CATHOLIC LITURGY, ITS FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES
By The Very Rev. Gaspar Lefebvre OSB
"If anyone deny that the world was made for I the glory of God, let him be anathema," says the Vatican Council. "That the creature should give glory to the Creator is the essential end of creation, for God has no need of aught but Himself and therefore could create only for Himself." [Fénélon, Lettre iii, Sur la Religion.]
The most High is the Being which transcends all other beings. Infinite and uncreated, He has of necessity always existed and will exist for ever. On Him every being depends for its existence. If the life-giving stream which continually flows forth from God, as well into the natural as the supernatural world, should cease for one instant, at that instant all creatures would fall back into nothingness. And, as before the creation, no longer would anything exist save the holy Trinity, to whom "was glory in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be world without end." [Gloria Patri.]
Since God has created beings endowed with intelligence and has raised them to the supernatural order, they are bound to recognise Him as their Creator and Father. To seek the glory of God is the first duty to which justice obliges creatures; to sing "glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost" the first command which love lays upon the children of the kingdom of heaven. And so it was the first petition that Jesus taught us to make to His Father: "Hallowed be Thy name ... on earth as it is in heaven."
Isaias and St. John show us the angels and saints falling down before the most High and before the Lamb, singing day and night their unending Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts. To Him be honour and glory and power for ever and ever. [Isaias vi, 3; Apoc. iv, 8.] We on earth must join with the angels and saints in their celestial praise, for we, too, are God's creatures and children of our Father in heaven. "We pray thee, O Father almighty," says the priest in the Preface, "join our voices also to those of the angels, while we say with lowly praise: Holy, holy, holy. Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Hosanna in the highest."
That house on high—it ever rings
With praises of the King of kings;
For ever there, on harps divine,
They hymn th' eternal One and Trine;
We, here below, the Strain prolong,
And faintly echo Sion's song.
[Hymn at Lauds for the dedication of a church.]
To assure the most High of His due glory and that fallen man might find a way of glorifying Him perfectly, the Son of God took flesh and dwelt among us. From the moment of His Incarnation in the bosom of the Virgin Mary, the sacred humanity of Jesus was anointed with the unction of divinity in virtue of its union with the Person of the Word. "This day have I begotten thee" does the Father declare to Him, and according to St. Paul [Heb. v, 5-6] and the prophet David [Psalm cix,4] He goes on to say, as a logical consequence: "Thou art a priest for ever."
Every Christian who is made a partaker in the Divine sonship of Jesus by the grace of baptism, shares also in the priesthood of Christ by the character conferred in this sacrament. The baptismal character is completed by that given in the sacrament of Confirmation. Those whom God calls to the priesthood receive a third character, given in the sacrament of Holy Orders.
These three characters, indelibly impressed on souls, begin and perfect their likeness to Jesus our Priest. The sacramental character is at once a reflection of and an emanation from the supreme priesthood of Christ. In Baptism and Confirmation it is a fitness for sharing in the Holy Sacrifice, for receiving the Sacraments, and for exercising other holy functions in the Church. In the Sacrament of Order it is an active principle giving power to confer the Sacraments. By these characters we are initiated more and more fully in the divine worship which has Jesus as its supreme Pontiff; that is why St. Peter could say of all Christians that they were a priestly race. ["Character sacramentalis specialiter est character Christi, cujus sacerdotio configurantur fideles secundum sacramentales characteres, qui nihil aliud sunt, quam quaedam participationes sacerdotii Christi ab ipso Christo derivatae." St. Thom., iii Pars, Q. lxiii, art. 3.] United to Jesus by grace, it shares His priesthood by means of the sacramental character: "You are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a people whom God has purchased for himself, that you may declare his virtues." [1 Pet. ii, 9.] As St. Isidore of Seville says so beautifully: "Since our Lord, the true King and eternal Priest, was anointed by God the Father with a mystical and heavenly unction, no longer is it given to priests and kings only, but the whole Church is consecrated with the holy Chrism, as a member of Him who is Priest and King for ever. And therefore do we receive the unction after Baptism, because we are a royal and priestly race and, as it were, other Christs, ut Christi nomine censeamur." [De eccles. off., Lib. ii, c. 26; P.L. lxxxiii, 823.]
