|Participating in the Sacred Liturgy
The notion of participation in the liturgy is based on doctrinal
principles rooted in Catholic ecclesiology. If ecclesial activities,
according to the Second Vatican Council (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 25;
Christus Dominus, nn. 12-16; Presbyterorum Ordinis, nn.
4-6), revolve around the proclamation of the Word of God, the celebration
of the liturgy and the actions stemming from the pastoral administration
of the People of God, it would be erroneous to imagine that it is only
ordained ministers who take an active part in it and that the
participation of the faithful is exclusively passive. The programme
"giving-receiving" does not exactly correspond to the profound nature of
Catholic ecclesiology but is an excessive simplification of a far richer
It is not, of course, a matter of denying the necessary and
irreplaceable ministerial role of Bishops and priests, but of giving to
healthy Catholic theology, as the Second Vatican Council presented it, the
consideration it deserves.
Several texts illustrate this point:
"Liturgical services are not private functions but are celebrations of
the Church which is 'the sacrament of unity', namely, 'the holy people
united and arranged under their Bishops'. Therefore, liturgical services
pertain to the whole Body of the Church. They manifest it and have effects
upon it. But they also touch individual members of the Church in different
ways, depending on their orders, their role in the liturgical services and
their actual participation in them" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n.
The logical conclusion of the previous assertions is that: "Rites which
are meant to be celebrated in common, with the faithful present and
actively participating, should as far as possible be celebrated in that
way rather than by an individual and quasi-privately" (ibid., n.
And, more concretely, "In liturgical celebrations each person, minister
or layman who has an office to perform, should carry out all and only
those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the
norms of the liturgy" (ibid., n. 28).
It is important to note that the Council's choice of vocabulary shows a
preference for the term "celebration", which stresses the ecclesial
and community dimensions of liturgical services. The new Code of
Canon Law also makes frequent use of this word but does not exclude
the term "administration" of the sacraments, which also conveys important
theological concepts with a view to a correct understanding of the nature
and efficacy of the sacraments.
It should surprise no one, therefore, that the word "celebration" has
acquired special importance in liturgical catechesis and in the current
vocabulary of both priests and the faithful.
Let us continue our reflection, citing other texts of the Second
"The liturgy, then, is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly
office of Jesus Christ. It involves the presentation of man's
sanctification under the guise of signs perceptible by the senses and its
accomplishment in ways appropriate to each of these signs. In it full
public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is,
by the Head and his members" (ibid., n. 7, 2).
"Christ, indeed, always associates the Church with himself in this
great work in which God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The
Church is his beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through him offers
worship to the eternal Father" (ibid., n. 7, 1).
"From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is
an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a
sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can
equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree" (ibid., 7,
After referring to various complementary doctrinal aspects in the
Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, we should recall the Conciliar
teaching on the common priesthood of the faithful. In returning to an
ancient subject, it gives an excellent explanation of the basis for the
participation of the faithful in liturgical celebrations. This text, from
the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, is of
capital importance. We cite it here:
"Christ the Lord, high priest taken from among men (cf. Heb 5:1-5),
made the new people 'a kingdom of priests to God, his Father' (Rv 1:6; cf.
5:9-10). The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy
Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood,
that through all the works of Christian men they may offer spiritual
sacrifices and proclaim the perfection of him who has called them out of
darkness into his marvellous light (cf. I Pt 2:4-10).
"Therefore, all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and
praising God (cf. Acts 2:42-47), should present themselves as a sacrifice,
living, holy and pleasing to God (cf. Rom 12:1). They should answer to
everyone who asks a reason for the hope of an eternal life which is theirs
(cf. I Pt 3:15). Though they differ essentially and not only in degree,
the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical
priesthood are nonetheless ordered one to another; each in its own proper
way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.
"The ministerial priest, by the sacred power that he has, forms and
rules the priestly people; in the person of Christ he effects the
Eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people.
The faithful indeed, by virtue of their royal priesthood, participate in
the offering of the Eucharist. They exercise that priesthood, too, by the
reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a
holy life, abnegation and active charity" (Lumen Gentium, n. 10).
Christian life, therefore, must be seen as a hymn of "praise to the
glorious grace" of God (Eph 1:6, 12, 14), an offering of ourselves to God,
a living and holy sacrifice, knowing that what pleases him is perfect (cf.
