On The First Session Of Vatican Council II - Marcel Lefebvre

[Letter To All Members Of The Congregation Of The Holy Spirit, March 25th, 1963]


The bundle of all the prayers which had their origin in the Church, those formulated, grouped and harmonised about acts ordained by her, forms that wonderful liturgy which is the expression of the faith, hope and charity of the Church on earth regarding God through Our Lord Jesus Christ. The thought of this liturgy is first and foremost directed to God, who draws the Church into the life of the Trinity. The Father rejoices in His Church, where He everywhere finds his beloved Son, whose one desire was to inflame the Church with His Spirit of Truth and Love, and thus truly assume it into the life of the Trinity.

But just as all that is born of the Trinity is created to live by and to return to it, so the Church, in the likeness of the Trinity and in its spirit of love, draws all those souls which come to her and hear her call to that new divine life in Jesus through the Holy Ghost. She gives them birth, she gives them food and transforms them in and through her liturgy.

It may be truly said that the liturgy is indeed the bosom of the Church where souls find all for which they hunger, the perfect food for their spiritual life, the teaching of truth, the understanding of true values in their due order, the school of all the virtues. It is of the atmosphere of the liturgy that schools, hospitals and hospices were born, the clergy trained and the young apprenticed to cultivation and crafts, sciences and arts "In novitate spiritus."

The history of Christian civilisation owes its foundation, its development and its vitality to the great public prayer of the Church which infuses into those who live by it the spirit of love and the spirit of justice. All charitable and godly undertakings have their origin in the spirit infused in us by the sacraments and the sacrifice of the altar.


It is for this cause that we should find deep rejoicing on seeing in our contemporaries a great desire to live by the liturgy and a new reverence for this incomparable source of the Spirit of God. It was the duty of the Council to encourage these holy aspirations by guiding and directing them.

This desire to restore the liturgy to its true place in Christian life is felt today by the whole Church. The early Popes were the first to originate such a renewal, thereby simply expressing a desire deeply felt by many bishops, priests and laymen. Is it not thus deeply and sweetly that the Holy Spirit acts ?


However, the question of what may be called the liturgical renewal poses fundamental problems for the whole Church. What, indeed, is the function of liturgy in the apostolate of the Church ? Should any reform of the liturgical entity built up in the course of the centuries relate to liturgical worship or specifically to the liturgy as an instrument of the apostolate? Would it not be to undervalue the liturgy to reduce it to such a function and no longer regard it in the light of public worship and the praise of God ? Did this undervaluing of the liturgy arise mainly from the liturgical presentation of acts and teachings which keep an intrinsic living value, or did it, on the contrary, take its origin in the decline of faith and the spirit of religion among believers and that for reasons remote from the liturgy ?

Human activity has again become so foreign to God, so removed from its Creator and His life-giving spirit, that religious souls long to restore the broken links between prayer and action.

It would be all too easy, childish even, to lay to the charge of today's liturgy in its forms of action and expression, the decline of belief among the faithful and to regard it as the sole, or at least the principal, cause.

Pope Pius XII used to say to parish priests and Lenten preachers: " When we look at the humanity about us and wonder whether it is able and willing to receive within itself the reality of this supernatural life, it is clear that for many the answer cannot be ' yes '. The supernatural world has become strange to them and means nothing to them any more. It would seem as though the spiritual organs giving knowledge of such lofty and salutary truths had atrophied or died in them. There has been an attempt to explain such a state of soul by defects in the liturgy of the Church. It has been held that were it purified, reformed and held in respect, those who today have gone astray would find their way back to the road of the sacred mysteries. Whoever reasons thus shows a very superficial conception of such spiritual anaemia and apathy. Their roots go deeper." (Pius XII, 17 February, 1948).

Let us then admit without hesitation that some liturgical reforms were necessary and that it is desirable that the Council should continue on that path until it sees fit to draw a halt, for it is unthinkable that missals, breviaries and rituals, etc. should be changed every ten years, just as it is inconceivable that the official texts and translations should continually be amended.

If, however, this liturgical renewal is to be fully effective, it may be necessary to restore the links between liturgical prayer, the praise of God, the natural and supernatural links, with daily activities. This was, and still is, the work of the missionary Church: " Omnia instaurare in Christo." " Omnia," that means above all the family, the school, the community, the professions, the city. This work must be done again with the help of Christian families and the co-operation of all organisations for Catholic Action and others dedicated to bringingabout the Kingdom of Our Lord.

