When Pope John XXIII convened the ecumenical council of Vatican II in 1959, the Church found itself surprised as no council had been convoked for close to 100 years. Yet the Holy Spirit was moving in a powerful way. In the aftermath of World War I and World War II, with the advent of new technologies and advancements in radio and television, the cultural world around the walls and the perimeters of the Church was rapidly transforming. There were also shifts in mindsets as political and social changes catalysed through industrialisation, and the end of colonisation and age-old empire systems came to the fore. The world needed answers and the Church needed an aggiornamento, a bringing up to date of the Church – In his opening address of the Vatican Council II, on October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII exhorted, “It is absolutely vital that the Church shall never for an instant lose sight of that sacred patrimony of truth inherited from the Fathers. But it is equally necessary for her to keep up to date with the changing conditions of this modern world.” (Pope John XXIII, 1964) The tone of the Council was to be pastoral and the aim – a renewal of the heart and soul of the Church, a moving towards greater unity among Christians and improved relationships with other religions, the flourishing of a Church that was engaged with the times of the world, an emphasis on greater involvement and participation in the Church by the Laity, and the formation of a Church that recalled its origins as pilgrims embarking on or in the midst of a journey.
This Council would last from October 11, 1962, until December 8, 1965, and from it, 16 titular documents would be authored. Of these, Sacrosanctum concilium was promulgated by Pope Paul VI, Pope John XXIII’s successor on December 4, 1963. Of course these documents and the Vatican II Council met their fair share of disapproval and erroneous interpretation. In the call to update the liturgical norms, Singapore too, was no stranger to the flawed interpretation of the documents and this was evident in the Singapore Church in the 1970s and 1980s. While the vernacular was celebrated, there were some who yearned to return to the Latin of the Tridentine Rite, and the ensuing effects seen in the loose interpretation of liturgy further encouraged this mode of perceiving things. There was a surreal time in Singapore’s Church History that saw the liberal adaptation and use of pop and rock music and songs fitted with Christian themes so as to become more relevant to the masses. I recall as a child singing Diana Ross’s If We Hold on Together, with adapted lyrics: Live believing/ Dreams are for weaving/ Wonders are waiting to start/ Live your story/Faith, hope and glory/ [Jesus is the] truth in your heart as a Communion hymn at the Eucharistic Celebration. While these quirks have since been ironed out and addressed, the question then in the year 2021 of the Lord, with the ongoing of a global pandemic that has nudged us albeit suddenly to a hard reset, is whether Sacrosanctum concilium can be applied to the context of the changing field of the Church.
The aims of Sacrosanctum concilium are set out as follows:
- To bring about an invigoration of the Christian life of the Faithful,
- To bring about an adaptation of what has been institutionalised, yet subject to circumstances and to change, so as to be congruent to the needs of the current setting, context, and times,
- To encourage unity among the Christian brethren, for those who profess belief in Christ,
- To empower the mission of bringing the whole of humanity into the family of the Church. (Sacrosanctum concilium, Introduction, 1)
The general norms still standing, the regulation of the sacred liturgy is under the sole and full authority of the Church, the Apostolic See, and vested to competent territorial bodies of bishops that have been legitimately appointed by the Apostolic See, to which no one, not even a priest may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority. (Sacrosanctum concilium, General Norms, 3).
In section B of the document, the norms pertaining to the hierarchic and communal nature of the Liturgy are laid out. In considering these extraordinary times of a global pandemic, where restrictions are put into place to prevent the active transmission of the COVID-19 virus during liturgical celebrations, the question arises then of how we may be able, or better able to fulfil these norms.
26. Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the “sacrament of unity,” namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.
Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation.
27. It is to be stressed that whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.
This applies with especial force to the celebration of Mass and the administration of the sacraments, even though every Mass has of itself a public and social nature.
28. In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy.
29. Servers, lectors commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function. They ought, therefore, to discharge their office with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a ministry and rightly expected of them by God’s people.
Consequently they must all be deeply imbued with the spirit of the liturgy, each in his own measure, and they must be trained to perform their functions in a correct and orderly manner.
30. To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence. (Sacrosanctum concilium, Norms drawn from the hierarchic and communal nature of the Liturgy, 26-30)
These norms could be easily adhered to in a Church that is pre-COVID-19. Nonetheless, these norms or the expression of these norms have been curtailed or diminished in this time. With bodily restrictions of numbers allowed to participate in the Liturgy at any given time, the Church in its empty-ness has to move away from the Church as physical building. The World Health Organisation (n.d.), with the research that has been gathered, has also proposed that this pandemic may not disappear but peter off to become endemic status, where each of us has to live with the prevailing conditions of the New Normal. Thus in considering Point 30 of Sacrosanctum concilium, the Church needs to be invigorated by a new way of enabling and empowering its faithful to participate most fully in the Liturgy, given the context of a long-term endemic New Normal.
The Church thus needs to shift away from the concept of Church as physical building, and shift its resources to that of a Church as Field Hospital. As people cannot come to the church and be in the real presence of Christ, the Church must find strategies to bring Christ and the Church to the people. In tending to those at the peripheries, the Church must consider carefully how it may still fulfil the norms of Sacred Liturgy, while at the same time explore new and creative ways of empowering the Faithful to participate fully in the Liturgy. For example, the use of radio, television, and streaming technologies to broadcast the Eucharistic Celebration to the majority of parishioners who cannot be physically present, needs to consider the aspects of clarity and reception, and also that of interaction and active participation. Livestreams tend to be one-sided, and video-conferencing technologies tend to be limited in how there could be distortion, response lag, and feedback when multiple microphones are unmuted at any time. A step to solving this could be in the investment of proper cameras, microphones, software, hardware, Internet connectivity, and infrastructures to support these livestreams over the Internet. Another step could be found in the finetuning of comment and feedback mechanisms that are embedded in these technologies, so as to allow the Faithful to respond appropriately to the on-goings of the Eucharistic Celebration. These need to occur while in adherence and cognizance of
20. Transmissions of the sacred rites by radio and television shall be done with discretion and dignity, under the leadership and direction of a suitable person appointed for this office by the bishops. This is especially important when the service to be broadcast is the Mass. (Sacrosanctum concilium, The Promotion of Liturgical Instruction and Active Participation, 20)
It is not just the Eucharistic Celebration that can foster participation by the Faithful. The Church will need to find ways of making the Liturgical seasons come alive even in one’s home. The Church will also need to foster communal forms of prayer as as a concerted effort to pray the Divine Office together as a Church community, even as each utilises video-conferencing technologies to do so, rather than praying face-to-face physically.
As Vatican II heralded an era of change, the 21st century, invites us to also consider how the Church may adapt to the current comings and goings, while retaining its role as vanguard of the Truth, so as to remain a life-changing and relevant force and voice to society today.
Is Sacrosanctum concilium relevant today? Most definitely, but inspired by the Spirit and essence of Vatican II, the Church too is invited to think of new ways of celebrating the Sacred Liturgies and living the mandate of a full and active participation of the people.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Pope John XXIII. (1964). Opening Address to the Church. The Encyclicals and Other Messages of John XXIII. TPS Press.
Sacrosanctum concilium. (1963). Vatican Publishing House, Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
World Health Organisation. (n.d.). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. World Health Organisation. Retrieved June 24, 2021, from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIitjxmqSv8QIVDT5gCh2CUAKMEAAYASAAEgLXevD_BwE