This praise acquires its value from our incorporation into Christ at
the moment of our Baptism, and from the fact that the perfect praise of
Christ on the Cross gives rise to our own praise or rather, in other
words, our praise is incorporated into the praise of Christ precisely
through the renewed presence of his Sacrifice, made once and for all (cf.
Heb 7:27; 9:12, 28; 10:12, 14) on Calvary.
Thus, we can say in this regard that Christian life is a priestly life,
a life consecrated to the glorification of God, or again, a "liturgical
life"; it is not restricted solely to the celebration of liturgical
worship in the strict sense but is also based on this worship and, living
it as its summit (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10), transpires in all
our actions, including those that derive directly from temporal
responsibilities, or bear the hallmark of what is temporary or incomplete.
For a deeper knowledge of our topic, participation in the liturgy, it
is of course vital to take these considerations into account.
The most explicit text of the Second Vatican Council on the
participation of the faithful in the liturgy says:
"In order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects it
is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that
their minds be attuned to their voices, and that they cooperate with
heavenly grace lest they receive it in vain. Pastors of souls must
therefore realize that when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is
required than the laws governing valid and lawful celebration. It is their
duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they
are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it" (Sacrosanctum
Concilium, n. 11).
The three descriptions of participation used in this conciliar text are
therefore: "fully aware", "actively engaged" and "enriched", but the text
says that these three characteristics are something more than the mere
observance of a valid and lawful celebration, given that they must be the
consequence of "proper dispositions" and cooperation "with heavenly
Hence, the phrases: "come to it", "take part", "take part fully aware",
"actively engaged" and "attuned" do not only merely concern external
aspects but above all and primarily interior, spiritual dispositions. Were
this not the case, the liturgical celebration would inevitably become a
sort of performance or rather, a folklore display or an empty ritual and
hence, a gymnastic or choreographic exercise!
The inner dispositions required for fruitful participation in the
celebration of the liturgy correspond fundamentally to the theological
virtues: faith, hope and charity.
If it is true, as St Paul says three times, that "he who through faith
is righteous shall live" (cf. Rom 1:17, Heb 10:38; Gal 3:11), it is clear
that the Eucharistic Liturgy, the summit of Christian life, cannot exist
outside the light of faith or without a spirit of faith.
It is also true that Christian faith, the virtue proper to our
condition as pilgrims, is necessarily accompanied by hope.
Faith shows us the meaning of our existence here on earth and the means
we must use in this world to attain the definitive goal of our lives.
Hope, for its part, keenly aware of our weaknesses and the wounds left
in our souls by sin, looks confidently at the final destination of our
pilgrimage, certain of being able to reach it with God's help, the only
thing that can introduce us into a "connatural" relationship with God, the
source of being, salvation and the life of beatitude.
Faith and hope must of course lead to charity, whose inseparable
objective is on the one hand God in himself, and on the other, through
love of God, our neighbour. It. is clear that it is a question of loving.
God with all our heart, all our strength and all our being, and at the
same time loving our brothers and sisters in the deeply moving way that St
Paul describes (cf. I Cor 13:1-13).
To the theological virtues, we can add yet another inner disposition,
indispensable for a fruitful participation in the liturgy: the virtue of
This phrase, "virtue of religion" suggests the deep respect and humble
adoration of the One who is thrice Holy, whom we are not worthy even to
approach (cf. Ex 3:1-6; I Kgs 19:9-13). We can say that the virtue of
religion is, as it were, the "soul" of the liturgy; indeed, although we
can never forget that God is our Father, he is nonetheless a Father of
immense majesty, the almighty Lord, the King of eternal glory.
To go more deeply into the various aspects of faith, let us now return
to the theological virtue of faith. It is true that since the divine
realities are part of the mystery of faith, access to the realities
invisible to our fleshly eyes is barred to us except through faith (cf.
Heb 11:1); nor can we reach the conviction without faith that everything
we see comes from what we do not see (cf. Heb 11:3).
