Pope Francis’s June 2022 letter on liturgical formation is a fascinating reflection on how liturgy forms us, and what sort of process we ourselves must undergo in order to celebrate and live the liturgy fully. One might have thought that a letter about liturgical formation would be concerned with highlighting what the Church ought to do to establish programs of formation in parishes and dioceses, or that it would admonish us about things we are doing wrong. Programs are duly mentioned in the letter, and bad habits are noted for correction. But from the very beginning, Pope Francis reverses the assumption that this sort of business will provide all that is needed. No, something more is required, and the letter shows us what it is. Liturgical formation must be grounded not in what we do, but in the faith-filled discovery of what Christ has done and is doing for us.
Francis’s exposition begins with desire—not our desire, but the desire of Jesus. The letter starts by recalling Jesus’ earnest desire to eat the Passover meal with his disciples and, by extension, with all people through time. The point here is that the whole program of liturgy originates in God’s action, not our own. If we miss this foundational fact, we will misunderstand everything else.
The title of the letter is therefore important. It is something of a tongue twister (Desiderio desideravi), but its great virtue is that it highlights the intensity of Jesus’ desire to share this meal with us. “I have earnestly desired [Desiderio desideravi] to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” Jesus says in Luke 22:15. In that small text from Luke’s Gospel, Francis discerns the opening to a profound mystery. It is “the crevice [spiraglio] through which we are given the surprising possibility of intuiting the depths of the love of the persons of the Most Holy Trinity for us” (2).
The way in which Francis reverses expectations, placing the desire of Jesus in first place, bears a striking resemblance to the passage on prayer found at the outset of the fourth section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see CCC 2560–61). There, the image of the woman at the well is used to make the point that prayer begins not with our thirst for God, but with God’s thirst for us. The section on prayer, considered by many as the most poetic and beautiful portion of the Catechism, was written by Jean Corbon (1924–2001), a Maronite Catholic liturgical theologian who was also the author of the influential book The Wellspring of Worship. Although Francis does not mention him explicitly, Corbon’s influence can be felt in this section. Most of Francis’s reflections are strongly Christo-centric, reflective of Western thinking, but here he makes reference to the action of the Trinity—a nod to the East.
At the end of the letter, Francis also refers to the liturgy as “the first wellspring of Christian spirituality.” Liturgical formation entails cultivating a spirituality in which prayer and liturgy are intertwined. A relationship with the living Jesus is passionately proposed as essential in the letter. “Knowledge of the mystery of Christ, the decisive question for our lives, does not consist in a mental assimilation of some idea but in real existential engagement with his person,” Francis explains (41). The work of the Spirit in the liturgy is to draw us to Christ so closely that we become him.
“This is the purpose for which the Spirit is given, whose action is always and only to confect the Body of Christ. It is that way with the Eucharistic bread, and with every one of the baptized” (41).
Francis’s letter is in many ways like a retreat—offering “prompts” or “cues” for reflection rather than structured arguments or practical to-do lists. This pastoral approach is of a piece with the strategy he pursued with the bishops in the wake of the sex-abuse crisis, first in Chile and then in the United States. He knew that the bishops would want a program, a solution, a way to regain the control they felt they were losing. But he wanted to lead them to a conversion of a deeper sort. So, he thwarted their impulse to move directly into problem solving, insisting instead that they first go on retreat. In a similar way, his letter shows us that the work of liturgical formation cannot really begin without first meeting Jesus anew, in prayer and contemplation, startled and amazed by the immeasurable gift of God’s love poured out in Christ’s paschal mystery.
The ease with which Francis proposes an imaginative identification with figures in scripture bears witness to his own formation in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola; one can imagine him as an effective retreat director. With Christ at the center, we are also given numerous people from the Bible with whom we may identify, so that we can learn from their encounters with Jesus the deep meaning of the sacraments: “I am Nicodemus,” Francis writes, “the Samaritan woman at the well, the man possessed by demons at Capernaum, the paralytic in the house of Peter, the sinful woman pardoned, the woman afflicted by haemorrhages, the daughter of Jairus, the blind man of Jericho, Zacchaeus, Lazarus, the thief and Peter both pardoned” (11). In other words, we meet Jesus not only in the story of the Last Supper, or in the accounts of his passion, death, and resurrection. We meet him in his life and ministry through the Word that is proclaimed, and which invites our active listening.
