Commentary on the Instruction

Commentary on the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum

Cardinal Jorge A. Médina Estévez
Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Archbishop-Bishop emeritus of Valparaiso, Chile

Participating in the Sacred Liturgy


The notion of participation in the liturgy is based on doctrinal principles rooted in Catholic ecclesiology. If ecclesial activities, according to the Second Vatican Council (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 25; Christus Dominus, nn. 12-16; Presbyterorum Ordinis, nn. 4-6), revolve around the proclamation of the Word of God, the celebration of the liturgy and the actions stemming from the pastoral administration of the People of God, it would be erroneous to imagine that it is only ordained ministers who take an active part in it and that the participation of the faithful is exclusively passive. The programme "giving-receiving" does not exactly correspond to the profound nature of Catholic ecclesiology but is an excessive simplification of a far richer reality.

It is not, of course, a matter of denying the necessary and irreplaceable ministerial role of Bishops and priests, but of giving to healthy Catholic theology, as the Second Vatican Council presented it, the consideration it deserves.

Several texts illustrate this point:

"Liturgical services are not private functions but are celebrations of the Church which is 'the sacrament of unity', namely, 'the holy people united and arranged under their Bishops'. Therefore, liturgical services pertain to the whole Body of the Church. They manifest it and have effects upon it. But they also touch individual members of the Church in different ways, depending on their orders, their role in the liturgical services and their actual participation in them" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 26).

The logical conclusion of the previous assertions is that: "Rites which are meant to be celebrated in common, with the faithful present and actively participating, should as far as possible be celebrated in that way rather than by an individual and quasi-privately" (ibid., n. 27).

And, more concretely, "In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman who has an office to perform, should carry out all and only those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the norms of the liturgy" (ibid., n. 28).

It is important to note that the Council's choice of vocabulary shows a preference for the term "celebration", which stresses the ecclesial and community dimensions of liturgical services. The new Code of Canon Law also makes frequent use of this word but does not exclude the term "administration" of the sacraments, which also conveys important theological concepts with a view to a correct understanding of the nature and efficacy of the sacraments.

It should surprise no one, therefore, that the word "celebration" has acquired special importance in liturgical catechesis and in the current vocabulary of both priests and the faithful.

Let us continue our reflection, citing other texts of the Second Vatican Council:

"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" (ibid., n. 7, 2).

"Christ, indeed, always associates the Church with himself in this great work in which God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is his beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through him offers worship to the eternal Father" (ibid., n. 7, 1).

"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" (ibid., 7, 3).

After referring to various complementary doctrinal aspects in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, we should recall the Conciliar teaching on the common priesthood of the faithful. In returning to an ancient subject, it gives an excellent explanation of the basis for the participation of the faithful in liturgical celebrations. This text, from the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, is of capital importance. We cite it here:

"Christ the Lord, high priest taken from among men (cf. Heb 5:1-5), made the new people 'a kingdom of priests to God, his Father' (Rv 1:6; cf. 5:9-10). The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, that through all the works of Christian men they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the perfection of him who has called them out of darkness into his marvellous light (cf. I Pt 2:4-10).

"Therefore, all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God (cf. Acts 2:42-47), should present themselves as a sacrifice, living, holy and pleasing to God (cf. Rom 12:1). They should answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope of an eternal life which is theirs (cf. I Pt 3:15). Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.

"The ministerial priest, by the sacred power that he has, forms and rules the priestly people; in the person of Christ he effects the Eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people. The faithful indeed, by virtue of their royal priesthood, participate in the offering of the Eucharist. They exercise that priesthood, too, by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, abnegation and active charity" (Lumen Gentium, n. 10).

Christian life, therefore, must be seen as a hymn of "praise to the glorious grace" of God (Eph 1:6, 12, 14), an offering of ourselves to God, a living and holy sacrifice, knowing that what pleases him is perfect (cf. Rom 12).