Indeed, it is faith that reveals what is invisible through what is
visible, faith that transcends tangible experiences and gives us access to
the mystery; lastly, it is precisely faith that allows us to perceive the
effective meaning of the liturgical actions in the history of salvation,
given that the liturgy is not an abstract construction unconnected with
It is a celebration firmly rooted in the interwoven events that
constitute the fabric of the eternal plan of salvation, achieved as the
Father desired, as it was made manifest in the Incarnate Word and as it
continues to be brought about in the Church through the action of the Holy
Let us now address the specific question of liturgical signs and
symbols. It can be said without any doubt that the raison d'être
of the signs that mark the liturgy derives from human nature, considered
both in its corporeal and spiritual dimensions, but it also derives from
the mystery of the Incarnation through which access to the invisible God
becomes possible through the human reality of Jesus Christ.
In fact, just as Christ's humanity is the instrument for the saving
action of the Word, so the liturgical signs contain and transmit God's
saving power; through them, God's grace is communicated or intensified in
all who have already received justification, divine adoption and
incorporation in the Church.
Of course, comprehension of the liturgical signs is part and parcel of
a conscious and fruitful participation in the liturgy. Yet even if, merely
by their presence, these signs exercise a pedagogical role for those who
perceive them with a limited knowledge of their content, they nonetheless
also demand the presence of a constant mystagogy and a formation based on
liturgical catechesis that can enable both the faithful and ministers to
progress in their knowledge of the mystery being celebrated.
This observation is particularly important with regard to a rite seldom
celebrated, such as, for example, an ordination or the dedication of a new
church. Nothing is more deleterious to the spiritual participation of the
faithful in a liturgical celebration than an excessively hasty or
distracted attitude in the celebrant or a mechanical approach to carrying
out the liturgical actions.
Three words taken from a traditional prayer effectively sum up the
attitude indispensable to every celebrant: "worthy", "attentive",
"devout", for it is true that the celebrant himself is a sign. As a person
who has been consecrated and an instrument of the action of the glorious
Christ who plays the lead in sacramental actions, the ordained minister,
and the members of the lay faithful delegated in accordance with the norms
of law, must let the mystery being celebrated shine out in such a way that
the community can perceive that the above-mentioned minister is neither an
actor on stage nor an official, but a believer in love with the ineffable
presence of the One who cannot be seen with the eyes of the flesh but is
more real than all that belongs to the world of the senses.
A worthy liturgical celebration must first be steeped in the beauty of
the place in which it is celebrated and of the objects of worship used,
even if this is a simple and essential beauty. This includes the
cleanliness of the liturgical vestments and the quality of the sacred
Moreover, should the celebration acquire a theatrical aspect, it cannot
properly be considered "worthy"; indeed, far from being a performance, a
liturgical celebration has a primarily religious and spiritual dimension.
Lastly, this notion of worthiness implies the need to accompany
celebrations with suitable movements for the liturgy. In other words, they
should be made without haste but with a certain deliberation and elegance
devoid of simulation.
Secondly, a liturgical celebration must be "attentive" and this demands
of the celebrant a special effort so that, as far as possible, he may
avoid distractions, especially voluntary ones. This adjective "attentive"
permits insistence on the determination to focus one's spirit, which
requires control of the senses if it is to avoid being swayed by the many
objects that attract the gaze and distract the attention.
Music is naturally not in itself an obstacle to attention since it
constitutes an integral part of the participation of the choir and the
faithful; yet it is deplorable that certain kinds of music that accompany
certain liturgical celebrations do not foster the attention of the
celebrant or the participants.
Indeed, the theatrical style of certain types of music gives excessive
prominence to the prowess of the musicians or singers. This causes a
harmful distraction in the faithful taking part in the liturgical
Thus, it is unseemly that the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist be
regarded in certain cases as an element in some way secondary to the
performance of a famous piece of music that shows off the quality of the
composer and the virtuosity of the performers. Unquestionably, this kind
of practice is not conducive to strengthening the religious sense or
recollection, whereas it is appropriate to note that the use of Gregorian
chant and high-quality polyphony that do justice to the liturgy are free
from these particularly inauspicious consequences.
"Attention" requires silence; first and foremost, of course, "inner
silence" or, if you will, a peaceful, tranquil heart. And this naturally
implies external silence.
