Didn't Vatican II get rid of all this?

Today there is a common misconception that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) got rid of liturgical Latin, facing East, and even the traditional Roman liturgy itself. While many traditional customs largely disappeared after the Council, it was not because the Council ordered their wholesale removal; in fact, in some cases the Council actually decreed that they be preserved. The irony is, those who wanted a more progressive liturgy were the same ones who wanted a more democratic Church; but had Pope Paul VI not unilaterally overturned some of the conciliar decrees, and had future Popes not granted indults unforeseen by the Council, the Roman liturgy might have stayed much as it was, at least in its most conspicuous aspects.

The constitution on the liturgy does call for a simplifying of the rites and for the restoration of certain elements;[1] but it also requires organic development from the Traditional Mass and forbids unnecessary innovations.[2] It allows moderate use of the vernacular, but requires that the use of Latin be preserved, and expects the faithful to know the Latin responses.[3] It allows more than one kind of music, but requires that it be fitting for the Holy Sacrifice, giving "pride of place" to Gregorian chant and expressing a preference for pipe organ if instruments are used.[4] It encourages congregational responses and singing, but also requires periods of "reverent silence."[5] Finally, no one besides the Pope and his delegates "may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority."[6]

Before, during, and especially after the Council, there was a period of liturgical experimentation. Various liturgical elements were in many places added, removed, or changed, often without authorization from the Holy See. Priests saying Mass facing the people, laity receiving Communion in the hand without a paten or cloth to catch particles, laity distributing Communion, female altar servers, abstract art, modernist architecture, and contemporary music were among the practices introduced at the local level.

Eventually the Church permitted many of these practices within certain limits ad experimentum, but they were never formally made universal norms. That they have nearly all become de facto normative for the revised Roman rite is purely accidental, and not because Vatican II decreed that it should be so. In the case of Latin, Pope Paul VI overturned the Council's decrees that Latin be preserved in the liturgy and that Gregorian chant be given pride of place.[7] The point here is not to disparage the lawful use of liturgical options permitted by the Church, but to dispel the common misconception that the modern, experimental options and innovations are the Roman rite (or worse still, that they represent Catholic worship generally), and that the customs and traditions which have enriched the Church's life for centuries are now worthless or somehow harmful.

More recent popes have expressed the desire that the contemporary liturgy more closely resemble the traditional. Pope St. John Paul II, for example, "made his own" the sentiment of Pope St. Pius X regarding liturgical music:

The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.[8]

Pope Benedict wrote in a pastoral letter to bishops:

What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.

The same Pontiff also suggested that the Traditional Mass can serve as a model for celebrations of the contemporary liturgy, so that the latter "will be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage."[9] He was known on occasion to celebrate the new form of the liturgy facing East, and at his public Masses distributed Holy Communion on the tongue.

Far from derogating from Vatican II, the traditional liturgical customs of the Roman rite remain normative for the Traditional Mass, and many of them are legitimate options if not preferred norms for the new liturgy.

1. Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 50

2. S.C., No. 23

3. S.C., Nos. 36, 54

4. S.C., Nos. 116, 120

5. S.C., No. 30

6. S.C., No. 22

7. General Audience of 26 Nov. 1969, para. 8

8. 2003 Chirograph on Sacred Music

9. 2007 Pastoral Letter to Bishops.


© Todd Aylard