Pope Francis’ Liturgical Longing

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Desiderio desideravi: “with desire have I desired,” Our Lord said to His Disciples before the Last Supper, “to eat this Pasch with you.” The quaint Latin phrase is a literal translation of the Greek of the Gospels (Luke 22:15; Matthew 13:14), but it is no less quaint in Greek. It is in fact an expression at home in Hebrew, which does this kind of thing to express a superlative. No doubt this was an expression in use in Our Lord’s native Aramaic as well. The fidelity of a succession of translators has brought it to us today as something at once mysterious, poetic, intriguing, and rather beautiful. The effort necessary to understand it, its very elusiveness, has the effect of fixing it in our minds, and making it echo in our souls. To put it another way, the slight barrier to propositional understanding increases its transformative potential for us.

Every poet, every novelist, knows this. It is a mystery hidden, however, from modern Biblical translators, who come up with phrases like the one used in the English version of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter of this name: ‘I have earnestly desired.’ It is flat, utilitarian, and drab; defensible as a translation, to be sure, on modern principles, but about as memorable as a corporate mission statement.

Which is to be master, one may ask? The Church’s Tradition, which draws us in through mystery, or the flattened-out, dreary rationalism of liturgical Modernism? It is a problem with which Pope Francis struggles in this Letter. He sees the struggle in terms of avoiding two bad options, which present themselves as opposites.

I want the beauty of the Christian celebration and its necessary consequences for the life of the Church not to 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 (16).

This is then explained in terms of “Gnosticism” vs. “Neo-Pelagianism,” which seem to represent the opposed errors of liturgical liberalism and traditionalism. The interesting question is where the virtuous mean between them is to be found. We are given a clue a little later:

The continual rediscovery of the beauty of the Liturgy is not the search for a ritual aesthetic which is content by only a careful exterior observance of a rite or is satisfied by a scrupulous observance of the rubrics. Obviously, what I am saying here does not wish in any way to approve the opposite attitude, which confuses simplicity with a careless banality, or what is essential with an ignorant superficiality, or the concreteness of ritual action with an exasperating practical functionalism.

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 even if the quality and the proper action of the celebration were guaranteed, that would not be enough to make our participation full (22-23).

What is wrong with Neo-Pelagianism is that it fixates on a human production—ritual exactitude, for example—whereas Gnosticism is bad because it makes the liturgy subjective, presumably in the sense that it makes the liturgy too personal, made up on the spot by the celebrant. “The liturgy does not say “I” but “we,” and any limitation on the breadth of this “we” is always demonic” (19).

We might assume that Pope Francis would be harder on the Neo-Pelagian, but this is not so. The wrong kind of “ritual aesthetic” is the empty kind. There is a right kind, and it will involve the perfect observance of the rubrics—just with the heart as well. This of course is the ideal of the lace-wearing, bells-and-smells liturgist, whether traditionalist, conservative Novus Ordo, or Reform of the Reform.

Given the practical tenor of Pope Francis’ liturgical policy, this might seem pretty surprising. Is he not going to praise the authenticity of a home-spun liturgy where everyone is “included,” and never mind the silly old rubrics? No. This is an official document of the Holy See, and it is not going to give anyone permission to break liturgical law. This is a constant thread in such documents through the decades after the Council. The problem of liturgical anarchy is too obvious. Not even the Pope who openly flouts liturgical law himself will actually say it should be flouted. Criticism of the people who obey the rubrics has to be couched in super-subtle terms.

Pope Francis’ criticism of the Neo-Pelagian as one who is only concerned with the exterior is reminiscent of his use of that line by the composer Gustav Mahler: “tradition is not the worship of ash, but the passing on of flames” (Tradition ist nicht die Anbetung der Asche, sondern die Weitergabe des Feuers). This would be a splendid slogan for Catholics attached to the Church’s ancient liturgy, but Pope Francis seems to regard it as a knock-down argument against us. He seems to think it is just obvious that the people he doesn’t like are concerned only with the exterior, the ash, not with the heart, the flames.

The substantive question, though, is that which I started out with: the ritual mysteriousness of the liturgy as a means to reaching the heart. Pope Francis confronts the question:

When I speak of astonishment at the paschal mystery, I do not at all intend to refer to what at times seems to me to be meant by the vague expression “sense of mystery.” Sometimes this is among the presumed chief accusations against the liturgical reform. It is said that the sense of mystery has been removed from the celebration. The astonishment or wonder of which I speak is not some sort of being overcome in the face of an obscure reality or a mysterious rite. It is, on the contrary, marvelling 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. It is still true that the fullness of revelation has, in respect to our human finitude, an abundance that transcends us and will find its fulfilment at the end of time when the Lord will return. But if the astonishment is of the right kind, then there is no risk that the otherness of God’s presence will not be perceived, even within the closeness that the Incarnation intends. If the reform has eliminated that vague “sense of mystery,” then more than a cause for accusations, it is to its credit. Beauty, just like truth, always engenders wonder, and when these are referred to the mystery of God, they lead to adoration (25).

