Eight Ways to Love the Sacred Liturgy

I think it is true that there is no single experience in the life of the human person that has a more profound impact upon one’s faith than the Eucharistic liturgy. The realization of what is being accomplished there cannot be underestimated, but is so often misunderstood. In this essay, I will address eight of the essential elements of the Eucharistic liturgy, using the eight elements identified by Jean Corbon in his work The Wellspring of Worship. I will treat each of the eight elements in turn with a treatment of its implications for the priest in presiding at sacred liturgy. The purpose of the present article is to offer some insights on the significance of selected elements of the sacred liturgy for the benefit of the priest-celebrant. Furthermore, it will be to demonstrate how those elements impact the value and dignity of the celebration of the Eucharist liturgy; and how it effects the life of each participant and of the community as a whole.

In Wellspring of Worship, Corbon identifies the following as eight elements present in the Eucharistic liturgy: the assembly of the baptized; the ordained person; the proclamation of the Word; the word of the Church; symbolic action; song; particular time; and particular place (121–28; 179–98).

The assembly of the baptized is not merely an aggregation of persons engaged in a particular activity, or for that matter, just a group of people gathered for the worship of God. No, for the baptized Christian, it is his defining moment. The moment in which he is most truly called to be and, in which is most truly being himself. The unique character and ontological reality of baptism transforms the worshiper and the worshiping community into the locus of the presence of the risen Christ. It is in the Eucharistic liturgy where the dignity and value of the priesthood of the baptized are most clearly seen and experienced. The concept of “priest” can be traced to the ancient world and to Israel specifically, as one who offers sacrifice. The baptized offers the sacrifice of the gifts offered, but more significantly, the gift of this whole life with the Eucharistic sacrifice. Thereby, exercising his priesthood by uniting his life with the sacrifice of Christ himself. I believe it is critically important that this truth be expressed in the totality of the worshiping experience, but also explicitly in the process of ongoing catechesis of the baptized. It is likewise crucial that the baptized person is aware of his baptismal dignity and of his priesthood as it applies to his entire life, but also how it is exercised in the worshiping assembly. In my experience, so many of the baptized understand their participation in the Eucharistic liturgy as merely being one of passive observation; or as mere “activity” as being busy “doing” something. The reality is, rather, “being” and as exercising one’s baptismal call. To this end, I believe that, above providing solid catechesis to the faithful, the entire character and experience of liturgy should indelibly imprint the sacred nature of the event and of baptismal character in the mind and heart of the person.

Full participation of the baptized in the Eucharistic liturgy must involve deliberate salient actions that identify the reality of the moment. This would include, briefly, choosing the appropriate attire to wear, thereby expressing in concrete means the interior disposition of the person and the community. Along with this type of external preparation, there would also be other internal dispositions, like preparatory prayer and recollection in silence. By deliberately focusing one’s mind on the events to come, and separating oneself from distractions, one is inclined to be open to receive the fullness of the experience. Praying Lectio Divina on the sacred texts of the Mass and a discussion of them in-group will only serve to further enhance the person’s and the community’s experience and participation in the sacred events.