The whispering or comments of concelebrants to one another or to other
ministers sitting near them reveals an undisciplined spirit and sets a bad
example for the faithful.
On the other hand, a condition that prepares the ground for the
attention that liturgical celebrations require is the effective
preparation of the celebration so that it may take place in an orderly way
without giving the impression that various elements have been left to
Lastly, the celebration must be "devout". This implies an approach full
of respect, love for God, a religious sense and attention to the "one
thing" that "is necessary" (Lk 10:42).
In French, the adjective "devout" can be explained by the word "pious".
"A devout person is one who is aware that his life has no meaning unless
it is closely bound to God": this is one possible definition of the word
In other words, it is the attitude of all who desire to live a life
totally consistent with their baptismal consecration, in accordance with
the plan summed up concisely by St Paul: "If we live, we live to the Lord,
and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we
die, we are the Lord's" (Rom 14:8).
This means that a devout person is "totally dedicated to the Lord".
Those who take part in a liturgical action must not enter the sacred
celebration having come straight to the community prayer from their
profane, albeit respectable and honest, occupations. An interval marked by
silence, recollection and prayer must elapse, even if it is only brief.
A striking example is set by monks who before entering the monastery
church to celebrate the Divine Office
still called the Liturgy of the Hours
stand in the cloister in silence to focus their thoughts before
concentrating on the recitation of the psalms.
The prayers the celebrant recites as he invests the liturgical
vestments just before the beginning of the celebration serve the same
To conclude, we could say that the reflections expressed above ensue
from the first of the dispositions required for an authentic participation
in the liturgical celebration: it is faith that reveals the various rich
meanings of the liturgical signs; faith, the only, thing that enables the
ordained minister to carry out his sacred role as Christ's instrument and
the servant of his Body, the Holy Church.
The grace of God
It is now indispensable to study another element essential for full
participation in the liturgical celebration: the grace of God, or more
precisely, the state of grace.
The goal of participation in liturgical actions is to obtain grace that
is not yet possessed (as in the case of the baptism of children and access
to the sacrament of Penance by those who are in a state of sin), as well
as a growth of grace in those who are already justified. Grace is the
concrete expression of salvation, the fruit of redemption and pledge of
the glory that awaits us in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Being present at a liturgical celebration in a state of mortal sin and
with no desire for conversion is not true participation, even if, during
the celebration, the person concerned joins in the movements, hymns,
acclamations or other gestures; for in this case, he lacks the fundamental
orientation to God and his glory that are the very soul of the liturgy.
This does not mean that those who do not possess the required inner
disposition should be excluded from the celebration; for it is possible
that their presence, even without all the conditions required for it to be
defined true participation, may yet serve as an instrument of actual grace
that will lead the person in question to conversion.
But people with a public reputation as sinners should be excluded from
carrying out any service during the celebration, for this would be
counterproductive and liable to cause scandal and confusion among the
faithful. The assessment of various cases naturally calls for great
pastoral prudence and a deeply sensitive approach.
It is appropriate, however, never to reduce the requirements provided
for in the principles established by Church morals and law.
External acts of participation
In this day and age, in some rather unenlightened milieus which,
moreover, have not been formed at the school of good theology, it is
claimed that "participation" means no more than what is expressed by
certain bodily attitudes. These, it is true, do express participation, but
we should never forget that they are the external expressions of an
In other words, we can say that these elements are the "material" and
visible part of participation, whereas the "formal" element, in the strong
or essential and invisible sense of the word, is constituted by the
faith, hope and charity
the virtue of religion and by the state of grace; the latter alone puts
the human creature in a state of consecration to the glory of God, on the
basis of the coherence between the faith professed and the love of God and
one's neighbour that is lived out in all life's decisions.
The Second Vatican Council identifies a certain number of elements
intended to encourage active participation. Before citing them it is
appropriate to make one very important observation: these elements do not
alone or in themselves constitute liturgical participation; they do no
more than express and foster it.
Indeed, it should always be remembered that the participation we can
define as "substantial" derives from those elements presented, as we have
said, as "formal".
This is the Conciliar text:
"To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to
take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalms, antiphons, hymns,
as well as by actions, gestures and bodily attitudes. And at the proper
time a reverent silence should be observed".