This praise acquires its value from our incorporation into Christ at the moment of our Baptism, and from the fact that the perfect praise of Christ on the Cross gives rise to our own praise or rather, in other words, our praise is incorporated into the praise of Christ precisely through the renewed presence of his Sacrifice, made once and for all (cf. Heb 7:27; 9:12, 28; 10:12, 14) on Calvary.

Thus, we can say in this regard that Christian life is a priestly life, a life consecrated to the glorification of God, or again, a "liturgical life"; it is not restricted solely to the celebration of liturgical worship in the strict sense but is also based on this worship and, living it as its summit (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10), transpires in all our actions, including those that derive directly from temporal responsibilities, or bear the hallmark of what is temporary or incomplete.


For a deeper knowledge of our topic, participation in the liturgy, it is of course vital to take these considerations into account.

The most explicit text of the Second Vatican Council on the participation of the faithful in the liturgy says:

"In order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds be attuned to their voices, and that they cooperate with heavenly grace lest they receive it in vain. Pastors of souls must therefore realize that when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the laws governing valid and lawful celebration. It is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 11).

The three descriptions of participation used in this conciliar text are therefore: "fully aware", "actively engaged" and "enriched", but the text says that these three characteristics are something more than the mere observance of a valid and lawful celebration, given that they must be the consequence of "proper dispositions" and cooperation "with heavenly grace".

Hence, the phrases: "come to it", "take part", "take part fully aware", "actively engaged" and "attuned" do not only merely concern external aspects but above all and primarily interior, spiritual dispositions. Were this not the case, the liturgical celebration would inevitably become a sort of performance or rather, a folklore display or an empty ritual and hence, a gymnastic or choreographic exercise!

The inner dispositions required for fruitful participation in the celebration of the liturgy correspond fundamentally to the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity.

If it is true, as St Paul says three times, that "he who through faith is righteous shall live" (cf. Rom 1:17, Heb 10:38; Gal 3:11), it is clear that the Eucharistic Liturgy, the summit of Christian life, cannot exist outside the light of faith or without a spirit of faith.

It is also true that Christian faith, the virtue proper to our condition as pilgrims, is necessarily accompanied by hope.

Faith shows us the meaning of our existence here on earth and the means we must use in this world to attain the definitive goal of our lives.

Hope, for its part, keenly aware of our weaknesses and the wounds left in our souls by sin, looks confidently at the final destination of our pilgrimage, certain of being able to reach it with God's help, the only thing that can introduce us into a "connatural" relationship with God, the source of being, salvation and the life of beatitude.

Faith and hope must of course lead to charity, whose inseparable objective is on the one hand God in himself, and on the other, through love of God, our neighbour. It. is clear that it is a question of loving. God with all our heart, all our strength and all our being, and at the same time loving our brothers and sisters in the deeply moving way that St Paul describes (cf. I Cor 13:1-13).

To the theological virtues, we can add yet another inner disposition, indispensable for a fruitful participation in the liturgy: the virtue of religion.

This phrase, "virtue of religion" suggests the deep respect and humble adoration of the One who is thrice Holy, whom we are not worthy even to approach (cf. Ex 3:1-6; I Kgs 19:9-13). We can say that the virtue of religion is, as it were, the "soul" of the liturgy; indeed, although we can never forget that God is our Father, he is nonetheless a Father of immense majesty, the almighty Lord, the King of eternal glory.


To go more deeply into the various aspects of faith, let us now return to the theological virtue of faith. It is true that since the divine realities are part of the mystery of faith, access to the realities invisible to our fleshly eyes is barred to us except through faith (cf. Heb 11:1); nor can we reach the conviction without faith that everything we see comes from what we do not see (cf. Heb 11:3).

Indeed, it is faith that reveals what is invisible through what is visible, faith that transcends tangible experiences and gives us access to the mystery; lastly, it is precisely faith that allows us to perceive the effective meaning of the liturgical actions in the history of salvation, given that the liturgy is not an abstract construction unconnected with time.

