Commentary on the Instruction

Commentary on the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum

Bishop Mario Oliveri
Bishop of Albenga-Imperia, Member of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

'Faith and doctrine alone determine discipline'

The Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, which aims essentially at promoting the Church's Eucharistic discipline, was the result of an examination and observation of the existing situation that is fairly widespread in the Church and implies clear and profound convictions of faith and doctrine. As always and in all times, the fundamental rule applies: faith and doctrine alone determine discipline, hence, what must be the Church's action and the behaviour of her children.

Abuses concerning the Eucharist and the whole of the Church's Liturgy are a consequence of confusion about doctrine if not, at times, even faith. Their correction must begin with a new presentation of the truth, the whole truth about the Eucharist and the true nature of the Liturgy: What is the Eucharist? What is the Liturgy? What does the Church believe, profess and teach concerning the Eucharist and the entire Liturgy?

We therefore face an immense task of formation, explanation, catechesis and communication of the truth in order to achieve rectitude of heart and will.

In the dimension of faith and doctrine, John Paul II's Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia is especially valuable; the teaching found in it is all the greater since it does not only expound clearly what the Church believes about the Eucharist and thus what the Church professes, celebrates, proclaims and teaches, but it also says that this faith and this teaching can only be the faith and teaching of all time, such as, for example — and as the Encyclical explicitly states — was promulgated by the Council of Trent.

This has enormous importance in our time, precisely because it is reaffirmed, at least indirectly, that there can only be continuity and homogenous development in the faith and doctrine of the Church; there can never be any substantial alterations, never radical or revolutionary changes.

This should be noted in the face of all the attempts that have not been few — and whose results continue to be felt — to give credence at virtually any cost to a discontinuity in the Magisterium before and after the Second Vatican Council and, explicitly with regard to our topic, between a "Tridentine" vision of the Eucharist which is claimed to be "static", and the vision of the Second Vatican Council which on the contrary is supposed to be dynamic.

This way of thinking, espoused by a certain pastoral and liturgical theology, claims that the Liturgy prior to the Second Vatican Council was even more static, whereas after it came a trend towards a "creative" Liturgy, a continuous and not repetitive development; a Liturgy which, to obtain the active participation of the faithful, would require room for movement and a constant commitment to adaptation and "inculturation" in order to satisfy the "sensibilities" of the participants.

In various milieus, the 40th anniversary of the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium has also become an opportunity for presenting anew the need to provide for a living, active and dynamic Liturgy in the face of the attempts by "those nostalgic for the past" to hinder all development and progress.

As has been said, the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia recalls clearly that faith, ideas and convictions determine action and regulate discipline. It therefore pays the greatest attention to ensuring that the "regula fidei" determines the "lex orandi" and "lex agendi".

However, since it is also true that how we pray, celebrate and act influences the way we think, inexorably nourishes our intellectual approach to reality and ends by being mirrored in faith and doctrine, it was necessary in addition to identify the lack of discipline and abuses in so serious a matter as the Liturgy, and especially the Eucharist, and to ensure that such lack of discipline and abuses be corrected, since they derive from an incorrect formation in faith and doctrine and lead to erroneous stances in their regard.

That the Church believes what she prays and that the "lex orandi" determines the "lex credendi" has always been the case in the history of the Church and in her sacrosanct life. We cannot but cite the text of the "Capital Pseudo Caelestina (Indiculus): "Obsecrationum quoque sacerdotalium sacramenta respiciamus, quae ab Apostolis tradita in toto mundo atque in omni Ecclesia catholica uniformiter celebrantur, ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. Cum enim sanctarum plebium praesules mandata sibimet legatione fungantur, apud divinam clementiam humani generis agunt causam, et tota secum Ecclesia congemiscente, postulant et precantur" (ch. 8).

It is significant that the Instruction of the Congregation, whose task is to be vigilant and to regulate Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, should have been drafted, and rightly so, in a close relationship with the Congregation competent for matters of faith and doctrine. It can be said that the promotion of worship is the promotion of faith, and vice versa.

In addition to this observation, another should be made: the Instruction is undoubtedly a Document of great pastoral value, for the simple reason that what it contributes to the good of the faithful and to the good of the whole Church necessarily takes the form of a pastoral action geared to communicating the Mystery of Christ, the Mystery of the Redemption.

