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Pope John Paul II

On the Pastoral Care of the Liturgy

March 8, 1997 

Pope John Paul II addressed the topic of the liturgical reform during a meeting with bishops from France during their visit ad limina apostolorum on March 8, 1997. The Pope speaks of the importance of the community as a sign of the Church, the need for beauty in hymns and liturgical music, and sacred art.

"Wise pastoral care of the liturgy is one of the most important tasks of the Church's mission, in order to open the ways of communion in the grace of salvation to the greatest possible number", the Holy Father said.

The address was given in French. Folowing are excerpts from the address. (English translation appeared in L'Osservatore Romano.)

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The subject on which I would like to reflect with you further today is the pastoral care of the liturgy and sacraments, taking into account the essential role every Bishop and the Episcopal Conferences have in this area, as I recalled in my Apostolic Letter for the 25th anniversary of the Council's Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, (December 4, 1988, nn. 20-21).

Community liturgy helps the members of the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church to live the mystery of Christ in time. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of gathering for Mass on the Lord's day. The early Christians understood this well: "We live under the observance of the Lord's day [the day] when our life is raised by him and by his death ... how could we live without him?" (Saint Ignatius of Antioch, To the Magnesians, 9, 1-2). Weekly attendance at the Sunday Eucharist and the cycle of the liturgical year make it possible to give a rhythm to Christian life and to sanctify time, which the risen Lord opens to the blessed eternity of the kingdom. Pastoral care will see that the liturgy is not isolated from the rest of Christian life: for the faithful are invited daily to continue their common liturgical practice in daily private prayer; this spiritual discipline gives new vigor to the witness of the faith lived by Christians each day, and also to the fraternal service of the poor and to one's neighbor in general. The pastoral care of the liturgy, which cannot end at the church door suggests to each one that he should unify his life and his actions.

The liturgy, which expresses the Church's proper nature and is a source for the mission, is given to us by the Church herself to glorify God: thus its laws, which should be respected by distinguishing the different roles carried out by ordained ministers and by lay people. Whatever directs believers to God, what gathers them and what unites them with one another and with all the other assemblies should be given priority. The Council was clear on this matter: "Pastors of souls must, therefore, realize that when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the laws governing valid and lawful celebration. It is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 11).

The celebrants and leaders must help the assembly enter into a liturgical celebration which is not merely their own production but is an act of the whole Church. Priority must therefore be given to the words and actions of Christ to what has been called "God's surprise." The role of guidance is not to express everything or prescribe everything, it will respect a certain spiritual freedom for each person in his relationship with the word of God and with the sacramental signs. A liturgical act is an event of grace whose effect exceeds the will or expertise of the agents who are called to be humble instruments in the Lord's hands. It is they who have the task of making it possible to see what God is for us, what he does for us, and of making the faithful today realize that they are entering into the history of creation sanctified by the Redeemer, in the mystery of universal salvation.

At a practical level, I will add that it is important to attend to the quality of the signs, without however showing "elitism", for Christ's followers, whatever their culture, must be able to recognize in the words and actions the Lord's presence in his Church and the gifts of his grace. The first sign is that of the assembly itself. Having gathered together, the community in a way gives hospitality to Christ and to the people he loves. Everyone's attitude counts, for the liturgical assembly is the first image the Church gives of herself, invited to the Lord's banquet.

Next, it is in the Church that the word of God is authentically proclaimed, a word venerated because it is a living word in which the Spirit dwells. Every care must be given to reading by the various ministers of the word, who will have interiorized it so that it will reach the faithful as a true light and a force for the present. On the priests' part, the homily requires meditation and assimilation so that they can impart the meaning of the word and enable the faithful really to adhere to it and carry it out in their daily tasks.

Hymns and sacred music have an essential role in reinforcing everyone's communion, in a form very sensitive to the acceptance and assimilation of the word of God, through the unity of prayer. The biblical importance of singing, the vehicle of wisdom, is well known "Psallite sapienter," the psalmist says (Ps 47 [46]:8). See to it that beautiful hymns based on worthy texts and in harmony with a meaningful content are chosen and composed. Even more generally than the hymn properly so-called, liturgical music has the evocative capacity to interweave theological meaning and a sense of formal beauty and poetic insight. It is also appropriate to add here that besides the word and the hymn, silence has an indispensable place in the liturgy when it is well prepared, it enables each person to develop in his heart spiritual dialogue with the Lord.

In your country, which has a precious religious heritage, there is no need to stress that the places and objects of worship are naturally expressive signs, whether they are the heritage of the past or of contemporary creations, for the faith gives a real creative dynamism to culture and art. In this regard, I would like to say that I greatly appreciate the care given by the State authorities to many religious buildings, cathedrals or parish churches. Make every effort to give life to village churches, even when there are fewer inhabitants. May the liturgy always be the true raison d'être of these monuments, for, it has been said, just as stones fit together, so do men when they gather to praise God.

In short, the liturgy is an extraordinary means of evangelizing man, with all his qualities of mind and the sharpness of his senses, with his capacity for insight and his artistic or musical sensitivity, which better expresses his desire for the absolute than any speech could.

For the liturgy to be carried out properly and fruitfully the formation of celebrants and leaders must be carefully followed, as your diocesan liturgical commissions are doing. Continue to call the attention of liturgical leadership teams to the arrangements for celebrations, preparing them in positive collaboration between the priests and the laity.

Wise pastoral care of the liturgy is one of the most important tasks of the Church's mission, in order to open the ways of communion in the grace of salvation to the greatest possible number. I have treated these issues to encourage the considerable efforts made in your Dioceses since the Second Vatican Council. As I said to a liturgical congress in 1984, it is necessary to keep in mind, "with great balance, God's part and man's, the hierarchy and the faithful, tradition and progress, the law and adaptation the individual and the community, silence and choral enthusiasm. In this way the earthly liturgy will be linked with that of heaven where ... a single choir will be formed ... to raise with one and the same voice a hymn of praise to the Father, through Jesus Christ" (Address, 27 October 1984, n. 6).

Let us ask the Lord to help the baptized believe firmly in Christ's action in the contemporary world through the sacraments he has given his Church. Let us give thanks for the devotion of those who contribute to liturgical celebrations in your communities, without forgetting the young people, now more numerous, who serve at the altar and are thus more disposed to hear, if the case should arise, the call of the Lord to follow him in priesthood or the consecrated life.

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