Holy Liturgy and the Sense of the Sacred

Author: Bishop Štefan Vrablec

Holy Liturgy and the Sense of the Sacred

Bishop Štefan Vrablec
Auxiliary Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Bratislava-Trnava, Slovakia, President of the Slovak Liturgical Commission

Reflection: Year of the Eucharist

In reading the text of the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, a Document desired by the Holy Father, I thought back several times to what the Pontiff himself wrote in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa: "Despite the dechristianization of vast areas of the European Continent, there are signs which suggest an image of a Church which, in believing, proclaims, celebrates and serves her Lord" (n. 67).

"A Church which... celebrates and serves her Lord" is a beautiful description of the Church's task. With her Liturgies she elevates the daily life of human beings to the realm of the sacred.

The definition of the sacred formulated by the theologian, M.D. Chenu — "The sacred is what has been removed from its natural goal, in order to be dedicated and referred directly to its supernatural goal" — becomes crystallized in human life. The Church, which "in believing, proclaims, celebrates and serves her Lord", as the Pope wrote, is a true hope for the world invaded by the secularism and systematic atheism — to which the Second Vatican Council refers in Gaudium et Spes— which co-maintain that "man is an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control, of his own history" (n. 20).

It is possible to exclude God in many ways, even without naming him, and unfortunately people are doing so. This leads to a lifestyle often deplored by the Holy Father with these words: "Human beings live as if God did not exist".

Renewal through the Liturgy

In this situation, a dignified liturgical celebration can be of great help in leading people to a proper relationship with the transcendent, with God. This real possibility of renewal through the Liturgy justifies the publication of the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum and makes it highly appropriate.

In addition to the hope of providing the secularized world with a remedy, there is also, let us say, an "inner" reason for accepting the Instruction "with open arms":

"Certain signs point to a weakening in the sense of mystery in those very liturgical celebrations that should be fostering that sense. It is, therefore, urgent that the authentic sense of the Liturgy be revived in the Church. The Liturgy... is a means of sanctification; it is a celebration of the Church's faith, and a means of transmitting the faith" (Ecclesia in Europa, n. 70).

A dignified liturgical celebration helps us to acquire a deeper perception of the mystery and to broaden the dimensions of the sacred. The Holy Father finds a convincing argument for this in the beauty of liturgical celebrations that speak to the heart.

In Ecclesia in Europa, he writes, "Together with Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church it [the Liturgy] is a living source of authentic and sound spirituality. As the tradition of the venerable Eastern Churches also clearly emphasizes, it is through the Liturgy that the faithful enter into communion with the Most Holy Trinity and experience their sharing in the divine nature as a gift of grace. In this way the Liturgy becomes a foretaste of final blessedness and a sharing in the glory of heaven" (n. 70).

The same conviction, more forcefully expressed by the Second Vatican Council, is found in Sacrosanctum Concilium: "In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem towards which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle" (n. 8).

Role of the sense of the sacred

By viewing the Liturgy in this perspective, we become aware of the need and the duty to celebrate it in a holy way ("sancta sancte"), and we clearly understand the insistence with which the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum asks us to affirm, respect and preserve the sacred nature of the place, persons and actions and all that is part of a liturgical rite, especially the celebration of the Blessed Eucharist.

In the Instruction, "We are not dealing with meticulous instructions compiled by 'legalistic minds'", as Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation, said in his presentation of Redemptionis Sacramentum; rather, the Document intends to educate us in the sacred in order to enable us to celebrate the mystery of Christ properly, because "external action must be illuminated by faith and charity, which unite us with Christ and with one another" (Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 5).

For this to happen, we must accept willingly and observe faithfully what the texts of the sacred Liturgy ask of us.

"The liturgical words and rites, moreover, are a faithful expression, matured over the centuries, of the understanding of Christ, and they teach us to think as he himself does; by conforming our minds to these words, we raise our hearts to the Lord" (ibid., n. 5).

If we read the Instruction without prejudice and with docility to the Spirit, then Redemptionis Sacramentum offers us motivated assistance that will help us to better reach the ideal objective of conforming our sentiments to those of Christ and not to be content with a cold and uniform rubric.

We note that St Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (cf. 11:20) was unhappy about the tone of certain celebrations. He wanted to re-establish the Corinthians' sense of celebration in relation to Jesus' celebration "on the night when he was betrayed", and thereby to restore holiness to their gatherings (cf. I Cor 11:23). "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.... So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another — if anyone is hungry, let
him eat at home..." (I Cor 11:16, 33-34).

