American Catholic Press
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by Father Michael Gilligan
In 1963, the second vatican Council gathered in its first session; the bishops of the Catholic Church met together and overwhelmingly approved a new document on which they had spent much time and effort: the Constitution on Liturgy. This document is, without any doubt, the most important single statement about our prayer life that has been given us in the last four hundred years. Nevertheless, some of the basic principles of this document have yet to be widely and accurately understood. It may perhaps take another generation for the sound teaching of the Church to take root fully in our lives and in our prayer.
Even now, over twenty years later, we can still learn from the Constitution of the Liturgy. As with Scripture, we can go back again and again to this document, acquire new insights, refresh our understanding, and see how we can pray more effectively.
One principle, found in paragraph ten of the Constitution, is of decisive importance.
This fundamental principle is explained in detail by the bishops of the Church. Using Scripture, tradition, and past teaching, they show us convincingly what the liturgy is and why it is so important.
The liturgy is something that is done by Jesus Christ, in his humanity; this is why he is present in the Church, especially in her celebrations of the liturgy. He is present in the person of the bishop, priest, or deacon. He is present in what the Eucharist Prayer calls the "Bread of Life" and the "Cup of Salvation." He is present by his power in all the sacraments, so that when someone baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes. When Scripture is proclaimed in the assembly, read or preached, it is Christ himself who speaks. When the Chruch prays and sings together Christ again is present, for example, at Morning Prayer of evening Prayer, In this way, liturgy is always a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. We, the Church, do what we do together with him; this is why we are the members of his Mystical Body. The bishops do not say that we approach Jesus through Mary; they make the point that Jesus himself is already present to us in many ways and is closer to us than any saint, including Mary. One of the strengths of the liturgy is that we can be close to God the Father precisely because Jesus is already so very close to us. How is this relationship expressed in the liturgy? It is not that Mary intercedes for us with her Son but that Jesus, Mary, and all the saints are interceding for us with God the Father. Jesus is at the head of his people, leading us to heaven.
Every celebration of the liturgy, every Mass, every gathering for Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, every sacrament, is a sacred action that is more important than anything else the Church does. This is so because the liturgy is something that is done both by Christ the Priest and his Body, the Church. Nothing else we do can be more intimately bound up with Jesus Christ himself.
To understand this teaching, we must reflect on the nature of other works of the Church. To say that they are less important than the liturgy is not to say that they are of no importance. Indeed, they too are important, in many cases, as means to an end. What else does the Church do? The Council speaks of preaching the Gospel, calling people to conversion—today often called "evangelization." There are works of charity piety, and the apostolate, which today is often called "ministry." But the ultimate purpose of all this effort, in the end, is that people should believe, that they should be baptized, and that they should come together to praise God in his Church to offer the Mass and to receive Communion or , as the bishops put it, "to take part in the Sacrifice and to eat the Lord's Supper."
There is another kind of activity, the good deeds of individuals who
are members of the Church. The bishops speak of three kinds of this
In addition to the liturgy, the work of the whole Church, there is also good work on the part of individuals: private prayer, the offering of our lives, and popular devotions. Such devotions., say the bishops, are to be highly recommended, especially where the Pope asks them to be used or bishops in a given region approve them. But such devotions, the Church teaches, should fit in with the liturgical seasons of the year (Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter). That has nothing to do with May, June, October, or any other month. May in particular is of no significance in the liturgy; individual prayer, not the public worship of the whole community.
So, should May devotions in honor of Mary be scheduled, celebrated, and promoted? Certainly. Should any elements of these devotions, including Marian hymns, be included in Sunday Mass during May? The Council clearly teaches that this is not necessary. During May, at Mass, we should be paying attention to the celebration. Songs for Mass should be chosen according to the texts of the liturgy itself, not according to devotions outside the liturgy.
There is plenty of opportunity for Marian hymns at times when the liturgy itself speaks of Mary and her role in our salvation. I Advent, for example, both Mary and John the Baptizer are important figures in our life of faith. In December and January, we commemorate Mary in such celebrations as the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadeloupe, and the Solemnity of Mary on January1. Especially at these times, Marian hymns are most appropriate.
