Jun 15, 2003

Cardinal Arinze’s Address to Denver Liturgical Conference

Online Edition – Vol. IX, No. 4: June 2003

Cardinal Arinze’s Address to Denver Liturgical Conference

The Sacred Liturgy Builds up the Church

by Francis Cardinal Arinze

Cardinal Arinze, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, presented two addresses at the Denver archdiocesan liturgical conference in March. The text of both addresses was kindly supplied to Adoremus Bulletin by the Denver liturgy office. An address given March 8, 2003 is printed below, with the cardinal’s permission.


The sacred liturgy is at the center, at the heart, of the life of the Church. It gives life to the Church. It builds up the Mystical Body of Christ. It manifests the nature of the Church. It empowers the Church to carry out her mission.

It is therefore useful that in reflecting on how the Sacred Liturgy builds up the Church we begin with examining how every liturgical action involves the whole Church. Moreover, liturgical celebrations bring into operation the organic nature of the Church. In them the Church prays, adores, sings and is fed with the Word of God. But the individual Christian also meets Christ personally in the Liturgy. We shall conclude by summarizing the theological realities present in liturgical celebrations and asking ourselves what demands these truths make on us.

1. Every liturgical action involves the whole Church

Jesus Christ saved all humanity by His suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. He sent His Church to proclaim the Good News and to celebrate His sacred mysteries, principally through the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments around which the entire liturgical life of the Church revolves.

"To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered Himself on the cross’, but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a person baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the church. He is present finally, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: ‘Where two or three are gathered together for my sake, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt 18:20)" (Lumen Gentium 7).

The Sacred Liturgy is a work in which Christ associates the Church with Himself in giving perfect praise to God and making people holy. In the Liturgy the Church worships the Eternal Father through Christ, with Christ and in Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The Second Vatican Council therefore describes the liturgy as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ.

This means that when a priest baptizes a baby with only a few people present, when he celebrates a Mass for a small parish community, when he hears confessions, anoints the sick, or blesses water according to the approved rites of the Church, a liturgical act is being performed. This act involves Christ and all His members. It is not a private act.

The ecclesial nature of every liturgical act is most manifest in the Eucharistic celebration, the Mass, which is the supreme act of Christian worship. In the preface and the solemn Eucharistic prayer that follows it, the Church expressly commemorates and recounts her union with Mary, the ever Blessed Virgin and Mother of our Savior, the Angels, the Apostles and the Saints in their various categories. The Church still on pilgrimage on earth is then mentioned: the pope, the bishop of the diocese where the Mass is being celebrated, and all the bishops, clergy and faithful people, especially those who are being prayed for specifically at that Mass. Next comes the Church suffering, the holy souls in Purgatory who await the intercessory prayers of the Church so that they may soon be admitted to the beatific vision.

It is very instructive and comforting for us to pay attention to the sacred words that the Church uses in her liturgy and realize more and more that we are being associated with Christ and with the entire Church: the Church triumphant in heaven, the Church militant on earth and the Church suffering in purgatory.

2. The liturgical celebration manifests the organic nature of the Church

Christ the Lord, High Priest taken from among men (cf. Heb 5:1-5), made of the baptized a kingdom and priests to God His Father (cf. Rev. 1:6). The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood. Every baptized person shares in the royal or common priesthood. He or she is part of a consecrated priestly people who offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light (cf. I Pet 2:4-10).

For nurturing and for the constant growth of this priestly people, Christ has expressly instituted in His Church the ministerial priesthood, "so that all who are the People of God, and therefore enjoy a true Christian dignity, can work toward a common goal freely and in an orderly way, and arrive at salvation" (Lumen Gentium 18). "The ministerial priesthood is rooted in the Apostolic Succession and vested with… the faculty and responsibility of acting in the person of Christ, the Head and the Shepherd. It is a priesthood which renders its sacred ministers servants of Christ and of the Church by means of authoritative proclamation of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments and the pastoral direction of the faithful" (Interdicasterial Instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio, Theological Principles, 1).

The ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood, although they differ in essence and not just in degree, are nonetheless interrelated. At Mass, for example, the ordained priest consecrates bread and wine in the person of Christ and offers Christ to God the Father in the name of all the people. "For their part, the faithful join in the offering of the Eucharist by virtue of their royal priesthood. They likewise exercise that priesthood by receiving the sacraments, by prayer and thanksgiving, by witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity" (LG 10).

The sacraments manifest clearly the organic structure of the Church. Baptism cleanses of original sin, consecrates a person and incorporates him or her in the Church and gives the person initial capacity for Christian worship. Confirmation, generally administered by the Bishop, strengthens the Christian as a witness to Christ. In Penance, the priest in the name of Christ and as a minister of the Church, reconciles sinners restoring to them pardon and peace. In Anointing of the Sick, the Church, through the priest, commends the sick to God’s mercy. In Holy Orders men are ordained to feed God’s people with the Word and the Sacraments. In Matrimony, spouses are given grace to live the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church and to raise good children in the family, the domestic Church (cf. LG 11).

The Holy Eucharist needs special mention since it is "the fount and apex of the whole Christian life" (LG 11). At the Eucharistic celebration the ministerial priest acts in the person of Christ and effects the sacrifice. The entire People of God offer with Him and through Him. The deacon is the immediate assistant of the celebrating priest. The acolytes, the readers and the choir all have their roles. The Roman Missal directs that each participant carry out the role assigned to that person (cf. General Instruction on the Roman Missal, n. 5).

The liturgical life of a diocese is particularly centered around the Bishop, the high priest of his flock, especially in his cathedral. The Second Vatican Council says that "the Church reveals herself most clearly when a full complement of God’s holy people, united in prayer and in common liturgical service (especially the Eucharist) exercise a thorough and active participation at the very altar where the Bishop presides in the company of his priests and other assistants" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 41).

Parish celebration needs special mention. Since it is impossible for the Bishop to celebrate everywhere, he assigns priests to parishes as his representatives. The parish Mass, especially the Sunday mass, is the highest local liturgical celebration of the Christian community within the reach of most people every week (cf. SC 42). It should be greatly valued.

When therefore we speak about the hierarchical or organic structure of the Church, it is not a question of who is holier than the other. It is not a struggle for power. It is a question of observing the nature of the Church as constituted by Christ. It would therefore be a mistake to try to clericalize the laity by subtly getting them to struggle with the priest for roles in the sanctuary. It would be equally wrong to try to laicize the clergy in a type of ecclesiastical democracy by suggesting that there is no difference between them and the rest of the faithful.

The Church is also careful to show great appreciation for men and women in the consecrated state (monks and nuns, brothers and sisters) who are entrusted with praying the Liturgy of the Hours in the name of the whole Church. Some of the more ancient religious orders spend a considerable part of the day (and night too) in singing the Divine praises.

3. In the Liturgy, the Church worships God and is fed.

The liturgy builds up the Church because in her public worship the Church prays, adores, sings and is nourished with the Word of God and with the Sacraments.

It is part of God’s plan of salvation to save people not just as individuals without any mutual bonds but by making them a single people, redeeming them in the Blood of Christ, making them into the Mystical Body of Christ which continually sings God’s praise, and assuring them of the perpetual presence and action of Christ and the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

It is a wonderful thing that in the Sacred Liturgy it is this new People of God, this Church with Christ as head, which prays, adores, and sings. "God has gathered together as one all those who in faith look upon Jesus as the author of salvation and the source of unity and peace, and has established them as the Church, that for each and all she may be the visible sacrament of this saving unity" (LG 9).

Every Catholic should strive to become ever more aware of the dignity that is conferred on us by Baptism which gives us the capacity to offer Christian worship to God the Father, through Christ, in unity with the Holy Spirit. The excellence and elevated nature of the Sacred Liturgy stems from the fact that it is a worship offered to the Father by Christ and His members. "It follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and His Body the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can match its claim to efficacy, nor equal the degree of it" (SC 7).

