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Praying in Good Faith: Ten Ways to Examine Your Liturgical Conscience

Guitar choir or Gregorian chant? Communion on the tongue or in the hand? Liturgical language that is elevated, formal, and Latinate—as in the present Roman Missal—or language more common, casual, and conversational—as in the former Sacramentary?

Opinions on liturgical matters such as these differ, as with myriad other liturgical elements: Is the Church better served by modern or traditional architecture? Should the Easter Vigil begin late for the sake of symbolic darkness or early to encourage better attendance? Ought Christmas poinsettias be real or manufactured from silk?

Parish liturgical committees debate such issues and render advice to their pastors. But on what grounds? To what degree does one’s personal preference—whether one sits on the liturgy committee or in the pew—determine what is “good” or “bad” in the liturgy? Am I my own liturgical litmus?

Pope John Paul II once asked this same question: “The Liturgy! Everybody speaks about it, writes about it, and discusses the subject. It has been commented on, it has been praised, and it has been criticized. But who really knows the principles and norms by which it is to be put into practice? The Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium referred to the liturgy as the ‘source’ and the ‘summit’ of the Church’s life (no.10): what is being done to make this sublime definition a reality?”1

Indeed: what are the standards by which the liturgy is celebrated and evaluated? Moreover, where are these measures to be found?

In his questions about liturgy cited above, John Paul II has revealed their answer: the Magisterium’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

In preparation for the Third Christian Millennium, as well as on the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical constitution, Pope John Paul II spoke of an “examination of conscience” similar to one Catholics make prior to sacramental confession.2 Before entering the confessional, I am called to examine my moral life—my thoughts and words, my commissions and omissions—according to the Ten Commandments, Christ’s two Great Commandments, the Word of God, and the teaching of the Church.

Along those same lines, a liturgical conscience—of an individual, a committee, a parish, or even the Church universal—is also formed and judged according to received norms. Some of these norms are divinely revealed while others are put forward by the Magisterium. But whether the subject is liturgy or morality, the temptation is the same, namely, to be our own rule—and ruler. But this autocratic urge is no more possible to realize than it is for an eye to see itself without the aid of a mirror. While a conscience is often described as an “interior voice,” one rising from deep within, a conscience is at the same time a voice from without, a law inscribed by God himself.3

Etymologically, “conscience” means “to know” (from the Latin scio) “with others” (con). In liturgical matters, this ‘other’ is the Church, and a well-formed liturgical conscience—as St. John Paul II suggests—is formed and examined according to the Church’s own liturgical principles.

Pope John Paull II called the Church to an “examination of conscience” concerning the Council’s principles and norms as found in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

What are the “principles and norms”—let’s call them commandments—of the liturgical life? The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, when read in light of the Church’s tradition and understood according to her liturgical practice, gives the Church’s liturgy its direction. And while not exactly laid out as a litany of positive or negative proscriptions such as Moses received on Sinai, the Constitution’s contents might be distilled into a decalogue of liturgical formation and decision-making. (In fact, John Paul II himself performs such an examination of conscience concerning the Church’s liturgical and sacramental life in his 2003 Apostolic Letter Spiritus et Sponsa.)

10 Commandments of the Liturgy

Here, then, based on the Church’s own teaching, are 10 principles to form the liturgical conscience. Perhaps there are more; maybe there are fewer; undoubtedly the principles could be arranged or expressed differently—but knowing even this non-exhaustive list of liturgical truths will help us see the liturgy as the Church herself does.

1. The Liturgy Glorifies God and Sanctifies Humanity
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy describes the liturgy as a work “wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified” (7; also 10, 59, 61, 112). Here is the most basic, most fundamental, most essential liturgical norm. Is it also the most overlooked?

God’s glory and our salvation are “twin” goals since, as St. Irenaeus puts it, “the glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of God” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 294). To be a saint is the best way to glorify God; and to spend one’s life praising God is, as a consequence, to become a saint. These are the main purposes of the liturgy from its greatest source of power to its smallest detail: from the Eucharistic presence of Christ himself, to the cantor leading the congregation in song and prayer, to the doorknobs on the church’s front entrance.

2. The Liturgy Is the Work of Jesus
Jesus Christ is the liturgy’s Prime Minister and, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, its principal actor. “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, but especially under the Eucharistic species…, in the sacraments…, in his word…, and when the Church prays and sings…. Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ” (7).

