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The Silent Action of the Heart

Fifty years after its promulgation by Pope Paul VI, will the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy finally be read? Sacrosanctum Concilium is not in fact a simple catalogue of “recipes” for reform, but a true and proper Magna Carta for all liturgical action.

In that Constitution, the Ecumenical Council gives us a masterful lesson in methodology. Far from contenting itself with a disciplinary and external approach to the liturgy, the Council summons us to contemplate the liturgy in its essence. The Church’s practice always flows from what she receives and contemplates from Revelation. Pastoral practice cannot be divorced from doctrine.

In the Church, “action is directed to contemplation” (cf. n. 2). The conciliar Constitution invites us to rediscover the Trinitarian origin of the work of the liturgy. Indeed, the Council affirms continuity between the mission of Christ the Redeemer and the liturgical mission of the Church. “Just as Christ was sent by the Father, so also he sent the apostles,” so that “by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves” they might “accomplish the work of salvation” (n. 6).

The liturgy in action is thus none other than the work of Christ in action. The liturgy is in its essence actio Christi: “the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God” (n. 5). He is the high priest, the true subject, the true protagonist of the liturgy (cf. n. 7). If this vital principle is not embraced in faith, one risks reducing the liturgy to a human action, to the community’s celebration of itself.

On the contrary, the true work of the Church consists in entering into the action of Christ, participating intimately in the mission he has received from the Father. Thus “the fullness of divine worship was given to us,” because “his humanity, united with the person of the Word, was the instrument of our salvation” (n. 5). The Church, the Body of Christ, must in turn become an instrument in the hands of the Word.

This is the ultimate meaning of the key concept of the conciliar Constitution, participatio actuosa. For the Church, this participation consists in becoming an instrument of Christ the Priest, so as to participate in his Trinitarian mission. The Church participates actively in the liturgical work of Christ insofar as she is his instrument. In this sense, language about the “celebrating community” can carry a degree of ambiguity requiring true caution (cf. the Instruction Redemptoris sacramentum, n. 42). Participatio actuosa must not be understood, therefore, as the need to do something. On this point the teaching of the Council has often been distorted. It is a question, rather, of allowing Christ to take hold of us and to associate us with his sacrifice.

Liturgical participatio must therefore be understood as a grace from Christ who “always associates the Church with himself” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). It is he who takes the initiative, who has primacy. The Church “calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father” (n. 7).

The priest must thus become this instrument that allows Christ to shine through. As our Holy Father Pope Francis recently recalled, the celebrant is not the host of a show, he must not seek the affirmation of the assembly, standing before them as if they were called to enter into dialogue primarily with him. To enter into the spirit of the Council means on the contrary to efface oneself, to renounce the spotlight.

Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained, it is in full conformity with the conciliar Constitution – indeed, it is entirely fitting – for everyone, priest and congregation, to turn together to the East during the penitential rite, the singing of the Gloria, the orations and the Eucharistic prayer, in order to express the desire to participate in the work of worship and redemption accomplished by Christ. This practice could well be established in cathedrals, where liturgical life must be exemplary (cf. n. 41).

Of course it is understood that there are other parts of the Mass in which the priest, acting in persona Christi Capitis, enters into nuptial dialogue with the assembly. But this face-to-face has no other purpose than to lead to a tete-à- tete with God, which, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, will become a heartto-heart. The Council thus proposes additional means to favor participation: “acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as…actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes” (no. 30).

A hasty and all-too-human reading of the Constitution has led to the conclusion that the faithful must be kept constantly busy. The contemporary Western way of thinking, shaped by technology and dazzled by the media, has wished to turn the liturgy into a lucrative production. In this spirit, many have tried to make the celebrations festive. Prompted by pastoral motives, liturgical ministers sometimes stage celebrations into which elements of worldly entertainment are introduced. Have we not witnessed a proliferation of testimonials, acts, and applause? It is imagined that this will foster the participation of the faithful, when in fact it reduces the liturgy to a human plaything.

“Silence is not a virtue, noise is not a sin, it is true,” says Thomas Merton, “but the turmoil and confusion and constant noise of modern society [or of some African Eucharistic liturgies] are the expression of the ambiance of its greatest sins—its godlessness, its despair. A world of propaganda, of endless argument, vituperation, criticism, or simply of chatter, is a world without anything to live for…. Mass becomes racket and confusion; prayers—an exterior or interior noise” (Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas [San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1953, 1981], passim).