At the liturgical celebration the Church not only honors, adores, praises and thanks God, but the Church is also fed with divine life. This comes from the Word of God which is read, explained, preached, sung and reflected upon. It comes from grace which is received according to the nature of each sacrament or other celebration. And it comes especially from receiving Jesus Christ Himself, the author of grace, in Eucharistic communion.

The Church could not live without the liturgy, especially the Holy Eucharist. Many martyrs in the early Church defied the imperial decree of Diocletian and accepted death rather than miss the Sunday Eucharist. The martyrs of Abitinia in Proconsular Africa, for example, replied to their accusers: "Without fear of any kind we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper, because it cannot be missed; that is our law. We cannot live without the Lord’s Supper" (Acta SS. Saturnini, Sativi et plurimorum Martyrum in Africa, 7,9,10: PL 8, 707, 709-710; cf. also Dies Domini, 46).

4. Personal Relationship with the Lord through the Liturgy

The fact that the Sacred Liturgy is the public worship of the whole Church, Head and members, and that the whole Church is involved in every liturgical celebration, should not be interpreted to mean that personal relationship of each Christian with the Lord is not important. Indeed it is.

The faith of the whole Church must become the faith of every Christian so that each individual comes to the celebration of the sacred mysteries with a firm grounding in the faith. The cooperation of each individual is indispensable if the Word of God dispensed in the liturgical celebration is to act as a sharp sword in each participant. Interior conversion of heart and mind to the mind of Jesus Christ (cf. Phil 2:5) is a necessary requirement if the Christian is to be ideally united with Christ and the Church in the Eucharistic sacrifice.

The sacred liturgy provides for many moments of quiet listening, personal reflection and silent prayer so that the worshipper praises God not just with the lips but with mind and heart (cf. Is 29:13; Mt 15:8; Mk 7:6). The priest celebrant should favor such moments that promote personal prayer. And the choir should not try to fill every quiet moment with a song.

The individual worshipper brings with him or her to such prayer personal hopes and fears, projects and disappointments, achievements and failures, requests for favors and expressions of thanksgiving and repentance. The more genuine these interior expressions are the deeper is the level of participation of the individual in the liturgy. A special encounter with Christ comes through the sacraments. Let us single out Penance and the Holy Eucharist, since they are the two sacraments that we receive often. When we repent and confess our sins to a priest, we come into personal contact with God’s saving mercy. The merciful Father receives back the prodigal son, giving him pardon and peace and a fresh beginning. In Holy Communion we become one with Christ in an intimate union which only God’s love could establish. These are precious moments for individual expressions of adoration, thanksgiving, repentance, praise and petitions. The post-communion prayer should not be said without allowing people moments for personal prayer after they have received Christ. And after Mass, thanksgiving to the Jesus we encounter should not be omitted. Hurry and unnecessary talking in church should be avoided.

We also have personal encounter with Christ in the sacramentals and in the Liturgy of the Hours. Rush and speed-reading are enemies of this encounter. Reflection and occasional pause, especially before major actions or a new psalm, will be found in our personal effort to make the Church’s prayers our own.

When the individual Christian in a liturgical celebration makes these suggested efforts at interior participation, it will be found that the liturgy will greatly promote personal encounter with Christ. The danger of a ritualism or mechanical carrying out of exterior rites will be reduced or eliminated. Distractions will be diminished. And the liturgy will gradually assume a major sanctifying role in the life of such a Christian.

5. Emerging theological truths

It is now time for us to try to draw from the foregoing reflections some theological truths that will serve us as guidance in matters regarding the sacred liturgy.

One major truth is that in the liturgical celebrations it is the whole Church that is in action. Christ and all His members are offering public worship to God the Father. The liturgy is an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ jointly with His priestly people, the baptized who form a Mystical Body with Him.

Liturgical celebration is centered around the paschal mystery of the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. This is especially so with the sacraments. The apex is reached at the Eucharist celebration. "Each time we offer this memorial sacrifice, the work of our redemption is accomplished" (Roman Missal, Prayer over the Gifts at Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper). "In order to re-enact His paschal mystery", says Pope John Paul II, "Christ is ever present in His Church, especially in liturgical celebrations. Hence the liturgy is the privileged place for the encounter of Christians with God and the one He has sent, Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 17:3)" (Apostolic Letter Vicesimus Quintus Annus, 7).