The liturgy is not about the priest, except as he acts in the person of Christ the Head. It is not about the skill of the lector, except as Jesus, the Word of God, is announced. It is not about me, except as I am being transformed into Christ.

3. The Liturgy Drives the Economy
“Economy,” in the truest sense of the word, means “the management of a household” (think of the home-economics class you may have had in high school, and you get the idea). The work of Father, Son, and Spirit (see Commandment 2, above) is the management of a household—of creation, of the Chosen People, and now of the Church—back to the Trinity and eternal beatitude.

The liturgy, while contextualized within the Divine Economy, is also the wind filling the sails of the Bark of Peter back to the “Pearly Port.” God the Father, says the Constitution, “when the fullness of time had come sent his Son…anointed by the Holy Spirit…to be the mediator between God and men.  Just as Christ was sent by the Father, so also he sent the apostles to accomplish the work of salvation which they had proclaimed by means of sacrifice and sacraments…” (5-8).

Does the building committee, for example, know that it navigates the construction of a church (“nave” comes from the Latin, navis, or ship) for such a voyage?

4. The Liturgy Works in Mixed Sacramental Media
St. Leo the Great left us an incisively laconic liturgical maxim, “What was visible in our Savior has passed over into his sacraments.” The same Jesus who fed, healed, comforted, forgave, and died among the people of the Promised Land, 2,000 year ago, is the same Jesus who nourishes, cures, and forgives today—but through the medium of sacramental signs and symbols.

“In the liturgy,” Sacrosanctum Concilium says, “the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs” (7). All that we see, smell, taste, touch, and hear in the liturgy brings with it, in a sacramental way, Jesus. Thus it matters what a minister does with his hands; there is significance in a new Paschal Candle and last year’s used one; or whether a bell calls worshippers to Mass. Far from simple reminders or pointers, these elements are bearers, porters, and potential epiphanies of what was once “visible in our Savior.”

5. The Liturgy Demands Active Participation
When it came to addressing the sacred liturgy, what was the most important principle for the Council Fathers? “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else” (14).

But active participation does not mean, as Pope Benedict once put it, “something external, entailing a need for general activity, as if as many people as possible, as often as possible, should be visibly engaged in action” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 171). On the contrary, “active participation” calls the baptized to actualize their baptismal priesthood by offering, with the priest, Jesus, the “unblemished sacrificial Victim,” but also “their very selves, and so day by day to be brought, through the mediation of Christ, into unity with God and with each other, so that God may at last be all in all” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 79).

Is this how you would describe your activity at Mass?

6. The Liturgy Announces the Church
The Church is and does many things, but she is most visibly herself at the celebration of the liturgy, especially when the diocesan priest par excellence celebrates at his Mother Church. As the Constitution says, “All should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church; they must be convinced that the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations, especially in the same Eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar, at which there presides the bishop surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers” (41; 2).

The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and as Jesus’ Paschal work most identified him, so now the Paschal Mystery celebrated in the Church’s sacraments most reveal her.

Does your parish’s liturgical assembly reflect the Mystical Body of Christ? Do the ushers know they are Christ’s hands, the choir his voice, the priest his head, the assembly an extension of his flesh and bones in the world?

7. The Liturgy Expresses and Causes Unity
In the first paragraph of the Council’s first document—which happens, not by accident, to address the liturgy—the Fathers state four principal intentions, one of which is “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ.”

“What was visible in our Savior,” says Pope St. Leo the Great, “has passed over into his sacraments.” The same Jesus who fed, healed, comforted, forgave, and died among the people of the Promised Land 2,000 year ago is the same Jesus who nourishes, cures, and forgives today—but through the medium of sacramental signs and symbols.

Union, even while allowing legitimate diversity, has always been a hallmark of the Latin Church—the only “self-governing” Church of the West, compared to the 21 Catholic Churches of the East.

The first of the Constitution’s practical norms, in fact, is an expression of the Council’s—and the liturgy’s—desire for unity, when it says that no one, “even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (22).

Are your own “principal aims” like those of the Second Vatican Council: expressing and fostering unity within the parish and diocese?

8. The Liturgy Is a Foretaste of Heaven
The liturgy looks both forward and back. The worshipping Church remembers Christ and the events of salvation (the term here is “anamnesis”) with a memory powerful enough to make these events of the past present here and now. But she also looks above and ahead to that full consummation of the Victorious Christ’s work, drawing that work back down to today’s celebration.