Still, the paschal mystery remains at the center. The American bishops in their recent statement on the Eucharist (“The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church”) abandoned the primacy of the conciliar language of paschal mystery (or Pascha) to speak of Christ’s action in the liturgy—the term appears only once. Pope Francis, however, uses it constantly (11, 12, 20, 21, 23, 25, 36, 43, 49, 62, 65), and therefore guarantees it a prominent place in our understanding of the task of liturgical formation. “The Liturgy gives glory to God not because we can add something to the beauty of the inaccessible light within which God dwells (1 Timothy 6:16),” Francis writes, “nor can we add to the perfection of the angelic song which resounds eternally through the heavenly places. The Liturgy gives glory to God because it allows us—here, on earth—to see God in the celebration of the mysteries, and in seeing Him to draw life from his Passover” (43).
In the face of so great a mystery, humility is essential. Francis makes reference to “being small” as a precondition of receiving Christ’s gift in the liturgy no fewer than five times (3, 38, 47, 47 bis, 53). There is no room for arrogance or self-aggrandizement here. Tellingly, he brings this point home when discussing a wide range of “inadequate models” of the priest presiding over the liturgy.
After Francis gives us a piquant list of distortions we all can recognize—“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”—he delivers the punch: “I think that the inadequacy of these models of presiding have a common root: a heightened personalism of the celebrating style which at times expressed a poorly concealed mania to be the center of attention” (54). “Being small” is quite the opposite of this
A good deal of the early commentary on Francis’s letter has noted that beauty is a theme, but this assertion is easily misunderstood. He says in paragraph 22: “The continual rediscovery of the beauty of the liturgy is not the search for a ritual aesthetic.” When Francis speaks of beauty, therefore, it is never about handsome objects or fine clothing, graceful gestures or sensory pleasures. The entire section devoted to the ars celebrandi (the art of celebration), which demands the artful use of material things, never once mentions beauty. Rather, for Francis the beauty of the liturgy is the “beauty of the truth” (21, 62). It is the “powerful beauty” (10) of the encounter with Christ in his paschal mystery. “In the Eucharist and in all the sacraments we are guaranteed the possibility of encountering the Lord Jesus and of having the power of his paschal mystery reach us” (11). When Francis warmly affirms, as he does, the sacramental use of created things as “a manifestation of the love of God” (42), he moves immediately to affirm even more strongly that the fullness of that same love is manifested in the cross and resurrection of Jesus—to which all creation is drawn.
When I first saw that Francis was using the language of “amazement” in his letter I wondered if he was borrowing this idea from Pope Saint John Paul II’s 2003 encyclical letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (“On the Eucharist and Its Relationship to the Church”). John Paul’s stated aim in writing this encyclical was to “rekindle…amazement” at the mystery of the Eucharist. Upon careful reading, however, it becomes clear that what Francis has done is really something quite different. John Paul was intensely focused on the role of the priest in the Eucharist. In fact, so much of the “amazing” role of Christ is absorbed by the action of the priest in the Mass, in his telling, that little is left for the people, aside from the reception of Communion. He acknowledges the Church as the Body of Christ, but assigns them no particular agency in the liturgy. What he does instead is devote thirteen paragraphs at the end of the encyclical to the “Marian” role of the people, complementing the Christic role of the priest.
Francis’s invocation of Eucharistic amazement could not be more different. He finds amazement in the paschal mystery itself. Christ’s Passover is amazing. The fact that his Pasch is made sacramentally present and accessible to us in the today of the liturgy is amazing. The role of the priest is of irreducible importance to Francis, but he is after something wider and more all-embracing when he talks about being amazed at the liturgy. “Wonder is an essential part of the liturgical act,” Francis explains. “It is the marvelling of those who experience the power of symbol, which does not consist in referring to some abstract concept but rather in containing and expressing in its very concreteness what it signifies” (26). Guided by the writings of the German liturgical theologian Romano Guardini (1885–1968), Pope Francis discusses in some detail the challenge modern (and postmodern) people face in learning to speak the language of symbol. This challenge is essential to meet, however, because liturgy speaks in the language of symbol, and so we must continue to listen and learn.
Several times, Francis uses the striking expression “the Bread broken” to refer to the Eucharist (7, 16, 52, 65). This expression is found in the first-century document The Didache, and the fact that it comes easily to Francis demonstrates how a “return to the sources” cultivated by the liturgical movement of the first half of the twentieth century has left its mark. The expression “Bread broken” is richly symbolic. It points to the Eucharist’s communal nature, because bread broken is bread shared. As the Italian liturgical theologian Goffredo Boselli pointed out in his book on mystagogy, it is precisely in its being broken and shared that the sign of bread achieves its fullness in the Eucharist. Francis joyfully points out that “from Sunday to Sunday the energy of the Bread broken sustains us in announcing the Gospel” (65).
Francis situates the letter as the second in a series, the first of which was Traditionis custodes (“On the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970”). That motu proprio, issued to promote ecclesial communion, stated that the liturgy as it was reformed following the Second Vatican Council “is the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” It strictly curtailed the use of the liturgical forms prior to Vatican II, a permission that Benedict XVI had greatly expanded in 2007.
