By Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt
Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis
The Sacred Liturgy as the Splendor of God’s Eternal Glory
“. . . and, I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself.” John 12:32
My earliest recollections of the Sacred Liturgy are from my home parish church, providentially named “the Church of Saint Paul.” It was a stately Gothic structure with a beautiful high altar made of Carrara marble.
There, at a young age, I knew that I was entering not just a sacred space, but what I believed to be a vision of what heaven must be like. Every Sunday the eight members of my family would pile into our station wagon and drive the short distance to the 8:00 a.m. Mass. We sat in the second row, left hand side of the main aisle, two rows in front of my grandparents. How well I remember those days!
The parish was, very much, the center of my universe at that time. And at the Sunday Liturgy, I truly felt at home surrounded by family and friends.
The Mass, then, was celebrated in Latin, though the sermon was in English. There at Saint Paul’s, I grew familiar with the responses and became transfixed by the careful, reverent actions that made up the ritual. Without being able to give voice to my feelings, I was enamored by the Liturgy. Within it, I knew that the words of the priest gave voice to the unspoken prayers of those gathered in faith. I also knew that it provided us with spiritual nourishment and strength by the power of the Holy Spirit acting through the person of the priest. And I further knew that it brought that small, yet ever so important community of believers gathered at that hour, into a gathering that had meaning well beyond a head count of those assembled.
My brothers and sisters, I gladly share these reminiscences with you as I begin my first pastoral letter to the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, a letter dedicated to the source and summit of the Christian way of life—the Sacred Liturgy.
That early, formative experience of worshipping with the community of faith at my home parish dedicated to the great Apostle, Saint Paul, has had a lasting influence on me right up to and including these past four years in this wonderful Archdiocese, a local Church dedicated to the same Apostle to the Gentiles.
The Second Vatican Council began when I was a junior in high school. By the time it concluded, I was already in the seminary. There I had the rich grace of taking a course on the Mass by a wise and scholarly priest. With studied research and in clear terms, he guided us step by step through the Order of the Mass, carefully relating all the parts to one another to form a synthetic whole. I was captivated as I found myself being drawn more and more into the rich meaning that lies at the heart of this marvelous prayer. Indeed, I was so drawn to it that I now could not imagine my life without it. And whether it is celebrated in Latin or English, Italian or Spanish, the effect is essentially the same. The words obviously are important, but their true importance lies in the mystery by which those words are animated, inspired and inflamed.
This is the fourth year I have been here in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and the third year I have been privileged to serve as your Archbishop. During that time, I have had the wonderful opportunity of celebrating the Holy Eucharist in literally every corner of this local Church, with 164 pastoral visits to parishes, 73 school visits, celebrations on the campuses of our two Catholic universities, feast days at our Eastern Rite churches, diaconal, priestly and episcopal ordinations, confirmations and, of course, the Sacred Triduum at our magnificent Cathedral. All of these experiences have left me with the impression that our priests, deacons, religious, catechists, worship coordinators as well as the Catholic faithful in general take the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy very seriously, putting much time and personal effort into its preparation and execution. For this I am deeply grateful. This is indeed a sign of the vitality of faith that characterizes us as the Body of Jesus Christ, who remains forever our great High Priest.
At the same time, I am also aware that with the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal, scheduled for the first Sunday of Advent this year, we have the marvelous opportunity to stop and reconsider the important role that the Mass plays in our lives as individuals, as parish communities of faith and as an Archdiocese.
I wish to offer some reflections on this most important aspect of the Church’s life as the answer to four questions: First, why is the Liturgy so essential to the well-being of the Church? Second, how can our unity in worship build up our unity as Church? Third, why is it so important that we participate in the weekly celebration of the Sunday Liturgy? And fourth, why must all we do in this great Archdiocese, individually and collectively, be informed by the Liturgy?
What is the Essential Connection Between the Sacred Liturgy and the Church?
To help us understand why the Sacred Liturgy is so important for the Church, let us define our terms—what is the Church, and what is the Sacred Liturgy?
In the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, the Second Vatican Council reminds us that the Church is a “sacrament – a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all men.” The Council also refers to the Church as a “gathering together” of those who believe in Christ, and as “a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, from this same great Council, makes the purpose of this gathering in Christ clear when it states that all activities of the Church are directed toward the sanctification of human beings and the glorification of God. From these references, then, we can state simply that the purpose of the Church is to call her members to holiness, in other words, to create saints. Consequently, everything the Church does must be seen in that light.
But sanctity for the Christian is not a solitary activity. It is done in and through the Church, a Church which is “gathered” as an assembly called by Jesus Christ to form His Body, and that is seen most fully in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy.