The ordained person is another essential element and clear sign of Catholic worship. In the Mass, the priest is distinct from the body, and by the virtue of the character of his ordination is in persona Christi capitis. One dimension of this is a clear sign of Christ the head of the body, and how each person has gifts that are distinct in the building up of the body of Christ. One of the intrinsic elements of the Ordinary Form of the modern Roman Rite of the liturgy is its unique ability to teach and to transmit meaning. With the pro popolo orientation and the use of the vernacular, the assembly is drawn into the sacred action in a very direct and unobstructed way. This approach enables a great power and beauty because it is so accessible to the worshiping community. One serious consideration is that not only does it transmit meaning clearly; it also transmits the attitude and state-of-mind of the priest celebrant clearly. Therefore, if the priest has the predilection for making himself the center of the action, or appears to be cavalier, or distracted, or feels the need to modify the liturgy as a matter of pastoral concern of his own volition, the experience of the worship community is profoundly altered. In recent years, there has been much discussion of “presidential style” among priests. In many cases, this results in the priest infusing his own personality or his personal stories into the sacred mysteries. The result is a “presider-centric” liturgy, where the presider becomes the center of the action and so the center of the attention of the assembly. Another form of expression of this of this is an attempt by the presider, in an effort to be welcoming, to make the assembly the center of the liturgical action. The result of this approach is a loss of the sense of the sacred by the assembly — mere human action supplants the awareness of the divine presence. I think it is common for many priests, in an effort to make the liturgy more attractive or accessible, to inject elements of entertainment, elements of humor, or “folksiness.” Contrary their best intentions, this will often result in drawing the attention of the community away from the sacred nature of the events and causing them to focus on the insignificant, thus diminishing the value and power of the liturgical experience, and thereby diminishing the person’s understanding of the value and dignity of the baptized’s participation at Eucharist.

The lector holding the Lectionary aloft and showing it to the assembly proclaiming, “the Word of the Lord,” does not express what is meant by the proclamation of the Word. The “Word,” as the Church understands it in its liturgical context, is not merely words printed on a page in a book. No, it is the presence of the risen Christ in the Word, and the making present of the events contained within it, that makes it a proclamation of the Word in the Catholic understanding. Because the Word is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and it the Father’s revelation and communication through the Son, it is always dynamic and living. In addition, because of this, the baptized believers have a participation in the anamnetic reality, the making present of the events of how God has marvelously acted in human history from the beginning. It is in recounting, and thus participating in, these marvelous deeds that the assembly is moved, inspired, touched, and changed by the presence of Christ himself. The weight of the full realization and reality of the meaning of the proclamation of the Word is that which clearly conveys the dignity and power of the event. The proclaimer of the Word should, for that reason, be well prepared by having saturated himself with the text to be proclaimed. He should proclaim it in a way that is clearly understood, with all of the skill that he possess, without calling attention to himself or waxing theatrical. By seeking transparency, the proclaimer of the Word further invites the assembly to deeper participation in the Word.

The Word of God, like the action of God and the love of God, demands a response. The response of the assembly is the word of the Church, as Corbon describes it. It is in this liturgical action that the minds and hearts of the baptized are united with the heart of the Holy Trinity. All of the liturgical actions of every member taken together form these responses, but it can be experienced in particular moments of the liturgy in very clear and significant ways. One obvious but crucial one is the action that immediately follows the proclamation of the Gospel: the homily. I find in the homily another very sad practice, that being a gross underestimation of its power by preachers in the Church today. I believe a preacher has a very serious responsibility to do his utmost to break open the Word of God and to illuminate its meaning and how the members of that particular assembly can apply that meaning in daily life, thereby drawing the assembly into deeper union with Christ and inspiring them to live the Gospel, and to take it into the world. The homily is a precious opportunity and invitation to the preacher to meditate and to profoundly search himself and the sacred text, to the degree that he is able, to express its applied meaning, thereby enabling the assembly to a new level of faith. On the other hand, suboptimal preaching Sunday after Sunday will have a profoundly negative affect on the faith of the community over the long term.

The Creed allows the faithful to express the distilled essentials of their faith in one voice using an ancient and Trinitarian formula. Thus, reinforcing the presence of the Trinity in the action, and connecting this assembly to all of the assemblies who have professed this same faith through the centuries.

The Prayers of the Faithful afford the assembly the opportunity to respond to the Word of God by placing the needs, concerns, hopes, and deepest yearnings, indeed their hearts, into the hands of God. This is a manifestation of a communal expression and experience of faith and trust in divine providence. However, more than that, it is an exercise of baptismal priesthood and adoption; having the privilege of speaking to the Father in the place of the Son.

