by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
Advances in astrophysics over the past decades have resulted in previously unimaginable developments in the design of telescopes. Land-based telescopes not only have spaced-based partners but are increasingly rendered to be of secondary import by developments such as the Hubble telescope and its big brother the James Webb array. Leading up to these advances, traditional optical telescopes had been enhanced with lasers, coupled with spectroscopes, and redesigned with complex mirror segmentations. Then there are the radio telescopes and even cosmic ray telescopes that look nothing like what most amateurs point toward the stars; they are surprisingly devoid of any image-forming optical system that have traditionally defined the very nature of a telescope!
Despite all of these advances, it yet seems appropriate to employ the most common and original form of the telescope as a metaphor for the process of interpreting a document such as Pope Francis’ Desiderio desideravi: On the Liturgical Formation of the People of God. In particular, it is important to discern which lenses provide the richest harvest from this quite modest Apostolic Letter. The lens you employ will determine, to a great extent, what conclusions one might draw from such a document. Just as looking through the wrong end of a telescope can provide serious distortions and even polar opposite images, so too can a poorly refracted interpretation of Desiderio desideravi do the same.
In this venture, I am inspired by the paradigm-shifting work of Massimo Faggioli and his rereading of Sacrosanctum Concilium in True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium (2012). What Faggioli makes clear is that if we only read the liturgy constitution as a “liturgical document” in the strict sense, then we miss much of its import. As Faggioli has demonstrated, this first document of Vatican II actually served as a kind of roadmap for the ensuing documents, highlighting key spiritual and ecclesial themes such as holiness and participation. Furthermore, as John O’Malley has acutely understood, this document introduced an entirely new conciliar lexicon, no longer deploying juridical and condemnatory church-speak, but instead embracing a pastoral vernacular of care and beauty, contextualized in rich biblical imagery (see his What Happened at Vatican II, 2008).
Similarly, it strikes me as fruitful not only to read Desiderio desideravi as an instruction on the Church’s liturgy but to consider it more broadly as a liturgical refraction of Francis’ larger ecclesial agenda. When considered, for example, through the lenses of some of the Pope’s more expansive teachings and emphases a richer theological vision emerges. Thus, we will consider three themes of Francis as lenses for revisiting Desiderio desideravi: the theological anthropology that premiered in Evangelii gaudium, the integral ecology of Laudato si’, and the vision of synodality emerging in preparation for the 2023 Synod on that theme.
Theological anthropology and Evangelii Gaudium:
The theological anthropology embedded in Desiderio desideravi has much resonance with that which Pope Francis first sounded in Evangelii gaudium. In his inaugural 2013 apostolic exhortation, Francis consistently emphasized the nature, significance and even primacy of humanity (no 55) for evangelization. Evangelizers must be in dialogue with human experience (no. 133), and interreligious dialogue itself is first and foremost “a conversation about human existence” (no. 250). Few places in Evangelii gaudium display this respectful approach to dialogue as much as no. 257 in which he considers those who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition “precious allies” in upholding human dignity and the pursuit of justice. This is a theological anthropology that is both positive and ethical.
One of the drumbeats that underscore Desiderio desideravi is the centrality of encounter. The liturgy itself is a preeminent place of encounter with Christ and each other (nos. 10ff). This encounter is an event that enables believers to become fully human and, in turn, “conceive of the human being as a person, open to a full relationship with God, with creation, and with one’s brothers and sisters” (no. 35). The concreteness of this encounter-vision is affirmed in the parallel way this document underscores the incarnational nature of our faith and worship (e.g., no. 48). The liturgy has an irrefutable concreteness about it, grounded in the incarnation, in which Christ “satisfies his own thirst for us” (no. 11) and, in turn, calls us to live in continuity with the Incarnation (no. 12) and live completely the liturgical action (no. 29).
This more positive theological anthropology, sounding throughout the documents of Vatican II – especially Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes – echoes through the Liturgy of Paul VI. In contrast to a Tridentine Rite that consistently defined both the assembly and presider as sinners – ”Nobis quoque peccatoribus” – the reformed liturgy deems the faithful worthy to stand in God’s presence and serve: “nos dignos habuisti astare coram te et tibi ministrare.” This stance in the liturgy of the church is, not surprisingly, also meant to be our missionary stance in the liturgy of the world: one of mercy and welcome rather than judgment and exclusion, where all are made in the image of God and worthy to stand on holy ground.
Laudato si’ and Integral ecology:
A second useful lens for considering Desiderio desideravi is that of Pope Francis’ encyclical on care for our common home, Laudato si’. This magisterial encyclical enlightens many strands of Desiderio desideravi. The incarnational and concrete emphases in this liturgical instruction find a much broader theological framework in the previous magisterial encyclical. Consider, for example, how the language of beauty permeates both documents. Most often, Desiderio desideravi employs the language of beauty in reference to the liturgical celebration itself (e.g., nos. 1, 10, 16, 22, 23). Yet, it also echoes the broader themes of beauty on display throughout Laudato si’ in reference to creation, which reflects the infinite beauty of God (e.g., no. 243).
