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The liturgy as a true encounter with Christ: the central ideas of Desiderio desideravi

On June 29, 2022, the Holy Father Francis published the Apostolic Letter Desiderio desideravi on the liturgical formation of the people of God. In this extensive letter, in 65 paragraphs, the Roman Pontiff does not intend to deal exhaustively with the liturgy, but to offer some elements of reflection to contemplate the beauty and truth of the Christian celebration.

Juan José Silvestre·5 de julio de 2022·Tiempo de lectura: 7 minutos
@CNS photo/Bob Roller

Translated by Peter Damian-Grint

A first point developed in the document is The Liturgy as the ‘today’ of salvation history. In this first title the Pope places us in the Paschal Mystery, the true center of the liturgical theology of the Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. The Last Supper, Christ’s Cross and Resurrection, the Paschal Mystery, appear as the only true and perfect worship pleasing to the Father.

The liturgy is the means that the Lord has left us to take part in this unique and admirable event in the history of Salvation. And it is a means that we live in the Church. ‘From the very beginning the Church had grasped, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, that what was visible in Jesus, what could be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands, his words and his gestures, the concreteness of the incarnate Word… had passed into the celebration of the sacraments.’ (Letter, n. 9).

Encounter with Christ

Directly related to what we have said so far is the second title of the Letter: The Liturgy: place of encounter with Christ. This subtitle reminds us of a very significant expression of the Apostolic Letter that John Paul II wrote 25 years after the publication of Sacrosanctum Concilium: ‘The liturgy is the privileged place of encounter with God and with the one he has sent, Jesus Christ’ (St John Paul II, Vicesimus quintus annus, n. 7). Herein lies all the powerful beauty of the liturgy, Francis will say: it is an encounter with Christ, for we cannot forget that ‘Christian faith is either a living encounter with him, or it does not exist’ (Letter, n. 10).

The liturgy constitutes a true encounter with Christ: it is not a mere vague memory. This encounter began in Baptism, an event that marks the lives of all of us. And this encounter with Christ in Baptism, a true death and resurrection, makes us children of God and members of the Church, and thus we experience the fullness of the worship of God. ‘In fact, there is only one act of worship, perfect and pleasing to the Father; namely, the obedience of the Son, the measure of which is his death on the cross. The only possibility of being able to participate in his offering is by becoming “sons in the Son.” This is the gift that we have received. The subject acting in the Liturgy is always and only Christ-Church, the mystical Body of Christ’ (Letter, n. 15).

Drinking from the liturgy

The Pope goes on to remind us, as the Vatican Council and the liturgical movement that preceded it did, that the liturgy is the ‘primary and necessary source from which the faithful must drink the truly Christian spirit’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 14). Therefore, ‘With this letter I simply want to invite the whole Church to rediscover, to safeguard, and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration. I do not want the beauty of the Christian celebration and its necessary consequences for the life of the Church to be spoiled by a superficial and reductive understanding of its value or, worse yet, by its being exploited in service of some ideological vision’ (Letter, n. 16). Reading these words of Francis makes clear the objective of the Letter, beyond some sensationalist headlines.

In the face of the danger of Gnosticism and Pelagianism, to which the Holy Father referred at length in his programmatic letter Evangelii gaudium, the Letter places before our eyes the value of the beauty of the truth of the Christian celebration. ‘The Liturgy 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’ (Letter, n. 21).

In this paragraph is contained all the beauty and depth of the liturgy: the mystery in which we participate, which is made present by means of sensible signs, which configures us to Christ, dead and risen, transforming us into him. Beauty which, as the Roman Pontiff reminds us, is not a simple ritual aestheticism, or care only for the external forms of the rite or the rubrics.

Taking care of the liturgy

Logically, this is necessary so as not to ‘confuse simplicity with a careless banality, or what is essential with an ignorant superficiality, or the concreteness of ritual action with an exasperating practical functionalism’ (Letter, n. 22). So it is necessary to take care of all aspects of the celebration, to observe all the rubrics, but without forgetting that it is necessary to foster Amazement before the Paschal Mystery: an essential part of the liturgical act (Letter, n. 24). An awe that goes beyond the expression of the meaning of the mystery. ‘Beauty, just like truth, always engenders wonder, and when these are referred to the mystery of God, they lead to adoration’ (Letter, n. 25). Awe is an essential part of the liturgical action, because it is the attitude of one who knows that he is before the peculiarity of symbolic gestures.

After this first introductory part, the Pope asks: ‘How do we recover the capacity to live completely the liturgical action?’ And the answer is clear: ‘This was the objective of the Council’s reform’ (Letter, n. 27). But the Pope does not want either the non-acceptance of the reform, or a superficial understanding of it, to distract us from finding the answer to the question we asked earlier: how can we grow in the ability to live the liturgical action fully, how can we continue to be amazed by what happens before our eyes in the celebration? And Francis’ answer is clear: ‘We are in need of a serious and dynamic liturgical formation’ (Letter, n. 31).

Liturgical formation

Formation for the liturgy and formation from the liturgy are the two aspects dealt with in the following sections of the Letter. In this formation for the liturgy, study is only the first step to be able to enter into the mystery being celebrated, for in order to be able to guide others on the path, we have first to travel it. Nor should it be forgotten that formation for the liturgy ‘is not something that can be acquired once and for all. Since the gift of the mystery celebrated surpasses our capacity to know it, this effort certainly must accompany the permanent formation of everyone, with the humility of little ones, the attitude that opens up into wonder’ (Letter, n. 38).

As far as formation from the liturgy is concerned, being formed by it entails a real existential involvement with the person of Christ. ‘In this sense, Liturgy is not about “knowledge,” and its scope is not primarily pedagogical, even though it does have great pedagogical value. Rather, Liturgy is about praise, about rendering thanks for the Passover of the Son whose saving power reaches our lives’ (Letter, n. 41). Thus the celebration concerns ‘the reality of our being docile to the action of the Spirit who is at work in it, until Christ be formed in us (Gal 4:19). The fullness of our formation is our being conformed to Christ. I repeat: it does not have to do with an abstract mental process, but with becoming him’ (Letter, n. 41).

Union of heaven and earth

This existential involvement takes place sacramentally: through the created signs that have been assumed and placed at the service of the encounter with the Word incarnate, crucified, dead, risen, ascended to the Father. The Pope’s uses a very beautiful phrase when he recalls that ‘the Liturgy gives glory to God because it allows us—here, on earth—to see God in the celebration of the mysteries’ (Letter, n. 43). And how can we once again become capable of accepting symbols? How can we once again learn to read them, in order to live them? First of all, Francis will say, by recovering our confidence in creation. In addition, there is also the education necessary to acquire the interior attitude that will allow us to situate and understand the liturgical symbols.

One aspect that the Letter points out that we need, in order to guard and grow in the vital understanding of the symbols of the liturgy, is the ars celebrandi: the art of celebrating. This art entails understanding the dynamism that describes the liturgy, being in tune with the action of the Spirit, as well as knowing the dynamics of symbolic language, its peculiarity and its efficacy (see Letter, nn. 48–50).

Liturgical silences

Pope Francis recalls that this art concerns all the baptized, and it involves a common doing (walking in procession, sitting, standing, kneeling, singing, being silent, looking, listening…), which educates each of the faithful to discover the authentic uniqueness of his or her personality, not with individualistic attitudes, but being aware of being one body of the Church.

A particularly important gesture is silence. It is expressly foreseen by the rubrics (in the opening rites, in the liturgy of the Word, in the Eucharistic prayer, and after Communion). Silence is not a refuge to hide in an intimate isolation, putting up with the ritual as if it were a distraction: it is the symbol of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.

Ars celebrandi

Although the ars celebrandi concerns all the baptized, the Pope points out that ordained ministers must take special care of it. There are different ways of presiding, but the fundamental thing is to avoid exaggerated personalism in the style of celebration. In order to carry out this service of presiding well, with art, it is of fundamental importance that the presbyter be aware that he is, in himself, one of the modes of the Lord’s presence.

This will lead him not to forget that the Risen Lord must continue to be the protagonist, as at the Last Supper and the Cross and Resurrection. It is a matter of showing in the celebration that the Lord—not the celebrant—is the protagonist. ‘The presbyter is formed to preside over the words and the gestures that the Liturgy places on his lips and in his hands’ (Letter, n. 60). It should always be kept in mind that the words and gestures of the liturgy are an expression, matured over the centuries, of Christ’s sentiments; and that they help to be configured to him (see Instruction Redemptionis sacramentum, n. 5).

Purpose of the document

Pope Francis concludes by encouraging us, as St John Paul II and Benedict XVI repeatedly did, to rediscover the richness of the conciliar constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. At the same time he reiterates, as he did at the beginning and at various points in the Letter constituting its leitmotiv, its common thread, the desire that this Letter should help us ‘to rekindle our wonder for the beauty of the truth of the Christian celebration, to remind us of the need for an authentic liturgical formation, and to recognize the importance of an art of celebrating that is at the service of the truth of the Paschal Mystery and of the participation of all of the baptized in it, each one according to his or her vocation’ (Letter, n. 62). These, and no others, are the underlying motivations of this beautiful Letter. A finishing touch reminds us of the importance of the liturgical year and of Sunday.

‘Let us abandon our polemics to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. Let us safeguard our communion. Let us continue to be astonished at the beauty of the Liturgy’ (Letter, n. 65).

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