Pope Francis said he believes the ongoing clashes over the Church’s liturgy call for Catholics to “abandon our polemics” and “safeguard our communion.” He warned that it would be “trivial” to read the tensions present around the Mass as a divergence in taste between one ritual form or another.
In a letter inviting the whole church to “rediscover, to safeguard, and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration,” Francis wrote that the beauty and centrality of the Mass should not be spoiled by “a superficial and foreshortened understanding of its value or, worse yet, by its being exploited in service of some ideological vision, no matter the hue.”
Much is at stake with the “liturgical question,” since, he said, the liturgy is the summit towards which all the activity of the Church is directed, and at the same time, the source of all of its power.
He also wrote that he struggles to understand how a Catholic may “presume” to reject the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reform it approved, insisting that it is a duty to affirm that only the books promulgated by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II are valid for the Mass.
In the letter Desiderio Desideravi, published by the Vatican on Wednesday, June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Francis wrote that not embracing the liturgical reform, as well as a superficial understanding of it, distract from what truly matters: “How do we continue to let ourselves be amazed at what happens in the celebration under our very eyes? We are in need of a serious and dynamic liturgical formation.”
The letter accentuates his crackdown last year on the Traditional Latin Mass, which reversed one of Pope Benedict XVI’s signature decisions of liberalizing the celebration of the old form of the Rite.
Among other things, last year’s motu proprio Traditionis custodes (Guardians of the Tradition), dictated that individual bishops must approve celebrations of the old Mass, and required newly ordained priests to receive explicit permission to celebrate it from their bishops, in consultation with the Vatican. Since then, many bishops around the world completely banned the Tridentine Mass in their dioceses.
This week’s letter is not addressed only to the clergy, but to all the faithful, and he quoted Pope Pius XII to explain that the liturgy is not a decorative ceremony nor the sum total of “laws and precepts that govern the cult.”
Every aspect of the Mass, Francis said, must be revered, and rediscovering its beauty is not about ritual aesthetic, content with a “careful exterior observance of a rite.” It “is satisfied by a scrupulous observance of the rubrics.” Yet this doesn’t mean that there is room for confusing simplicity with “a careless banality, or what is essential with an ignorant superficiality, or the concreteness of ritual action with an exasperating practical functionalism.”
It is also necessary to understand that the liturgy is not merely a retelling of the recollection of others of what happened during Christ’s last supper, and it is not a theatrical “staging” of what happened, the pope continued.
“From the very beginning the Church had grasped, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, that that which was visible in Jesus, that which could be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands, his words and his gestures, the concreteness of the incarnate Word — everything of Him had passed into the celebration of the sacraments,” Francis writes.
In the Eucharist and the sacraments, he said, the possibility of encountering Christ is guaranteed, and with the signs of his Passion, relived in the sacrifice of the Mass, “continues to pardon us, to heal us, to save us with the power of the sacraments.”
“The Eucharist is not magic, as it comes from God, not the devil: Our first encounter with his paschal deed is the event that marks the life of all believers: our Baptism,” he wrote. “This is not a mental adhesion to his thought or the agreeing to a code of conduct imposed by Him. Rather, it is a being plunged into his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, a being plunged into his paschal deed. It is not magic. Magic is the opposite of the logic of the sacraments because magic pretends to have a power over God, and for this reason it comes from the Tempter.”
In his 10-page reflection, Francis also wrote that too many people today don’t know what the Mass is, and for this reason, “we must not allow ourselves even a moment of rest, knowing that still not everyone has received an invitation to this Supper or knowing that others have forgotten it or have got lost along the way in the twists and turns of human living.”