Reflections on Pope Francis’ Exhortations and the Chair of Peter

I exhort the presbyters among you,
as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ
and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed.
Tend the flock of God in your midst,
overseeing not by constraint but willingly,
as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly.
Do not lord it over those assigned to you,
but be examples to the flock.
And when the chief Shepherd is revealed,
you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

(1 Peter 5:1-4)

Today first reading for feast of the Chair of Peter led me to think of how Pope Francis is exercising the Petrine ministry in a distinctive fashion, not only in convening gatherings like the present one in which bishops and heads of religious orders have come together to begin to address issues of clerical misconduct in the abuse of children and the cover-ups associated with that abuse, but in many of his exhortations to various groups from the Roman Curia to meetings of Christian athletes.

Fr. Anthony Ruff and Rita Ferrone have both called PrayTell readers’ attention to an allocution Pope Francis gave on 14 February 2019 to the participants in the plenary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The topic of the plenary was “the liturgical formation of the People of God.” After noting the appropriateness of the topic fifty years after St. Paul VI’s founding of the Congregation for Divine Worship and that “it is not enough to change the liturgical books to improve the quality of the liturgy,” Pope Francis makes some interesting connections between liturgical formation and his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium:

“Speaking of formation, we cannot forget, first of all, that the liturgy is life that forms, not an idea to be learned. It is useful in this regard to remember that reality is more important than the idea…. And it is good therefore, in the liturgy as in other areas of ecclesial life, not to end up favoring sterile ideological polarizations, which often arise when, considering our own ideas valid for all contexts, we tend to adopt an attitude of perennial dialectic towards who does not share them. Thus, starting perhaps from the desire to react to some insecurities in the current context, we risk then falling back into a past that no longer exists or of escaping into a presumed future. The starting point is instead to recognize the reality of the sacred liturgy, a living treasure that cannot be reduced to tastes, recipes and currents, but which should be welcomed with docility and promoted with love, as irreplaceable nourishment for the organic growth of the People of God. The liturgy is not ‘the field of do-it-yourself’, but the epiphany of ecclesial communion. Therefore, ‘we’, and not ‘I’, resounds in prayers and gestures; the real community, not the ideal subject. When we look back to nostalgic past tendencies or wish to impose them again, there is the risk of placing the part before the whole, the ‘I’ before the People of God, the abstract before the concrete, ideology before communion and, fundamentally, the worldly before the spiritual.”

This paragraph seems to me to describe rather accurately what some have called the “liturgy wars” of the past few decades, maybe more properly understood as “culture wars” played out in the context of liturgical worship. I confess that the older I become the more I am struck by the mystery of the liturgy which is always “more” than the sum of its historical development, what it presently embodies and communicates in sign and symbol, and the theological insights generated by its engagement.

One of the things that I find especially delightful and challenging in Pope Francis’ allocutions is how forthright he can be in criticism of directions that he thinks are not helpful for the life of the Church, but that he always tempers his criticism with hopeful insights for renewing our mission as followers of Jesus Christ. So, too, in this short address. After criticizing an attitude of “perennial dialectic” in the “liturgy wars,” he sketches for us a program of liturgical formation that could certainly occupy the next fifty years:

“Speaking of liturgical formation in the People of God means first and foremost being aware of the indispensable role the liturgy holds in the Church and for the Church. And then, concretely helping the People of God to interiorize better the prayer of the Church, to love it as an experience of encounter with the Lord and with brothers who, in the light of this, rediscover its content and observe its rites….

Dear brothers and sisters, we are all called to deepen and revive our liturgical formation. The liturgy is in fact the main road through which Christian life passes through every phase of its growth. You therefore have before you a great and beautiful task: to work so that the People of God may rediscover the beauty of meeting the Lord in the celebration of His mysteries and, by meeting Him, have life in His name.”

One comment

  1. One of the problems we have is that many do not understand what the term “liturgical formation” actually means. As ministers, they think of it as instruction in practical skills; as members of the assembly, they think of it as being educated in the meaning of the rites. While both of these may be included within liturgical formation, there is more.

    It can be instructive to distinguish between training, education and formation. Training is in the skills and the rules and regulations that surround liturgical tasks. Education is understanding what the liturgy is trying to do, and its meaning. What then is formation? I think it may be helpful to think of it as a way of life.

    We don’t just learn how to do the liturgy, how to understand the liturgy, but how to live the liturgy. Our spirituality is formed by good practice, by good understanding, but it is perfectly possible to have all the skills and the book knowledge but nevertheless to be no more than a sort of liturgical robot. And yet the late Jean Lebon tells us that “the most important thing is to live out the rite from within” (How to Understand the Liturgy, 1986).

    This applies not just to people in pews but to all liturgical ministers. Seminarians may receive training in “the liturgical arts”, some knowledge of liturgical history, and may acquire a “habit of prayer”, but that does not equate to true formation, true forming of a liturgical spirit. The same is true of parish liturgical ministers, who often do not understand what ministry is and think of what they do in terms of a “liturgical job”.

    And of course Romano Guardini famously wondered if humankind was any longer capable of truly celebrating as a single body, whether we are really capable of “the liturgical act” rather than indulging in “a private and inward act, surrounded by ceremonial”. Most people would have no idea what the liturgical act is. Guardini again: “As long as liturgical actions are merely ‘celebrated’ objectively and texts are merely ‘got through’, everything will go smoothly because there is no question of an integrated religious act. But once serious prayer is joined to the action, the parts that have no living appeal become apparent.”

    For me, the key to developing a liturgical formation is mystagogy, also recently spoken about by Pope Francis.

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