In writing these words, St Paul's intention was to renew the Corinthians' meetings, to free them from abuse and make them holy by recourse to the sacrificial value of the Eucharistic celebration (cf. also I Cor 10:16-18).

And rightly, St Thomas, the Angelic Doctor, exclaimed, almost as if he wanted to comment on I Cor 11:26: "O Sacrum Convivium", not merely any meeting of friends; "in quo Christus sumitur", Christ gives himself to us, so that we do not faint on the way as we journey toward sanctification (cf. Mt 15:32); — "recollitur memoria passionis eius!". This aspect of the Eucharist is very important.

"Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, the mystery is understood as if its meaning and importance were simply that of a fraternal banquet" (Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 38, citing Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 10). The Crucified and Risen Jesus, the principal Liturgist, is with us; he asks us to unite ourselves to him `with a deep sense of the sacred.

Dignified celebration of Eucharist

The sense of mystery and of the sacred must always be alive in the celebrating, praying and worshipping Church. The Instruction intends to ensure that this will be so by reminding sacred ministers of the existence of the rights of the lay faithful, the Catholic people, to have a Liturgy that corresponds to the depth of the mystery celebrated and to the spiritual good of the individual members of the faithful and of the entire community.

The Instruction speaks at least 14 times of the rights of the faithful to be present and to be able to enjoy the holiness of the greatest mystery that is celebrated. The faithful ius habenthave the right:

"to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church's life in accordance with her tradition and discipline" (n. 11);

"It is the right of all of Christ's faithful that the Liturgy... should truly be as the Church wishes, according to her stipulations" (n. 12);

"The Catholic people have the right that the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass should be celebrated for them in an integral manner" (n. 12);

"It is the Catholic community's right that the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist should be carried out for it in such a manner that it truly stands out as a sacrament of unity" (n. 12);

"Christ's faithful have the right that ecclesiastical authority should fully and effectively regulate the Sacred Liturgy lest it should ever seem to be 'anyone's private property'  (n. 18);

"It is the right of the Christian people... that their diocesan Bishop should take care to prevent the occurrence of abuses" (n. 24);

"It is the right of the community of Christ's faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration there should customarily be true and suitable sacred music, and that there should always be an altar, vestments and sacred linens that are dignified, proper and clean" (n. 57);

"All of Christ's faithful likewise have the right to a celebration of the Eucharist that has been... carefully prepared in all its parts" (n. 58);

"The faithful have a right to visit the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist frequently for adoration, and to take part in adoration before the Most Holy Eucharist exposed at least at some time in the course of any given year" (n. 139);

"The diocesan Bishop should acknowledge and foster... the right of the... faithful to form guilds or associations for the carrying out of adoration, even almost continuous adoration" (n. 141);

"'No Christian community is built up which does not grow from and hinge on the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist' (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 6). Hence, it is the Christian people's right to have the Eucharist celebrated for them on Sunday, and whenever holy days of obligation... occur... insofar as this is possible" (n. 162);

"All priests, to whom the Priesthood and the Eucharist are entrusted 'for the sake of' others, should remember that they are enjoined to provide the faithful with the opportunity to satisfy the obligation of participating at Mass on Sundays... the lay faithful have the right... that no priest should ever. refuse... to celebrate Mass for the people" (n. 163);

"If participation at the celebration of the Eucharist is impossible... then it is the Christian people's right that the diocesan Bishop should provide... for some celebration to be held on Sundays for that community under his authority and according to the Church's norms" (n. 164);

"Any Catholic, whether priest or deacon or lay member of Christ's faithful, has the right to lodge a complaint regarding a liturgical abuse to the diocesan Bishop" (n. 184).

In order to participate in all that the Church — priests and faithful — desires to "say" to the Lord through the Liturgy, this list of rights to which the faithful are entitled should not be considered useless or redundant.

Just as universal respect for "human rights" is frequently and rightly insisted upon in secular life today, we should also ensure that we satisfy the rights of the faithful with at least equal if not greater insistence. Jesus Christ has granted these rights to them, and in giving himself to them, he wants them to stay with him.