It is a celebration firmly rooted in the interwoven events that constitute the fabric of the eternal plan of salvation, achieved as the Father desired, as it was made manifest in the Incarnate Word and as it continues to be brought about in the Church through the action of the Holy Spirit.


Let us now address the specific question of liturgical signs and symbols. It can be said without any doubt that the raison d'être of the signs that mark the liturgy derives from human nature, considered both in its corporeal and spiritual dimensions, but it also derives from the mystery of the Incarnation through which access to the invisible God becomes possible through the human reality of Jesus Christ.

In fact, just as Christ's humanity is the instrument for the saving action of the Word, so the liturgical signs contain and transmit God's saving power; through them, God's grace is communicated or intensified in all who have already received justification, divine adoption and incorporation in the Church.

Of course, comprehension of the liturgical signs is part and parcel of a conscious and fruitful participation in the liturgy. Yet even if, merely by their presence, these signs exercise a pedagogical role for those who perceive them with a limited knowledge of their content, they nonetheless also demand the presence of a constant mystagogy and a formation based on liturgical catechesis that can enable both the faithful and ministers to progress in their knowledge of the mystery being celebrated.

This observation is particularly important with regard to a rite seldom celebrated, such as, for example, an ordination or the dedication of a new church. Nothing is more deleterious to the spiritual participation of the faithful in a liturgical celebration than an excessively hasty or distracted attitude in the celebrant or a mechanical approach to carrying out the liturgical actions.

Three words taken from a traditional prayer effectively sum up the attitude indispensable to every celebrant: "worthy", "attentive", "devout", for it is true that the celebrant himself is a sign. As a person who has been consecrated and an instrument of the action of the glorious Christ who plays the lead in sacramental actions, the ordained minister, and the members of the lay faithful delegated in accordance with the norms of law, must let the mystery being celebrated shine out in such a way that the community can perceive that the above-mentioned minister is neither an actor on stage nor an official, but a believer in love with the ineffable presence of the One who cannot be seen with the eyes of the flesh but is more real than all that belongs to the world of the senses.

A worthy liturgical celebration must first be steeped in the beauty of the place in which it is celebrated and of the objects of worship used, even if this is a simple and essential beauty. This includes the cleanliness of the liturgical vestments and the quality of the sacred vessels.

Moreover, should the celebration acquire a theatrical aspect, it cannot properly be considered "worthy"; indeed, far from being a performance, a liturgical celebration has a primarily religious and spiritual dimension.

Lastly, this notion of worthiness implies the need to accompany celebrations with suitable movements for the liturgy. In other words, they should be made without haste but with a certain deliberation and elegance devoid of simulation.

Secondly, a liturgical celebration must be "attentive" and this demands of the celebrant a special effort so that, as far as possible, he may avoid distractions, especially voluntary ones. This adjective "attentive" permits insistence on the determination to focus one's spirit, which requires control of the senses if it is to avoid being swayed by the many objects that attract the gaze and distract the attention.

Music is naturally not in itself an obstacle to attention since it constitutes an integral part of the participation of the choir and the faithful; yet it is deplorable that certain kinds of music that accompany certain liturgical celebrations do not foster the attention of the celebrant or the participants.

Indeed, the theatrical style of certain types of music gives excessive prominence to the prowess of the musicians or singers. This causes a harmful distraction in the faithful taking part in the liturgical celebration.

Thus, it is unseemly that the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist be regarded in certain cases as an element in some way secondary to the performance of a famous piece of music that shows off the quality of the composer and the virtuosity of the performers. Unquestionably, this kind of practice is not conducive to strengthening the religious sense or recollection, whereas it is appropriate to note that the use of Gregorian chant and high-quality polyphony that do justice to the liturgy are free from these particularly inauspicious consequences.

"Attention" requires silence; first and foremost, of course, "inner silence" or, if you will, a peaceful, tranquil heart. And this naturally implies external silence.

The whispering or comments of concelebrants to one another or to other ministers sitting near them reveals an undisciplined spirit and sets a bad example for the faithful.

