Preparing the Way for the Roman Missal 3rd Edition, Part 3: Sacred Liturgy, Sacred Signs


Fully conscious and active participation. This is a phrase that has been invoked so often over the last four decades that it can almost be considered a mantra, and not without good reason. After all, it is according to the council the “aim to be considered before all else” in the matter of liturgical reform (cf SC 14).

This begs two very important questions, however: One, in what are we called to participate, and secondly, how are we called to do it?

Let’s begin with the former. We are called to participate in the sacred liturgy, of course, but this leads to yet another question. What exactly is liturgy? The answer to this question is of the utmost importance! Common sense alone should tell us that unless we have a good sense for what liturgy is and what takes place within it, we cannot possibly participate in it in a truly fruitful way.

In the Latin rite, the word “liturgy” typically refers to the official public service of the Church; e.g. Holy Mass, of course, but also the Liturgy of the Hours; Eucharistic Exposition, Adoration and Benediction; Stations of the Cross, etc. In other words, all of those rites that are not considered private devotions.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers additional insight:

“The word ‘liturgy’ originally meant a ‘public work’ or a ‘service in the name of/on behalf of the people.’ In Christian tradition it means the participation of the People of God in ‘the work of God.’” (cf CCC 1069)

Did you catch the distinction? “Liturgy” originally (i.e. prior to Christ and the Church) was considered a public work of the people. For Christians, however, we understand that it means the people’s participation in the work of God.

The difference is tremendous! Is the liturgy our work? No, it is God’s work, and we have the great privilege and indeed the duty to take part in it. The Catechism continues:

“Through the liturgy, Christ, our Redeemer and High Priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church.” (CCC 1069 cont.)

Again, don’t miss the essential point. Who is working in the liturgy? It is Christ our Redeemer who is working. And what is he doing? He is continuing the work of our redemption.

The council tells us that the liturgy reflects the very nature of the Church because in the liturgy just as in the Church, “the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation…” (cf SC 2)

Question for you: Do human beings like to be subordinated to anything? Please allow me to answer for you, heck no! It takes sincere humility and a deliberate act of the will to subordinate oneself (yes, even to the divine) and to truly embrace and accept in faith that the liturgy is not of our own making; rather it is a gift from the Lord to his people.

How often we insist on doing things our way, but in the sacred liturgy this cannot be – not if we want to participate in it in an authentic and fruitful way. This requires us to approach Holy Mass cognizant that Christ’s saving work is primary, his grace is operative, our role is simply co-operative with his. We must realize that in the liturgy we are neither masters nor choreographers; rather, we are caretakers of a precious and magnificent gift.

I dare say that adopting such a mindset will require a major “attitude adjustment” for many of us, clergy included.

Now don’t misunderstand me, we do indeed have a crucial role to play in the sacred liturgy (after all, it is for us) but our attention must ever be drawn to, and remain focused upon the fact that when we participate in Holy Mass we are entering into nothing less than the saving work of Christ mystically made present as he accomplishes the work of our redemption — something the community, no matter how devout and creative or well-intentioned, can not possibly do for itself.

So how does the liturgy, properly celebrated, provide for our attention to be so directed? “By signs perceptible to the senses” (SC 7).

The human person encounters many signs at Holy Mass – words, music, incense, postures, vestments, etc., and each of these point to the deeper underlying truth that we are participants in a divine action – an action so profound that we call it sacred mystery.

The Council Fathers tell us that the sacred signs at Holy Mass have been chosen by Christ or by the Church that teaches in his name (cf SC 33).

Note this well: the sacred signs at Holy Mass do not come from the liturgy committee, nor do they come from the music director, the pastor or even the bishop as an individual, and they most certainly are not the product of man’s creativity. They come from Christ and the Magisterium, and they play a crucial role in fostering within the faithful an abiding sense of the sacred.

It is one thing to know that Holy Mass is a divine action that is properly called sacred mystery; it is quite another to experience it as such, and sacred signs that delight the senses make the transition from concept to reality possible within us. And just in case you’re wondering, this most certainly includes our prayers and responses! (Keep this in mind when we explore the new text of the Roman Missal in future installments.)

These sacred signs at Holy Mass – that is, all that is perceptible to the human person – are not ends unto themselves; rather, they are intended to draw the hearts and minds of the faithful into the redemptive work of Christ mystically accomplished in our midst, and to foster an awareness of Holy Mass as nothing less than a foretaste of heaven itself! (cf SC 8 )

But when we assert our own will and allow the perceptible things at Holy Mass to deviate from the signs chosen by Christ and His Church, they can often distract us from the sacred more so than to attract us toward it, drawing our focus more to ourselves than to our Savior, and it is at this point that these things cease to be sacred signs at all. They become instead the ballast that holds our feet to the here and now, obscuring in some measure the divine presence in our very midst.

Let’s be honest, this happens in many places today on a regular basis, and as a result we frequently fail to receive as fully as possible the gift that is being offered by Christ to His people at Holy Mass.

Make no mistake, we too make an offering of ourselves at Holy Mass, but truly sacred signs remind us that it is Christ who must act first, that we may respond in humility so as to enter into communion with him and with one another. We simply cannot initiate this divine encounter on our own; an encounter in which “God meets man in an embrace of salvation,” as Pope Benedict XVI describes it.

If we humbly meet the Lord at Holy Mass in this way, we can contribute to our own sanctification as well as that of both the Pilgrim Church and the entire world, but even the gift of ourselves is made possible only by God; for it is through Baptism alone, in Christ, with the ongoing aid of divine grace that we can so participate in the sacred liturgy.

It is for this reason that the council describes the sacred liturgy as that wonderful exchange in which “the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation,” and it is sacred sings that point the way, urging the faithful toward the kind of “fully conscious and active participation” that the council had in mind.

This will be our focus in Part Four.

* Excerpted from the book: And with Your Spirit – Recovering a sense of the sacred in the English translation of the Roman Missal – 3rd Edition. (© 2010 Salve Regina Publications – available at


About Author

Catholic News Agency columnist, author and speaker w/ particular focus on applying the hermeneutic of continuity to Vatican Council II.