In short, since the sole aim of the Instruction is to enable the faithful to participate to the full in the grace of salvation — it recalls what must be observed and what must be avoided in the celebration of the divine mysteries, the Liturgy and the Eucharist — it is a reliable Document with reliable pastoral aims. As such, it should be seen, presented, accepted and put into practice.

Among the confusions of our day is the belief that everything in the nature of a law, a norm or a precise instruction for action must be opposed to the soul and to pastoral aims, as though it were proposing a vague sentiment rather than precise knowledge and precise rules of life.

Since the root of disciplinary shortcomings and abuses (as well as of the negative or lukewarm reactions to the Instruction) is to be sought in erroneous intellectual and doctrinal stances regarding what the Church believes, professes and teaches on the Eucharist and on the true nature of the Liturgy, it is appropriate to recall some essential points on both these topics.

On the Eucharist

The teaching of the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, absolutely in tune with the Council of Trent and with the faith and Tradition of the Church down the centuries, allows for no doubts on the following fundamental truths:

1. The Eucharistic Celebration has the true nature of a sacrifice: indeed, it is the sacramental representation of the true Sacrifice of the Cross. The Eucharist makes Christ's sacrificial offering to the Father sacramentally present in space and time.

2. As a true sacrament, the sacrificial sacramental celebration requires ministerial action, that is, the priestly ministry, which in fact is actuated only within the apostolic succession. It is impossible to have a Eucharistic Sacrifice without the ministerial priesthood, which did not originate in an action of the community or assembly but in the sacrament of Orders, that is, in a divine act that creates a new supernatural capacity, passed down through apostolic succession.

3. The true presence in the Eucharist, real and in substance, of the Body and Blood of the Lord, of Christ in his entirety, is what determines the true content, hence, the true meaning and redemptive value of the Eucharistic Celebration as a whole.

Consequently, we cannot but point out that the notion of a "memorial" of the Redemption, with reference to the Eucharistic Celebration, would no longer be meaningful were the Eucharist not the presence, true, real and in substance, of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, nor could we continue to speak of a true sacrifice as a sacramental representation of the Sacrifice of Calvary.

4. The full significance and redemptive value of the Eucharist depend on its true content, which is always received and transmitted by the Church of Christ through the ministerial priesthood and the Apostolic Succession. That is the reason why the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood are given to the Church: they are always a gift that exceeds the Church in her being and makes her grow in her true reality.

5. The adoration due to the Eucharist, in and outside the celebration of it, is also a recognition of the truth of the Body and Blood of Our Lord. It does not derive from the pious personal attitudes of some of the faithful that took shape at certain moments in the Church's life, almost as a private devotion. It is always the Church in her entirety which adores in the Eucharist Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, and this adoration is essential if we are to draw from the Eucharist all the fruits of the Redemption brought about by Christ through his passion, death and Resurrection.

There is no reasonableness or truth in maintaining, as also is done, that Eucharistic adoration outside Mass ends by distracting from the true nature of the Liturgical Celebration of the Eucharist and by damaging fruitful participation in it because it also actually distances people from the Lord's command: Take this and eat... take this and drink....

6. The "res tantum" of the sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord, which is communion of divine life with the One who is Salvation and Life, and with all the persons who form his Mystical Body, is only achieved by those who receive the sacrament with the proper interior dispositions of faith and freedom from sin: receiving it without discernment does not build true communion but contradicts the profound meaning of the whole of the Eucharistic Celebration, of the whole sacrament of Redemption.

The conditions for receiving the Eucharist, already mentioned lucidly by St Justin in his Apologia, involve precisely the "credere vera esse quae docemus", after receiving the "lavacrum of regeneration" and living "ut Christus tradidit". Believing does not only concern what the Eucharist is, but everything that the Church believes and teaches; and living "ut Christus tradidit" requires the obedience of the will to all the commandments, and first and foremost to the new commandment: "Love one another as I have loved you".

If there were room in a brief article, it would be highly instructive to show how most of the abuses that are to be regretted and must be corrected have derived from forgetfulness or from the rejection, at least partial, of the content of the doctrinal points listed above.

The true nature of the Liturgy

The action of Christ and of the Church

What is the Liturgy, its true nature, its substantial and profound reality?

The Second Vatican Council, which naturally followed in the wake of previous Documents of the Magisterium and of the Tradition of the Church, asserts:

"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. 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" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7).

