Critique of Desiderio Desideravi, pt. 1
Editor’s Introduction: We begin the publication, in five successive articles, of an important study by José Antonio Ureta about the theological foundations on which the recent apostolic exhortation Desiderio Desideravi rests. The author argues that these foundations manifestly differ from those of Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei to the extent that they place all the accents exactly on the dangerous leanings of the late “Liturgical Movement” against which the last pre-conciliar pope wished to warn the faithful.
The Need for Careful Examination
Up to now, comments in traditionalist circles on the apostolic exhortation Desiderio Desideravi have been limited to lamenting its repetition that the Mass of Paul VI is the only form of the Roman rite and to denying that the new ordinary of the Mass is a faithful translation of the wishes for reform expressed by the Council Fathers in the constitution Sacrosantum Concilium.
No theological critique of the principles Pope Francis developed in his meditation on the liturgy has reached my hands. I see with concern that some articles while condemning the two aforementioned failures of Desiderio Desideravi, imply that positive results would be achieved if the pope’s principles and some of his comments were put into practice in parishes. “In fact, much of Pope Francis’s liturgical advice could be read as a rallying cry for liturgical traditionalism,” writes a prominent traditionalist leader. After quoting excerpts from the exhortation on the richness of symbolic language, he adds: “If diocesan liturgists took these statements to heart, we would see a world-wide transformation of the Catholic liturgy, in a traditional direction.”
For their part, biformalist priests of the Versailles diocese who direct the Padreblog affirm that “many elements of the letter have in common the fact that they are neither specific to the missal of 1962 or the 1970 missal.” They conclude that “what is best in the missal of Saint Pius V will naturally find its place in the liturgical development the Holy Father has requested.”
The chaplain of the traditional Mass I regularly attend (belonging to an Ecclesia Dei community) seems to be of the same opinion. At the end of a recent sermon, he suggested one should get over Desiderio Desideravi’s unsavory paragraph 31 and take advantage of the European summer vacations to nourish oneself spiritually by reading the papal document.
Worried that this welcoming stance might spread in traditionalist circles, I intend to show the doctrinal deviations that underpin Pope Francis’s meditations on the liturgy. Such deviations result from the new theological orientation assumed by the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II. I compare the vision of the liturgy taught in the last pre-conciliar document on the subject, that is, Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei, with the one contained in Desiderio Desideravi. I will conclude that the latter deserves at least the criticism that Cardinal Giovanni Colombo made of Gaudium et Spes: “That text has all the right words; it is the accents that are wrong.” Unfortunately, from the pope’s recent text, readers will draw more wrong accents than right words.
The comparison between Pius XII’s vision and that of Francis will focus on four specific points: (1) the purpose of liturgical worship, (2) the Paschal mystery as the center of the celebration, (3) the memorial character of the Holy Mass, and finally, (4) the presidency of the liturgical assembly. All four of these points are tightly interrelated, as we shall see thanks to the startling candor of the Jesuit liturgist Fr. Juan Manuel Martín-Moreno, an unsurpassed guide to the thinking of the current liturgical intelligentsia who stand behind Desiderio Desideravi.
For ease of reading, this critique will be published in five parts, corresponding to the above four points plus a conclusion that will pose an uncomfortable question. Today, we approach the purpose of liturgical worship.
Liturgy’s Primary Purpose:
Paying Homage to the Triune God
Mediator Dei establishes with total clarity that Catholic worship has two main purposes that intersect and support each other: the glory of God and the sanctification of souls. Evidently, its primary purpose is to pay homage to the Creator.
After explaining that “It is unquestionably the fundamental duty of man to orientate his person and his life towards God,” acknowledging His supreme majesty and giving him “due worship to the One True God by practicing the virtue of religion” (n° 13), Pius XII recalls that the Church does so by continuing the priestly function of Jesus Christ (n° 2 & 3) and concludes with this definition:
The sacred liturgy is, consequently, the public worship which our Redeemer as Head of the Church renders to the Father, as well as the worship which the community of the faithful renders to its Founder, and through Him to the heavenly Father. It is, in short, the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members (n° 20).
Even the liturgy’s secondary end (in fact, primary from another point of view) of sanctifying souls has the glory of God as its ultimate end:
Such is the nature and the object of the sacred liturgy: it treats of the Mass, the sacraments, the divine office; it aims at uniting our souls with Christ and sanctifying them through the divine Redeemer in order that Christ be honored and, through Him and in Him, the most Holy Trinity, Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost (n° 171).