Again, the uniqueness of this worship was emphasized in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council:
“. . . every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.”
If our worship is truly to be effective then, it must be done through Him, with Him and in Him.
As Pope Benedict has written,
“The Liturgy derives its greatness from what it is, not from what we make of it. Our participation is, of course, necessary, but as a means of asserting ourselves humbly into the spirit of the Liturgy and of serving him who is the true subject of the Liturgy: Jesus Christ. The Liturgy is not an expression of the consciousness of a community, which, in any case, is diffuse and changing. It is revelation received in faith and prayer, and its measure is consequently the faith of the Church in which revelation is received. The forms that are given to the Liturgy can vary according to time and place, just as the rites are diverse. What is essential is the link to the Church, which, for her part, is united by faith in the Lord. The obedience of faith guarantees the unity of the Liturgy, beyond the frontiers of place and time, and so allows us to experience the unity of the Church, the Church as the homeland of the heart.”
In the community of believers, our own hearts’ hopes and sorrows, joys and disappointments find reception, affirmation, and transformation as they are offered as one with Christ to the Father in prayer.
This “homeland of the heart” is made up of believers who have likewise been “gathered” as an assembly to pray together. In the community of believers, our own hearts’ hopes and sorrows, joys and disappointments find reception, affirmation, and transformation as they are offered as one with Christ to the Father in prayer. Thus, we see why it is profoundly true that no one can pray to God as an isolated individual.
Again, Pope Benedict has observed,
“Prayer is always praying with someone. No one can pray to God as an isolated individual and with his own strength. Isolation and the loss of a basic sense of fellowship in prayer constitute a major reason for the lack of prayer. I learned to pray by praying with others, with my mother, for instance, by following her words, which are gradually filled out with meaning for me as I speak, live, and suffer in fellowship with her. …And that is precisely why it is impossible to start a conversation with Christ alone, cutting out the Church: a Christological form of prayer that excludes the Church also excludes the Spirit and the human being himself. I need to feel my way into these words in everything I do, in prayer, life, suffering, in my thoughts. And this very process transforms me. But I must not try to dispense with the example of the words, for they are alive, a growing organism, words that are lived and prayed by countless people.”
The Liturgy, therefore, finds its origin in Christ’s call to be “gathered”—he who is both victim and priest, the one who offers and the one who is offered. He calls us to holiness, but always in and through the Church and her Liturgy. Again, this is the reason for the Church’s existence: to bring the baptized into a closer relationship with Christ as members of His one Body who pray the Liturgy together with Christ for the glory of God and the good of all. Our corporate or communal prayer is thus a prayer that what has been accomplished in Christ might be accomplished in us, and that like Christ we might be sent to bear fruit for the life of the world.
Here, in the “work” of the Church gathered in Christ, the two great themes of the Second Vatican Council, communio and missio, become ever more clear. The Church is gathered by its call into communion in order to be sent forth on mission to bring Christ to the world and to bring the world to Christ. As Blessed John Paul stated in Christifideles Laici, “Communion gives rise to mission and mission is accomplished in communion.” It is impossible for us to have one without the other.
There is also an eschatological dimension to this gathering, often termed the “not yet” of our faith life, that is, our future eternal life in God, reflective of the words that Jesus Himself used about his own mission:
“. . . and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to Myself.” (Jn 12:23)
This gathering in Christ that takes place in the Liturgy is a foreshadowing and a foretaste of the gathering which will happen in the New Jerusalem where Christ desires to gather all people to himself at the end of time.
Through this understanding of the Liturgy, we can see how the Church is the sacrament of unity and salvation of the whole world. When “the Mass is ended,” we are called to go out into the world and proclaim the good news of Jesus crucified and risen, a reality that is witnessed, touched, and seen at the Sacred Liturgy.
The vision of our being “gathered” together in Christ, then, gives impetus for our intention to be united as one in the practice of the faith and in a particular way by our observance of the rubrics given to us by the Church for the celebration of the Liturgy. As Pope Benedict reminds us, “The obedience of faith guarantees the unity of the liturgy…”
How does the Unity of Worship affect the Unity of Faith?
When I was appointed a bishop by His Holiness, Blessed John Paul II, I chose as my Episcopal motto “That all may be one.” These words, found in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Saint John, express, it seems to me, the most fundamental prayer of the heart of Jesus for His disciples—ever greater unity with God, which naturally leads to an ever deeper unity with one another. This prayer has become my own during these years of Episcopal service, especially here in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. All of us must work for that unity which is the explicit desire of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But unity does not mean “going along to get along.” That would be a false unity, and one that cannot endure. True unity, rather, must be rooted in the truth and in our adherence to it. For Catholics, unity means oneness in faith, as enunciated in the Creed and the authoritative teachings of the Church. This unity is manifested in our worthy reception of the sacraments, especially the sacrament of sacraments that is the Holy Eucharist, justly referred to as the “sacrament of unity.” As we are gathered around the one bread and the one cup, we are strengthened and summoned to form an ever greater unity of mind and heart with Christ Himself, so that we might be joined more closely to one another. Our unity with each other comes from this unity in Christ.
