Pope Francis Recommends Mystagogy

When the members of the Congregation for Divine Worship gathered in plenary session last week, Pope Francis gave a strong statement in an audience with them, emphasizing the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, and underlining the importance of the theme of the gathering: the liturgical formation of the people of God. To supplement the excellent summary already posted at Pray Tell, I would like to draw attention to something that was only lightly touched upon in that post, namely that Pope Francis recommended mystagogy.

Here is what he said:

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church itself adopts the mystagogical way to illustrate the liturgy, valuing its prayers and signs. Mystagogy: this is a suitable way to enter the mystery of the liturgy, in the living encounter with the crucified and risen Lord. Mystagogy means discovering the new life we have received in the People of God through the Sacraments, and continually rediscovering the beauty of renewing it.”

Really, it should not surprise us that Francis proposes mystagogy as a way to enter into the liturgy  at ever-deepening levels. The practice of mystagogy has a venerable place in our liturgical tradition and appears in our current liturgical books (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults devotes a whole period to it: “the period of post-baptismal catechesis, or mystagogy”). John Paul II spoke of it; the synod on the Eucharist under Benedict affirmed it; books have been written about it, and, as the Holy Father notes, the Catechism fosters a mystagogically sensitive approach. Yet I still think mystagogy remains something of a mystery to many of the faithful.

Perhaps the fact that Pope Francis has underlined the necessity of mystagogy in liturgical formation is an occasion to take another look at it. What is mystagogy? How might it be practiced today?

When I was a presenter with the North American Forum on the Catechumenate (1988 to 2013), I used to conduct a mystagogical reflection on each of the rites we celebrated at our institutes (many team members did this; it was not just me, but I gained a lot of experience by doing it in these gatherings of anywhere from 50 to 200 people).

This mystagogical catechesis took place on the morning after we celebrated one of the rites of the catechumenate. It had four steps: remembering the experience, participants naming what they noticed in the celebration of the rite, eliciting the meaning they derived from what they noticed (theological reflection), and, finally, instruction from the presenter concerning the structure and intentions of the rite.

You’ll notice that this pattern begins by paying attention to our experience of the liturgy—noticing things and naming them, taking time to become aware of our inner response to what took place, and staying with it rather than moving too hastily on to the next thing. The pacing of this exercise is slow, reflective, meditative. It’s not a fusillade of superficial observations, nor is it oriented toward critique. We do this neither to praise or to blame, but to be attentive and to enter more deeply into what is essentially the mystery of God’s presence and action in the liturgy.

Goffredo Boselli, in his 2014 book The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy, draws a parallel between mystagogy and lectio divina. In lectio divina, you listen to the Word and are attentive to how God is speaking to you through it. In mystagogy, similarly, we listen to our experience of the Liturgy and are attentive to how God is speaking to us through it.

Lectio divina can be done by one person alone, or by groups of people together. The same is true of mystagogy. When several people share their experiences and spiritual response to the liturgy, in an atmosphere of trust, it stimulates and broadens our awareness of what happens there.

Just as an aside: One story that delighted me was told by a pastor who, after an institute “did mystagogy” with the youth of his parish at World Youth Day—the young people grasped it and took to it right away! On the bus after each of the liturgies they attended, the priest asked them two simple questions: What did you notice, and what did it mean? It was not complicated or hard. Their reflections however were rich, and they ended up getting more out of each of the liturgies as a result.

You don’t always need a group in order to do mystagogy, though. Once you get the hang of it, a simple exercise of mystagogy in solitude can also produce spiritual gifts. On the walk home from church, or during a time of journaling, if you simply ask yourself: “What struck me in the liturgy today?”—then stay with it and bring it to prayer—that too is mystagogical reflection.

Follow it up with the second question: “What did that word or gesture or common action ‘say’ to me about God or about Jesus; about the Holy Spirit or about the church?” And watch what happens. You begin to be more present to your own experience of the liturgy. You become more attentive to how God is working through that liturgical experience. You will even learn to love the church more deeply, because it becomes evident that this community is the place where Christ gives himself to us. On a personal level, you become aware that God “sees” you in the assembly of his faithful people, and is not indifferent.

What about the role of the mystagogue? In a communal reflection, of course, the role of the mystagogue is important. A mystagogical catechist, or a mystagogical preacher, can contribute much to our appreciation of how the liturgy works through sign and symbol, and calls us to grow in holiness. A good mystagogue does not stop at what happens inside the four walls of the church, but leads us to reflect on how the liturgy fosters in us the desire to praise and thank God in our everyday lives.

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