Commentary on the Instruction

Commentary on the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum

Cardinal Francis Arinze
Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments


Origin of the Instruction

It is well to remember the origin of this Instruction [Redemptionis Sacramentum, published in full in this newspaper on Wednesday, 28 April 2004].

On Holy Thursday, 17 April 2003, at the solemn celebration of the Mass of the Lord's Supper in St Peter's Basilica, the Holy Father signed his 14th Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia and presented it to the Church.

In this beautiful Document, Pope John Paul II states among other things that the Holy Eucharist "stands at the centre of the Church's life" (n. 3), "it unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation" (n. 8). "The Eucharist... is the most precious possession which the Church can have in her journey through history" (n. 9).

At the same time, the Pope points out that after the Second Vatican Council, both positive and negative forms developed in the celebration of worship (cf. n. 10), and that a number of abuses were a source of suffering for many. He therefore considered it his duty to "appeal urgently that the liturgical norms for the celebration of the Eucharist be observed with great fidelity" (n. 52).

He adds: "Precisely to bring out more clearly this deeper meaning of liturgical norms, I have asked the competent offices of the Roman Curia to prepare a more specific Document, including prescriptions of a juridical nature, on this very important subject. No one is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands: it is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its sacredness and its universality" (n. 52).

So this is the origin of this Instruction which the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments is offering to the Latin Church, in close collaboration with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Sense of liturgical norms

One might wonder about the meaning of the liturgical norms. Are not the creativity, spontaneity, freedom of God's children and good common sense enough? Why does worship of God have to be regulated by directions and norms? Is it not enough simply to teach people about the beauty and exalted character of the liturgy?

Liturgical norms are necessary because in the liturgy "full public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members. 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" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7).

The liturgy culminates in the celebration of the Eucharist. No one should be surprised if, in the course of time, our Holy Mother Church developed words, actions and thus instructions with regard to this supreme act of worship. Eucharistic norms were worked out to manifest and to safeguard the Eucharistic mystery, and in addition, to express that it is the Church which celebrates this august sacrifice and this sacrament.

As John Paul II says, liturgical norms "are a concrete expression of the authentically ecclesial nature of the Eucharist; this is their deepest meaning. Liturgy is never anyone's private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia,n.52).

Consequently, "Priests who faithfully celebrate Mass according to the liturgical norms, and communities which conform to those norms, quietly but eloquently demonstrate their love for the Church" (ibid.).

External conformity is clearly not enough. Participation in the Eucharist demands faith, hope and charity, which are also expressed through acts of solidarity with those in need.

This dimension is emphasized in the Instruction: "A merely external observation of norms would obviously be contrary to the nature of the Sacred Liturgy, in which Christ himself wishes to gather his Church, so that together with himself she will be 'one body and one spirit'. For this reason, external action must be illuminated by faith and charity, which unite us with Christ and with one another and engender love for the poor and the abandoned" (Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 5).

Is it important to note abuses?

In connection with the above there is a temptation that must be resisted: the temptation to think that it is a waste of time to be overly concerned about liturgical abuses. It has been written that abuses have always existed and will always exist; we should focus our attention instead on formation and positive liturgical celebrations.

This partially-true objection can lead us into error. Abuses of the Holy Eucharist are not all equally serious. Some threaten to make the sacrament invalid. Others reveal a lack of Eucharistic faith. Still others contribute to sowing confusion among the People of God and to draining Eucharistic celebrations of their sacredness. Abuses are not to be taken lightly.

Of course, all members of the Church are in need of liturgical formation. According to the Second Vatican Council, "it is absolutely essential, first of all, that steps be taken to ensure the liturgical training of the clergy" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 14).

But it is also true that: "In various parts of the Church abuses have occurred, leading to confusion with regard to sound faith and Catholic doctrine concerning this wonderful sacrament" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 10)."Not infrequently, abuses are rooted in a false understanding of liberty" (Instruction, n. 7). "For arbitrary actions are not conducive to true renewal" (Instruction, n. 11), for which the Second Vatican Council hoped. "This abuse has nothing to do with the authentic spirit of the Council and should be prudently and firmly corrected by Pastors (Apostolic Letter of John Paul II for the 40th Anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Spiritus et Sponsa, n. 15).