Liturgical worship has therefore an excellence surpassing personal prayer and popular or community prayer, even though these latter have their importance too.

Personal prayer and community prayer or popular manifestations of piety, when well directed, have their irreplaceable role because they prepare people for more fruitful participation in liturgical acts and for living with greater personal commitment what the Church has celebrated in her public worship.

The liturgy manifests the ministerial priesthood of the ordained ministers of the Church working in harmony with the royal priesthood of all the baptized. The diocesan bishop, his priests and deacons, the consecrated men and women and the lay faithful singing God’s praise in the cathedral church are a local manifestation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The voice heard in the liturgy is therefore not only that of the hierarchy (bishops, priests and deacons) but that of the entire people of God.

The sacred liturgy is an excellent ecclesial expression of our Catholic faith. It transmits the Sacred Scripture and is its living interpreter. It is a witness to the tradition of the Church which has come down to us from the Apostles, through the Fathers of the Church. The liturgy is ongoing catechesis. It teaches the faith. It also manifests the faith. "Because the liturgy is an institution that is very closely linked to the Church’s mission, and because it has for its proper purpose to render the mystery of salvation present and active in the Church, it is one of the most reliable expressions of apostolic tradition that is ever alive in the Church" (I.H. Dalmis, Theology of Liturgical Celebration in A.G. Martimort, ed., The Church at Prayer I, p. 277). This recalls the adage coined by Prosper of Aquitaine: "Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi". This can be freely rendered as: "Let the way we pray reflect and manifest what we believe" (cf. CCC, 1124).

6. Demands of these truths

These truths do not leave us unaffected. They call for a response. They make demands on us. Let us consider some of them.

The Sacred Liturgy demands faith from us. This attitude of total trust in God and acceptance of what He has revealed will elicit from us respect, humility, reverence and silence. In liturgical celebrations, room should be made for moments of silent reflection and personal interior prayer. This is particularly indicated after the readings, the homily and Holy Communion. It is not right to fill every moment with singing or other organized action.

The primary direction of liturgical worship is vertical. We want to adore God, praise Him and thank Him. We want to celebrate the mysteries of Christ our Savior. All participants in the liturgy should watch out for, and avoid temptations to draw attention to oneself. The priest who preaches, the choir that leads the singing and the reader who proclaims a lesson, should not attract attention to themselves.

We come to Mass and other liturgical celebrations to adore God, not to entertain one another. All forms of horizontalization, making a show, or amusing the congregation should be avoided. For the same reason, it is not easy to produce a dance which will respect the vertical dimension of liturgical worship. The parish hall is available after Mass for mutual entertainment. I do not, however, want to exclude some dignified and disciplined bodily expression which can, for example, accompany an offertory procession.

Since the Holy Scripture is a major source and inspiration of liturgical worship, the more we read, love and live the sacred writings, the better we shall be prepared for fruitful participation in liturgical celebrations. For similar reasons, growth in knowledge of Christian doctrine promotes liturgical participation.

Personal prayer is irreplaceable if we are to reap deeper fruit from our liturgical worship. Popular devotions and traditional manifestations of Christian piety can help much if they are well directed. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a directory on this in 2002.

The Sacred Liturgy sends us on a mission: to share the faith that we have celebrated, to bring the Good News of Christ to those who do not yet know Him, to evangelize our families, work places, politics, science and culture, and to show Christian solidarity with the poor, the old, the sick and the needy in general.

The Liturgy enjoins on us to know the Church, to love her, to rejoice that we are incorporated in her, to worship with her and to be her ambassadors in the world.

The Sacred Liturgy builds up the Body of Christ. The Church could not be, survive and grow without the Liturgy. Let us pray to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of our Savior and Mother of the Church, to obtain for us the grace to appreciate more and more this truth, to live it and to share it.

Francis Cardinal Arinze
March 8, 2003



Cardinal Francis Arinze