Dr Antony Nariculam


 Lex orandi lex credendi is a widely accepted dictum in the liturgical tradition. This principle emphasizes the primacy of the liturgical action. “Liturgy is the anamnesis of the act of the Triune God, using symbolic means, to enact that Trinity in the lives of the enactors, transforming them through faith into the Church. Liturgy is composed of seven structural parts that are arranged causally, each being the form of the previous and the matter of the next. These parts are time/space, matter, gesture, word, faith, Church, and Sacrament”.[1] There is an intrinsic relationship between faith and its authentic celebration in the liturgy. Therefore, any undue alteration of the liturgical formulae can have negative repercussions on the life of faith of the people. That is precisely the reason why the magisterium of the Church time and again reminds all concerned about not tampering with the liturgical texts.[2] Since the liturgy, especially the Eucharistic liturgy, is an action of God (actio Dei), it cannot be subjected to changing trends in the society, though it needs to respect the local needs and the context of the celebrating community. As St. Paul says, “I have handed over to you what I have received from the Lord” (I Cor 11:23).

Though liturgy is actio Dei, it is performed by human beings employing human signs and symbols. Being a human action also, it needs to respect human sentiments. One among them is the ‘artistic beauty’ of the celebration, which is traditionally called “ars celebrandi” or “art of celebration”. In the recent past Pope Benedict XVI has referred to this ‘art’ for a meaningful and ‘beautiful’ celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy.[3] The present paper focuses its attention on this document in order to develop the various aspects of this particular dimension of the liturgy.

  1. 1.      Ars Celebrandi


In the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI has devoted a short section (Nos. 38-42) on ars celebrandi. Here the Pope speaks about “Beauty and Liturgy”. By ‘beauty’ he means ‘aesthetic beauty’ and not ‘aestheticism’. Any liturgical celebration has to radiate beauty. This term is not to be understood simply as harmony of proportion and form, as a mere decoration. It is primarily a radiant expression of the paschal mystery. It is the truth of God’s love in Christ that encounters, attracts and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love. In other words, the beauty of the liturgy is when we become ‘one’ with Jesus himself in holy communion. It is in this sense that the liturgical action is beautiful.

The ars celebrandi has to take note of two fundamental things. One is proper celebration itself. The other is the consequence of a proper celebration, namely a full, active and fruitful participation of the people in it. So much so, the best way to ensure active participation is to celebrate the liturgy respecting the ‘artistic ingredients’ of the celebration.[4] Naturally, our first task here is to identify these ‘ingredients’ that are at the basis of a meaningful and participative celebration.

1.1  Fostering the Sense of the Sacred


In order to foster the sense of the sacred, an important element is the church architecture which highlights the unity of the furnishings, of the sanctuary such as the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the ambo and the chair of the celebrant. Ultimately, the purpose of sacred architecture is to provide a fitting place for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist.[5]

This principle is valid also for other sacred things in the church, namely the statues and the icons. Special care must be given also to the vestments, the furnishings and the sacred vessels. In short, everything connected with the liturgical celebrations should be marked by beauty. Not every priest is an artist or an architect. Therefore, we need to depend upon the professional artists and architects to create an artistic but sacred atmosphere in the place of worship. They should be reasonably knowledgeable in the history and notions of the sacred art. According to Pope Pius XII, to bring to churches the works devoid of any religious inspiration and completely at variance with the right rules of art is a grave offence against piety. Such artists try to justify their conduct by arguments which they claim are based on the nature and character of art itself. The question of religious art is not to be answered by an appeal to the general principles of art or aesthetics. It must be decided in terms of the supreme principle of the final goal of the liturgical action, namely the attainment of divine bliss.[6]

1.2  Employing Proper Liturgical Music


The musical tradition of the Church is a treasure of inestimable value. The reason for this preeminence is that, its words and music form a necessary and integral part of the solemn liturgy.[7] The Church considers it as a patrimony of faith. Therefore the chants and sacred music in worship should be conducive to the lofty end for which they are intended. It should have qualities proper to the liturgy and in particular sanctity and goodness of form. Hence it must exclude all profanity not only in itself but also in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.[8]

According to Pope Benedict XVI, it is not correct to say that one hymn is as good as another. Every hymn should be well integrated into the overall celebration. Therefore, its text, music and execution must correspond to the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons.[9]

