There are fewer and fewer people who remember when Pope Paul VI and the bishops of the Second Vatican Council promulgated The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy on December 4, 1963. Indeed it is safe to say that most Catholics have virtually no memory of this historic event, and no experience of what the Sunday liturgy looked like prior to Vatican II. But some of these older Catholics may miss various ritual elements of the Mass that were familiar to them as they were growing up. There are also some younger Catholics who seem to be comfortable with the old Latin liturgy, and who will seek out places where the old Latin Mass is celebrated. People from both of these groups will ask what ever happened to the old liturgy. Indeed, people of any age might wonder what brought about liturgical changes in the first place.
Put quite simply, Councils happen in the Church every couple of centuries. The Second Vatican Council was called to review Church life and teaching in our modern world, and to breathe new life into these elements wherever it was needed. The world’s bishops realized that the liturgy, as it had been celebrated since medieval times, was not allowing for the full and active participation of the people. They ordered that each part of the liturgy should be carefully investigated from an historical, theological and pastoral point of view, and that the liturgical rites should now “be marked by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension and as a rule not require much explanation.”
Following the mandate of the Council, every part of the Mass was studied, and changes were made that would provide for the full, conscious and active participation of the assembly - the goal in liturgical reform that is more important than any other. This would mean that archaic elements would be eliminated, either because they no longer made any sense, or because they inhibited full participation in the liturgy. Some of these anachronistic elements were cherished by people, who found it difficult to see these familiar things disappear. But our sacred rites are not like attics where we collect and save liturgical memorabilia, and our churches are not meant to be liturgical museums. The way we worship must be guided by the principle of full and conscious participation by everyone, and not by nostalgia and sentimental attachment to past forms.
Accordingly people were once again allowed to worship in a language they could understand. This was not because Latin was not a beautiful language, but simply because people cannot participate fully and consciously using unintelligible words. Communion rails were removed from churches, not in all cases because they were unattractive, but because they sent a message that only the clergy belonged in the sanctuary, and others were to be fenced out. Many parishes eliminated the ringing of sanctuary bells, pleasant as they may have been, because their original purpose had long since disappeared - to warn the unaware congregation that the more important parts of the Latin Mass were beginning. Ministries formerly restricted to the priest alone or to other males were again made available to both genders.
Other ritual elements - vestments, furnishings, gestures and texts - were eliminated or made optional if they were needlessly multiplied, had lost their original meanings, and now only served to make full and conscious participation more awkward. At the same time, other ancient ritual elements, long ago dropped from the liturgy for various reasons, were restored. So today we have the beautiful and powerful rituals of the procession with the gifts of bread and wine, the sign of peace, and the option of receiving Communion from the cup. With this ongoing review of our sacred rites, the liturgy of the people of God will be reborn in every age.