The bringing forth of the gifts in procession represents the returning to the Father the good he has created and given. Again exercising their priesthood, the baptized offer their lives and the first fruits of creation to the one who has given them in the first place — now to be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, offered to the Father.

The Dialogue Preface expresses the praise and glory of God, but it also represents the dialogue between God and humanity present in the sacred rites. The Eucharistic Prayer is the highest manifestation of communion and adoption for the faithful and ordained alike, making present the sacred actions of Christ at the Last Supper by the words of institution. Then, by the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the epiclesis effects the sacrifice of Christ, offering it to the Father on behalf of all of creation. In the distribution and reception of Holy Communion, the baptized receive the risen Christ into their bodies, thereby becoming Eucharist as they have received. In turn, the baptized are empowered to exercise their prophetic ministry and their kingly ministry of service for the world. Because these actions form the heart of the Eucharistic liturgy, it is of great importance that they be celebrated according to the mind and the heart of the Church; that is, that the full meaning of the action be experienced in the way it is intended to be received.

Symbolic action has always played an essential role in human experience, but especially in worship. On one level, symbols communicate commonly understood realities without the use of words. Because of this, the use of words would only serve to diminish the quality of the experience. On another level, symbols express realities that transcend human language. The symbols expressed in the modern Roman Rite of Mass are readily apprehended and understood because of their accessibility and simplicity. In this way, they become part of the repertoire, the muscle memory if you will ,of the worshiping experience: meaning expressed through action. In the liturgy, the symbols must be used in a way that is clearly recognizable to the senses to which they are oriented. As an example, when incense is used, it must be both seen and smelled by the assembly. If it is not, the meaning that it carries will be lost in part or completely. In the context of Catholic worship, symbolic action is also ritual action. Ritual action has long been associated with religious expression, and for good reason. Symbols, once understood, speak directly to the mind and the heart. This is why liturgical catechesis is so important. The faithful must understand the meaning of the symbols to participate fully in their action. When actions are known and repeated in a predictable way, the worshiper is freed from concentrating on what will come next, and will be able to be caught up in a deeper way into to the experience. This is why continuous liturgical deviation, contrivance, and experimentation is so detrimental to the spiritual experience of the assembly. When the assembly is fascinated by details and novelties, Christ and the real meaning of the symbolic action can easily be lost, and be reduced to mere spectacle.

Corbon identified song as his sixth essential element of liturgy. Even the most elementary study of Catholic liturgy, and the Jewish liturgy that went before us, will reveal a consistent use of song. Music has the unique capacity to set the tone for an entire liturgical celebration. More importantly, music touches the emotions, and operates on feeling levels like nothing else. On the symbolic level, the assembly singing represents a unity of believers. All of these people, all of these cultures, all of the ages and experiences are united in one voice for the praise and glory of God. Once again, the act of singing discourages the attitude of passive spectator, and shifts the focus and tone to that of active participant. This serves to remind the members of the assembly that they are worshiping God as a community, not just as individuals, and that their participation is important for everyone.

One Saturday when I was visiting a parish church, the pastor told me, “We keep the Saturday evening Mass to thirty minutes so that the people can go out to dinner by 5:30.” This would be a very disordered approach and understanding of time as it applies to liturgy. The Eucharistic liturgy is itself “timeless” because it transcends the bounds of time. Through the celebration of the sacred liturgy, the assembly is freed from the constraints of time and mystically transported into the eternal heavenly liturgy, into the Passover Hagadah presided over by Jesus himself, and to all those events proclaimed in the Word. Over all, and most importantly, the baptized participates in the suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit by Christ. I believe this understanding of the past, present, and future dimensions of time (as they apply to the Eucharistic liturgy) are often lost by the priest-celebrant because he is watching the clock for one of many reasons. Further, I believe this concept of time is lost entirely on members of the assembly because they have never been exposed to it. This concept of time is another ideal subject of liturgical catechesis and preaching. I think that if the baptized are provided a deeper understanding and appreciation of time at liturgy, it would greatly deepen their love and desire for it.

