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Removing the Centrality of the Redemptive Passion

Editor’s Note: We continue with part two of José A. Ureta’s five-part critique of Desiderio Desideravi, which began with yesterday’s installment.

The Paschal Mystery as the Center of the Celebration

In the encyclical Mediator Dei, Pius XII underlines the centrality of the Passion in the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ and in our Redemption (hereinafter, all highlights in bold are ours).

In the sacred liturgy, the whole Christ is proposed to us in all the circumstances of His life, as the Word of the eternal Father, as born of the Virgin Mother of God, as He who teaches us truth, heals the sick, consoles the afflicted, who endures suffering and who dies; finally, as He who rose triumphantly from the dead and who, reigning in the glory of heaven, sends us the Holy Paraclete and who abides in His Church forever; ‘Jesus Christ, yesterday and today, and the same forever.’ Besides, the liturgy shows us Christ not only as a model to be imitated but as a master to whom we should listen readily, a Shepherd whom we should follow, Author of our salvation, the Source of our holiness and the Head of the Mystical Body whose members we are, living by His very life (no. 163).


Since His bitter sufferings constitute the principal mystery of our redemption, it is only fitting that the Catholic faith should give it the greatest prominence. This mystery is the very center of divine worship since the Mass represents and renews it every day and since all the sacraments are most closely united with the cross (no. 164).

Later, Pius XII refers to the purposes of the Eucharistic sacrifice (adoration, thanksgiving, propitiation and impetration). When describing the third purpose, Pope Pacelli once again highlights the role of the Passion and Death of the divine Redeemer, summarizing in a few lines the doctrine of Saint Anselm on the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross:

The third end proposed is that of expiation, propitiation and reconciliation. Certainly, no one was better fitted to make satisfaction to Almighty God for all the sins of men than was Christ. Therefore, He desired to be immolated upon the cross ‘as a propitiation for our sins, not for ours only but also for those of the whole world (1 Jn 2:2)’ (n° 73).

When describing the fruit of the divine sacrifice, he reiterates that traditional teaching by quoting Saint Augustine:

For the merits of this sacrifice, since they are altogether boundless and immeasurable, know no limits; for they are meant for all men of every time and place. This follows from the fact that in this sacrifice the God-Man is the priest and victim; that His immolation was entirely perfect, as was His obedience to the will of His eternal Father; and also that He suffered death as the Head of the human race: ‘See how we were bought: Christ hangs upon the cross, see at what a price He makes His purchase . . . He sheds His blood, He buys with His blood, He buys with the blood of the Spotless Lamb, He buys with the blood of God’s only Son. He who buys is Christ; the price is His blood; the possession bought is the world (St. Augustine, In psalm. 147; P.L. 37, 1925)’ (n° 76)

Reinterpreting the Redemption through the Resurrection

This insistence on the centrality of the sacrifice of the cross for the Redemption of the human race was a response to the lucubrations of the most radical theologians of the Liturgical Movement who, already at that time, placed it in the shadows, by emphasizing the triumph and Resurrection of Christ and in His present glorious state.

Once again, the Jesuit Fr. Martín-Moreno will serve as a guide to clarify the change of accent introduced by the innovators:

Western theology is in the process of freeing itself from this Anselmian model of redemption, which has so negatively affected the liturgy. In reality, truly, salvation has been an initiative of the Father who already loved us when we were still sinners (Rm 5:10). It was the Father’s initiative to send us his Savior Son as the head of a new Humanity. Jesus did not die because he himself sought death, nor because the Father demanded it of him. The Father did not send him to die, but to live. The Father’s action is not to kill his Son but to resurrect him, accepting his loving offering.…

The cruel way in which Jesus suffered his death is not the consequence of an ineluctable destiny set by God the Father, but rather the consequence of the cruelty of men who could not tolerate the presence of the Just One in their midst. When we say that Jesus died ‘for our sins,’ we mean that he died because sinful humanity could not help but kill him. He died because we were sinners. If we had been just, we would never have killed him, and Jesus would not have suffered that death. It is not the Father who wants the death of Jesus on the cross, but sinful humanity.

Jesus dies because he was faithful to the line of conduct that had been marked out for him, showing us the true face of the Father. In this sense, we can say that he died for the fulfillment of the will of God… Because he died in the fulfillment of his mission, and assumed our human nature to the ultimate consequences by dying a death similar to ours, that is why the humanity of Jesus was resurrected by the Father. With this, the door of resurrection and eternal life was also opened for all of us. … Our salvation is the effect of his incarnation, his life, his death, his resurrection and the gift of his Spirit (43-44).

It could not be clearer: the door of resurrection and eternal life was opened to us, not so much because of the Precious Blood shed on the cross, but because the humanity of Jesus was resurrected by the Father.

