Overview of Desiderio Desideravi

On the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, 2022, Pope Francis promulgated the Apostolic Letter Desiderio Desideravi.1 In many ways this letter is a completion to Francis’s Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes.2 With this latest document the Pope is calling the Church to a greater appreciation of and reflection upon the liturgical patrimony which we presently possess. The goal of this article, then, is to provide a framework to understand what the Pope is proposing for the Church, and so hopefully aid the reader in entering more deeply into our sacred rites.

Desiderio Desideravi itself is a short document, only a bit longer than twenty pages. In the place of providing an outline or commentary on the document, this article will instead provide a supporting framework to understand it. We will first look at the Historical Background and Purpose of the document, both of which will help orient us and so understand what Francis is trying to accomplish, and what he is both responding to and building upon. Then we will look at the Important Themes and the Call to Action of the document. This will consist in brief summaries of the different aspects of these sections with commentary seeking to highlight the relevance of what the Pope is proposing. Then finally in Conclusion, I provide a few comments on how I think a pastor or catechist can respond to our Holy Father’s call.

Historical Background

On July 16, 2021, Pope Francis promulgated Traditionis Custodes with a corresponding letter explaining the intent behind TC to the bishops of the world.3 Then on December 4, 2021, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments promulgated a Responsa to a series of Dubia which arose from TC.4 In all three of these documents there is a consistent refrain for a desire of unity in worship and in the Church. This is the stated overarching concern.

Though TC is concerned principally with regulating the use of the Missale Romanum 1962,5 it does provide two important ideas for understanding Desiderio Desideravi. The first is that Article 1 of TC defines: “The liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” (Emphasis is in the original.) This is making a particular theological claim that the current liturgical books are the authentic deposit of the Roman Rite’s liturgical tradition. This will then be developed further in DD and is important so as to understand what Pope Francis means in his call for liturgical and ecclesial unity.

The second relevant idea from TC is in Article 2 where Pope Francis reiterates that it is the bishop’s responsibility “as moderator, promoter, and guardian of the whole liturgical life of the particular Church entrusted to him, (Cf. SC 41, Caeremoniale Episcoporum 9, Redemptionis Sacramentum 25) to regulate the liturgical celebrations of his diocese.” This is then complemented in his Letter to the Bishops of the World where he condemned the abuses in the celebration of the current missal, stating:

At the same time, I am saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides. In common with Benedict XVI, I deplore the fact that “in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions.”6

Then in the conclusion of the letter, once more he says, “I ask you [the bishops] to be vigilant in ensuring that every liturgy be celebrated with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books promulgated after Vatican Council II, without the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses.” This call for vigilance against liturgical abuses from the Pope also contains the implied call for a greater focus upon the liturgical celebrations in the dioceses of the world. In this light DD then is the completion of Francis’s Letter to the Bishops.

Pope Francis included one more important theological point in his letter to the bishops of the world relevant to understanding DD. He stated, “Whoever wishes to celebrate with devotion according to earlier forms of the liturgy can find in the reformed Roman Missal according to Vatican Council II all the elements of the Roman Rite, in particular the Roman Canon which constitutes one of its more distinctive elements.” This is an important corollary to Article 1 of TC where the current Missale Romanum7 was defined as the unique expression of the lex orandi. Since the MR was authentically promulgated and reformed according to the Ecumenical Second Vatican Council, it authentically contains the same tradition of the Roman Rite as expressed in the MR 1962. And therefore theologically there cannot be a contradiction or lacking in the MR which would necessitate recourse to the MR 1962. This discussion is more concerned with the theology behind the liturgical expressions, not the spirituality in se.

This claim, though, that everything authentically part of the Roman Rite from the MR 1962 can be found in the MR is not apparent to many. The implied follow-up is that there needs to be liturgical formation to help the People of God see the continuity of tradition, and how the tradition embodied in the MR 1962 is also embodied in the MR. This then is the purpose of DD, to start the conversation and call for the formation of the People so that they might enter more deeply into the tradition of the Roman Rite.

One final note is that Romano Guardini is the principal theologian referenced by Pope Francis throughout DD. This is not surprising as Pope Francis originally intended to write his doctoral thesis on Guardini. Guardini was properly speaking a personalist philosopher in the school of phenomenology, and from that perspective contributed to the twentieth century liturgical movement. He dedicated much of his work to understanding how man experienced the liturgy, and in forming people to encounter God more deeply in the liturgy.