1.3  Contextualizing the Celebration


Every liturgical celebration is commemorating the mysteries of our salvation. But it is not an ‘abstract’ celebration. It is always the celebration of a community here and now. Therefore, the ‘context’ of the assembly deserves to be taken into consideration for a meaningful and fruitful celebration. The fathers of Vatican II were aware of this reality when they stated that the Church does not wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the people. Rather she is ready to admit into the liturgy those cultural qualities of various peoples provided they are not bound up with superstitions and errors.[10] Thus legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups and regions are officially sanctioned.[11] Besides, the pastors are exhorted to promote the liturgical life of the communities instructing them ‘according to their age, condition, way of life and standard of religious culture’.[12]

1.4  Understanding the Rites


Liturgy is not simply a prayer, but a rite. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) defines rite as “the expression that has become form, of ecclesiality and of Church’s identity as a historically transcendent communion of liturgical prayer and action”.[13] According to him, the rite contains “an essential exposition of the biblical legacy that goes beyond the limits of the individual rites, and thus it shares in the authority of Church’s faith in its fundamental form”.[14] For this reason, the rituals are to a great extent conservative. Besides, the liturgy being complex acts in which many people participate in many different ways, it is by nature restive to change.[15]

Very often the rituals are transmitted to generations in a fixed manner. Of course, in this transmission there is the risk of empty formalism, a tradition in the sense of mechanical or routine gesture. On the other hand, we should also admit that the rituals preserve certain truths while everything else undergoes changes. In the eventful celebrations of Christmas, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter etc. the rituals have preserved for us a heritage offering us a powerful communion in the same reality between peoples separated by centuries.[16] At the same time, we should also bear in mind what Pope John Paul said in his Apostolic Exhortation Orientale Lumen. “When the uses and customs belonging to each Church are considered as absolutely unchangeable, there is a sure risk of Tradition losing that feature of a living reality which grows and develops…. Tradition is never pure nostalgia for things or forms past, nor regret for lost privileges, but the living memory of the Bride, kept eternally youthful….”[17]

1.5  Respecting the Liturgical Calendar


In the course of the liturgical year, the Church unfolds the whole mystery of Christ from incarnation and nativity to the Ascension, Pentecost and the expectation of the coming of the Lord. Thus recalling the mysteries of redemption, she opens up to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits so that these are in some way made present for all times.[18] Besides, in celebrating this annual cycle of the mysteries of Christ, the Church commemorates also the Virgin Mary, the martyrs and other saints.[19] A meaningful celebration of the liturgy has to pay due attention to this liturgical cycle that helps the faithful to lay hold of the fruits of the mysteries of redemption and to be filled with saving grace.

  1. 2.      Ars Celebrandi and Active Participation


One of the contributions of Vatican II is the impetus it gave to the active participation of the faithful in the liturgy. “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebration which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy”. Therefore ‘the full and active participation of all the people’ should be the aim to be considered before all else in the restoration and renewal of the liturgy.[20] In order to promote active participation, both internal and external, the pastors need to take into account ‘the age, condition, way of life and standard of religious culture of the people’.[21]

2.1  Silence and Participation


The term ‘participation’ is sometimes understood to mean “something external, entailing a need for general activity, as if as many people, as often as possible, should be visibly engaged in action”.[22] There is an impression that active participation is speaking singing, preaching, reading etc by the celebrant and the community. The real ‘actio’ in the liturgy, in which we are supposed to participate, notes Cardinal Ratzinger, “is the action of God himself. This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential”.[23] Vatican II has explicitly included silence as part of active participation.[24] For, “silence facilitates a really deep, personal participation, allowing us to listen inwardly to the Lord’s Word. Many liturgies of today lack all trace of this silence”.[25]


2.2  Simplification of Liturgy and Active Participation


The rites of the renewed liturgy “should be distinguished by a noble simplicity. They should be short, clear, and free from useless repetitions. They should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation”.[26]  Undoubtedly this is a golden principle to be followed for a better participation of the people in the liturgy. But, as Cardinal Ratzinger rightly observes, “however much the liturgy is simplified and rendered comprehensible, the mystery of God’s action operating through the Church’s acts must remain untouched. This applies also to the heart of the liturgy: as far as both priest and people are concerned, it is something given that cannot be manipulated. It partakes of the whole reality of the Church”.[27] Therefore Ratzinger urges us to oppose ‘rationalistic relativism and pastoral infantilism’ in the process of liturgical adaptation.[28] We need to be led from form to the content. In other words, ‘we need an education which will help us to grow into an inner appropriation of the Church’s common liturgy’.[29]

2.3  Pastoral Context and Active Participation


The term ‘pastoral’ needs to be understood in a correct perspective. In the name of pastoral, liturgy cannot be an expression of what is current and transitory, for it expresses the mystery of the Holy. Liturgy is not something that is simply ‘made’ by the community. Such an attitude has led to the ‘success’ of the liturgical celebration being measured by an ‘able’ celebrant and an equally cooperative faithful. This attitude can obfuscate the distinctive nature of liturgy which does not come from what we do. Rather it is something that takes place with which we cooperate consciously and devoutly.

