On the Sacred Liturgy as a School of Prayer

"Lord, teach us to pray"

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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 26, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience in St. Peter's Square. The Holy Father began a new series of catecheses on prayer today, moving from prayer in sacred Scripture to prayer in the sacred Liturgy.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

In recent months, we have made a journey in the light of God’s Word in order to learn to pray more authentically, by looking at several great figures of the Old Testament, at the Psalms, at the Letters of St. Paul and at Revelation, but above all by looking to the unique and fundamental experience of Jesus, in his relationship with the heavenly Father. In reality, only in Christ is man enabled to unite himself to God with the depth and intimacy of a child toward a father who loves him; only in him may we turn in all truth to God, affectionately calling him “Abba! Father!” Like the Apostles, we too repeated over these weeks, and today again we say to Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1)

Furthermore, in order to learn to live more intensely in a personal relationship with God, we learned to call upon the Holy Spirit, the Risen One’s first gift to those who believe, since it is he who “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26), St. Paul says, and we know how right he is.

At this point, after a long series of catecheses on prayer in the Scripture, we may ask ourselves: how can I allow myself to be formed by the Holy Spirit and thus become capable of entering into God’s ambiance, to pray with God? What is this school, in which he teaches me to pray, helps me in my struggle to turn to God in the right way? The first school of prayer -- where we spent these weeks -- is the Word of God, Sacred Scripture. The Sacred Scripture is a lasting dialogue between God and man, an ongoing dialogue in which God shows his increasing closeness, in which we may better know his face, his voice, his being; and man learns to accept God, to know God, to speak with God. Therefore, over these weeks, by reading Sacred Scripture, we have sought from the Scripture, from this lasting dialogue, to learn how we may enter into contact with God.

There is yet another precious “space”, another precious “source” for growing in prayer, a fount of living water in close relationship with the former. I am referring to the liturgy, which is a privileged place where God speaks to each one of us, here and now, and awaits our response.

What is the liturgy? If we open the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a precious and, I would say, indispensable aid, we read that the word “liturgy” originally meant “a service in the name of/ on behalf of the people” (n. 1069). If Christian theology took this word from the Greek world, it clearly did so thinking to the new People of God brought into being by Christ, who opened his arms on the Cross in order to unite men in the peace of the One God. “Service on behalf of the people” -- a people that does not exist by itself, but that was formed by the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. In fact, the People of God is not bound by blood, territory, or nation; rather, it continually comes into being through the work of the Son of God and from the communion with the Father, which He obtains for us.

The Catechism also indicates that “in Christian tradition [the word ‘liturgy’] means the participation of the People of God in the ‘work of God’” (n. 1069). 

The very development of the Second Vatican Council reminds us of this. It began its work fifty years ago with the discussion on the schema on the sacred liturgy, which was then solemnly approved on December 4, 1963, the first text to be approved by the Council. That the document on the liturgy was the first result of the Conciliar assembly was considered perhaps by some to be a matter of chance. Amid so many projects, the text on the sacred liturgy seemed to be the least controversial and, precisely on this account, was able to serve as a kind of exercise for learning the methodology of the Council’s work. But without a shadow of a doubt, what at first glance may seem to have been a chance event proved to be the right choice, also from the hierarchy of subjects and the Church’s most important tasks. By beginning, in fact, with the subject of the “liturgy” the Council highlighted with great clarity the primacy of God, his absolute precedence. Before all else, there is God: this is what the Council’s choice to begin with the liturgy tells us. Wherever our gaze upon God is not decisive, everything else loses its orientation. The fundamental criterion for the liturgy is its orientation toward God, so that we may be able to participate in his work.

But we might ask ourselves: what is this work of God in which we are called to participate? The answer that the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy offers us is seemingly twofold. In No. 5 it tells us, in fact, that the work of God consists in His actions in history, which bring us salvation, and which culminated in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ; however, in No. 7 the same Constitution defines the celebration of the liturgy as the “work of Christ”. 

In reality, these two meanings are inseparably linked. If we ask ourselves who saves the world and man, the only answer is: Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, crucified and risen. And where is the Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ made present for us, for me today? The answer is: in Christ’s action in and through the Church, in the liturgy, especially in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which makes present the sacrificial offering of the Son of God, who redeemed us; in the Sacrament of Penance, in which we pass from the death of sin to new life; and in the other sacramental acts whereby we are sanctified (cf. Presbyterorum ordinis, 5). Thus, the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ is the center of the liturgical theology of the Council.

