Commentary on the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum
Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino
Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

An Experience of Faith, Mystery, Communion

I would like to offer some interpretative keys to the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum so that people can grasp the spiritual inspiration that brings it to life.

The Instruction, as n. 2 recalls, is a follow-up to the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia and has the same basic inspiration. The fact it is written in the form of a discourse with certain disciplinary elements does not prevent its heartbeat from being "contemplative". In its own way, the Document responds to the urgent need for a "liturgical spirituality" which the Pope called for in his Apostolic Letter Spiritus et Sponsa (n. 16).

It is also important to interpret the Instruction in the light of this recent Papal Pronouncement that forcefully proposes anew the timeliness of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the conciliar Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy whose 40th anniversary we have just celebrated.

With regard to its content, the Instruction does no more than reassert the liturgical norms in force. However, it is far from dry in its approach. Both in the Preamble and throughout, it concisely recalls the motives that give meaning to the norms. An image of the Eucharistic liturgy and of the corresponding body of norms that emerges from them can be summed up in the following three perspectives as an expression of faith, an experience of the mystery and an experience of communion.

Expression of faith

The liturgy, and especially the Eucharist, is the privileged place where the Church confesses her faith. She confesses it in the loftiest way possible, that is, in a dialogue of love with her Lord. The liturgical expression of this dialogue is marked by the fact that it is not a single believer or group of believers who are at stake, but the Church herself. It is a matter of "public" prayer whose importance, because of its character, surpasses that of other prayers. In fact, as the Council says, "no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree" (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7).

This prayer is intrinsically determined by the profession of faith. At the same time, it can cast ever new light on the content of the faith in a circular relationship between the lex orandi and the lex credendi, a fundamental principle that the Document also recalls with these words: "The sacred Liturgy is quite intimately connected with principles of doctrine, so that the use of unapproved texts and rites necessarily leads either to the attenuation or to the disappearance of that necessary link between the lex orandi and the lex credendi" (n. 10).

At the very least, this is a risk and explains why nothing can be left to chance in the liturgy: the stakes are too high!

In n. 9, the Instruction recalls that the whole tide of faith and tradition flows through the rites and prayers of the liturgy. Abuses sometimes show up an ignorance of the meaning of the norms themselves, through a lack of knowledge of their deeper meaning and antiquity. This point reflects the need for a more profound and systematic liturgical formation of the People of God, as the Holy Father reminded us recently: "It is more necessary than ever to intensify liturgical life within our communities by means of an appropriate formation of the pastors and of all the faithful with a view to the active, conscious and full participation in liturgical celebrations desired by the Council" (Spiritus et Sponsa, n. 7).

Experience of the mystery

In n. 5, the Document recalls that over and above their functional character, liturgical norms have a soul, in other words, a deep spiritual significance which calls for an observance that is not only external but comes within.

This interiority, in the final analysis, of associating the Church with himself is the relationship with Christ, who exercises his priesthood in the liturgy. The norms, as an expression of the ecclesial conscience guided by God's Spirit, particularly through the discernment and guidance of the Pastors, guarantee the validity and dignity of the liturgical action and with it, Christ's "becoming present". His presence is neither abstract nor merely symbolic, but so alive that it brings him within our reach, as happens most intensely in the celebration of the Eucharist.

If the Eucharist is celebrated properly, the features of the face of Christ outlined in the Gospel become in some way perceptible to the hearts of believers, just as they did to the disciples of Emmaus who "recognized him in the breaking of the bread" (cf. Lk 24:35). It is not by chance that the Document recalls this important paschal episode (n. 6).

Thus, the liturgy appears as the path to the mystery, and the norms as signposts that enable us to travel it safely. In this regard, the Instruction says that the words and rites of the Liturgy, which are "a faithful expression, matured over the centuries, of the understanding of Christ", "teach us to think as he himself does" (n. 5). Here, too, the ultimate goal of the Document is identified: it is "directed toward... a conformity of our own understanding with that of Christ, as expressed in the words and the rites of the liturgy" (ibid.).

Experience of communion

Another element of the Instruction is the logic of communion which it intends to promote. The image of the Church that the Document portrays is of a hierarchically ordained community in which the fundamental equality of every baptized person is combined with the diversity of charisms and ministries. The liturgy, and the Eucharist in particular, is the epiphany of the Church in her unity and diversity.