This relationship between the glorification of God and the sanctification of souls in the liturgy was reversed due to the influence of theologians with the so-called “Liturgical Movement” whose ideas were collected in Sacrosanctum Concilio.
The Systematic Inversion of the Ends of Worship
In his Apuntes de Liturgia [Notes on Liturgy] for the course he taught at the Pontifical University of Comillas (of the Society of Jesus) from 2003-2004, the Jesuit theologian Fr. Juan Manuel Martín-Moreno explains it in a very pedagogical way:
A double dimension to the liturgical act has always been recognized. On the one hand, its objective is glorifying God (ascensional or anabatic dimension), and on the other hand, the salvation and sanctification of men (descensional or catabatic dimension). …
Liturgical theology prior to Vatican II started from the concept of worship conceived anabatically. The liturgy was primarily the glorification of God, the fulfillment of the Church’s obligation as a perfect society to render public worship to God, thereby attracting His blessings. Conversely, for Vatican II, the descending dimension prevails. The divine Trinity is manifested in the Incarnation and in the Passover of Christ. The Father delivering his Son to the world in the Incarnation, and his Spirit in the fullness of Easter, communicates his Trinitarian communion to us as a gift. This double gift of the Word and the Spirit is given to us in the liturgical service for our liberation and sanctification. …
The anabatic conception of the liturgy focused on man’s service to God, while the catabatic conception focuses on the service offered by God to man. The criticism of worship, understood as man’s service to God, is based on the fact that God does not actually need these services from man.… If the liturgy were basically worship, it would be superfluous. But if the liturgy is the way in which man can enter into the possession of God’s salvation, the way in which salvific action becomes truly present here and now for man, it is clear that man still needs the liturgy (47-48).
In reality, the catabatic dimension also has the anabatic purpose of leading men to God and making them glorify Him. We might note that the view that “the liturgy… would be superfluous” if it were “basically worship” would in effect wipe out most of the content of traditional Christian rites, Eastern and Western, as if the Catholic Church had been in error about the nature of divine worship for most of her history.
Pope Francis Follows This Inversion
In Desiderio Desideravi, Pope Francis emphasizes almost exclusively this primarily catabatic conception of the liturgy, while leaving in the shadow the glorification of God, which for Pius XII is its primordial element.
His meditation begins with the opening words of the Last Supper’s account: “I have ardently desired to eat this Passover with you.” Such words, he stresses, give us “the surprising possibility of intuiting the depth of the love of the persons of the Most Holy Trinity for us “ (No. 2). “The world still does not know it, but everyone is invited to the supper of the wedding of the Lamb (Re 19:9) (n° 5),” the pontiff adds. However, “Before our response to his invitation—well before!—there is his desire for us. We may not even be aware of it, but every time we go to Mass, the first reason is that we are drawn there by his desire for us” (no. 6). The liturgy, then, is above all the place of the encounter with Christ, because it “guarantees for us the possibility of such an encounter” (n° 11).
Here, the liturgy’s catabatic and descending meaning—entering into possession of salvation—is very well highlighted. But the fact that the first priestly function of Christ is to worship the Eternal Father in union with His Mystical Body, highlighted by Pius XII in the already cited text already, was entirely omitted.
This one-sidedness is reiterated in another paragraph dealing specifically with the ascending anabatic aspect, that is, the glorification of the divinity by the assembled faithful. The following text insinuates that the glory of God is secondary insofar as it adds nothing to what He already possesses in Heaven, whereas His presence on earth and the spiritual transformation that it produces is what really counts:
The Liturgy gives glory to God not because we can add something to the beauty of the inaccessible light within which God dwells (cf. 1Ti 6:16). Nor can we add to the perfection of the angelic song which resounds eternally through the heavenly places. The Liturgy gives glory to God because it allows us—here, on earth—to see God in the celebration of the mysteries, and in seeing Him to draw life from his Passover. We, who were dead through our sins and have been made be alive again with Christ (cf. Eph 2,5)—we are the glory of God (n° 43).
These words are correct because man truly gives to God a merely “accidental” glory. But it was God Himself who wanted to receive it from man when creating him. However, due to their one-sidedness, the accents lead the faithful to a mistaken position that easily degenerates into the cult of the golden calf, that is, “a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation,” an attitude denounced by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Photo by Allison Girone, used with permission.
José Antonio Ureta is a senior member of the Plinio Correa de Oliveira Institute of Sao Paulo and the author of Pope Francis’s “Paradigm Shift”: Continuity or Rupture in the Mission of the Church? An Assessment of His Pontificate’s First Five Years.