Commentary on

Commentary on Redemptionis Sacramentum

Gerhard Ludwig Müller
Bishop of Regensburg, Germany


Last year, the Church celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. Pope John Paul II rightly praised this Document of the Second Vatican Council which has proven so important for the Church and her development.

The Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia of 17 April 2003 plays an eminent role because of its special character as a magisterial Document, as does the Apostolic Letter Spiritus et Sponsa, published in honour of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which spotlights the lasting value and dedicated work of the Constitution.

The liturgy, key to Christian life

The Council felt it was particularly important to give prominence to the liturgy as an integral part of Christian life. The liturgy is not a secondary cultural event or a rite imposed on the profession of Christianity from outside. On the contrary, it is through the liturgical actions and "especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist", that "the work of our Redemption is accomplished" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 2).

The liturgy is the expression of our faith in Christ, the High Priest, and the visible and sacramental actualization of the affirmation of salvation, brought about by God in the sacrifice of his Son on the Cross.

From the very first phase of the liturgical reform, the ecclesiastical Magisterium endeavoured to reaffirm the interiorization and deepening of Christian life among the faithful (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 1). It did not focus its attention exclusively on the improvement of liturgical forms but on the renewal of Christian life and of life in general at the living sources of the liturgy (cf. A. Jungmann, Das Grundanliegen der Liturgischen Erneuerung, in Liturgisches Jahrbuch 11, 1961, pp. 129-141).

Protecting the liturgy from abuses

The Constitution on the Liturgy has therefore become a reference point for theology, spirituality and the pastoral practices of the Church. Yet if we look at the history of its reception, now more than 40 years ago, we are presented with a fairly widespread image of different theoretical approaches to the liturgy; these seem to have done away with its essential nucleus.

People have approached the text of the Constitution with their personal pastoral opinions and subjective presuppositions, using it to legitimize their own ends improperly. This procedure does not do justice to the primary purpose of the Constitution.

The consequences are particularly serious: without reference to superior authoritative bodies, the liturgy is treated with subjective preference by those in charge according to their whim. The Instruction published by the Congregation for Divine Worship aims instead to re-establish the liturgy and its external accomplishment in order to ensure that it conforms to its sacramental essence.

In harmony with the Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, the Document stresses the holy character of the liturgy and its visible actions that cannot be toyed with by subjective caprice. It is the Church's pastors who are ultimately responsible for the liturgy, especially the Bishop as moderator, promoter and guardian of her whole liturgical life (cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 19) in his own diocese.

No changes to Eucharistic Prayer

The provisions concerning the correct way to celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice largely reflect already existing norms (cf. chap. III, nn. 48-79): the texts of the Eucharistic Prayer must be recited without any changes, without invented insertions and without modifications; they are to be spoken exclusively by an ordained priest; lay people are prohibited from preaching at Mass; no rites pertaining to another religion are to be included.

The fact that the liturgy is an action of God with man is emphasized: the liturgy is "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10). The sacred character of the liturgy that is not subordinate to personal whim expresses what it most deeply involves: "The liturgy is the work of God, otherwise it would not exist at all; the priority of God and of his action, sought in earthly symbols, constitutes its universality and the public character of every liturgy, which cannot be expressed by words such as 'community', but only by terms like 'People of God' and 'Body of Christ' (J. Ratzinger, Ein neues Lied für den Herrn. Christusglaube and Liturgie in der Gegenwart, Freiburg, 1995, p. 170).

The repeated reference to the usual liturgical regulations does not, therefore, aim at improving or changing measures that already exist in the prescribed liturgical actions, but puts the precepts into a soteriological and Christological context. The liturgy must not be exposed to human manipulation.

In the liturgical action of the Church, Christ continues his priestly work (cf. O. Nussbaum, Die Liturgie als Gedächtnisfeier, in J. Schreiner, ed., Freude am Gottesdienst. Aspekte ursprünglicher Liturgie, Stuttgart, 1983, pp. 201-214). We human beings are not authorized to intervene arbitrarily to eliminate the Christological presuppositions important for human salvation.

The holy character of the liturgy, which is not at the disposal of subjective arbitrariness, does not only refer to the order of regulations and rubrics. Nor must the doctrinal presupposition be exchanged with autonomous legitimization. In ecumenical discussion, in striving for the full unity that Christ desired, the Eucharistic celebration must not become a means and instrument for what appears to be unity and is purely external.

To use the celebration of the Eucharist as a platform for artificially uniting separated Christians is contradictory to the fundamental disposition of our profession of faith. The Church is both the subject and object of faith. To arrange the content of the Eucharistic celebration differently would be to destroy its theological and sacramental character.

Participation in the Eucharist implies accepting the identity of the faith as an expression of the Church as a sacrament and by the profession of the transubstantiation of the gifts of bread and wine into the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. Faith in the transubstantiation cannot be optional. Ignoring the central mystery of the Eucharist to achieve an apparent union cannot be the way to a successful ecumenism, that is, one that is oriented to the truth.

The profession of Christ's saving action and of his continuation in the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 1) demands the inner acceptance of the Church's external (hierarchical) structure.

Thus, it becomes obvious that the sacred character of the Eucharist, which is not available to arbitrary action, concerns both the external rite and the internal content of the celebration. This results from its intimate nature as "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10), the efficacy of whose "sacred action" "no other action of the Church can equal... by the same title and to the same degree" (ibid., n. 7).

Unity without reductions is vital

It is possible for non-Catholic Christians to participate in the Eucharist through the readings and the spiritual life of the gift of self to God. By their participation, they witness to being inwardly disposed to venerating God together with Catholic Christians, praising and exalting him.

For full participation, however, which is also expressed in the acceptance of the sacramental realities of the Church, full and unlimited membership in the Church is required. The Eucharist is the expression of our common faith, the visible profession of the People of God, as it were, constituted by Jesus Christ as his body. The sacraments as well as the ministerial priesthood, the primacy of the Pope, etc., are part of this faith.

Hence, unity in faith and in the profession of faith is a presupposition, while external liturgical action becomes a mirror image of the same profession of faith. In the sacramental sign it is possible to fulfil only what corresponds to the content of the sacraments. Here, the form of the prayer corresponds to the form of the faith and its profession (lex credendi lex orandi; cf. DS 246). Unity, with no reductions, with the doctrine of the faith and with the sacramental structure of the Catholic Church, has fundamental importance for full participation in the Eucharistic action of the Church.

The Instruction is also addressed to those who, in liturgical actions and especially in the Eucharistic celebration, put the main accent on their own private aesthetic ideas. The liturgy must not become a vehicle for individual, spontaneous or regional tastes. The dignified celebration of the Eucharist depends on the exact rules of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and on the interior disposition of the faithful.

Thus, the Eucharistic celebration is protected from attempts to use it as a pedagogical means. Its sacred character protects it from the presumptuous use of elements of worship as a means for individual pedagogical, social or political purposes. The precepts for the correct celebration of the Eucharist allow no room for such misuse.

Understand and obey the norms

There is no doubt that the correct approach to the Instruction consists in perceiving the theological dimension of the norms referred to and scrupulously obeying them. For the most part, they are not additional precepts or prohibitions, but are intended to lead the liturgy back to its proper goal of sacrificial action in which Christ welcomes us and atones for us with the Father.

First and foremost, it is Christ who acts. The sacred character of the external and internal elements of the Eucharistic celebration derive from interweaving ecclesiology, Christology and sacramental theology. The Instruction's aim is to help people to rediscover this dimension: once again to perceive Christ in the liturgy, and to respond to this invitation with one's life and with inner participation in the Eucharist.  

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

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