Rediscovering the Beauty of Christian Celebration

Rediscovering the Beauty of Christian Celebration

Reflections on the Apostolic Letter Desiderio Desideravi, of Pope Francis

Sometime back I was invited to participate in a Conference on the Eucharist, which was being hosted in St. Anne’s Parish, Sligo. As often happens, I found it easy to accept an invitation from Angela to do something that was still a long way in the distance. Then, very shortly after that, Pope Francis published his Apostolic Letter, Desiderio Desideravi. It is not a name that easily rolls off the tongue. In keeping with tradition, the title of the document is taken from the opening words from St. Luke’s Gospel, (Lk. 22:15 – “I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”). I was impressed and inspired by what Pope Francis wrote in this short but very rich letter on the Liturgy. Most of us know that the style of Pope Francis is earthy and poetic and he is great for bringing things down to “brass tacks”. I thought it would be good to share a few thoughts with you about it.  

The background to the Last Supper is the Passover Festival which is celebrated every year by the Jewish people to commemorate the night when God led his people out of slavery into freedom. Many of you will be familiar with the idea of how families gather around the table and the youngest asks the eldest “tell us about that night” and the story is told, and psalms of thanksgiving are prayed and simple food is shared, as it was on that first Passover on the shores of the Red Sea.

In the final year of Jesus life on earth, He went to Jerusalem for Passover with his disciples, but that year, of course, it was different. While they are at table Jesus said to the disciples “I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”. That idea of “longing” – (that’s the word “desiderio” in the title) – may not be something that a lot of people these days associate with the Eucharist. Perhaps, in the last couple of years when we were deprived for long periods of the possibility of gathering regularly for Eucharist, some of us rediscovered a longing that, maybe, we haven’t been aware of for a while.

This particular Passover meal is not just something that Jesus has been looking forward to for a few days or weeks, in the way you might say “I’m looking forward to the Garth Brooks concert”. Jesus had been longing for this. Pope Francis reminds us that this Passover Festival is actually the culmination of the whole history of salvation. It is, in a way, at the completion of the promise contained in the original Passover. Now God’s people will be free indeed, not just free from slavery in Egypt and led towards the Promised Land, but free from death, free from the slavery of sin and destined for eternal life. That’s why Jesus came – that’s what his whole life is about.

Now whenever we sit down for a meal someone has to prepare it. Pope Francis has something to say about this. If you listen to his own words he says “Peter and John were sent to make preparations to eat that Passover” (that’s what the Gospel tells us – they were sent ahead to get the room ready). But Pope Francis says, “in actual fact all of creation all of history – which at last was on the verge of revealing itself as the history of salvation – was a huge preparation for that supper”. So if you think about it, Francis is asking us to imagine how Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Elizabeth and Zachariah the parents of John the Baptist, the creation, the floods and famines the invasions and the exiles, were all part of preparing for this moment when the Son of God would give himself as a gift to humanity. That begins, of course, with the Word becoming Flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it comes to its crescendo with the flesh of Christ, body and blood, being given to his disciples.

Now a gift gets its meaning from the one who gives it. If I give a gift to somebody for Christmas, it will always be the gift they got from me. But every gift also needs someone to receive it. It would be sad to be going around doing your Christmas shopping and buying gifts for people, and not to have anyone to give them to. On that night, it is Peter and the others sitting at the table who would receive the gift even though they didn’t realise it at the time. They were ordinary, insignificant people on any scale of things, but Pope Francis says “they were necessary”. They were necessary because, without them, there would be nobody to receive the gift. He goes on to say “through the mercy of the Lord that gift is entrusted to the apostles so that it might be carried to every man and woman”. The gift is for all of us. I suppose, in a certain sense, when you look around at our churches each Sunday, you could say that everybody there is a recipient of the gift, but not everybody there necessarily understands that they are receiving a gift. Some may be there because they feel they have to be and that’s a very different way of approaching the Eucharist.

