ROME — The long-awaited instruction on the Liturgy of the Eucharist from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments was presented by the prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Francis Arinze, April 23 in a well-attended conference in the Holy See press office.

Titled Redemptionis Sacramentum, On Certain Matters to Be Observed or to Be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist, the final document of 17,790 words, 76 pages and 186 paragraphs was prepared by the mandate of Pope John Paul II and approved by him March 19.

The document has been “quoted” often in recent months, or at least parts of its 12 draft versions have appeared in various media organs. While the lead-up to the presentation has been almost feverish at times, the “instruction does none other than reiterate existing norms,” according to Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino, secretary of the liturgy congregation.

A careful reading of Redemptionis Sacramentum, in fact, side by side with the Code of Canon Law; the General Instruction of the Roman Missal; Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium; and John Paul's 2003 encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Eucharist in Relation to the Church) shows there is an unbroken continuity of rules regarding liturgical celebrations and what constitutes abuses. And abuses are at the center of the current document.

Cardinal Arinze noted that abuses over the years “have been a source of anguish for everyone.” He said “the temptation to think that paying attention to abuses is a loss of time, that they have always existed and will always exist … can always lead us into error.

“Abuses relating to the Holy Eucharist do not all have the same weight,” he continued. “Some threaten to make the sacrament invalid. Others show a lack of Eucharistic faith. Yet others contribute to spreading confusion among the people of God and to taking the sacred out of Eucharistic celebrations. Abuses are not to be taken lightly.”

Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which collaborated in producing the instruction, said, “There was no nostalgia for things of the past but rather a desire to put into practice the conciliar liturgical reform and to eliminate abuses that go against doctrine.”

Cardinals and bishops throughout the world who are members of both congregations were asked for their contributions, in particular to list the abuses that appeared most prevalent. A joint committee, led by the prefects and secretaries of both congregations, produced the final document.

Cardinal Arinze, Archbishop Sorrentino and Archbishop Amato all stated firmly that, no matter how good and sincere the intention of a priest or liturgist, experimentation on the liturgy that is based on “personal choices or preferences” and goes beyond the allowed rules is quite simply banned. All three also stressed that the instruction is merely “a continuation of Pope John Paul's beautiful document Ecclesia de Eucharistia.”

Three things are immediately noticeable in the document.

One is the numerous references the document makes to the “rights” of the Christian faithful to authentic liturgy. For example, No. 12 says: “It is the Catholic community's right that the celebration of the most holy Eucharist should be carried out in such a manner that it truly stands out as a sacrament of unity, to the exclusion of all blemishes. …” On several occasions the instruction specifically mentions the “right” of the faithful to bring abuses to the attention of their bishop and, failing that, to the attention of the Holy See.

A second observation concerns the warnings issued to bishops in particular as guardians of the liturgy. In fact, No. 24 states: “It is the right of the Christian people themselves that their diocesan bishop should take care to prevent the occurrence of abuses in ecclesiastical discipline, especially as regards the ministry of the word, the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and devotion to the saints.”

And again, No. 186 says: “Let bishops, priests and deacons, in the exercise of their sacred ministry, examine their consciences as regards the authenticity and fidelity of the actions they have performed in the name of Christ and of the Church in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. Let each one of the sacred ministers ask himself, even with severity, whether he has respected the rights of the lay members of Christ's faithful. …”

Third, one notes the strong language used in condemning abuses. The word “reprobated” appears countless times.

No. 59 states: “Let the reprobated practice by which priests, deacons or the faithful here and there alter or vary at will the texts of the Sacred Liturgy that they are charged to pronounce, must cease.”

And No. 117: “Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass common vessels, or others lacking in quality or devoid of artistic merit or which are mere containers, as also other vessels made of glass, earthenware, clay or other materials that break easily.”

Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, who was present at the press conference, while not mentioning any particular enforcement mechanism, pointed to the instruction's invitation to the faithful to “report” abuses and to appeal to the bishop or the Holy See when abuses occur and are not corrected. If a priest does not respect the norms, the faithful have a right to protest.

Archbishop Sorrentino underscored that “receiving and welcoming this instruction cannot stop at simply a one-time communication of its content, but rather it must become an ecclesial event of communion and formation. Bishops, priests and the lay faithful must not pay attention just to the first public-opinion comments. They must take the time to read, assimilate and deeply live the contents of the instruction.”

Joan Lewis writes from Rome.