Orders of Service: Liturgical Principles

Design for liturgy shares certain principles and methods whether the object of the design is a building, vestment, or some typographic expression of prayers and songs. In the past year I had the opportunity to design worship aids for my local parish, and I want to share them here as an example of the kind of thought that goes into design from liturgy (and a bit of what I mean by that phrase). I hope this will also aid others tasked with the design of worship aids. The first book is for the Triduum—the sequence of celebrations beginning with Good (Maundy) Thursday, continuing through Good Friday, and culminating in the great solemnity of solemnities that is the Easter Vigil—and is a full bilingual order of worship for the various services.


The second is a supplemental music booklet for the season of Advent.


Since these were designed for a Roman Catholic parish (St Albert the Great, Austin), the following specifically references Roman Catholic documents and instructions. But I believe the principles are sufficiently ecumenical that they will benefit any church with an established liturgical tradition and be of interest to those whose worship is more locally and creatively defined.

This first part will examine the Liturgical Principles guiding the design. The second part will look at the Design Strategies used and some of the specific decisions made to bring those principles to fruition.

The three guiding liturgical principles in these designs are:

accessibility: "the fully conscious and actual/active participation by all people" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14; Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini)

catechesis: "the liturgy as the first school of spiritual life" (Paul VI, address at the closing of the second session of the Council, 4 December 1963)

noble simplicity: "clear and obvious, yet stimulating and erudite" (Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy)

The first two speak to the function and content of the booklets; the third concerns their execution in a manner befitting that content.

Since these books are intended explicitly and exclusively intended for the use of the congregation, the reason they were made was for the benefit of the congregation. Therefore, their contents and their format needed first to foster the actual/active participation of the faithful.

As fits the original uses of the phrase actuosa participatio, they especially needed to enable the people to sing those parts proper to them. But there are other modes of participation no less actual or active. It is therefore important to also include texts to which the congregation responds (not just the responses) and those texts she is asked to affirm with an "Amen" or other acclamation. Chief among these are the Collect and the Preface, whose inclusion are recommended by their lack of familiarity and universal character. These are treasures of the church too often omitted in other sources that elucidate the purpose of the celebration of the day, conform the worship of the faithful toward the communitarian nature of the liturgy, and provide perfect models of personal piety. Greater access to the texts of the prayers heard will only reinforce their importance, comprehension, and fruitfulness of devotion.


Both Mediator Dei and Sacrosanctum Concilium are clear in the importance of "necessary" liturgical instruction as a means to achieving the "right and duty" that is actual/active participation.

SC 14. Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.

MD 186. We earnestly exhort you, Venerable Brethren, that after errors and falsehoods have been removed, and anything that is contrary to truth or moderation has been condemned, you promote a deeper knowledge among the people of the sacred liturgy so that they more readily and easily follow the sacred rites and take part in them with true Christian dispositions.

Therefore, our second principle stems from the fact that the liturgy is her own best teacher, and the best teacher of the faith. In explaining the relationship between faith and the celebration of the sacraments, the Catechism of the Catholic Church invokes the ancient saying lex orandi, lex credendi: "the law of prayer is the law of faith," sometimes rendered as "what we pray, we believe."

CCC 1124. The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles—whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi (or: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, according to Prosper of Aquitaine [5th cent.]).45 The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition.

Simply making more of the texts available will provide greater understanding what the church does and prays. The Advent booklet was an important component of a larger effort to provide the church with access to her liturgy in the form of the propers. In order to highlight different aspects of the great mystery that is the Eucharistic celebration, certain texts of the Mass change in order to reflect the character of the season or a specific feast. Just as the Collect and Preface said by the Celebrant and the readings from the Lectionary vary from day to day, each liturgy includes three chants—the Introit (Entrance), Offertory, and Communion—specific to the day’s Mass. The Introit, Offertory, and Communion chants are integral parts of the Mass, even though they may be replaced by other texts and music. But as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in The Spirit of Liturgy, “the biblical and liturgical texts are the normative words from which liturgical music has to take its bearings.”