The good of the faithful is the pastoral norm governing all liturgical legislation.[30]  A distinction is to be made between the ‘rite’, that is the “form of celebration” which is drawn by the Church and which is found in the editio typica of the liturgical books, and the ‘celebration’, that is the “form of celebration” that is carried out by the concrete assembly.[31] Normally, the text itself provides these forms of celebration by way of  options.

In the pastoral context, the local customs can play an important role in the celebration of the liturgy provided it is not against the law.[32] The ‘laws of customs’ seem to be more flexible in the case of the Eastern Churches than that of the Western Church. In the light of CCEO 1507-1509, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches considers custom as the fruit of continuous and uncontested practice of the local community, and thus rooted in the life of the people.[33] According to a renowned Eastern Catholic liturgiologist, Robert Taft, the pastoral choices are determined by the context, and they are not ineluctable conclusions from history or theology.[34]

2.4  The Church Building and Active Participation


Liturgical worship takes place in space. The meaning we attach to the space is a determining factor for an effective celebration. First of all, it is a place where we experience the presence of the Lord. In principle, the liturgical space is not to be arranged according to the ‘taste’ of the celebrant or the ‘convenience’ of the community. In every liturgical or ritual tradition, this space is organized according to one’s own liturgical need.

Being ritual celebrations, liturgical actions require the necessary movements, objects and persons. Therefore the place of the altar, tabernacle, crucifix, lectern, choir, baptismal font, etc is of great importance for an active participation of the people.

  1. 3.      Ars Celebrandi and the Eucharistic Celebration

Liturgy is the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed. “From the liturgy, therefore, especially from the Eucharist, grace is poured forth upon us as from a fountain, and the sanctification of man in Christ and the glorification of God to which all other activities of the Church are directed”.[35] In fact, the Eucharist builds up the Church as a community.[36] Therefore, in this section of the paper, I would like to deal with the ars celebrandi in relation to the Eucharistic celebration as referred to by Pope Benedict XVI in his Apostolic Exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis”.

3.1  The Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic Liturgy


There is an intrinsic relationship between these two parts of the Eucharistic celebration. One must avoid the impression that these parts are juxtaposed. They form one single act of worship. The Word must be so proclaimed that it naturally leads to the Eucharist.[37]

Every effort must be made to ensure that the proclamation of the Word is entrusted to well-trained readers. If needed, a brief introduction may be given before each lesson in order to focus the attention of the people on the passage.[38] It is also important to keep a right proportion of time between the breaking of the Word and the breaking of the Bread.

3.2  Homily


Homily is part of the liturgical action and is a time for mystagogical catechesis. It is a golden moment to help the people deepen their faith. In order to make it effective, generic and abstract homily should be avoided. It should focus its attention on the Word proclaimed and its application to the life of the community, thereby making the Word of God a vital nourishment and support for the people. As for the Latin Church, the three-year-cycle of the lectionary is adequate to preach “thematic” homilies treating the great themes of Christian faith based on the four ‘pillars’ of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, namely the Profession of Faith, the Celebration of the Christian Mystery, the Life in Christ and the Christian Prayer.[39] The Eastern Churches have their lectionary based mainly on the themes of the various seasons of the liturgical year.

3.3  The Presentation of the Gifts


The presentation of the gifts is a significant moment when the bread and wine are brought to the altar. There all creation is taken up by Christ to be transformed and presented to the Father. Through these we bring to the altar not only the handiwork of man, but also all the pain and suffering of the world.[40]

The offering of the gifts has another dimension too. It may include gifts given by the faithful in the form of money or other things for the sake of charity towards the poor. These external gifts are visible expression of that true gift that God expects from us, namely a contrite heart, the love of God and neighbour by which we are conformed to the sacrifice of Christ.[41]

3.4  The Eucharistic Prayer (Anaphora)


It is the centre and summit of the entire celebration of the Eucharist. It has elements like Thanksgiving, Acclamations, Institution Narrative, Epiclesis, Anamnesis, Offering, Intercession and Doxology. There is a profound unity between the Institution Narrative commemorating the Last Supper and the Epiclesis through which the Church implores the power of the Holy Spirit so that the gifts offered by human hands are consecrated and transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ to be received in holy communion for the salvation of those who will partake of it.[42]

3.5  The Sign of Peace


By its very nature the Eucharist is a sacrament of peace. Therefore the sign of peace exchanged during the Eucharistic celebration is not merely the peace that the world can offer. Jesus is our peace (Eph 2:14). This gesture is particularly eloquent in our times, fraught with fear and conflict, as the Church is increasingly conscious of her responsibility to pray for the gift of peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family.