Caught up, each in his own degree, into the priesthood of Christ, through Him each pays in corresponding measure the infinite adoration due to the most High. It is by the liturgy, her official worship, that the Church, whose members we are, continues the priesthood of Christ.
The Christian liturgy is "the public worship performed in the name of the Church by persons lawfully deputed to this end. It consists of acts instituted by the Church and offered only to God, the saints and the blessed." (Canon 1256.)
This worship was prefigured in the liturgical worship of the people of God, from which it borrowed several elements, as Psalms, Lessons, rites, etc. "The worship that Adam gave to God," writes Duvoisin, "that of Noah, of Moses, that in which we ourselves take part, all are merely different Stages and successive developments of one and the same religion—that religion which was announced under the patriarchs, typified by the Mosaic law, and brought to perfection by Jesus Christ." [Autorité des livres de Moïse, P. 3, ch. 2.]
Speaking of the Jewish and Christian religions, Perron says they are " one and the same tree, the roots of which are buried in God, the source of truth and life ; the patriarchal religion, developing later into the ceremonial worship instituted by Moses may be looked upon as the Stem, which branched out into the full vigour, fruitfulness and splendour of Christianity." [Introd. philosoph. à l'hist. de la religion, 1. 3, ch. 4.]
The Cross of the Saviour cast its shadow over all the sacrifices of the Old Law, " upon the gifts of the just Abel, upon the sacrifice of the patriarch Abraham, and that which Melchisedech the high priest offered." [ Canon of the Mass.] And it was Jesus who inaugurated Christian worship on Calvary : " Per suam passionem" says St. Thomas, "Christus initiavit ritum christianae religionis." [ St. Thom. iii Pars., Q. lxii, art. 5.]
He who thus began the Christian liturgy continues to be its supreme Pontiff. The centre of this worship is the Mass and there Jesus is the principal offerer, presenting to God, under the species of bread and wine, the bloody sacrifice consummated on Calvary. This He does to glorify His Father and to apply to souls the fruits of His Passion. The very words of our Lord are read in the Gospel; the Lord's prayer is sung. And when the sacraments are conferred it is again from Jesus that they derive their power; " Petrus baptizat, Christus baptizat" says St. Augustine. Always is it the worship of Christ, but now in the whole world at once and through all the ages, thanks to the ministry of the Church, invested for that end with the priesthood of the Man-God. [ "Totus autem ritus christians religionis derivatur a sacerdotio Christi." St. Thom, iii Pars., Q. lxiii, art. 3.]
This worship will attain its consummation in heaven where, even now, our Lord is " always living to make intercession for us," as says the Apostle, and His glorious wounds are ever pleading for us in the sight of God. It is true that He can no longer add to the sum of His merits, but He ceases not to present them to God on our behalf and we must never lose sight of this in liturgical worship, which is always offered in the name of Christ, the eternal Priest. " For that he continueth for ever, he hath an everlasting priesthood : whereby he is able also to save for ever them that come to God by him." [ Heb. vii, 24.]
The Church in heaven and on earth, in union with Jesus, offers to God by means of her liturgical worship a perfect homage of adoration. " Adoration," says Bossuet, " is the recognition of God's supreme sovereignty over us and of our absolute dependence on Him." And the worship of latria, which we render to the most High in the liturgy, recognises this twofold supremacy of God, as Father and Creator, and our twofold dependence on Him as His children and His creatures.