I remember as a junior in seminary college being sent to a national seminarians’ conference in Columbia, Missouri. The year was 1964. One evening I was invited to one of the hotel rooms to participate in “the Liturgy.” When I arrived, the room was dark and a number of seminarians were seated with “the presider” on the floor around a small table upon which had been placed a loaf of bread and large glass of wine. As the service began, it became clear to me that this was an experimental liturgy as the words being used were quite unfamiliar to me. I remember being offended at the arbitrary selection of secular readings and home crafted texts. When it came time to share in the one loaf and the one cup, I excused myself and went back to my room.
Recently, I read a quote from Pope Benedict’s earlier writings that reflect what I learned that night. As a Cardinal, the Pontiff wrote that when the Liturgy is “manipulated ever more freely, the faithful feel that, in reality, nothing is celebrated and it is understandable that they desert the Liturgy and with it the Church.”
To avoid such unfortunate results, then, it is necessary that parishes and priests be obedient to the rubrics and the definitive legislation concerning our common liturgical texts, actions and practices. Such obedience serves to better communicate and, in fact, realize that unity which is the heartfelt prayer of Jesus.
Fundamentally, the Church’s Liturgy is not the expression of local customs or the particular interests of a parish or a priest. True enough, an assembly or a presider often do bring with them gifts and talents that should be shared with all, including at the offering of praise that is the celebration of the Mass. But at its heart, the unity of the Roman Rite, reflective as it is of the Church’s universality, is meant to shine through our liturgical celebrations as an expression of our unity through one common expression of faith. How we pray together manifests what we believe, and in our belief, we are called by Christ to be united as one. Such obedience serves a distinct purpose, therefore, one to which parish and priest alike should submit with both humility and in love.
These reflections are always pertinent for the life of the Church, but with the imminent implementation of the newly translated third edition of the Roman Missal, they have become especially timely. The new texts of the Church’s prayer provide a grace-filled moment to reexamine our liturgical practices, and to ensure that the liturgical life of our parishes, religious communities, and various apostolates are in conformity to the liturgical norms of the Church.
As I have already pointed out, the People of God have a right to the Liturgy as it is prescribed in the approved liturgical books. Over these past four years, I have been impressed with the amount of time, thought and research that has gone into the process of approving the new liturgical texts. Experts offer their work of translation, bishops suggest modifications, the Episcopal conference votes on each work and then the results are sent to the Holy See with a request for authorization. It is a painstaking and deliberative process—one that I believe involves the grace of the Holy Spirit who guides the whole Church. To think that such an effort can be ignored or bypassed because of the particular local customs of a community or the pastoral customs of a local group, no matter how well intended they may be, strikes against the very unity of being Church that the Liturgy is meant to foster and signify.
As a way of ensuring that this new text is fully implemented within our local Church, I am asking all liturgical communities to ensure that a review and implementation of the most up to date General Instruction of the Roman Missal be completed by the first Sunday of Lent, 2012, paying special attention to such matters as the posture used at Mass, the modification or omission of liturgical texts without the necessary approval, and the purification of sacred vessels. If more time is required by a parish or community, I ask that a letter be submitted outlining the reasons for the delay with a specific plan of implementation. In addition, it is important that the 2004 Vatican Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, be studied and implemented in parishes, as I requested in 2009. I once again repeat this instruction and ask pastors and parishes to pay particularly close attention to those practices that are forbidden within that document. All such practices should be immediately stopped.
On the whole, this latter directive of mine, which in reality has already been given by the Universal Church close to a decade ago, should not be a burden to the faith communities here in our local Church. To those that may be affected, I offer the services of the Archdiocesan Office of Worship to assist you in the catechesis and planning that will be necessary to effect the changes required.
Of course, it is not enough that we simply follow the liturgical law of the Church. In order to foster that “full, conscious and active participation” that lies at the heart of all liturgical renewal and reform, we must strive to understand more fully just what it is that we are doing when we assemble in response to the loving call of the True and Living God. To this end, it is, of course, quite important that we understand the historical, cultural background of rites and rituals. The theological realities that are expressed so powerfully in our liturgical practice must also be known and explored in order to plumb the full depths of the mysteries we celebrate. Again I recall with deep gratitude the seminary course which introduced me to the breadth and depth of what we celebrate in the Liturgy.
