Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 15

Author: Manila Sodi, S.D.B.


Manila Sodi, S.D.B.
Dean of the Faculty of Theology, Salesian Pontifical University in Rome,
Member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology

Eucharistic 'decorum'? It begins with the celebration

It is possible to gain an adequate understanding of John Paul II's Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia when its contents are situated in the rich variety of documents on the Eucharistic mystery published by the Church. It was primarily the second millennium of the Christian faith that produced magisterial interventions of various types, whose purpose was to help summarize at times particular aspects and at times generic aspects of the Eucharist, which "is the most precious possession which the Church can have in her journey through history" (n. 9).

The 20th century, riding the great crest of the liturgical movement, has gone down in history as the century of the Eucharist, in the sense that the progressive rediscovery of participation in the sacred mysteries caused their celebration to be deepened under various aspects (encyclicals, instructions, various documents, etc.).1 The confluence of these streams of ideas and facts brought about the most profound and radical reform ever seen in the history of liturgy, the reform called for by the Second Vatican Council. From Sacrosanctum Concilium onwards we can state that with the liturgical reform, what is doubtlessly the broadest and most eloquent chapter of the history of the Eucharist was written.

Along these lines, if Sacrosanctum Concilium— considered as a whole, especially beginning with the principles laid out in the first chapter — broadened some horizons, it was Paul VI's Encyclical Mysterium Fidei (3 September 1965) and especially the Instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium, issued by the Congregation for Rites (25 May 1967), that laid the bases for a renewal of the celebration and worship, and therefore of liturgical life (celebration, worship, catechesis, pastoral ministry, spirituality) in a global vision that later found its cohesive fulfilment in the liturgical books, particularly in the Missal, in the Lectionary and in the rite of Eucharistic worship. It is the Forewords of these books (especially the Missal and the Lectionary) that offer the broadest and most detailed syntheses of what the Church celebrates, and therefore believes and lives.

Successive interventions did nothing other than propose elaborations, clarifications, reminders about specific points of theology, discipline and pastoral orientation. In this regard we can recall the pedagogical dimension implemented in the three years of preparation for the Great Jubilee, which were developed according to the logic of the liturgical year and thus entirely oriented to the Great Jubilee as an "intensely Eucharistic year".2

The pedagogy included in this line, however, repeated the idea that every liturgical year is a jubilee year and therefore a profoundly Eucharistic year. That is why Novo Millennio Ineunte gave new impetus to the idea, stating that "our principal attention must be given to the liturgy" (n. 35), and on the Sunday Eucharist in particular.3Ecclesia de Eucharistia is intended to fit into this great perspective with a very precise objective: to grasp the relationship between Eucharist and Church in order to draw some conclusions on how it is precisely from the celebration of the Eucharist that the face of the Church emerges more clearly and eloquently.

In this sense the Encyclical does not offer an exhaustive treatment of the various aspects of the mystery; both theology and pastoral ministry should necessarily take into consideration the other aspects of the celebration in view of a more global and integrated educational plan.4

What is the reason for this renewed attention on the Eucharistic mystery? And why were only certain aspects highlighted?

The answer lies in a broader vision of the problem that doubtlessly cannot be contained in a single document, but which the document in question is intended to bring to the renewed attention of the Ecclesial Community. Among the various aspects treated, chapter five dwells on "The dignity of the Eucharistic celebration". Why this attention?

'Decorum': an outdated term or a reminder of essential values?

The word "decorum" is a derivative of the Latin decorus, meaning "fitting" or "proper". In the language of Cicero we find the expression: "Color albus praecipue decorus deo est" (White is particularly fitting for worship).5 However, the term also means "ornate, beautiful, attractive, elegant, magnificent".

The adjective decorous traces back to the noun decor (which in turn comes from deceo in the impersonal form, decet) to indicate something that is fitting, decorous; or to speak about something as an ornament, grace, beauty, nobility. The adverb decore would be used to characterize something that is done decorously, fittingly or artistically.

