May 15, 2008

The Role of Liturgical Norms in the Eucharistic Celebration

Online Edition:

May 2008

Vol. XIV, No. 3

The Role of Liturgical Norms in the Eucharistic Celebration

by Cardinal Francis Arinze

Cardinal Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, addressed the Path to Rome International Conference in Mexico City on November 3, 2007. His address, published in Notitiae (Nov-Dec 2007, p 600ff), appears here with his permission.


Participation at Holy Mass, celebrated with faith and devotion according to the approved books of the Church, manifests our Catholic faith, nourishes the faith of the participants and sends them home on fire to live and share that faith. Such beautiful celebrations have also been the path to Rome for some converts. I am, therefore, happy to have been invited by the organizers of this International Path to Rome Conference to propose to you some reflections on “The Role of Liturgical Norms in the Eucharistic Celebration”.

After a brief review of the origin of liturgical norms, we shall examine how such norms relate to our Catholic faith and how they help to promote the vertical dimension of the Mass, and also healthy ecclesiology and unity and harmony in the Church. Some converts have been attracted to the Church by the Eucharistic celebration properly carried out, and this needs to be acknowledged. Definite harm has been inflicted on the Church by non-observance of liturgical norms and this also should be noted. In particular, liturgical abuses tend to promote desacralization. Holy Scripture is severe against people who ignore liturgical norms. We shall close with a prayer that we all receive the grace to respect and observe liturgical norms.

1. Development of Liturgical Norms Regarding the Eucharistic Celebration

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gave to His Church the inestimable gift of the Holy Eucharist in the context of His celebration of a Jewish Passover meal with His Apostles. Jesus gave to His Church the essentials of the consecration of bread and wine into His Body and Blood and the offering to God the Father. But He left to the Church which He founded upon the Apostles the working out of details of the Eucharistic celebration along the centuries, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.1

Development has taken place and resulted in such major Rites as the Roman, Byzantine, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Chaldaean, Malabar, Maronite and Syrian Rites. Each Rite is an historic blending of liturgy, theology, spirituality and Canon Law. The Mass celebrated in each of these Rites taken overall has the general physiognomy of greetings, repentance, sacred readings, homily, profession of faith, bringing of gifts, offering, praise of God, and of course the Eucharistic Prayer itself. This last, in all the different varieties that have come to be down the centuries, includes typically the epiclesis or calling down of the Holy Spirit on the gifts, the institution narrative, the anamnesis or calling to mind of the passion, resurrection and glorious return of Christ and the intercessions. The Mass concludes with the exchange of peace, Holy Communion and rites of dismissal.

Aware that the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, are Sacraments of faith, that they are signs which manifest faith and instruct on it, the Church is very careful to safeguard sacramental norms and formulae.

No sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community. 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.2

That is why Redemptionis Sacramentum insists that

the structures and forms of the sacred celebrations according to each of the Rites of both East and West are in harmony with the practice of the universal Church also as regards practices received universally from apostolic and unbroken tradition, which it is the Church’s task to transmit faithfully and carefully to future generations. All these things are wisely safeguarded and protected by the liturgical norms.3

This applies to the Roman Rite just as to the venerable Rites of the east. To lose it or to adulterate it would mean the loss of a treasure for the universal Church.4

2. Liturgical Norms and the Truths of Faith

The liturgical norms regulate how the public worship of the Church is to be carried out. In the case of the Holy Eucharist, these norms guide how the sacramental re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross is to be celebrated. These norms are based on the teaching and guidance of Sacred Scripture, of the Apostles, of Sacred Tradition, of definitions of solemn Councils of the Church and of the entire prayer history of the Bride of Christ. Saint Paul is very aware of this link with the Lord Jesus and the Apostles: “For the tradition I received from the Lord and also handed on to you is that on the night He was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread” (I Cor 11 :23).

The visible signs used by the liturgy to signify invisible divine things have been chosen by Christ or the Church,5

says the Second Vatican Council. The liturgical norms are constructed to safeguard these treasures.

Liturgical texts and gestures manifest our Catholic faith, express it, celebrate it and protect it. They preserve the symbols of the faith or the Creeds. They proclaim and transmit the Word of God. They hand on tenets of the faith in ancient hymns like that quoted by Saint Paul in his Letter to the Philippians on Christ Jesus emptying Himself and being exalted as Lord (cf. Phil 2:6-11). Here is an example of how Saint Augustine illustrates the unity between our faith and our liturgy:

When we speak to God in prayer, we do not separate the Son, and when the body of the Son prays, it does not separate its Head from itself, so that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the same savior of His body who at the same time prays for us, prays in us, and is prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest; He prays in us as our head; He is prayed to by us as our God. Let us therefore recognize both in Him our voices, and in us His voices.6