A key notion for Guardini was symbolism and symbolic manifestation. The human person for him was an epiphany, where the body was a symbol manifesting the soul. So too all aspects of the liturgy became epiphatic, manifesting divine realities. These encounters in-formed the soul, and our preparation beforehand prepared one to receive the imprint of the form imparted by the liturgy. Guardini also wrote that the liturgy is the place where the Christian assembly is made into a unity. This unity was not one of mindless conformity or abandonment of individuality into some homogenous group. Instead the unity realized by the liturgy was a unity of purpose or telos. We are made one in the liturgy by being oriented toward our single common end: union with God.

Purpose

In its preamble, Desiderio Desideravi plainly states the purpose of the document: “On the Liturgical Formation of the People of God.” The Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in the June 29, 2022 bollettino provided a brief statement of intent for the document.8 It notes that DD is “not an instruction or directory, but instead a meditation . . . which offers many ways to understand the beauty and truth of the Liturgy.” As such DD is not an exhaustive program, but instead means to stimulate a conversation and call the Church to seek to enter more deeply into the Sacred Rites which we have, and to not escape to individualistic or subjective spiritual pursuits.

Important Themes

Sacrosanctum Concilium 7

This paragraph is cited throughout the document and is a core place of reflection for Francis.9 The paragraph begins by stating that Christ is present in the Church’s liturgical celebrations, in every sacrament, in the reading of scripture in the liturgical assembly, and in the public prayer of the Church. It is through the Liturgy that Christ exercises his priestly ministry and sanctifies man through the use of perceptible signs. In the liturgy “the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.” As such the liturgical celebration is the action of the Whole Christ, the Mystical Body of Christ, both him as Head and his Body, the members of the liturgical assembly.

The Theological Sense of the Liturgy

In paragraph 16 Francis defines what he means by the theological sense of the liturgy. The liturgy has its own proper theological content, from which we are able to derive true Christian formation. We are not to eisegetically impose our ideologies upon the liturgy. Instead, since the liturgy is the authentic encounter of an objective reality, the Paschal Mystery, we are to conform our reflections to God’s self-manifestation in the liturgical celebration. In the immediately following section, entitled “The Liturgy: antidote for the poison of spiritual worldliness,” the Pope employs this concept against Gnosticism and Neo-Pelagianism, and a notion of the liturgy as mere external ceremonies.10 Instead Francis desires a deeper encounter and reflection upon the liturgy. He wants the Church to go through the exterior aspects and enter the realities conveyed, and not to be stuck upon the surface. He also wants the Church to not get stuck in subjective or individualistic preferences or sentiments, since we encounter an objective reality, Christ himself.

Symbolic World View

The key to having a Theological Sense of the liturgy is to have a symbolic world view.11 If the symbols of the liturgy are not able to convey or open into greater realities, then the liturgy will only ever be external ceremonies, or subjective sentimentalism. And unfortunately the modern man no longer has a symbolic world view.12 This is the crucial challenge we need to overcome. The symbolic world view is grounded upon the logic of the incarnation, wherein Christ made known the Divine through his humanity.13 His humanity became the place of encounter and entrance through which we encounter God. This is the fundamental nature of a symbol: an object which makes present another greater reality, and acts as a gateway through which to move and so encounter that greater reality. So for example this logic applies to all human bodies, which are the gateway to the soul and manifest the personality of an individual.

Liturgical Formation

The liturgy forms us and truly makes us human. There are two kinds of liturgical formation: Formation for the Liturgy (1st Sense) and Formation by the Liturgy (2nd Sense).14 There is a reciprocal relationship between these two. The 2nd Sense is the foundation of formation, as it comes from the actual experience of the liturgy.15 The 1st Sense then serves as an aid to predispose one to more fully encounter the Paschal Mystery in the liturgy, and so be more receptive of formation in the 2nd Sense.16 Since the reality of the Paschal Mystery is infinite, we can never finish formation in both senses, and our wonder developed therein can only increase.17

True Encounter with the Paschal Mystery in the Sacraments

The liturgy does not hand on the idea of Christ, or a simple recollection of his actions. Instead it is the way in which the Trinity has chosen to continue their manifestation of the saving mysteries of the Paschal Mystery.18 Every liturgical celebration ensures that this encounter of the Paschal Mystery happens.19 And it is this encounter with the Paschal Mystery which effects our salvation and sanctification. It is the place and means by which God perpetually manifests his singular action of redemption and union throughout time and space.