The final element of liturgy that Corbon identified was that of particular place or space. Space in the liturgical sense can be understood on several levels. On one level, it implies the here-and-now of a particular group of people gathered in a liturgical assembly, and how that particular assembly embodies the whole of the baptized, how their prayers and participation are a participation in the whole of the community. It conveys a meaning and an inclusion of those worshiping elsewhere, of those not present, of those now in heaven, and of those now in purgatory. It implies the cosmic effects of a Eucharistic liturgy celebrated in a particular place having universal implications.

On an aesthetic level, particular place contributes greatly to the participation of the baptized in the assembly. All of our sacramental worship is constructed or has been received with the understanding that the human person is a sensate being, that his way of being in the world is through sense experience, and therefore sense experience will play an important role in worship experience. My point is that for this reason the “liturgical space” must be conducive to and congruent with the reality that the Eucharistic liturgy is. As a rule, regardless of the particular architectural form of the church interior, the lines of the structure lead the eye to a particular place. This structural form and its function must manifest the theology of the Church or the focus of the assembly may be misdirected. Additional important elements include: That the Church be warm and welcoming, like God is welcoming of us. That elements of the sacred, the utterly different, are clearly seen. That beauty is abundant, as God is the ultimate beauty. Likewise, the church should be appointed and decorated to demonstrate the roles of the various ministries and the role of the assembly, and that Christ is at the center of everything. The Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith, and so Church architecture must show this. At the same time, the Holy Trinity is most profoundly relationship — therefore, Church architecture must convey that the assembly is called to be in relationship with him and with each other.

In conclusion, I think all of us (priests and everyone else) need to be mindful of, or to be reminded of, the cosmic significance of the event of each and every Eucharistic liturgy. I do not think the significance and the power of the Mass can be underestimated in the lives of the faithful, and in the life of the world. Therefore, the love, the care, and the reverence given to the celebration of sacred liturgy and the catechesis pertaining to it will have inestimable bearing on the people of God and on the whole world.

In Wellspring of Worship, Corbon has integrated his love of liturgy with in-depth theological insights. His eight elements of liturgy give one an insightful and useful framework for understanding the eternal and immediate elements of the Eucharistic liturgy and how it affects all who are touched by it. The eight elements allow one to stop and reflect upon the key moments of the Eucharistic liturgy. These key moments can be revisited again and again and will continue to offer new insights to the reader. They serve as an excellent model of providing introductory catechesis on the liturgy; and as a source for meditation on the sacred mysteries by one with considerable knowledge of them.

I hope this article has served to keep us mindful of the awesome privilege and joy of sharing in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and how valuable that privilege is.


Works Cited and Consulted

Corbon, Jean. The Wellspring of Worship. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005.

Driscoll, Jeremy. Theology at the Eucharistic Table. Leominster: Gracewing, 2005.

_____. What Happens at Mass. Chicago: Liturgy Training, 2005.

Fagerburg, D.W. Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology? Chicago: Liturgy Training, 2004.

Hahn, Scott. Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

Fr. William Dillard About Fr. William Dillard

Fr. William Dillard is a priest of the Diocese of San Diego and an Oblate of Mount Angel Abbey. Ordained in 1998, Fr. Dillard has served in parishes in the Diocese of San Diego and the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. He is currently the Director of Spiritual Formation at Mount Angel Seminary.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    A lot of great value in this short article. I would like to share this with everyone in our parish. One thing not mentioned, but is of great distraction, the deliberate effort to do all the liturgical actions correctly as contrasted with doing them to communicate. The need for reverence requires contemplative action and less words. From my experience in Chinese and Japanese communities, I have learned the meaning and significance of non-verbal ritual. This is so lacking in much contemporary liturgy.