The Instruction points out to those who arbitrarily manipulate the liturgical texts that "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"(Instruction, n. 10).

Instruction: General overview

The Instruction has a preamble, eight chapters and a conclusion.

The first chapter on the regulation of the sacred liturgy speaks of the role of the Apostolic See, of the diocesan Bishop, of the Bishops' Conference, of priests and of deacons.

I draw attention to the role of the diocesan Bishop. He is the great priest of his flock. He directs, encourages, promotes and organizes. He supervises sacred music and art. He sets up the necessary commissions for the liturgy and sacred music and art (cf. Instruction,nn. 22, 25). He seeks to remedy abuses: in this case, it is to him or to his collaborators rather than to the Apostolic See that complaints should be submitted first (cf. Instruction, nn. 176-182, 184).

Priests, like deacons, have solemnly promised to exercise their ministry with fidelity; thus, they are expected to live their lives in conformity with their sacred responsibility.

The second chapter focuses on the participation of the Christian lay faithful in the Eucharistic celebration. Baptism is the basis of their common priesthood (cf. Instruction, nn. 36, 37). The ordained priest is always indispensable to a Christian community and there must be no confusion between the role of the priests and that of the lay faithful (cf. Instruction, nn. 42, 45).

Lay people have a specific role of their own. According to the Instruction, this does not mean that they must all do something at every moment. Rather, it is a matter of allowing themselves to be fully involved in this great privilege, a gift of God, which is the call to take part in the liturgy with the mind, heart and entire life, and through it to receive God's grace.

It is important to understand this properly and not to suppose that the Instruction is prejudiced against lay people.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 endeavour to respond to certain questions that are sometimes asked. They address certain recognized abuses in the celebration of Mass, the discernment of who can and cannot receive Communion, the necessary care with regard to receiving Communion under both species, questions concerning vestments and sacred vessels, the required disposition for the reception of Holy Communion and other such questions.

Chapter 6 deals with devotion to the Holy Eucharist outside Mass. In addition, it speaks of the respect that is due to the tabernacle and practices such as visits to the Blessed Sacrament, chapels of perpetual adoration, processions, Eucharistic congresses and the like (cf. Instruction, nn. 130, 135-136, 140, 142-145).

Chapter 7 deals with extraordinary functions entrusted to lay people, for example, to extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, to those in charge of or who lead the prayer in the absence of a priest (cf. Instruction,nn. 147-168). These roles are to be considered separately from what is said in Chapter 2 of the Instruction,which treats the ordinary participation of lay people in the liturgy and in particular, in the Eucharist. Here it is a matter of what lay people are called to do when there is an insufficient number of priests or even deacons.

In recent years, the Holy See has paid considerable attention to this matter, and this Instruction moves along the same lines, adding further considerations for particular circumstances.

The last chapter deals with canonical remedies for abuses against the Holy Eucharist. In the long term, the main remedy can be found in adequate formation and instruction and in a solid faith. But when there are abuses, it is the Church's duty to deal with them with clarity and charity.


Considering the article of faith, according to which Holy Mass is a sacramental representation of the Sacrifice of the Cross (cf. Council of Trent: DS 1710), and that "in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist 'the Body and Blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really and substantially contained'" (cf. Council of Trent: DS 1651; cf. CCC, n. 1374), it is evident that the liturgical norms regarding the Holy Eucharist deserve our attention. We are not dealing with meticulous instructions compiled by "legalistic minds".

"In the Most Blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely, Christ himself our Pasch and the living bread" (Presbyterorum Ordinis,n. 5). Priests and Bishops are ordained in the first place to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice and to distribute the Body and Blood of Christ to the faithful.

In their specific capacities, deacons, and according to the way proper to them, acolytes and other ministers, readers, the choir and the lay faithful, having received a particular mission, are all called to offer their service for the different functions and to carry out their various ministries with faith and devotion.

The Instruction concludes by saying that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments hopes "that also, by the diligent application of those things that are recalled in this Instruction,human weakness may come to pose less of an obstacle to the action of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, and that with all distortion set aside and every reprobated practice removed, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 'Woman of the Eucharist', the saving presence of Christ in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood may shine brightly upon all people" (Instruction, n. 185).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 May 2004, page 9

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