Pope Francis, however, places a strong emphasis on the idea that everyone is invited. He says: “the world still does not know it but everyone is invited to the supper of the wedding of the lamb” – and you probably know that the image of the wedding of the lamb comes from the Book of Revelations; it’s about the celebration in the new Jerusalem at the end of time, when – please God – we are all gathered for the Feast. Francis goes on to say that “to be admitted to the feast, all that is required is the wedding garment of faith which comes from the hearing of His word”. Faith, of course, is not just something that we learn about in books; faith is an attitude of the heart which is open to receiving Jesus and to living as disciples.

Now Pope Francis paints another image. He says “the church tailors such a garment to fit each one with the whiteness of a garment bathed in the blood of the lamb”. That is very poetic language. I must say I am fascinated with the image of the Church as a tailor, taking God’s gift of faith, and cutting the finest cloth to fit each person. While the essential teachings of faith are unchanging, the personal relationship of Faith is not the same for everybody, and it is not even the same at every moment in our lives. If you think about your own journey of faith, there is probably nobody here whose faith has not grown or changed in some way, or developed. There are times when our faith has a particular emphasis and then there are other times when something else strikes us, maybe some piece of the Gospel, or some experience in life, which forms our faith; and of course there are moments of emptiness. For each person, the Church is called to be there as a tailor, as it were, to shape the cloth of faith to fit us for where we are on our journey. That’s how I see what Pope Francis is saying.

Then Francis goes on to say – and this is the challenge of course –  we must not allow ourselves even a moment of rest, knowing that still not everyone has received an invitation to this Supper or knowing that others have forgotten it or have got lost along the way in the twists and turns of human living.

“This is what I spoke of when I said, ‘I dream of a missionary option, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation’.” (Evangelii gaudium, n. 27).

If you want to know what that means in practise, let me give you one example. On the evening of the day that I was told I was coming to the Diocese of Elphin as Bishop, I had scheduled a meeting in the parish in Dublin, to present to the parishioners the plans for the renovation of the church. I had to go back to that meeting and pretend that I was really excited about the plans, though my mind, as you can imagine, was somewhere else. We were talking about moving the altar forward so that there would be room for concelebrants. One lady raised an objection: “Father” she said “if you move the altar forward I won’t be able to see it from where I sit”. I think what Pope Francis might say in response would be that, perhaps, we need to look at changing where we sit.  

There are lots of practical things about how we do Church that could possibly be done differently so that more people might be facilitated in joining us. Even Jesus in his lifetime didn’t succeed in gathering everyone, and neither will we, but it has to be tried. To quote Pope Francis: “I want this so that all can be seated at the supper of the sacrifice of the lamb and live from him”. So the whole idea is to celebrate the liturgy in such a way that as many people as possible can be nourished by the Word and by the Eucharist. It is not about gathering people, in order to increase the collections; it’s about gathering people in order to nourish them and to give them a spiritual home.

Pope Francis makes a number of important connections for us. One is the connection between Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The meaning of the Last Supper falls into place with the experience of Calvary. To use the Pope’s own words: The content of the bread broken is the cross of Jesus, his sacrifice of obedience out of love for the Father… Only a few hours after the Supper, the apostles could have seen in the cross of Jesus, if they could have borne the weight of it, what it meant for Jesus to say, “body offered,” “blood poured out.” In other words, those who were present at the Last Supper probably didn’t really appreciate the meaning of what he said: “this is my body which is given up for you”, but if they looked at the cross the following day, the penny would have dropped.

I might just tell you a story to illustrate this connection. It goes right back to the year I was ordained a priest and I was teaching religious education at a vocational school in Dublin. Some of the students really struggled with reading and writing, but many of them were very good at drawing. When I gave the First Year class a test at Christmas, one of the questions was intended to take this into account. I asked them to draw a picture of the first Mass. Some of them drew pictures of big altars and tall candle sticks, like one might see in many old Churches. But one student, John, did a kind of matchstick drawing of a round table with thirteen people sitting around it. Over the head of one of them, representing Jesus, was a thought bubble and, inside that bubble, where three crosses. Here was this young thirteen year old who could scarcely write his name, but who seemed to be able to grasp the connection between Eucharist and Calvary. How could that be? I don’t know where he is today, but he certainly took me by surprise.

