As I noted in Part I of this series, with his letter on liturgical formation, “Desiderio Desideravi,” Pope Francis has made a unique contribution to the three-year eucharistic revival launched by the U.S. Catholic bishops.
By showing the link between the Church remaining faithful to the mission of Christ and the celebration of the liturgy, the Holy Father is inviting “the whole Church to rediscover, to safeguard, and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration, (lest) the beauty of the Christian celebration and its necessary consequences for the life of the Church ... 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.”
His concern about a superficial understanding of the liturgy that disconnects our worship from the Church’s mission is not new. Pope Pius XII warned that the liturgy cannot be understood merely as “decorative ceremonies or a mere sum total of laws and precepts that govern the cult” (“Mediator Dei”). So, too, the bishops who gathered for the Second Vatican Council 60 years ago made it clear that the aim of the liturgical reforms was not about cosmetically modernizing our worship.
Rather, like all of Vatican II’s reforms, the goals were “to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”).
The starting point for the renewal envisioned by the Council was the promotion of the full, active and conscious participation of all the baptized in the full breadth of church life, including the liturgy. Engaging all the members would be needed if the Church was going to respond to the precise challenges facing believers and all of humanity.
Consider the historical context of the decision by Pope St. John XXIII to call a council, and the contemporary challenges facing the Church. By the time Angelo Roncalli was elected pope in 1958, humanity in the 20th century was deeply divided, having suffered through a global pandemic and economic depression.
Similarly, Christians, particularly in Europe, expressed doubts about the significance of their faith following two world wars fought for the most part by “Christian nations.” People wondered whether faith and religion really mattered, since the Gospel of Christ, the Prince of Peace, preached and celebrated among these people for nearly 2,000 years, seemed to have little impact on these “Christian nations.” Likewise, many of the faithful expressed the concern that the only time the Church seemed to engage the world was to offer criticism or condemnation.
For the Church to be a credible “light to the nations,” all her members need to embrace their responsibility for building solidarity within the human family and reaching out to it with love and concern. The bishops at the Council expressed this new vision of the role of each of the baptized and the Church as they addressed the modern world: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds” (“Gaudium et Spes”).
Pope Francis gives new life to the Council’s efforts by reminding us that the liturgy is the school where we learn and are empowered to take up the mission of Christ as members of the Body of Christ. It is precisely in our worship that we are continually renewed in our baptismal call to participate in Christ’s work of saving the world.
As the pope observes in “Desiderio Desideravi,” “liturgical celebration frees us from the prison of a self-referencing nourished by one’s own reasoning and one’s own feeling. 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.’ ”
The liturgy also serves as an antidote to the presumption that we can save ourselves: “Participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice is not our own achievement,” Francis continues, “as if because of it we could boast before God or before our brothers and sisters. The beginning of every celebration reminds me who I am, asking me to confess my sin and inviting me to implore the Blessed Mary ever virgin, the angels and saints and all my brothers and sisters to pray for me to the Lord our God.”
Herein lies our understanding of the mystery involved in our worship. Christ not only saves us but invites us to join him in bringing about the salvation of the world. Pope Francis has more to say about the sense of mystery, which some claim we have lost in the liturgical reforms, which I will take up in Part III of this series.