The Church seems to be concerned about the ars of exchanging peace. Pope Benedict XVI notes that the sign of peace should be marked by “a sobriety which preserves the proper spirit of the celebration” and hence it is done appropriately without causing “distraction” in the assembly.[43] The Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments too reminds us of the ‘sober manner’ of exchanging peace.[44]

3.6  Distribution and Reception of the Eucharist


In this part of the Eucharistic celebration, there are various areas one needs to pay attention to. They are:

  • It sometimes happens that the people approach the altar to receive holy communion indiscriminately without necessary disposition. The pastors should prudently and firmly correct them if such things happen.[45]
  • In pilgrim centres and such other places where holy Mass is celebrated for large crowds, prudent steps should be taken lest out of ignorance people not in communion with the Catholic faith and Church come forward for holy communion.[46]
  • The precious time after thanksgiving after holy communion by way of silent recollection is appropriate.[47]

3.7  The Dismissal: “Ite Missa Est”


These are eloquent words that help us to grasp the relationship between the Mass just celebrated and the mission of the Christians in this world. It succinctly expresses the missionary nature of the Church.[48] It is, in fact, a point of departure for those who take part in the Eucharistic celebration. Unfortunately, this dimension of the holy Mass is not sufficiently understood and practised.

  1. 4.      Some Remarks


Now I would like to make a few remarks on the liturgical celebration and its ars, which, I feel, are pertinent. These remarks are based on the observations made by Aidan Kavanagh in his handbook on the ‘Elements of Rite’, and those based on my own observations.

  1. Since the liturgy is hierarchically structured, the various liturgical ministries are to be kept clearly distinct.
  2. Though the priest presides over the liturgy, he should not forget that he is called ‘to serve’ the assembly. Therefore, he should avoid the possible temptation of ‘clericalizing’ the celebration.
  3. Since the liturgy is basically worship of God, its didactive aspect should not have an upper hand.
  4. ‘Liturgical style’ is not automatically obtained in ordination. It is achieved under grace by constant prayer, reflection, self discipline and continuing practice by the minister.
  5. The non-verbal parts of the liturgical celebration, such as silence (not an embarrassing or barren moment, but an integral part of the rhythm of the service), procession (not a poorly executed utilitarian exercise, but a coordinated rhythmic movement), gestures (not as an obligatory action but as spontaneous communicative action), sounds of musical instruments, bells etc. (a liturgical component to which scant attention is given as a whole), sights (since the liturgical celebration is also ‘seen’ by the participants, the physical behaviour of the ministers, the colours, the decorations, etc are to be simple, but dignified), smells (since the human faculty of olfactory sense is also a means of communication, the use of incense is to be made use of in an appropriate manner) and touches (exchanging peace, anointing, imposition of hands, etc are the traditional liturgical expressions of using the sense of touch) deserve proper attention for a ‘beautiful’ ritual action.
  6. Liturgy is also ‘canonical’, and hence it is governed by common and particular laws that need to be respected.
  7. Since the liturgy has a ‘ritual language’, the ministers should be fully aware of the time and manner of doing things so that confusions are avoided.
  8. It is advisable to choose a liturgical style, and as far as possible, hold to it. Each liturgical tradition normally has a style. Juxtaposing various styles taken from different sources or traditions can only weaken the logic and genius of one’s own tradition.
  9. The options are permitted to accommodate the celebrations to various contexts. Therefore, applying all options in one and the same celebration may not be the ideal.
  10. Concelebration, as Vatican II observes, helps to manifest the ‘unity of the priesthood’. However, from a practical point of view, the concelebrants should discreetly share the role of the presider without obscuring his function. Filling the space in the sanctuary with the concelebrants needs to be reconsidered. They should not substitute altar servers, readers, thurifers, etc.
  11. Announcements during the liturgy may be a ‘necessary evil’. They should be kept to minimum and said at an appropriate moment without disrupting the rhythmic flow of the service.
  12. The hands have an important role to play in the liturgy like spreading them for prayer, folding in devotion, extending them in invitation, raising for blessing, relaxing them by placing on the altar, etc. It applies also to other body languages such as the movement in a procession.
  13. Secularizing the greeting formulae (Good morning!, for example), breaking the bread at Institution Narrative, changing texts well known to the assembly, ignoring the liturgical year and minimalism and pontificalism are to be avoided.
  14. Each liturgical tradition has its own ‘vocabulary’ and ‘grammar’, though all traditions may have some common words or actions (eg. Amen, Halleluiah). A syncretism may not be helpful for a liturgical assembly.



