Liturgical Norms and Liturgical Piety "The people of
God have the right that the liturgy be celebrated as the Church wants it".
Cardinal Francis Arinze
In developing the theme assigned to me, "Liturgical Norms and Liturgical Piety",
I intend to begin by examining why there should be liturgical norms at all, how
what the Church believes and how she prays are related, and who has the
authority to issue norms for the liturgy. It will then be time to spell out what
we understand by liturgical piety. Creativity is an issue which often comes up
with reference to the liturgy. It should be examined. The desire to make
liturgical celebrations interesting also deserves to be looked into. Some people
want to introduce dances into the liturgy. The discussion of this tendency
cannot be avoided. We shall conclude by asking ourselves whether observance of
liturgical norms is a call to formalism or rubricism or rather a promoter of
faith and piety.
Reasons for Liturgical Norms
The sacred liturgy is an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. It is
the public worship performed by the Mystical Body of Christ, by the Head and His
Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC] 7)
Liturgical celebrations have some elements which are of divine institution. Such
are the essentials of the seven sacraments. There are elements which are of
ecclesial institution. In deciding on these elements the Church takes great care
to be faithful to Holy Scripture, to honor the tradition handed down through the
centuries, to manifest her faith and rejoice in it, and to lead all the faithful
to worship of God, following the example of Christ, and showing love and service
of one's neighbor. Between these two we can speak of a third: namely, those
elements of the liturgy which are found from early days in all or almost all of
the great liturgical traditions and which must therefore go back at the very
least to a period close to the apostles, and perhaps even to Our Lord. While we
may not have certain knowledge on the matter in a given case, it is a strong
reason for avoiding hasty innovation or neglect. (cf
Varietates Legitimae [VL] 26-27, General
Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM] 397,
Liturgiam authenticam [LA] 4-5,
Redemptionis Sacramentum [RS] 9)
Liturgical celebrations should be experiences of the traditional faith that is
confessed, celebrated and communicated, of hope that is expressed and confirmed
and of charity that is sung and lived.
Since liturgical celebrations are public acts performed in the name of the
universal Church, with Jesus Christ Himself as the Chief Priest, it follows that
as the centuries roll by, the Church has necessarily developed norms according
to which, her public worship is to be expressed. Liturgical norms protect this
treasure which is Christian worship. They manifest the faith of the Church,
promote it, celebrate it, and communicate it. They also manifest the nature of
the Church as a hierarchically constituted family, a community of worship, love
and service, and a body which promotes union with God and holiness of life and
gives sinners hope of conversion, forgiveness and new life in Christ.
Moreover, liturgical norms help to protect the celebration of the sacred
mysteries, especially the Holy Eucharist, from being damaged by additions or
subtractions which do damage to the faith and which may at times risk making a
sacramental celebration invalid. The people of God are thus guaranteed
celebrations in line with the traditional Catholic faith and they are not left
at the mercy of someone's personal ideas, feelings, theories or idiosyncrasies.
Pope John Paul II is very insistent on the important role of norms regarding the
celebration of the Eucharist. "These norms are a concrete expression of the
authentically ecclesial nature of the Eucharist; this is their deepest meaning.
Liturgy is never anyone's private property, be it of the celebrant or of the
community in which the mysteries are celebrated". (Ecclesia
de Eucharistia [EE] 52) Love for the Church leads
a person to observe these norms: "Priests who faithfully celebrate Mass
according to the liturgical norms, and communities which conform to those norms,
quietly but eloquently demonstrate their love for the Church". (ibid) Our
respect for the mysteries of the Christ leads us to respect these norms: "No one
is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands: it is too great
for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its
sacredness and its universality". (ibid)
orandi, lex credendi
The sacraments sanctify people, build up the Body of Christ and give worship to
God. Because they are signs, they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith,
but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen and express it. That is
why they are called "sacraments of faith". (cf SC 59)
The faith of the Church has expressed itself in how the Church prays and
especially in how she celebrates the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments.
There are words and concepts which have acquired a deep meaning in the Church's
life, faith and prayer along the centuries. Examples are person, trinity, divine
majesty, incarnation, passion, resurrection, salvation, merit, grace,
intercession, redemption, sin, repentance, forgiveness, propitiation, mercy,
penance, reconciliation, communion and service. There are gestures and postures
which help to express what the Church believes. Examples are the Sign of the
Cross, bowing, kneeling, standing, listening and going in procession.
