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Reading the Liturgical Documents
Jan R. Larson

A wise professor once told me that while there indeed may be Gospel values and Christian principles, it may take centuries for them to be integrated into the minds and hearts of everyday Christians. Thus today it is obvious that Christianity could never support something as hideous as slavery, but it was not always so obvious. Likewise most of us know in our hearts that there is a more Christian response to dealing with violent criminals than to kill them, yet capital punishment still enjoys significant support from the Christian community. The same may be said of liturgical principles. For example, solemn church teaching insists that the liturgy is the most important activity of the church. However, we would not always know that from surveying the courses offered for training pastoral ministers, from examining the liturgical materials that are to be found (or not found) in the faculty libraries of Catholic grade schools and high schools, from reviewing parish budgets, or, most unfortunately, from experiencing so many bland and boring liturgical celebrations.

Emerging as we are from a rigid liturgical tradition (shaped to a large extent by reaction to the Protestant Reformation) Catholic Christians still celebrate their newly found freedom from an overabundance of liturgical rules, regulations, directives, and prescriptions. Perhaps some of us have gone too far, overreacting to the legalism of the past and therefore becoming somewhat reluctant to give full attention to anything that looks like a liturgical law -- somebody else telling us what to do and threatening our creativity. Another reason why some tend to shy away from the liturgical documents is the personalism of the day. We have a strong tendency these days to seek religious experiences first of all in personal experiences -- experiences of God and of the holy that emerge from within a person. And congregationalism is also at work today. There is an attitude that insists that authentic and effective liturgy must emerge from the spirituality and imagination of the group rather than from tradition or from bishops and other lawgivers who produce liturgical documents. While these two rather extreme tendencies may seem at odds with each other, what they may have in common is a shying away from the need to value the liturgical documents or any other kind of liturgical authority. If this is true, then the documents that help give credence to the liturgy and supply its principles may be perceived by many as things that interfere either with their personhood or with their somewhat exaggerated notion of the role of the congregation. And thus such documents should be left to the domain of liturgists and others whose concerns do not really touch their lives.

However, contemporary liturgical documents, whether they be issued by Rome, by the United States bishops, or by a particular diocese, are far from the heartless decrees aimed at telling people what to do. They are, above all else, sources of liturgical principles. A principle is defined as a fundamental truth or law upon which others are based. Liturgical principles tell us what the liturgy is about and allow us to conclude that liturgy is our most important activity. It is the celebration of the liturgy that constitutes us as church. Liturgical documents contain rules and regulations, too, but these are not principles. Rather they are a result of the principles. A liturgical celebration oblivious to fundamental liturgical principles is in trouble from the start.


It ought to be unnecessary to say it, but anyone involved in pastoral ministry and formation ought to have a competent knowledge of liturgical principles. This includes all pastoral ministers, ordained or otherwise, and those who teach in Catholic schools or who do any kind of catechetical formation. There are hundreds of liturgical documents, but we do not have to wade through all of them to have a basic competence in liturgical principles. We need only to read selectively. Consider reading the CONSTITUTION ON THE SACRED LITURGY, THE GENERAL INSTRUCTION OF THE ROMAN MISSAL, ENVIRONMENT AND ART IN CATHOLIC WORSHIP, and THE DIRECTORY FOR MASSES WITH CHILDREN.

Sometimes reading a liturgical document can be a challenge, as is reading a driver's manual or a user's guide for a computer. It is not difficult to be overwhelmed by what we see before us. An effective way to begin reading such documents is to highlight the principles with a marking pen. While it may be tempting to look first in the document for the rules and regulations, the rules and regulations are best understood by knowing the principles that give them their meaning. Thus the CONSTITUTION ON THE SACRED LITURGY contains this norm: it is preferred that rites like the baptism of infants be celebrated in a communal way and not as a private affair (27). This is the rule or norm, and as those involved in baptismal preparation know, it is a norm that is sometimes challenged by parents and family members. Therefore, it helps to know the principle behind the norm, found in the Constitution: "Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations belonging to the church, which is the sacrament of unity, namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops" (27).

This principle is what gives meaning to the rule or norm that officially discourages private baptisms. It is also better pastoral practice to defend the rule or norm, not by first appealing to the fact that it is the law but rather by explaining the liturgical value or principle behind the law. After all, every good liturgical rule or law is meant to enshrine, protect, and convey some value that is important to the liturgical tradition of the Christian community.


The first document with which every person in pastoral ministry and formation ought to be familiar is the CONSTITUTION ON THE SACRED LITURGY (1963). It was the first document promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. This document is not unlike the Constitution of the United States in that it is a foundational document. It is a document that is meant to be built upon for it is made of solid, rock-hard principles. But like our country's Constitution, it needs to be read carefully; some principles are not obvious, while others seem to jump out at the reader. I have already referred to one of its principles above: that the liturgy is the source and summit of the Christian life (10). Other are that the liturgy is the most perfect manifestation of the church (41), and in the liturgy Christ is present in a number of ways; in the sacraments, in the proclamation of God's Word in the Scriptures, in the ministers of the liturgy, in the members of the assembly, and in a unique way in the Eucharist (7). The Constitution also insists that in any effort at liturgical renewal, the aim to be considered before all else is the "full, conscious, and active participation" of everyone present at the celebration of the liturgy (14).

