Liturgical principles to guide your planning

Liturgical principles to guide your planning

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We tend to forget that there is no one single description of the Last Supper. St. Paul is the first of the New Testament writers to describe what happened, and he wasn’t even there. St. John is the last to describe it (writing about 40 years or so after St. Paul), and he doesn’t include the core element of Jesus breaking the bread, sharing the cup, and saying, “Do this in memory of me.”

So how did the first disciples know what to do when they started doing “this” to remember Jesus? How did St. Paul know what “this” was? How could St. John leave out what we consider to be the core of Eucharistic remembering and still be doing “this” in a way that was true to Jesus’s command?

What the early church and all the New Testament writers understood were the deep principles underlying Jesus’s celebration of the Last Supper. They did not need a list of rules or a definitive script. They understood that when Jesus said, “Do this…,” he wasn’t referring exclusively to the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. He was referring to living a life of sacrifice that would glorify God by their lives.

Similarly, when the Second Vatican Council set out to reform the liturgy in the 1960s, they turned to scripture and the practice of the early church as sources to guide them. However, they looked to these sources for principles and not for exact descriptions of how liturgy should be celebrated.

The bishops at the Second Vatican Council could not have imagined the church of the 2020s. But they could and did imagine that if we returned to the principles found in scripture and early church practice, we would be on stable ground far into the future.

The principles for authentic worship are embedded in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which was the first document produced at the Council. As we set about preparing liturgy for our current-day parishes, we should always be aware of the underlying principles that our worship should embody.


Full, conscious, and active participation

The principle from which all other liturgical principles flow is this:

The church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations called for by the very nature of the liturgy….

In the reform and promotion of the liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else            (CSL 14)

The principle of participation must be paramount in our liturgical planning and celebration. It is deceptively easy to do liturgy “correctly,” according to all the rubrics and laws of the church, and yet fail to meet the principle of full, conscious, and active participation of the baptized priesthood when they gather for worship.

These are some elements that promote full, conscious and active participation:

An inclusive environment

  • Overflowing hospitality
  • Language that welcomes and includes everyone
  • Architecture that facilitates participation
  • Sound levels that enable everyone to hear
  • Sight lines that allow everyone to see

A sense of community

  • A life dedicated to the sacrificial mission of Jesus (paschal mystery)
  • A life, through Jesus, that participates in the love of God (Trinitarian mystery)
  • A life of love for every person and all of creation (baptismal vocation)

Nobel and simple ritual

As we hone our liturgical skills, our goal is to facilitate liturgy that meets this principle:

The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation. (CSL 34)

If you think of the liturgy as a story, the importance of this principle becomes clear. When someone starts telling us a story that is filled with distracting details and repetitions, we find ourselves wishing they would get to the point, already. Here are some things we can do to meet the principle of noble simplicity in our liturgies:

  • Know the high and low points of the ritual
  • Know the rite so well that you are not glued to the “script”
  • Provide a healthy (vs unnecessary) repetition and avoid innovations and trends
  • Use robust symbols that have self-evident meaning
  • Shape a pattern that tells a story.
  • Make sure newcomers would be able to describe “what they did in there”

Worship based on scripture

There was a time in our history when scripture had a secondary role in the worship life of Catholics. Some older Catholics can remember being told they were not supposed to read the Bible. The Second Vatican Council moved scripture back to the center of Catholic spirituality and liturgy. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says “scripture is of the greatest importance” (CSL 24) and that “the faithful should be instructed by the word” (CSL 48).

In the liturgy itself, the constitution directed: “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that a richer share in God’s word may be provided for the faithful” (CSL 51).

Effective preaching

One of the ways of opening up the treasures of the Bible is through effective preaching. The United States Bishops wrote in Fulfilled in Your Hearing

To preach in a way that sounds as if the preacher alone has access to the truth and knows what is best for everyone else…is to preach in a way that…will be heard only with great difficulty, if at all (7).

The preacher represents the community by voicing its concerns, by naming its demons, and thus enabling it to gain some understanding and control of the evil which afflicts it (12).

And so the Sunday homily begins by looking first to the assembly that gathers to celebrate (16).

Here are some best practices to keep in mind:

  • Lectors and gospel readers are well-rehearsed
  • Parishioners come to liturgy having prayed over the readings ahead of time
  • Catechumens “break open” the readings after they are dismissed from Sunday Mass
  • Music is inspired by the readings of the day
  • The responsorial psalm is always sung from the ambo
  • Preaching is always in some way mystagogical and calls the assembly to respond to God’s word with thanksgiving

Clear Ministerial Roles

Two important and related principles are that “liturgies are not private functions (CSL 26) and ministers of the liturgy “should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to [their] office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy” (28)

This leads to several conclusions:

  • Public liturgy is not the time for private prayer
  • Sacred silence is always communal
  • There should be a separate lector for each reading and the intercessions
  • A lector should be a lector and not also a communion minister. Ushers should “ush” and choir members should sing, period

Effective Music

Before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, we would talk about “low Mass” and “high Mass.” Low Mass was liturgy without music. High Mass was sung liturgy, often in Gregorian Chant, performed by a choir. In neither low nor high Mass was the singing of the assembly considered important. The council changed that by establishing this principle:

People should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as by actions, gestures and bearing. (CSL 30)

Liturgy is a sung event. In more solemn or festive liturgies, there might be more singing than at other liturgies. But it should be rare that we celebrate liturgy with no signing at all. This post describes the hierarchy of what should always be sung and what is more optional for singing. Strive for some of these goals:

  • The opening song is always well known and well sung by the assembly
  • The dialogues and acclamations are always sung
  • The primary choir is the assembly
  • The song during communion begins as the priest is consuming the host and continues until the last person (including choir members) has shared in communion

Local Adaptation

Another principle established in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is that liturgy promotes unity within the church without being uniformly ridged. Some people have difficulty with this principle. If they visit a parish outside of their diocese, they want liturgy to exactly the same as it is celebrated back home.

But this is not realistic or even desirable. People in different regions are going to encounter Jesus through their culture, not through mine. So it makes sense that they should celebrate liturgy in a way that reflects their cultural encounter with Christ.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says:

Provisions shall also be made for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples. (CSL 38)

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Does the style of music reflect the nature of this particular assembly?
  • Does the preaching start with a consideration of the faith journey of this particular assembly?
  • Does the liturgical environment, the communion ware, the symbols and statues, and the design of the liturgical space reflect the cultural background of those who worship in your parish?

Like St. Paul, none of us were present at the Last Supper. And yet, if we stick to the liturgical principles embed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, we can be sure we are being faithful to Jesus’s command to always do “this” in his memory.



Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash.

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