Liturgy and Spirituality
Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, OP explores the roots and significance of liturgical renewal.
Liturgy and Spirituality

Liturgy and Spirituality

Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, OP explores the roots and significance of liturgical renewal.

The roots of the liturgical reform mandated by the Second Vatican Council go back over one hundred fifty years to the mid-nineteenth century when a remarkable revival of Catholic life took shape in Europe.

The first years of the nineteenth century and the final decades of the eighteenth had been devastating for the Church. During that period religious orders were targeted by the liberal reforming schemes of Joseph II (1765-80) and Napoleon (1799-1814). As a result, Benedictines, Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans and others lost many of their institutions, and, in some countries, hundreds of communities were dispersed and their members pensioned off. Yet, by the middle of the 19th century, in a stunning display of divine grace, each of these orders experienced a re-awakening as, one after another, they attracted outstanding men and women who sought to recover the original spirit of their founders and establish new communities in their distinctive forms of consecrated life.

It was precisely among these newly re-established religious communities that a noteworthy outcome of this Catholic revival was realized. A series of deeply motivated initiatives that began among the newly re-founded French Benedictines eventually spread to other countries in Europe and beyond, and coalesced into what we have come to call the Liturgical Movement .1 A veritable liturgical renaissance was launched in the Catholic Church during those years.2


From the outset, this movement sought to recover the scriptural and patristic roots of the Roman liturgy and to foster among Catholics a renewed liturgical and ecclesial spirituality. Early on, and with a view to a long-range liturgical reform, Pope St. Pius X confirmed and fostered the fundamentally spiritual motivation of this movement in a series of papal documents that promoted the retrieval of Gregorian chant, encouraged the more frequent and earlier reception of Holy Communion, and restored the weekly recitation of the Psalter in the Divine Office.

In one of those texts (Tra le Sollecitudini, 1903), a concept that would play a central role in the Liturgical Movement— “active participation”—made its first appearance in a papal document. In the proemium, the Pope wrote: “For it is Our earnest desire that the true Christian spirit should flourish in every way and be kept in all the faithful, and that the holiness and dignity of the temple should be provided above all where the faithful gather to draw this spirit from its first and indispensable source, which is active participation in the sacred mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church (emphasis added).” With the expression activa participatio, Pope Pius captured the fundamentally spiritual motivation of the Liturgical Movement.3 Since the leaders of this movement were concerned not simply with the revision of liturgical texts and rites, but with the power of the liturgy to transform the people’s lives, they wanted to encourage a fully engaged level of participation in the liturgical celebrations on the part of the faithful.

Spiritual motivation

Years later, at the Second Vatican Council, this spiritual motivation would find authoritative expression. The Council affirmed that the Church seeks to ensure that Christian believers should not be present at the liturgy “as strangers or silent spectators” but, having a good grasp of the meaning of the rites and prayers, “they should take part in the sacred action, actively, fully aware, and devoutly.” The goal of this active participation is nothing less than that “they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and each other, so that finally God may be all in all.”4

Through the reformed liturgy—made possible at least in part by the identification of previously unknown liturgical resources by scholars of the Liturgical Movement— the Church has sought above all else for Catholics to experience the life-transforming power of the liturgy in their hearts, minds, and relationships, to prepare them for times of trial and temptation, to enable them to live holy lives in Christ, and to impel them to the service of their neighbours, sharing with others the strength and consolation they have received from the wellspring of grace in the liturgical and sacramental celebrations of their parishes and communities.

Experience of grace

Fundamental to the experience of grace that the sacred liturgy affords is the realization that through it we are joined in the Holy Spirit to the Son’s unending worship of the Father. “In the heart of Christ the praise of God finds expression in human words of adoration, propitiation and intercession; the head of renewed humanity and mediator of God prays to the Father in the name of and for the good of all mankind.”5 For mutual communication among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, no words are necessary, and much less, human words. But the only begotten Son, who became incarnate for our sake, has found human words in which to express his worship of the Father, and he empowers us to join with him in this celestial worship using those very words. As St. Augustine wrote: “When we speak to God in prayer, the Son is not separated from the Father; when the Body of the Son prays, the head is not separated from the body. It is the one savior of his body, our Lord Jesus Christ, who prays for us, prays in us, and is prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest. He prays in us as our head. He is prayed to by us as our God. Let us recognize therefore our voices in him and his voice in us.”6 And not only words of praise and thanksgiving, but also words of penitence and sorrow, as the 12th century Cistercian monk Isaac of Stella said in a sermon: “So all that belonged to the bride was shared in by the bridegroom, and he who had done no wrong and on whose lips was found no deceit could say: Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak. Thus, sharing as he did in the bride’s weakness, the bridegroom made his own her cries of distress, and gave his bride all that was his.”7

