Tuesday, August 23, 2016

“Liturgical Life and the Priesthood” - A New Talk by Card. Sarah

Earlier today, His Eminence Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, gave the following address to the clergy of the Archdiocese of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on “Liturgical Life and the Priesthood.” In it, he offers a beautiful series of reflections on the liturgical formation of the clergy, and their duty to impart both knowledge and love for the Church’s prayer to the faithful. We are honored and very grateful to His Eminence for sharing this talk exclusively with New Liturgical Movement.

Cardinal Sarah speaking last month at the Sacra Liturgia UK Conference
Your Eminence, Your Excellencies, dear brothers in the priesthood of Jesus Christ:

Firstly I must thank my brother, His Eminence, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, for his kind invitation to visit your country and for his warm welcome to Colombo. It is a great joy to be able to spend some days here in your country—a country that has been richly blessed by Almighty God in its natural beauty and in the gracious hospitality for which your people are so well known.

It is a particular joy, and a privilege, to meet today with you, my dear brothers in the priesthood. For although I have been called to the episcopal ministry and serve also as a cardinal, in all of my life I continue to look back on the date of the 20th of July 1969: the day of my priestly ordination just over 47 years ago. Every day since then, even in moments of danger or of suffering, it has been a grace and a singular privilege to be a priest of Jesus Christ. Dear Fathers, dear brothers in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, what goodness Almighty God has shown us! What graces has he given us! Never, ever forget the day of your priestly ordination no matter what trials come, no matter how impossible challenges you face may be, nor however illness or old age may weigh upon you.

Cardinal Ranjith ordains one of the 13 new priests of the Archdiocese of Colombo on April 11th of this year, in the Cathedral of St Lucia. (From the archdiocese’s website.)
Of course, the grace of priestly ordination would never have been possible if the day of my Holy Baptism had never occurred—and for me, in northern Guinea, that was not something that could be taken for granted: I was born into an animist family who first heard the Gospel from French missionaries of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, and to them I owe a profound debt of gratitude. To their missionary and priestly zeal I owe the fact that my family became Christian.

My brothers, let us never forget that before we are ordained, we are baptised. This may sound a little strange, but sometimes it is easy for us priests to think and behave as if we are a caste somehow ‘above’ those who are not ordained. That is not correct. We are first and foremost baptised Christians for whom all of the duties of Christian life apply. Let us remember the injunction of Pope St. Leo the Great (400-461) which is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1691):
Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.
St. Augustine (354-430), in his Sermon on the anniversary of his ordination, reminded us of this important truth:
This burden of mine, you see, about which I am now speaking, what else is it, after all, but you? Pray for strength for me, just as I pray that you may not be too heavy. I mean, the Lord Jesus would not have called his burden light, if he was not going to carry it together with its porter. But you too must all support me, so that according to the Apostle’s instructions we may carry one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). If Christ does not carry it with us, we collapse; if he does not carry us, we keel over and die. What terrifies me is what I am for you; I am comforted by what I am with you. I am a bishop for you; with you, after all, I am a Christian. The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second is a name of grace; the first one means danger, the second, salvation. In the first one, I am tossed about by the storms, as if in the open sea, but in the second, I enter a safe harbour by tranquil recollection of the one by whose blood I have been redeemed; and while toiling away at my office, I take rest in the marvellous benefit conferred on all of us in common. If, therefore, I find greater pleasure in having been redeemed together with you than having been placed in charge, then, as the Lord has commanded, I will more fully be your servant, grateful for the price which makes me worthy to be your fellow servant. (Sermon 340)
We cannot be faithful to our priestly vocation if we are not first faithful to our baptismal vocation! And, as reminded by St. Augustine, our priestly vocation is to be of service to the baptised, to minister to our brothers and sisters as an alter Christus, indeed as ipse Christus, as Christ himself, “who did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20,28). Today I would like to share some reflections with you about that particular ministry which is our privilege and duty as priests of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has often observed that the Church is not an N.G.O. It follows from this that we priests are not executive officers or social workers or volunteers trying to do good things in society. What then is the Church? What is a priest?

