An Important Papal Contribution to the Eucharistic Revival

COMMENTARY: The central question, Pope Francis asks in his recent document, is how do we learn to pray and live the liturgy?

The Chrism Mass is offered in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist in Torun, Poland, on April 18, 2019.
The Chrism Mass is offered in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist in Torun, Poland, on April 18, 2019. (photo: Shutterstock)

Ten days after the Church in the United States began the three-year national Eucharistic Revival on June 19, Pope Francis gave a major contribution to it, in his apostolic letter Desiderio Desideravi, dedicated to the liturgical formation of the people of God. 

One of the most important parts of the revival is to help make the celebration of the Mass the practical source, summit, root and center of the life of the Church and of individual believers. For that to occur, the Church’s theology of the liturgy must be assimilated, prayed and lived. That’s what Pope Francis tried to do in his June 29 letter, giving “some prompts or cues for reflections that can aid in the contemplation of the beauty and truth of Christian celebration,” and inviting us “to rediscover, to safeguard, and to live [its] truth and power.” 

Fifteen years ago, in his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict called for a “mystagogical catechesis” and “education in Eucharistic faith” so that the faithful could “be helped to make their interior dispositions correspond to their gestures and words,” and the hopes of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council toward the faithful’s full, active, conscious, fruitful and devout participation in the Mass could be fulfilled. What Pope Benedict called for — and in a sense had previously tried to sketch in his pre-papal book The Spirit of the Liturgy — Pope Francis has in fact provided in this eloquent, down-to-earth and beautiful letter. 

Pope Francis’ liturgical catechesis begins with Jesus’ “burning” and “infinite” yearning to bring everyone into communion with him through eating his body and drinking his blood. At the beginning of the Last Supper, Jesus told the apostles, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15) and that desire, the Pope says, precedes our attendance at Mass and every pious reception of him. 

Pope Francis zealously calls on the Church to work “so that all can be seated at the Supper of the sacrifice of the Lamb and live from him.” He urges us not to “allow ourselves even a moment of rest, knowing that still not everyone has received an invitation to this Supper or that others have forgotten it or have got lost along the way in the twists and turns of human living.”

The Mass is the means, Pope Francis continues, for us concretely to encounter Jesus Christ, to receive his incarnate love, to enter into the power of his Paschal Mystery and together with him give full, pleasing and perfect worship of God the Father. The problem today is that many people attend Mass without consciously encountering Christ, without an awareness of what is taking place. That’s why, he says, there are enormous stakes in the Church’s getting the liturgy right and forming others to appreciate it, enter into it and live it. 

The Holy Father credits the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical movement that preceded it with reawakening a fuller “theological understanding of the Liturgy” and its role in the life of the Church. He underlines that “it is not an accident” that Vatican II “began with reflection on the liturgy” because, as St. Paul VI said during the Council, “the liturgy is the first source of divine communion in which God shares his own life with us, … the first school of the spiritual life, [and] … the first gift we must make to the Christian people.” Everything must begin with the worship God. 

The central question, Pope Francis says, is how do we learn to pray and live the liturgy? What formation is needed so that we may conform ourselves to Christ and abide in communion with him? He describes several “starting points,” so that the fruits of the conciliar liturgical reforms will be accessible.   

First, we must understand and live the liturgy as properly centered on God and divine self-giving. This, the Pope says, is the antidote for the neo-Gnostic spiritual poison of egocentric emotivism as well as for the neo-Pelagian toxin of self-centered activism. 

Second, the liturgy must lead us, through the beauty of the celebration, to the “beauty of the truth.” This is far from ritual aestheticism, or even a “greater interiority” or “sense of mystery,” but rather leads us to amazement at God’s saving plan through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, and ultimately to the astonished encounter with, and adoration of, Christ in the liturgy. 

Third, there is a need for a proper “art of celebrating” the Mass by both priest and people. Priests must recognize that they are called to be a “particular presence of the risen Lord,” allowing the faithful, through the priest’s gestures and words, to sense the burning desire of Jesus to give himself with them. For that reason, the priest must receive continuous liturgical formation so that through the Mass he may truly evangelize, teach and set proper example. Such an art of celebrating obviously involves, Pope Francis stresses, fidelity to the rubrics of the Mass lest the faithful be “robbed” of what they are owed. 

The Holy Father underlines, however, that the faithful must also recognize that it is the Church, and not the priest alone, who celebrates the liturgy in communion with Christ. Hence they must be helped to acquire the “discipline” of the Holy Spirit that not only forms their feelings, attitudes and liturgical behaviors but conforms them to Christ. 

For this to happen, fourth, the faithful must be helped to rediscover the meaning of “symbolic action” in an age in which many are “illiterate” with regard to understanding the meaning of the symbols and have therefore lost the ability to “relate religiously as fully human beings.” This recovered literacy must be both intellectual and experiential. 

Finally, Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of liturgical silence, which gives the Holy Spirit room to act so that he may help the faithful receive God’s word, grace and Eucharistic self-gift, rather than look at liturgy as primarily a human action.

The one controversial part of the letter concerns Pope Francis’ words about the celebration of the Latin Mass according to the pre-conciliar liturgical books. The Holy Father candidly admits, “I do not see how it is possible to say that one recognizes the validity of the [Second Vatican] Council … and at the same time not accept the liturgical reform born out of Sacramentum Concilium,” Vatican II’s liturgical constitution. That’s why, he insists, “we cannot go back to that ritual form that the Council Fathers … felt the need to reform” — a reform, he said, whose fidelity to the Council Sts. Paul VI and John Paul II “guaranteed” through approving the liturgical books. For that reason, the Holy Father says, he published his motu proprioTraditionis Custodes last July. 

Most supporters and attendees of the pre-conciliar form of the Latin Mass, however, would say that they, just like Pope-emeritus Benedict, absolutely accept the validity of the Council and its liturgical reforms but object to the post-conciliar liturgical abuses, craziness and iconoclasm that took place supposedly in the name and spirit of the Council, what Pope Francis himself calls “imaginative — sometimes wild — creativity.” Such changes, which were neither approved by the Council or by Paul VI and John Paul II, are, they assert, a total betrayal of the Council’s vision and seem to be a far bigger threat to its liturgical reform than love for the pre-Conciliar liturgy. Most who attend the traditional Latin Mass say they do so out of desire for consistent liturgical reverence and fitting Eucharistic piety — not because they reject the Council and its authentic liturgical reforms, but only the false and foolish mutations pretending to have the Council’s mandate. 

The faithful attached to the traditional Latin Mass have, moreover, often shown themselves to be far more aware of Jesus’ passionate desire to celebrate the Passover with us, and far more deeply formed in the liturgical virtues Pope Francis mentions he would like to see in every Catholic, than those who have been schooled by the sadly uneven, average and occasionally “wild” celebration of the reformed liturgy. 

Most should therefore be considered and treated as allies, rather than misunderstood and suspected as opponents, of the Pope’s timely and prayerful push toward true and fitting worship and toward the Church’s full Eucharistic revitalization.