Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection, 1463 (RealyEasyStar/Claudio Pagliarani/Alamy Stock Photo)

When the American bishops produced their multi-year plan for a National Eucharistic Revival in 2022, there was only one passing reference to the concept of the Paschal Mystery in their founding statement. I was dumbfounded. Only one! I’ve been wondering ever since why they would abandon the language and concept of Paschal Mystery, and I think I’ve finally figured it out. They must have concluded that it wouldn’t serve their purpose, which was a return to the Eucharistic piety that predated the Second Vatican Council.

The prominence of the Paschal Mystery is one of the hallmarks of Vatican II, and it has not diminished in importance since that time. Pope Benedict XVI, reflecting on the fruits of the Second Vatican Council in a 2013 address to the clergy of Rome, remarked: 

There were several of these: above all, the Paschal Mystery as the center of what it is to be Christian—and therefore of the Christian life, the Christian year, the Christian seasons, expressed in Eastertide and on Sunday which is always the day of the Resurrection. Again and again we begin our time with the Resurrection, our encounter with the Risen one, and from that encounter with the Risen one we go out into the world.

Pope Francis, in his 2021 letter on liturgical formation, Desiderio desideravilikewise places the Paschal Mystery at the center of his reflections on the Eucharist. In that letter alone, he refers to the Paschal Mystery eleven times.

Pope Francis and Pope Benedict are not outliers here. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy invokes the Paschal Mystery seven times; it appears twice in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, and once in the decree on the formation of priests. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes more than fifty references to the Paschal Mystery, and even uses it in the titles of several sections pertaining to the liturgy (“The Paschal Mystery in the Age of the Church,” “The Paschal Mystery in the Church’s Sacraments,” and “The Sacramental Celebration of the Paschal Mystery”). 

Although the term “Paschal Mystery” is not found in the scriptures, it rests upon the biblical witness. The New Testament places the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus at the absolute center of our understanding of the mystery of Christ and our salvation. The term arose in the early Church and came into prominence in the twentieth century through the writings of Odo Casel, Josef Jungmann, Louis Bouyer, and other luminaries. Pope Paul VI hailed it as an important historical and biblical synthesis anchored in our sacramental life: “To participate in the Paschal Mystery is nothing other than to put oneself in real communion with him, dying with him, rising with him.” Our whole sacramental life has brought this insight into focus through the liturgical reform. 

If the bishops think that the concept of the Paschal Mystery doesn’t fit neatly into the Eucharistic piety that predated the Council, they are right.

The Paschal Mystery not only describes the arc of Christ’s self-emptying love leading to new life and glory; it also describes how believers enter into Christ’s Passover through the sacraments. This is not a new idea. The Fathers of the Church, particularly St. Augustine, understood that the liturgy was not only about Christ’s Pasch, but also our Passover from death to life, from sin to grace. The Paschal Mystery is the paradigm or pattern of the whole Christian life, expressed with eloquent symbolism in the liturgies of Holy Week, but also celebrated every Sunday. Pope Francis was right to affirm that the work of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy conforms us so closely to Christ that “we become him.” One might reflect on this mystery endlessly without exhausting its treasures. Theologian Joseph Ratzinger in 1966 called the Paschal Mystery “perhaps the most fertile theological idea of our century.” 

The centrality of Paschal Mystery to our understanding of the liturgy has, of course, been disputed, but not by many. The only notable critique was offered by the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X. Their book, The Problem of the Liturgical Reform, devotes considerable attention to undermining the idea of the Paschal Mystery precisely because they find it to be the key to the liturgical reform, and because it wasn’t mentioned at Trent. In its place, they wish to return to the Tridentine emphasis upon Christ’s expiatory sacrifice on the cross, something that the American bishops are also keen to do. Although I do not seriously believe that our bishops share the traditionalist desire to turn the clock back on the liturgical reform, I suspect they align with the traditionalists to some extent in wishing for a return to “the good old days” of Eucharistic devotion.

I was giving a talk on Desiderio desideravi recently and happened to mention that the launch of the Eucharistic Revival included almost no place for the Paschal Mystery in its presentation. One of the attendees, a priest, asked how I could explain this. He couldn’t make sense of it: “Every time I say the Eucharistic prayers or other prayers of the Eucharist, it’s all over the place.” I really couldn’t explain it. Christ’s passing over from death to life is what the liturgy celebrates, or else what are we doing? 

When I got home I wondered whether the bishops had developed something more to say about the Paschal Mystery since the launch of the revival. So I did a web search for “paschal mystery eucharistic revival” and a post concerning the Paschal Mystery came up from the theological blog on their official website. Aha! Finally, something about the Paschal Mystery for the Eucharistic Revival! 

Frankly, it was an embarrassment. It was billed as a mystagogical reflection on the Paschal Mystery, but really it was all about sacrifice. The victim dies and rises right there on the altar, according to this “theological” reflection. But this is nonsense. Even if one is fully on board with the idea of the Mass as a sacrifice, the liturgy is not about witnessing Christ’s death and resurrection on the altar. It is about sharing in Christ’s perfect self-offering and offering ourselves to God in communion with him. The paschal character of the liturgy is found in the transformation of the elements of bread and wine into the living Christ, but it is no less about our transformation as partakers of his body and blood. 

If the bishops think that the concept of the Paschal Mystery doesn’t fit neatly into the Eucharistic piety that predated the Council, they are right. It is something more brilliant, wonderfully so when seen against the background that preceded it. What a shame that they chose not to talk about it. But it’s not going away. As part of the legacy of the Council, it remains with us, no matter what.  

Published in the March 2024 issue: View Contents

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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