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).