More than just affording an experience of grace, the liturgy offers the believer the means of living in Christ—learning to pray with him in the common worship of the Church, to converse with him in private prayer and meditation, to be united with him in all the joys and difficulties of life, to beg to be touched by the mercy he won for us, and to be conformed ever more closely to his image so that the Father may see and love in us what he sees and loves in the Son. An unparalleled participation in the mysteries of Christ life—from Bethlehem to Golgotha and beyond—is made possible especially by the round of seasons and festivals of the liturgical year, year in and year out, but also in the weekly celebration of the Resurrection each Sunday. The Paschal Mystery celebrated at Eastertide and commemorated year-round is the indispensable basis for all Christian life. “To live from the liturgy one celebrates means to live from what one experiences there: mercy invoked, the word of God heard, thanks given, Eucharist received as communion.”8

Spiritual motivation

The liturgical reform realized at the Second Vatican Council and implemented by the mandate of Pope St. Paul VI was faithful to the deep spiritual motivation evident in the Liturgical Movement. Engaged participation—actuosa participatio—is meant to initiate and foster nothing less than a liturgical spirituality in believers. Spirituality usually means, among other things, a deepened interior life formed principally by spiritual reading, recollection, private prayer and meditation, the practice of virtue, regular confession and frequent Holy Communion, and charity towards one’s neighbour. The spiritual renewal advocated by the Liturgical Movement and presupposed by the conciliar reform in no way challenged this basic understanding of the spiritual life. Rather, the Church is now seeking to recover—through the engaged participation in the liturgy and a vastly expanded cycle of scriptural and patristic readings—a broader communal foundation for Catholic spirituality as it was understood and practiced in the monastic culture which shaped every aspect of early and medieval Christianity. It is no accident that most of the leading figures in the Liturgical Movement were monks or friars from orders in which the entire day is built around the hours of the Divine Office, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, and by life and work in common.

The Liturgical Movement sought to recover the communal, liturgical component of classical Catholic spirituality that, since the 15th century, had been somewhat overshadowed by its more individual and subjective aspects.9 The liturgical and sacramental life of the Church is the communal condition for the possibility of an authentic interior life on the part of individual Catholics. “For raised up high on the Cross, he gave himself up for us with a wonderful love and poured out blood and water from his pierced side, the wellspring of the Church’s Sacraments, so that, won over to the open heart of the Savior, all might draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation, understanding this as the foundation sine qua non of the Christian life.”10 The sacred liturgy is the wellspring of divine grace that makes the following of Christ, in all of its moral, spiritual and relational dimensions, possible. This somewhat unfamiliar level of engaged participation requires programs of liturgical catechesis and formation in order to attract and inspire both priests and faithful.11


But the circumstances of the reception of Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,) were not always favorable to an understanding of the spiritual dimensions of the liturgical renewal. From the outset, the liturgical reform was perceived through the lens of aggiornamento (bringing up to date) rather than of ressourcement (recovering the tradition), and thus as the harbinger of extensive program of “modernization” of Catholic life and practice, rather than a recovery of the riches of the classical Christian tradition. It has proved difficult to mine the deeper spiritual impulses of the Liturgical Movement and the Second Vatican Council in the practical implementation of the successive stages of refashioning of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental rites that transpired. Almost immediately, the entire reform was subjected to relentless criticism on historical, theological, and liturgical grounds by writers who opposed the liturgical reform.12 More than fifty years on, this criticism has continued unabated and, to a certain extent, unchallenged. Interestingly, it is fueled by a number of tradition-minded authors who, though they could not be unaware of the considerable magisterial weight (an ecumenical council and several pontificates) sustaining the liturgical reform, nonetheless advance an unremitting barrage of dissent to the renewed order of Mass and the sacramental rites.13 Online and in print, this body of opinion poses a considerable challenge to the Church’s pastors as they seek to foster a positive reception and understanding of the liturgical reform and the spiritual renewal it promotes.


With all this ambient static, Catholic priests and faithful need help tuning into the conciliar frequency that transmits the message about the enormous spiritual benefit of fully engaged participation in the liturgy. Since the liturgy itself is meant to be formative, it may seem odd to speak about liturgical formation as some kind of training apart from the liturgy itself. But just as “mystagogy” traditionally referred both to the liturgical action and to the catechesis that explains its meaning, so liturgical formation is meant to enhance our participation in the liturgy itself. The wonderful patristic term for this kind of formation—mystagogy—may scare some people off. But if lectio divina caught on as a way of describing slow, meditative reading of the Sacred Scripture, then why not mystagogy as a term for liturgical formation?14

Indeed, the biblical renewal that captured the Catholic imagination after the Council may well provide the parallel for what is now needed in the Church. “It is still not possible to say that the liturgy is the nourishment of the spiritual life of believers in the way that can be said today of the Scriptures.”15 Learning how to experience the depths of any liturgical celebration is analogous to learning, through Bible study and formation, how to plumb the depths of a biblical passage. Historically these two forms of learning have always been linked. It is this kind of assistance that Catholic priests and faithful need today as the Church re-proposes the liturgical reform as a source of renewal in the Christian life of believers.