On the other hand, a condition that prepares the ground for the attention that liturgical celebrations require is the effective preparation of the celebration so that it may take place in an orderly way without giving the impression that various elements have been left to improvisation.

Lastly, the celebration must be "devout". This implies an approach full of respect, love for God, a religious sense and attention to the "one thing" that "is necessary" (Lk 10:42).

In French, the adjective "devout" can be explained by the word "pious". "A devout person is one who is aware that his life has no meaning unless it is closely bound to God": this is one possible definition of the word "devout".

In other words, it is the attitude of all who desire to live a life totally consistent with their baptismal consecration, in accordance with the plan summed up concisely by St Paul: "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's" (Rom 14:8).

This means that a devout person is "totally dedicated to the Lord".

Those who take part in a liturgical action must not enter the sacred celebration having come straight to the community prayer from their profane, albeit respectable and honest, occupations. An interval marked by silence, recollection and prayer must elapse, even if it is only brief.

A striking example is set by monks who before entering the monastery church to celebrate the Divine Office — still called the Liturgy of the Hours — stand in the cloister in silence to focus their thoughts before concentrating on the recitation of the psalms.

The prayers the celebrant recites as he invests the liturgical vestments just before the beginning of the celebration serve the same purpose.

To conclude, we could say that the reflections expressed above ensue from the first of the dispositions required for an authentic participation in the liturgical celebration: it is faith that reveals the various rich meanings of the liturgical signs; faith, the only, thing that enables the ordained minister to carry out his sacred role as Christ's instrument and the servant of his Body, the Holy Church.

The grace of God

It is now indispensable to study another element essential for full participation in the liturgical celebration: the grace of God, or more precisely, the state of grace.

The goal of participation in liturgical actions is to obtain grace that is not yet possessed (as in the case of the baptism of children and access to the sacrament of Penance by those who are in a state of sin), as well as a growth of grace in those who are already justified. Grace is the concrete expression of salvation, the fruit of redemption and pledge of the glory that awaits us in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Being present at a liturgical celebration in a state of mortal sin and with no desire for conversion is not true participation, even if, during the celebration, the person concerned joins in the movements, hymns, acclamations or other gestures; for in this case, he lacks the fundamental orientation to God and his glory that are the very soul of the liturgy.

This does not mean that those who do not possess the required inner disposition should be excluded from the celebration; for it is possible that their presence, even without all the conditions required for it to be defined true participation, may yet serve as an instrument of actual grace that will lead the person in question to conversion.

But people with a public reputation as sinners should be excluded from carrying out any service during the celebration, for this would be counterproductive and liable to cause scandal and confusion among the faithful. The assessment of various cases naturally calls for great pastoral prudence and a deeply sensitive approach.

It is appropriate, however, never to reduce the requirements provided for in the principles established by Church morals and law.

External acts of participation

In this day and age, in some rather unenlightened milieus which, moreover, have not been formed at the school of good theology, it is claimed that "participation" means no more than what is expressed by certain bodily attitudes. These, it is true, do express participation, but we should never forget that they are the external expressions of an internal participation.

In other words, we can say that these elements are the "material" and visible part of participation, whereas the "formal" element, in the strong or essential and invisible sense of the word, is constituted by the theological virtues — faith, hope and charity — by the virtue of religion and by the state of grace; the latter alone puts the human creature in a state of consecration to the glory of God, on the basis of the coherence between the faith professed and the love of God and one's neighbour that is lived out in all life's decisions.

The Second Vatican Council identifies a certain number of elements intended to encourage active participation. Before citing them it is appropriate to make one very important observation: these elements do not alone or in themselves constitute liturgical participation; they do no more than express and foster it.

Indeed, it should always be remembered that the participation we can define as "substantial" derives from those elements presented, as we have said, as "formal".

This is the Conciliar text:

"To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalms, antiphons, hymns, as well as by actions, gestures and bodily attitudes. And at the proper time a reverent silence should be observed".