Following along these lines of semantic development of the word considered in its various meanings, we can deduce two lines of meaning.

In the first instance the word denotes an attitude of dignity that in its aspect, fashion and action is appropriate to the social condition of a person or a class (to live, behave, dress... decorously), as well as decorum in language, style, art.

In the second instance the word connotes a sense of one's own dignity, an awareness of what is proper or due to one's own status, function or condition.

It is in this sense that the 1917 Code of Canon Law, in canon 124, treated the concept of "clerical decorum", presenting it as the ideal of a greater interior holiness and the character of an exemplary exterior behaviour that clerics, because of their lofty profession, should exhibit in relation to the laity.

These are some of the main aspects included in a term which, through time, fully entered into that plurality of languages that give structure to our complex liturgical reality and especially to celebration. And it is precisely in this last sense that the term can be found in many documents, especially in the euchology of the Roman Missal.6 If this term is already found in the title of chapter five of the Encyclical, it is because it can be enhanced to give new thrust to an educational perspective in regard to the understanding and especially the celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, in that "the Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 10).

Along these lines, however, the word "decorum", although it may seem to today's collective imagination to be slightly outmoded, is in fact in the religious context without equivalents or synonyms with the capacity for expressing that call-back to the essential values which are diffused, expressed and realized by and in the Eucharistic celebration. It is in this perspective that our reflection continues.

Celebrating with decorum: from the Encyclical to 'liturgical book'

Part 47 of the Encyclical introduces the reflection on the decorum of the celebration, turning again to the events of the last days preceding the passion and death of Christ the Lord. The references to the anointing at Bethany and the demand for accurately preparing the large room for consuming the paschal meal mark the beginning of the understanding — although still in its primitive stage — of the criteria that has been, and is still, at the basis of the style of the Church, which "has felt the need down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery" (n. 48).

And she has done so, letting herself be guided by a logic that the Encyclical stipulates right away: "Though the idea of a 'banquet' naturally suggests familiarity, the Church has never yielded to the temptation to trivialize this 'intimacy' with her Spouse by forgetting that he is also her Lord and that the 'banquet' always remains a sacrificial banquet marked by the blood shed on Golgotha" (ibid.).

These restatements of principle are then emphasized by the Encyclical with a reference to the "outward forms", which are always to be understood as expressions of "an interior disposition of devotion... meant to evoke and emphasize the grandeur of the event being celebrated". In this context there is explicit reference:

a) to art and the rich heritage that, flowing from the Eucharist, "has also powerfully affected 'culture', and the arts in particular" (n. 49);7

b) to the construction and furnishing of sacred buildings, as well as the figurative arts and music, seen as the "space" for "expressing, in all its elements, the meaning of the Eucharist in accordance with the Church's teaching" (n. 50);

c) to the challenges that are always found in the ecclesial fabric, connected to the tasks of adaptation and inculturation;8

d) to the responsibility and the roles of those who are called to preside at the Eucharistic celebration in persona Christi.

These four areas touched upon by the Encyclical do not completely exhaust all the ways in which "decorum" is called into cause as part of the celebrative language; they do, however, recall the reader's attention to the contents of those "instruments" that are ordinarily at the service of the celebration. The educator knows, in fact, that a more complete and exhaustive treatment — even for the specific focus we are using — is that which can be found in the introductions to the liturgical books, and in particular to the introduction of the Missal, the Lectionary, the Rite of Eucharistic Celebration and the Liturgy of the Hours.

The Principles and Norms that regulate the use of the Roman Missal open up with this statement:

"Drawing near to celebrating with his disciples the paschal banquet in which he instituted the sacrifice of his Body and Blood, Christ the Lord ordered them to prepare a large, decorated room. The Church has always considered this order as addressed to her when she dictated norms for disposing souls, preparing the places, determining the rites and choosing the texts for the celebration of the Eucharist. These present norms too... are proof of the Church's solicitude, of her faith and her unchanging love for the great Eucharistic mystery and bear witness to its continuous and unbroken tradition..." (n. 1).