So, there is a wrong sense of “mystery,” which is “being overcome in the face of an obscure reality,” which is to be contrasted with the correct sense, “an abundance which transcends us.” Think of the mystery of a Masonic ritual contrasted with Isaiah’s vision of God in the Temple (Isaiah 6). In the former, the audience is bamboozled; in the latter, Isiah catches a glimpse of something overwhelming. But this is simply the contrast between a merely superficially effective, or simply fake, ritual, and a real one which reveals divine mysteries to us. It should be obvious that traditional Catholics think their liturgies are of the second kind. Showing us that we are mistaken would require the kind of investigation and argument which is not attempted in this Letter. And after all, Pope Francis is not even making a clear accusation against anyone: he is just reflecting on “what at times seems to me to be meant” by some other, unnamed, people.

In fact, much of Pope Francis’ liturgical advice could be read as a rallying-cry for liturgical traditionalism (my emphasis):

To have lost the capacity to grasp the symbolic value of the body and of every creature renders the symbolic language of the Liturgy almost inaccessible to the modern mentality. And yet there can be no question of renouncing such language. It cannot be renounced because it is how the Holy Trinity chose to reach us through the flesh of the Word. It is rather a question of recovering the capacity to use and understand the symbols of the Liturgy (45).

Still thinking about how the Liturgy forms us, another decisive question is the education necessary to be able to acquire the interior attitude that will let us use and understand liturgical symbols… Perhaps we do not have an actual memory of such learning, but we can easily imagine the gesture of a larger hand taking the little hand of a child and accompanying it slowly in tracing across the body for the first time the sign of our salvation… From that moment forward that gesture, its symbolic force, is ours, it belongs to us; or better said, we belong to it. It gives us form. We are formed by it. Not many discourses are needed here. It is not necessary to have understood everything in that gesture. What is needed is being small, both in consigning it and in receiving it. The rest is the work of the Spirit. In this way we are initiated into symbolic language. We cannot let ourselves be robbed of such richness. Growing up we will have more ways of being able to understand, but always on the condition of remaining little ones (47).

It is not a question of following a book of liturgical etiquette. It is, rather, a “discipline,” — in the way that Guardini referred to — which, if observed authentically forms us. These are gestures and words that place order within our interior world making us live certain feelings, attitudes, behaviours. They are not the explanation of an ideal that we seek to let inspire us, but they are instead an action that engages the body in its entirety, that is to say, in its being a unity of body and soul (51).

Such silence is not an inner haven in which to hide oneself in some sort of intimate isolation, as if leaving the ritual form behind as a distraction. That kind of silence would contradict the essence itself of the celebration. Liturgical silence is something much more grand: it is a symbol of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit who animates the entire action of the celebration. For this reason it constitutes a point of arrival within a liturgical sequence (52).

Also kneeling should be done with art, that is to say, with a full awareness of its symbolic sense and the need that we have of this gesture to express our way of being in the presence of the Lord (53).

If diocesan liturgists took these statements to heart, we would see a world-wide transformation of the Catholic liturgy, in a traditional direction. And yet Pope Francis seldom misses an opportunity to attack those who look as if they are doing precisely what, here, he claims he wants everyone to do.

As I have already suggested, one aspect of this is long-term Vatican policy. The same kind of sentiments can be found not only in the writing of Pope Benedict, but under Pope John Paul II in the section on prayer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), Liturgiam authenticam (2001), and Redemptionis sacramentum (2004); and under Pope Paul VI in Sacrificium laudis (1966). None of these documents had much effect on liturgical practice, even at Papal celebrations: it was as if the Popes were daring us to do what they did, not what they said.

The development of these arguments in this document does tell us something, however. The progressive liturgical project has never made its way into the Papal Magisterium, and today it seems that that project has completely lost the argument. There is not the slightest hint in this document that spontaneity, authenticity, the home-made, or the personal, has any place in the liturgy. On the contrary, these things are condemned with great force.

How can Pope Francis sign Traditionis Custodes and then this document? As I have described it, Desiderio Desideravi is based on a contrast between the right kind of mystery, symbolism, liturgical art and so on, and the wrong kind: the empty formalism kind. Pope Francis makes this align with the liturgical battles he seems to be fighting simply by saying it aligns with them. He simply insists that the Mass as reformed after the Council represents the ideal liturgy, and equally simply insists that the traditional Mass is wrong, for example in paragraph 61.

There is no explanation or argument here: it is a bald stipulation. Matthew Hazell and Peter Kwasniewski have pointed out the problems in identifying the reformed Mass with what Vatican II called for. The empty formalism of the traditional Mass is contradicted by the very pastoral vigour which Pope Francis seems concerned to counter.

None of that matters for Pope Francis. The substantive content of Desiderio Desideravi is strikingly traditional, but he just directs us to believe that this means that the reformed Mass is good and the unreformed Mass is bad. The Apostolic Letter’s substance is likely to outlive the attempt to use it in the current phase of the liturgy war.


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