- This is an article about liturgy in the Catholic Church. For liturgical practices in other churches, see Christian liturgy.
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As explained in greater detail in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its shorter Compendium, the liturgy is something that "the whole Christ", Head and Body, celebrates — Christ, the one High Priest, together with his Body, the Church in heaven and on earth. Involved in the heavenly liturgy are the angels and the saints of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, in particular Mary, the Mother of God, the Apostles, the Martyrs and "a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues" (Revelation 7:9). The Church on earth, "a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9), celebrates the liturgy in union with these: the baptized offering themselves as a spiritual sacrifice, the ordained ministers celebrating at the service of all the members of the Church in accordance with the order received, and bishops and priests acting in the person of Christ.
The Catholic liturgy uses signs and symbols whose significance, based on nature or culture, has been made more precise through Old Testament events and has been fully revealed in the person and life of Christ. Some of these signs and symbols come from the world of creation (light, water, fire, bread, wine, oil), others from life in society (washing, anointing, breaking bread), others from Old Testament sacred history (the Passover rite, sacrifices, laying on of hands, consecrating persons and objects).
These signs are closely linked with words. Though in a sense the signs speak for themselves, they need to be accompanied and vivified by the spoken word. Taken together, word and action indicate what the rite signifies and affects.
The sacraments of the Catholic Church are efficacious signs, perceptible to the senses, of grace. According to the Church's theology, they have been instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, and through them divine life is bestowed on us. They are means by which Christ gives the particular grace indicated by the sign aspect of the sacrament in question, helping the individual to advance in holiness, and contributing to the Church's growth in charity and in giving witness. Not every individual receives every sacrament, but the Catholic Church sees the sacraments as necessary means of salvation for the faithful as a whole, conferring each sacrament's particular grace, whether forgiveness of sins, adoption as children of God, confirmation to Christ and the Church. The effect of the sacraments comes ex opere operato (by the very fact of being administered). Regardless of the personal holiness of the minister administering the sacraments, Christ provides the graces of which they are signs. However, a recipient's own lack of proper disposition to receive the grace conveyed can block their effectiveness in that person. The sacraments presuppose faith and, in addition, their words and ritual elements nourish, strengthen and give expression to faith.
There are seven sacraments, which the Church lists in the following order:
- Penance, also called Confession and Reconciliation
- Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, or Holy Communion
- Anointing of the Sick
- Holy Orders
Singing and music, especially Gregorian chant, are associated with the liturgy. The Gregorian chant, also called cantilena Romana, has been, since its codification, (putatively under Pope Gregory I, although actually occurring later) and remains the official music of the Latin Rite Catholic Liturgy, prescribed by Church documents to be given "pride of place" in Her liturgies. This form of music of the Church is contained in the Sacramentary Roman Missal as well as the chant books, e.g. graduale Romanum, antiphonale, liber cantualis. Other Rites within the Catholic Church, (e.g. Maronite, Byzantine, Ambrosian) have their own forms of chant which are proper to their Divine Liturgies. Gregorian chant provides the Latin Church with a musical identity, and like the ancient Liturgical language, provided and still provides Her Liturgies with a unifying element as Her catholicity ("universality") has become more apparent, via the international travel of recent popes, worldwide media originating in the Vatican, etc.
Also associated with the liturgy are sacred images and icons, which proclaim the same message as do the words of Sacred Scripture sung to the sacred melodies of the chant, and which help to awaken and nourish faith.
Devotional life of the Church
In addition to the sacraments, instituted by Christ, there are many sacramentals, sacred signs (rituals or objects) that derive their power from the prayer of the Church. They involve prayer accompanied by the sign of the cross or other signs. Important examples are blessings (which dedicate a place or thing to sacred usage, or place a person under God's protection), sacred medals, holy water, rosaries, icons, holy vessels for Mass, and crucifixes. Popular devotions are not strictly part of the liturgy, but if they are judged to be consonant with Catholic teaching, the Church encourages them. They include veneration of relics of saints, visits to sacred shrines, pilgrimages, processions (including Eucharistic processions), the Stations of the Cross (also known as the Way of the Cross), Holy Hour, Eucharistic adoration, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, prayer for the dead, and the Rosary.
In its devotion the Church makes a distinction (Catechism of the Catholic Church, s2132) between respectful veneration on one hand and adoration or worship on the other. Adoration is due to God alone— this includes the Eucharist, since Christ is truly present in that sacrament, according to Catholic dogma. Veneration of an icon or relic of a saint is defined as respect paid to what is represented in the image, not the image itself. Respect and honour due to the Church's saints is inferior and of a different kind than the adoration given to God alone, according to Catholic teaching.
Sunday, which commemorates the resurrection of Christ and has been celebrated by Christians from the earliest times (1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10; Ignatius of Antioch: Magn.9:1; Justin Martyr: I Apology 67:5), is the outstanding occasion for the liturgy; but no day, not even any hour, is excluded from celebrating the liturgy. The sole exception is for the Eucharistic liturgy on Good Friday and on Holy Saturday before the Easter Vigil, when it is not celebrated.
The Liturgy of the Hours consecrates to God the whole course of day and night. Lauds and Vespers (morning and evening prayer) are the principal hours. To these are added one or three intermediate prayer periods (traditionally called Terce, Sext and None), another prayer period to end the day (Compline), and a special prayer period called the Office of Readings (formerly known as Matins) at no fixed time, devoted chiefly to readings from the Scriptures and ecclesiastical writers. The Second Vatican Council suppressed an additional 'hour' called Prime. The prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours consist principally of the Psalter or Book of Psalms. Like the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours has inspired great musical compositions. An earlier name for the Liturgy of the Hours and for the books that contained the texts was the Divine Office (a name still used as the title of one English translation), the Book of Hours, and the Roman Breviary. Bishops, priests, deacons and members of religious institutes are obliged to pray at least some parts of the Liturgy of the Hours daily, an obligation that applied also to subdeacons, until the post VCII suppression of the subdiaconate.
New Testament worship "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24) is not linked exclusively with any particular place or places, since Christ is seen as the true temple of God, and through him Christians too and the whole Church become, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, a temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16). Nevertheless the earthly condition of the Church on earth makes it necessary to have certain places in which to celebrate the liturgy. Within these churches, chapels and oratories, Catholics put particular emphasis on the altar, the tabernacle (in which the Eucharist is kept), the seat of the bishop ('cathedra') or priest, and the baptismal font.
The richness of the Mystery of Christ cannot be exhausted by any one liturgical tradition and has from the beginning found varied complementary expressions characteristic of different peoples and cultures. As catholic or universal, the Church believes it can and should hold within its unity the true riches of these peoples and cultures.
There are in the liturgy, specifically in the sacraments, elements that cannot be changed, because they are of divine institution. These the Church must guard carefully. Other elements may be changed, and the Church has the power, and sometimes the duty, to adapt them to the different cultures of peoples and times.
Likewise, the great variety of Catholic spirituality enables individual Catholics to pray privately in many different ways. The fourth and last part of the Catechism thus summarized the Catholic's response to the mystery of faith: "This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer." (CCC 2558)
Catholic Liturgical Science
The study of the liturgy occurs in parishes as worshippers pray and in groups for learning. Catholic Liturgical Science (Liturgiewissenschaft) is properly understood as university-level study, including research level. External links below may be consulted.