May 15, 2005

Liturgical Norms and Liturgical Piety

Online Edition

– May 2005

Vol. XI, No. 3

Cardinal Francis Arinze Addresses Liturgists

Liturgical Norms and Liturgical Piety

"The people of God have the right that the liturgy be celebrated as the Church wants it".

On April 8, Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, was to have addressed the Gateway Liturgical Conference, co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and was scheduled to bless the new Adoremus office. The death and funeral of Pope John Paul II made this impossible, of course; but his prepared address was read to the gathering by Monsignor James Moroney, executive director of the US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy. Cardinal Arinze graciously granted permission for his address to appear in the Adoremus Bulletin. – Editor


The Holy Eucharist occupies a central place in the public worship of the Church and in her life. Its celebration therefore should receive from all of us the greatest attention. I am for that reason happy to learn that this Gateway Liturgical Conference is devoted especially to attention to the worthy celebration of the Holy Eucharist, in accord with the Holy Father’s encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, and the instruction of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Redemptionis Sacramentum. This is also very much in line with the spirit of the present Year of the Eucharist.

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.

2. 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 members. (cf 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)

3. Lex 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)

4. 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)

5. Liturgical Piety

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 84:10)

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.

6. 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.

7. Making 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 are observed.

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.

8. Dance 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 prayer?

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 movements.

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. 202-205. Editor’s note: this article is available on the Adoremus web site at

9. 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)

Liturgical 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’". (RS 5)

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". (RS 7)

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 our neighbor.

+ Francis Cardinal Arinze, April 8, 2005



The Editors