It is no coincidence that days before the closing session of the Plenary Council of Australia began, Pope Francis issued a pointed 65-paragraph letter calling on the church to “hear together what the Spirit is saying.” regarding what is perhaps the biggest ecclesiological elephant in the room. In his apostolic letter Desiderio Desideravi, published on June 29, feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Pope Francis addresses the most fundamental dimension of Christian life: the liturgy, “the first and indispensable source from which the faithful must draw the true Christian spirit”.
As director of a liturgy center approved by the Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which focuses specifically on formative education for every corner of the Church – from lay parishioners to doctoral students – I am delighted that the pope Francis reflected seriously on the importance of liturgical formation for all.
Following the motu proprio of the Pope Traditional custodiansthis new apostolic letter gives priority to the liturgical formation of the entire assembled assembly, emphasizing the liturgy as a guaranteed place of real encounter with Christ, a privileged theological source and summit towards which the activity of the Church.
There is food for thought in Desiderio Desideravi, but do not be tempted to let liturgists and clergy digest it — it is a letter for the whole Church. Here are some initial responses to this important letter.
Explicit call to liturgical formation for all
Pope Francis wants to emphasize the importance of formation both for and by the liturgy. This new letter navigates a careful path between the need for formation in the knowledge of the liturgy (its rubrics, its theological riches and its beauty) and the need to allow its celebration to form us, so that through our encounter with Christ available in a privileged way in the liturgy, we conform to Him.
Pope Francis focuses on ars celebrandi — the art of celebrating the liturgy well — because the way we celebrate the liturgy directly affects our experience of it and our capacity to participate in it fully, consciously and actively. Such participation is not superficial ritual performance, but rather deep participation in the work of the body of Christ of which each of us is a member by virtue of our baptism.
While the Holy Father recognizes the individual nuances of the liturgical celebration led by different presidents and enacted by different assemblies, it is also clear that there are No space for unrestricted liturgical creativity, especially under the guise of so-called liturgical inculturation, and that the art of celebrating the liturgy well requires appropriate formation. Pope Francis identifies the root cause of a series of dysfunctional presidential practices, as “a heightened personalism of the style of celebration that sometimes expresses a poorly concealed mania for being the center of attention” that causes assemblies to suffer “from ‘to be so abused’.
The logical chain that Pope Francis advances in Desiderio Desideravi is that we cannot be properly formed by the liturgy if it is not celebrated well, and we cannot celebrate it well if those who preside over it and participate in it do not understand what they are doing, why they do it and what it means – all of which requires significant significant training.
The need to keep the liturgy at the center of formation
The key to liturgical formation is to teach the liturgy well in seminaries and theologians and to ensure that all other theological subjects are taught with their intimate connection to the liturgy in mind – as Sacrosanctum Concilium. Almost sixty years after the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Conciliumthis goal has not yet been achieved, and the decline in the number of liturgical specialists in theological faculties is overall testimony to the fact that the central importance of the liturgy as the place where all other aspects of theology converge in the practice, is not yet universally recognized even among theologians.
If the study of the liturgy is not explicitly prioritized in seminaries and theologians through the provision of specialized personnel, programs and promotion, the type of training called for by Pope Francis to carry out the celebration and understanding changes in the liturgy will not materialize, the quality of liturgical celebrations will not improve, and the experiential formative capacity of the liturgy will not be realized.
Liturgical catechesis is essential
The advancement of formation programs in liturgical catechesis for the entire Catholic community is also necessary. People celebrate better if they better understand what they are doing and why they are doing it.
While Pope Francis acknowledges that critics of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgy are not wrong in pointing to the loss of a “sense of mystery” in the way too many people currently celebrate it, he does not blame the liturgy of the Church for this. Rather, he blames the lack of proper training of clergy and congregants, which has resulted in a widespread loss of ability to engage meaningfully in symbolic actions, and a loss of appreciation for the beauty of God accessible through a beautiful liturgical celebration. The Pope’s explicit intention is that liturgical unity be restored throughout the Roman Rite Church, and he calls on all the faithful to abandon polemics and safeguard our communion through liturgical unity.
If the vision of Pope Francis on the liturgy articulated in Desiderio Desideravi needs to be advanced, bold diocesan and institutional leadership from bishops, seminary rectors and deans of theology is needed to reposition formation for and through liturgy at the center of theological education and ongoing clergy development. Widespread diocesan support and the promotion of formative, accessible and engaging educational programs for the faithful, focused on the beauty, wonder and true purpose of the liturgy, will further enable our very real experience of Christ present in the liturgy and our conformation to Him through his own celebration.
Professor Clare Johnson is director of the Liturgy Center at the Australian Catholic University (ACU). She is also Professor of Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at ACU and Consultant to the National Liturgical Council of the Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops.