Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: The power of language


By Fr. J. DeFrancisco

Fr. DeFrancisco

In the one hundred years prior to Vatican II an enormous amount of research and scholarship emerged in the areas of liturgy, worship and celebration, especially among the French and German scholars. Grounded in this prior scholarship, the theological and pastoral committees char­ged with the reform of the liturgy were asked to make every effort to “return to original sources of the liturgy.” This charge was meant not only to apply to our celebration of the Eucharist, but to revisit all the sacramental rites and their evolution over the centuries.
With this in mind the formulators of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) established three goals: (1) to encourage a full and active participation in all the sacraments of the Church; (2) to re-formulize the Latin Rites approved at Vatican I and Trent; (3) to emphasize the Totus Christus, the Whole Christ, ordained priesthood and priesthood of the laity, celebrating the rites together as an expression of the Whole Church, “One Bread, One Body.”  Most liturgical scholars agree that the pre-eminent tool of realizing these goals was a return to the “vernacular” in the liturgy.
The most serious challenge of moving from Latin to English, which is the “vernacular” for English-speaking countries, was not simply to bring about a meaningful translation of the Latin texts, but to introduce an expression of prayer and celebration that wedded both a sense of the sacred and re-educated the very ways in which priest-presider and laity celebrated the rites together. This simple ideal caused dramatic effects and often consternation for the laity. The People of God were formed in a tradition whereby the priest would celebrate the “Holy Sacrifice” of the Mass “for” the faithful.
The form of the rites were shrouded, quiet, personal, and imbedded in a Latin language that most laity could not understand. The laity “attended” Church, listened to the prayers, responded to the promptings of the priest, basically as a “passive” experience.
The power of the pre-Vatican Latin liturgy was the language itself. Latin was clear, concise, rhythmical, mysterious and mystical. The liturgy as such was meant to be more contemplative. There were moments in the liturgy when the faithful did in fact know how to sing and pray the Latin responses, even though they did not understand what they meant.
One very positive and enduring legacy of the Latin liturgy was that the faithful could be in any Church in any country in the world and the Mass, its form and language, would absolutely reassure them through its familiarity.
The Church as a whole cherished the strength of this “Catholic” universal expression of our prayer and worship. What the faithful lacked was a deprivation of the words, the meaning, value, power in what was expressed ritually.
Our “mother” language now made it possible for the faithful to clearly know what they were praying, singing, celebrating. The “Constitution” challenges both presiders and laity to use the very rites of all the liturgies to teach and instruct the full mysteries of our faith (CSL 3:33). English now made it possible to both preach and teach within the very celebration of the liturgy.
For example, I remember in my retreat before ordination using a Eucharistic prayer as my day’s meditation. I was overwhelmed by a theological concept I remember studying in a liturgical theology class, “Father, through this bread and wine, body and blood, may we come to share in the divinity of your Son, Jesus, as He humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”  Now I was able to understand in a deeper, spiritual way the very power of the Holy Spirit transforming my life into the person and presence of Jesus.
Prayers such as these, in all the sacramental liturgies of the Church now, with the vernacular, reveal to us quite clearly the very mysteries of how our Lord is leading us to holiness and how Jesus is bringing about the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God in every age.
The whole People of God are not just hearing the words of prayers and rituals, but also understanding how our prayers and actions are requiring us to share the faith, love, hopes and human aspirations with all peoples. Active participation in worship compels us to act more courageously and deliberatively in a broken world, to respond through the works of mercy, and show an active attentiveness to the poor, marginalized, dis-inherited of the world. The Sacred Liturgy is no longer just our prayer; it is our mission and mandate, “Proclaim and Bring Good News to the World.”
(Fr. DeFrancisco is a theology professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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