The Catholic bishops of the United States have launched a eucharistic revival over the next three years. Pope Francis has made a singular contribution to that effort with the recent release of his powerful and theologically rich apostolic letter on the liturgical formation of the People of God, "Desiderio Desideravi" ("I have earnestly desired").
He tells us that his aim is to “invite the whole Church to rediscover, to safeguard, and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration” as a means to more fully appreciating “the beauty of the Christian celebration and its necessary consequences for the life of the Church.” This too must be the aim of our eucharistic revival. A central principle in that rediscovery is that in the ritual passed on to us from those disciples at the Last Supper, we encounter the crucified and risen Lord and are invited to participate in the Paschal Mystery by sharing in his work of saving the world. This engaging encounter by which the risen Lord invites us to share in his saving work is the core of our eucharistic faith, for, as the Holy Father observes: “The Christian faith is either an encounter with Him alive or it does not exist.”
To put it another way, the Mass is not a representation of the Last Supper, a play acting just to memorialize what Jesus did, much like we do on civic holidays that recall moments in our history. Rather, the Eucharist is a real encounter with the crucified and risen Christ, for, as the Council of Trent reminds us, what is really made present in the Eucharist as we participate in it is Christ’s victory and triumph over death.
It was for this reason that when the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council took up the work of reforming the liturgy, a high priority was to promote the full, active and conscious participation of all the baptized. Every consideration was given to making sure that the liturgy would guarantee this encounter and assist all the baptized to understand that they come to the Eucharist as authentic participants, not spectators.
From the start of Mass, in one voice we acknowledge our need for God’s mercy in the Penitential Rite. We then join our voices in praising God as we sing the Gloria. Then, together we listen to the Word of God, and reply in one voice to the Word in the responsorial psalm and greet the risen Lord as the Gospel in the words of Easter morning in the Alleluia.
We continue to deepen our participation in Christ’s saving action as the Eucharistic Prayer recounts what Jesus did in his life and at the Last Supper. In saying “amen,” we proclaim that his story is now our story, which we make real by participating in the sharing of the one bread and the one cup, thus becoming one body in Christ.
That is why Pope Francis writes in “Desiderio Desideravi”: “The action of the celebration does not belong to the individual but to the Christ-Church, to the totality of the faithful united in Christ. The liturgy does not say ‘I’ but ‘we,’ and any limitation on the breadth of this ‘we’ is always demonic. The liturgy does not leave us alone to search out an individual supposed knowledge of the mystery of God. Rather, it takes us by the hand, together, as an assembly, to lead us deep within the mystery that the Word and the sacramental signs reveal to us.”
The Holy Father notes that there are those who claim that we lost a sense of mystery about the Mass with the reforms of the Vatican II. To this he replies that we must be careful not to pursue a false sense of mystery, which he describes as “being overcome in the face of an obscure reality or a mysterious rite.” Rather, he says, the real mystery is that Christ has invited us to participate in his saving work. This is what should astonish us, Pope Francis tells us. “It is ... marveling at the fact that the salvific plan of God has been revealed in the paschal deed of Jesus (cf. Eph 1: 3- 14), and the power of this paschal deed continues to reach us in the celebration of the ‘mysteries’ of the sacraments.” More will be said about this in Part III of this series.
In Part II of this series, we will delve more deeply into the circumstances that led to the Second Vatican Council, as a means of giving context to the restoration of the liturgy called for by the bishops at that time.