Celebrating the Church’s Liturgy

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The 20th installment of Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori’s faith formation program addresses questions 224-249 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

As Christmas approaches, we should remember that the first Christmas night was a scene of worship. Mary and Joseph worshipped the child given to them by God the Father through the Holy Spirit. The angels sang “Glory to God!” and the shepherds came filled with wonder and awe.

Thanks to the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, the truth and beauty of that first Christmas night is not a dim memory but a present reality. As St. Leo the Great taught in the 5th century: “What was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries” (Compendium, 224). We have a living contact with Christ through the seven sacraments, which Christ instituted and entrusted to the Church. The Church celebrates these sacraments and is built up by them (226).

The sacraments are efficacious signs through which God wishes to touch and transform our lives. For now, let us remember that three sacraments — baptism, confirmation and holy orders — impart a sacramental character or spiritual “seal.” Each of these three sacraments can be received only once because they permanently transform the recipient and “configure” him or her to Christ. This means that the Holy Spirit brings about in the depth of one’s soul a spiritual image of Christ coupled with a participation in his life. In baptism and confirmation, this indelible seal marks out the recipient as an adopted son or daughter in Christ, a person both prepared and obligated to take part in the Church’s worship. Holy orders imparts a further sacramental character, enabling the ordained to act in the person of Christ in the celebration of the liturgy (227, 235).


The sacraments express and fulfill Christ’s promise to remain with his Church. This is the context in which we can most readily understand the Church’s teaching. The sacraments do not simply illustrate God’s grace; they are also the means through which the transforming power of grace is made available and active in our lives. Christ was so determined to remain with us in this way that the effectiveness of the sacraments does not depend on the personal worthiness of the minister performing them. Rather, “The sacraments are efficacious ex opere operato (by the very fact that the sacramental action is performed)” (229).

This, however, leads to two other important considerations. First, anyone who performs a sacramental action, such as baptizing or celebrating Mass, has a most serious obligation to be in a state of grace and to pursue personal holiness. Second, the sacraments need to be received with a living and active faith. When we approach the sacraments with faith, we find that they express, nourish and strengthen our adherence to the faith of the Church. In fact, there is a deep and mutual correspondence between what we believe and how we worship (228).

At this point we can readily see that the grace given to us through the sacraments, even if they are not received by all the faithful, is necessary for salvation. Through the sacraments we receive forgiveness, we become the adopted children of God, we grow in likeness to Christ and we become living members of his body, the Church (230). By sharing in the sacramental signs, we long to see God in heaven with all the redeemed and to rejoice in his presence forever (232).

The sacraments should not be understood to operate mechanistically. To the contrary, they are celebrated in the sacred rites or ceremonies known as the liturgy, the public prayer of the Church. This prayer spans heaven and earth, and is shared with Mary, the saints and the angels (234). In the liturgy, we come together in the unity of the Holy Spirit as a priestly people. The baptized offer themselves as a spiritual sacrifice, while bishops and priests act in the person of Christ, the head of the Church (235).


We are familiar with the use of water, bread, wine and oil as sacramental signs and symbols. We are also accustomed to gestures such as the laying on of hands. Some of these signs are drawn from nature. Others are drawn from human culture. All sacramental signs emerged in salvation history and were taken up by Christ to convey his saving truth and love. These signs are inseparable from the words that bear their meaning and power (236-238).

The liturgy by which we share in God’s saving truth and love is to be celebrated, when possible, with music and song that beautifully express the Church’s teachings and lift our minds and hearts to God. So, too, the liturgy is celebrated in the presence of holy images, above all the image of Christ. Images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints and the angels remind us that they are praying with us and for us in the liturgy of heaven (239-240).

If it is fitting that the liturgy be celebrated amid beautiful music, song and images, it is also proper that it be celebrated in sacred buildings dedicated to the worship of God. When a church is consecrated, we see clearly the sacred importance of church furnishings: the altar, the pulpit, the tabernacle, the celebrant’s chair, the baptismal font and the confessional (244-246).

Indeed, the liturgy is very rich and beautiful. It has been celebrated for nearly 2,000 years in a variety of languages and cultures (247). Amid such rich diversity there is a oneness thanks to apostolic tradition — a oneness in faith and sacramental life received from the Apostles and handed down through the centuries. It is because the Church is Catholic that she can welcome into her unity “all the authentic riches of cultures” while safeguarding what God has instituted for our salvation (248). The Church carefully distinguishes between those things in the liturgy that are unchangeable and those that can be rightfully adapted to human cultures the world over (249).

May you have a blessed Christmas, filled with the peace and joy of Christ!