This essay initially ran in July 2022.
It has never been true that Pope Francis is not a theologian. But it is true that the matter of liturgy has since his election become an ever more significant focus of his attention, and that talking about the liturgy has become a distinctive way for him to talk about Vatican II. On June 29— almost one year after the motu proprio Traditionis custodes, a landmark document in his pontificate—Francis published another key text on the liturgy, the apostolic letter Desiderio desideravi, “on the liturgical formation of the people of God.”
In a more systematic way than usual, Francis presents his understanding of the Second Vatican Council and its legacy, and in particular of the liturgical reform: “We owe to the Council—and to the liturgical movement that preceded it—the rediscovery of a theological understanding of the Liturgy and of its importance in the life of the Church” (par. 16). He defends the liturgical reform against the accusations that have become routine in some Catholic circles: “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” (par. 25).
Francis shows the importance of the liturgical constitution in the overarching architecture of the documents of Vatican II in their intertextuality: one theological issue is addressed in different documents, and one document intersects with all the others. Therefore the documents of Vatican II must be seen and read as a corpus, as a body of teaching: “It is with this reality of the modern world that the Church, united in Council, wanted to enter into contact, reaffirming her awareness of being the sacrament of Christ, the Light of the nations (Lumen gentium), putting herself in a devout listening to the Word of God (Dei Verbum), and recognizing as her own the joys and the hopes (Gaudium et spes) of the people of our times. The great Constitutions of the Council cannot be separated one from the other, and it is not an accident that this single huge effort at reflection by the Ecumenical Council—which is the highest expression of synodality in the Church and whose richness I, together with all of you, am called to be the custodian—began with reflection on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium)” (par. 29).
Paragraphs 29 and 31 especially show Francis’s deep familiarity with the historical unfolding of the council beginning with the liturgical debate, with the connections between the liturgical debate of the first session in 1962 and the ecclesiological debate of the second session in 1963. The intertextual character of Vatican II entails an interdisciplinary approach to liturgy and theological formation: “Every discipline of theology, each from its own perspective, must show its own intimate connection with the Liturgy in light of which the unity of priestly formation is made clear and realized” (par. 37).
Francis highlights what is at stake in the new liturgical question that arose in recent years and addresses it with the usual candor: “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. I do not see how it is possible to say that one recognizes the validity of the Council—though it amazes me that a Catholic might presume not to do so—and at the same time not accept the liturgical reform born out of Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document that expresses the reality of the Liturgy intimately joined to the vision of Church so admirably described in Lumen gentium.”