Fortieth Anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

Fortieth Anniversary of the ‘Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’

This year marks 40 years since the first document was passed at the Second Vatican Council.

The first volume of Schemata, the drafts to be examined at the Council, contained seven documents. The first four were doctrinal in nature and concern was expressed to the Pope by members of the Preparatory Commission that the Council could get bogged down in complex theological discussion at its opening session. As a result, it was announced at the second general congregation on 16 October 1962 that the draft document on the sacred liturgy, which was fifth on the list, was to be the first item on the agenda for examination by the Fathers.

After a lengthy process of discussion, interpretations, amendments and changes, the final schema was put to the vote. The result was 2147 for, 4 against. The definitive approval and promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium (the ‘Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’, CSL) took place on December 4, 1963 in the presence of Pope Paul VI.

This first document of Vatican II became the yardstick for subsequent discussions at the Council on topics such as ecclesiology and church order, especially in regard to the role of the laity and the authority of territorial conferences of bishops.

The seven chapters of the Constitution deal with: general principles for the reform and promotion of liturgy, the eucharist, the other sacraments and sacramentals, the divine office, the liturgical tear, sacred music, and sacred art and furnishings.

The key foundational principles enunciated in the first chapter are:


It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (the paschal mystery) that we have been saved. This is focus, the ‘theme’, of every liturgy. The purpose of liturgical celebrations is to worship and give thanks to God for the gift of our redemption. (CSL 5)


Liturgy works through ‘signs perceptible to the senses’. How we use liturgical symbols and elements is vital. (CSL 7)


Christ is present in the Mass in the people assembled for worship, in the person of the ordained minister, in the scriptures when they are proclaimed, and in the consecrated elements. (CSL 7)


Liturgy is the summit and fount of the Church’s life. It is the Church’s ‘peak experience’ as well as the source from which all the grace and power of the Church derive. (CSL 10)


Full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful in liturgical celebrations ‘is called for by the very nature of the liturgy and is the aim to be considered before all else’. (CSL 14)


Sacred Scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of liturgy. In order to reform of the liturgy, it is essential to promote a warm and living love of Scripture among the faithful. (CSL 24)


Good liturgical celebrations are characterised by noble simplicity; they are short, clear and not unduly repetitive, and do not require explanation.

Forty years on, it would be an interesting exercise for parishes to assess their liturgical celebrations on the basis of these seven basic principles.

Elizabeth Harrington