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Liturgical Roles In the Eucharistic Celebration | Francis Cardinal Arinze | From Celebrating the Holy Eucharist

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The sacred liturgy is the public prayer of the whole Church. The chief person acting in every liturgical celebration is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ himself, the one perfect Mediator between God and man.

But Christ associates the Church with himself in every liturgical act. Many liturgical acts are hierarchically ordered: with a role for the Bishop and priest, for the deacon, for those lay people who are assigned a liturgical role as defined by the Church, and for all the people of God. The Church in the diocese manifests herself in the most visible way when the Bishop celebrates the Eucharistic Sacrifice in his cathedral church, with the concelebration of his priests, the assistance of the deacons, and the participation of the faithful (cf. SC 41).

Lay Liturgical Roles

For proper celebration of the sacred liturgy and fruitful participation in it by all Christ's faithful, it is important to understand the roles proper to the ministerial or ordained priest and those proper to the lay faithful. Christ is the priest, the High Priest. He gives all baptized people a share in this role of offering God gifts. The common priesthood of all the baptized gives people the capacity to offer Christian worship, to offer Christ to the Eternal Father through the hands of the ordained priest at the Eucharistic celebration, to receive the sacraments, and to live holy lives, and by self-denial and active charity to make of their entire lives a sacrifice.

The ministerial priest, on the other hand, is a man chosen from among the baptized and ordained by the Bishop in the sacrament of Holy Orders. He alone can consecrate bread into the Body of Christ and wine into the Blood of Christ and offer them to the Eternal Father in the name of Christ and the whole Christian people. [1] It is clear that though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of all the baptized and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are closely related (see LG 10).

The major challenge is to help the lay faithful appreciate their dignity as baptized persons. On this follows their role at the Eucharistic Sacrifice and other liturgical acts. They are the people of God. They are insiders. Their role as readers of lessons, as leaders of song, and as the people offering with and through the priest is based on Baptism. The high point is when they communicate at the Eucharistic table. This crowns their participation at the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

There should be no attempt to clericalize the laity. This could happen when, for example, lay people chosen as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion no longer see this role as being called on to help when the ordinary ministers (bishop, priest, and deacon) are not available in sufficient numbers to cope with the high number of communicants. When the extraordinary ministers see their role as a power display to show that what the priest can do, the lay faithful can do too, then we have a problem. How else can we explain the sad error of the lay faithful struggling around the altar to open the tabernacle or to grab the sacred vessels -- all against sane liturgical norms and pure good sense?

We have also the opposite mistake of trying to laicize the clergy. When the priest no longer wishes to bless the people with the formula "May Almighty God bless you", but prefers the seemingly democratic wording, "May Almighty God bless us", then we have a confusion of roles. The same thing happens when some priests think they should not concelebrate a Mass but should just participate as lay people in order to show more solidarity with the lay faithful. "In liturgical celebrations", says Sacrosanctum Concilium, "whether as a minister or as one of the faithful, each person should perform his role by doing solely and totally what the nature of things and liturgical norms require of him" (SC 28).

A task always to be attended to is the theological, liturgical, and spiritual formation of extraordinary ministers of the Holy Eucharist, of catechists, of other pastoral agents, and of the lay faithful in general. Often mistakes are due, not to bad will, but to lack of knowledge. It is then that the political models of power sharing and power struggle begin to infiltrate the sanctuary. Members of diocesan and national liturgical commissions are to be thanked and encouraged for all they do to bring in more light and, therefore, more harmony. Chapter 12 ["The Importance of Liturgical Formation"] of this book will go into greater detail on liturgical formation.

The Role of the Diocesan Bishop

The Bishop is endowed with the fullness of the priesthood, of the sacrament of Holy Orders. It is he who ordains priests as cooperators of the episcopal order and deacons for service. The Bishop is the high priest of his flock. "In a certain sense it is from him that the faithful who are under his care derive and maintain their life in Christ" (SC 41). "People should think of us as Christ's servants, stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God" (1 Cor 4:1), says Saint Paul. Indeed, the Bishop should see his offices of teacher and shepherd as ordered toward his office of sanctifier (see LG 26; CD Is; DPMB, no. 76).

It follows that it should be a primary concern of the Bishop that he and his local Church cultivate the worship of God and thus enable the diocese to fulfill its office as the new people of God, a holy nation, a priestly people (see 1 Pet 2: 4-10; LG 10). This is exercised in a special way in liturgical acts, with the Holy Eucharist at the apex. That is where the Bishop is at the height of his service, vocation, sacred power, dignity, and sanctifying role (see LG 21).

