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Thoughs on the Pope’s Recent Apostolic Letter on the liturgy, Desiderio Desideravi

Andrew Mahon, Liturgist and Director of Music

On the 29th of June, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter to the Church concerning the Liturgy, entitled Desiderio Desideravi, which translates as “I have earnestly desired”. 
Apostolic letters occupy third place in the hierarchy of Papal documents, after apostolic constitutions and encyclicals. Generally speaking, they are not doctrinal or legislative documents, but exhortations to Catholics to embrace this or that virtue or practice.
In this letter, the Holy Father expresses his wish that all baptized Catholics renew an authentic wonder and astonishment for the Eucharist, while allowing themselves to be formed by the Liturgy. The Pope cautions against falling into the heresies of Gnosticism and neo-Palagianism, by which Catholics can become too focused on their own feelings or too reliant on their own efforts. He decries the opposing errors of banality and superficiality in the Liturgy on the one hand, and a scrupulosity over details and an overemphasis on aesthetics on the other. 
He clarifies that “every aspect of the celebration must be carefully tended to (space, time, gestures, words, objects, vestments, song, music…) and every rubric must be observed” but stresses that the rite it not an “end in itself, but it is always at the service of a higher reality that it means to protect.”
That higher reality, the Pope explains, is the real encounter with Christ in the Liturgy, which we achieve through Baptism, hearing his Word, eating his Body, and drinking his Blood. We must allow the Holy Spirit to act in us, as we participate in the Liturgy though our attention, our voices, our gestures, and our interior attitudes. 
When we participate in the Liturgy we are present at the Last Supper and at the Cross.
After Pentecost, when the risen Jesus had already ascended into heaven, “everything of him has passed into the celebration of the sacraments.” The Church is the mystical Body of Christ, and we are members of his body. This Body, what Pope Francis calls “Christ-Church”, is the subject of the Liturgy, and our approach to Christ must be made as members of that Body, and not as individuals. 
This is particularly relevant for the ACC, since we are named after the mother of that Body. The Pope writes: “As she protected the Word made flesh in her womb after receiving the words of the angel Gabriel, she protects once again in the womb of the Church those gestures that form the body of her Son. The priest, who repeats those gestures in virtue of the gift received in the sacrament of Holy Orders, is himself protected in the womb of the Virgin.”
The Holy Father says we must learn to speak symbolically, which is often a foreign concept to the modern mind, and to understand the world incarnationally. We must see all things as sacramental, rather than fall into the errors of abstract spiritualism on the one hand, or empty materialism on the other. “The Liturgy is done with things that are the exact opposite of spiritual abstractions,” he writes. “Bread, wine, oil, water, fragrances, fire, ashes, rock, fabrics, colors, body, words, sounds, silences, gestures, space, movement, action, order, time, light.”
The ultimate aim of all this is for us to become Christ. Through all these material “things” we are given the gift of Grace, and made members of Christ’s mystical body, made sons in the Son. Pope Francis quotes Leo the Great: “Our participation in the Body and Blood of Christ has no other end than to make us become that which we eat.” This is the goal of our response to Christ’s invitation. But as the Holy Father says, we must remember that before our response to him comes Christ’s desire for us, as the title of the letter suggests.
As I read and thought about the Pope’s letter, I was reminded more than once of the great English writer and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis. The English translation of the Pope’s letter at one point uses the phrase “the poison of subjectivism” which is the exact title of one of Lewis’s essays, still as relevant as ever today. Additionally, I’ve referenced several times where the Pope points out errors or heresies in pairs, which reminded me of a quote from Lewis’s masterpiece, Mere Christianity: “The devil always sends errors into the world in pairs--pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”
One point that Pope Francis made resonated with me, as Director of Liturgy for the ACC. I see my role as working to tell the truth about the sacraments through the Liturgy. The Liturgy, which contains so many elements, can distract, mislead, and even lie, through carelessness, neglect, accident or intention. The presence of Christ cannot be removed, but it can be obscured. The more the Liturgy speaks the truth through its many elements, the better it can facilitate that encounter with Christ which is its purpose. The more that truth is spoken through the Liturgy, the deeper that encounter becomes, and the further the invitation of Christ can be spread. “We must not allow ourselves even a moment of rest,” Pope Francis says. “Knowing that still not everyone has received an invitation to this Supper or knowing that others have forgotten it or have got lost along the way in the twists and turns of human living.” It’s a good reminder. We should continually remind ourselves of that urgency, so that Christ’s desire for us can be satisfied and “every man and woman, from every tribe, tongue, people and nation” can respond to his invitation to his Supper. 

 

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