Francis’ emphasis that the beauty of the liturgy is not some search for a ritual aesthetic concerned with exteriors (no. 23) is well interpreted by Laudato si’ noting that care for creation is an “ethical and spiritual” journey. Recognizing beauty in all of its cultural-contextual diversity and safeguarding such beauty requires the kind of generous theological anthropology previously highlighted in Pope Francis’ other teachings. Only such will allow us not only to be observers but emissaries of beauty, deeply concerned with how authentic beauty concretely and incarnationally plays out in “people’s quality of life” (Laudato si’, no. 150).
Maybe most instructive from the lens of Laudato si’ is Pope Francis’ insight that ecology is not simply about halting global warming and insuring that all people have access to fresh drinking water. Rather it requires an integrity based upon the notion of the common good. An “integral ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics” (no. 156). Considering the beauty of the liturgy and the need for a style of celebration that is truly “art” (i.e., ars celebrandi, Desiderio desideravi, nos. 50ff.) similarly requires a kind of liturgical ecology that is inseparable from the common good of the church and the world. If the liturgy is the source and summit of the Church’s life (Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 10), then it is the preeminent articulation of our shared life and mission. Thus, liturgical formation, at its core, is not simply about enacting a more robust or satisfying worship event, but rather nourishing the baptized to live their liturgical spirituality as missionary disciples (Evangelii gaudium, no. 24) in a world that yet thirsts for life-giving water in untold ways.
A third possible lens for reading Desiderio desideravi – the one I personally find the most compelling – is Francis’ emerging agenda regarding synodality. While he has spoken about this in a variety of speeches, homilies, and writings, his vision of synodality finds its fullest official expression to date in the International Theological Commission’s “Synodality in the life and Mission of the Church” and the Preparatory document for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, entitled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.”
These documents, which draw heavily upon Pope Francis’ teachings, emphasize that this expanding vision of synodality is not about governance but about a way of being together. Synodality in the broadest sense is a spirituality, intent upon supplying every “institutional reality with a soul,” intent upon reshaping hearts for acquiring the affectus synodalis (“Synodality,” no. 109). The constant theme of this spirituality is “journeying together.” This journey is marked by three key characteristics – ones that are fundamentally linked in language, theology, and practice to the reformed liturgy: communion, participation, and mission.
The liturgical spirituality that Desiderio desideravi cultivates is reinforced, properly interpreted, and enhanced by Francis’ vision of this fresh way of being Church. While synods of bishops were reestablished by Pope Paul VI in 1965, they were fundamentally hierarchical gatherings serving as consultative to the Pope. For Francis, however, synodality embraces the entire people of God in spirit and in truth. It is a way of being with each other in mutual respect in service of the Church and its mission to the world that the liturgy must reflect and rehearse. This optic explodes collegiality beyond episcopal and clerical boundaries and respects the baptized and their unique sensus fidelium.
More explicitly than Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’, Francis unequivocally considers this newly invigorated vision of synodality as deeply rooted in Vatican II. This “walking together,” as it is often characterized in the relevant documents, is a fresh blossoming of the communion ecclesiology that emerged from that Council. It is a radical embrace of the call to dialogue so brilliantly articulated in Paul VI’s too often forgotten encyclical Ecclesiam suam, released in the midst of that Council.
When one reads Desiderio desideravi through a synodal lens, it emerges as an ecclesial document in liturgical mode. Its emphasis on embodiment, dialogue, relationality, encounter, incarnation, and beauty is a broader commentary on the nature of the church itself. The refutation of clericalism – a common theme from Pope Francis – is undeniable here. In that vein, the implicit and explicit rejection of Summorum Pontificum (2007) of Pope Benedict XVI and the parallel reaffirmations of Traditionis custodes (2021) found in this document are at their heart an enhanced vision of communion ecclesiology and a reaffirmation of the teachings of Vatican II. Thus, Francis writes:
“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 problem 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” (Desiderio desideravi, no. 33)
The reformed liturgy does not simply supply official texts and rubrics, but an ecclesial pathway for becoming the people of God faithfully and authentically. The liturgy, in this sense, at its heart is a spiritual technology: rehearsing and nourishing the path to and through God’s reign marked by communion, participation, and mission. In studying and implementing this document, therefore, it is essential that we do not corral it in some liturgical silo or refract it only through a worship lens, thus muting its reforming and ecclesial message. While Desiderio desideravi can be useful in liturgical formation, its positive theological anthropology and strong creational/incarnational voice need to be joined with the synodal journey to enhance and encourage the yet unrealized vision of Vatican II in service of the missio Dei. And to those who rightly critique the document for its paucity of pastoral directives about how to proceed with this intended formation, I would suggest that the plethora of such directives in Evangelii gaudium, Laudato si’ and the documents on synodality provide a cornucopia of ideas and pedagogies for enacting an authentic and integrative liturgical formation.
This post is based on a talk given to the Catholic Academy of Liturgy on January 5, 2023.