Pope Francis’ New Letter Addresses Liturgical Formation and the Beauty of the Mass

‘Desiderio Desideravi’ follows up on his 2021 document ‘Traditionis Custodes’

Pope Francis leads the mass for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul at Vatican Basilica on June 29, 2022 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo: Antonio Masiello)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has published a meditation on liturgical formation in which he urges an end to polemics in the liturgy, a rediscovery of its beauty, and reasserts his emphasis on unity around the one Roman Rite that emerged after the Second Vatican Council. 

Entitled Desiderio Desideravi and published on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Vatican said the 65-paragraph apostolic letter reworks the results of a 2019 plenary meeting of the Dicastery of Divine Worship and follows the Pope’s 2021 motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, which restricted the Mass according to the pre-1962 Roman Missal in an effort to foster ecclesial communion around the post-Vatican II liturgical rite. 

The Pope’s new document, the Vatican said, is a “meditation on understanding the beauty of liturgical celebration and its role in evangelization,” and concludes with the Pope making an appeal to “abandon controversy in order to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the Church,” as well as to “guard communion” and to “continue to be amazed by the beauty of the liturgy.” 

The release of the document, unusually without an accompanying press conference, was overshadowed by news that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had received Holy Communion at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on the same day, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, in the presence of Pope Francis. 

In May, Pelosi’s bishop, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, announced that she would not be admitted to Holy Communion in the Archdiocese of San Francisco due to her position on abortion. Holy See Press Office spokesman Matteo Bruni said he had “nothing to say” about the matter when asked by the Register on Wednesday. 

 

‘Missionary Option’

In Desiderio Desideravi, Pope Francis begins by stressing that “no one earned a place” at the Last Supper, “all had been invited,” and the same applies to the world even though it “still does no know it.” This is why, the Pope said, he said he “dream[ed] of a ‘missionary option’” in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium

He explains the nature, salvific power and beauty of the Mass; that the liturgy, more than a “vague memory of the Last Supper,” is “the place of encounter with Christ;” and that “there is only one act of worship, perfect and pleasing to the Father; namely, the obedience of the Son, the measure of which is his death on the cross.” 

He discusses the “theological sense of the liturgy,” saying that “we owe to the [Second Vatican] Council — and to the liturgical movement that preceded it — the rediscovery of a theological understanding of the liturgy and of its importance in the life of the Church.” 

With this letter, he says he wants the whole Church not only “to rediscover, to safeguard, and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration,” but also to ensure that the Eucharist not be “spoiled by a superficial and foreshortened understanding of its value or, worse yet, by its being exploited in service of some ideological vision, no matter what the hue.” 

 

‘Antidote for Spiritual Worldliness’

Francis argues that the liturgy is an “antidote for the poison of spiritual worldliness,” and recalls a point he made in Evangelii Gaudium, that this can be in the form of Gnosticism, which he defines as a form of subjectivism, and neo-Pelagianism that “cancels out the role of grace” and leads instead “to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism.” Both of these, he says, “can have disastrous consequences for the life of the Church.” 

But the liturgy, he adds, is “the most effective antidote to these poisons,” and stresses he is speaking of divine worship in its “theological sense and certainly not, as Pius XII already affirmed, liturgy as decorative ceremonies or a mere sum total of laws and precepts that govern the cult.” The liturgy, Francis adds, does not say “I” but “we,” and that “any limitation on the breadth of this ‘we’ is always demonic.” 

On rediscovering daily the “beauty of the truth of the Christian celebration,” the Pope contends that this does not entail the “search for a ritual aesthetic which is content by only a careful exterior observance of a rite or is satisfied by a scrupulous observance of the rubrics.”

“Obviously,” he adds, “what I am saying here does not wish in any way to approve the opposite attitude, which confuses simplicity with a careless banality, or what is essential with an ignorant superficiality, or the concreteness of ritual action with an exasperating practical functionalism.”

Rather the Pope stresses that “every aspect of the celebration must be carefully tended to […] and every rubric must be observed.” But he adds that even if the quality and proper action of the celebration were guaranteed, that would not ensure full participation, and he goes on to stress the need for “amazement before the Paschal Mystery.” Wonder, he says, “is an essential part of the liturgical act.” 

 

‘Abstract Spiritualism’

The Pope then underlines the “need for a serious and vital liturgical formation” especially given that “modern people” in different degrees “have lost the capacity to engage with symbolic action, which is an essential trait of the liturgical act.” He says that with post-modernity, people feel “even more lost, without references of any sort, lacking in values because they have become indifferent, completely orphaned, living a fragmentation in which a horizon of meaning seems impossible.”

He speaks of an “abstract spiritualism which contradicts human nature itself,” but adds that it is with this reality of the modern world that the Church, united at the Council, “wanted to enter into contact, reaffirming her awareness of being the sacrament of Christ.” After quoting St. Paul VI’s words at the end of the second session of the Council in 1963, in which he underlined the liturgy as the “first gift” the Church must give the people, Francis turns to the tensions around the celebration which he describes as “primarily ecclesiological.” 