"When the liturgical books are being revised, the people's parts
must be carefully indicated by the rubrics" (Sacrosanctum Concilium,
nn. 30, 31).
It is obvious that the external elements of participation referred to
in the conciliar text must not be ignored, since the human person, whose
nature is both spiritual and corporeal, needs tangible expressions.
Furthermore, the external elements contribute to strengthening the
Lastly, given that human beings are by nature inclined to live in
society, they need tangible expressions that help them to live this
experience of community life and to express worship as a social and not a
solely private reality.
Thus, it is absolutely impossible to imagine a form of Catholic worship
devoid of tangible elements. Above all, any attempt to eliminate from this
worship expressions so connatural to human nature would deprive it of an
essential part of what it is by nature.
Nor is it right to impose certain external attitudes too strictly, for
fear of turning the liturgical celebration into a sequence of mechanical,
hence, in a certain way, soulless gestures.
In this regard it must be understood that different subjective
situations can prompt someone to assume an attitude that does not
rigorously conform to a specific moment, but this is no reason to speak of
falling away from what has been described above as a "formal
participation". Consequently, if a person does not rigorously respect this
external action, it would be erroneous to presume that the person in
question did not have the required dispositions for real and genuine
Indeed, it can happen that some of those who celebrate the liturgy and
carry out the external acts required by the rubrics with great attention
to detail and rigorous discipline, are actually very far from authentic
The Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 30, cited in the
previous paragraph, concerns forms of participation that are "common" to
the whole People of God.
However, there are also forms of participation that are special, in the
sense that they are not obligatory for all the faithful nor, strictly
speaking, do they entail the exercise of a "right"; on the other hand,
they presuppose certain qualities and even an explicit reference on the
part of those who are responsible for the smooth functioning of the
The Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium,
established this general principle: "In liturgical celebrations each
person, minister or layman who has an office to perform, should carry out
all and only those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the
rite and the norms of the liturgy" (n. 28).
Among the various liturgical ministries, it would be right first of all
to mention all the functions which depend for fulfilment on those who
through sacramental ordination are members of the clergy: Bishops, priests
and deacons. It is the task of these ordained ministers to "structure" the
Church, the visible Body of Christ, in which the sacred hierarchy is both
the sign of salvation that comes from on high as a gratuitous gift and the
instrument of saving action whose primary source is the Lord Jesus, the
one Priest of the New Covenant who exercises his role as mediator through
These ministers are so necessary that St Ignatius of Antioch declared
that without a Bishop, priests or deacons, it was impossible to speak of a
Church (cf. Ad Trall).
However, there are other non-ordained ministers who contribute to the
dignity of the liturgical celebration.
We can name lectors who are responsible for reading the texts of Sacred
Scripture, but not the Gospel. The lector can be "instituted" (in this
case he must necessarily be a man [vir]: can. 230 § 1), "blessed"
or merely called upon for a specific celebration.
The office of reader is not a sign of honour or some kind of official
recognition of a person's presumed merits. It is primarily and solely a
service for the good of the People of God taking part in the celebrations.
It is important that lectors be respectable persons who have an
irreprehensible ecclesial status, a good reputation and can also read
well, that is, intelligibly and with a clear elocution that enables people
to understand their articulation of the sentences of the sacred text.
Consequently, persons who may be very devout and respectable but are
not gifted readers, that is, who are not good at making themselves
understood by those taking part in the celebration, must not be called to
the ministry of lector.
"Altar servers", also called "acolytes", may also be "instituted" (in
this case, they must be adults and men [vir]: can. 230 § 1),
"blessed" or merely called to carry out this service occasionally or on a
more or less regular basis. They must be given appropriate training to
fulfil their function with dignity, that is, without committing those
errors that would necessarily jeopardize the quality and harmony of the
It is the duty of the diocesan Bishop, for a special reason and as an
exception, to permit women and girls to exercise this ministry, but he
should always be mindful of the Church's traditional preference for men
Music is an integral part of liturgical celebrations, and this is why
the Church down the centuries has recognized the role of the "schola
cantorum" or choir. Its task is to interpret passages of liturgical
However, it is necessary to note in this regard that it would be an
abuse to allow the schola cantorum to encroach on the people's
participation in the singing during the liturgical celebration. It would
be even worse were the members of the schola to act in such a way
as to attract attention to the detriment of the liturgical action rather
than abiding by their own role that consists in helping to build up the
religious spirit of those taking part in liturgical celebrations.
