Desiderio Desideravi: Reanimating the Church With the Breath of Vatican II?

July 27, 2022

On June 29, 2022, Pope Francis published a new apostolic letter, Desiderio Desideravi [“I have desired with a great desire,” Lk. 22:15]. In this 17-page document composed of 65 paragraphs, he explains that he felt the need to address everyone – bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated, and laity – after having addressed only the bishops in the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes.

He reaffirms his measures limiting the celebration of the Tridentine Mass in order, from his point of view, to promote “one and the same prayer” expressing the unity of the Church, according to the wish of the Second Vatican Council.

It is therefore a eulogy of the conciliar liturgy, and even a rediscovery of its “beauty” that Francis proposes, in response to the criticisms that are usually addressed to him: the loss of the sense of mystery, the absence of the sacred.

We can thus read in this letter: “I want the beauty of the Christian celebration and its necessary consequences for the life of the Church not to be spoiled by a superficial and foreshortened understanding of its value or, worse yet, by its being exploited in service of some ideological vision, no matter what the hue. The priestly prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper that all may be one (Jn 17:21), judges every one of our divisions around the Bread broken, around the sacrament of mercy, the sign of unity, the bond of charity.”

And to add: “Let us be clear here: every aspect of the celebration must be carefully tended to (space, time, gestures, words, objects, vestments, song, music…) and every rubric must be observed.”

– We know what is said of the Jesuits: “Nec rubricant, nec cantant; they do not follow the rubrics, nor do they sing.” Francis seems to want to make a conversion here. We will wait to see the fruits, to convince ourselves that this is not just wishful thinking.

On the subject of the loss of the sacred in the reformed liturgy, the Pope rejects a sense of mystery which, in his eyes, is only “a kind of disarray,” and which he qualifies as a “vague sense of mystery,” for the benefit of  “wonder.” He bluntly states: “Sometimes this is among the presumed chief accusations against the liturgical reform.”

“It is said that the sense of mystery has been removed from the celebration. The astonishment or wonder of which I speak is not some sort of being overcome in the face of an obscure reality or a mysterious rite. It is, on the contrary, marveling at the fact that the salvific plan of God has been revealed….”

“But if the astonishment is of the right kind, then there is no risk that the otherness of God’s presence will not be perceived, even within the closeness that the Incarnation intends. If the reform had eliminated that vague “sense of mystery,” then more than a cause for accusations, it is to its credit.”The pope returns to what he affirmed in Traditionis custodes, namely the ecclesiological question which is at the heart of the opposition between the Traditional Mass and the conciliar Mass. And he rejects - rightly - the position of the ex-Ecclesia Dei who see in it only a question of liturgical sensitivity: “It would be banal to read the tensions, unfortunately present around the celebration, as a simple divergence between different sensitivities towards a ritual form.

“The problematic 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, a document that expresses the reality of the Liturgy intimately joined to the vision of Church so admirably described in Lumen gentium.”

An Incoherent Plan

While wishing for a celebration worthy of the conciliar liturgy, the Pope warns against both a certain rubricism and a “wild” creativity: “The ars celebrandi cannot be reduced to only a rubrical mechanism, much less should it be thought of as imaginative — sometimes wild — creativity without rules. The rite is in itself a norm, and the norm is never an end in itself, but it is always at the service of a higher reality that it means to protect.”

And to propose a less disparate more unified reformed liturgy: “It is a uniformity that not only does not deaden but, on the contrary, educates individual believers to discover the authentic uniqueness of their personalities not in individualistic attitudes but in the awareness of being one body.”

Francis shows what liturgical middle ground he wishes to promote, between a “rigid austerity or an exasperating creativity, a spiritualizing mysticism or a practical functionalism, a rushed briskness or an overemphasized slowness, a sloppy carelessness or an excessive finickiness, a superabundant friendliness or priestly impassibility.”

And he adds: “Granted the wide range of these examples, I think that the inadequacy of these models of presiding have a common root: a heightened personalism of the celebrating style which at times expresses a poorly concealed mania to be the center of attention.”

This “heightened personalism” is certainly favored by the reformed liturgy, in the vernacular and facing the people, where eyes converge on the presider, on the other side of the table.

The incoherent intention of Desiderio Desideravi is to want to rehabilitate a dignified and unified celebration with this conciliar liturgy which was conceived as modular and adaptable to the requirements of inculturation, as the Zairian rite proves (celebrated in St. Peter's in Rome this July 3) and the Amazonian rite (being developed), not to mention the variable multifaceted rites practiced during the apostolic journeys and World Youth Days.

Synodality as a Panacea for the Crisis in the Church

On the same day as the publication of Desiderio desideravi, Pope Francis received the 44 metropolitan archbishops to whom he was to present the pallium. In his homily, delivered seated because of his ailing knee, he had these words which singularly enlighten the spirit of his apostolic letter.

He thus deplored that “we experience forms of resistance that prevent us from setting out,” describing a Church sometimes overwhelmed by “laziness,” where some prefer “to remain seated contemplating the few sure things that we possess.” He went on, leaving his written text: “Let us not fall into backwardness, this backwardness of the Church which is fashionable today.”

He castigated the presence of a clericalism, one of the worst manifestations of which is found today, according to him, among “the clerical laity.” And to call for a Church “without chains and without walls,” capable of “coming out of its prisons to meet the world.” Inviting opening wide the doors of the Church, he repeated nearly a dozen times that “everyone” has a place in the Church, starting with sinners.

In his eyes, this Church, which “does not lag behind” and “does not accumulate delays in the face of current challenges,” is the synodal Church which “allows itself to be animated by the passion for the proclamation of the Gospel and by the desire to reach everyone and to welcome everyone.”

This declaration to the metropolitan archbishops places the apostolic letter Desiderio Desideavi in ​​the perspective of the next synod on synodality, which has become a main concern of this pontificate. Clearly, it is a question of reanimating the “lazy” and “backward” Church thanks to the breath of Vatican II.