"When the liturgical books are being revised, the people's parts must be carefully indicated by the rubrics" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, nn. 30, 31).

It is obvious that the external elements of participation referred to in the conciliar text must not be ignored, since the human person, whose nature is both spiritual and corporeal, needs tangible expressions.

Furthermore, the external elements contribute to strengthening the internal dispositions.

Lastly, given that human beings are by nature inclined to live in society, they need tangible expressions that help them to live this experience of community life and to express worship as a social and not a solely private reality.

Thus, it is absolutely impossible to imagine a form of Catholic worship devoid of tangible elements. Above all, any attempt to eliminate from this worship expressions so connatural to human nature would deprive it of an essential part of what it is by nature.

Nor is it right to impose certain external attitudes too strictly, for fear of turning the liturgical celebration into a sequence of mechanical, hence, in a certain way, soulless gestures.

In this regard it must be understood that different subjective situations can prompt someone to assume an attitude that does not rigorously conform to a specific moment, but this is no reason to speak of falling away from what has been described above as a "formal participation". Consequently, if a person does not rigorously respect this external action, it would be erroneous to presume that the person in question did not have the required dispositions for real and genuine participation.

Indeed, it can happen that some of those who celebrate the liturgy and carry out the external acts required by the rubrics with great attention to detail and rigorous discipline, are actually very far from authentic inner participation.

The ministries

The Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 30, cited in the previous paragraph, concerns forms of participation that are "common" to the whole People of God.

However, there are also forms of participation that are special, in the sense that they are not obligatory for all the faithful nor, strictly speaking, do they entail the exercise of a "right"; on the other hand, they presuppose certain qualities and even an explicit reference on the part of those who are responsible for the smooth functioning of the liturgical celebration.

The Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, established this general principle: "In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman who has an office to perform, should carry out all and only those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the norms of the liturgy" (n. 28).

Among the various liturgical ministries, it would be right first of all to mention all the functions which depend for fulfilment on those who through sacramental ordination are members of the clergy: Bishops, priests and deacons. It is the task of these ordained ministers to "structure" the Church, the visible Body of Christ, in which the sacred hierarchy is both the sign of salvation that comes from on high as a gratuitous gift and the instrument of saving action whose primary source is the Lord Jesus, the one Priest of the New Covenant who exercises his role as mediator through ordained ministers.

These ministers are so necessary that St Ignatius of Antioch declared that without a Bishop, priests or deacons, it was impossible to speak of a Church (cf. Ad Trall).

However, there are other non-ordained ministers who contribute to the dignity of the liturgical celebration.

We can name lectors who are responsible for reading the texts of Sacred Scripture, but not the Gospel. The lector can be "instituted" (in this case he must necessarily be a man [vir]: can. 230 § 1), "blessed" or merely called upon for a specific celebration.

The office of reader is not a sign of honour or some kind of official recognition of a person's presumed merits. It is primarily and solely a service for the good of the People of God taking part in the celebrations.

It is important that lectors be respectable persons who have an irreprehensible ecclesial status, a good reputation and can also read well, that is, intelligibly and with a clear elocution that enables people to understand their articulation of the sentences of the sacred text.

Consequently, persons who may be very devout and respectable but are not gifted readers, that is, who are not good at making themselves understood by those taking part in the celebration, must not be called to the ministry of lector.

"Altar servers", also called "acolytes", may also be "instituted" (in this case, they must be adults and men [vir]: can. 230 § 1), "blessed" or merely called to carry out this service occasionally or on a more or less regular basis. They must be given appropriate training to fulfil their function with dignity, that is, without committing those errors that would necessarily jeopardize the quality and harmony of the celebration.

It is the duty of the diocesan Bishop, for a special reason and as an exception, to permit women and girls to exercise this ministry, but he should always be mindful of the Church's traditional preference for men and boys.1

Music is an integral part of liturgical celebrations, and this is why the Church down the centuries has recognized the role of the "schola cantorum" or choir. Its task is to interpret passages of liturgical music.