Rightly to establish the sphere of liturgical reform it must be clearly shown that the liturgy, which is primarily the praise of God, is public worship and truly the prayer of society, of the community in all its aspects. The graces of the liturgy descend upon the Christian people and upon the world to sanctify it in all its activities.

The spirit of the world has thrust the liturgy back upon the Church and confined public prayer and the ministers of the altar to places of worship, invading domains subject to the Christian spirit and digging a trench between prayer and action, between the church and the school, between the altar and the professions, between the eucharist and the city. It has caused men to lose interest in prayer since its efficacy in life is no longer apparent.

Is this not one of the reasons for the sclerosis of the liturgy even within the churches themselves ? Deprived of its normal flowering in the world without, the liturgy has become in some ways unintelligible to those simple souls for whom religious celebrations spreading worship outside the church are needful.

For the time being let us leave aside this particular aspect which will certainly be one to preoccupy the Council, and let us try to state precisely what we are to understand by a new expression of the liturgy, and the principles by which we must be guided in the matter.



Let us begin by recognising that the liturgy has a twofold character which marks and must forever mark it--a profoundly human character: "Sciebat quid esset in homine" (St. John II, 25). The liturgy bears the stamp of Our Lady's knowledge of man, He knows the deep needs of men and of their poor souls stained by sin, but their souls are also those of children of their Heavenly Father, souls sensitive to the Passion of the Son of God, souls trusting in what their mother the Church means to them, souls more responsive to example than to words, more moved by song than by reading, more touched by the living word than by mere recitation, souls concerned with visible pardon, souls more easily taught by their eyes than by their ears.

Our Master knows that these things are needful for us and at least useful to our sanctification and the raising of our souls to Him.


To the human character of the liturgy must be added even more truly its divine character. All that is human in it is to lead us to God, through Our Lord, in the spirit of light and of love.

We are on the threshold of the mystery of the liturgy. Up to that point it could be likened to all the initiations of pagan rites. Now we are entering the domain of the holy in which God Himself has promised to be our guide.

Our Lord has said " Nemo venit ad Patrem nisi per me." None can now come to the Father save through Him, by His sacrifice and His prayer. Hence His liturgy alone opens the mysterious horizons of heaven in all their reality and in their union with earthly realities.

The perfect minister of the liturgy is the Pontiff, he who forges the link between the realities of this world and that of eternal life.

Our Lord was alone in His knowledge of His Father: " Neque Patrem quis novit nisi Filius." (Matt. XI, 27). No man knows the Father save the Son. Heaven, that is the Father, remains for us the great mystery and it is the business of the liturgy to reflect that mystery, in its silences or some of its symbolic ceremonies, in some of its rites and its whole environment, architectural, musical, ornamental and ritual.

All about it must be noble, great and ordered in the image of God himself present in the sanctuary, for the temple is not primarily the house of God's people but first the Domus Dei where the people come to find and meet with God, where they may be in communion with Him.

This mystery is even more clearly expressed in some Eastern liturgies where the priest seems to isolate himself with God that he may bring Him the more perfectly to the people.

It is thus essential that the liturgy should preserve these two fundamental characteristics to be what it is, divine and human, the human turning towards the divine, which is its last end. Man, in his approach to God, can only become the more human and so find once again the true image of God in which he was created. " Induite novum hominem, qui secundum Deum creatus est in justitia et sanctitate veritatis." (Eph. IV, 24). Put on the new man created in the image of God in righteousness and true holiness.

It is by remembering these fundamental principles of the mystery of God and human psychology in conjunction with all the principles of the theology of sin and justification, of redemption through Our Lord. His sacrifice and His sacraments in relation to the principles of sound philosophy on education and the teaching of truth, embracing all the powers of body and mind, that we can give liturgical changes their proper place and real opportunity.

Let us then endeavour to delimit and define more closely the problem which has so greatly preoccupied the Fathers of the Council.



If he is to take a real part in these mysteries of the liturgy, the faithful soul has a conscious need for an ever better and deeper understanding of the texts of the liturgy and a closer share in the action taking place before his eyes.

It seeks its spiritual food in those wonderful texts brimful of truth and life. Hence it seems essential to give him a sound understanding of them, whether the texts be read or chanted.