Other wonderful principles are the introductions to the various liturgical books. These introductory sections offer principles that support the major content of the liturgical books. These include the GENERAL INSTRUCTION OF THE ROMAN MISSAL, found in the Sacramentary, and the INTRODUCTIONS TO THE LECTIONARY FOR MASS, the RITE OF CHRISTIAN INITIATION FOR ADULTS, PASTORAL CARE OF THE SICK, and the ORDER OF CHRISTIAN FUNERALS.

THE GENERAL INSTRUCTION OF THE ROMAN MISSAL (1969) provides a basic orientation necessary for anyone engaged in a liturgical ministry involved with the celebration ofthe Eucharist. It goes without saying that every priest and deacon, as well as those involved in planning the celebration of the Mass, ought to be familiar with its contents. The General Instruction is not familiar to many, I suspect, because it seems to be hidden away in the front of the Sacramentary. People may also be intimidated by its length and the amount of detail contained in its pages. But this and most of the other documents listed here are available in paperback collections precisely for the purposes of study and reflection.

Examples of principles found in this document, quite relevant to the contemporary discussions about proper postures in the liturgy, are nos. 20 and 21. These days some parishes and communities seem to be divided over whether to kneel or to stand, and there is tension over what postures are officially prescribed, whether those postures are liturgically and ritually the most appropriate, as well as what postures people are actually using. One principle, often overlooked in discussions of this topic, is that uniformity in posture is clearly more important than standing or kneeling: ?Uniformity is to be observed by all as a sign of the community and the unity of the assembly; it both expresses and fosters the spiritual attitude of all the assembly? (20).

Clearly one of the most important documents to come in the wake of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II is ENVIRONMENT AND ART IN CATHOLIC WORSHIP (1978). It is the official place to search for the principles and directives involved in the renovation, building, and arrangement of churches. In fact, the Appendix to the Sacramentary, which is particular law for the dioceses of the United States, insists that "in those things which pertain to the arrangement and furnishing of churches and other requisites of liturgical art and architecture, the principles and directives of the Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy, ENVIRONMENT AND ART IN CATHOLIC WORSHIP, should be consulted and applied" (253). This document has generated much discussion and even controversy with its statements on the configuration of seating, the placement of the tabernacle, the location of the baptistery, the location of the choir and musicians, and the use of national flags. But most of the norms regarding these issues are not new to Environment and Art and were addressed in previous documents. What is new in this document is the rich explanation of the principles behind the norms.

One other document ought to be required reading for all priests and school and catechetical personnel involved in preparing children's liturgies. It ought to be on the shelves of every faculty library in every Catholic school and available to everyone involved in the religious formation of children and young people. It is the DIRECTORY FOR MASSES WITH CHILDREN. This document, like the ones already described, is not new. It was published in 1973 by the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome. It contains the fundamental principles for the celebration of the Eucharist with children. The Directory speaks repeatedly about adapting the liturgical rites to the age, ability, and capacities of the child, always with a view to the full, conscious, and active participation of all the children. Many of its principles apply equally well to adults gathered to celebrate the liturgy.

Pastoral experience shows that children are often subjected to poor liturgical experiences. Perhaps the reason is that we assume children are less affected by poor liturgy. It is also a fact that children will be less demanding than adults when it comes to quality and appropriateness. At the same time, however, it is amazing how many teachers and catechists -- and those directly responsible for planning children's liturgies -- have never heard of the Directory, written nearly a quarter of a century ago! The problem with foisting poor liturgy upon children is that it conditions our future adults to expect mediocrity and, even more alarming, to be content with mediocrity in liturgical celebration.

Some other documents are important reading for ministries that have a particular focus. Those who proclaim the readings at the liturgy or who train lectors should read the INTRODUCTION TO THE LECTIONARY (1970, revised in 1981). Musicians and singers should be knowledgeable about MUSIC IN CATHOLIC WORSHIP (revised edition, 1983) and LITURGICAL MUSIC TODAY (1982), both of which are officially recommended in the Sacramentary's "Appendix to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal." Those who minister to the sick and shut-ins in a community will find the Introduction to the PASTORAL CARE OF THE SICK (1983) quite valuable. Those involved in planning Christian funerals or who work in ministry to the bereaved would find the Introduction to the ORDER OF CHRISTIAN FUNERALS (1989) helpful. And those who work in the catechumenate process should be familiar with the wealth of principles and theological insight found in the introductory sections of the RITE OF CHRISTIAN INITIATION OF ADULTS (1988).


Rev. Jan R. Larson is pastor of Our Lady of Sorros parish in Snoqualmie, WA, and is a liturgy consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Copyright © 1996, Resource Publications, Inc. May not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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