But we must also take the time simply to listen to the Liturgy itself. We all must strive, clergy and laity alike, to hear with true docility the words the Church has given us, and the memories she cultivates within us as her prayers are proclaimed in our midst. Unfortunately, for far too many, Sunday Mass is simply one activity among many in our busy lives. Let me be clear: such busyness can easily encumber and stifle our capacity for sanctification. The Sunday Eucharist, and the Sacred Liturgy in general, must become the source and summit of our lives, for it is nothing less than the prayer of Jesus Christ our great High Priest, head and members worshiping together the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. To participate truly in the Mass and the other sacraments is to be united with Christ, who is the source and wellspring of all holiness.
When we stop to listen to the words of the Mass, or the words of absolution, or the beautiful powerful prayers of baptism and confirmation, we discover anew the mysteries of faith and enkindle the sense of wonder which marked the disciples on the road to Emmaus when they discovered the Living Christ, present to them. As we listen to the story of our salvation, it is also accomplished within us, even as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of the Lord and the final consummation of all things into Himself.
The unity that is signified and effected by the Liturgy is accomplished in a limited but real way when we listen together to the words of the Church. Indeed, full participation in the sacred mysteries is not possible without this fundamental, receptive listening.
Here, I would like to pick up on a suggestion I recently heard from the Australian born Matthew Kelly, author of Rediscovering Catholicism. Kelly suggests that every Catholic ought to bring a journal to Mass which has inscribed on the cover, “What’s the one thing I need to do today to be a better person?” He guarantees that if we have that single focus in mind as Mass begins, we will discover the joy and meaning that lies at the heart of the Eucharist. I think he’s right. I suggest we try it out.
Preparing for and implementing the new missal will take patience, humility, and an effort on the part of all of us. But as we learn new words and implement the historic changes affecting the whole English speaking Church, let us strive to listen to what the Church is saying in these re-translated prayers. It is certainly my hope and prayer that these new words will prompt all of us to reflect once again upon the mystery of the Mass, and to strive more earnestly for that unity that it both causes and signifies.
Why is Sunday Mass so Essential for Our Life of Faith
I began this pastoral letter with my earliest recollections of going to Sunday Mass at our home parish with my family. The emphasis given to this priority was the beginning, I believe, of my formation as a disciple of Jesus Christ. For me, the experience of attending Sunday Mass was not viewed so much as a duty, but rather as something I very much wanted to do and enjoyed doing. I might say it was a duty of the heart. Certainly, I knew that it was a mortal sin if I missed Mass, but that knowledge provided only a fraction of the motivation for my going. No, I looked forward to that Sunday morning worship primarily because it put me in touch with my God.
And so, I write this third chapter of my pastoral letter to share this great “love affair” I have had with the Mass in general, and Sunday Mass in particular. To guide my reflections in this section, I reread Blessed John Paul II’s 1998 Apostolic Letter, Dies Domini, On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy.
As the saintly Pontiff reminds us, the importance of Sunday lies in the fact that it recalls the day of Christ’s Resurrection. This is the fundamental event upon which our faith rests, for as Saint Paul reminds us, if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain. (cf. 1 Cor. 15:14) It is the mystery of the resurrection that Blessed John Paul II says, “lies at the very heart of the mystery of time.” I frequently find myself saying that “time is the enemy” because there never seems to be enough of it to accomplish all that needs doing. But, in fact, time is a precious gift in which the very development of my person unfolds and realizes its potential. Time is, therefore, something that is more than endured. It is rather to be celebrated with the unfolding of life. For the disciple of Jesus, risen from the dead, this means growing in a living encounter with him through personal and communal prayer. This is what gives time its deeper meaning: the opportunity provided to experience an interpersonal relationship in dialogue with the risen Jesus, present to his Body, the Church. This, in fact, happens in the Sunday celebration of the Mass.
Of course, this trajectory, if you will, has an eschatological dimension because that interpersonal relationship is leading to a definitive fulfillment in the Kingdom of God.
I do realize that there has been an incredible shift in how society views Sunday since I was growing up. The “weekend” for most families I know is chock-full of activities from morning to night. Often these involve sports competitions, but they also include jobs and errands that didn’t get done during the week. For many, even good Catholics, Sunday Mass can become just one more activity to fit into the schedule, rather than the culmination of the past week and the beginning of a new period of time.