It is from this statement of principle that the whole content of the Premise unwinds, the goal of which is to facilitate participation in the Eucharistic mystery with specific attention to those areas and languages that are involved in various ways and under various aspects.

The educator who wants to assimilate the language of celebration as an expression of a full participation in the Mystery must necessarily tackle these contents. There he or she will find valuable elements for understanding the various aspects of the celebrative language; special highlights to develop a musical language that "sings" the faith; eloquent reminders to make the furnishings beautiful; plausible ideas for a new aesthetic that can deliver the Church of the third millennium from the risk of being banal; specific warnings for a liturgical communication that respects the laws of communication; pedagogical guidelines for a use of the Missal that can result in serving the Mystery and the assembly.

And all of this in the perspective of a "celebrative space" considered in its totality: in its preparation (before), in its realization (during) and in relationship to every day living (after); three aspects of a single reality!

Before, during and after: a celebration is decorous when...

The celebration is an event in which, in the logic of the memorial (cf. n. 12 and passim) and by the power of the Holy Spirit, is rendered actually present — "a most special presence" (n. 15) — the one sacrifice of Christ the Redeemer. The event is accomplished by the interweaving of the centre of salvation history — that mysterium paschale referred to in n. 2 of the Encyclical9— with the life of the believer, according to the rhythm of time (the liturgical year) and the seasons of life (sacraments). If the event of the "sacramental representation of Christ's sacrifice" (n. 15) is "punctual", there is a different way of experiencing it when it is positively affected by a celebratory before and after.

Along these lines, therefore, we can find the following points significant for gaining a deeper understanding of the "mysterious 'oneness in time' between that Triduum and the passage of the centuries" (n. 5).

The celebratory 'before'

The grace, beauty and nobility of the celebratory event cannot be improvised: they require a preparatory attitude that demands attention to some specific details. In order to be worthy of its "content", a celebration requires preparation, formation and attitude.

The immediate preparation is determined by considering what is indicated in the liturgical book, which recalls the beginning of every ritualistic structure;10 improvisation in the celebration is an eloquent sign of an attitude that is not in conformity with the instructions of the Teacher who, as he did at the Last Supper, always tells his Church to prepare their souls, places, rituals and texts, in order to have a complete experience of him.

It is possible to properly contextualize the immediate preparation only if it is the expression of a broader and strong formation that helps to understand the meaning and therefore the function of the various roles called into cause in leading the liturgy. Just as the ancient Caeremoniale episcoporum indicated all the essential texts for the formation of the master of the celebration,11 today those contents are included — with greater abundance and importance — in the Introductions to the individual liturgical books. It is from the study of these that one can gather all those elements that help to make a celebration "decorous" or worthy of the name.

Preparation and formation give rise to an attitude: the attitude that is typical of the person who approaches the liturgical book as an instrument for celebration and for life,12 in such a way that the celebration can be an ever fuller experience of the Life of the Risen Lord. This attitude is made concrete, furthermore, in choices that already serve as a prelude to the celebration, as St. Charles Borromeo taught his priests: "A... priest complains that as soon as he comes into a church... to celebrate Mass, a thousand thoughts fill his mind and distract him from God. But what was he doing in the sacristy before he came out... for Mass? How did he prepare? What means did he use to collect his thoughts and to remain recollected?".13

The celebratory 'during'

The most complex aspect of the experience of the Risen Lord — present in the Word, in the assembly, in the one who presides and first and foremost in the sacramental signs (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7) — is the one structured by the ritual action. The varied complexity and richness of its elements does not permit a detailed explanation; it returns, however, to those attentions that are called into cause by the sequence of the rituals in the four parts of the structure of every celebration, and in particular of the Eucharistic celebration.