Unity of Worship

The Church herself is born from within the Paschal Mystery, from the side of Christ upon the Cross. Through our baptism we enter into this Body, and it is only united to this body where we can fully participate in the worship of God. For Christ, while united to his body, makes the perfect act of obedient worship of the Father.20 This is the worship which we are able to enter into through our unity to the body of Christ. As such this lex orandi is linked intrinsically to the lex credendi. This is also where our unity is found. We are not called to a unity in simple exterior forms of worship, but unity in belief and theology, which necessary effects how we worship (and visa-versa).

(Theological) Rejection of the MR then is not a matter of taste or spirituality but an issue of ecclesiology. The MR, as stated above, is the unique theological expression of the council. To reject the theology of the MR is de facto to reject the theology of Vatican II.21 Instead fidelity to the council means plunging more deeply into the MR, not retreating to the MR 1962.22 This should not be understood as creating oppositions of theology. After all, as we stated above, the fullness of the theological tradition of the MR 1962 is also found within the MR. The MR then is the tradition of the MR 1962 with the addition of the authentic theological development of Vatican II.

Humility before the Gift of the Sacraments

The Last Supper is a gift given, not a gift earned. All are invited, though not everyone has heard or responded.23 Our response to this gift then is one of humble asceticism as we surrender ourselves to God’s loving gift of self.24 This is to be our fundamental disposition before the Church’s rites. The liturgy is not something for us to choose or bend to our will. It is something received, and as such humility is essential for an authentic encounter of the Paschal Mystery in the liturgy.

Call to Action

Renewal of Wonder

Pope Francis reminds us that we must not grow complacent or overly familiar with the liturgy. For it to remain effective and to continue to in-form us, we must not grow hardened by habit, but instead maintain a wonder at its beauty.25 This though requires seeing beauty beyond sensation and aestheticism. This also does not mean rejecting proper rubrical observances and slipping into banal celebrations.26 It means not remaining at the doorway of the symbols, but instead moving through the symbolic entrance into the deeper realities expressed. The symbols in themselves are finite, and we will lose wonder in them; the realities they convey however are infinite (cf. The Paschal Mystery) and so a source of constant wonder.

Our lack of wonder and impoverished symbolic world view create barriers for the grace of the sacraments to have effect in our lives.27 This impoverishment actually limits our ability to experience the Paschal Mystery, and it is that experience in the liturgy which effects the grace of the sacraments. We do not need simply better celebrations (though they are necessary) nor greater interiority. Interiority without experience of the Paschal Mystery turns into subjective individualism.28 We need an increase in wonder. Wonder is not a vague “sense of mystery,” but instead the “marveling at the fact that the salvific plan of God has been revealed in the paschal deed of Jesus (cf. Eph 1:3–14), and the power of this paschal deed continues to reach us in the celebration of the ‘mysteries,’ of the sacraments. . . . Beauty, just like truth, always engenders wonder, and when these are referred to the mystery of God, they lead to adoration.”29

A Deeper Encounter of the Liturgy

Liturgy properly speaking is not pedagogical, though it does in fact perform a pedagogical function. Instead the primary end of the liturgy is the encounter of the Paschal Mystery in praise of the Father and docility to the Spirit.30 The measure by which we know if we are growing authentically in the 2nd sense of formation (and so a more profound encounter of God in the liturgy) is the degree by which we are more ­con-formed to Christ, the Son of the Father.31 This encounter is not an intellectual or spiritually abstract one, but an incarnational and sacramental encounter.32 We must become literate of the symbolic realities employed in order to be aware of this encounter. This starts with reading our bodies as symbols of our souls. This in turn will enable us to see the symbolic nature of creation.33 Then we must have confidence in these ways of symbolic mediation, and so allow the Holy Spirit to lead us more deeply into them.34

Once we experience the liturgy as an authentic encounter with God, we can understand it as “source and summit.” We can say in truth that all actions of the Church are dependent upon our encounter of God in the liturgy.35 We can see our theological reflections as possessing an organic unity stemming from and returning to the liturgy.36

Need Improved Ars Celebrandi

The faithful have a right to a well and properly celebrated liturgy. This, though necessary, is not sufficient for a full and active participation.37 The quality of one’s Ars Celebrandi is determined by one’s integration of the theological sense of the liturgy, not rubricism or creativity. The rite itself is the norm and entrance into the greater reality.38 As an ars, that is an art, it requires different kinds of knowledge:

  • Of the dynamics and logic of the liturgy itself. The Paschal Mystery is the source of action, not us.
  • The Holy Spirit is the principal actuator of the liturgy. Our harmony with Him frees us from subjectivism, individual tastes, and false modes of inculturation.
  • The nature and meaning of the symbols employed.39

Therefore the ars celebrandi is not an improvisation but requires the careful application of the skill. Further, it is not the presentation of the skill in itself, so as to be seen by others. But is allowing oneself to be possessed by it and “allowing the celebration itself to convey to us its art.”40 This applies to the whole assembly, not just the presider.41 We must remember that the whole Body celebrates according to their proper office, not simply the priest. (No one is a spectator.)