“I do not see how it is possible to say that one recognizes the validity of the Council — though it amazes me that a Catholic might presume not to do so — and at the same time not accept the liturgical reform born out of Sacrosanctum Concilium,” a reference to the Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy. 

That document, he says, “expresses the reality of the liturgy,” and it is for this reason he says he stressed in his motu proprio Traditionis Custodes that only the reformed liturgy that followed the Council is “the unique expression of the lex orandi [the way we pray] of the Roman Rite.” 

Francis goes on to say that this is why he sees the need for a “serious and dynamic liturgical formation” — because the “non-acceptance of the liturgical reform, as also a superficial understanding of it, distracts us from the obligation of finding responses to the question that I come back to repeating: how can we grow in our capacity to live in full the liturgical action? How do we continue to let ourselves be amazed at what happens in the celebration under our very eyes?” 

 

Romano Guardini

Quoting the 20th century theologian Romano Guardini, who said liturgical reforms “won’t help much” without liturgical formation, the Pope stresses the need to spread knowledge of the “theological sense of the liturgy” beyond the academic environment. 

Noting that “a celebration that does not evangelize is not authentic,” he says that liturgical formation is “not something that can be acquired once and for all,” but requires “permanent formation of everyone, with the humility of little ones, the attitude that opens up into wonder.” The Pope also includes the formation of seminarians in his letter, saying they must experience the liturgy as “not only exemplary from a ritual point of view but also authentic and alive.” 

The liturgy, he adds, is not only about “knowledge” but “praise,” and, again quoting Guardini, says that the first task of liturgical formation is to enable man to become capable once again of understanding symbols. “The task is not easy because modern man has become illiterate, no longer able to read symbols,” the Pope observes. And he stresses the need to be open to the transcendent because not recognizing God as constitutive of us leads to us not only not knowing God but also ourselves. 

Turning to ars celebrandi (the art of celebrating), he says he sees this as one way of regaining an understanding of symbols, but adds that ars celebrandi cannot be reduced to “only a rubrical mechanism” or “much less should it be thought of as imaginative — sometimes wild — creativity without rules.” 

The art of celebration, he continues, “is not something that can be improvised” but like every art, “it requires consistent application.” The Pope also underlines the importance of gestures in the liturgy, from sitting, standing and kneeling, to singing, being in silence and acclamations. Such gestures and discipline “authentically form us,” he says. “Among the ritual gestures that belong to the whole assembly, silence occupies a place of absolute importance," which "moves to repentance and the desire for conversion; it arouses listening to the Word and prayer; it disposes to adoration of the Body and Blood of Christ," the Pope says.

 

‘Humility and Contrition’

The Holy Father also discusses the liturgical role of ordained ministers and warns against “rigid austerity or an exasperating creativity, a spiritualizing mysticism or a practical functionalism.” Such abuses, he says, have a “common root” which he describes as a “heightened personalism of the celebrating style which at times expresses a poorly concealed mania to be the center of attention.” Sometimes this can become more evident when liturgies are broadcast over the air or online, he adds. 

To overcome this, the Pope urges priests to understand the reality that when celebrating the Eucharist, they are being “plunged into the furnace of God’s love.” This requires the priest assiduously “tending to the fire of the love of the Lord that he came to ignite on the earth” and doing so “in humility and contrition.” 

In conclusion, the Pope says his intention is to share some reflections on the liturgy but not “exhaust the immense treasures of the celebration of the holy mysteries.” But again, he underlines the importance of rediscovering the richness of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the link between this constitution and all the others from the Council, and warns against returning to the pre-reformed liturgies. 

It’s not possible, he adds, to “go back to that ritual form which the Council fathers, cum Petro et sub Petro, felt the need to reform.” The principles of that reform, he says, were approved “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and following their conscience as pastors.” 

The Pope says he wrote Traditionis Custodes because the reformed liturgical books of Paul VI and St. John Paul II “guaranteed the fidelity of the reform of the Council” and because he wanted the Church to “lift up, in the variety of so many languages, one and the same prayer capable of expressing her unity. 

“As I have already written, I intend that this unity be re-established in the whole Church of the Roman Rite,” the Pope says. 

 

Authentic Liturgical Formation

He explains that his hope for his letter is that it will help to “rekindle our wonder for the beauty of the truth of the Christian celebration, to remind us of the necessity of an authentic liturgical formation, and to recognize the importance of an art of celebrating that is at the service of the truth of the Paschal Mystery and of the participation of all of the baptized in it, each one according to his or her vocation.”

The liturgical year, he adds, represents a “true ongoing formation,” helping us to realize the “the possibility of growing in our knowledge of the mystery of Christ, immersing our life in the mystery of His Death and Resurrection, awaiting his return in glory.” 

“Let us abandon our polemics to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the Church,” the Pope says in closing. “Let us safeguard our communion. Let us continue to be astonished at the beauty of the Liturgy. The Paschal Mystery has been given to us. Let us allow ourselves to be embraced by the desire that the Lord continues to have to eat His Passover with us. All this under the gaze of Mary, Mother of the Church.”

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