It is first and foremost the insistence on the legitimate authority appointed to regulate the liturgical context which brings this out. In conformity with the dictates of the Second Vatican Council, the Instruction sheds clear light on the role of the Bishop, coordinated with and subordinate to that of the Successor of Peter. The respective roles of priests, deacons and the laity are explained in the context of celebration. The emphasis the Document places on the distinction between priests and lay people should be interpreted in this key of respect for the gifts proper to each one.

It would be misleading, therefore, to evaluate this distinction with the logic of civil society. The liturgical community has the identity of "ekklesia", a word which, as we are reminded in n. 42, is related to the Greek word "klesis" or "calling", which means being convoked from on high as a people in which God makes himself present, and in which Christ acts in the Spirit through the ministerial vocations that he authoritatively establishes. The need for an ordained priest to celebrate the Eucharist "in persona Christi" is inherent in this logic.

Of course, this does not eclipse the living and active participation in the liturgy, regulated by the appropriate norms, which is the duty of all the baptized.

Lastly, we should also understand in the perspective of communion the affirmation of the "right" of the faithful to a dignified celebration, hence, also their right to demand one, should there be inadequacies or abuses, by lodging a complaint with the legitimate authority, so that all may be done in truth and charity (cf. n. 184). The liturgy cannot become a "battle ground".

Clarifying the sense of Church

At this point a question might arise: of course, the liturgy and the norms that regulate it are an expression of faith, an experience of the mystery and a service of communion! But is it not excessive to say all this about a series of norms of a different kind without distinguishing between what is essential and unchangeable and what instead is by its nature susceptible to reform? Isn't there a risk of making the body of norms rigid, of "amour-plating" it and excluding on principle possible improvements or changes? Are there not any norms for the liturgy that by their nature are subject to change, as shown by the 2,000 years of history until the liturgical reform advocated by the Second Vatican Council?

Those who read the Instruction attentively will find the answer. Indeed, although it contains and reaffirms so many norms, it does not neglect to distinguish their importance.

In n. 7, for example, it distinguishes between precepts coming directly from God and laws promulgated by the Church, inviting all to "do that which is fitting and right".

Number 13 mentions the varying "degrees" with which the individual norms are bound up with the supreme law of the salvation of souls.

In the last chapter, abuses are identified in relation to their gravity, with a reminder that even lesser abuses should not be glossed over.

However, while making distinctions that are only right, it should be said that the observance of all the norms of major and minor importance clarifies the sense of Church. Nor can abuses be justified in the name of pastoral adaptation, taxing the current norms with rigidity.

To use the Pope's words: "The liturgical renewal that has taken place in recent decades has shown that it is possible to combine a body of norms that assure the identity and decorum of the Liturgy and leave room for the creativity and adaptation that enable it to correspond closely with the need to give expression to their respective situation and culture of the various regions" (Spiritus et Sponsa, n. 15).

One might add that the request for observance that sets the tone of this Document entails no prohibition on a deeper examination of it or on recommendations, as occurred in the history of the "liturgical movement" and, today too, is a normal occurrence in the context of theological, liturgical and pastoral studies. What is absolutely forbidden is to make the liturgy a free zone for experimentation and private arbitration, which can in no way be justified by any good intention.

To conclude, by providing this instrument for theological, pastoral and juridical guidance, the Holy See is continuing on the lines of the discernment that the Church has always made down the centuries. Significantly, in conformity with the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, there are several references to the passage in I Cor 11 in which Paul sternly reprimands the Corinthians for celebrating the Eucharist in contempt of charity to the poor: the first document "against abuses". Today's Instruction is far from being an innovation.

Over and above the corrective sense, however, I consider it important to grasp its intimate sense of promotion. In it the lines of a liturgical spirituality and a liturgical apostolate become visible, if only faintly. This is undoubtedly a radical antidote to abuses.

In my opinion, when read in this manner, the Instruction that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has compiled, in agreement with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, can be welcomed as a useful, and I hope effective, instrument to enable us, 40 years after Sacrosanctum Concilium, to journey on towards another important milestone: the Synod on the Eucharist which has already been announced, so that we may live ever better the Eucharist as the source and summit of ecclesial life.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 June 2004, page 9

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