The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, teaches that Almighty God “planned to assemble in the holy Church all those who would believe in Christ” (n. 2) and that:
The Son, therefore, came, sent by the Father. It was in Him, before the foundation of the world, that the Father chose us and predestined us to become adopted sons, for in Him it pleased the Father to re-establish all things (cf. Eph. 1:4-5, 10). To carry out the will of the Father, Christ inaugurated the Kingdom of heaven on earth and revealed to us the mystery of that kingdom. By His obedience He brought about redemption. The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world. This inauguration and this growth are both symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of a crucified Jesus (cf. Jn 19:34), and are foretold in the words of the Lord referring to His death on the Cross: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself" (Jn 12:32). As often as the sacrifice of the cross in which Christ our Passover was sacrificed, is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried on, and, in the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread, the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:17) is both expressed and brought about. All men are called to this union with Christ, who is the light of the world, from whom we go forth, through whom we live, and toward whom our whole life strains (n. 3).
What then is the Church? It is the assembly—the ecclesia—of all who believe in Christ, to which all men are called by Almighty God. And at the heart of the ecclesia is “the sacrifice of the cross in which Christ our Passover was sacrificed...celebrated on the altar” which both expresses and brings about the Church’s unity. Please note that this “unity” is not a consensus formed amongst those present as at a human meeting. No, the unity of the Church is “union with Christ, who is the light of the world, from whom we go forth, through whom we live, and toward whom our whole life strains.”

So the Holy Father is very right to insist that the Church is not an N.G.O. Rather, the Church is the Family of God (Ep. 2: 19-21) and the People of God called together by Him so as to be nourished by His Eucharistic Sacrifice in order that she might be a true light to the nations and realise her mission “to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church” (Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 1).

My brothers, we cannot underestimate the importance of this teaching. The very first words of St John Paul II’s encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia (17 April 2003) put it succinctly: “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. This truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith, but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church.” (n. 1)

In other words, the Church is essentially Eucharistic, which means that the Church is essentially liturgical. The Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Liturgy are not ‘extras’ added on to Christianity: they are part of its very fabric, they are of its very essence. One cannot truly be Christian without participation in the Church’s liturgical life of worship, at the heart of which is the Eucharistic Sacrifice. We remember the wonderful and touching testimony of the 42 African martyrs who died at the time of the Emperor Diocletian for violating the laws forbidding the celebration of Holy Mass. They clearly testified: “non poteram, quoniam sine Dominico non possumus”.

This, then, clarifies our second question: What are priests? The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Ministry and life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis (7 December 1965) states that they are men who, “by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are signed with a special character and are conformed to Christ the Priest in such a way that they can act in the person of Christ the Head” (n. 2). The Decree continues:
[Priests] perform the sacred duty of preaching the Gospel, so that the offering of the people can be made acceptable and sanctified by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7). Through the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the People of God are called together and assembled. All belonging to this people, since they have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, can offer themselves as "a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God" (Rom 12:1). Through the ministry of the priests, the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ. He is the only mediator who in the name of the whole Church is offered sacramentally in the Eucharist and in an unbloody manner until the Lord himself comes (cf. Eph 3:9.). The ministry of priests is directed to this goal and is perfected in it. Their ministry, which begins with the evangelical proclamation, derives its power and force from the sacrifice of Christ. Its aim is that "the entire commonwealth of the redeemed and the society of the saints be offered to God through the High Priest who offered himself also for us in his passion that we might be the body of so great a Head" (Roman Pontifical [1962] on the ordination of priests).
And so, if the Church is essentially Eucharistic and therefore essentially liturgical, so too it is clear that the priest is above all a minister of the Holy Eucharist, a man set aside for liturgical ministry. The priest is, therefore, first and foremost homo liturgicus—a liturgical being. Whilst this is also true of all of the baptised—to be a Christian is to be a liturgical being—I think that it is clear from what we have read from the Second Vatican Council, that this is true in a particular and specific way of those of us who, by God’s unmerited grace, have been called by the Church to the ordained priesthood and who have been set aside as ministers of Christ’s Word and Sacrament for the service benefit of all of Christ’s faithful.

Let us therefore take some time now to consider the liturgical life of priest.