"The Church's faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere
to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith
received from the apostles". (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 1124) This
is a strong argument in favor of great care in the wording, gestures and norms
of liturgical celebrations.
The relation between the faith of the Church and her liturgical celebration has
been encapsulated in the ancient saying, lex orandi, lex credendi (the
law of prayer is the law of faith), or legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi
(let the law of prayer determine the norm of faith). This statement of Catholic
faith is credited to Prosper of Aquitaine of the 5th century. (Ep. 8) It is
quoted in the Indiculus or the Pseudo-Celestine Chapters. Pope
Celestine reigned from 422 to 432. (cf Ds 246)
The Church believes as she prays. The liturgy is a constitutive element of the
holy and living tradition of the Church. (cf Dei Verbum 8) That is why
the Church does not allow the minister or the community to modify or manipulate
any sacramental or even general liturgical rite. "Even the supreme authority in
the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of
faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy". (CCC 1125)
Redemptionis Sacramentum is strong on this point:
"The Church herself has no power over those things which were established by
Christ Himself and which constitute an unchangeable part of the liturgy. Indeed,
if the bond were to be broken which the sacraments have with Christ Himself who
instituted them, and with the events of the Church's founding, it would not be
beneficial to the faithful but rather would do them grave harm. For the Sacred
Liturgy is quite intimately connected with principles of doctrine, so that the
use of unapproved texts and rites necessarily leads either to the attenuation or
to the disappearance of that necessary link between the lex orandi and
the lex credendi". (RS 10)
Authority over the Liturgy
The above reflections lead us to ask who has authority over the sacred liturgy.
Who decides on the texts, the ceremonies, the norms? We cannot afford to be
vague on this.
The Second Vatican Council is not ambiguous: "Regulation of the sacred liturgy
depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See
and, as laws may determine, on the bishop. In virtue of power conceded by the
law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to
various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately
established". Then the Council adds the warning: "Therefore, absolutely no other
person, not even a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on
his own authority". (SC 22)
These rulings are not a sign of lack of respect for anyone. They follow from the
fact that the liturgy is a celebration of the universal Church. "The prayers
addressed to God by the priest who presides over the assembly in the person of
Christ are said in the name of the entire holy people as well as of all present.
And the visible signs used by the liturgy to signify invisible divine things
have been chosen by Christ or the Church". (SC 33)
From these considerations it follows that a do-it-yourself attitude is not
acceptable in the public worship of the Church. It does damage to the Church's
worship and to the faith of the people. The people of God have the right that
the liturgy be celebrated as the Church wants it. (cf RS 12) The mysteries of
Christ should not be celebrated as personal taste or whim may indicate. "The
'treasure' is too important and precious to risk impoverishment or compromise
through forms of experimentation or practices introduced without a careful
review on the part of ecclesiastical authorities". (EE 51)
When we say piety, we think in general of the honor and reverence given to
someone who is in some way responsible for our existence and well-being.
Therefore the virtue of piety refers first of all to God who is our creator and
constant provider. But we can also talk of piety toward our parents, near
relatives, country, tribe or people.
As a Christian virtue, piety is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It moves us
to worship God who is the Father of all and also to do good to others out of
reverence for God. Piety leads us to love the sacred liturgy, to look forward to
its celebration and to participate in it with love, faith and devotion. With the
Psalmist we sing: "How lovely are your dwelling-places, Lord Sabaoth. My whole
being yearns and pines for the Lord's court. My heart and my body cry out for
joy to the living God". (Ps 84:1-2) Liturgical celebrations become attractive to
the pious person. The church bell which rings for Mass is a welcome sound: "I
rejoiced that they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the Lord'. At last our
feet are standing at your gates, Jerusalem!" (Ps 122:1-2) The pious soul has
sheer joy in being in the church and more still in joining in divine worship:
"Better one day in your courts than a thousand at my own devices, to stand on
the threshold of God's house than to live in the tents of the wicked". (Ps
Liturgical piety, as a beautiful manifestation of the virtue of religion, is at
once a compound love of God, faith in Him, adoration, respect, reverence, sheer
joy in His service, and a desire to serve Him as best we can. A spirit of faith
and reverence which shows itself also in the faithful observance of liturgical
norms is most favorable to the promotion of liturgical piety.
Creativity in Liturgical Celebrations
One may now ask whether there is any room for creativity in the liturgy. The
answer is that there is, but it has to be properly understood.