The vitality of our Christian existence

Weekly attendance at Mass is an “obligation” because this participation is essential for the vitality of our Christian existence. To be sure, the obligation derives from God himself, but it is an obligation to ourselves as well. God commands us to worship him freely for our own sakes because our salvation is his glory. We have many obligations to ourselves—to our physical and mental health, to our safety, to our well-being—but we also have an obligation to care for our spiritual welfare. Fully engaged participation in the sacred liturgy and sacramental rites that are Christ’s gift to the Church is absolutely essential for our own spiritual health and that of the entire Catholic community. The liturgical texts and rites both allow us express our inner dispositions of love and praise for God, but also stir our hearts and incline us to turn to him in prayer. As our lips repeat the words of the liturgy, our inner life is actually reshaped and redirected towards the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some days, we may not feel like praying, but the words on our lips move our hearts and minds to the love of God and of our neighbour. The experience of the liturgy is not just a matter of emotions; our minds, our attitudes, our behavior, our speech, are all effected by the grace of these celebrations. Liturgical formation—or mystagogical catechesis—is intended to help us to achieve this level of fully engaged participation in the Church’s celebration.

But the grace of the liturgy also possesses a powerful outward thrust. As we learn through the liturgy to put on the mind of Christ, we begin to see the world around us through his eyes. “

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). The Gospel of Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We are moved by the desire to share and embrace Christ’s compassion for the world.

Within our societies, we see not only a declining faith, but also massive confusion about the nature of the human person, about the place of sexuality in human life, and about unity of the human race in the divine plan of creation. The gender ideology, the sexual revolution, the racism—the generalized devaluation of human dignity that we see around us troubles our Christian conscience and summons us to action. But here too the liturgy has a crucial role to play. It is quite remarkable that when Christ draws the attention of disciples to the needs of the crowd before them, he does not say, “Roll up your sleeves and get to work.” Rather he says, “Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:36-38). The prayer of which he speaks here is precisely his own prayer to the Father. He invites us to join him in his prayer in the liturgy. He encourages us to pray to be sent forth to our neighbours with the evangelical words and the grace-inspired remedies that come from him and not from ourselves. In a situation of social crisis not unlike our own, the leaders of the Liturgical Movement and the fathers of the Second Vatican Council saw in fully engaged participation in the liturgy not only the foundation for communal spiritual renewal, but also for a revitalized sense of mission on the part of the Church.


1. See André Haquin, “The Liturgical Movement and Catholic Ritual Revision,” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, eds. Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen Westerfield Tucker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 696-720. For the movement in England, see J.D. Crichton, H.E. Winstone, and J.R. Ainslie, English Catholic Worship: Liturgical Renewal in England since 1900 (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1979).

2. See Ernest B. Koenker, The Liturgical Renaissance in the Roman Catholic Church, 2nd edition (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1966).

3. See R. Gabriel Pivarnik, O.P., Toward a Trinitarian Theology of Liturgical Participation (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2012), 1-15.

4. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 48.

5. General Instruction to the Liturgy of the Hours, n. 5.

6. St. Augustine, Exposition on the Psalms, 85: 1: CCL 39, 1176.

7. Isaac of Stella, Sermon 11, Office of Readings, Liturgy of the Hours, Friday 23rd week of Ordinary Time.

8. Goffredo Boselli, The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy, trans. Paul De Clerck (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014), xi.

9. See Gabriel M. Braso, O.S.B., Liturgy and Spirituality, trans. Leonard J. Doyle (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1971), 39-57, and Koenker, The Liturgical Renaissance, 32-44.

10. Preface of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Roman Missal.

11. Romano Guardini recognized this early on when, as a sequel to his better known The Spirit of the Liturgy, he published a long essay on liturgical formation (Liturgische Bildung) in 1923. For an Italian translation: Formazione Liturgica, trans. Giulio Colombo (Brescia: Morceliana, 2008).

12. See Piero Marini, A Challenging Reform: Realizing the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal, eds. Mark Francis, John Page, and Keith Pecklers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2007.

13. John Baldovin, S.J.’s indispensable Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008) presents a careful and generous analysis of representative critics of the liturgical reform.

14. “What lectio divina is for Scripture, mystagogy is for the liturgy.” Boselli, The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy, xv.

15. Boselli, The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy, xiii.




By Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia,

Faith Magazine

January - Februrary 2022 2022