Let us go a step further and ask ourselves: how is this making present of Christ’s Paschal Mystery made possible? Blessed John Paul II, on the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, wrote: “In order to reenact his Paschal Mystery, Christ is ever present in his Church, especially in liturgical celebrations. Hence the Liturgy is the privileged place for the encounter of Christians with God and the one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ (cf John 17:3)” (Vicesimus Quintus Annus, n. 7). Along these same lines, we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “A sacramental celebration is a meeting of God’s children with their Father, in Christ and the Holy Spirit; this meeting takes the form of a dialogue, through actions and words” (n. 1153). 

Therefore, the first requirement for a proper liturgical celebration is that it be prayer, conversation with God, first listening and then response. St. Benedict, in his “Rule”, speaking about the prayer of the Psalms, points out to the monks: mens corcordet voci, “that the mind may be in harmony with the voice”. The Saint teaches that in praying the Psalms the words must come before our minds. Usually it does not happen in this way; first we have to think, and then we convert what we have thought into words. Here instead, in the liturgy, it is just the opposite -- the word comes first. God has given us the word, and the sacred liturgy offers us the words; we must enter into the words, into their meaning, receive them into ourselves, become attuned to these words; thus do we become God’s children, like unto God. As Sacrosanctum Concilium reminds us, in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects “it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain” (n. 11). 

A fundamental, essential element of dialogue with God in the liturgy is the harmony between what we say with our lips and what we hold in our hearts. By entering into the words of the great history of prayer we ourselves are conformed to the spirit of these words and become capable of speaking with God.

Along these lines, I would like only to touch upon one of the moments during the liturgy that summons us and helps us to find this harmony, this conforming of ourselves to what we hear, say and do in the celebration of the liturgy. I am referring to the invitation that the Celebrant formulates before the Eucharistic Prayer: “Sursum corda”, let us lift up our hearts beyond the entanglement of our concerns, our desires, our anxieties and our distractions. Our heart, the most intimate place within us, should open docilely to the Word of God and be recollected in the prayer of the Church, and thereby receive its orientation toward God from the very words that we hear and say. The gaze of the heart must be directed to the Lord, who abides among us: it is a fundamental disposition. 

When we live the liturgy with this basic attitude, our hearts are, as it were, withdrawn from the force of gravity that draws them downward, and they are raised interiorly upward, toward truth, toward love, toward God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: “In the sacramental liturgy of the Church, the mission of Christ and of the Holy Spirit proclaims, makes present, and communicates the mystery of salvation, which is continued in the heart that prays” (n. 2655): altare Dei est cor nostrum

Dear friends, we celebrate and live the liturgy well only if we remain in an attitude of prayer, not if we want to “do something”, to make ourselves seen or to act, but if we direct our hearts to God and if we remain in an attitude of prayer by uniting ourselves to the Mystery of Christ and to his conversation, as Son, with the Father. God himself teaches us to pray, St. Paul affirms (cf. Romans 8:26). He himself has given us the appropriate words for addressing ourselves to Him, words we encounter in the Psalter, in the great prayer of the sacred liturgy and in the Eucharistic celebration itself. Let us ask the Lord to be more and more aware each day of the fact that the Liturgy is the action of God and of man; prayer that springs forth from the Holy Spirit and from ourselves, wholly directed to the Father, in union with the Son of God made man (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2564). Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

[In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Having focused for several weeks now on prayer as taught to us in the sacred Scriptures, we turn to another precious source of prayer, namely the liturgy. The word “liturgy” in Greek means “work done by the people and for the people”. Here, this “people” is the new People of God, brought into being by Christ, a people which does not exist by itself and which is not bound by blood, territory or country, but is brought into being through the Paschal Mystery. The liturgy is also the “work of God”. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, it is by means of the liturgy that Christ our Redeemer and High Priest continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church. This is the great marvel of the liturgy: God acts, while we are caught up in his action.

The Council began its work by discussing the liturgy, and righty so, for the liturgy reminds us of the primacy of God. The fundamental criterion for it is its orientation towards the Father, whose saving love culminates in the death and resurrection of his Son. It is in the liturgy that we “lift up our hearts”, opening ourselves to the word of God as we gather with our brethren in a prayer which rises within us, and which is directed to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.

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I greet all the English-speaking pilgrims present, especially those from England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Canada and the United States. Upon all of you, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

© Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said]

Lastly, a thought for young people, for the sick and for newlyweds. Today we celebrate the memorial of Saints Cosmas and Damian: Dear young people, may you learn to care for your brothers' and sisters' every suffering with warmth and acceptance; dear sick, the best therapy for every malady is trust in God, with whom we speak in prayer; and you, dear newlyweds, may you care for one another in your married life.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]