Who Celebrates?

Author: Father Natale Scarpitta


Who Celebrates? (CCC Nos. 1136-1144)

Column on Liturgical Theology; Coordinator: Father Mauro Gagliardi

By Natale Scarpitta*

Recalling the Conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (cf. n. 8), the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that “In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem” (n. 1090). Taking up this exquisitely theological awareness, it then confirms that “Those who even now celebrate it without signs are already in the heavenly liturgy, where celebration is wholly communion and feast” (n. 1136). And it adds: “It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the Church enable us to participate whenever we celebrate the mystery of salvation in the sacraments” (n. 1139).

Hence, liturgical action is not exhausted in its merely historical dimension. Rather, it is a tasting (cf. John Paul II, General Audience, 28.06.2000), a real though pale reflection (cf. Benedict XVI, Homily at the celebration of Vespers in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, 12.09.2008), of what is incessantly celebrated in the highest heavens. Hence, the ecclesial liturgy is not simply a more or less faithful imitation of the heavenly liturgy, or a parallel or alternative celebration. Rather, it means and represents a concrete sacramental epiphany of the eternal liturgy.

One of the biblical images that is the foundation of all this is proposed in the Book of Revelation, in whose pages a luminous icon is delineated of the heavenly liturgy (cf. Revelation 4-5; 6,9; 7,1-9; 12; 14,1; 21;; 22,1; and also the CCC, nos. 1137-1138).

It is the whole of creation that raises incessant praise to God. And it is precisely to this uninterrupted liturgy of heaven that the community made up of the holy people of God, gathered in fraternal exultation in the liturgical assembly, is associated mystically in the ecclesial celebrations. Heaven and earth join together again in a sublime communio sanctorum.

Hence it is not difficult to understand the truth of faith explained by the Catechism when it teaches that the liturgy is the action of the “whole Christ” (CCC n. 1136), namely of the Head indissolubly united to His Mystical Body, which is the Church as a whole: heavenly, purgative, pilgrimaging.
Moreover, the liturgical action carried out is not only/just a celebration of members of some ecclesial community. It is always the whole, universal Church that is truly involved. Thus, it is precisely in the liturgy that the sculptural description of the Church as “sacrament of unity” is truly in its greatest radiance. In it, in fact, the profound unity that is in force between the faithful becomes a live, real and concrete expression.

In this connection, in n. 1140 the CCC speaks also of the preference that must be given in liturgical worship to the community celebration as opposed to the individual or semi-private. This is explained, above all, because of the “epiphanic” value of the liturgy: that is, the community rite is not a rite that has more “value,” but it is undoubtedly a rite that manifests better the ecclesial character of every liturgical celebration.

The same number of the Catechism specifies, moreover, that not all liturgical rites entail a community celebration: this is true in particular for the Sacrament of Reconciliation (whose celebration — but for altogether exceptional cases — must be individual!), for the Anointing of the Sick, and for numerous Sacramentals. The Eucharistic sacrifice represents, instead, the highest degree that the community celebration can express: it is offered, in fact, in the name of the whole Church, it is the principal sign of unity, the greatest bond of charity.

It must be said, however, that even when the liturgical action is carried out individually, it never loses its essentially ecclesial, community and public character.

Hence, it is necessary that participation in the liturgical action be “active”, so that the individual faithful does not assure only his exterior presence, but also his interior involvement through a conscious attention of the mind and a predisposition of the heart, which are either man’s answer awakened by grace or his fruitful cooperation with it.

However, the essentially community dimension of the liturgical action does not exclude the coexistence of the hierarchical dimension (on the contrary, the concept itself of “ecclesial community” requires and includes the “ecclesial hierarchy”). Liturgical worship, in fact, reflecting the theandric nature of the Church, is the action of the whole people of God, which is ordered and acts under the guidance of the sacred ministers. The express mention of bishops (cf. CCC, n. 1140) is a call to the constitutive centrality of the episcopal figure, around whom the liturgical life of the local Church revolves. In simpler words, although the celebration is of the whole Church, it cannot be carried out without the sacred ministers. This is particularly true for the Eucharist, whose celebration is reserved to priests by divine right.

Within the liturgical action, understood as a limpid manifestation of the unity of the Body of the Church, in virtue of his Baptism the individual faithful carries out his own task, according to his state of life and of the office he holds within the community (cf. CCC, nos. 1142; 1144). In addition to the consecrated ministers (bishops, priests and deacons), there is also a variety of liturgical ministries (sacristans, altar boys, readers, psalmists, acolytes, commentators, musicians, choristers, etc.) whose task is regulated by the Church, or determined and specified by the diocesan bishop according to the liturgical traditions or the pastoral needs of the particular Church to which he is appointed.

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*Father Natale Scarpitta, priest of the archdiocese of Salerno-Campagna-Acerno, has a doctorate in Canon Law from the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome.

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