The fact remains that the role of the schola cantorum is
recognized by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy as a genuine
liturgical function (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 29).
The shortage of ordained ministers for the distribution of Holy
Communion justifies the service of extraordinary ministers for the
distribution of the Holy Eucharist. These ministers can be permanently
instituted or called upon when necessary. Theirs is a temporary ministry
and on no account a "promotion" of the laity.
The insufficient number of priests or deacons for the celebration of
the sacrament of Baptism may lead the Bishop to authorize lay persons to
be extraordinary ministers of this sacrament (cf. Code of Canon Law,
can. 230 § 3).2 For the same reason, the Bishop may designate
lay people as qualified witnesses for the canonical celebration of
marriage (can. 1112);3 he may also authorize lay persons to
lead Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest (can. 1248 § 2; The
Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, Directory for Sunday Celebrations
in the Absence of a Priest, Christi Ecclesia, 10 June 1988,
Preliminaries, cf. Notitiae 263, 1988, 366-378)4 or to
preside at funerals (cf. Ordo Exsequiarum, Praenotanda, n.
Among the ministers who assist the ordained ministers in liturgical
celebrations and especially in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist,
it would be appropriate to recall the "master of ceremonies", who is
responsible for seeing that the celebration takes place worthily and
appropriately and that each of the ministers carries out his role
properly. This task is not strictly reserved to an ordained minister,
priest or deacon, even if it is appropriate to choose a master of
ceremonies from among them.
Lastly, the "commentator" should not be forgotten. It is he who, with
brief and discreet instructions, helps the community to understand the
various parts of the liturgical celebration.
It goes without saying that commentators must have a firm grasp of the
meaning of the liturgical texts. This implies that they have been well
instructed, for they may not provide interpretations of the rites
celebrated at whim but must refer exclusively to the liturgical texts and
actions approved by the Church.
The place in which commentators exercise their ministry is neither the
pulpit nor the place for the proclamation of the Word, but somewhere else
that is both suitable and discreet.
It is obvious that all who take part in a liturgical celebration and
exercise such a "ministry" in it, must take the trouble to prepare
themselves, spiritually and liturgically. They must acquire a knowledge,
in the strict sense of the word, of the norms that regulate a celebration
and ensure that it takes place with dignity and is imbued with a religious
It would be right to insist once again on the fact that temporary
ministries may be exercised only in the absence of ordained ministers or
when ministers are in such short supply that it is impossible to see a
celebration through within a reasonable period of time. It is
indispensable, therefore, to have clearly in mind the Inter-Dicasterial
Instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio on the collaboration of the lay
faithful in the ministry of priests, published on 15 August 1997 (AAS 89,
1997, pp. 852-877; in a French translation: cf. La Documentation
Catholique, 2171, 1997, 1009-1020).
The liturgy has an "ascendant" dimension, since it truly raises to the
Majesty of God the praise that is due to him as Creator and Redeemer. This
praise of the whole Church, Head and Body, is both personal and communal:
it naturally involves every member of the faithful, but every member of
the faithful also belongs to the Mystical Body of Christ.
And given that the Body of Christ, which is the Church, has a structure
established by her divine Founder, it is those who can act in persona
since they have been admitted to share in apostolic succession by
preside at liturgical praise. Thus, this ascendant dimension culminates in
the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
However, it is true that the liturgy also has a "descendent" dimension,
for it is through celebrations, and the celebration of the sacraments in
particular, that salvation reaches human beings with sanctifying grace and
all the gifts that go with it.
God, in his eternal plan of salvation for human beings, desired visible
acts to convey invisible grace. Although these acts may be meant to make
the person holy, they take the form of liturgical celebrations in the
community of believers, a concrete expression of Church.