It is therefore fitting that such understanding should be facilitated. From that it is but a short step to decide that an unintelligible tongue must be forbidden. Other considerations, however, call for thought before proceeding to such radical measures.


We should always remember that we are taking part in an action of the Church, the Catholic Church, and in a prayer which teaches us our faith, our Catholic faith. Hence the liturgy, in so far as it keeps its universal character, fashions us for a catholic and universal communion. To the extent that the liturgy localises and individualises itself, it loses that universal and catholic dimension which leaves a profound impress on souls.

It may be opportune to instance two facts of experience.

It cannot be denied that liturgical actions and that supreme act, the Holy Mass, when expressed in the vernacular tongue only, as in certain Eastern rites, circumscribe the Christian community by the setting of limits. For the peoples of a diaspora they necessitate the presence of local priests if they are to take part in the liturgical rite. Communities are cut off and their members suffer from that isolation. Nor is there any evidence that these communities are more devout and fervent than those who use a universal language incomprehensible to many, but available to all in translation.

A second factor is apparent in those new areas of Christendom which adduce this universality of the Catholic liturgy as proof of the truth of the Catholic Church by contrast with the multiplicity of Protestant rites. This indeed is one of the main bulwarks of the solidarity of Islam which regards Arabic as the sole language of the Koran and goes so far as to forbid any translation.

This primary consideration gives food for thought. We have referred to the expression of the universal Catholic faith in one universal language. It cannot be denied that the faith comes to us in terms of the wording of liturgical prayer " Lex orandi, lex credendi' A single language guards the expression of the faith from the linguistic adaptations of the centuries and thus the faith itself. Living languages are changing and shifting. Little by little, unless liturgical language is adapted to that of the modern world, our speech becomes just as unintelligible, as happened in the case of the language of the Ethiopian rite, Ge'ez--the ancient vernacular tongue which is no longer spoken or understood today.


There is another point worthy of consideration. The understanding of texts is not the last end of prayer, nor is it the sole means of absorbing the soul into prayer, that is, union with God--the aim of prayer.

The true object of prayer is God. The soul which attains to God and spiritual union with Him is in prayer and quenching its thirst at the spring of life.

It would thus be contrary to the very end of liturgical action to concentrate so closely on the understanding of the texts as to set up an obstacle to union with God.

On the other hand the simple, untutored but truly Christian soul will attain to union with God, sometimes through the general atmosphere of liturgical action, holiness and quiet of the place, its architectural beauty, the fervour of the Christian community, the nobility and devotion of the celebrant, the symbolic decoration, the fragrance of incense, etc.

What matter the steps to the altar so long as the soul can raise itself to God and, through the grace of Our Lord, find in Him his heavenly food.

All these considerations in no way diminish the need to seek a better understanding of the liturgical texts and a more perfect sharing in liturgical action. They do, however, lessen the rash and spontaneous desire to seek only one way of such achievement, simply and solely by the use of the vernacular throughout the Mass and the suppression of the universal language of the Church.


What will the final decisions of the Council be ? It is still too early to say.

There may perhaps be a change to the vemacular in the first part of the Mass, but the Council will strongly insist on the preparation of the faithful and their education in the liturgy through the admonitions and sermons of priests and catechists, through continued research into the texts of the missals produced to ensure their better understanding of the liturgy and active participation, both spiritually and mystically, in liturgical action. Over and above these reforms of detail, the Church will call to all her children and to those who are not yet of her family to approach the divine mysteries that they may approach the mystery of God, to partake of the Body and Blood of the divine victim that they may live by the life of the Trinity and so intensify the vitality of the mystic body of Our Lord, the Holy Church of God.

Everything should serve as a means to this vital end, the salvation of souls by their restoration to divine sonship.

These reflections call to mind the problems with which the Council Fathers were concerned in the matter of the liturgy and their desire to restore it to its true place in Christian life.


The Council tackled other matters such as the sources of revelation, ecumenism, dogmatic, schemata general, set out in two groups, the first touching divers topics of dogmatic and moral theology, the second dealing particularly with the Church.

It is impossible to describe in detail the discussions on these schemata not only because the deliberations were secret, but because many pages would need to be devoted to them.

I believe it may be said, however, that they fall into three main groups.


Some saw ecumenism as the main objective of the Council, thus tending to omit from the documents laid before it whatever might revive differences rather than tend to unity.

