Pope Francis has given the Catholic Church a lengthy letter on liturgical formation titled Desiderio desideravi. Literally this is “I desired with desire,” which is a Latin idiom for emphasis. It is from Luke 22:15, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (NABRE), which is quoted at the beginning of the new document.
Two things above all characterize the letter: its fidelity to the reformed liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, and its urgent call for Catholics to understand more deeply the spiritual depth of the liturgy. The pope seems to be calling for something of a thoroughgoing spiritual renewal with respect to the liturgy.
On the first point, Francis follows his intention, announced shortly after his election, to implement the Second Vatican Council more fully, including in areas where the Council has not yet been implemented in full. Francis’s starting point is the reformed liturgy, which he simply assumes is in harmony with the Council’s deeply reformist statements. By my tally, Francis cites Ireneaus, Pius XII, and Paul VI each once; Leo the Great and Augustine twice; St. Francis, his own Evangelii Gaudium, and the great 20th century liturgical theologian Romano Guardini four times, and the reformed Roman Missal 13 times.
Francis does not cite Benedict XVI, though of course much of his spiritual reflections on the meaning of the liturgy would overlap with Benedict’s rich liturgical writing. At the same time, Francis reinforces his conviction that the future of liturgical renewal is to be found in engaging the trajectory of Paul VI and John Paul II, while backing away from Benedict’s idiosyncratic position that greater use of the pre-Vatican II liturgy is somehow consonant with the Second Vatican Council. And so Francis writes in article 31,
“I have felt it my duty to affirm [in Traditionis Custodes which limits the used of the pre-Vatican II liturgy] that ‘The liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.’
He writes in the same article:
“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 point worth further reflection would be what it means to “accept the liturgical reform.” Does this merely mean that one accepts that other people accept the reformed liturgy while one continues with the old liturgy? Or does it mean that one accepts the reformed liturgy as one’s own liturgy? The Pope seems to be pushing the Church toward the second view when he writes,
“We cannot go back to that ritual form which the Council fathers, cum Petro et sub Petro [with Peter and under Peter], felt the need to reform.” (61)
In urging that the entire church understand more deeply the beauty of the liturgy, the pope in effect is critiquing both those small numbers of traditionalist who resist the reformed liturgy, and the no doubt much larger numbers of Catholics who have not yet grasped the full spiritual depth of the reformed liturgy. He writes, also in article 31:
“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?” he said.
It would probably be accurate to see Desiderio desideravi as not so much a rejoinder to traditionalists, though there is certainly some of that in the document, but as an urgent call for the church as a whole to focus much more intently on the beauty and power of the reformed liturgy. That is certainly the overall thrust of the document. The pope seems to be concerned that too many liturgical celebrations are shallow, routine, unengaging, lacking in beauty, and not sufficiently formative of the imaginations of Catholics. “We are in need of a serious and dynamic liturgical formation” (31), he states.
The pope seems to see undue freedom in straying from the prescribed rites as unwarranted creativity. He writes in no. 23:
“Let us be clear here: 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 the pope is not a rubricist. In the spirit of Romano Guardini he states,
“How can we become once again capable of symbols? How can we again know how to read them and be able to live them? … A symbolic ‘reading’ is not a mental knowledge, not the acquisition of concepts, but rather a living experience.” (45)
The pope has sharp, and much needed, words for priest celebrants:
“We could say that there are different ‘models’ of presiding. Here is a possible list of approaches, which even though opposed to each other, characterize a way of presiding that is certainly inadequate: 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 center of attention. Often this becomes more evident when our celebrations are transmitted over the air or online, something not always opportune and that needs further reflection. (54)
Ouch! The pope goes on to say that these problems are not widespread, but they are nevertheless present in some instances.
What Pope Francis wants is “astonishment at the paschal mystery.” (25) May the church hear the pope’s call and respond generously!