Our worship springs from this very source, namely, our knowledge of God's greatness. Bossuet tells us that " if we would adore rightly we must first know profoundly. Prayer is an act of the reason, for, says St. Thomas, it is the property of adoration to put the creature in its right order, that is to say, to subject it to God. Now it belongs to the reason to put things in order; the reason, therefore, is the principle of adoration, which, in consequence, should be guided by knowledge." [ Etats d'oraison.]
Glory is defined as " clara notitia cum laude," praise resulting from knowledge. " God is a spirit: and they that adore him must adore him in spirit and in truth," said our Lord to the Samaritan woman. [ John iv, 24] It follows that divine worship is an expression of our Faith, since it is the virtue of faith which enlightens our intellect and makes us understand better the greatness of God and our own littleness.
Here we see the reason why the Church gives such an important place to the Creeds or formulas of faith, for all true prayer is founded on dogma. Sixtus V declared that " the sacred rites and ceremonies which the Church, taught by apostolic tradition, employs in the administration of sacraments, in the divine Offices, and in all which appertains to the worship of God or of the saints, are a powerful means of instruction for the Christian people in the true faith; by them souls may easily be led to meditate on sublime truths and thus will find their devotion enkindled." [ Bull Immensa (1588).] " The ceremonies used by the Church in her worship," writes Cardinal Bona, " increase faith and instruct the ignorant." And just because it is steeped in dogma does the Church's prayer inculcate so strongly the spirit of adoration.
Our worship of God is also the expression of our Hope. Knowing our weakness, we call upon the Almighty for help. " O God, come to my aid : O Lord, make haste to help me," says the priest at the beginning of each Hour of the divine Office. In the Psalms and liturgical prayers are heard the accents of the creature confiding in the goodness of his sovereign Master and the cry of the child as it throws itself into its Father's arms.
Prayer, says St. Thomas, is " that rational act by which we ask something from one who is above us." And if God, as St. Augustine declares, " gives only to him who asks," it is precisely that we may be forced to confess that He alone can do all things. Thus prayer plays an essential part in the actual economy of Providence. " We ought always to pray and not to faint," said our Lord. [ Luke xviii, 1.] The Holy Scriptures and all the Fathers insist likewise on the absolute necessity for man of prayer to the most High. They do not hesitate to say that the rebel angels, and our first parents too, fell because they did not pray. St. Gregory says that " they who ask merit thereby to receive what God has from the beginning decreed to give them." " Predestination," writes St. Thomas in his turn, " makes the salvation of man depend on his own prayers or those of others ... let the elect, then, give themselves to prayer." " That we should pray in all things and before all things " is St. Benedict's first recommendation in the Prologue of his Holy Rule. " In the first place, whatever good work thou dost begin, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect." Before St. Benedict, St. Anthony, the celebrated monk of the Thebaid, had laid down as the first rule of life, " Above all pray without ceasing." And St. Alphonsus sums up the teaching of the Gospel and of tradition in this terse saying : " He who prays will be saved, he who prays not will be damned." " I believe," said Donoso Cortes, Spanish ambassador in Paris, " that those who pray do more for the world than those who fight, and if the world goes from bad to worse, it is because there are more battles than prayers. If we could penetrate into the secrets of God and of history, I am convinced that we should be struck with amazement on beholding the tremendous effect of prayer, even in quite ordinary matters." Is it not God who brings events to pass, usually, indeed, by means of secondary causes, but sometimes, if our confidence in Him is great enough, He goes so far as to modify the ordinary course of things, as we see in the lives of the saints. " My Heart cannot resist the prayer of one who trusts in Me," said our Lord to St. Gertrude. Now the Liturgy is truly a prayer of confidence in God ; hope permeates it all through.
Lastly and above all, our worship should be the expression of our Love. How could we not love a Being so infinitely lovable or fail to fulfil gladly the service He demands of us ? "Prayer," writes Mgr. Gay, " is the fairest flower of the love of God." " To love God," says St. Augustine, " is to praise Him and praise is sincere only when it flows from love." By uniting the soul very closely to God prayer develops this love. As St. John Damascene says, " Prayer is the raising of the mind to God." The formulas of prayer which the liturgy provides, if recited with attention and devotion, powerfully contribute to strengthen this love and to secure this union.
