything which smacked of traditionalism was looked upon sourly. This is the mindset that was hoisted upon most parishes, and if you ask most people, they’d say the pre-Vatican II liturgical style was in need of change and what we have now is drastically superior, since the congregation can “actually do things”, and that it’s more personal since we can sing happy songs, feed ourselves the Eucharist, and look at the priest’s face.
Deliver us, O Lord, from this current tribulation.