No one can consider the Liturgy as "private property" or treat it as such (cf. n.. 18). "Let each one of the sacred ministers ask himself, even with severity, whether he has respected the rights of the lay members of Christ's faithful, who confidently entrust themselves and their children to him, relying on him to fulfil for the faithful those sacred functions that the Church intends to carry out in celebrating the sacred Liturgy at Christ's command" (n. 186).

Faithful observation of the directives of the competent authority facilitates our union with Christ and with one another; it also brings about that uplifting of the hearts "sursum corda" of those present that the celebration of the Eucharistic mystery requires.

In the field of Liturgy, which must always be held sacred, the desire to debase with superficial and sometimes secularizing criticism the treasury of fruits that have matured down the ages in the sunshine of the Holy Spirit, would be damaging.

Nor should it be said that this bars access to progress. A door is left open for appropriate adaptations; moreover, the revival of the sense of the sacred must itself be considered a desirable and greater mark of progress, worth far more than frequent alterations (cf. n. 39) which at times distract the faithful and disturb the unity of the Church.

Role of ordained ministers

The priest is a "sacred minister" who is indispensable. Without a priest there can be no Eucharist.

Priests should never be considered as "employees" or "delegates" of the community required to carry out a certain number of "programmed" gestures.
The priest is a "gift" of God. As such, he gathers together the community of believers to glorify God.

Thus, no one should seek to manipulate either the priest himself or what he does, or to reduce it to purely profane or political ends.

Let the priest humbly consider himself a representative of Christ. He must not divest himself of his proper dignity by having non-consecrated ministers replace him (cf. n. 32), even with the "good" intention of "promoting" lay people.

He will also carry out his mission with holiness outside the Church. For example, the Document opportunely recalls that in taking Holy Communion to the sick, the priest should go straight from the altar to the sick person's home (cf. n. 133), without stopping to do any errands.

The priest, invested with the pastoral care of a parish, should know that "under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, [he] is bound to regulate and supervise [the Liturgy] in his parish lest abuses occur" (cf. n. 32).

Role of lay faithful

The sense of the sacred should be deepened and fostered in the lay faithful to make their participation in the celebration of the Eucharist more deeply felt and active. Their attendance should not be equated "with a mere presence, and still less with a passive one", but they should be catechized and led to understand that their presence is "a true exercise of faith and of the baptismal dignity" (n. 37).

If they are called to assist at liturgical celebrations, they should be well instructed and distinguished by their Christian life and fidelity to the Magisterium (cf. n. 46). "To be avoided is the danger of obscuring the complementary relationship between the action of clerics and that of lay persons" (n. 45).

Furthermore, lay people should not take to themselves the tasks proper to ordained ministers; even if they have been appointed extraordinary ministers of Communion, they must not exercise this ministry except in the case of objective need (cf. n. 157), and "it is never allowed for the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion to delegate anyone
else to administer the Eucharist" (n. 159).

It was appropriate for the Instruction to call attention to cleanliness, dignity and beauty in the preparation of all that is needed for a dignified celebration. It was good to remind the faithful, with regard to the laundering of sacred linen, that it "is praiseworthy for this to be done by pouring the water from the first washing, done by hand, into the church's sacrarium or into the ground in a suitable place. After this a second washing can be done in the usual way" (n. 120). Even this detail can inculcate a sense of the sacred in the faithful.

To conclude, I would like to mention an example lived in a Slovakian parish in the days of Communism.

In the Parish of Moyzesovo, during Midnight Mass of Christmas 1978, the parish priest died while distributing Holy Communion. The consecrated Hosts were scattered all over a large area of the church floor.

The faithful gathered up the sacred species with great devotion, using holy cards to carry the Hosts to the altar while they waited for a priest they had summoned to help them in this disconcerting situation.

Some might classify this behaviour as "infantile", but I see the gesture of those parishioners as confirmation of their profound sense of the sacred, which inspired in them that simple way of behaving.

The "Year of the Eucharist" established by the Holy Father lies before us. It may be a year of "putting out into the deep" in the sea of doctrine to deepen our knowledge of the Eucharistic Mystery; in the area of religious practice, it could well be a year that increases a delicate and respectful love of the Blessed Eucharist that the faithful express through an ever more devout way of celebrating the memorial of what Jesus did "on the night when he was betrayed".

It could also be a year of reorganization and a wider dissemination in parishes of adoration of the Lord Jesus sacramentally present in our midst. In such a way, we will see further confirmation of the fact that Ecclesia de Eucharistia is alive.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 February 2005, page 6

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