It is the liturgical norms that the Church uses to protect and transmit the treasures of the liturgy. The celebrating community does not have to re-invent the sacred rites in every age. Redemptionis Sacramentum emphasizes this important function in the preservation of the sacred rites:

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.7

3. Liturgical Norms Help to Preserve the Vertical Orientation of the Mass

The Holy Eucharist as sacrifice is celebrated in order to adore God, to praise Him, to give Him thanks, to make reparation for our sins and to ask for what we need, spiritual and temporal. Priority in the Eucharistic celebration goes to the vertical dimension: that is to say, the Mass is offered to God. Priest and people come together to offer Christ to God the Father, to celebrate the paschal mystery of Christ (His suffering, death and resurrection), to kneel before God in adoration, reparation and petition. They do not come together to celebrate themselves. God is the center, the direction of their hearts and minds.

If there were no liturgical norms, then every priest and congregation would be free to invent their own way of worshipping. In such a do-it-yourself celebration, it would not be possible in the long run to avoid manifestations of horizontalism, man-centeredness and even desacralization and banalization. The sacred and transcendent dimension of the Eucharistic sacrifice would be put at risk.

It is to be remembered that the Eucharistic sacrifice, and indeed the sacred liturgy as a whole, are not something that we make or invent, or put together on our own. They are gifts that we receive, keep, treasure, celebrate and for which we are grateful.

It must be lamented — says Pope John Paul II — that, especially in the years following the post-conciliar liturgical reforms, as a result of a misguided sense of creativity and adaptation there have been a number of abuses which have been a source of suffering for many.8

No doubt a merely external and formal carrying out of rites without internal unity of heart and mind should be rejected. But it is quite another matter when each celebrating priest or local community presumes to have the right to create or invent words and gestures in the sacred liturgy. Liturgical norms, properly understood and observed, help to save the Church from such damage and see that God is at the center of our worship.

4. Liturgical Norms Promote Healthy Ecclesiology

The Mass is the sacrifice of the whole Church. Our Savior Jesus Christ has instituted His Church as hierarchically constituted of clerics and lay faithful. Therefore the Church rightly arranges and assigns roles in the Eucharistic celebration to the priest, the deacon, minor ministers and the entire worshipping congregation. For example, the Church directs that the homily is to be pronounced by the bishop, the priest or the deacon, but not by others, because the clerics have been ordained to preach the Word of God.

The Church is both universal and local. Therefore every Eucharistic celebration is offered in union with the pope and the bishop of the place where the Mass is celebrated. That is why their names are mentioned in the Eucharistic prayer. The Church at the same time holds to the need of healthy and well-considered inculturation and of the necessity that proposals of the local Church in such matters, as well as translations of the Latin liturgical typical texts into the vernacular, should be sent to the Apostolic See for the needed recognitio.9

“Such cooperation is essential”, says Pope John Paul II, “because the sacred liturgy expresses and celebrates the one faith professed by all and, being the heritage of the whole Church, cannot be determined by local churches in isolation from the universal Church”.10

The Eucharistic Sacrifice is the sacrifice of the whole Church. The Church on earth offers it in union with the members of the Church in the glory of heaven and in intercession for the souls in purgatory.11

It comes therefore as no surprise that the Second Vatican Council insists that

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, and also various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established. Therefore, absolutely no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.12


The liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated.13

A necessary conclusion is that there have to be norms to guide the liturgical celebration. Anyone who challenges this principle is really questioning the nature of the Church.

5. Liturgical Norms Promote Unity and Harmony

Acceptance and observance of liturgical norms help to promote unity of faith and harmony among members of the Church. The norms help the parish community or the diocese to be sure that it is in communion with the universal Church in celebrating the Mass of our fathers and ancestors in the faith. They reinforce the sense and conviction of being members of a world-wide Church. They save local communities from spending precious time in the reconciliation of tastes, choices and personal theories as if these were the ultimate criteria for liturgical decision-making.

Liturgical norms also safeguard the lay faithful from possible extravagant opinions of their pastor. They come to Mass knowing what to expect in readings, prayers, gestures and movements. Redemptionis Sacramentum defends often the right of the Catholic community to receive a liturgy celebrated according to the approved books of the Church.14

Common sense and the need for good order also argue in favor of liturgical norms. If the rules of soccer demand obedience to the referee even when his decision may not have been the best, then much more is required in divine worship where we have at stake the faith of the Church, its manifestation and celebration, and the nourishment of the faith of the participating congregation.

6. Converts Who Enter the Church Because of Good Liturgy

Liturgical celebrations well carried out not only nourish the faith of practicing Catholics, but can also awaken the slumbering faith of the negligent, and attract people to the Church. A beautiful Eucharistic celebration is rich in manifestation of the Catholic faith, catechesis on this faith, communal action by the worshipping congregation, respect for Tradition and symbolism of a Church which is both universal and local. The people at Mass today know that they are praying in the faith of the Apostles, of the early Fathers of the Church, of Saint Thomas Aquinas, of Saint Teresa of Avila, of Blessed John XXIII, of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and of the many thousands of martyrs who throughout the world have given their lives for the faith: men and women, old and young of every social class and occupation and in every age.