A celebration is decorous when the Introductory rites mirror their task of "introducing" and are not excessively prolonged so that they rob the other parts of their balance and proportion. The animation has a decisive role so that everything can be concentrated on the most important element, constituted by the "collect" prayer.

A celebration is decorous when the various elements of the Liturgy of the Word are experienced in such a way that they mirror (and respect) that dialogic movement between God and his people. All these elements, from the first reading to the prayer of the faithful, have a logic that aims at a personal and communal experience of the Word of God that finds its total fulfilment in the Eucharistic liturgy.

A celebration is decorous when the whole of the Eucharistic liturgy harmoniously mirrors what the Gospels synthesized by saying, "He took the bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it ...", and the Eucharistic liturgy actualizes this from the preparation of the sacramental signs to participation in the table of the Body and Blood of Christ.

A celebration is decorous when the Concluding Rite — although in its typical brevity — recalls the experience of the mystery celebrated so that it can be actualized in life,14 following the example of Mary, the "Eucharistic woman".15

The celebratory 'after'

The effects of a "decorous" celebration are sketched out in life when the message of the homily permeates the formation of the conscience; when the time dedicated to Eucharistic worship is seen as the space for a more intense personal prayer; when Sunday celebrations without a priest are held so that the community may be sustained in its journey of faith and life; when attention to the sick means that they are not deprived of "sacramental" communion through the service of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist; when the community is reminded from time to time about the meaning of Viaticum; when the faithful are helped to experience in the Liturgy of the Hours that stance of thanksgiving and supplication that has its culmen et fons in the celebration of the Eucharist itself; when, in a single word, the Eucharist is understood and experienced as "the sacrament par excellence (sacramentum sacramentorum)"!16

Decorum and its relationship to Eucharistic life

Celebrating with decorum therefore means having an ecclesial stance that allows participation in the Mystery, thus fostering a true mystical experience. This goal can be achieved only if people are helped to know and appreciate all those languages — the most varied and complete that the Christian experience can offer — that are "proper" to the celebration, and which are intended to "evoke and emphasize the grandeur of the event being celebrated" (n. 49).

Educating people in the logic and content of these languages is the challenge facing formation at all its levels: from the liturgical formation of future priests to those who fulfil various liturgical roles in the community, which should be the result of a theological method described in Optatam Totius, n. 16. That conciliar document, not yet understood and put into effect, includes and reproposes a synthesis which, when it begins to be the patrimony of theological culture and pastoral and catechetical formation, will be seen as a genuine "winning card" for achieving a Eucharistic life.

The result will not be so much that it will presage a still "more decorous" celebration, but a liturgical action that, while synthesizing in its symbolic language the life of the faithful that is oriented to the Passover of Jesus Christ, will also give rise to a theological language that will rediscover the synthesis between lex credendi and lex vivendi through and in the context of the lex orandi.

It is in this perspective — it seems we can conclude as well in the light of what we have learned from the whole of Tradition — that the Ecclesia will continue to develop in time because paschali nascitur de mysterio and de Eucharistia vivit!17


1 For a complete documentation, see C. Braga and A. Bugnini, eds. Documents ad instaurationem liturgicam spectantia (1903-1963), CLV-Edizioni Liturgiche, Rome, 2000.

2 Cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (10 November 1994), n. 55.

3 Cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (6 January 2001), nn. 35-36.

4 Along these lines we should note what has been pointed out in the Editorial 90/2-3 (2003) of Rivista Liturgica, pp. 203-214, at the beginning of a volume dedicated to the formation of the community in the spirit of the liturgy, on the occasion of the periodical's 90th anniversary.

5 M.T. Cicero, De Legibus, 2, 45, 12.

6 See in this regard M. Sodi and A. Toniolo, Concordantia et Indices Missalis Romani. Editio typica tertia = Monumenta Studia Instrumenta Liturgica 24, LEV, Vatican City, 2002: the word decorous (in its various forms) is found 13 times.

