On the Ecclesial Nature of Liturgical Prayer

The Liturgy is the Act Whereby We Enter Into Contact with God

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VATICAN, OCTOBER 3, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today in St. Peter’s Square. The Holy Father continued his new series of catecheses on prayer in the Sacred Liturgy by reflecting upon the ecclesial nature of liturgical prayer.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

In the last catechesis I began to speak about one of the privileged sources of Christian prayer: the sacred liturgy, which – as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states – is “a participation in Christ’s own prayer addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit. In the liturgy, all Christian prayer finds its source and goal” (n. 1073). Today I would like for us to ask ourselves: in my life, do I reserve sufficient space for prayer and, above all, what place does liturgical prayer have in my relationship with God, especially the Holy Mass, as the participation in the common prayer of the Body of Christ, which is the Church?

In responding to this question, first we must remember that prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit (cf. ibid. n. 2565). Therefore, the life of prayer consists in abiding habitually in the presence of God and being aware of this, in living in relationship with God as we live the normal relationships of our lives, with the dearest members of our family and with our truest friends; indeed, it is our relationship with the Lord that enlightens all our other relationships. This communion of life with God, One and Triune, is possible because by our Baptism we have been inserted into Christ. We have begun to be one with him (cf. Romans 6:5).

In fact, it is only in Christ that we may converse with God the Father as children; otherwise it is not possible, but in communion with the Son we too may say, as he did: “Abbà”. In communion with Christ we can come to know God as a true Father (Matthew 11:27). Therefore, Christian prayer consists in looking constantly and ever anew to Christ, in speaking with him, being silent with him, listening to him, acting and suffering with him. The Christian discovers his truest identity in Christ, “the first born of all creation” in whom all things subsist (cf. Colossians 1: 15ff). In identifying myself with him, in being one with him, I discover my personal identity as a true child who looks to God as to a Father full of love.

But let us not forget: We discover Christ, and we come to know him as a living Person in the Church. She is “his Body”. This corporality can be understood in light of the biblical words about man and woman: the two will be one flesh (cf. Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:30ff; 1 Corinthians 6:16 ff). The unbreakable bond between Christ and the Church, through the unifying force of love, does not destroy the “you” and the “I” but rather raises them to their most profound unity. To find one’s identity in Christ means attaining a communion with him that does not destroy me but rather elevates me to the highest dignity, that of being a child of God in Christ: “The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide” (Encyclical Deus caritas est, 17). To pray means to be raised to the heights of God, through a necessary and gradual transformation of our being.

Thus, in participating in the liturgy, we make our own the language of our Mother the Church; we learn to speak in her and through her. Naturally, as I already said, this happens gradually, little by little. I must gradually immerse myself in the words of the Church, with my prayer, with my life, with my sufferings, with my joys, with my thoughts. It is a journey that transforms us.

I think, then, that these reflections allow us to respond to the question we asked ourselves at the beginning: how do I learn to pray, how do I grow in my prayer? Looking to the model that Jesus taught us, the Pater noster [the Our Father], we see that the first word is “Pater” [Father] and the second is “noster” [our]. The answer, then, is clear: I learn to pray, I nourish my prayer, by turning to God as Father and by praying with others, by praying with the Church, by accepting the gift of her words, which little by little become familiar to me and rich in meaning. The dialogue that God establishes with each one of us and we with him in prayer always includes a “with”; we cannot pray to God in an individualistic manner. In liturgical prayer, especially the celebration of the Eucharist, and – formed by the liturgy – in every prayer, we do not pray alone as individual persons; rather, we enter into the “we” of the praying Church. And we must transform our “I” by entering into this “we”.

I would like to recall another important aspect. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: “In the liturgy of the New Covenant every liturgical action, especially the celebration of the Eucharist and the sacraments, is an encounter between Christ and the Church” (n. 1097); therefore, it is the “whole Christ”, the whole Community, the Body of Christ united with her Head who celebrates. The liturgy then is not a kind of “self-manifestation” of a community; instead, it is a going out of simply “being ourselves” — of being closed in on ourselves — and the portal to the great banquet, the entrance into the great living community, in which God himself nourishes us. The liturgy involves universality, and this universal character must enter ever anew into everyone’s awareness. The Christian liturgy is the worship of the universal temple, which is the Risen Christ. His arms are extended on the Cross in order to draw all men into the embrace of God’s eternal love. It is the worship of heaven opened wide. It is never merely the event of a single community, with its own position in time and space. It is important that every Christian feel and really be inserted into this universal “we”, which provides the foundation and refuge for the “I” in the Body of the Christ, which is the Church.