Having come to the end of this reflection, it seems to me particularly
timely to return to the first text of the Constitution of the Second
Vatican Council on the Holy Liturgy. This is the text:
"It is the liturgy through which, especially in the divine sacrifice of
the Eucharist, 'the work of our redemption is accomplished' and it is
through the liturgy, especially, that the faithful are enabled to express
in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real
nature of the true Church. The Church is essentially both human and
divine, visible but endowed with invisible realities, zealous in action
and dedicated to contemplation, present in the world but as a pilgrim, so
constituted that in her the human is directed toward and subordinated to
the divine, the visible to the invisible, action to contemplation, and
this present world to that city yet to come, the object of our quest" (Sacrosanctum
Concilium, n. 2).
The subject of participation in liturgical celebrations truly makes
tangible to us the mystery of salvation, the wonderful economy with which
the merciful Father, through his Incarnate Word, reveals his plan to us
and brings it about through the power of the Holy Spirit who makes all
1 The Circular Letter of 15 March 1994 of the Congregation
for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to the Presidents
of the Bishops' Conferences (Notitiae 39, 1994, 333-335), on the
application of the Response of the Pontifical Council for the
Interpretation of Legislative Texts with regard to the authentic
interpretation of can. 230 § 2 (according to this canon, do the liturgical
; functions that lay-persons can fulfil include altar service?
Affirmative et iuxta instructiones a Sede Apostolica dandas. Cf.
AAS 86, 1994, 541), establishes that it is the task of each Bishop in
his own Diocese, after hearing the opinion of the Bishops' Conference, to
issue a prudent judgment on the appropriate action for the harmonious
development of liturgical life in his own Diocese.
Moreover, the obligation to continue to prefer boys for altar service,
which has permitted an encouraging development in priestly vocations, will
always exist. In a Letter of 27 July 2001 (Notitiae 421-422, 2001,
397-399), the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the
Sacraments explains on the one hand that the freedom of the diocesan
Bishop cannot be conditioned by possible decisions of neighbouring Bishops
who favour altar service carried out by women, and on the other hand, that
the possible authorization of the Bishop must always leave priests of his
Diocese free to have recourse to a group of altar servers consisting only
of boys, given the obligation contained in the Letter of 1994, cited
above, concerning the growth of priestly vocations.
2 The Inter-Dicasterial Instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio
of 15 August 1997 (Practical Provisions, art. 11), explains that care
should be taken to avoid too extensive an interpretation of this provision
and to ensure that such a faculty is not conceded in a habitual form.
For example, the absence or the impediment of a sacred minister which
renders licit the deputation of the lay faithful to act as an
extraordinary minister of Baptism, cannot be defined in terms of the
ordinary minister's excessive workload, his non-residence in the territory
of the parish or his non-availability on the day on which the family have
planned the Baptism. Such reasons are insufficient.
3 Can. 1112 requires the prior favourable opinion of the
Bishops' Conference and the permission of the Holy See. In France this
possibility of delegating faculties to lay persons does not exist.
4 The Inter-Dicasterial Instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio
of 15 August 1997 (Practical Provisions, art. 7), explains that the
non-ordained member of the faithful who leads this kind of celebration
must have a special mandate from the Bishop, who will take care to provide
the appropriate instructions regarding the term of applicability, the
place and conditions in which it is operative, as well as to indicate the
Furthermore, these celebrations are temporary solutions and the text
used at them must be approved by the competent ecclesiastical authority.
The practices of inserting into such celebrations elements proper to the
Holy Mass and the use of the Eucharistic Prayers even in narrative form
It should be emphasized for the benefit of those participating that
such celebrations cannot substitute for the Eucharistic Sacrifice and that
the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday and holy days of obligation is
satisfied only by attendance at Holy Mass, even at the cost of taking part
in a Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest, when participation in
the Holy Sacrifice is not possible. In the cases where distance or
physical conditions are not an obstacle, every effort should be made to
encourage and assist the faithful to fulfil this precept (AAS 89,
5 The Inter-Dicasterial Instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio
of 15 August 1997 (Practical Provisions, art. 12), recalls that this
possibility only exists in the case of a true absence of sacred ministers.
Moreover, because of the present circumstances of growing
dechristianization and of abandonment of religious practice, death and the
time of funerals can become one of the most opportune pastoral moments in
which the ordained minister can meet with the non-practising members of
It is thus desirable that priests and deacons, even at some sacrifice
to themselves (cum magna deditione), should preside personally at
funeral rites (AAS 89, 1997, 874).