This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. Recently a member of my parish made the interesting observation that many of the liturgical changes we have experienced in the last few decades were not mandated by Vatican II. But this raises two questions: what exactly comprises Vatican II, and therefore can one really say that Vatican II is over?
In addressing liturgical issues, some people mistakenly assume that Vatican II means the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The Constitution was, indeed, the document that formally began so much liturgical reform and renewal. The document never pretends to list all the changes that the bishops of the world had in mind at the Council, but it does present the fundamental principles of good liturgy, mandates that the rites of the Church be thoroughly studied from every perspective, and outlines the norms and procedures for the renewal of the liturgy. In other words, the Constitution is not as much a list of permissible changes as it is a blueprint for future reform.
But the Constitution was just the beginning of Vatican II. Hundreds of other reform documents would follow, and are still being published today. Thus the formal meetings of Vatican II may be officially concluded, but the reform and renewal begun by those meetings still goes on. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, like the Constitution of the United States, is a living document, so in this sense Vatican II is by no means over. We continue today to make changes and adaptations to the liturgy in the spirit of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The Constitution insists that full, conscious and active participation by all is the aim to be considered before all else in the reform and promotion of the liturgy. Some changes in the liturgy, e.g., the inclusion of the laity, and in particular women, in liturgical ministries, may not have been mentioned in the Constitution, but years later would be understood as absolutely essential if we are to take “full participation” seriously. The Constitution is now nearly fifty years old, and many other documents have since supplied for the inadequacies of that original document. All of these reform documents, as well as the various customs and cultures of peoples, continue to give shape to the reforms envisioned by the Vatican II bishops. Language is one example of this gradual evolution of liturgical forms. The Constitution appeared to only reluctantly allow for Latin to be replaced by the language of the people. The reality was that the liturgy celebrated in the language of the people was so instantly and universally popular that Latin would quickly loose its venerable status, in spite of vain attempts to preserve it as a prominent part of the liturgy. Thus Pope Paul VI observed in 1965, just two years after the promulgation of the Constitution, that “The Church has sacrificed its native tongue, Latin....The Church has made the sacrifice of an age-old tradition and above all of unity in language among diverse peoples to bow to a higher universality, an outreach to all peoples.” The principal of full and conscious participation would dominate in the end.