However, it is necessary to note in this regard that it would be an abuse to allow the schola cantorum to encroach on the people's participation in the singing during the liturgical celebration. It would be even worse were the members of the schola to act in such a way as to attract attention to the detriment of the liturgical action rather than abiding by their own role that consists in helping to build up the religious spirit of those taking part in liturgical celebrations.

The fact remains that the role of the schola cantorum is recognized by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy as a genuine liturgical function (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 29).

The shortage of ordained ministers for the distribution of Holy Communion justifies the service of extraordinary ministers for the distribution of the Holy Eucharist. These ministers can be permanently instituted or called upon when necessary. Theirs is a temporary ministry and on no account a "promotion" of the laity.

The insufficient number of priests or deacons for the celebration of the sacrament of Baptism may lead the Bishop to authorize lay persons to be extraordinary ministers of this sacrament (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 230 § 3).2 For the same reason, the Bishop may designate lay people as qualified witnesses for the canonical celebration of marriage (can. 1112);3 he may also authorize lay persons to lead Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest (can. 1248 § 2; The Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, Christi Ecclesia, 10 June 1988, Preliminaries, cf. Notitiae 263, 1988, 366-378)4 or to preside at funerals (cf. Ordo Exsequiarum, Praenotanda, n. 19).5

Among the ministers who assist the ordained ministers in liturgical celebrations and especially in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist, it would be appropriate to recall the "master of ceremonies", who is responsible for seeing that the celebration takes place worthily and appropriately and that each of the ministers carries out his role properly. This task is not strictly reserved to an ordained minister, priest or deacon, even if it is appropriate to choose a master of ceremonies from among them.

Lastly, the "commentator" should not be forgotten. It is he who, with brief and discreet instructions, helps the community to understand the various parts of the liturgical celebration.

It goes without saying that commentators must have a firm grasp of the meaning of the liturgical texts. This implies that they have been well instructed, for they may not provide interpretations of the rites celebrated at whim but must refer exclusively to the liturgical texts and actions approved by the Church.

The place in which commentators exercise their ministry is neither the pulpit nor the place for the proclamation of the Word, but somewhere else that is both suitable and discreet.

It is obvious that all who take part in a liturgical celebration and exercise such a "ministry" in it, must take the trouble to prepare themselves, spiritually and liturgically. They must acquire a knowledge, in the strict sense of the word, of the norms that regulate a celebration and ensure that it takes place with dignity and is imbued with a religious spirit.

It would be right to insist once again on the fact that temporary ministries may be exercised only in the absence of ordained ministers or when ministers are in such short supply that it is impossible to see a celebration through within a reasonable period of time. It is indispensable, therefore, to have clearly in mind the Inter-Dicasterial Instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio on the collaboration of the lay faithful in the ministry of priests, published on 15 August 1997 (AAS 89, 1997, pp. 852-877; in a French translation: cf. La Documentation Catholique, 2171, 1997, 1009-1020).


The liturgy has an "ascendant" dimension, since it truly raises to the Majesty of God the praise that is due to him as Creator and Redeemer. This praise of the whole Church, Head and Body, is both personal and communal: it naturally involves every member of the faithful, but every member of the faithful also belongs to the Mystical Body of Christ.

And given that the Body of Christ, which is the Church, has a structure established by her divine Founder, it is those who can act in persona Christi — since they have been admitted to share in apostolic succession by sacramental ordination — who preside at liturgical praise. Thus, this ascendant dimension culminates in the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

However, it is true that the liturgy also has a "descendent" dimension, for it is through celebrations, and the celebration of the sacraments in particular, that salvation reaches human beings with sanctifying grace and all the gifts that go with it.

God, in his eternal plan of salvation for human beings, desired visible acts to convey invisible grace. Although these acts may be meant to make the person holy, they take the form of liturgical celebrations in the community of believers, a concrete expression of Church.