If we are truly to serve Christ’s faithful as ministers of Christ’s Word and Sacrament, we would do well to ponder the maxim: nemo dat quod non habet—no one gives what he does not already have. For if we ourselves are not men of the liturgy, if we are not “thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy” (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium n. 14), we can neither live our baptismal or priestly vocations to the full, nor can we shepherd and pastor our people as we should. Presbyterorum Ordinis directs:
Let priests take care so to foster a knowledge of and facility in the liturgy, that by their own liturgical ministry Christian communities entrusted to their care may ever more perfectly give praise to God, the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit (n. 5).
Certainly this means, particularly during formation for the priesthood, that we must study the liturgy in its historical, theological and ritual aspects and have a clear understanding of the pastoral implications of the reality stated in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, that “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10).

So too, in respect of this primary and fundamental element of our priestly life, we must not neglect to continue our study of the liturgy in our reading and by participating, when this is possible, in events which study and explore its importance and value. I am certain that your Cardinal Archbishop is convinced of the importance of this; that is, no doubt, why he has asked me to speak today, and I am sure that under his paternal care you will not lack further opportunities to meet together and to consider liturgical questions.

Our ongoing reading and study and events such as this are very important, certainly. But they are means to an end. What is more important, dear brothers, is that each one of us must live the liturgy each day and in every moment of our priesthood. What we do in the Sacred Liturgy at the altar, at the baptismal font, in the confessional, etc., should permeate our personal lives and inform every element of our pastoral ministry, for first and foremost we are liturgical men; to each of us has been given the privilege and duty to be Christ’s liturgists in His Church today. It follows, then, that when we ourselves are thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy, when we live and breathe the Church’s life of worship and prayer of which we are privileged ministers, not only shall our baptismal and priestly vocations flourish, but then, also, we shall truly have something precious to give to our people.

I have been a priest for 47 years and a bishop for 36 of those years. I know only too well that this ideal of priestly life is sometimes, perhaps too often, not realised, and that the liturgical duties of priests can become routine, or even be seen to be a burden. This is a very dangerous situation for any priest, because when a priest becomes a mere functionary, when his heart and soul no longer thrill with awe at the great mysteries he is called to minister, his vocation can go seriously astray. When a homo liturgicus does not live from the very source and summit of the life and mission of the Church, his people will not be nourished from that source, as is their baptismal right.

Permit me, then, dear brothers, to reflect with you on some ways, small and large, in which we can seek to guard against such a danger, and in which we can renew our lives as ministers of Christ who acts in this world today in a singular and privileged way in and through the Sacred Liturgy, which the Second Vatican Council teaches is “an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church...a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree” (Sacrosanctum Concilium n. 7).


In his memoirs one priest wrote about his discovery of the Sacred Liturgy as a boy:
Every new step into the Liturgy was a great event for me. Each new book [missal] I was given was something precious to me, and I could not dream of anything more beautiful. It was a riveting adventure to move by degrees into the mysterious world of the Liturgy which was being enacted before us and for us there on the altar. It was becoming more and more clear to me that here I was encountering a reality that no one had simply thought up, a reality that no official authority or great individual had created. This mysterious fabric of texts and actions had grown from the faith of the Church over the centuries. It bore the whole weight of history within itself, and yet, at the same time, it was much more than the product of human history. Every century had left its mark upon it… Not everything was logical. Things sometimes got complicated and it was not always easy to find one’s way. But precisely this is what made the whole edifice wonderful, like one’s own home. Naturally, the child I then was did not grasp every aspect of this, but I started down the road of the Liturgy, and this became a continuous process of growth into a grand reality transcending all particular individuals and generations, a reality that became an occasion for me of ever-new amazement and discovery. The inexhaustible reality of the Catholic liturgy has accompanied me though all phases of life, and so I shall have to speak of it time and time again. (Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1997, pp. 19-20)
This priest is, of course, Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, a true homo liturgicus. Even today we can almost see in his eyes the “ever-new amazement and discovery” he first experienced as a boy and as a young man. And in seeing this we can understand why as a cardinal and as the Pope he would speak of the “inexhaustible reality of the Catholic liturgy” “time and time again.”

I dearly hope, my brothers, that each of us can remember a similar sense of awe and discovery when, in our youth, we first encountered the Sacred Liturgy in all its beauty and richness. And I fervently pray that for each of us, as for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the liturgy remains to this day something ever new, something which is a constant source of nourishment for our priestly lives.