The priest by training and his particular experience of the liturgy is to help lead the faithful into a deeper encounter of the liturgy.42 The way in which he celebrates has a particular effect in being a gateway or obstacle to the people’s ars. The priest can often move between different extremes:

  • 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 impassibility43

The common root of these extremes is an overly personalist focus on one’s style, “which at times expresses a poorly concealed mania to be the center of attention.”44

In order for the priest to preside well, he must be aware of being a particular presence of the risen Lord. He is a sacramental and all his actions are sacramental in weight.45 This places the priest between the burning heart of God and the people. This alone should correct and reprove him, and also provide the norm against improvisation and the motivation to improve one’s ars.46

Renewed Reflection on the Liturgical Year

Pope Francis calls for further reflection upon the liturgical year.47 The liturgical year places order in our lives by placing them and all the moments of our lives within the light of salvation history.48 He does not elaborate much further, but common experience witnesses to the need for a renewal in our understanding of the Liturgical Year. A beginning place of reflection is on how Christ in his incarnation did not simply take on the space (that is matter) of a human body, but also the time of a human body. Both (time and space) were created, then distorted in the fall, and so in need of redemption. As a result of Christ’s incarnation and earthly ministry, followed by his ascension, and now awaited return, all of time is ordered toward God and so can be a symbol.

In summary: A Call for a Renewal of the Liturgical Movement

The liturgical movement of the twentieth century provided great academic contributions to our understanding of the liturgy. What is needed now is that this treasury be made accessible to the people. They must be taught the theological sense of the liturgy. They must be formed in a symbolic world view,49 and so in this way made more able to participate fully and actively in the Church’s liturgical celebrations and experience the saving mysteries of our Faith.

Conclusion

As a whole I agree with the general assessment and need for formation. At the heart of many of our liturgical tensions is the general poverty in comprehension of the theological sense of the liturgy and lack of a symbolic world view. These two aspects alone contribute much toward the people’s indifference to weekly Mass attendance (let alone in-person Mass attendance), the myriad progressivetraditional tensions, poor ego-centric ars celebrandi, indifference to sacraments as a whole, and almost complete ignorance of sacramentals. Further without a theological sense of the liturgy or symbolic (that is sacramental) world view, it is effectively impossible to make sense of the Church’s teaching on the sacraments and objective liturgical practices (as embodied in her liturgical books).

A catechetical program is necessary to form the People of God so that they can authentically encounter the realities made present in the liturgy. A purely dogmatic catechetical program (though helpful and necessary) is not sufficient, nor do I think Pope Francis is calling for one. Instead what I think he is calling for is a mystagogical catechesis, that is, a catechesis starting with the experience of the liturgy, and then using the symbolism therein as an entrance into the realities which they are presenting. This is the ideal way to ground the teaching of the Church in reality and prevent it from being reduced to a form of ideology. After all, what we have to hand on to the world is not an idea, but three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This mystagogical catechesis requires first qualified catechists. They need to be ones who first themselves have traveled the path through the symbols into the authentic encounter of the Paschal Mystery. They need to have a developed and confident sacramental world view. It also requires them to have studied the symbols according to the mind of the Church. This requires knowledge of both our Tradition and current liturgical books. Then, assuming these persons also have the gift of teaching,50 they would be the most qualified to lead a mystagogical catechesis.51 This catechesis would then consist in the catechists leading the faithful upon much the same journey they personally traversed like a mountain guide. They would explain the authentic meaning of the liturgical symbols and help show how one can encounter God through those same symbols.

It is a general consensus that the liturgical movement of the past century was never completed. For whatever reason, it never really made a full impact in the parishes and in forming the people. This part of the liturgical reform from Vatican II has been left largely incomplete, and the fruit of the current liturgy will never flourish, and the whole process of renewal of the Church started at the Council will never be fully realized, until the people are aided and equipped so as to encounter the saving mysteries of the liturgy more fully. It is there that the Church is made, that the Church is nourished, is renewed, is saved, redeemed, and sanctified. Pope Francis, as Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI did, is calling the Church and her ministers to enter more deeply into the reality of the liturgy and help lead the People of God into this same reality.

