media & liturgy

Feb 15, 2013

A number of readers will be old enough to remember a time when the hierarchical structure of the Church was mirrored by the Church’s communication structure. To put this simplistically, the thought was that the Holy Spirit would tell the pope, the pope would pass this on to the bishops, and the bishops would make sure that the priests and religious sisters and brothers of his diocese knew. Then through Sunday homilies and classroom teaching the message would get through to all the people of the church.  

This is a simplistic image, but you will understand what I mean. We do need to keep in mind that the greatest moments of growth in the Church (and subsequently in the world) came when individuals (parishioners, sisters and brothers and priests), listened for the Holy Spirit, heard, then responded with lives of love and service. These saintly lives were in fact always the great communicator of renewed vision and new life in the Church.

But for a moment, back to the general idea of a hierarchical, ‘top-down’ communication model.

Before 1960, whenever bishops gathered with the pope to clarify doctrine, or to consider how to best communicate some aspect of the life of God, it would be these bishops who would return to their home diocese and pass on the news. The diocesan bishops were usually the best ones to serve this role since not only did they have a background in all aspects of theology, but they had (albeit to different degrees) a good knowlege of and love for the people they served in the local diocese.

The early 1960’s were a time of significant change in the world. Nowhere was this more evident than in the arena of technology and media communication. The four years of the Second Vatican Council coincided with a much greater ease of world communication. Here in New Zealand the first television broadcast was made in 1960, and even with a TV set then costing around $4.000 in today’s money, by the close of the Council in December 1965, a significant percentage of New Zealanders either owned or rented a set. Newspapers were more available. Portable transistor and car radios enabled news broadcasts to be heard simultaneously around the world.

This meant that within hours of each of the sixteen conciliar documents being signed and published in Rome, a radio sound byte or newspaper headline had communicated an idea, a comment or even a rumour, as a fact. By the time a bishop arrived back in his home diocese a few weeks later, people were ready for change, any change, and every change, since change was the fashion of the sixties. In some cases the Council sound and news bytes (rather than Council fact) were already being implemented in local parishes and schools. 

Fifty years later, most Catholic New Zealanders know little more about the Second Vatican Council than the captions of the 1960’s bytes and headlines.

At the opening of the Year of Faith in October last year, marking 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council, I asked parishioners to name a couple of things that came out of the Council. Many parishioners reported two soundbytes: “Mass in English” and “priest faces people.” These two responses were media headlines of the time in NZ newspapers. But they represent very limited understandings of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy published on 4 December 1963.  I then asked parishioners to name (even the general themes) of some of the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council. No parishioners could name more than three general themes. 


I was delighted at the intellectual faith curiosity that saw a number of these parishioners arrive at Mass the following week with the results of their Google searches of the titles of the sixteen documents. They were ready in case I asked again!


The prime motiviation of the bishops in their liturgy deliberations and decisions at the Council, was to ensure the “full conscious and active participation” of all the people of the Church in the Mass.  They were especially concerned that the Liturgy of the Word (readings from scripture) be in the local language of the people. Fifty years on, it is timely to reflect whether the Liturgy we pray today in our parishes and schools, is an accurate implementation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council:

“In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue. This is to apply in the first place to the readings and “the common prayer,” but also, as local conditions may warrant, to those parts which pertain to the people… 

Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.(par.54 Sacrosanctum Concilium).   

If you are not familiar with the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, you might find it helpful to read a chapter a day for a week as a Lenten “spiritual reading”. If you do this you will notice at least a couple of things:

  1. Much of what you thought the Second Vatican Council communicated about the Liturgy of the Church, while having a theme of accuracy, is often simplistic and even misleading soundbytes.
  2. You will also notice that those who prepared this Constitution were especially concerned that the Liturgy be seen and experienced by the people of the Church as an encounter with Jesus Christ. You might reflect that in your own school or parish at times, the liturgy could be more about what the people are doing than what God is doing.
Yesterday Pope Benedict met with his priests of the diocese of Rome.  In his informal comments with them he reflected on the Second Vatican Council.  He spoke of the role of the media in the Council:

“The ‘Council of the journalists’, of course was not carried out within the faith but within the categories of today’s media. That is to say, it was outside of the faith, with a different hermeneutic … a political hermeneutic. For the media, the Council was a political struggle, a power struggle between the Church’s different strands. … There was a triple problem: the Pope’s power transferred to the power of the bishops and to the power of all: popular sovereignty. The same thing happened with the liturgy. They were not interested in the liturgy as an act of faith but as something where things are made understandable, a type of communal activity. … These translations, the trivialization of the idea of the Council were virulent in the practice of applying liturgical reform; a vision of the Council outside of its proper interpretation, that of faith, was born.” 

“We know that this Council of the media was accessible to all. Thus it was the dominant one, the most efficient one, and it created a lot of calamities, problems, and misfortunes. … The true Council found it difficult to make its thought concrete and actual. The virtual Council was stronger than the real council. But the Council’s strength was present and, little by little, it became more and more actual, becoming the true force that is, after true reform, the Church’s true renewal. It seems to me that, after 50 years, we see how the virtual Council has broken down, been lost, and the authentic Council appears in all its spiritual strength.”

So, there’s my Lenten invitation for this next week. Join me in reflectively reading  Sacrosanctum Concilium. If you would like a PDF which is easier for printing and reading let me know and I will email you a copy.




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