First of all, it is necessary to bear in mind that the public worship of the
Church is something that we receive in faith through the Church. It is not
something that we invent. Indeed the essentials of the sacraments are
established by Christ Himself. And the detailed rites, including words and
actions, have been carefully worked out, guarded and handed down by the Church
along the centuries. It would, therefore, not be the proper attitude for an
individual or a committee to keep thinking and planning each week how to invent
a new way of celebrating Mass.
Moreover, a priority at Mass and other liturgical acts is worship of God. The
liturgy is not a field for self-expression, free creation and the demonstration
of personal tastes. Idiosyncrasies tend to attract attention to the person
rather than to the mysteries of Christ being celebrated. They can also upset,
puzzle, annoy, mislead or confuse the congregation.
Nevertheless, it is also true that the liturgical norms do allow some
flexibility. With reference to the central and most important liturgical action,
the Mass, for example, we can speak of three levels of flexibility. First, there
are in the Missal and the Lectionary some alternative texts, rites, chants,
readings and blessings from which the priest celebrant can choose. (cf GIRM 24,
RS 39) Then there are choices left at the competence of the diocesan bishop or
the Conference of Bishops. Examples are regulation of concelebration, norms
regarding the distribution of Communion under both kinds, the construction and
ordering of churches, translations and some gestures. (cf SC 38, 40; GIRM 387,
390) Some such alternatives require recognitio from the Holy See. The
most demanding level of variability concerns inculturation in the strictest
sense. It involves action by the Conference of Bishops, after the conducting of
deep interdisciplinary studies and recognitio from the Holy See.
Redemptionis Sacramentum is therefore able to say
that "ample flexibility is given for appropriate creativity aimed at allowing
each celebration to be adapted to the needs of the participants, to their
comprehension, their interior preparation and their gifts, according to
established liturgical norms". (RS 39) The last phrase is important: "according
to established liturgical norms". The paragraph of
Redemptionis Sacramentum concludes with a recall
of the crucial observation that "it should be remembered that the power of the
liturgical celebrations does not consist in frequently altering the rites, but
in probing more deeply the word of God and the mystery being celebrated". What
the people are asking for every Sunday from their pastor is not a novelty but a
celebration of the sacred mysteries that nourishes faith, manifests devotion,
awakens piety, leads to prayer and incites to active charity in daily life.
the Mass Interesting
Many priests are concerned with making the Eucharist celebration interesting.
And they are not wrong. The Mass is not a dull carrying out of rituals. It is a
vital celebration of the central mysteries of our salvation.
Care should be taken to prepare well for each celebration. The texts to be read,
sung or proclaimed should be well studied in good time. The vestments and all
altar fittings and furnishings should be in good taste. The people who carry out
the roles of priest celebrant, altar servers, leader of song, readers of
lessons, etc., should be at their best. The homily should give the people solid
liturgical, theological and spiritual nourishment. If all that is done, the Mass
will not be dull.
But when all is said and done, we have to come back to the fact that the Mass is
not there to entertain people. Such horizontalism would be out of place. People
do not come to Mass in order to admire the preacher, or the choir or the
readers. The priority movement or direction of the Mass is vertical, toward God,
not horizontal, toward one another. What the people need is a faith-filled
celebration, a spiritual experience which draws them to God and therefore also
to their neighbor. As a by-product, such a celebration will capture the people's
interest and attention.
It is also useful to remark that repetition of faith formulae and symbols, or of
familiar words and gestures, need not make a liturgical celebration
uninteresting. It matters, however, to what extent these formulae are
understood, hence the importance of catechesis. In our daily lives, is it
uninteresting for us to repeat our names or those of our loved ones? Do we not
love our national anthem and sing it with piety? How much more that this has to
do with our Christian identity!
If it helps to repeat, may I recall that liturgical celebrations allow for
flexibility, provided that this is done according to approved norms.
Redemptionis Sacramentum itself exhorts the bishop
not to stifle alternative choices provided for by the liturgical norms: "The
bishop must take care not to allow the removal of that liberty foreseen by the
norms of the liturgical books so that the celebration may be adapted in an
intelligent manner to the church building, or to the group of the faithful who
are present or to the particular pastoral circumstances". (RS 21) It is for this
reason that the bishop does well not to be tempted to introduce unnecessary
restrictions in his diocese, such as ordering that only one particular
Eucharistic Prayer be used at Mass. The bishop's authority is never firmer than
when he uses it to ensure that the general norms which safeguard the tradition
A general advice about whether the liturgical celebration is interesting or not
is, to simply celebrate it with faith and devotion and according to the approved
norms, and leave the rest to God's grace and people's cooperation with it.
in the Liturgy
Some people want to introduce dance into the sacred liturgy. The Latin Rite
liturgy has not had any such practice. We have therefore to ask those who want
to bring in the dance to state their case.