Another connection that Pope Francis puts to us is the connection between the last Supper and the Eucharistic community today. If you happened to be in Jerusalem in the days before the Last Supper, you might have met Jesus in the street with his disciples; you might even have been invited to sit at table with Him. But imagine arriving in Jerusalem a few weeks after the crucifixion; it seems that you have missed your opportunity. Jesus has died and you can’t meet him anymore. But then Pope Francis says maybe that’s not quite the case. “If we had somehow arrived in Jerusalem after Pentecost and had felt the desire not only to have information about Jesus of Nazareth but rather the desire still to be able to meet him, we would have had no other possibility than that of searching out his disciples so that we could hear his words and see his gestures, more alive than ever”. This is exactly what happened in the life of the first Christian communities. They gathered each week, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, to listen to the teaching of the Apostles and for the breaking of bread.  What was happening there was not just people listening to someone talking and someone sharing symbolic bread. What was happening there was people encountering Jesus, present in his word and in his body and blood and of course in that third important element of the Eucharist, which we sometimes forget, in our gathering as a community of faith, because we are the body of Christ.

Pope Francis goes on to say “Christian faith is either an encounter with him alive or it doesn’t existThe liturgy guarantees for us the possibility of such an encounter. … For us a vague memory of the Last Supper would do no good. We need to be present at that Supper, to be able to hear his voice, to eat his Body and to drink his Blood. We need Him. In the Eucharist and in all the sacraments we are guaranteed the possibility of encountering the Lord Jesus and of having the power of his Paschal Mystery reach us.

One of the interesting things is the connection with Baptism – and you might ask, what has that got to do with Eucharist. Actually, it has everything to do with Eucharist because, when we were baptised in the water that is blessed at Easter, as St. Paul often reminds us, we died with Christ to the old self and we rose with the new life of the resurrection. In Baptism, we are already beginning to share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we come to the Eucharist, which is the final stage of Christian initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist) we are nourished by the fruits of the sacrifice of Jesus, of his death and resurrection.

Pope Francis tells us that Eucharist is what he describes as “an antidote to the poison of individualism and presumption”. In other words, when we gather for the Eucharist, we hopefully recognise that the Eucharist doesn’t belong to any individual; it doesn’t belong to the priest; it doesn’t belong to the sacristan or the organist or any one member of the congregation. The Eucharist can only happen because we are one body in Christ. Even in the few occasions when the priest ends up celebrating Mass on his own, for whatever reason, he is still celebrating Mass, as Pope John Paul II wrote “on the altar of the world”. The whole church is gathered into every Mass. So, as Pope Francis says, “the liturgy takes us by the hand, together, as an assembly, to lead us deep within the mystery that the word and sacramental signs revealed to us”

Salvation is a free gift. It’s not something that we earn. The Eucharist brings that home to us. “The beginning of every celebration reminds me who I am, asking me to confess my sin and inviting me to implore the Blessed Mary ever virgin, the angels and saints and all my brothers and sisters to pray for me to the Lord our God. Certainly, we are not worthy to enter his house; we need a word of his to be saved”.

That brings me to the title that I chose for my few words today; the important question of how we can rediscover the beauty of Christian celebration.  There is a very real beauty and richness in the liturgy, especially if it’s celebrated well and if the congregation participates well. Pope Francis wants to invite us to rediscover and to live what he calls “the truth and power of Christian celebration”. To use his own words: “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”.  How are we to understand this? I suppose you might think of some of the superficial ideas of Eucharist that we have; the idea that a “good” Mass is a “short” Mass, or a Mass with no singing. Some years ago, in our Diocese, a couple of people told me that their new priest was “very different” and I asked them “how you mean, different”. They replied: “he’s trying to get us to sing at Mass” and the only answer I could give them was “you’re supposed to sing at Mass”. In our Church today, part of the paralysis that we experience is the tendency to think of Eucharist as something that we have to “tick off” or “get through” or a somewhere we go to be entertained. I think that is what Pope Francis means when he refers to “a superficial and foreshortened understanding of its value”. Another way of understanding that is that we sometimes fail to make the connection, between the sacrifice of Jesus and the gift of communion. There is no communion without the sacrifice; no possibility of receiving the body and blood of Jesus except through the fact that Jesus died on the Cross. That is a challenge for us, because it reminds us that we cannot have communion with one another in the Church or in the World, unless we are willing to make sacrifices.