This anxiety certainly loomed largely in the discussions on the two sources of revelation. It also lay at the root of the demand for some modification of the schemata on ecumenism.

We should add that those who were specially preoccupied with this aspect of the Council tend to stress the episcopal collegiality of the Church in an effort to establish that, in union with the Pope, the college of bishops normally exercises universal jurisdiction throughout the world. These members seek the setting up of a representative body of bishops on a par with the Roman Curia and the conferment of teaching authority and jurisdiction on national assemblies of bishops.

All this would tend to further union with dissident churches.


Another group is particularly anxious to direct the work of the Council to the sphere of the pastoral. It wants to see the Acts of the Council addressed directly to the world and to the faithful on the one hand, and on the other, to a close study of possible adaptations of the liturgy, the sacraments, ecclesiastical discipline and Canon Law to the needs of the apostolate today.

In consequence, this group tends to avoid dogmatic terminology and scholastic precision where theological definitions are concerned. The Second Vatican Council must begin to speak a new conciliar language. So much the world today expects of the Council.

In this they link up with the first group in its opposition to the dogmatic schemata as traditionally presented, but their reasons are different.


Lastly, a third group believes it inconceivable that a Council should refrain from dogmatic definitions in refutation of those modern errors which tend to distort, or even deny, the true teaching of the Church. This involves the reaffirmation of traditional truths in such a way as formally to rid them of such error. In the eyes of these Fathers this is the Council's most important aim, but they regard it as a pastoral aim also since to guard the flock from the wolf is the mark of the good shepherd.

They assert that in our day such errors are many and disseminated even in ecclesiastical circles whether they concern Holy Scripture, original sin, morals, the ultimate purpose of dogma, philosophical truths, the proofs of the existence of God, of the knowledge of the truth, of metaphysics, cosmology, the distinction between nature and grace--all these are called in question. This group holds it essential that the Council should clearly point out the sources of truth and explicitly reaffirm certain dogmas.

These Fathers are chiefly concerned with the presentation of the faith in all its purity and integrity. They do not believe that omissions encourage ecumenism, but that on the contrary truth carries within itself the grace of bringing about unity.

They fear also that a purely pastoral attitude to the Council may involve it in endless discussion and would prefer to leave the business of adaptations to post-conciliary commissions.

They do not wish to see excessive decentralisation and dread a multiplying of bodies given considerable legal powers and any democratisation of the Church contrary to all its traditions.

Such fears do not quench the desire for some reforms in the Roman Curia, episcopal synods, the liturgy, etc., but they should be carried out with great prudence, preferably leaving the matter to the Sovereign Pontiff himself.

These three groups have voiced their points of view freely and frankly.

Why should it not be said that the Holy Father himself clearly seems to desire the achievement of these three aims. The important documents given to the Council Fathers at the opening and closing of the first session show as much.

Doctrine, pastoral care, ecumenism--such is the triptych set before the eyes of the Council Fathers.

It is because the single pursuit of these aims has given rise to serious differences that I have humbly ventured to suggest a twofold solution--on the one hand doctrinal, requiring scientific, scholastic, exact terminology, so as to eliminate all ambiguity and error; on the other, pastoral and ecumenical, so presented as to be understood by those to whom it is addressed, in the form of exhortation and directory.

The Council of Trent gave us an example of this twofold expression in its definitions and dogmatic expositions and its more pastoral catechism.

Is it not a fact of experience that this dilemma constantly presents itself to those pastors whose duty it is to teach the catechism, especially to those who compile it ? It is very difficult to preserve all the doctrinal richness and precision of the catechism if one seeks to adapt its language to the mentality and psychology of children and catechumens. Hence arises the need for the explanations and teachings given by the catechists.

The second session will enlighten us on all these passionately interesting problems which send an amazing echo round the whole world.

The Holy Father is watching over the drawing up of the new schemata by the Council's Commissions.

While the members of the Commissions work, it should be for us the hour of prayer as, at the Cenacle, the apostles awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Virgin Mary was there and was certainly all-powerful over the heart of Jesus that He might send down His spirit. Let us not cease to pray that she may intercede with her divine Son that He deign to send the Holy Spirit to illumine the minds and hearts of the successors of the apostles in a second Pentecost.

Paris, on the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, March 25th, 1963