For if the Sacred Liturgy is no longer a joy to us, a source of spiritual refreshment, and if it becomes simply one of the duties that we have to be performed, we priests of the Lord may merit the condemnation announced by the prophet Isaiah: “this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote” (Is. 29:13). We must guard against this temptation my brothers. If we have succumbed to it, we must exorcise ourselves of this vice and recapture the spirit and power of the liturgy in our priestly life and ministry without delay, for the good of our own souls and for the good of Christ’s faithful whom we serve.

How can we pursue such a renewal, a renewal that so many of us need? It would be wonderful for the priests of any diocese to have annual retreats in which the preachers would address this need and where the liturgical celebrations of the Holy Mass and the Divine Office were themselves exemplary, indeed refreshing, for our priestly souls. That is a matter for your Father, the diocesan bishop to consider! Nevertheless, whilst His Eminence considers this (!) each of us can make a start individually, or perhaps with the support of a small number of brother priests.

Firstly, let us ask ourselves: how do we pray the Divine Office? Is it something that we have to ‘get done’ as soon as possible each day so as to be ‘free’ to get on with other tasks? Do I even neglect to pray it sometimes? Certainly, pastoral life is busy, but if I do not pray the Prayer of the Church as I have solemnly promised to do, or if I do not pray it with fervour, with devotion, and indeed liturgically, then I am failing to nourish my soul and I am endangering my vocation.

Practically speaking I would suggest this: as often as is possible pray the Divine Office liturgically, together with others, most especially with your people, for the Office is not a text to be read but a rite to be celebrated, with its own rituals, postures, chant, etc. And if circumstances dictate that you must pray the Office by yourself, do as much as you can to make it a liturgical rite—pray it in an oratory if possible, standing and sitting and so on at the appropriate times. Sing the Office if it is possible—it is not a book to be read in an armchair; rather it is the loving song of the Church, of the Bride, to Him Who has redeemed us.

Secondly, I would suggest a very simple practice which, I believe, will help us to recapture the spirit of the liturgy and to recollect ourselves liturgically every time we celebrate Holy Mass. I propose that we should use the prayers given to accompany the putting on of the liturgical vestments, republished by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2009 in the Compendium Eucharisticum (see p. 385). Too often we put on vestments in a hurry, with people talking to us about all sorts of things. But this is not right! We must stop and pause and focus on what we are about to do. The vestments are rich external symbols, and we priests need never to forget their significance. Indeed, in his first Chrism Mass our Holy Father Pope Francis taught about this in a most beautiful way, saying:
The sacred robes of the High Priest are rich in symbolism. One such symbol is that the names of the children of Israel were engraved on the onyx stones mounted on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, the ancestor of our present-day chasuble: six on the stone of the right shoulder-piece and six on that of the left (cf. Ex 28:6-14). The names of the twelve tribes of Israel were also engraved on the breastplate (cf. Es 28:21). This means that the priest celebrates by carrying on his shoulders the people entrusted to his care and bearing their names written in his heart. When we put on our simple chasuble, it might well make us feel, upon our shoulders and in our hearts, the burdens and the faces of our faithful people, our saints and martyrs who are numerous in these times (Homily, Chrism Mass, 28 March 2013).
Thirdly, on a wider level I propose that we each make a liturgical examination of conscience. For this I recommend part II of the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of Benedict XVI (22 February 2007), “The Eucharist, a Mystery to be Celebrated.” Here the Pope Emeritus wrote about the ars celebrandi, “the fruit of faithful adherence to the liturgical norms in all their richness” (n. 38), and insisted that “everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty” (n. 41). We must renew our fidelity to the Sacred Liturgy, my brothers—recent decades have to often seen the harm done by infidelity to the liturgical books—and we must renew our pursuit of beauty in every element of our liturgical celebrations, including our own gestures, words and even vesture. A careful consideration of this part of Sacramentum Caritatis will serve as a sound and reliable guide.