For this Advent, the parish elected used the Introit Hymns by Christop Tietze (with some hymn tune replacements) for the Introits to be sung by the congregation and the Simple English Propers for the Offertory and Communion with the antiphons provided for optional congregational singing. For a typical parish, this arrangement provides a nice balance of the authentic texts and "pastoral" familiarity in order to take steps to educate and elevate the assembly to the level of the liturgy.


There is also an opportunity to supplement with explanatory texts. The General Instructions of the Roman Missal, in the interest of bringing to greater fruition the Council of Trent (GIRM 11), includes among the lay ministers a commentator who "provides the faithful, when appropriate, with brief explanations and commentaries with the purpose of introducing them to the celebration and preparing them to understand it better. The commentator’s remarks must be meticulously prepared and clear though brief" (GIRM 105). Texts included in an order of worship serve the same purpose and should follow the same directive. By virtue of their unobtrusiveness, they have the advantage of being appropriate in more situations.

Explanatory texts should be focused first on fostering the spirit in which the church desires to celebrate (the "true Christian disposition" mentioned in Mediator Dei 186) and then on the immediate context or content of the rite. As hard as it is for the liturgical nerds who tend to get tasked with creating worship orders (myself included), historical and ceremonial explanations (especially those of a polemical nature) should be limited.

My method for preparing these texts is to cut and paste as much as possible and always draw from as close to the ritual as possible. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and this is a sure way to prevent the creep of sentimental individualism. The rubrics themselves can be an excellent source, such as for the preparation of the Paschal Candle:


The diagrammatic nature of the rubrics suggests this use; here I have merely reproduced what is included in the Missal. The General Instructions are also excellent sources; they often provide greater detail and references to scripture and ecclesial documents that may be woven into the Missal rubrics. It may also prove fruitful to reference another part of the liturgy when, for example, a contrast between an antiphon and a particular prayer or action illuminates both.

For the Baptismal Liturgy, it was not feasible to include the full text. Instead, each distinct action/section has its name as defined in the Ritual and a characteristic line from its formula. Other explanatory texts come from the RCIA and its General Instruction.


The catechetical efficacy of the liturgy is enhanced by its inherent beauty. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote:

"The liturgy possesses a tremendously compelling form of expression, which is a school of religious training and development to the Catholic who rightly understands it, and which is bound to appear to the impartial observer as a cultural formation of the most lofty and elevated kind."

The design of liturgical artifacts should likewise follow the character of the liturgy itself if they are truly to contribute to that "tremendously compelling form of expression." That is a daunting task; perhaps a good first goal is not to detract from it. From there, craftsmen starting from that same "true Christian disposition" required of participation in the liturgy may strive to from objects of most lofty and elevated cultural formation while remaining subservient to the actions and words they embody, since these are of a higher formal order than liturgical objects (cf. Dom Hans van der Laan, The Play of Forms).

Once again Guardini's criteria for the liturgy itself, which he concludes is exactly how the prayer of liturgy has been formed, works as a criteria for the design of liturgical objects:

"it must be rich in idea and powerful images, and speak a developed but restrained language; its constructions must be clear and obvious to the simple man, stimulating to the man of culture..."

As a design criteria for orders of worship, this suggests something that is at first glance clear and simple (following a familiar form for those following along) but that also rewards a repeated and deeper reading.


When it comes to the specifics of executing design for the liturgy, the Roman Catholic church is relatively broad. Both Mediator Dei and Sacrosanctum Concilium are make the point that no particular style should be rejected outright (MD 195) and that the Church has not selected any style as her own (SC 123). The Constitution on the Liturgy gives positive directives that sacred art be worthy and fitting of the liturgy and that they exhibit a "noble beauty" (SC 124) that follows from the "noble simplicity" (SC 34) of the rites themselves.

The liturgical principle of "noble simplicity" is a potentially challenging paradox because taken individually each term suggests divergent material manifestations. Depending on the artifact in question, there are different way to achieve that balance. For these designs, simplicity meant emphasizing clarity, functionality, and readability. Simplicity does not mean merely absence. Here it takes the text as the primary formal element and seeks a harmonious straightforwardness in its presentation that reveals rather than obscures the formal structure of the rites. Nobility meant aiming for an elevated dignity, crisp cleanliness, consistency, and appeals to the history of the church's printing. The synthesis of these goals depended heavily on the principles of good typography and the design strategies which will be the focus of Part Two.