" The Psalms," says Pius X, " have a wonderful power of instilling into souls the love of every virtue. St. Augustine writes in his Confessions: ' As sweet sounds of hymns and canticles flowed into my ears and Thy truth trickled into my heart, the tide of devotion swelled high within me.' (Bk. IX, ch. 6). For who can remain unmoved when he hears those sublime Psalms which celebrate the majesty of God, His omnipotence, justice, goodness, His ineffable mercy ? There too, are songs of thanksgiving for blessings received, humble and trustful prayers for new favours as well as heartfelt prayers for pardon. Who can refrain from admiration as he listens to the psalmist recording the great gifts received from the divine bounty, either by the people of Israel or by the whole human race; or again, when he sets before us the truths of heavenly wisdom ? And lastly, whose heart does not burn with love for Him who is so faithfully prefigured by the prophet David, for Christ, whose voice St. Augustine heard in every Psalm, sometimes praising God, sometimes laying bare the inmost feelings of his soul, telling of joys hoped for or sorrows endured ? " [ Bull Divino Afflatu (1911)].
In liturgical prayer every Christian virtue finds expression and all are merged in one hymn of adoration which rises up to God.
God must be adored, the Psalmist tells us, secundum multitudinem magnitudinis ejus, according to the multitude of His greatness. Who could ever attain to this ? Therefore did the Apostles ask our Lord to teach them to pray : " Lord, teach us to pray." And the Master taught them His own beautiful prayer, the Pater. The Church continues the work of Christ and so she, too, teaches us how we must pray. What St. Athanasius said of the Psalter may be applied to the liturgy: " if a man wishes to praise and give thanks and bless the Lord, he finds instruction in the Psalms." [Epist. ad Marcell. in interpret. Psalm.]
The Church does sometimes approve of and use prayers composed by one or other of her children, but above all, she teaches us by her own official prayer. She draws up rules for every detail of public worship, as, for instance, the books to be used, the formulas of prayer, objects of worship, chant, language, time and place. Her ceremonial is used in the court of the King of kings and to it the whole sacred hierarchy conforms when it comes into the presence of His Majesty.
This public prayer, necessarily one, holy, catholic, apostolic and Roman like the Church herself, centres in the Eucharistic Sacrifice which Jesus desired His apostles to celebrate in memory of Him. Around this centre gravitate the Canonical Hours ; during the course of the year the Feasts of the Liturgical Cycle follow in succession, each imparting its own special character to the Mass and divine Office; lastly, the Sacraments bring us spiritual help adapted to our needs in every phase of life.
By these official acts of worship, performed in the basilicas, cathedrals and churches of the entire world by members of the Catholic priesthood, that is to say, by the Pope, bishops and priests, together with the faithful, every generation of Christians, through all time and in every place, is united to the priesthood of Christ. Acting as one body through the hierarchy and therefore through the Church and through Christ, all offer to God the supreme duty of adoration, and conversely, by the same channel, all receive, normally, the benefits of redemption. " The role of the liturgy," writes Vigourel, " is to establish official relations between heaven and earth." [ La liturgie et la vie chrétienne, p. 324.] In the celebrated Motu proprio of Pius X (Nov. 11, 1903) occurs this sentence, that we shall often have occasion to repeat: " Public worship is the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit, and the faithful will be filled with this spirit only in proportion as they actively participate in the sacred mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church." Let us weigh each word: " primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit," marking the limitation expressed in the sentence, " will be filled with this spirit only," followed by the explicit declaration, "in proportion as they actively participate," and this concluding phrase, " in the sacred mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church." At first sight it seems strange that vocal prayer, made in public in a huge church with great pomp and ceremony and in the midst of a dense crowd, should hold such an important place in Christian life. Indeed, mental prayer, being less dependent on the senses and made in the quiet of one's chamber, according to our Lord's recommendation, would seem by its very nature more fitted to bring forth fruits of holiness. Yet the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Holy Communion, the Sacraments and the divine Office are the highest acts of the virtue of religion. The Church is a society composed of men and, since man consists of body and soul and is moreover a social being, therefore her worship must be exterior as well as interior and must be shared by all in common. But every society has need of a leader, and so this worship is carried out under the guidance of its appointed head. For all these reasons the public worship of the Church, that is to say, the liturgy (from the Greek word leiton ergon, public work), is to be preferred to private worship and is truly the primary and indispensable source of the Christian spirit. [ " If worship is paid in the name of the Church by one legitimately deputed to that end and by means of acts instituted by the Church and directed only to God, the saints and the blessed, it is called public ; otherwise it is private." (Canon 1256.)]
