On Monday morning, during daily Mass at the Domus, Pope Francis delivered what many of us have long awaited: a teaching on the sacred liturgy.
Admittedly, not a few of us have experienced a bit of trepidation ever since the former Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio stepped onto the loggia as the newly elected Pope Francis. Liturgically, the grandeur of the celebrations and theology of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI seemed consigned to the archives. Monday, however, brought some glimmer of hope.
As recorded by our friends at Vatican Radio, the Holy Father observed, in his homily, that:
“When we celebrate the Mass, we don’t accomplish a representation of the Last Supper: no, it is not a representation. It is something else: it is the Last Supper itself. It is to really live once more the Passion and the redeeming Death of the Lord. It is a theophany: the Lord is made present on the altar to be offered to the Father for the salvation of the world. We hear or we say, ‘But, I can’t now, I have to go to Mass, I have to go to hear Mass.’ The Mass is not ‘heard’, it is participated in, and it is a participation in this theophany, in this mystery of the presence of the Lord among us.
...The liturgy is to really enter into the mystery of God, to allow ourselves to be brought to the mystery and to be in the mystery. For example, I am sure that all of you have come here to enter into the mystery; however, someone might say: ‘Ah, I have to go to Mass at Santa Marta, because on the sight-seeing tour of Rome, each morning there is a chance to visit the Pope at Santa Marta: it’s a tourist stop, right?’ All of you here, we are gathered her to enter into the mystery: this is the liturgy. It is God’s time, it is God’s space, it is the cloud of God that surrounds all of us.
...We would do well today to ask the Lord to give to each of us this ‘sense of the sacred,’ this sense that makes us understand that it is one thing to pray at home, to pray in Church, to pray the Rosary, to pray so many beautiful prayers, to make the Way of the Cross, so many beautiful things, to read the Bible... The Eucharistic celebration is something else. In the celebration we enter into the mystery of God, into that street that we cannot control: only He is the unique One, the glory, the power... He is everything. Let us ask for this grace: that the Lord would teach us to enter into the mystery of God.”
He makes many of the points that we have heard before from Benedict. In Sacramentum Caritatis, he wrote that:
The sacrament of charity (1), the Holy Eucharist is the gift that Jesus Christ makes of Himself, thus revealing to us God's infinite love for every man and woman. This wondrous sacrament makes manifest that "greater" love which led Him to "lay down His life for His friends" (Jn 15:13). Jesus did indeed love them "to the end" (Jn 13:1). In those words the Evangelist introduces Christ's act of immense humility: before dying for us on the Cross, He tied a towel around Himself and washed the feet of His disciples. In the same way, Jesus continues, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, to love us "to the end," even to offering us His body and His blood. What amazement must the Apostles have felt in witnessing what the Lord did and said during that Supper! What wonder must the eucharistic mystery also awaken in our own hearts!
2. In the sacrament of the altar, the Lord meets us, men and women created in God's image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:27), and becomes our companion along the way. In this sacrament, the Lord truly becomes food for us, to satisfy our hunger for truth and freedom. Since only the truth can make us free (cf. Jn 8:32), Christ becomes for us the food of truth. With deep human insight, Saint Augustine clearly showed how we are moved spontaneously, and not by constraint, whenever we encounter something attractive and desirable. Asking himself what it is that can move us most deeply, the saintly Bishop went on to say: "What does our soul desire more passionately than truth?" (2) Each of us has an innate and irrepressible desire for ultimate and definitive truth. The Lord Jesus, "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6), speaks to our thirsting, pilgrim hearts, our hearts yearning for the source of life, our hearts longing for truth. Jesus Christ is the Truth in person, drawing the world to Himself. "Jesus is the lodestar of human freedom: without Him, freedom loses its focus, for without the knowledge of truth, freedom becomes debased, alienated and reduced to empty caprice. With him, freedom finds itself." (3) In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus shows us in particular the truth about the love which is the very essence of God. It is this evangelical truth which challenges each of us and our whole being. For this reason, the Church, which finds in the Eucharist the very center of her life, is constantly concerned to proclaim to all, opportune importune (cf. 2 Tim 4:2), that God is love.(4) Precisely because Christ has become for us the food of truth, the Church turns to every man and woman, inviting them freely to accept God's gift.
I often worried about continuity as Pope Francis' reign began. But, as I read the two quotes, almost side-by-side, it seems to me that Pope Francis is picking up from where his beloved predecessor left. Granted, the Ars Celebrandi of the current Supreme Pontiff is quite different from the Pope Emeritus; however, it seems to me as though Pope Francis is slowly showing some of the appreciation for liturgy that Benedict has. I would like to think that a lot of this might have to do with his keeping Msgr. Guido Marini as his Master of Ceremonies (which is probably the best liturgical move of this young papacy).
As I read the Holy Father's words, I cannot help but think of some other sage liturgical comments that were made by then-Archbishop Malcolm Ranjinth imparted when he was in St. Louis, Missouri, nearly six years ago at the Gateway Liturgical Conference. He delivered the remarks in his capacity as secretary to the Congregation for Divine Worship. In his speech, now-Cardinal Ranjinth noted that:
And so, the correct approach to ars celebrandi of priests and even of the faithful would be to insure that they allow Christ to take over at the altar, becoming the voice, the hands and the being of Christ, or the alter Christus.
Sacramentum Caritatis affirms this very clearly when it states, “Priests should be conscious of the fact that in their ministry they must never put themselves or their personal opinions in the first place, but Jesus Christ. Any attempt to make themselves the center of the liturgical action contradicts their very identity as priests. The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continuously work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord’s hands. This is seen particularly in his humility in leading the liturgical assembly, in obedience to the rite, uniting himself to it in mind and heart and avoiding anything that might give the impression of an inordinate emphasis on his own personality” (Sacr. Carit. 23).
In everything the priest does at the altar he should always let the Lord take control of his being. The words of John the Baptist are important in this matter: “He must increase and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30)
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen emphasized this when he stated: “the priest does not belong to himself; he belongs to Christ; he is not his own. He is Christ’s” (Those Mysterious Priests, Alba House, New York 2005, p. 221).
It is only in this way that the priest can truly interiorize the Holy Sacrifice of Christ and of His Church so that it becomes co-natural with him. For what we do at the altar, as Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical, Mediator Dei, states, is not our own, but is “worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its head and members” (MD 20). To be conscious of this before, during and after the celebration of the Eucharist and the other liturgical acts is extremely important.
Cardinal Ranjinth's words seem to echo what Pope Francis observed when he noted that we should not consider the Mass, especially a Papal Mass, to be some sort of tourist attraction. Benedict was certainly very clear about that, to the point of halting applause during the entrance procession and wanting the faithful to pray prior to the Papal Masses at St. Peter's Basilica. For Benedict, the central focus of the Mass was not the Holy Father, but, Christ, the High Priest. That is why his altar arrangement, commonly called the Benedictine arrangement, put the crucifix at the front and center of the liturgy so that the focus was on Christ and not the person of the Pope.
Now, if we could only get the beautiful vestments out once in a while for the Papal Masses... But, that is for another post.