Pope Francis goes on to remind us that the liturgy is celebrated using signs which are addressed to our senses; wine and bread, water and oil, incense, gestures and, of course words. I know that the oil is not particularly associated with the Eucharist but it is part of the Sacramental system through which our faith is transmitted and celebrated. I love to take photographs of olives growing in an olive grove; to bless the oil at the Mass of Chrism in Holy Week, and to have the feel of that earthiness and physical goodness of that oil as you anoint someone on their forehead at Confirmation or indeed anoint them on the forehead and on the palms for healing. So the question Francis poses for us is “how do we recover the capacity to live completely the liturgical action?” This was what the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council was all about. How can we rediscover the richness of the Eucharistic celebration when, as a society, we have lost, to a large extent, our sense of what it actually means even to sit around the table together; when the notion of “breaking bread” doesn’t speak to our experience in the way it may have done for other generations. In a similar way, the idea of bowing, or genuflecting, or even blessing ourselves as we pass a Church have become foreign to many of us. At a meal in a restaurant, how many of us look around us to see is anybody is watching, before we bless ourselves in a simple gesture of thanksgiving for the food we are about to eat (cf Laudato Si #227).

Pope Francis quotes the 20th century priest-philosopher Romano Guardini who wrote: “Here there is outlined the first task of the work of liturgical formation: man must become once again capable of symbols.” “This”, the Pope says, “is a responsibility for all, for ordained ministers and the faithful alike. The task is not easy because modern man has become illiterate, no longer able to read symbols. It is almost as if their existence is not even suspected”. We don’t understand incense and candles. We have forgotten that the Crozier represents the mission of the Bishop as shepherd of God’s people. We resist the idea of covering the coffin with a white cloth, because we have forgotten that, in Baptism, we were clothed in a white garment as a sign of our sharing in the new life of the Resurrection. So the liturgy is dumbed down, and we struggle to find words to replace the symbols that we have lost. Let me give you one example which, is both funny and tragic at the same time. A friend of mine told me about how he had given a retreat to a group of young people in transition year in a secondary school. It was a lovely day and the young people listened very attentively and participated very well. At the end of the day he said he was going to spend fifteen minutes with them in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. He invited them just to talk to God about what was going on in their lives and that he would give them a blessing afterwards. So he put the Blessed Sacrament on the altar and he knelt down and they knelt down. When he was finished, he gave them a simple Benediction. When he was leaving afterwards, he met a couple of the girls and overheard one of them saying to the other “there he is now, you ask him”. So he stopped and said, “did you want to ask me something?” She said “Father, it was a lovely retreat but we were just wondering how you knew the fifteen minutes was up, because there were no hands on the clock?” He realised that, although they may have known that the Blessed Sacrament was involved, they had no idea what the monstrance was; they thought it was an old clock with no hands.

So the question Pope Francis wants us to consider is “How can we become once again capable of symbols? How can we again know how to read them and be able to live them? We know well that the celebration of the sacraments, by the grace of God, is efficacious in itself (ex opere operato), but this does not guarantee the full engagement of people without an adequate way of their placing themselves in relation to the language of the celebration”.

He goes on to speak about the mystery of sacramental things. “Above all we must reacquire confidence about creation. I mean to say that things — the sacraments “are made” of things — come from God. To Him they are oriented, and by Him they have been assumed, and assumed in a particular way in the Incarnation, so that they can become instruments of salvation, vehicles of the Spirit, channels of grace”. These words reflect very closely what the Pope has written in Laudato Si about the earth, which is our common home. You may know the prayer that is said quietly by the priest at the washing of hands, during the offertory: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to take on our humanity” By entering into our human history, the Son of God does not simply dignify humanity; he somehow gathers the whole of creation into the mystery of God. Everything in creation is capable of being used by God, and that’s why the bread and the wine, which are very simple elements, become the body and blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. God himself has made it so. It is easy to become over-familiar with the mystery. 