Francis continues to promote the unity of the Roman Rite in this new letter. It remains a priority for him, both for ecclesiological reasons (for the unity of the Church in communion with the pope and the bishops), and also as a foundation for moving beyond polemics and tensions that have marred our liturgical life in practice (what some have termed “the liturgy wars”). In this letter, he gives no ground to the liturgical traditionalists or to those who might wish to “reform the reform,” and indeed he doubles down on the importance of accepting the liturgical reform that proceeded from the Council (31, 16, 61). The larger goal of Desiderio desideravi, however, is to move from disciplinary to theological and pastoral themes, offering “prompts or cues for reflections” to “aid in the contemplation of the beauty and truth of Christian celebration” (1).
Francis urges the study of liturgy, both in seminaries and in venues suitable for the faithful more generally, but he does it in a particular way. He stresses that such study should always be linked to and supported by the experience of lively and life-giving celebrations of the liturgy in practice. He makes the distinction between being formed “for” the liturgy and being formed “by” the liturgy, but this does not mean that the two exist apart from each other. He clearly expects that growth in knowledge and experiential formation will go hand in hand.
The letter states the problematic of liturgical formation in positive terms: “The fundamental question is this: how do we recover the capacity to live completely the liturgical action?” (27). This alone would signal a refreshing change from the approach typically taken during the John Paul and Benedict years, which focused on eliminating “liturgical abuses”—as if such a course of action would be sufficient to guarantee the liturgy’s proper “use.” Francis is saying here that we are called to enter into a fuller way of living our rites: he is focusing on their use. This conviction opens onto such topics as how to avoid “the poison of spiritual worldliness” (17–20), learning how to “read” symbols (44–45), and regaining a confidence in creation in order to grasp the meaning of sacrament (46).
Perhaps most significantly, however, Pope Francis clarifies the question of agency in a way that both challenges and affirms the People of God as a whole. Who “does” the liturgy? According to Francis, “the subject acting in the Liturgy is always and only Christ-Church, the mystical Body of Christ” (15). Liturgical participation by the People of God, therefore—the goal so much desired by Vatican II—is a calling for the whole Body of Christ, by virtue of our baptism. Understanding this raises the stakes of liturgical formation considerably, making it the care and concern of all the faithful and their pastors. Pope Francis reiterates and emphasizes the point strongly: “Let us always remember that it is the Church, the Body of Christ, that is the celebrating subject and not just the priest” (36). Although Francis reflects upon the role of the priest and the gift of Holy Orders, and even presents a kind of mystical vision of the priest plunged into a furnace as the intermediary between the fire of Christ’s love and the fire in the hearts of Christ’s people, it is clear that liturgy is never just about the priest. It is the work of Christ in all of us.
Desiderio desideravi ought to be a wake-up call to the American Church, which used to support a large number of enthusiastic national organizations devoted to liturgical formation but no longer does so. There used to be diocesan support for such work, too, but now there is little money set aside for such undertakings. There are two main reasons for this unfortunate state of affairs. First, the legitimation of traditionalism introduced confusion over direction and created divisions concerning what ought to be taught concerning the liturgy. Second, the costs associated with the sex-abuse scandal emptied the coffers of local churches. Many dioceses have shut down worship offices and let go of qualified personnel who might have done such work in better times. This trend has created a ripple effect, and there are now fewer candidates for liturgy degrees because there are no jobs for them when they graduate. Priestly formation always commands resources, but this is a tiny percentage of the work that needs to be done. Sadly, the formation of the laity is now increasingly left to chance.
It does not have to remain this way. Pope Francis has done the Church an enormous service by cracking down on traditionalism and reaffirming the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. There should be no more confusion concerning the content to be conveyed in programs of liturgical formation or the direction that they ought to take. We now have a single, unified template for the Roman Rite, and Pope Francis has spoken quite movingly about the spirituality that undergirds the reformed liturgy we celebrate.
The second problem may be more challenging, but it can be addressed by making liturgical formation a budgetary priority. Rather than pouring resources into one-time events that have the quality of a rally (consider the $28 million U.S. bishops are spending on the 2024 Eucharistic Congress), the Church needs to invest in quotidian formation events that progress gradually, and that take full advantage of the formative nature of liturgy well-celebrated as the indispensable partner of a prayerful study of the rites. In reviving liturgical formation, a good place to start might be in the promotion of this very letter of Pope Francis. Let us “go on retreat” with him, and dialogue with his “prompts and cues” that invite us to meet Jesus anew in the liturgy.
Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.
Reproduced with permission from Commonweal.