  1. Francis, Desiderio Desideravi (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2022), https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/20220629-lettera-ap-desiderio-desideravi.html. Hereafter abbreviated as DD.
  2. Francis, Traditionis Custodes (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2021), https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/20210716-motu-proprio-traditionis-custodes.html. Hereafter abbreviated as TC.
  3. Francis, Letter Of The Holy Father Francis To The Bishops Of The Whole World, That Accompanies The Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Data “Traditionis Custodes” (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2021), https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2021/documents/20210716-lettera-vescovi-liturgia.html.
  4. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Responsa Ad Dubia on Certain Provision of the Apostolic Letter Traditionis Custodes (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2021), https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20211204_responsa-ad-dubia-tradizionis-custodes_en.html.
  5. Previously called the Extraordinary Form from Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum. Hereafter this missal and all related liturgical rites will be abbreviated as MR 1962.
  6. Here citing Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops on the occasion of the publication of the Apostolic Letter “Motu proprio data” Summorum Pontificum on the use of the Roman Liturgy prior to the reform of 1970, 7 July 2007: AAS 99 (2007) 796.
  7. Hereafter abbreviated as MR.
  8. Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Comunicato Del Dicastero per Il Culto Divino e La Disciplina Dei Sacramenti, 29.06.2022 (Rome: Bollettino, 2022), https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2022/06/29/0501/01028.html.
  9. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy can be viewed online at https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html.
  10. DD 18. These spiritual maladies are a frequent concern for Pope Francis. See Evangelii Gaudium 93–97 and Gaudete et Exsultate 36–62.
  11. The traditional name for a symbolic world view is a sacramental world view. For all intents and purposes, in both this article and Desiderio Desideravi, a symbolic world view and a sacramental world view are equivalent.
  12. DD 27–28.
  13. Cf. DD 19.
  14. DD 34.
  15. DD 40.
  16. DD 40.
  17. DD 38.
  18. DD 10.
  19. DD 11.
  20. DD 14–15.
  21. DD 31.
  22. DD 61.
  23. DD 3–5.
  24. DD 6, 9.
  25. DD 21.
  26. DD 22.
  27. DD 24.
  28. DD 24.
  29. DD 25.
  30. DD 41.
  31. DD 41.
  32. DD 42.
  33. DD 44.
  34. DD 46–47.
  35. DD 29–30.
  36. Cf. DD 37.
  37. DD 23.
  38. DD 48.
  39. DD 49.
  40. DD 50.
  41. DD 51.
  42. DD 37.
  43. DD 54.
  44. DD 54.
  45. DD 57.
  46. DD 57.
  47. DD 63.
  48. DD 64.
  49. DD 35.
  50. 1 Cor 12:28.
  51. One might object that holiness of life or developed prayer life is not included. It should be noted, however, that these qualities are presupposed in one who has entered deeply into encountering God in the liturgy, and so has a developed sacramental world view. Holiness is the result of the encounter of the Paschal Mystery, and prayer is the place (though not exclusively so) in which one is guided by the Holy Spirit to perceive more clearly the present of God in the liturgy.
Fr. Timothy Eck About Fr. Timothy Eck

Fr. Timothy Eck is a priest of the Diocese of Metuchen. He completed a Licentiate in Sacred Theology in Liturgical Theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. He is currently parochial vicar at St. Bartholomew’s Parish in East Brunswick, NJ, and the Director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Diocese of Metuchen.

Comments

  1. Avatar Oscar Jaramillo says:

    Fr. Eck, thank so very much for such a brilliant presentation, discussion, and reflection on Desiderio Desideravi. Thank you also for sharing with us your love for the Church in a time so much in need of it. Your love for liturgy is inspiring and your respect for Pope Francis admirable. I will keep this article as a treasure for my regular reading and reflection. You are a treasure to our Catholic Church. Thank you again.

  2. Avatar Rex Pilger says:

    DD, following TC, offers (pun intended) repeated emphasis on the united sacrifice/offering of Christ Jesus on the Cross and the altar, together with the priest-celebrant and the assembly. This responds to criticism of the new Missal that claims the sacrificial character of the Mass has been somehow lost; such complaints typically neglect the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I; as Father Eck quotes from DD, the Canon, with the remainder of the Rite, retains virtually all of the components of the liturgical tradition). Conspiratorial theories as to a hidden purpose of TC overlook this important component of sacramental theology the Holy Father is emphasizing. While the sacramental presence of the Lord is hidden under the appearance of bread and wine, the purposes of TC (and DD) are hidden in plain sight.

All comments posted at Homiletic and Pastoral Review are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative and inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.

Speak Your Mind

*