Commentary on the Instruction

Commentary on the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum

Fr Urbano Navarrete, S.J.
Professor Emeritus at the Pontifical Gregorian University


On Holy Thursday, 17 April 2003, the Holy Father John Paul II gave the Church a gift, the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia.1 The Encyclical dedicates a special chapter to highlighting the splendour of the liturgy of Eucharistic celebrations in all its artistic expressions.

Canonical Notion of ‘Instruction'

In this context, the Holy Father desires that even in our day, the observance of the liturgical norms be rediscovered and appreciated as the action and testimony of the sole and universal Church which is made present in every Eucharistic celebration. And he adds that in order to especially strengthen appreciation for the liturgical norms he has asked the competent departments of the Roman Curia to prepare a specific Document in which counsels are given even of a juridical character on this issue of such great importance.2

The "documentum” announced by the Holy Father has taken the specific form of an "Instructio”, in the technical sense of the term described in canon 34 §1 of the Code of Canon Law.

It is important to highlight three essential aspects of this canonical figure:

1) an instruction, in the area of canon law, is an implemental document of the current laws, both for declaring their dispositions and for developing and determining the mode to carry them out;

2) an instruction is given for the use of those who have the duty to make sure the laws are kept and thus to urge their observance;

3) an instruction is legitimately published, within the limits of their competency, by those who possess executive power in the canonical system.

In the present case, therefore, the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum:

1) does not contain new legislation in liturgical matters with regard to the Eucharistic celebrations; the aim is set to clarify the current norms, to indicate the ways to carry them out, to charge their observance and to indicate any abuses;

2) is directed for the most part to Bishops, because in the current canonical order, the task of carrying out the liturgical laws, especially those regarding Eucharistic celebrations, pertains almost exclusively to Bishops;

3) was published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments which, apart from the authority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is vested with authority for "the regulation and promotion of the sacred liturgy, primarily of the sacraments".3

The content of the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum is spelled out in the title with the words: de quibusdam observandis et vitandis circa Sacramentum Eucharistiae (On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist). Given the two Documents' connection, one notes in the Instruction's Preamble: "Those things found in this Instruction are therefore to be read in continuity with the above-mentioned Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia".

Of the three essential elements of the instructions that we have indicated, in this paper we are only taking into consideration the second element, that is, the Bishops: moderators of the Liturgy in the Churches entrusted to them.

Teaching of Vatican Council II

The Second Vatican Council, in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium,formulates the following general principle with regards to authority in liturgical matters, which could seem too absolute with respect to the Bishop: "Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the Bishop." (n. 22).

The difference between this and the principle articulated in canon 1257 of the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917 ought to be noted: "Regulation of both the sacred liturgy and the approval of liturgical books depends exclusively on the Apostolic See".

The Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, although being the first Document of the Council (4 December 1963), gets its inspiration already from the conciliar doctrine on the episcopate that would reach its maturity in the Constitution Lumen Gentium (21 November 1964) and in the decree Christus Dominus (28 October 1965).

On the role of the Bishop in the regulation of the liturgy in his own diocese, the Constitution Lumen Gentium teaches: "Every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the Bishop, to whom is committed the office of offering the worship of Christian religion to the Divine Majesty and of administering it in accordance with the Lord's commandments and the Church's laws, as further defined by his particular judgment for his diocese. Bishops thus,... by the ministry of the word, communicate God's power to those who believe unto salvation and through the sacraments, the regular and fruitful distribution of which they regulate by their authority, they sanctify the faithful. They direct the conferring of baptism.... They are the original ministers of confirmation, dispensers of sacred Orders and the moderators of penitential discipline..." (n. 26).

The decree Christus Dominus on the pastoral office of the Bishops in the Church emphasizes in turn: "Therefore, Bishops are the principal dispensers of the mysteries of God, as well as being the governors, promoters and guardians of the entire liturgical life in the Church committed to them. They should, therefore, constantly exert themselves to have the faithful know and live the paschal mystery more deeply through the Eucharist and thus become a firmly-knit body in the unity of the charity of Christ" (n. 15).

Paul VI showed that he was especially concerned with establishing the application of certain prescriptions of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium. In the Motu proprio Sacram Liturgiam4 of 25 January 1964, the Pope exhorted "the Bishops of dioceses to set at once about teaching their people the power and the interior worth of the sacred liturgy,... to take part in the religious services together, devoutly, and with body and soul".