The sacred liturgy also makes discrete use of perceptible sense objects: vestments, liturgical designs and symbols, color, incense, water, candle, the ringing of bells and community postures and gestures.15

Sacred music deserves special mention. It has been said that he who sings once prays twice. If hymns are sung which are theologically rich and artistically recommendable, they will not be without good effects. Saint Augustine tells us how he was moved to tears when he listened to the execution of hymns, canticles and psalms under the guidance of Saint Ambrose in Milan:

How did I weep, in the hymns and canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of thy sweet-attuned Church! The voices flowed into mine ears, and the truth distilled into my heart, whence the affections of my devotion overflowed, and tears ran down, and happy was I therein.16

If the liturgy is to work out so beautifully, then the observation of norms is a requirement. Many converts have been grateful to the Mass beautifully celebrated, as an important element in their entry into the Catholic Church or their return to it.

7. Harm Done by Non-Observance of Liturgical Norms

Looking at things from a different perspective, we can appreciate negatively the importance of the observance of liturgical norms if we list some of the damages which can be introduced by ignoring these norms.

Liturgical abuses can confuse the congregation and occasion uncertainty, perplexity, scandal, opposition and factionalism. In more severe cases, they can obscure the Catholic faith and prevent the people from sharing fully in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ. To ignore liturgical norms can also reinforce a false understanding of freedom. In ecumenical efforts it introduces problems and sometimes a wrong presentation of the Catholic faith.17

To ignore liturgical norms can in a subtle way introduce secularization and gradual banalization into the liturgy. In this short-sighted vision, a church building may no longer be seen as a sacred place. Do the people then come to church for Mass as to a “meeting” like in a stadium or congress hall? Do they talk in church as if it were not appreciated as a sacred place separated from secular daily events? Does this tendency regard the norms on the use of liturgical vestments as triumphalism? Does it lead to a type of secular leveling down which prefers to say cup instead of chalice, plate instead of paten, dress instead of vestment, and president instead of priest celebrant?

To ignore liturgical norms can gradually introduce such erosions.

8. Holy Scripture Stresses the Observance of Norms

In the Old Testament severe punishment was meted out to those to whom the conduct of worship had been entrusted but who ignored the detailed norms for such worship which God gave the chosen people through Moses. The two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, offered unlawful fire and were burnt to death in the sanctuary even in their vestments (cf. Lev 10:1-3; Num 3:4). Korah, Dathan and Abiram rebelled against Moses and Aaron and the ground opened and swallowed them and all their families (cf. Num 16:1-35). And Uzzah touched the Ark to adjust it into its proper position and was struck dead on the spot (cf. II Sam 6:6-7).

No doubt, God is more merciful in the New Testament. But we should not for that reason tempt His patience. Saint Paul castigated those who introduced abuses into the dignified celebration of the Eucharist at gatherings of the Christian community, such as factions, drunkenness and unwillingness of the rich to share with the poor (cf. II Cor 11:17-34).

Let us thank and adore the Lord Jesus who gave us the sacrifice and sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Let us heed the appeal of Pope John Paul II:

I consider it my duty, therefore, to appeal urgently that the liturgical norms for the celebration of the Eucharist be observed with great fidelity.18

May the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, the “woman of the Eucharist”,19 obtain for us the graces of faith, devotion, thanksgiving and fidelity.

Francis Cardinal Arinze


1 Cf. Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 3.

2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1125.

3 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 9.

4 Cf. GIRM, n. 397.

5 Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 33.

6 Augustinus Hipponensis, Enarrationes in Psalmos, Ps. 85: CCL 39, 1176.

7 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 10.

8 Ioannes Paulus II, Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 52.

9 Cf. Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 36; Code of Canon Law, can. 838; Congregatio de Cultu Divino et Disciplina Sacramento Rum, Instructio, Liturgiam Authenticam, nn. 79-84; Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 39.

10 John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia, n. 22; cf. also Ioannes Paulus II, Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 51.

11 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1367-1371.

12 Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 22.

13 Ioannes Paulus II, Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 52.

14 Cf. nn. 12, 18,24, 184.

15 Cf. Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, n.40.

16 Augustinus Hipponesis, Confessiones, 9, 6.14; cf. also Benedict XVI, PostSynodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 42.

17 Cf. Ioannes Paulus II, Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, nn. 10, 14, 51, 52; Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, nn. 6-12.

18 Ioannes Paulus II, Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 52.

19 Ibidem, n. 53.



Cardinal Francis Arinze