The central role of the Bishop is shown especially in what the Council says of him with reference to the Eucharistic celebration. "Every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the Bishop, to whom is committed the office of offering the worship of Christian religion to the divine Majesty and of administering it in accordance with the Lord's commandments and with the Church's laws, as further defined by his particular judgment for his diocese" (LG 26; see also EE 47-52).

The diocesan Bishop is the first steward of the mysteries of God in the particular Church or diocese entrusted to him. He is the moderator, the promoter, and the guardian of the liturgical life of the Church in his diocese. It is he who offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice, or causes it to be offered, so that the Church continually lives and grows (see CD 15; SC 41; CIC can. 387; RS 19).

In his diocese, the Bishop, with due respect for universal Church norms, sees to the regulation, direction, and encouragement of good liturgical celebrations. It is also his duty to explain the reasons for due observance of liturgical norms and to see that the sacred functions are celebrated according to the approved books and that the people are protected from arbitrary innovations. It is therefore his duty to offer correction when necessary.

The diocesan Bishop will find assistance in liturgical com- missions if the members are chosen for their proven competence and love for the Church. While he can make specific liturgical norms in his diocese, he should "take care not to allow the removal of that liberty foreseen by the norms of the liturgical books" (RS 21).

In the Latin Church, the Conference of Bishops has a role to play in some liturgical decisions, as recognized by Canon Law and liturgical norms. For example, the Conference may set up regional or national liturgical commissions, arrange for the translation of liturgical texts from the Latin original to the vernacular, submit such texts to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments for recognitio, and undertake inculturation in understanding with this Congregation (see RM, GIRM 388-99; RS 26-28; VL 31-32).

The Role of the Celebrating Priest

Priests as capable, prudent, and indispensable co-workers of the order of Bishops, [2] are called to the service of the people of God. They constitute one presbyterate around the diocesan Bishop and share one priesthood (sacerdotium) with him, though charged with differing offices. They make the Bishop present in a certain way in each local congregation of the faithful.

A major part of the ministry of the priest refers to how he celebrates the Eucharistic Sacrifice and relates to the Most Blessed Sacrament in the various forms of Eucharistic worship outside Mass.

We all know that the Chief Priest at every Mass is Christ himself. But it is Christ who has decided to make use of the ministry of the ordained priest. It matters very much to the Church, universal and local, how each priest celebrates the Eucharistic Sacrifice. If the priest is obviously full of faith in the Eucharistic mystery, if he is recollected and prayerful, if he handles the Body and Blood of Christ with transparent reverence, and if he respects the liturgical norms of the Church, then blessed is that local community with whom and for whom he offers this sacrifice.

Every priest should be aware that he is part of a glorious tradition. The early Church "remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers" (Acts 2:42). The Eucharist is "the principal and central raison d'Ítre of the sacrament of the priesthood" (EE 31). The priest is at the height of his calling when he celebrates Mass (see DC 2), because he does so in persona Christi.

The Mass is not something we invent, something we put together, something the parish liturgical team fixes up each week! No! The Eucharistic Sacrifice is something we receive in faith, reverence, and thanksgiving. The universal Church is involved in every Mass. The priest is therefore expected to celebrate the sacred rites faithfully according to the approved books and in such a way that his devout celebration manifests the faith of the Church and nourishes the faithful. It follows that he has no authority to add to, or to subtract from, the established rites (see SC 22).

That the priest may carry out creditably his ministry as celebrant of the Eucharist, it follows that he should engage in ongoing study of this mystery so that he can better share with the people "the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:8). His personal devotion to Jesus in the tabernacle should be unmistakable. Then every Eucharistic celebration he conducts will be for himself and for the people an experience of faith that is confessed and communicated, of hope that is confirmed, and of charity that is enkindled and spread.


[1] Cf. Council of Trent, On Ecclesiastical Hierarchy and Ordination 4, in DS 1767-70.

[2] See P0 7; Pontificale Romanum, "De Ordinatione Presbyterorum", Praenotanda, 101.

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Francis Cardinal Arinze grew up in Nigeria and became the youngest bishop in the world and the first African cardinal to head a Vatican office. He is currently the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. His biographical interview, God's Invisible Hand, was recently published by Ignatius Press (read an excerpt).

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