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Don’t be sloppy or pernickety during mass, Pope tells priests

01 July 2022

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Pope Francis presides at canonisation mass in St Peter’s Square in May this year

Pope Francis presides at canonisation mass in St Peter’s Square in May this year

THE Pope has written an Apostolic Letter, Desiderio Desideravi, seeking the avoidance of two extremes of liturgical practice — aestheticism and sloppiness — in his effort to unite the Roman Catholic Church around the celebration of the post-Vatican II liturgy.

“It would be trivial to read the tensions, unfortunately present around the celebration, as a simple divergence between different tastes concerning a particular ritual form. The problematic is primarily ecclesiological,” Pope Francis writes.

He declares that he cannot see that it is possible both to recognise the validity of the Second Vatican Council and not accept the liturgical reform that ensued upon its Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Communities’ living out of the mass, he writes, “is conditioned — for better or, unfortunately, for worse — by the way in which their pastor presides in the assembly”. He list “models” of inadequate presiding, such as “rigid austerity or an exasperating creativity, a spiritualizing mysticism or a practical functionalism, a rushed briskness or an overemphasized slowness, a sloppy carelessness or an excessive finickiness, a superabundant friendliness or priestly impassibility”.

But Christ is the centre of the celebration, not the celebrant: all these models have a single root: “a heightened personalism of the celebrating style which at times expresses a poorly concealed mania to be the centre of attention”. It is amplified, he suggests, when celebrations are broadcast online.

But “to preside at Eucharist is to be plunged into the furnace of God’s love. When we are given to understand this reality, or even just to intuit something of it, we certainly would no longer need a Directory that would impose the proper behaviour.”

He insists on the importance of “liturgical-sapiential” formation, initially in the seminary, and placing the Sunday eucharist at the centre of community life.

“The theological understanding of the Liturgy does not in any way permit that these words be understood to mean to reduce everything to the aspect of worship. A celebration that does not evangelize is not authentic, just as a proclamation that does not lead to an encounter with the risen Lord in the celebration is not authentic. And then both of these, without the testimony of charity, are like sounding a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

The understanding of symbols is increasingly difficult for people, he writes, and they need educating, partly through care for the “art of celebrating”, which “cannot be reduced to only a rubrical mechanism, much less should it be thought of as imaginative — sometimes wild — creativity without rules”. The rite is a norm established in the service of “a higher reality that it means to protect”.

“Among the ritual acts that belong to the whole assembly, silence occupies a place of absolute importance,” which “moves to sorrow for sin and the desire for conversion”, he writes. “It awakens a readiness to hear the Word and awakens prayer. It disposes us to adore the Body and Blood of Christ.”

The Pope is critical of the use of the term “sense of mystery”. “When I speak of astonishment at the paschal mystery, I do not at all intend to refer to what at times seems to me to be meant by the vague expression ‘sense of mystery’. Sometimes this is among the presumed chief accusations against the liturgical reform. It is said that the sense of mystery has been removed from the celebration.

“The astonishment or wonder of which I speak is not some sort of being overcome in the face of an obscure reality or a mysterious rite. It is, on the contrary, marvelling at the fact that the salvific plan of God has been revealed in the paschal deed of Jesus (cf. Ephesians 1.3-14), and the power of this paschal deed continues to reach us in the celebration of the ‘mysteries’, of the sacraments.

“It is still true that the fullness of revelation has, in respect to our human finitude, an abundance that transcends us and will find its fulfilment at the end of time when the Lord will return. But if the astonishment is of the right kind, then there is no risk that the otherness of God’s presence will not be perceived, even within the closeness that the Incarnation intends. If the reform has eliminated that vague ‘sense of mystery,’ then more than a cause for accusations, it is to its credit.

“Beauty, just like truth, always engenders wonder, and when these are referred to the mystery of God, they lead to adoration.”

On the subject of liturgical posture, he writes: “I think of all the gestures and words that belong to the assembly: gathering, careful walking in procession, being seated, standing, kneeling, singing, being in silence, acclamations, looking, listening. There are many ways in which the assembly, as one body . . . participates in the celebration. Everybody doing together the same gesture, everyone speaking together in one voice — this transmits to each individual the energy of the entire assembly.

“It is a uniformity that not only does not deaden but, on the contrary, educates individual believers to discover the authentic uniqueness of their personalities not in individualistic attitudes but in the awareness of being one body.”

The letter follows his Apostolic Letter Traditionis Custodes (News, 23 July 2021), which restricted the use of the 1962 Missale Romanum, and a clarification from the Congregation for Divine Worship (News, 7 January 2022), which further raised the hackles of advocates of the older form of the mass, often referred to as the Extraordinary Form.

 The Apostolic Letter can be read on the Vatican website.

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