Pope Francis and the Truth in Sacramental Signs


Pope Francis raises the host as he celebrates Mass in 2021 in Nicosia, Cyprus. On June 29, the pope issued an apostolic letter insisting that Catholics need to better understand the “full, conscious, active and fruitful celebration” of the Mass. (CNS Photo/Paul Haring)

In addition to Pope Francis’ passing comment in recent weeks that he intended to appoint women to decision-making positions in the Dicastery for Bishops for the first time, which he did on July 13, he made news in other ways by celebrating the feast of saints. Peter and Paul on June 29 by publishing an apostolic letter on that date entitled “Desiderio Desideravi”. The title of the text is taken from Luke 22:15, where Jesus says that he “longed” to eat the Passover meal with his disciples before undergoing his Passion. Focused on liturgical formation, “Desiderio Desideravi” is a complementary piece to his 2021 document “Traditionis Custodes”.

The first paragraphs are dotted. “No one deserved a seat at this dinner. All had been invited. Or rather: all had been drawn there by the ardent desire that Jesus had to eat this Passover with them. The pope goes on to say, “The world still does not know, but everyone is invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9). To be admitted to the feast, it is sufficient to have the wedding garment of faith, which flows from listening to his Word (cf. Rom 10:17). … We must not allow ourselves even a moment’s rest, knowing that not everyone has yet received an invitation to this Dinner or knowing that others have forgotten or become lost in it. path in the meanders of human life.

The pope is of course aware that the Eucharist is often not recognized for its most essential quality: to be the supreme gift of the divine to creation. On the contrary, it is lamentably regularly “exploited in the service of an ideological vision, whatever its hue”. His constant call is that the Church, and through the missionary efforts of the community, the whole world, recognize with amazement and amazement (in Italian, “stupore”) the paschal mystery which is made concrete and present in the sacramental signs.

The pope criticizes various distortions of the ars celebrandi, “the art of celebrating”, which can fall prey to a multitude of human manipulations. He denounces two somewhat polar reductive approaches: seeing in the liturgy “only a rubric mechanism” (sola osservanza di un apparato rubricale) and what he calls “an imaginative – sometimes wild – creativity without rules” (una fantasiosa – a volte selvaggia – creativitá senza regole).

The pope’s refrain from naming some overriding concerns about the modern world leads one to assume that at least most of the text was written in his own handwriting. He consistently decried spiritual worldliness, neo-Pelagianism, and the re-emergence of a type of Gnostic worship as ongoing threats to the transmission and reception of the Gospel. They all reappear here.

The liturgy must be the place of an authentic encounter with beauty itself, and “beauty, like truth, always engenders wonder, and when these refer to the mystery of God, they lead to ‘worship’.

Like so many other elements of the Catholic ‘analog imagination’, a thorough theology of symbols is absolutely essential to form a believer’s worldview, and is therefore sorely lacking today. One of Pope Francis’ (and Pope Benedict’s) favorite theologians is Romano Guardini. The current Holy Father even once considered doing doctoral research on his work before being called instead to the administrative leadership of the Jesuits and the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.

In “Desiderio Desideravi,” Pope Francis cites the German-Italian theologian’s diagnosis that the contemporary person has become illiterate when it comes to the interpretation of symbols and the ability to use them effectively in light of Christian hope. This has disastrous consequences for sacramental and liturgical theology. He calls us to be reinitiated into the proper use of symbolic language, without ever allowing ourselves to be “deprived of such richness”.

The document ends with a nod to two fundamental elements of Christian tradition: the Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Second Vatican Council and the writings of Saint Francis of Assisi. Both encourage an ongoing life of deeper engagement with the liturgy, with that trembling (even “frightening”) reality that God hides in the mundane ordinariness of the “appearance of bread” (apparenza di pane). God therefore “ardently desires” that each of us know him in the liturgy, and we should therefore, in response, “withhold nothing of you for yourselves, that he who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally”.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University Chicago.


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