7 Under this aspect it is helpful to reflect on what happened, for example, after the Council of Trent, beginning with two problems that then set the example for successive centuries and under some aspects still draw the attention of experts today: S. Della Torre and M. Marinelli (eds.), Instructionum fabricae et suppellectilis ecclesiasticae libri II Caroli Borromei [text in Latin and Italian] = Monumenta Studia Instrumenta Liturgica 8, LEV, Vatican City, 2000; G. Paleotti, Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane (1582) = Monumenta Studia Instrumenta Liturgica 25, LEV, Vatican City, 2002. The same Council of Trent dealt with aesthetical canons, of styles and "histories" represented in Session XXV of 3-4 December 1563. The Second Vatican Council dealt explicitly with art in chapter 8 of Sacrosanctum Concilium; all of this so that all, even those without adequate cultural instruments, can learn the language of the Spirit. This is the great teaching that the Biblia pauperum proposes in every epoch, however varied the formality may be.

8 Although the Encyclical makes no direct reference, the educator is familiar with the Instruction Varietates Legitimate, published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (25 January 1994) for the purpose of highlighting the essential elements to show the relationship between the Roman liturgy and inculturation, and especially for facing the challenges. The problem is introduced and mentioned both in the reformed liturgical books and in the Post-Synodal! Exhortations of the Continental Synods held in recent years; see, in this regard, A. Lameri, Lo spirito della liturgia nei sinodi continentali. Per una prima disamina delle esortazioni apostoliche post-sinodali, in Rivista Liturgica 90/2-3 (2003), pp. 357-368.

9 In Lauds of the Liturgy of the Hours for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ the Church sings this wonderful synthesis of the whole Mystery: "Se nascens dedit socium / convescens in edulium / se moriens in pretium, / se regnans dat in praemium".

10 Characteristic is the mention of the "things to prepare", found, when necessary, in the liturgical book itself.

11 Cf. A.M. Triacca and M. Sodi (eds.), Caeremoniale Episcoporum. Editio princeps (1600) = Monumenta Liturgica Concilii Tridentini 4, LEV, Vatican City, 2000, pp. XLI-XLII and notes relative to the text.

12 Along these lines it might be useful to see this author's contribution under the entry of "Libro liturgico" in M. Sodi and A.M. Triacca (eds.), Dizionario di Omiletica, LDC — Velar, Leumann (Turin) — Gorle (Bologna), 1998, pp. 795-801 (bibliography included).

13 The complete text can be found as the Second Reading in the Liturgy of the Hours (Office of Readings) for 4 November; the text concludes as follows: "This is what is required by the task entrusted to us. If we do these things we will have the force to generate Christ in us and in others".

14 See in this regard the meaning, role and content of the Post-Communion Prayer.

15 See chapter 6 of the Encyclical. Going into greater depth and breadth, the pastoral worker is able to draw greater advantage from the proposals offered on the occasion of the Marian Year 1987-1988, condensed in a precious "Circular Letter" and attached "Document" (as important as it is unknown) entitled: Guidelines and Proposals for the Celebration of the Marian Year, edited by the Congregation for Divine Worship (3 April 1987); the reference to the Marian Year contained in the title has perhaps made us forget that every liturgical year is de facto a profoundly Marian year! It is simpler to consult the Premise to the liturgical book; Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Raccolta di formulari secondo l'anno liturgico, and the relative Lectionary (LEV, Vatican City, 1987); the introductory paragraphs (especially numbers 1-18) emphasize the relationship between the mystery of salvation and the pilgrim Church, supported by the exemplarity of the Virgin Mary in the liturgical celebrations.

16 The expression is found in n. 326 of the Introduction to the Roman Missal; in the editio typica tertia (2000 [2002]) at n. 368.

17 See respectively the incipit of n. 3 and n. 1.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
21 January 2004, page 8

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