Pope calls for a stop to arguments over the liturgy, urges a restart from beauty

Titled "Desiderio desideravi", Pope Francis’s new apostolic letter is centred on preparing the people of God for the liturgy. The pontiff warns against ritual aestheticism that cares only for its external form, careless banality and ignorant superficiality. Everyone faces the challenge of making symbols speak to the people of today, nurturing the art of celebrating starting with silence.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis wrote an Apostolic Letter to the people of God on the liturgy in which he invites “the whole Church to rediscover, to safeguard, and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration.”

The document on preparing for the liturgy Desiderio desideravi (I have eagerly desired, Lk 22:15) was released today, Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. It provides a meditation by the pope on the art of celebrating in the Church.

The text transcends any controversy over forms and goes straight to the heart of the Eucharist, which is the encounter with Jesus. “For us a vague memory of the Last Supper would do no good. We need to be present at that Supper,” Francis writes.

The Apostolic Letter Desiderio desideravi re-elaborates in 65 sections the reflections that emerged in the plenary held by the Dicastery for Divine Worship in February 2019 and follows the motu proprio Traditionis custodes of July 2021 in which Francis restrictively regulates the use of the rite in place before the post-Second Vatican Council liturgical reform of 1970.

Francis wants “the beauty of the Christian celebration and its necessary consequences for the life of the Church not to 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.”

“The continual rediscovery of the beauty of the Liturgy is not 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.”

This does not mean that the acceptance of 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.”

“Every aspect of the celebration must be carefully tended to (space, time, gestures, words, objects, vestments, song, music…) and every rubric must be observed. Such attention would be enough to prevent robbing from the assembly what is owed to it; namely, the paschal mystery celebrated according to the ritual that the Church sets down. But even if the quality and the proper action of the celebration were guaranteed, that would not be enough to make our participation full.”

Experiencing the liturgy’s beauty means instead letting oneself be guided by wonder in the face of the “Paschal Mystery”, which is much more than a "muddled" and generic "sense of mystery”, a mystery that has been seemingly taken out of the celebration according to the detractors of the liturgical reform.

“The astonishment or wonder of which I speak is not some sort of being overcome in the face of an obscure reality or a mysterious rite. It is, on the contrary, marvelling at the fact that the salvific plan of God has been revealed in the paschal deed of Jesus.”

In his Apostolic Letter, Francis goes on to stress again the deep unity between the four great Constitutions of the Second Vatican Council.

“It would be trivial to read the tensions, unfortunately present around the celebration, as a simple divergence between different tastes concerning a particular ritual form. The problematic is 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 document that expresses the reality of the Liturgy intimately joined to the vision of Church so admirably described in Lumen gentium.”

Controversy notwithstanding, for Francis the real challenge of the liturgy today is the one already indicated by the theologian Romano Guardini, namely how to ensure that people become capable of symbols anew.

“This is a responsibility for all, for ordained ministers and the faithful alike. The task is not easy because modern man has become illiterate, no longer able to read symbols; it is almost as if their existence is not even suspected. [. . .] So, the question I want to pose is how can we become once again capable of symbols? How can we again know how to read them and be able to live them?”

According to the pontiff, the best answer is to look at how our parents, grandparents or some priest taught us to make the sign of the Cross and perform the other acts of the liturgy.

“Not many discourses are needed here. It is not necessary to have understood everything in that gesture. What is needed is being small, both in consigning it and in receiving it. The rest is the work of the Spirit.”

It is equally important to take care of the art of celebrating, a task that does not fall only on priests, but requires the participation of the whole community in the Eucharist, and who must therefore be adequately prepared.

“The ars celebrandi cannot be reduced to only a rubrical mechanism, much less should it be thought of as imaginative — sometimes wild — creativity without rules. The rite is in itself a norm, and the norm is never an end in itself, but it is always at the service of a higher reality that it means to protect.”

“One does not learn the art of celebrating by frequenting a course in public speaking or in persuasive techniques of communication. [. . .] It is not a question of following a book of liturgical etiquette. It is, rather, a ‘discipline’, [. . .] which, if observed authentically forms us. These are gestures and words that place order within our interior world making us live certain feelings, attitudes, behaviours.”

In this matter, educating to silence is fundamentally important. “It awakens a readiness to hear the Word and awakens prayer. It disposes us to adore the Body and Blood of Christ.”

The pope also warns priests called to lead the liturgy to be aware of certain temptations, such as “rigid austerity or an exasperating creativity, a spiritualizing mysticism or a practical functionalism, a rushed briskness or an overemphasized slowness, a sloppy carelessness or an excessive finickiness, a superabundant friendliness or priestly impassibility. Granted the wide range of these examples, I think that the inadequacy of these models of presiding have a common root: a heightened personalism of the celebrating style which at times expresses a poorly concealed mania to be the centre of attention.”

In this sense, the pontiff also asks that special attention be paid to training and liturgical life in seminaries, with a “liturgical-sapiential plan of studies in the theological formation”.

The letter ends by urging Catholics to “abandon our polemics to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. 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.”