Can a Church document have a spirituality? When considering
some of the Church's solemn statements at the Second Vatican
Council, such as the one concerning the liturgy, Sacrosanctum
Concilium (the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), one soon
discovers that spirituality plays a significant role. The Constitution
gives evidence of its authors' spiritual interests, commitments,
and concerns. The document also shows—perhaps even more
importantly—that a certain spirituality must be developed
by the faithful in order to step into the world the document
describes and to embrace the agenda it advances.
The first instruction issued after the Constitution, "For
the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred
Liturgy" (Inter Oecumenici, 1964), makes clear that spiritual formation
is essential to the agenda of the Constitution. "Necessary
before all else . . . is the shared conviction that the Constitution
on the Liturgy has as its objective not simply to change liturgical
forms and texts but rather to bring to life the kind of formation
of the faithful and ministry of pastors that will have their summit
and source in the liturgy" (see SC, 10; IO, 5).
A spirituality keyed to the demands and assertions of the
Constitution would contain many elements. Here are several: a
vital relationship with Christ and his Paschal Mystery, commitment
to active participation in the liturgy as a primary manifestation
of the reality of the Church, love for sacred scripture, and
respect for the diverse cultural circumstances and genius of the
peoples of the world. There are other elements of a spirituality in
the document, to be sure, but these are generally recognized.
What follows is a series of stories, examples, and reflections on
While riding a city bus one day, I noticed a young man flirting with
a young woman. The way he leaned toward her now and again,
and the way her eyes looked into his and looked away, shyly, spoke
volumes. The romantic in me said, "How sweet! They're so young
and full of promise." The anthropologist in me said, "Ah, courtship
behavior. Typical." But the theologian in me said, "Suppose it turns
out that he really loves her. Suppose she comes to really love him.
Suppose a relationship blossoms and they actually spend their lives
together. This could become a paschal story." After all, there is no
true love worthy of the name that does not ask us in some way to
die to self, so as to receive new life in abundance.
When Pope John Paul II said, "the Liturgy has as its first
task to lead us untiringly back to the Easter pilgrimage initiated
by Christ, in which we accept death in order to enter into life"
(Vicesimus Quintus Annus, 6; 1988), he did so on good authority.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is deeply imbued with a
Christocentric spirituality grounded in the Paschal Mystery.
Christ's paschal sacrifice, his body broken and blood poured
out for the life of the world, stands at the absolute center of the
Again and again, the document invokes the Paschal
Mystery (CSL 5, 6, 10, 61, 81, 102, 104, 106, 107, 109). Its importance
is unmistakable. This does not in any way deny the
Trinitarian quality of Catholic worship, much less diminish our
engagement with the other mysteries of Christ's life. But it sets
our priorities straight, and it does so in a way that honors Western
tradition and is deeply consistent with our Catholic liturgical
history. The worship of God, the role of the Spirit, the Trinitarian
quality of the liturgy—all are true. But Christ is at the center and
his Paschal Mystery is the heart of what we celebrate. If asked to
locate the primary spiritual "lens" through which the document
views our worship, it would be the Paschal Mystery.
What are the implications of a paschal spirituality? First, it
means that salvation in Christ is an event that transforms us. It is
dynamic. We participate in the paschal event by remaining open
to change and continuing conversion. Second, a paschal spirituality
invites us to replicate the pattern of Christ's self-giving sacrifice,
consciously and deliberately. "If we have died with Christ, we
believe that we will also live with him" (Romans 6:8). A paschal
spirituality is ordered toward self-giving love that is lavish and
does not count the cost. "If any want to become my followers, let
them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow
me" (Luke 9:23). Finally, by embracing the paschal mystery, we
begin to understand and engage with the logic of the liturgical
year, which relishes Sunday as the day of the Resurrection, and
reaches its high point at Easter (CSL, 102, 106, 107).
The truth of Christ's Paschal Mystery is present in all of
our life passages, if only we perceive it. Catechumens experience
this truth on their journey to the waters of Baptism. The tears of
reconciled sinners confirm it. And in the Eucharist, we celebrate
it—richly, fully, and beautifully. Make no mistake. The dying
and rising of Jesus Christ is not merely another episode in salvation
history, for which we should be grateful. It is the axis on
which the world turns. It is our salvation, our glory, the reason
why we gather (CSL, 6), and our challenge as we go forth.