In this, we must always be mindful of and accept the logic of the Incarnation of God: He has drawn close, become present, by entering into history and into human nature, by becoming one of us. And this presence continues in the Church, his Body. The liturgy then is not the memory of past events, but rather the living presence of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, which transcends and unites both time and space. If the centrality of Christ does not emerge at the forefront in the celebration, we will not have Christian liturgy, which is totally dependent upon the Lord and sustained by his creative presence. God acts by means of Christ and we cannot act except through him and in him. Every day, the conviction must grow in us that the liturgy is not ours, my own “doing”; rather, it is God’s action in us and with us.

Therefore, it is neither the individual – priest or faithful – nor the group who celebrates the liturgy; rather, it is primarily God’s action through the Church, who has her own history, her own rich tradition and her own creativity. This universality and fundamental openness, which is proper to the liturgy as a whole, is one of the reasons why it cannot be designed or modified by individual communities or by experts, but must be faithful to the forms of the universal Church.

Even in the liturgy of the smallest communities, the entire Church is always present. For this reason, there are no “strangers” in the liturgical community. In every liturgical celebration the whole Church participates together, heaven and earth, God and men. The Christian liturgy, although it is celebrated in a concrete place and space and expresses the “yes”
of a particular community, is by its very nature catholic; it comes from the whole and leads to the whole, in unity with the Pope, with the Bishops, with believers of all times and ages and from all places. The more a celebration is animated by this awareness, the more fruitfully will the authentic meaning of the liturgy there be realized.

Dear friends, the Church is made visible in many ways: in charitable works, in missionary endeavors, in the personal apostolate that every Christian should carry out in his own environment. But the place where she is fully experienced as the Church is in the liturgy: it is the act, we believe, whereby God enters into our reality and we can encounter him, we can touch him. It is the act whereby we enter into contact with God: He comes to us, and we are enlightened by him. Therefore, when in our reflections we focus our attention only on how we may render it attractive, interesting, beautiful, we risk forgetting the essential: the liturgy is celebrated for God and not for us; it is his work; he is the subject; and we should open ourselves to him and allow ourselves to be guided by him and by his Body, which is the Church.

Let us ask the Lord to grant that we may learn each day to live the sacred liturgy, especially the Eucharistic Celebration, by praying in the “we” of the Church, who directs her gaze not to herself but to God, and by feeling that we are part of the living Church of all places and times. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna] [In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Today, I would like to highlight the ecclesial nature of liturgical prayer. The liturgy is a “participation in Christ’s own prayer addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1073). The Church, as Christ’s Mystical Body and united with him, offers worship to the Father. By identifying ourselves with Christ in his prayer to the Father, we rediscover our deepest identity as Christians, as children of “Our Father who art in heaven”. The liturgy is also an encounter of the whole Christ, that is, with Christ and his body the Church. Thus, the liturgy is a sharing in the prayer of the living, universal community of believers in Christ. Prayer becomes the habitual realization of the presence of God, as we make the words of the Church our own, and learn to speak in her and through her. The Church is most truly itself in the liturgy, as it is the place where God comes to us and enters our lives. Let us remember that the liturgy is celebrated for God, not for us; it is his work; he is its subject. For our part, in the liturgy we must leave ourselves open to be guided by him and by his Body, the Church.

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I greet all the English-speaking pilgrims present, including the Saint Hallvard Boys’ choir from Oslo. I also welcome students from the Pontifical North American College, who are to be ordained deacon tomorrow. Dear ordinands, always be faithful heralds of the Gospel and generous witnesses to the love of Christ! Upon you and your loved ones, and indeed upon all present, I invoke God’s abundant blessings. Thank you!

© Copyright 2012 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said:]

Lastly, my greetings go to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. May you, dear young people, listen to Christ, the word of truth, and promptly welcome his plan for your lives. May you, dear sick, feel Jesus next to you and may you witness by your hope to the life-giving power of the Cross. May you, dear newlyweds, by the grace of the sacrament, be strengthened day by day in your love for one another and walk on the path of holiness.


Dear brothers and sisters, tomorrow I will visit the Sanctuary of Loreto on the 50th anniversary of the famous pilgrimage of Blessed Pope John XXIII to that Marian shrine, which occurred one week before the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

I ask you to join me in prayer in recommending to the Mother of God the major ecclesial events that we are about to live: the Year of Faith and the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization. May the Holy Virgin accompany the Church in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel to the men and women of our day.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]
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