Defending the liturgical reforms of Vatican II

Question: I have been reading in various places that the Second Vatican Council never intended that Latin be replaced with the vernacular to the extent that has occurred. Can you comment? Also, what about the theory that Pope Paul VI erred in approving so many changes and that liturgical renewal should start over? 

—Deacon John, Washington, D.C.

Answer: Let me quote from Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy about the vernacular. It states: “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (No. 36). It goes on to state: “But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants.” 

Clearly the council envisaged some use of the vernacular. To what extent? “It is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority ... to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used; their decrees are to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See” (No. 36). 

This leaves wide open the question of how much of the liturgy may be in the vernacular. After the bishops who attended Vatican II returned to their dioceses, they began to experience the positive effects of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. This led Pope Paul VI to approve a very wide use of it. 

Some have held that the reforms of Pope Paul in the matter of the vernacular went beyond what the council intended. I do not think this to be true, given what I just quoted. There is also the very important consideration that Pope Paul had the authority to be the principal interpreter of the conciliar decrees. Those who criticize him often find themselves in the troublesome position of according their personal opinions as much, if not more, authority as the pope in the matter of interpreting Vatican II. 

The theory that he made a mistake in approving so many changes is rash and problematic in that it accords excessive importance to personal interpretations. Much criticism of post-Vatican II liturgical reform is historically ill-informed, out of touch with the pastoral benefits and often ends up subtlety questioning the very legitimacy of the council itself. 

History cannot be undone. The liturgical reforms that came after Vatican II were not perfect, but they are what we have. Starting liturgical reform all over again is as unrealistic as trying to put toothpaste back into the container. Liturgical reform properly grows slowly and organically. 

Some hope that Pope Benedict XVI will initiate a whole new direction in liturgical reform and that we should expect to see new liturgical books and rites. I believe this hope is unfounded. Nothing that Pope Benedict has written (and here what he wrote before he became pope is very instructive) suggests that he thinks Vatican II was a mistake and that liturgical reform should start all over again. Certainly, he has called for a new liturgical movement. But when one reads the fine print of what he proposes, it is evident that he wants to see a recovery of the rich spirituality of the 20th-century liturgical movement. I say amen to that. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.