And he ends the Documents by reaffirming the principle proclaimed by the Council on the sole right of the Apostolic See and the Bishop in liturgical matters: "Lastly, We would draw attention to the fact that... the regulation of the sacred liturgy is vested exclusively in the Church: that is to say, in the Apostolic See and, in the measure allowed by the law, in the Bishop. For this reason, nobody else, not even a priest, is entitled to add, subtract or change anything in the liturgy".

On 26 September 1964, the former Sacred Congregation of Rites published the instruction Inter Oecumenici5 "for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy", in which the Bishop's authority in liturgical matters is again formulated, having also kept in mind the prospective territorial assemblies of Bishops: "It is for the Bishop to regulate the liturgy in his own diocese, in accordance with the norms and the spirit of the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, the decrees of the Holy See and of the competent territorial authority" (n. 22).

The Code of Canon Law

The new Code of Canon Law takes its inspiration, as is well known, from the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and it "could be understood as a great effort to translate... into canonical language" the Council's teaching.6 This is especially important with regards to the duties (munera) of Bishops considered both as a College and as Pastors of the portion of the People of God entrusted to them.

In the part dedicated to diocesan Bishops (cann. 381-402), among the Bishop's duties, the fundamental duty of protecting the Church's unity and therefore of promoting a common discipline for the whole Church is brought to the fore. It particularly insists, however, on the obligation of being vigilant so that abuses do not creep into the ministry of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and the veneration of the saints and the administration of goods (can. 392).

With respect to the munus sanctificandi, can. 835 §1 formulates this general principle: "The Bishops in the first place exercise the sanctifying function; they are the high priests, the principal dispensers of the mysteries of God, and the directors, promoters and guardians of the entire liturgical life in the Church entrusted to them".

Apart from the duty of "the high priests, the principal dispensers of the mysteries of God," (can. 835 §1), three specific duties that pertain first to the munus regendi are indicated, namely, the duties of being moderators, promoters and guardians of the entire liturgical life of the Church entrusted to them.

The duties of moderating and promoting have a positive meaning that implies as a consequence prudence and creativity; guarding, however, touches upon the vigilance necessary for avoiding the introduction of abusive innovations to the detriment of the liturgical patrimony which needs to be preserved.

In keeping with the principle articulated in can. 835, it is furthermore specified in can. 838 §1 with the aforementioned words of the Council, that the authority for regulating the holy liturgy is vested exclusively in the Apostolic See and, in the measure allowed by the law, in the diocesan Bishop by establishing the logical consequence according to which: "Within the limits of his competence, it pertains to the diocesan bishop in the Church entrusted to him to issue liturgical norms which bind everyone" (ibid., § 4).

And with regard to other works by which the Church fulfils the sanctifying function, it explicitly recalls the duty that is incumbent upon local Ordinaries to take care "that the prayers and pious and sacred exercises of the Christian people are fully in keeping with the norms of the Church" (can. 839 §2).

It is obvious that with respect to the handling and administration of the individual sacraments and other acts of divine worship, mention is often made of the Bishops' different obligations according to the nature of the individual sacraments, just as the pertinent, special faculties for granting specific dispensations in single cases. This is not the place to collect all these cases.

The prescription is recalled, however, which affects all pastors of souls together with involved lay people: "Pastors of souls and other members of the Christian faithful, according to their respective ecclesiastical function, have the duty to take care that those who seek the sacraments are prepared to receive them by proper evangelization and catechetical instruction, attentive to the norms issued by competent authority" (can. 843 §2).

Thus, all are still required to observe the norm according to which: "In celebrating the sacraments the liturgical books approved by competent authority are to be observed faithfully; accordingly, no one is to add, omit or alter anything in them on one's own authority" (can. 846 §1).

It ought be noted that the authority responsible for implementing liturgical laws, just as with all other laws, must be able to make the effective juridical means available for obtaining such an observance. The spirit of canon law presupposes that ecclesial obedience is established upon faith and charity, far from every form of slavish fear.

Nonetheless, for cases in which compliance in an important matter, the Superior can and is normally required to have recourse to the coercive means foreseen by the law, without excluding, if the case necessitates, recourse to true and proper ecclesiastical penalties. It is not to be forgotten that disregard for liturgical laws carries with it a violation of the rights of the faithful to have the liturgy celebrated according to the laws of the Church and not according to the will of the one who presides over the celebration (cf. can. 213).