Fourthly, it is important to underline this need also in our celebration of the Sacraments, for very often the celebration of Holy Mass is well prepared, but when we have a baptism we sometimes ‘throw on a stole’ very quickly and ‘get on with the job,’ as it were. But the sacraments are administered in liturgical rites which have their own beauty and complexity. How many of us use the different processions in the rite of Baptism (to the altar, to the ambo, to the font)? How many of us vest liturgically to hear confessions or to anoint the sick? Dear brothers in the priesthood, let us look again at the rites of the sacraments and let us take the time to celebrate them fully, liturgically: minimalism is the enemy of living the liturgy and of drawing fully from its riches. Let us, with a generous heart, which Almighty God will not fail to reward, heed the injunction of St Thomas Aquinas: “As much as you can, that much dare to do, for He is above all praise, nor are we able to praise Him enough.” (cf. Sequence of the Mass of Corpus Christi). For when we celebrate the liturgy with devotion and generosity, with a concern for beauty and decorum, with a faith and love that permeates every element of the sacred rites, we are in fact praying the liturgy—not so much in words, but in deeds.

Finally, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy I cannot omit to recall our ministry as confessors, as those whose privilege it is to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance. We all know that a good confessor is a priest who himself confesses often and with due preparation. It is the same with our entire liturgical ministry, dear brothers: if we ourselves truly live the liturgy with our hearts, minds, souls and bodies, our liturgical ministry will itself be an extension of this life. So, in this jubilee year of mercy, let us renew our own participation in this great sacrament so that our people will find in us priests, whose ministry is to administer the mercy of Almighty God with truth and compassion, men who themselves know and live from that mercy.

There are many other elements of our liturgical lives as priests we could talk about. Last month, in London, I gave a presentation “Towards an authentic implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium in which I spoke of others. This talk received a lot of attention—some of it not always very accurate! In any case, I recommend that you read the text of this address (it is available on the Internet). Perhaps we can talk about some different questions together later.


Before concluding I want to say something about our duty to form our people in the spirit and power of the liturgy, as Sacrosanctum Concilium n. 14 insists.

Firstly, I have to say that if we approach the Sacred Liturgy with reverence and awe, then our people will do so also—they will ‘catch’ the liturgical spirit from us. That is why little observances, such as insisting on silence and recollection in the sacristy and devoutly praying the vesting prayers, and so on, are important.

But we must also teach our people what the Sacred Liturgy is. In recent decades in some countries the Sacred Liturgy has become too anthropocentric; man not Almighty God has often become its focus. This Archdiocese has had very fine Archbishops, and I think that this problem is probably not a very large one here. However we must take care to form our people that God, not ourselves, is the focus of our worship. We do not come to the Church to celebrate what we have done or who we are. Rather, we come to celebrate and give thanks for all that Almighty God has done, and continues in His love and mercy to do, for us. What He does in the liturgy is what is essential; what we do is to present our ‘first fruits’—the best that we can—in worship and adoration. When the modern liturgy is celebrated in the vernacular with the priest ‘facing the people’ there is a danger of man, even of the priest himself and of his personality, becoming too central. In every Catholic liturgy, the Church, made up of both minister and faithful, gives her complete focus – body, heart and mind – to God who is the centre of our lives and the origin of every blessing and grace. With this in mind, I wish to strongly encourage you to take time to prayerfully read and reflect the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, keeping in mind the intention and spirit of the Council Fathers.


My dear brothers, four weeks ago in France an elderly priest, well past retirement age, celebrated a morning Mass as he had done many, indeed hundreds of times before. He did not expect or know that on that morning his own blood would be shed and mingled with that of Christ in sacrifice, in odium fidei. What he did know was that he was ordained to offer the sacrifice of the Holy Mass every day: that, even in his old age, he continued to do for the good of the Church and for the salvation of the world.

We were rightly shocked by the slaughter of the eighty-five year-old Father Jacques Hamel at the altar of the church of St Etienne-du-Rouvray on July 26th. May God protect the Church from her enemies! May reverence for God, peace, respect and tolerance reign on earth!

And yet, without taking away from the righteous anger that we feel, is there not also something profoundly beautiful here? Is not the fidelity of Father Hamel a lesson and encouragement to us priests who so often grow weary along the way? Was not his sacrifice, howsoever unjustified, nonetheless an appropriate consummation of 58 years of priesthood? My brothers, let Father Hamel’s witness inspire us. Let it help us to ponder ever more deeply the Gospel teaching: “He who endures to the end shall be saved” (Mt 24:13).

I humbly ask your prayers for my own particular ministry, and I assure you, my brothers, that the priests of the Archdiocese of Colombo will always have a place in my heart and in my prayers. Thank you. May God bless each one of you and all of the people whom you serve.

© Robert Cardinal Sarah
Prefect, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

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