Consequently, the Liturgy is the exercise in space and time of the priesthood of Christ, the Word of God Incarnate, the Mediator of the one new and eternal Covenant; it is the realization, in space and in time through the appropriate signs, of the human and divine action of Christ the Mediator, so that the work of the Redemption may be ever up to date, to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity.

The Liturgy is a work of Christ, hence, at the same time, a work of the whole Church, because Christ is the Head and Lord of his Mystical Body, which is the Church. It is sacred action par excellence, supernatural action; in its substantial reality, it is not an activity that fits into the natural order. It is situated at the level of grace, at the level of the special, absolutely free and gratuitous intervention of God and at the level of mystery.

Liturgical actions may seem identical in many ways to other actions performed in profane life, whereas they acquire new meaning, new value and a new reality and produce new effects. They are tangible signs which, accepted as an instrument of the incarnate Word of God, have the power to produce what they express.

Therefore, it is possible to deduce straightaway that the Liturgy is by its nature sacramental in the global sense, not in the sense that the whole Liturgy is, strictly speaking, a sacrament, but in the sense that all liturgical actions as such receive their efficacy from the Magnum Sacramentum, which is the humanity of the Word of God Incarnate.

Moreover, it is obvious that all sacraments are liturgical actions par excellence, particularly the sacramental celebration of the Divine Sacrifice of Christ, who offers himself to the Father in a supreme act of obedience, thanksgiving, expiation and propitiation.

Again, the Second Vatican Council solemnly affirms: "The whole liturgical life of the Church is grafted on the Sacrifice of Christ and on the sacraments" (n. 6). It is in Christ's Sacrifice, sacramentally represented, and in the sacraments that the work of salvation is brought about in space and time, which the Church proclaims with the preaching of the Word of God and with her whole self.

Another consequence derives from the fact that the Liturgy is the exercise of the priesthood of Christ, through tangible signs in the continuous reality of the Church, in continuity of time and space: the Liturgy, by its very nature, is ministerial.

This means that there can be no true and proper liturgical action without a minister and without a close and indissoluble bond with the ministerial nature of the entire Church. It is through the ministerial office that what is fulfilled in the Liturgy becomes an exercise of the priesthood of Christ. True liturgical action has need of those who are able to act as ministers of Christ, "in persona Christi et Ecclesiae".

We now know that the "capacitas agendi in persona Christi et Ecclesiae" is not brought about without Holy Orders, without sacramental Ordination and without following the path of true apostolic succession. The minister of the Sacred Liturgy, therefore, acts by virtue of his sacred ministerial powers that come to him from ontological and sacramental conformation to Christ the Priest-Mediator-Incarnate Word, and from hierarchical communion.

Receiving in order to cooperate with divine grace

The first and essential approach of those who participate in liturgical action is to listen, to open themselves, to receive and not to do; to receive God's grace: what he wants to work in us, the transformation of mind and heart, the redemption, uplifting and sanctification of our being, so that in Christ we may become capable of adoring God as he deserves, of offering him worship that is pleasing to him, of acknowledging his absolute dominion and his infinite love, of recognizing our sins, our real misery and unworthiness, and our radical need for his mercy and forgiveness.

Human beings are incapable of doing all this unless they are given the capacity to do so by God. They are incapable of it because of the limitations of human nature, and because they are injured, sick and afflicted by sin. All their efforts are in vain if they make them on their own; they cannot achieve a goal that is out of their reach.

It is obvious that receiving does not imply passivity or a lack of involvement in what occurs; but what counts is the inner participation. Participating means cooperating (because one has been enabled to do so) by the grace of God.

There are many ways of inducing us to cooperate, many signs and words with appropriate actions and symbols; but there is no doubt that however important external activity may be, even were it to increase every Sunday and every day, it is not enough to qualify as true participation in liturgical action.


Those who have the opportunity to compare these thoughts with the content of the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum will easily realize that confusion about the actual concept of the Liturgy is at the root of many types of liturgical behaviour and many ways of celebrating the Divine Liturgy that transmit a human action and pedagogy rather than the action of God which makes the human being who is called to eternal life new, just and holy.

The encounter of the human with the divine which occurs precisely through the Liturgy must show clearly that the Church is 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).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 August 2004, page 8

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