From sign to mystery–mystagogical catechesis

Pastors’ commitment to efforts in leading faithful into the mystery of the sacred liturgy emphasized

by Father Randy Stice

In its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council put special emphasis on “full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations” by all the faithful (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14). “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” (SC 14). The council’s vision of participation requires a profound understanding of all the elements that compose a liturgical celebration.

An approach recommended by recent popes is called “mystagogical catechesis,” (the word mystagogy means “to lead into the mystery”) and was the type of instruction given to new Christians in the first centuries of the Church.

In Mane Nobiscum Domine, Blessed John Paul II encouraged and explained this approach: “Pastors should be committed to that mystagogical catechesis so dear to the Fathers of the Church, by which the faithful are helped to understand the meaning of the liturgy’s words and actions, to pass from its signs to the mystery which they contain, and to enter into that mystery in every aspect of their lives.”

This is the essence of the kind of participation envisioned by the Second Vatican Council, passing from the visible elements of the liturgy to the mystery they make present, and letting that mystery permeate every facet of our lives.

In Sacrament of Charity, Pope Benedict XVI elaborates on Blessed John Paul II’s recommendation of mystagogical catechesis.  An effective mystagogical catechesis, he says, does three things. First, it interprets the rites in the light of salvation history, recognizing the Old Testament persons and events that prefigure Christ and affirming the unity of divine revelation. According to the Catechism, “the Chosen People received from God distinctive signs and symbols that marked its liturgical life…signs of the covenant, symbols of God’s mighty deeds for his people. Among these liturgical signs from the Old Covenant are circumcision, anointing and consecration of kings and priests, laying on of hands, sacrifices, and above all the Passover. The Church sees in these signs a prefiguring of the sacraments of the New Covenant” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1150). Christ, summing up all things in himself (Ephesians 1.10), is the definitive meaning of all of these signs.

Second, effective mystagogical catechesis presents the meaning of the different signs contained in the rites. These signs include things like water, oil, bread, wine, candles and rings, as well as gestures and posture. Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes this aspect: “This is particularly important in a highly technological age like our own, which risks losing the ability to appreciate signs and symbols. More than simply conveying information, a mystagogical catechesis should be capable of making the faithful more sensitive to the language of signs and gestures that, together with the word, make up the rite” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 64).

The third aspect of effective mystagogical catechesis brings “out the significance of the rites for the Christian life in all its dimensions” — work and responsibility, thoughts and emotions, activity and repose. Part of the mystagogical process is to demonstrate how the mysteries celebrated in the rite are linked to the missionary responsibility of the faithful. The mature fruit of mystagogy is an awareness that one’s life is being progressively transformed by the holy mysteries being celebrated” (SacCar, 64).

There are four primary sources for mystagogical catechesis. Of primary importance is the rite itself: the words, gestures, and signs that make up the individual sacraments.

A second source is the general instruction that governs the rite and that is found in the front of the ritual book. The biblical readings constitute a third source; every sacrament includes a liturgy of the word with a number of biblical readings from which to choose. Finally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses not only the theology of each sacrament, but also the rite, explaining the meaning of the different elements and signs.

In subsequent columns I will be presenting a mystagogical catechesis of each of the sacraments following the method presented in this column, so that our participation in the liturgy can become ever more fruitful.


Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at

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