“In the earthly liturgy,” says the Constitution, “we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly 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; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until he, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory” (8).

Is your parish’s worship “out of this world,” even while firmly rooted on the ground? Are you, your family, neighbors, and pastor aware that, more than an earthly social gathering, your liturgical assembly should be reaching into heaven even as heaven reaches into Sunday’s pews and aisles?

9. The Liturgy Is Radiantly Beautiful
Much hay has been made about the supposed conciliar pronouncement that all liturgical art and architecture are to be “characterized by a noble simplicity.” Even though the sale of beige paint may have increased by an unfortunate misreading of this statement, such “noble simplicity” is not a blank minimalism. In fact, “noble simplicity” doesn’t apply to art and architecture at all. Rather, as the Constitution puts it, bishops, “by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display” (124).

The earthly liturgy is a participation in the heavenly liturgy. What does the heavenly liturgy look like? St. John’s vision is described in the Book of Revelation and later depicted in this detail of St. John’s Altarpiece by Hans Memling (1433-1494).

In a similar, yet distinct, section of the Constitution, the Council Fathers call for the rites, rather than art and architecture, to possess “noble simplicity.” Yet this too can mislead without a proper understanding of the principles involved. The Latin text describes the liturgical rites as “nobili simplicitate fulgeant.” The Latin fulgeant means “let them shine,” thus the rites ought to shine with a simplicity that makes their content—Jesus—known. The Latin noun derivative is fulgor, meaning a “flash of lightening.” The liturgy, it appears, ought to resemble the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration, communicating in a flash of brilliance Christ’s glory to his three apostles.

Are your own liturgical tastes illumined by divine radiance?

10. The Liturgy Sings the Word
Some enjoy music because of the tune, while others are drawn to the words. The Church is among the latter, principally because her Savior and Head is the Word. Her lungs filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit, she sings to and through the Word unto the glory of God the Father. She is, in the words of Pope Benedict, the true glossolalia, the “new tongue,” her music like “drunken” (that is, Spirited) “speech” (Word).

Hence, “as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 112). What the Fathers mean here—as evidenced in the musical legislation both before and after the Council—is that music is not an “extra,” but essential. The words of the rite are enhanced by the breath of the ministers and assembly.

How much of your liturgy is sung? Would you describe your parish’s liturgical music program as essential or as nice add-on?

A Liturgical Life to the Full

The above list, distilled from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, will not answer every liturgical conundrum or solve every liturgical dispute (whether these take place with another or within oneself). But these principles and norms do suggest a Magisterial framework for liturgical comprehension, participation, and celebration.

Take any real-time example from your own parish and measure it against the above-named principles. Do the Mass’s servers at your parish, for instance, glorify God and help you become a saint? Are you singing a particular song in a certain manner, to take another example, so that Jesus himself might be heard (and not you)? Here’s another point in question: are decisions about the altar’s construction concerned with the finished product as a reflection of heaven? However we might respond to these problems, what we like or don’t like, that is, our personal preference, has next to nothing to do with the right answer to these questions.

Like the Christian moral code, the laws of the liturgical cult cultivate a life to the full, a life in abundance, a life reaching from earth to heaven. The Constitution’s norms are codified in the Church’s rites, instructions, and rubrics. Far from restrictive, these create an environment for us to encounter Christ and, like the disciples at the transfiguration, soak up his radiance and grace.

Pope Benedict has named sanctity and beauty as the most convincing apologetic in today’s world.4 While not the only place in Catholic life in which sanctity and beauty play a vital role, the liturgy (rightly celebrated and prayed) sanctifies and beautifies like nothing else. An informed liturgical conscience, like a well-formed moral conscience, is a key ingredient to such a liturgical life.

Editor’s note: the above article ran originally at spritualdirection.com and is reprinted here with its permission.

  1. Address to the participants in the plenary meeting of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, October 17, 1985.
  2. See Tertio Millennio Adveniente, ‘On Preparation for the Jubilee of the Year 2000,” 36 and Spiritus et Sponsa, “On the 40th Anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium,” 6.
  3. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1776 and following.
  4. Message of His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Communion and Liberation meeting at Rimini, August 2002.