In thus preferring the altar to the prie-dieu and the breviary to the book of meditations, we do not intend to deny the necessity of private prayer. In claiming the first place for the Mass and the breviary we do not imply that the practice of meditation is to be despised. Pope Pius X, who leaves nothing unsaid in praise of the liturgy, adds also this remark : " However venerable and august may be the various functions of the priesthood, it sometimes happens that through constant repetition they who perform them lose in some degree that feeling of reverence with which such functions should inspire them. ... Nothing is so helpful as the practice of daily meditation to establish and maintain in the priest those dispositions of soul which befit his ministry." [ Exhortation of his Holiness Pius X on the occasion of his sacerdotal jubilee.] We too should ponder on the import of these words, for if we do not bring to it the spirit of prayer, the liturgy is bereft of its soul. " When ye pray," said our Lord, " ye shall not be as the hypocrites that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. But thou, when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber and, haying shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee." [ Matt, vi, 5-6.]
This means to say that we shall profit by acts of public worship only if we perform them in a spirit of adoration and of interior prayer. For it is the heart that God regards above all, and thence, as we have seen, must spring all true prayer; otherwise we, like the Jews, incur our Lord's reproach : " Hypocrites, well hath Isaias prophesied of you, saying: This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." [ Matt, xv, 8.] Did not our Lord also say : " Leave thy offering before the altar and go first to be reconciled to thy brother, and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift." [ Matt, v, 24.] It is clear, then, that however beautiful the Church's prayer may be, unless it proceeds from the heart it becomes mere lip-service and ceases to be a source of life to the soul.
On the contrary, if, as St. Augustine says, " we meditate in our hearts what we say with our lips," or, as St. Benedict expresses it, " our minds are in union with our voices," [ Holy Rule, ch. xix.] then the voice of the Church, the Bride of Jesus, will be heard in heaven and we shall obtain more graces than we could by any other means. If we are eager to give to God the greatest possible glory and to obtain for ourselves a high degree of sanctity, let us love the public worship, and let us give it the first place in our lives, for the Christian should prefer to his own private prayer this prayer which unites him with his fellow-Christians and is truly Catholic. "Do not tell me," says St. John Chrysostom, " that you can pray as well in your own homes. You can pray there, it is true, but not with so much profit to your souls as when you pray to God together with all the faithful and in union with the clergy, whose duty it is to offer to God the prayers of the people."[Hom. II, de Prophet, obscurit.] And, we may add, you can never pray so efficaciously as in the temple consecrated for this purpose by the bishop, who asked of God that " those who call upon His holy name therein may be heard."
Truly the liturgy pays to God a homage of infinite adoration, as does the Church triumphant in heaven. " The divine psalmody of the Church, the Bride of Jesus, with which she consoles herself in this exile for the absence of her heavenly Bridegroom, ought to be without flaw or imperfection, for it is closely akin to that praise which is sung unendingly before the throne of God and of the Lamb." [ Bull of Urban VIII, Divinam palmodiam.]