If they say that the reason is to make the Mass interesting, the answer is what
we have just considered. We come to Mass to worship God, not to see a spectacle.
We have the parish hall and the theater for shows.
Others say they welcome some dance in order to express fully our prayer, since
we are body and soul. The answer is that the liturgy indeed appreciates bodily
postures and gestures and has carefully incorporated many of them, such as
standing, kneeling, genuflecting, singing, and giving a sign of peace. But the
Latin Rite has not included the dance.
It is not easy for dancers not to draw attention to themselves. Granted that
some very refined dances in some cultures can help to elevate the mind, is it
not true that for many people dances are a distraction rather than a help to
Dances easily appeal to the senses and tend to call for approval, enjoyment, a
desire for a repetition, and a rewarding of the performers with the applause of
the audience. Is this what we come to Mass to experience? Have we no theaters
and parish halls, presuming that the dance in question is acceptable, which
cannot be said of them all?
Is it true that in many parts of Africa and Asia there may be a cultural habit
of graceful body movement which, with due study and approval of the local
Church, may go down well within a liturgical celebration. The Ethiopian rite has
known graceful rhythmical movements and the procession for the Gospel. The Roman
Rite Mass approved for the Democratic Republic of the Congo has similar entry
But this is very different from what the ordinary person in Europe or North
America thinks of when the concept of dance is evoked. Can we blame people who
associate dance with Saturday evening, ballroom, theater or simply, innocent
enjoyment? The liturgical books approved by the bishops and the Holy See for
Europe and North America understandably do not authorize the importation of
dance into church, let alone the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. (see
the article in the official bulletin of the Congregation for Divine Worship and
the Discipline of the Sacraments: Notitiae 106-107, June-July 1975, pp.
Formalism and Ritualism Not the Goal
From all that has been said above, it follows that an exhortation to be faithful
to liturgical norms is not an invitation to formalism, ritualism or rubricism.
People are not being invited to a dry and soulless carrying out of external
actions. Jesus our Savior already, quoting the prophet Isaiah, condemned those
who do not internalize in their spirit the external rites they carry out:
This people honors me only with
lip-service, while their hearts are far from me.
Their reverence of me is worthless;
The lesson they teach are nothing but human commandments. (Mt 15:8-9, Is 29:13)
celebrations are not primarily the observance of norms but rather the
celebration of the mysteries of Christ by the Church and in the Church, with
faith and love and with respect for tradition. The observance of norms is a
consequence and fruit of faith and respect. It is not the final object of
worship. It is a quality of it.
Moreover, liturgical norms are not arbitrary laws or regulations put together to
please some historian, or aesthetist, or archaeologist. They are manifestations
of what we believe and what we have received from tradition, from the "norm of
the holy Fathers" (cf SC 20, GIRM 6), from what generations of our predecessors
in the faith have said, done, observed and celebrated. To know that we are
doing, saying, hearing and seeing what millions of Christians have done
throughout the world for hundreds of years and are doing today, should help us
enter better into a committed and prayerful participation. Moreover, by
conforming our entire person to all that the liturgy represents, we undergo a
transformation and become ever closer to God.
Interior prayer and sacrifice have priority. Hence the importance in liturgical
celebrations of quiet preparation, silence, reflection, listening and personal
prayer. "A merely external observation of norms would obviously be contrary to
the nature of the sacred liturgy, in which Christ Himself wishes to gather His
Church, so that together with Himself she will be 'one body and one spirit'".
At the same time it needs to be repeated that the spirit of rejection of rules
and regulations which would then be regarded as a violation of one's autonomy,
needs to be corrected. It is wrong and unreasonable to maintain a spirit of
"Nobody is going to tell me what to do". This would be a false understanding of
liberty. "God has not granted us in Christ an illusory liberty by which we may
do what we wish, but a liberty by which we may do what is fitting and right".
It is a blessing and a privilege for us to belong to the Church which in her
sacred liturgy celebrates the mysteries of Christ and has Christ Himself as the
Chief Priest in every liturgical act. Let us pray to the Most Blessed Virgin
Mary, Mother of our Savior, to obtain for us a growing understanding of the
reasons for liturgical norms, willingness to observe them and the grace of daily
growth in liturgical piety, love of God and commitment to love and service of