How God Wants to be Worshiped: Participation in the Church’s Liturgy

This article was originally published by the late Francis Cardinal George, OMI in the newspaper The Catholic New World (now Chicago Catholic) on October 24, 2004. Given the recent announcements of the National Eucharistic Revival and Congress, we thought it fitting to revisit the insights of Cardinal George following his participation in the 2004 International Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico which saw 5 million Catholics show up.

For three days last week, I participated in the International Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. These Congresses are held every four or five years around the world. The first to be held in the United States took place in Chicago in 1926, when Cardinal Mundelein was Archbishop of Chicago. The Guadalajara Eucharistic Congress launched the Year of the Eucharist for the whole Catholic world, a year of grace to last from this October to October, 2005, and culminating in a Synod on the Eucharist in Rome. (See story, Page 5.)

The Congress was well prepared in all the parishes of the Archdiocese of Guadalajara, which counts five million Catholics and has over 400 seminarians in theology studies. It’s a diocese that dates back to 1537 and is, therefore, almost 300 years older than the Archdiocese of Chicago. Catechesis on the Eucharist was intense in the parishes throughout the past year. All the parishes celebrated their children’s first Holy Communion on October 9, just before the Congress began. During the Congress, a daily catechesis by a visiting cardinal was followed by witness talks. I spoke Saturday on “The Eucharist: Source of Evangelization.” The previous Thursday, there was a Mass in a field just outside the city, and then the Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession to the cathedral. The procession took five hours and about five million people participated. There were evenings dedicated to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in parish centers designated for particular language groups. There was a youth rally Saturday evening. Confessions were heard on almost every occasion. It was a glorious mixture of learning, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and celebration of the Mass. The faith was so strongly expressed that one could almost touch it.

Active participation in the liturgy is the soul of participation in the life of the Church. The Church exists first of all to worship God, and to do so as He wants to be worshiped. Our worship of the Father is possible because we are “in Christ” through baptism and faith. In actively participating in the liturgy, we cooperate personally with what Christ seeks to do for us and through us. In the celebration of the Eucharist, Jesus Christ is the one who acts as both priest and victim, the one offering and the one being offered or sacrificed. To his self-sacrifice, we join our own, our very selves.

There is an “objectivity” about the liturgy because it starts with Christ, not with our religious experience. The Catholic liturgy is the action of Christ himself, made visible and shared through the sacramental action of the Church. Its basic symbol system comes to us from the apostles, and the Church is not free to change it. If one uses running sand or flowing beer to baptize rather than water, there is no sacramental action; no baptism takes place. If one witnesses “marriage” vows between two men or two women rather than between a man and a woman, there is no sacramental action; no marriage takes place. If one “consecrates” cornbread or chocolate cake rather than bread made from wheat, there is no sacramental action; no Mass is celebrated. If one uses peanut oil or grape jelly rather than chrism to confirm, there is no sacramental action; Confirmation has not taken place. The sacramental signs make visible the action of the risen Lord, and the Church is not free to change them. Since religion is a purely personal project for many today, this confession of limits to what we can do liturgically infuriates from time to time. But those who argue about the essentials of the sacraments are arguing with Christ, not with the Church.

There is also, however, a “subjectivity” about the liturgy, because Christ calls us to cooperate with him in his actions. We participate in that which only the Lord can do; we take part in his action in order to become “one body, one spirit in Christ.” In the liturgy we are brought into contact with the saving work of Christ made present under the sacramental signs. There, God’s grace transforms us into Christ’s own likeness. Our response to Christ’s action, the kernel of our active participation in the liturgy, is twofold: we adore and we obey. In and through adoration, we respond to the infinite God who is our creator and redeemer. Through obedience, we accept and allow the God whom we adore to shape our personal existence in the pattern of his love.

The liturgy involves us with Christ’s action in union with all those who are his disciples, living and dead. Sacred art often depicts the saints who have gone before us in faith and whose feasts are marked in the liturgical calendar. Liturgical art gives us beautiful crucifixes, splendidly crafted chalices and other objects needed for worship. Music lifts our voices and our hearts to God. Christ’s actions are made present in the sacramental rites; our faith is made visible in the art and music and architecture that surround them.

Participation in the liturgy is “an exercise of faith and of the baptismal dignity.” (Redemptionis sacramentum, 37). Participation in the liturgy is an act of faith and presupposes that one shares the Catholic faith. Participation means “to offer ourselves as a living and holy sacrifice pleasing to God.” Worship always means self-sacrifice, because it entails surrendering ourselves to the Lord on his terms. Christian worship does this by incorporating disciples of Christ into his own self-sacrifice for our salvation. People generally understand that a relationship always entails self-sacrifice; and a relationship with God entails nothing less than self-surrender. This is the basis for the full, active, conscious participation, interior, exterior and sacramental, of all in the celebration of the liturgy.

I was grateful to be in Guadalajara for three days of the International Eucharistic Congress, and I look forward to celebrating the Year of the Eucharist here in the Archdiocese. Our celebration will be fully participatory as we grow in our understanding of the nature of the liturgy. Such growth in understanding, in an Archdiocese where much work has gone into the liturgical renewal over the last several decades, depends on good liturgical catechesis, on the work of our Archdiocesan Office of Worship, directed by Mr. Todd Williamson, and on the priests and deacons and lay faithful in each of our parishes.

Along with the faithful who participate in the Eucharist, the world itself is changed each time the Mass is celebrated. To those who give themselves wholeheartedly to encourage all to participate actively in the liturgy of the Church, as Christ would have us celebrate it, I am most grateful. God bless you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago

Next summer, 80,000 Catholics will gather at the feet of Jesus in Indianapolis, boldly anticipating a new Pentecost. The people of God will come from every corner and every parish in our nation to bring the holy fire back to their local community. Your life—and our Church—will never be the same. Don’t miss this historic moment! Let’s all show up for Jesus in Indy!

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John Hanretty serves as a Digital Media Producer for Relevant Radio®. He is a graduate of the Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. Besides being passionate about writing, his hobbies include drawing and digital design. You can read more of his daily articles at and on the Relevant Radio® app.