Redemptionis Sacramentum

As stated above, the instruction by its very nature is an implemental document of current laws, aimed at those who have the duty to make sure that the laws are kept. The Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum is addressed to diocesan Bishops, inasmuch as in the canonical order, Bishops are above all vested with the duty of making sure that the liturgical laws in their own Church are kept.

The Instruction also mentions Episcopal Conferences, presbyters and deacons as ones responsible for ensuring that liturgical laws are kept. Episcopal Conferences, above all, are vested with the task of procuring translations of liturgical books and of not allowing changes without the approval of the Apostolic See; it is incumbent upon presbyters and deacons, as collaborators with the Bishop in pastoral ministry, each according to his own position, to faithfully carry out the prescribed norms in all the liturgical celebrations, both inasmuch as it regards themselves in their capacity as presiders over the assembly and as it concerns the faithful participating at the celebrations.

For this reason, the first chapter below the title: De sacrae Liturgiae moderatione gives an extensive treatment first of all on the place of the diocesan Bishop, then briefly on the Episcopal Conferences and finally, on the presbyters and deacons as moderators of the liturgical celebrations.

The duty of Bishops in the liturgical domain is summarized, as was noted above, in three verbs: to promote, to moderate and to guard (cf. can. 835). It can be said that the Instruction implicitly applies these three verbs in each of the most significant moments and aspects of the liturgical celebrations, which it analyses in detail, in order to give the Bishops legitimate help in the fulfilment of their duties as moderators of the liturgies in the Churches entrusted to them.

For the most part, it offers the theological and doctrinal foundation equipped with the sources for understanding the meaning of the celebrations, then current norms to be kept are set forth in summary form and, if necessary, the abuses or deviations that need to be corrected are indicated.

Although there are sections in which the Bishop is not mentioned, given the very scope of the Instruction, it is presupposed that the responsible subject to whom it is addressed is the diocesan Bishop. The greater part of the articles are formulated in the indicative voice as an affirmation of a current norm or a recognition of a fact, or else, in an impersonal or mandatory form without specifying the subject who is vested with the duty of implementation or with charging the implementation.

Cases are not lacking, however, in which the Bishops' responsibility touching upon the obligation to be vigilant with special care for avoiding abuses is explicitly called upon.

Thus, for example, being vigilant over the homily (cf. n. 68) and on the nonsacramental sense of the act of penance which is done at the beginning of the celebration of the Holy Mass (cf. n. 80); correcting abuses that the faithful come to communion "gregatim" (as a group indiscriminately) without the required conditions (cf. n, 83); judging upon the necessity of celebrating the Mass outside a consecrated place (cf. n. 108); overseeing the admission of an unknown priest, unforeseen by the relative "celebret" at the celebration of the Mass (cf. n. 111); recalling the permission, perhaps previously granted, to keep the Eucharist in a place where there is the danger of desecration (cf. n. 131); promoting the worship of the Eucharist, especially the exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (cf. nn. 134 and 136); establishing places for perpetual adoration (cf. n. 140): regulating Eucharistic processions (cf. n. 142); conducting where possible the procession of Corpus Domini on public streets (cf. n. 143); approving particular norms, if necessary, that touch upon extraordinary ministries of Communion in order to correct possible abuses (cf. n. 160); where there is a lack of priests, making sure that on Sundays the faithful have at least the liturgy of the Word, always avoiding its confusion with the Eucharistic celebration (cf. nn. 164-167).

The Instruction in the last chapter, after mentioning the most serious delicts against the holiness of the sacrament of the Eucharist for which punishments are reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and after having indicated the most significant number of the same, devotes another subheading to the diocesan Bishop in which, among other things, it cites part of canon 387 with which I would like to conclude:

"The diocesan Bishop, 'since he is the principal dispenser of the mysteries of God, is to strive constantly so that Christ's faithful entrusted to his care may grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments, and that they may know and live the Paschal Mystery'".


1AAS 95 (2003) 433-475.

2 Cf. AAS 95 (2003) 468.

3 Cf. John Paul II, Apost. Const. Pastor Bonus, n. 62.

4AAS 56 (1964) 139-144.

5AAS 56 (1964) 877-900.

6Cf. John Paul II, Const. Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, 25 January 1983: AAS 75/II (1983) XI.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 June 2004, page 8

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