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Pope Francis, the liturgy and the Plenary Council

At a time when liturgy is often the subject of speculation and even debate in the Church, Pope Francis has issued a new Apostolic Letter on its importance and keeping it focused on the sacrifice of Christ

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A priest holds the Eucharist in this illustration. The “sense of mystery” and awe Catholics should experience at Mass is prompted by an awareness of the sacrifice of Christ and his real presence in the Eucharist, Pope Francis said in a document released on 29 June 2022. Photo: CNS, Bob Roller

With impeccable timing, Pope Francis has released an Apostolic Letter Desiderio Desideravi on 29 June, just before our Plenary Council sessions begin.

‘Desiderio desideravi’ are the words Jesus said to His disciples just before the Last Supper, when He told them how much He “earnestly desired” to be with them before He suffered. I’m hoping that the Plenary Council will respond enthusiastically to this.

This is a long Apostolic Letter, and there’s a lot to unpack. But I’m so grateful that the Holy Father has signalled to the Australian bishops and lay people his views on some of our proposed innovations.

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Lay preaching?

Let’s start with lay preaching at Mass. This is completely absent from Desiderio. In fact, the Pope reminds us that he’s consistently taught that preaching at Mass is the duty of priests and deacons (s55). He refers to his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation (Evangelii Gaudium), which showed exactly what he thinks about it.

Pope Francis says that lay people can and should preach the gospel to the world. But preaching in the liturgy is very clearly the job of the clergy.

In fact, in Evangelii Gaudium the Holy Father generously shares his own pastoral experience and fatherly advice to priests on how to prepare good homilies. He doesn’t once even hint that perhaps this job could be done by lay people.

Pope Francis hands an archbishop a box containing a pallium, a woollen stole worn around the shoulders by archbishops, at the end of a Mass in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on 29 June 2022, for the feast of Sts Peter and Paul. Although women deacons have been proposed under the German Synodal Path and has been raised in Australian Plenary Council submissions, there is no mention of the idea in Pope Francis’s Aposotlic Letter on the liturgy Desiderio Desideravi. Photo: CNS, Vatican Media

Women deacons?

Back to Desiderio – there’s no mention of ordaining women to the diaconate or priesthood. Instead, there’s a beautiful meditation on the glories and burdens of the priesthood.

And that’s an emphatically male priesthood, because Pope Francis has no difficulty with using people’s correct pronouns.

So perhaps it’s worth wondering why the Plenary Council reported that it’s heard such a lot of suffering voices of women who can’t be ordained. I’m wondering why those women are so clearly out of step with Pope Francis.

It also makes me wonder in what other ways the Plenary Council might be out of step with Pope Francis. For example, in Desiderio women are mentioned just three times – and the woman who gets the most attention is the Virgin Mary.

Rubrics are actually important

We all know that Pope Francis doesn’t have much time for people who are too in love with the pre-conciliar forms of the Mass. But in Desiderio, he sharply corrects anyone who tries to exploit the liturgy to serve an ideological vision (s16). He also reproves those who ‘confuse[s] simplicity with a careless banality, or what is essential with an ignorant superficiality.’ (s22)

Pope Francis has told us to ‘say the black and do the red’, because this is what is owed to the People of God:

“Let us be clear here: every aspect of the celebration must be carefully tended to … 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.” (s23)

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, presides over the Liturgy of the Eucharist during a Mass attended by Pope Francis in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on 29 June 2022. In his new Apostolic Letter, Pope Francis emphasises the importance of the faithful allowing themselves to be formed in the mind and worship of the Church in and through the liturgy. Photo: CNS, Vatican Media

The importance of being formed by liturgy

Of course, there’s more to it than that, as the Pope continues – we have to actively participate by letting the liturgy form us, instead of the other way around.

And although the Plenary Council shows a certain lack of urgency about the drastic decline in Mass attendance, the Pope tackles this head-on. He reminds us vigorously that everyone is invited to the Supper of the wedding feast.

It’s also our job to make sure they’re clothed in the white garment of faith that’s been bathed in the blood of the Lamb – the sacrament of forgiveness and healing (s5).

“Let us be clear here: every aspect of the celebration must be carefully tended to … and every rubric must be observed …”

Drawing on Vatican II

The Holy Father has picked up and run with Sacrosanctum Concilium, the great Vatican II document on the liturgy. Sacrosanctum is a master class in how to worship God in the modern world.

Unfortunately, it’s been largely ignored by people who call themselves ‘the Vatican II generation’ in the rush to impose their personal ideas of what’s fun and interesting at Sunday Mass.

Instead, the Pope writes from a deep and personal awe of the reality of the Sacrifice of the Mass. We are really and truly present at every incident in the Gospels, culminating at the sacrificial and life-giving death of Jesus (s11).

A message from Francis: the Mass is not entertainment

The Holy Father wants desperately to share that awe with us, and to re-ignite it in our jaded hearts and minds. What he suggests is nothing short of revolutionary.

He tells us straight up to stop treating the Mass as entertainment – don’t improvise and make stuff up. Priests need to stop trying to be the centre of attention, because that should be Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Instead, he tells us to use everything that’s traditional, teach it to your children, and repeat it until it’s a habit (s49-51).

All of us, especially the Plenary Council, would do well to listen to him. This Apostolic Letter isn’t a coincidence.

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