This paradigm change, which Fr. Martín-Moreno described pedagogically, ceased to be mere speculation of theologians and began to be taught by ecclesiastical chairs even before the beginning of the first conciliar session when the preliminary outline of the constitution on the liturgy was being prepared. The original title of the chapter on the Eucharist, approved on August 10, 1961, was De sacro sancto Missae sacrificio; but in November 15 session of the same year, it became De sacro sancto Eucharistiae mysterio.

How This View Entered the Liturgy Constitution

As they began debating the liturgy schema—the only one that was not rejected outright at the council, due to its intentionally moderate innovative character, which enabled it to be accepted and amended—Bishop Henri Jenny, then auxiliary bishop of Cambrai and member of the preparatory commission on the liturgy (and later, a member of the Consilium that elaborated the new Mass), observed that the scheme was missing an essential thing: a doctrine on the mystery of the liturgy. A subcommission was then established that drafted the first chapter of Sacrosanctum Concilium, whose content became the doctrinal core not only of that conciliar constitution, but also of Paul VI’s liturgical reform and the whole post-conciliar Magisterium on the liturgy.

That first chapter of Sacrosanctum Concilium dilutes the centrality of the death on the cross into the whole “paschal mystery”:

The wonderful works of God among the people of the Old Testament were but a prelude to the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God. He achieved His task principally by the paschal mystery of His blessed passion, resurrection from the dead, and the glorious ascension, whereby ‘dying, he destroyed our death and, rising, he restored our life.’ For it was from the side of Christ as He slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth ‘the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church’ (n° 5).

There is no doubt that the expression paschale sacramentum (“paschal mystery”) frequently occurs in the texts of the Church Fathers and in the prayers of the traditional missal. But in all of them, the expression was understood within the traditional conception of the Redemption as a ransom operated mainly by the Blood shed in the Savior’s Passion and Death (see, for example, the Good Friday prayer: “Remember your mercies, O Lord, and with your eternal protection sanctify your servants, for whom Christ your Son, by the shedding of his Blood, established the Paschal Mystery” (per suum cruorem, instituit paschale mysterium).

Nevertheless, in its modern meaning, the paschal mystery came to be understood primarily as the full revelation of the Father’s love, expressed above all in the Resurrection of Jesus: “When we switch from redemption to the paschal mystery, the emphasis shifts completely. Whoever speaks of redemption thinks first of the Passion and then of the Resurrection as a complement. He who speaks of paschal mystery thinks first of the risen Christ,” wrote the Dominican Aimon-Marie Roguet in famous article published by the Parisian magazine Maison-Dieu, a bulwark of the Liturgical Movement.

Francis Downplays the Redemptive Death of Christ

This one-sided emphasis on Easter to the detriment of the Passion (contrary to the traditional balance) transpires through all pores of Desiderio Desideravi. The document does not use even once the words “Redemption,” “Redeemer,” “redeem,” which evoke liberation from sin through the payment of a debt. It always uses “salvation,” which does not have that connotation, and preferentially associates it with Easter, cited no less than 29 times while the Resurrection is mentioned 14 times, and the Lord’s death is evoked only 6 times.

The text’s very definition of Liturgy suffers from this bias. For Francis, it is “the priesthood of Christ, revealed to us and given in his Paschal Mystery, rendered present and active by means of signs addressed to the senses (water, oil, bread, wine, gestures, words), so that the Spirit, plunging us into the paschal mystery, might transform every dimension of our life, conforming us more and more to Christ” (n° 21).

Speaking of respect for the rubrics, he says that it is necessary not to rob the assembly of what it is owed, “namely, the paschal mystery celebrated according to the ritual that the Church sets down” (n° 23), which should arouse the astonishment of participants, described as “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” (n° 25). Later, he affirms that “the celebratory action is the place where, through the memorial, the Paschal mystery is made present so that the baptized, by virtue of their participation, can experience it in their lives” (n ° 49).

This change of emphasis poses the risk that (what remains of) the faith of the faithful be deformed in two dimensions. On the one hand, they can be led to think that the work of salvation should be attributed more to the Father and the Holy Spirit than to Jesus, the Incarnate Word, son of Mary, who shed his Precious Blood for our sins. On the other hand, they could be led to think that Jesus Christ is not exactly the Redeemer but rather the “place” in which God saves us, since the Father’s love is revealed to us in Christ’s Passover. In their pious practices, the faithful might also be led to underrate all traditional devotions that encourage them to atone for their sins and those of humanity, and induce them to claim that they are saved only by faith in God’s salvific plan without having to “complete in [their] flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Col 1:24); or, worse still, to believe in a universal salvation because of God’s unbreakable Alliance with the human race.

For part 1, see here. Read part 3 here.

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