On March 9 we remembered one of the pivotal turning points in the Civil Rights Movement in our country during the last century. Fifty years ago on that date our nation was riveted to the sad events that took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Peaceful marchers demanding voting rights for all were confronted with the violent brutality of law enforcement officers. These scenes broadcast on television throughout the country would eventually lead to the first voting rights legislation in our land.
On March 7 in the city of Rome another pivotal moment was taking place—far more peaceful, yet equally significant in opening a new door for change, renewal and reform within the life of the Church. On that day, in the Church of All Saints in Rome, , celebrated the Eucharist incorporating for the first time the Italian language in light of the conciliar liturgical reforms called for by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). That great council, called by Pope Saint John XXIII, ushered in an aggironamento, or updating, in the manner in which the rich tradition of belief and practice in our Church was now to be presented to a modern world.
The first document to be promulgated by the council focused on the reform and renewal of the sacred liturgy. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963), stated: “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy the full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else, for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit (# 14).”
Flowing from this important principle, the council, for the first time since the earliest centuries of the Church, opened the door for the use of the vernacular, or the common language of the people, to be used in the celebration of the liturgical rites of the Church.
Commenting on the importance of this moment, Blessed Paul VI said that day, “As you witnessed this morning, the spoken language has officially entered the liturgy in all parishes and churches. Across the world this date marks the first time a new way of praying, of celebrating Holy Mass has been inaugurated. It’s a great event, one that will be remembered as a new commitment in the great dialogue between God and man.”
To mark this 50th anniversary, Pope Francis returned to the Church of All Saints to remember and celebrate this turning point within the liturgical life of our Church. Following the Mass, and speaking extemporaneously to the overflow crowd gathered outside in eh courtyard as is his custom, Pope Francis said, “Let us thank the Lord for what he has done in his Church in these 50 years of liturgical reform. It was truly a courageous gesture for the Church to draw near to the people of God so that they are able to understand well what they are doing. This is important for us, to follow the Mass in this way. It is not possible to go backwards. We must always go forward. Always forward! And those who go backward are mistaken. Let us go forward on this path.”
While there have been, in the subsequent years since this historic moment, moderate concessions permitting elements of the “older rites” in Latin to be celebrated in our communities, it is good for us to remember and to be grateful for the immense richness in fostering a deeper and more profound understanding and appreciation of the sacred liturgy occasioned by the introduction of the vernacular within the liturgical life of the Church.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right and just!
Monsignor Holquin is the Episcopal Vicar for Divine Worship for the Diocese of Orange.