Having come to the end of this reflection, it seems to me particularly timely to return to the first text of the Constitution of the Second Vatican Council on the Holy Liturgy. This is the text:

"It is the liturgy through which, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, 'the work of our redemption is accomplished' and it is through the liturgy, especially, that the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church. The Church is essentially both human and divine, visible but endowed with invisible realities, zealous in action and dedicated to contemplation, present in the world but as a pilgrim, 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).

The subject of participation in liturgical celebrations truly makes tangible to us the mystery of salvation, the wonderful economy with which the merciful Father, through his Incarnate Word, reveals his plan to us and brings it about through the power of the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.


1 The Circular Letter of 15 March 1994 of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to the Presidents of the Bishops' Conferences (Notitiae 39, 1994, 333-335), on the application of the Response of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts with regard to the authentic interpretation of can. 230 § 2 (according to this canon, do the liturgical ; functions that lay-persons can fulfil include altar service? Affirmative et iuxta instructiones a Sede Apostolica dandas. Cf. AAS 86, 1994, 541), establishes that it is the task of each Bishop in his own Diocese, after hearing the opinion of the Bishops' Conference, to issue a prudent judgment on the appropriate action for the harmonious development of liturgical life in his own Diocese.

Moreover, the obligation to continue to prefer boys for altar service, which has permitted an encouraging development in priestly vocations, will always exist. In a Letter of 27 July 2001 (Notitiae 421-422, 2001, 397-399), the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments explains on the one hand that the freedom of the diocesan Bishop cannot be conditioned by possible decisions of neighbouring Bishops who favour altar service carried out by women, and on the other hand, that the possible authorization of the Bishop must always leave priests of his Diocese free to have recourse to a group of altar servers consisting only of boys, given the obligation contained in the Letter of 1994, cited above, concerning the growth of priestly vocations.

2 The Inter-Dicasterial Instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio of 15 August 1997 (Practical Provisions, art. 11), explains that care should be taken to avoid too extensive an interpretation of this provision and to ensure that such a faculty is not conceded in a habitual form.

For example, the absence or the impediment of a sacred minister which renders licit the deputation of the lay faithful to act as an extraordinary minister of Baptism, cannot be defined in terms of the ordinary minister's excessive workload, his non-residence in the territory of the parish or his non-availability on the day on which the family have planned the Baptism. Such reasons are insufficient.

3 Can. 1112 requires the prior favourable opinion of the Bishops' Conference and the permission of the Holy See. In France this possibility of delegating faculties to lay persons does not exist.

4 The Inter-Dicasterial Instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio of 15 August 1997 (Practical Provisions, art. 7), explains that the non-ordained member of the faithful who leads this kind of celebration must have a special mandate from the Bishop, who will take care to provide the appropriate instructions regarding the term of applicability, the place and conditions in which it is operative, as well as to indicate the priest responsible.

Furthermore, these celebrations are temporary solutions and the text used at them must be approved by the competent ecclesiastical authority. The practices of inserting into such celebrations elements proper to the Holy Mass and the use of the Eucharistic Prayers even in narrative form are forbidden.

It should be emphasized for the benefit of those participating that such celebrations cannot substitute for the Eucharistic Sacrifice and that the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday and holy days of obligation is satisfied only by attendance at Holy Mass, even at the cost of taking part in a Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest, when participation in the Holy Sacrifice is not possible. In the cases where distance or physical conditions are not an obstacle, every effort should be made to encourage and assist the faithful to fulfil this precept (AAS 89, 1997, 869-870).

5 The Inter-Dicasterial Instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio of 15 August 1997 (Practical Provisions, art. 12), recalls that this possibility only exists in the case of a true absence of sacred ministers. Moreover, because of the present circumstances of growing dechristianization and of abandonment of religious practice, death and the time of funerals can become one of the most opportune pastoral moments in which the ordained minister can meet with the non-practising members of the faithful.

It is thus desirable that priests and deacons, even at some sacrifice to themselves (cum magna deditione), should preside personally at funeral rites (AAS 89, 1997, 874).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 September 2004, page 8

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