I remember one time, when I was working in Rome being at evening prayer, with Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. One of the deacons was exposing the Blessed Sacrament on the altar, and the thought that came into my mind was that, there was Michael placing in the monstrance for our adoration, the host, the very same host that in my hands, between my fingers, that morning, had become the body and blood of Jesus. How humbling is that. It was not my doing. I know we have to have a priest for the Eucharist, as Pope John Paul II reminded us (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia #29), but it is the Holy Spirit who brings about the Eucharist, through the ministry of the priest. When we were altar servers, we used to think that, when the priest extended his hands over the bread and wine, it was a sign to ring the bell. I suppose in a way, it was, but the holding of the hands over the bread and wine is the same as the laying on of hands in all of the Sacraments. It is about the calling of the Holy Spirit to come. It is important for us when we think about the Eucharist to understand that the Eucharist is the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church and it’s all about building up the body of Christ.  

Francis says “Let us return to the cenacle in Jerusalem. On the morning of Pentecost the Church is born, the initial cell of the new humanity. Only the community of men and women — reconciled because pardoned, alive because He is alive, true because dwelt in by the Spirit of truth — can open the cramped space of spiritual individualism. It is only when the Holy Spirit gets in and out between us binding us together but at the same time helping us to stand back and see one another in a new way; it’s only then that somehow or other we can get over our sense of our own importance and truly become part of the body of Christ.

“It is the community of Pentecost” he says “that is able to break the bread in the certain knowledge that the Lord is alive risen from the dead, present with his word, with his gestures with the offering of his body and blood”.

There are just one or two more things that I want to say to you before I finish. One has to do with silence in the Liturgy. Pope Francis says that: “silence in the liturgy is itself a ritual act”. You know, for example, that at Mass, if I say “let us pray”, I can go right on into the prayer that follows.  But if say “let us pray”, but then I pause for a moment in silence, that is an invitation to everybody to enter into that prayer. The moment of silence when we have the penitential rite is an opportunity for us to experience the call to conversion. The moment of silence just before we come to Holy Communion is an opportunity for us to focus on what is actually happening here and to create a space of welcome in our hearts. The point that Pope Francis is making is that, as you know, we tend to think of silence as a problem, as a space that has to be filled. This is a particular challenge in radio and television; where silence is the enemy. Silence has to be edited out because silence costs money. But silence in the Liturgy doesn’t cost us anything. In fact it enriches what happens before and what happens after. That is one thing I’ve learned from this letter of Pope Francis; the need, perhaps, to build more moments of silence into the celebration of the Eucharist. If it makes our Mass fifty one minutes long instead of fifty minutes long, what harm?

Pope Francis reminds us that, in the liturgy, all of us are the celebrants; there is one presider at the Eucharist – the priest – but all of us are celebrants and all of us have to develop what he calls the “art of celebrating”.

The final thing, then relates to the significance of Sunday. In recent times, I suppose, we’ve begun to realise that, in various ways, we have lost sight of the meaning of Sunday; and that started long before COVID-19. COVID just helped us to see it more clearly.  Our society has changed and it has become more difficult for people to see Sunday as a day of prayer or a day of rest, because it has become pretty much the same as every other day. Yet it is the day when Christians around the world gathered to celebrate their faith; their faith in Jesus who rose from the dead and who is alive and who continues to walk among us through His Holy Spirit.

I was reading back over a letter of Pope John Paul II called “Dies Domini” (the day of the Lord) and Pope John Paul pointed out that, back in the beginning, when Christianity began first, Sunday was not a day off for most Christians. They got up early in the morning to come to the Eucharist, and then went on to their day’s work. It was only gradually that the Christian idea of people having a day of rest became more widespread, as an expression of justice as well as an expression of faith.

In the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis, we read that God’s creative activity went on for six days and then rested on the seventh day. These “days” are symbolic and Pope John Paul suggests that we need to re-think our understanding of the idea of God resting. It was not because he was tired. The day of rest symbolises God’s contemplation, when he looked back at what he had created and “saw that it was good”. In much the same way, for six days of the week, we worship God with the work of our hands. Then, on the seventh day we are invited to pause and to contemplate the work of His hands. It is not always that easy now in our modern society, but there is a value in rediscovering the importance of Sunday as a day when we contemplate and celebrate the hope that we have been given, both in Creation and in the Resurrection of Jesus.

Bishop Kevin Doran. Given at St Anne’s Church, Sligo on Saturday 10th September 2022 as part of the Eucharistic Conference Day.