Church teaching in this matter should not be misunderstood. Liturgical prayer and song should be kept separate and distinct from devotional prayer and song. This is not to say that it is wrong to sing hymns to Mary at Mass during May, only that there is no reason to do so, for someone who is trying to pray in the spirit of the liturgy. This in not a criticism of Mary or a criticism of Marian devotion; the Church is simply teaching that such devotional practices should harmonize with the liturgical seasons, should be in accord with the liturgy, should in some way be derived from the liturgy. This is so because by its very nature the liturgy is "far superior" to any of these practices. That is the direct and explicit teaching of the Council.
In this respect, the bishops are helping us understand the role of such devotional practices and are helping us make good use of them. In their proper place, such individual devotions as the Rosary, Marian hymns, and novenas can all be good and worthy of special approval. In such rites and prayers, there can be greater freedom of expression, to suit individual tastes and needs of particular groups.
Such was the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in 1963. Some eleven years later, in an apostolic exhortation (a solemn instruction from the Pope), Paul VI further developed the teaching of the Council. In Marialis Cultus, he spoke of the times of the year when Mary is venerated in the liturgy. Especially in Advent and the Christmas season, he says, there are many liturgical references to Mary. There are also the special solemnities of March 25 and August 15, as well as lessor feasts in the course of the year. Individual regions may have special feasts in honor of Mary; one may also use the Saturday Masses of Our Lady.
In his entire exhortation, the Pope says nothing about the month of May or about Easter time as having special reference to Mary. In accord with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, the Pope draws our attention not to private devotion, individual prayer, or personal preference. Instead, he looks to the texts of the liturgy, including the texts of the Missal, to determine how Mary is venerated in the Church's worship. Again, it is evident that during May our attention is centered on the risen Christ and his paschal mystery. There are many other times in the Liturgical Year, as the Pope specifies, when Mary receives and abundance of attention.
The Liturgical Year, however, is only one way in which the Pope highlights the role of Mary in liturgy. In this exhortation, he gives us a sound theology with which Marian piety may be rooted in the public prayer of the Church. For example, he says that the texts of prayers and songs in honor of Mary should draw their inspiration and wording from the Bible, not imagination or fancy. Devotion to Mary, he says, should be imbued with the great themes of the Christian message, the texts of Marian hymns have to be chosen with care, so that the faithful who venerate Mary as the Seas of Wisdom will in turn be enlightened by God's Word. They will be inspired to live their lives in accord with Wisdom Incarnate.
Most important of all, the Pope recalls the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that various practices of piety, such as Marian hymns, prayers, and devotions, be carried out with consideration for the Liturgical Year and in harmony with the liturgy. He says that the faithful must show a willingness to accept guidelines and ideas drawn from the true nature of Christian worship. But accepting such theology of the liturgy, will sometimes make it necessary, he says, to change long-standing customs.
So, the Pope gives us two important guidelines of this nature. First, some people have eliminated all Marian devotions, have suppressed all Marian devotions hymns, have created a vacuum which they do not fill. These people forget, he says, that the Council asked that such expressions of piety should be harmonized with the liturgy, not suppressed. Second, there are people who mix practices of piety (devotions, hymns, or prayers) and liturgical acts in what the Pope calls "hybrid celebrations." With regard to the Mass, he says that with such practices there can be a danger that the Eucharistic becomes the occasion, as it were, for devotional practices. So, he recalls the rule of the Council that such acts of Marian piety should be harmonized with the liturgy, not merged into it.
In summary, then, both the Second Vatican Council and the teaching of the Pope are clear. On the one hand, Marian piety itself is good. It should be encouraged and fostered. It should be reformed to agree with the liturgy and should be coordinated with the Liturgical Year. On the other hand, such private devotion. in any for, should not be mixed in with the liturgy. The two realms should be kept separate. Overall, the liturgy should influence Marian devotion. not vice versa.