Why the whole Church should embrace Desiderio Desideravi

Pope Francis's new document on liturgy is important - really important

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The Eucharist rests on a paten at the altar during Mass. The “sense of mystery” and awe Catholics should experience at Mass is prompted by an awareness of sacrifice of Christ and his real presence in the Eucharist, Pope Francis said in his Apostolic Letter on the liturgy, Desiderio Desideravi. Photo: CNS, Chaz Muth

It’s no coincidence that days before the commencement of the closing session of Australia’s Plenary Council, Pope Francis has released a pointed 65-paragraph letter calling on the church to “listen together to what the Spirit is saying” regarding what is possibly the biggest ecclesiological elephant in the room.

In his apostolic letter Desiderio Desideravi, released on June 29, the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul, Pope Francis looks at the most fundamental dimension of Christian life: the liturgy, “the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit (SC 14).”

As the director of a centre for liturgy endorsed by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which focuses specifically on formative education for every corner of the Church – from lay parishioners through to doctoral students – I am overjoyed that Pope Francis has reflected seriously on the importance of liturgical formation for all.

Following on from the Pope’s Motu Proprio Traditionis custodes, this new apostolic letter prioritises the liturgical formation of the entire gathered assembly, emphasising the liturgy as the guaranteed place of real encounter with Christ, a privileged theological source, and the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed.

There is substantial food for thought in Desiderio Desideravi, but don’t be tempted to leave it just for liturgists and clergy to digest – this is a letter for the entire Church.

Here are a few initial responses to this important letter.

Pope Francis elevates the chalice as he celebrates Mass in Carpi, Italy, in 2017. On 29 June 2022, the pope issued issued an apostolic letter insisting Catholics need to better understand the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council and its goal on promoting the “full, conscious, active and fruitful celebration” of the Mass. Photo: CNS, Alessandro Garofalo, Reuters

Explicit call to liturgical formation for all – including clergy

Pope Francis wants to highlight the importance of formation both for and by the liturgy. This new letter navigates a careful path between the need for formation in knowledge of the liturgy (its rubrics, theological riches, and beauty), and the need to allow its celebration to form us, so that through our encounter with Christ available in a privileged way in the liturgy, we are conformed to Him.

Pope Francis focuses on the ars celebrandi (the art of celebrating the liturgy well), because the way in which we celebrate the liturgy directly impacts our experience of it and our capacity to participate fully, consciously, and actively in it.  Such participation is not superficial ritual enactment but rather is deep participation in the work of the body of Christ of whom we each are members by virtue of our baptism.

While the Holy Father acknowledges the individual nuances of liturgical celebration led by different presiders and enacted by different assemblies, he is also clear that there is no place for unrestricted liturgical creativity, especially under the guise of so-called liturgical inculturation (DD49), and that the art of celebrating liturgy well requires appropriate formation. Pope Francis identifies the root cause of a range of dysfunctional presiding practices, as “a heightened personalism of the celebrating style which at times expresses a poorly concealed mania to be the centre of attention” which results in assemblies suffering “from being thus abused.” (DD54)

The logic-chain Pope Francis advances in Desiderio Desideravi is that we cannot be formed properly by the liturgy if it is not celebrated well, and we cannot celebrate it well unless those presiding at it and participating in it understand what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what it means, which requires significant meaningful formation.

Seminaries and theologates need to keep the liturgy at the centre of formation

Key to formation for liturgy is teaching liturgy well in seminaries and theologates and ensuring that all other theological subjects are taught with their intimate connection to the liturgy in mind, (as Sacrosanctum Concilium 16 instructed) (DD37).  Almost 60 years after the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, this aim has not yet been achieved and the shrinking pool of liturgical specialists in theological faculties globally testifies that the central importance of the liturgy as the place where all other aspects of theology converge in praxis, is not yet universally recognised even among theologians.  If the study of liturgy is not explicitly prioritised in seminaries and theologates through the provision of specialist personnel, programs, and promotion, the sort of formation called for by Pope Francis to effect the proper celebration and understanding of the liturgy will not eventuate, the quality of liturgical celebrations will not improve, and liturgy’s experiential formative capacity will not be realised.

Widespread diocesan support and promotion of formative, accessible, and engaging educational programs for the faithful, focusing on the beauty, wonder and true purpose of the liturgy, will further enable our very real experience of Christ present in the liturgy and our conformation to Him through its proper celebration, writes ACU’s Prof Clare Johnson. Photo: CNS, Chaz Muth

Liturgical catechesis is also essential

The advancement of formative programs in liturgical catechesis for the broader Catholic community is also needed.  People celebrate better if they understand more fully what they are doing and why they are doing it.

While Pope Francis recognises that critics of the liturgy of Vatican II are not wrong to decry the loss of a ‘sense of mystery’ in how all too many presently celebrate it, he does not blame the Church’s current liturgy for this, rather he blames the lack of appropriate formation of both clergy and the faithful, which has resulted in a broad loss of capacity to engage meaningfully with symbolic actions, and a loss of appreciation for the beauty of God accessible through beautiful liturgical celebration. His explicit intention is that liturgical unity be re-established in the whole Church of the Roman Rite (DD61) and he calls on all the faithful to abandon polemics and safeguard our communion through liturgical unity.

Advancing a bold vision for liturgical formation

If Pope Francis’ vision of the liturgy articulated in Desiderio Desideravi is to be advanced, bold diocesan and institutional leadership from bishops, seminary rectors, and deans of theology is needed to reposition formation for and by the liturgy at the centre of theological education and ongoing clergy development.

Widespread diocesan support and promotion of formative, accessible, and engaging educational programs for the faithful, focusing on the beauty, wonder and true purpose of the liturgy, will further enable our very real experience of Christ present in the liturgy and our conformation to Him through its proper celebration.

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