We run the real risk of leaving no room for God in our celebrations, falling into the temptation of the Israelites in the desert. They sought to create a cult of worship limited to their own measure and reach, and let us not forget that they ended up prostrate before the idol of the golden calf.

The hour has come to listen to the Council. The liturgy is “above all things the worship of the divine majesty” (n. 33). It can form and teach us only insofar as it is completely ordered to divine worship and the glorification of God. The liturgy truly places us in the presence of divine transcendence. True participation means the renewal in us of that “amazement” that St. John Paul II held in such high regard (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 6). This sacred amazement, this joyous reverence, requires our silence before the divine majesty. We often forget that sacred silence is one of the means indicated by the Council to foster participation.

If the liturgy is the work of Christ, is it necessary for the celebrant to interject his own comments? We must remember that when the Missal authorizes commentary, this must not become a worldly, human discourse, a more or less subtle pronouncement on current events, or a banal greeting to those present, but rather a very brief exhortation to enter into the mystery (cf. General Introduction of the Roman Missal, n. 50).

As for the homily, it too is a liturgical act which has its own rules. The participatio actuosa in the work of Christ presupposes that one leaves behind the profane world in order to enter into “sacred action surpassing all others” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7). In fact, “we claim somewhat arrogantly to remain in the human sphere so as to enter into the divine” (Robert Sarah, God or Nothing, Ignatius Press, Chapter IV).

In this sense it is deplorable that the sanctuary in our churches is not strictly reserved for divine worship, that people enter it in worldly garb, that the sacred space is not clearly delineated by the architecture. And since, as the Council teaches, Christ is present in his word when it is proclaimed, it is equally harmful when readers are not dressed in a way that shows they are pronouncing not human words, but the Word of God.

The liturgy is a fundamentally mystical and contemplative reality, and thus beyond the reach of our human action; even participatio is a grace from God. It presupposes on our part openness to the mystery being celebrated. For this reason the Constitution encourages full understanding of the rites (cf. n. 34) and at the same time prescribes that “the faithful…be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (n. 54).

In reality, an understanding of the rites is not achieved by human reason left to itself, as if it could grasp everything, understand everything, master everything. An understanding of the sacred rites is the fruit of the sensus fidei, which exercises living faith through symbol and understands more by affinity than by concept. Such understanding presupposes that one draws near to the mystery with humility.

But will we have the courage to follow the Council all the way to this point? Yet it is only such a reading, illumined by faith, which constitutes the foundation for evangelization. Indeed, “the liturgy… shows forth the Church to those who are outside as a sign lifted up among the nations, under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together” (n. 2). It must cease to be a place of disobedience to the prescriptions of the Church.

More specifically, the liturgy cannot be an occasion for divisions among Christians. Dialectical readings of Sacrosanctum Concilium, or the hermeneutics of rupture in one sense or another, are not the fruit of a spirit of faith. The Council did not intend to break from the liturgical forms inherited from tradition – indeed, it desired to deepen them. The Constitution establishes that “any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (n. 23).

In this sense, it is necessary that those who celebrate according to the usus antiquior do so without a spirit of opposition, and thus in the spirit of Sacrosanctum Concilium. By the same token, it would be a mistake to consider the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite as deriving from a different theology than that of the reformed liturgy. And one could hope that a future edition of the Missal might include the penitential rite and the offertory of the usus antiquior, so as to underscore the fact that the two liturgical forms shed light one upon the other, in continuity and without opposition.

If we live in this spirit, the liturgy will cease to be the locus of rivalries and criticisms, and we will be brought at last to participate actively in that liturgy “which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle” (no. 8).


Robert Cardinal Sarah is Prefect of the Congregation for the Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments

The original text, entitled “Silenziosa azione del cuore,” appeared in Italian in the June 12 edition of L’Osservatore Romano. Translation provided by Christopher Ruff.

Cardinal Robert Sarah

Cardinal Robert Sarah

Cardinal Robert Sarah was born in Guinea, West Africa. He was made an Archbishop by Pope Saint John Paul II, a Cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI, and named the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis in 2014.