S FR. FESSIO has often said, the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II makes nine proposals or mandates concerning the reform of the Mass, no more and no less: (1) that the rites are to be simplified so that duplications or accretions would taken away; (2) that the readings from Scripture should be expanded in number and variety; (3) that the homily be considered an integral part of the liturgy and that it be better prepared; (4) that the common prayer, or general intercessions, be reintroduced; (5) that the vernacular be used for the readings and the general intercessions, while the priest’s parts as well as the Ordinary remain in Latin; (6) that the priest distribute to the people hosts consecrated at that Mass, rather than hosts reserved from another Mass; (7) that communion under both species be allowed on special, rather rare, occasions; (8) that the Mass is truly made up of two parts, which we now call the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and so the people should be taught to value both parts; (9) that concelebration be permitted. That’s it. The concrete reforms proposed were modest, although that first proposal about “simplification” was rather vague and became the cause of much controversy later on.
Given the limited scope of changes envisioned by this document, how did we arrive at a situation where, in the name of reform, adaptation, and inculturation, many of the greatest treasures of our Catholic Tradition were forgotten or suppressed? The new Pentecost never came; what we got was not the diversity of a richness beautifully embodied in great works of art, culture, and theology, but the uniformity of a horizontal modernism, a fashion dull and dated almost from its nascence. The future has more in store for us, if only we would trust the wisdom and experience of the Church.
In the sixties and seventies it was often said that the Church had to adapt herself from top to bottom because Modern Man needs something different from his forbears. But modern man is not essentially different from the man of any age; his spiritual needs are fundamentally the same as they have always been. What people today need is not something new, changing, ephemeral, fashionable, but something timeless and perennial, connecting them across the ages with their forebears and uniting them to the Lord in adoration. The life of prayer and worship that sustained centuries of faith―the glorious army of confessors, virgins, martyrs, and lay men and women―will sustain us, too, better than any innovations or inventions of our own.
Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, we have entered a new era of rediscovering a lost heritage and rejoicing in its wondrous beauty. We are, as so many commentators have noted, in the era of Summorum Pontificum, in which the Sovereign Pontiff, as supreme legislator of the Church, recognized the traditional Roman rite of the Mass as an equally legitimate and never abrogated form of divine worship, and one that any priest at any time can celebrate. Be prepared: the Church of the future will have a growing number of people who ask for, and deserve to receive, all that the Church herself has to offer them.
I was born after the Council had already been closed. In my own life I distinctly remember the excitement, the wonder, of discovering amazing riches in the tradition of the Church, a treasure that had been seemingly deliberately buried and hidden: the noble beauty of plainchant, the dignified and resonant sound of Latin, the shimmering beauty of old vestments, the sprinkling rite (Asperges), even something as simple as the use of incense at the elevation of the consecrated gifts. But it was not only this feast of symbolism and beauty that answered to a burning need for reverence, it was also rediscovering the full social teaching of the Church, her ascetical and mystical theology, her scholastic wisdom, her saints and their stories.
This experience of joyful rediscovery, accompanied by a sense of shock that these glorious gifts had been thrown overboard or stuffed into a closet, is something that many people from my generation are feeling. Young Catholics who are most serious about their faith, who want to know it intimately, live it fully, and pass it on to the next generation, are more and more traditional in their beliefs and aspirations. Polls have shown that the postconciliar generation holds more in common with the preconciliar generation than it does with the generation in between. It seems that a large number of clergy (except the youngest, of course) are still unaware of the change that is brewing in the Church, namely, the return to tradition as a counterbalance to the revolutionary overturning of tradition that characterized the decades following the Council.
I say this especially to priests: Do not underestimate the capacity of the young, and of the laity in general, to enjoy, appreciate, and grow spiritually from the traditions of the Catholic Church. There is a true spiritual hunger in the world, and it is not only growing, but also unfortunately assuming deviant forms because it does not find satisfaction in much of what we offer in the name of relevance and spontaneity. Offer rich fare, explaining how one should dine upon it, and the people will, at last, be able to be satisfied.
A Council cannot make a new Church. A new church must be a false church. There is only one Church, the one that Jesus Christ founded on the rock of St. Peter 2,000 years ago, whose faith has been defined and clarified by all twenty-one Ecumenical Councils, from Nicaea I to Vatican II. To be faithful to Vatican II means to be ever more faithful to our entire heritage, and not to think or behave as if the Church was born (or reborn) yesterday.