This latter view of Sunday, a new beginning, recalls the dawn of creation as described in the Book of Genesis. There we read how God took six days to create the world and all that is in it and when he finished, He “blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” (Gen. 2:3) For human beings caught up in a whirlwind of activity, Sunday is meant to be a call to a contemplative re-examination of where our lives have been and where they are going. Sunday is meant to give meaning to the other six days of the week.
Of course, such periodic examination of our activity is helpful to the individual, but as we have seen, no individual lives in isolation and no Christian disciple is saved alone. As baptized Catholics, we are gathered by the Lord Jesus into community as members of his Mystical Body. This reality is reflected in the Sunday Eucharist: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor. 10:17) The whole community of the Church is called and gathered together on Sunday so as to witness to, and proclaim the meaning of, who she is and who we are in relation to her. This is why the Creed is recited at every Sunday Liturgy. It reconfirms us in our Catholic identity, which is, of course, universal in nature and, therefore, joins us in communion with Catholics throughout the world.
At this point, I would very much like to encourage the practice that my family had in going to Church together for the Sunday Liturgy. Parents, of course, lead and teach by example. I can think of only a few privileges given to parents that rival their responsibility of introducing their child to the Lord, by teaching them their prayers and increasing their knowledge of the Mass by joyful and active participation in it.
Finally, it is essential for us to recall that not only is the Holy Eucharist a celebration of a sacred banquet by disciples of the Lord Jesus, but it is also the unbloody sacrifice of Christ Crucified. As the Council of Trent teaches:
“In this divine sacrifice which is accomplished in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once and for all in a bloody manner on the altar of the Cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner.”
This important teaching has been reaffirmed in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council which states that “taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life they [the priestly community] offer the Divine Victim to God and offer themselves along with it.”
This is specified even more in the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it states:
“In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value.”
By joining their lives to Christ, the members of the assembly fulfill their duty of “full and active participation” in the Mass. This participation reaches its fulfillment in the worthy reception of the Priestly Victim Himself, who is found in the reception of Holy Communion.
It should be pointed out here that while our brothers and sisters of other faiths share with us a common baptism and a mutual love of the Scriptures, nevertheless, they do not share full communion of belief in the doctrines of the Catholic Church and, therefore, may not be invited to share in Eucharistic communion. This provision would also extend to persons who know themselves to be in the state of serious sin or who have publically dissented from Church teaching. Honesty requires consistency in action. To break communion in faith forfeits one’s right to receive sacramental Communion.
In times of past and even in present persecution, courageous Catholic believers risked death rather than miss Sunday Eucharist. We should pray to have that kind of faith, that deep sense of appreciation for what, or rather, Who the Eucharist is. With such an understanding, we can better understand the grave obligation Catholics have to attend Sunday Mass, not by the force of law, but rather with a response of love.
How is All we do Informed by the Liturgy?
In concluding the above reflections, I wish to offer a brief summary to assert that all we do as a local Church, that is, as an Archdiocese, ought to be informed by the Sacred Liturgy. Whether it is implementing our strategic plan for parishes and schools, studying the texts for the new Roman Missal, defending the family and the traditional understanding of marriage, working for peace and justice among all peoples, feeding the poor or sheltering the homeless, each of these activities should have a conscious link in our minds and hearts to what we celebrate at Mass.
The reason for this is that it is in the Liturgy that we find Jesus Christ, who cries out even now “Yes” to the will of the Father by offering Himself as a complete and selfless oblation to his Father. We join the offering of ourselves and all that we have together with him in this one, joyous, and saving cry. This cry, this “Yes” of Jesus, witnessed again and again in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, needs to echo and resonate in our own lives and in our particular vocations, regardless of what that vocation might be. Whether as a priest, deacon, religious, lay person, or even a bishop, our lives are meant to ring with a resounding, yet peaceful “Yes” to the demands of love. The Liturgy shapes this cry, teaching us to speak the language of Divine Charity with which it is composed. We listen to the words of the Liturgy so that we may truly speak them in our daily lives. To be a liturgical Christian, therefore, is to live the balance between the demands of contemplation and action.
My friends, I began these reflections by recalling how at an early age I became enamored by the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, my relationship with the Sacred Liturgy has been a “love affair” that has lasted a life-time. It is my sincere hope that in reading this pastoral letter, you, my dear brothers and sisters, will be renewed in your own love for the Liturgy and find in its celebration a foretaste of the glory to which the Lord Jesus calls both you and me.
God bless you!
Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1066-1209
General Instruction on the Roman Missal
Redemptionis Sacramentum, Instruction, Congregation for Divine Worship, 2004
Sacramentum Caritatis, Apostolic Letter, Pope Benedict XVI, 2007
Dies Domini, Apostolic Letter, Pope John Paul II, 1998