One key statement of Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) is that the liturgy is "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows" (n. 10).
The notion of the liturgy as the source and summit of Christian living is so central to our Catholic self-understanding today that it might be hard to believe it was a source of controversy during the debates at the Second Vatican Council.
Some council fathers argued that it was wrong to maintain that the liturgy is the summit of the Church's activity. It should rather be seen, they said, as a means to higher ends – the salvation of souls and the glorification of God. The true fountain, in this reckoning, is Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
The bishops and other council fathers overwhelmingly rejected this idea – by a vote of 2,004 to 101. Why? Because the liturgy is the action of Christ the Priest acting through the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, while the liturgy has the effect of saving souls, the central action of the Church is the re-enactment of the paschal mystery. This is of infinite intrinsic value even if no souls are saved.
Of course, souls are saved because of the liturgy. The liturgy is a source of salvation. "From the liturgy . . . grace is poured forth upon us as from a fountain, and our sanctification in Christ and the glorification of God to which all other activities of the Church are directed . . . are achieved with maximum effectiveness" (n. 10).
Still, if the liturgy is the source and summit of Christian life, those images presuppose that the vast bulk of Christian life lies outside the liturgy. If the liturgy is the summit, there must be an entire mountain underneath it. If the liturgy is the source, there must be an abundant realm of life that it nourishes.
The liturgy is the source of Christian living and also the summit.
The authors of the Constitution on the Liturgy were quite aware of this. "The spiritual life," they said, "is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy" (n. 12). For the liturgy to be the summit of Christian living, Christians must not only pray together, but also pray "in secret" and "without ceasing."
The Church encourages not only participation in the liturgy, but also in popular devotions. A wide array of devotions exists in Catholic life, often with little connection to the liturgy.
"Such devotions," said the constitution, "should be so drawn up that they harmonize with liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it, and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them" (n. 13).
This task of harmonizing popular devotions with the liturgical seasons and with the liturgy itself might be called one of the unfinished tasks of Vatican II. It might be called unfinished except that the process has never even begun.
As a result, a plethora of devotions exist – not only in Canada, throughout the world – many of which have only a tenuous relationship to each other or to the liturgy. If the liturgy is to be the summit of Christian living, a strong Catholic devotional life, one clearly tied to the liturgy, needs to be fostered.
The liturgy's function as the summit also calls for a clearer development of the priesthood of the laity.
The council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) describes the lay priesthood in these terms: "For all their works, prayers and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit – indeed even the hardships of life if patiently born – all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (LG 34).
The role of the priest is to offer sacrifice; the priesthood of the baptized involves offering the activities, joys and sorrows of daily life to God as spiritual sacrifices. It is fitting to bring these sacrifices to the Eucharist and to offer them to the Father. In fact, it was with this understanding that the Prayer of the Faithful was restored to the Mass following Vatican II.
Likewise, the Church needs to further unpack Vatican II's presentation of the liturgy as the source of Christian living. Just as all the faithful share in Christ's priestly sacrifice, they also share in his offices of prophet and king.
From the liturgy, we are sent forth to be prophets who proclaim Christ "by word and the testimony of life . . . in the ordinary circumstances of the world" (LG 35). The liturgy of word and sacrament is the source of the prophetic ministry of evangelization in which all the faithful take part.
Also from the liturgy, we are sent forth to overcome the reign of sin and to bring all of creation under God's power.
The Constitution on the Church says, "The Lord desires that his kingdom be spread by his lay faithful; the kingdom of truth and life, the kingdom of holiness and grace, the kingdom of justice, love and peace" (LG 36). The liturgy is the source of the empowerment of the laity who are to order creation to the praise of God and ensure that society conforms to the norms of justice.
To say that the liturgy is the source and summit of Christian living is no small thing. It is a central concept of the Constitution on the Liturgy. Yet it is a concept that we have barely begun to implement.