Six decades of Sacrosanctum Concilium in New Zealand

Sacrosanctum Concilium,

The promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, stands as a pivotal moment that ushered in a new era for the Catholic Church.

Sixty years hence, we can reflect on the impact of this document on New Zealand’s theological landscape and liturgical practices.

Sacrosanctum Concilium is the cornerstone of Vatican II because it addresses more than just ritual adjustments to the 1962 rites.

At its most profound level, it articulates a renewed understanding of the Church, where the liturgy of the church and the life of the baptised form a single coherent unity.

Sacrosanctum Concilium was the first Constitution issued by the Council, not only because of the decades-long research that preceded it and the liturgical reforms of Pope St Pius X and Pope Pius XII but, most importantly, according to Pope Benedict XVI, because the liturgical life of the Church is central to the very existence of the Church.

2,147 bishops at the Council overwhelmingly approved Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Only four voted against the Church’s cornerstone document and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was promulgated by Pope St Paul VI on December 4, 1963.

Historical Snapshot

The journey of implementation unfolded gradually in New Zealand.

The bishops, cognizant of the sweeping changes, decided not to alter liturgical practices until the publication of the first Instruction on February 5, 1964.

Throughout 1964, New Zealanders,  were kept abreast of liturgical developments through publications like Tablet and Zealandia, while the bishops prepared to implement the Mass in English.

On May 16, 1964, the decree permitting the use of English and Māori (vernacular) in the Mass reached New Zealand, outlining its application in parish Masses, Religious community Masses, and special occasions such as requiem and nuptial Masses.

A circular letter from the New Zealand bishops, dated July 10, 1964, further authorised changes in the Mass and extended permission for English in sacraments and funeral rites.

The final form of the New Mass was introduced on the First Sunday of Advent, 1970.

Throughout the late 1960s, religious women had been very prominent in the liturgical changes.

At the same time, they were exploring their original charisms under the guidance of Perfectæ Caritatis, the Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (28 October 1965).

In New Zealand’s four dioceses, some diocesan priests gave practical leadership to the reforms, many of whom used French, German, and English sources.

Most of these priests were associated with the St Paul’s group at the National Seminary, Holy Cross during the 1950s which had been foundered by Basil Meeking, later Bishop of Christchurch, one of New Zealand’s greatest advocates for the new Order of Mass (Novus Ordo).

In Christchurch, Bishop Brian Ashby displayed a nuanced approach to reform and emphasised practical ecumenism.

He established two commissions for Liturgy and Music with Fr Basil Meeking, playing a central role.

Indeed, Meeking was sometimes too Avant guarde in his approach.

There is much anecdotal evidence of his parish church resounding to the sounds of modern music long before this practice became popular.

And much to the horror and bewilderment of the majority of parishioners there was also the sight of liturgical dance.

In Auckland, Auxiliary Bishop, Reginald Delargey, emerged as the one who seamlessly embraced the reforms of Vatican II.

Delargey’s enthusiasm came from his involvement with the Catholic Action or Cardijn movement.

Lay Catholic involvement was strong during this period of reform, especially from those involved in Catholic Action and the Young Christian Worker Movements.

Delargy’s emphasis on the lay apostolate in theology and liturgy set him apart from Archbishop Listen (Auckland), Cardinal McKeefry and Bishop Sneddon (Wellington), and Bishop Kavanagh (Dunedin).

The Clergy and Laity

Both clergy and laity faced challenges transitioning from a rigid ritual practice of worship to one where the liturgy itself was seen as the principal way the Church does its pastoral work.

In short, the advent of Pastoral Liturgy.

Priests, accustomed to meticulous liturgical manuals, grappled with adaptability and laity, used to non-participatory forms of worship now had to adapt to praying the Mass and the sacramental rites with the priest.

Celebrating the Mass to the people (missa cum populo) for the priests meant facing the congregation and for the congregants, it meant seeing the priest presiding.

Consequently, altars had to be repositioned and lecterns introduced because previously the priest had read the epistle and Gospel at the altar.

Using our vernacular languages (English and Māori) was not new, but it was different, and new texts for shared proclamation had to be written and learned.

Although the “Dialogue Mass” with bi-lingual missals in Latin and English had been introduced in 1939, and Māori congregations had participated in the Roman Canon’s prayers for the dead, these changes to language, posture and inclusion were significant.

As an example, our language changed from “going to hear mass” on Sundays to “celebrating the liturgy”, or “celebrating the Eucharist” on Sundays.

“Liturgy”, became a new word that, also, unfortunately, covered a multitude of mistakes as well.

Contemporary Context

Since the Council the voices for the reinstatement of the 1962 Roman Missal and the rites before 1962 became more strident, creating the so-called “liturgical wars”, which as Pope Francis wrote in Traditiones Custodes, has led to a division in the church through their rejection of the Second Vatican Council as the Church’s highest teaching authority.

Given this division, Pope Francis, guided by the bishops of the Church, abrogated the pre-Vatican rites and reserved permission to use them to the Holy See.

He did this to preserve the unity of the Church, through the use of the liturgical rites promulgated by Saints Paul IV and John Paul II.

Pope Francis has also offered Bishops’ Conferences the opportunity to adapt liturgical rites further to local culture, language, and use.

This allows for the revision of many prayers in the current 2010 translation, excluding the Eucharistic Prayer.

The biggest danger to the New Zealand Church at present is the loss of 60 years of work towards a Church that is pastorally focused through liturgical prayer and responsive to the Signs of the Times.

Without this, the “self-revealing God” of the Scriptures and Tradition is replaced with devotionalism.

Many parish communities are endangered by laity and clergy who disenfranchise local communities through clerical structures and mentalities that belong more to the past than they do to the present.

Marking 60 years of Sacrosanctum Concilium is an opportunity to consider what the New Zealand Church has been through, tell the story, and ask those joining the Church to respond to this history in positive and life-giving ways.

  • Dr Joe Grayland is a Liturgical Theologian and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Tübingen (Germany). He has been a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North for nearly thirty years. His latest book is: Catholics. Prayer, Belief and Diversity in a Secular Context (Te Hepara Pai, 2021).

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