Liturgical style is not simply an aesthetic matter, though aesthetics is involved in it. Any style involves taste. However, taste is not innate; rather it is learnt through experiences. Liturgical style requires personal effort and patience. Mannerisms, bizarre vestments, prayers in strange accents, heavy ceremonial, etc cannot be justified on the basis of taste. The approach to liturgy should be plain, simple, orderly and sincere. A liturgist who tinkers with ceremonies is not a good liturgist as one who merely tinkers with language is not a good poet.

As a parish priest notes, ‘there is a huge variation in the way that priests preside at Mass, which can range from wonder-filled celebration to perfunctory walk-throughs. The key is to remember the ancient principles of good liturgy, and that it is not only the laity who must actively participate – it is the priest too’.[49]




[1] R.D.McCall, Do This: Liturgy as Performance, Notre Dame 2007, p.105

[2] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004) No.4; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003) No.52; Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (2007) No.22.

[3] Sacramentum Caritatis, Nos. 38-42

[4] Sacramentum Caritatis, No.38

[5] Sacramentum Caritatis, No.41

[6] Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Musicae Sacrae (1955) Nos. 22-25

[7] Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, No.112

[8] Pope Pius X, Motu Proprio Inter Sollecitudines (1903) No.2

[9] Sacramentum Caritatis, No.42

[10] Sacrosanctum Concilium, No.37

[11] Sacrosanctum Concilium, No.38

[12] Sacrosanctum Concilium, No.19

[13] The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco 2000, p.166

[14] The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.167

[15] A.Kavanagh, Elements of Rite, Minnesota 1990, Reprint, Bangalore 1996, p.35

[16] Y.Congar, Tradition and Traditions. An Historical and Theological Essay, London 1966, p.428-429

[17] Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen (1995) No.8

[18] Sacrosanctum Concilium, No.102

[19] Sacrosanctum Concilium, Nos.103-104

[20] Sacrosanctum Concilium, No.14

[21] Sacrosanctum Concilium, No.19

[22] J.Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.171

[23] The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.173

[24] Sacrosanctum Conciliun, No.30

[25] J.Ratzinger – V.Messori, The Ratzinger Report, San Francisco 1985, p.127

[26] Sacrosanctum Concilium, No.34

[27] The Ratzinger Report, p.120

[28] The Ratzinger Report, p.121

[29] J.Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, San Francisco 1986, p.71

[30] Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Directives on the Order of Syro-Malabar Qurbana in Solemn and Simple Forms, in Roman Documents on the Syro-Malabar Liturgy, Kottayam 1999, 143

[31] Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Final Judgement of the S.Congregation for the Oriental Churches Concerning the Order of the Syro-Malabar Qurbana, in Roman Documents, p.123

[32] CCEO 1507-1509; CIC 24/2, 25,26

[33] Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of  the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, Rome 1996, No.28

[34] R.Taft, The Syro-Malabar Liturgical Controversy, in J.Porunnedom (ed.), Acts of the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, Kochi 1996, p.130

[35] Sacrosanctum Concilium, No.10

[36] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), Nos.21-15

[37] Sacramentum Caritatis, No.44

[38] Sacramentum Caritatis, No.45

[39] Sacramentum Caritatis, No.46

[40] Sacramentum Caritatis, No.47

[41] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004) No.70

[42] Sacramentum Caritatis, No.48

[43] Sacramentum Caritatis, No.49

[44] Redemptionis Sacramentum, No.72

[45] Redemptionis Sacramentum, No.83

[46] Redemptionis Sacramentum, No.84; Sacramentum Caritatis, No.50

[47] Sacramentum Caritatis, No.50

[48] Sacramentum Caritatis, No.51

[49] A.Rossiter, What are You Doing Up There? in The Tablet, 28 June 2008, p.19


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