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.”
Desiderio desideravi can also be seen as a sign of the struggle and frustration of this pontificate to enforce the respect for the liturgical reform as Francis spelled out in Traditionis custodes one year ago: “As I already expressed in my letter to all the bishops, I have felt it my duty to affirm that ‘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’” (par. 31). Francis calls us to a continual rediscovery of the liturgical constitution and reform: “For this reason we cannot go back to that ritual form which the Council fathers, ‘cum Petro et sub Petro,’ felt the need to reform, approving, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and following their conscience as pastors, the principles from which was born the reform. The holy pontiffs St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, approving the reformed liturgical books ‘ex decreto Sacrosancti Oecumenici Concilii Vaticani II,’ have guaranteed the fidelity of the reform of the Council. For this reason I wrote Traditionis custodes, so that the Church may lift up, in the variety of so many languages, one and the same prayer capable of expressing her unity. As I have already written, I intend that this unity be re-established in the whole Church of the Roman Rite” (par. 61).
The document should be considered a significant addition to the body of Francis’s teachings. But it’s not relevant just for those studying this pope out of academic interest. Desiderio desideravi is also significant in the context of the clash between some American bishops and Catholic politicians in the Democratic party, beginning with Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. As French Benedictine liturgist Patrick Pretot pointed out about Desiderio desideravi: “The pope repeats in another way what he has expressed many times elsewhere: the Eucharist is not a prize for good behavior. But it is an initiative of a God who gives himself: it is a desire of Christ that is primary.”
The document speaks to the Catholic Church in the United States in particular ways. First, it addresses the fact that in some American circles, liturgical traditionalism, theological anti–Vatican II sentiment, and opposition to Pope Francis have become one. These groups are not secret or independent from ecclesiastical authorities: rather, they enjoy the support of some local bishops and they are well represented in the American Catholic establishment. For example, a liturgical conference with a distinctly traditionalist and restorationist flavor took place in the San Francisco archdiocese at the end of June. Hosted by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, the event featured speakers like Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Holy See’s former liturgy prefect, and Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s former treasurer. Some U.S. bishops have openly defied Traditionis custodes, and this has not gone unnoticed in the Vatican; the prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the English Cardinal-designate Arthur Roche, has been very outspoken lately about the liturgical disputes, calling them “a tragedy.”
Second, Desiderio desideravi confirms that Francis has brought about an important change in the role of the papacy on the crisis of the liturgical reform. He has made even clearer than before that the movement for a “reform of the liturgical reform” can no longer count on the support of the papacy. It is a significant departure from what Benedict XVI had initiated and what had taken root, especially in the United States: a movement for the return of the pre–Vatican II Latin Mass. The document quotes the teaching on the liturgy of all the popes since Pius XII—all but Benedict XVI, who is never mentioned. It’s not an oversight, but a judgment on the effects of Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio, Summorum pontificum. At the same time, Desiderio desideravi takes to task the liberal-progressive defenders of Vatican II, who often pay attention only to the aspects of council’s teaching that they like. With this document Francis confirms himself a true Vatican II pope, holding an interpretation of the council that is aware of both the anti-conciliar movements in opposition to Vatican II and the risk of a more subtle “a-conciliar” Catholicism, where the life of the Church and especially theological formation is conceived as if Vatican II never took place.
Third, Desiderio desideravi addresses directly, even though not explicitly, the ecclesial crisis of the U.S. Catholic Church while revealing Rome’s worries about the reception of Vatican II globally. Francis rediscovers the ecclesiology of the liturgical reform, but in a different way than Vatican II did sixty years ago, or than I did in my book ten years ago. The role of the liturgical reform and of reforms in general has changed substantially since Vatican II—and since the early 2000s. In the 1960s, the ecclesiology of Vatican II was about a sacramental idea of the Church versus a juridical idea of the Church, in favor of the ecumenical openings contained in the reformed liturgy and acknowledging the existence of different and equally legitimate liturgical rites. In the early 2000s, the task of theology was about keeping hierarchical authorities (beginning with the Roman Curia of John Paul II and Benedict XVI later) from suffocating liturgical and other conciliar reforms. Today, it’s no longer Vatican II that needs to be defended from the grips of Rome. Rather, it’s Rome that is coming to the defense of Vatican II.
Francis is a Vatican II centrist, who places liturgical reform at that center when he talks about the council. Other issues that Vatican II opened paths for, like ordained ministry, are more complicated for him. But he’s clear-eyed on the risk confronting us: How far can the delegitimization and undermining of Vatican II—via the rejection of the liturgical reform and its ecclesiology—go before it irreparably damages the unity of the Church?