Apr 15, 2011

Liturgy: the Unity of Word and Love

Online Edition:

April 2011

Vol. XVII, No. 2

Liturgy: the Unity of Word and Love

by Bishop Arthur Serratelli

During World War II, Germany invaded neutral Belgium and crossed the Meuse River in Sedan.  Bypassing the Maginot Line, the French fortification system, the Germans stunned France and left her reeling from their massive breakthrough.  Shortly afterward, on June 18, 1940, Winston Churchill spoke in the House of Commons.

The fall of France signaled one of the darkest moments in European history.   Churchill did not cower before the situation. For him, Britain’s battle against Hitler was for more than just national survival.  Christian civilization was at stake.

Churchill spoke about the severity of the moment.  He chose his words well.  He told his nation: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”  His words had power. They stirred up a defiance strong enough to carry Britain to war and to crush Hitler.

Words, charged with emotion, have power to influence, to change behavior and to move to action.  Words can persuade and dissuade, ease pain or inflict injury.  Words can bring comfort or cause fear. Television and radio broadcasters know this.  Advertisers know this. Depending on their own reading of the situation, they can choose to speak of “cooling” or “meltdowns” in the real estate market.  Politicians know this too. Franklin D. Roosevelt made good use of rhetoric in his fireside chats on radio between 1933 and 1944.  In the arsenal of political debate, words are strong weapons, yesterday and today.

We are at a new moment in the liturgical renewal initiated by Vatican II’s document Sacrosanctum Concilium, the decree on the liturgy.  The Church is now preparing for the new translations of the prayers used in liturgy.  This is a graced moment to enter into the renewal, not just with a change of words, but with a change of heart as well. Therefore, it is important first to keep in mind why the Church is so keenly interested in the words of the liturgy and second to understand the connection between liturgy rightly prayed and life unselfishly lived.

The words used in the Sacred Liturgy are freighted with meaning that comes from beyond the assembled community.   We listen to the readings from Sacred Scripture.  The words of Scripture are the inspired Word of God.  God speaks to His people directly. Faithful translations make His voice more readily heard.

We raise our voice in prayer and acclamation.  Our words express a faith that comes to us from the apostles.  They are, therefore, doctrinal and formal. Our words express a faith that is truly shared by all members of the Church in all places and at all times.  The words, therefore, are communal and Catholic.  The words of the liturgy are too important to be left to one individual’s improvisation.  Liturgy is worship, not theater.

Because the words used in liturgy bring God’s Revelation into our present moment and because they lift our prayer to God in worship, there is always a special care to choose the right words.  But there is a second reason why the Church cares so intensely for the proper words used at liturgy.  As Pope Paul VI stated, the liturgy is “the primary source of the divine life bestowed on us, the first school of the spiritual life …” (Address at the Closing of the Second Session of the Council, December 4, 1963).

The words we speak and hear in liturgy embody the truth of Divine Revelation.   “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). The Word continues to dwell among us in the reading of Sacred Scripture and the prayers we pray at the liturgy.  The words of the liturgy bear the purpose of the liturgy itself: they form us into the very Body of Christ.

Liturgy has as its goal our communion with Christ and, in Him, our communion with the Father and with the Holy Spirit.  When we participate in the Eucharist, we do more than recall, or mentally remember, the great saving work that Jesus did. We come to share in His work. We are caught up in the great act of Christ offering Himself up for us on the Cross. We become one with Him in His love of the Father and all people.  

As Pope Innocent III once said, “the form is bread and wine, the truth is the Body and Blood and the power is unity and charity” (Ep. “Cum Marthæ circa”: DS 783).  The Eucharist is the source and bond of charity.  The liturgy impels us outward in love.

Saint Augustine said that, through the Eucharist, we become what we receive (cf. Sermo 227). In other words, we who receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist truly become the Body of Christ for the world.  And so, just as Christ poured out His life for others, we who are one with Him are strengthened to give ourselves unselfishly for the good of others.  “Eucharist and mission are inseparable realities” (Pope John Paul, Message for World Mission Sunday, 2004, n. 1).

In the Eucharist, Christ moves us to love. Joined to Him, we extend God’s love in visible, tangible ways to others, especially to those in need. How important then are the words of the liturgy! They make us aware of who we are as the Body of Christ. They condense in prayer the truth of Divine Revelation. They form us as mission-oriented and impel us to works of charity.

Liturgy and life are not separable.  In our diocese where the Eucharist is celebrated each day, the works of charity abound.  We care for the poor, those suffering with addictions from drugs and alcohol, the homeless, the disabled, immigrants and migrant workers.  We use our resources to make available in all parts of the diocese a quality Catholic education so needed in today’s secularized world. 

Rightly do we care for the words of the liturgy.  The lex orandi is the lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of belief.  And, in the dynamism of the liturgy as the action of Christ Himself, the lex credendi always becomes the lex agendi of our life. As we translate the words of liturgy into the deeds of our lives, belief becomes act.  The Word truly becomes a word that others hear and understand because our words are love!


Bishop Arthur Serratelli, who has served as bishop of Paterson since July 2004, is the US bishops’ member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) and became secretary of Vox Clara in January 2011. He is chairman of the Subcommittee on Scripture Translation (Doctrine Committee), and was chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship from 2007-2010. This article, originally a column for the Paterson diocesan newspaper, The Beacon, appears here with the bishop’s kind permission.



Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli

Bishop Arthur Serratelli has served as bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, since 2004. In November he concluded his term as Chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship. In October 2016 he was appointed by Pope Francis as a member of the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. At present, he is the Chairman of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). He is a member of the Vatican’s Vox Clara Commission.