It's a typical Sunday. I come to the door of my parish church for
Sunday Mass, and am met by Glorian, a petite older woman, one
of our parish greeters. She is wearing a fabulous magenta-colored
hat and beautiful outfit to match. She gives me a hymnal, a bulletin,
and a kiss. As I make my way to a place in the church, several
other parishioners acknowledge me with a smile, a nod, a wave. I
see our DRE, who does so much for the children and families of the
parish, and say hello to the woman who is a regular with the parish
outreach and food pantry. I see some new faces in the assembly, too.
Our cantor invites us to sing. We stand and open our hymnals and
pour out our hearts in song. A stately procession enters. The priest
makes the Sign of the Cross. . . . It's Sunday Mass. It belongs to
everyone. Nobody is irrelevant. Nobody is unimportant. Everybody
is part of the action.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy urges that the
faithful should be present at the celebration of the sacred mysteries
not as "strangers or silent spectators" (CSL, 48), but should
"take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community"
(#21). There is a spirituality embodied in this vision, one which
values and holds fast to the idea that in the liturgy we discover
ourselves as the people of God, the Church, in all its glory (#2).
"Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations
of the Church . . ." (#26). Even when the gathering is
small, it is the Church that prays. Each individual is part of
something greater than him or herself.
The Constitution enhanced participation by restoring
liturgical ministries to lay persons in their own right (CSL 28,
29). Its overall vision of the worshipping community is one of an
ordered, organic, unified body (#26, 41). Each participant comes
with a definite role and gift. All cooperate in the praise of God.
Our brothers and sisters are not a distraction from true worship,
but our partners in making it happen.
A spirituality of participation permeates the document.
Everyone is expected to join in the songs, words, and actions
that are properly theirs. The inward, spiritual dimensions of
participation are also acknowledged and affirmed. "Their minds
must be attuned to their voices" the document says more than
once (CSL, 11, 90)! Above all, the action in which everyone participates
is Christ's action at the altar, his self-gift, the perfect
offering. The people offer the sacrifice "not only through the
hands of the priest, but also with him" (#48). It is a high calling.
What are the implications of a spirituality of participation?
First of all, it requires everyone to shoulder responsibility
for the prayer, worship, and discipleship that make up a community
of faith. It is no longer "Father's Mass" in which everything
is done for us. Participation also means valuing the communal
dimension of faith and appreciating the ways we depend on one
another. We need each other. Life is not so arranged that anyone
can "do it all" for him or herself. A spirituality of participation
encourages us to see our interdependence—in liturgy and in
life—as a gift. "Just as the body is one and has many members,
and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so
it is with Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:12). This is the Church, the
body of Christ. As we participate in the liturgy, so too are we
called to participate in the mission of Christ that goes out to the
world (CSL, 2).
More than ten years ago, a friend of mine, Barry, started the practice
of reading the Bible every morning and evening, a chapter at a
time. The New Testament in the morning, the Old Testament at
night. He reads, prays, and journals. Barry works in retail trade
and deals with the public every day, sometimes in chaotic circumstances. "I can be dead tired at the end of the day," he says, "but I'll
still pick up my Bible." It's a discipline. But it has been a joy as
well. "Sometimes a word or phrase will just jump out at me," he
says, "and it seems like something the Lord wants me to hear." He
has worked his way through the whole Bible, bit by bit, now several
times over. Barry is also a faithful daily Mass-goer, and a lector at
his parish. When he hears the readings at Mass, there's the excitement
of recognition. "Oh, that's the passage where Paul says . . . ."
or "This is that wonderful story from . . . ."
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council directed that "the treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly"
(CSL, 51). They wanted the liturgy to provide "richer fare" for
the faithful "at the table of God's word" (#51). The reform they
asked for was to promote "a warm and living love for scripture"
(#24) and be imbued with deep reverence for the word of God.
Christ is truly present in the word, as well as in the sacrament of
the altar (#7). Thus, the spirituality of the Constitution includes,
importantly, a passion for scripture.
Such a passion arises from the confidence that scripture is
a living word that nourishes the people of God. The Constitution
includes a call for the renewal of preaching too (CSL, 35.2, 52),
so that the scriptures would be interpreted and their formative
power made evident. The call for more scripture reading in the
liturgy (#35.1) and even for "bible services," celebrations of the
word outside of Mass (#35.4), complemented the mandate of the
Council for serious academic scripture study and the use of
scripture as a guide to the spiritual life.
A spirituality of the word allows the sacred text to speak in
its proper language. By paying careful attention to the literary
form, the cultural context, the author's intention, and the Church's
tradition of interpretation, the faithful come to a sound appreciation
of the scripture's meaning. The Constitution's affirmation
of the important role of scripture also furthers the Council's
goal of ecumenism and the healing of historic divisions among
Christians (see CSL, 1). But indeed, the bottom line is love for
the scriptures, love for God's word.
In the summer of 1959, Pope John XXIII, speaking at the Second
World Congress of Negro Writers and Artists, voiced a powerful
affirmation of the worthiness of all peoples of the world. Each contributes
a unique genius to the life of the Church, for the glory of
God: "The Church, however, which is so full of youthful vigor and
is constantly renewed by the breath of the Holy Spirit, is willing, at
all times, to recognize, welcome, and even assimilate anything that
redounds to the honor of the human mind and heart, whether or
not it originates in parts of the world washed by the Mediterranean
Sea . . . ." A respect for human cultures, in all their rich diversity,
found expression in the Council's document on the liturgy in the
call to cultural adaptation, or inculturation.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy makes provision
for the adaptation of the Church's liturgical rites to reflect the
genius of various human cultures of the world (CSL, 37–40).
The liturgy need not look the same everywhere, as long as the
substantial unity of Catholic worship is preserved. A confidence
in "the honor of the human mind and heart" underlies the
Council Fathers' decision to opt for "substantial unity" (#38)
rather than formal unity, or uniformity, in its liturgical rites.
Indeed, from its earliest history, the Catholic Church has
known diversity in its liturgical life, and did not regard this as a
barrier to unity. The Tridentine era, however (the 400 years
immediately preceding the Second Vatican Council), was marked
by strong attempts to enforce uniformity around the globe.
Therefore, the move toward "inculturation" of the liturgy represents
a significant shift in perspective. What is the spirituality
that is implied by this shift?
It is, first of all, a spirituality of respect for the human person.
Culture is deeply interwoven in the fabric of the human
person, and respect for culture is part of our calling to respect
human persons. Second, it is a spirituality of peace in which the
Gospel and the Catholic faith are understood not as something
imposed by conquest, but good news that resonates with the best
and deepest yearnings of the human soul. Finally, it is a spirituality
of mission which sees in the global church a great harvest
of faith, ready to be gathered and shared in the prayer of the
Church, for the glory of God.
The umbrella for all the aspects of spirituality discussed above is
a passion for the liturgy itself—love for it and confidence in it.
The Council Fathers believed that the liturgy stands at the heart
of the world. The Constitution reminds us that the liturgy is
quite simply the most important thing we do, "a sacred action
surpassing all others" (CSL, 7). It is "the summit toward which
the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the
source from which all her power flows" (#10).
Such confidence in the rites of the Church arises not from
pride in how they are composed or performed, or vanity about
the music and art they have inspired over the centuries, nor
because of organizational concerns or the presumed psychological
benefits of worship. No, this confidence comes from the
belief that Christ is present in the liturgy. It is Christ who makes
liturgy the "summit and source."
Pope John Paul II expressed a wish, on the fortieth anniversary
of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, that remains
relevant today: "At the beginning of this millennium, may a
'liturgical spirituality' be developed that makes people conscious
that Christ is the first 'liturgist' who never ceases to act in the
Church and in the world through the Paschal Mystery continuously
celebrated, and who associates the Church with himself, in
praise of the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit" (Spiritus et
1. Think of the word "prayer." What image comes to mind? Now
think of the word "spirituality." What image comes to mind? Are
the two different? In what ways?
2. Do you feel that you are on a "pilgrimage to Easter" in life?
What does the Paschal Mystery mean to you personally?
3. What attitudes toward participation do you observe in your
parish at Sunday Mass? Rate your level of participation. How has
it changed over the years and why?
4. What habits, practices, or skills help you to listen well to the
scriptures at liturgy? Describe your relationship to the Bible.
What has influenced that relationship the most?
5. What spiritual challenges and opportunities do you see in
belonging to a global Church? How do you discover solidarity
with people of different cultures?
6. In your experience, how is liturgical spirituality different from
devotional spirituality? If you developed (or further developed)
a liturgical spirituality in your parish, what concrete benefits
would you hope to see?
7. In addition to the four aspects of spirituality discussed in this
essay, what other spiritual interests, commitments and concerns
do you find in the Constitution?