Rorate Caeli

LITURGY - Pope Francis: the Master of Irony

Pope Francis:  the Master of Irony

I read with great interest the remarks of Pope Francis to the members of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline before their annual plenary assembly.  What particularly struck me were Pope Francis” words:  “Without liturgical reform there is no reform of the Church.”

As I pondered these words I was overtaken by a sense of confusion. Was the Pope referring to the document Sacrosanctum Concilium promulgated by the Second Vatican Council and the reform of the Liturgy that occurred in the years after the Council?  And if so, what is the precise meaning of the word “reform” here?  How are we to understand the use of the word?


The first possibility is to use this English word to mean to start all over again, to re-form.  But that cannot be the meaning in the Pope’s exhortation, for the Church cannot be re-formed in that sense, for the Church in the world was formed from the blood and water that came forth from the side of Christ as he died on the Cross and was in-formed by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.  So it cannot be that the Pope is referring to the need for a continual re-beginning of the Church, as if every age with its own particular moment of history must somehow be met with a “new Church” that can address the particular needs of that particular moment.  And it would be mind-boggling to try to understand how this “Church of the moment” could be part of the Church triumphant in eternity. That would also ground the Liturgy in this time and place as if the Mass were merely people gathered to recall something that happened two thousand years ago by eating bread and drinking wine.  To reduce the Mass to such an event would seem to be contrary to the teaching of the Fathers and Councils of the Church, which all insist on the transcendental nature of the Mass.

We then must move to a second understanding of the word “reform” to make better sense of Pope Francis’ words.  There was a time when young people who had a history of bad behavior, which often included crime, were sent to “reform school”, where they would be taught and learn firstly that their behavior did not meet the standards of good society and secondly, that they would be taught the rules and expectations of a society founded on justice and regard for other people.  These rules are the foundation of the “common good”.  This understanding of reform is the answer to the question: “Given the current situation, how can we make things better?” The amendments to the United States Constitution are in their way an example of the type of reform that meets the needs of a society as that society progresses in history. These amendments also act as addenda to the Constitution itself, which also demands interpretation in every age.  

Is it this meaning of “reform” that was in the mind of Pope Francis when he uttered those words to those entrusted with the liturgical life of the Church? That the form of the Liturgy in every age must be changed by those in charge of such things in the Church to meet the expectations of those whose understanding of the world and of themselves has undergone a significant change?  Is the job of the Dicastery for Divine Worship to constantly take surveys to find out how the “world” is progressing in thought and understanding of what it means to be human and then adjust the Liturgy to reflect that “progress”?  Then does the Congregation for Divine Worship become the inspired agent of the Holy Spirit?  That surely cannot be, for the Holy Spirit cannot be controlled by a human agency. To assume this scenario is obviously not possible for the Catholic, or at least has been deemed impossible for the last two thousand years. 

There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit constantly in-forms the Church.   But one must be constantly reminded that the Liturgy evolved not by edicts of popes or kings or legislative committees, but rather developed  in the secret space of the womb of the Church by a process that, despite shaky claims of professionals who study and know about  these things, was messy and strange and wonderful and is at the very heart of the Divine Mystery of the Church. To presume to have this all figured out either with respect to the development of the Liturgy or even with respect to the development of Doctrine is impossible for the faithful Catholic.

Then what did Pope Francis mean when he told the members of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments that “without liturgical reform there is no reform of the Church”? My thesis is –and this may be a bit shocking to pious ears--that he is being wonderfully ironical in this statement, and what he really means is that there is no meaning to liturgical reform in relationship to reform of the Church:  that these terms are verba nuda that are used to make sense of something that seems to be impossible to make sense of. This is a brilliant ploy on the part of the Pope to help us all make sense of the the document of Liturgical Reform in the form of an Apostolic Constitution published by St. Pope Paul VI on April 3, 1969 promulgating a New Form of the Roman rite that was the product not of the sacred womb of Holy Mother Church but rather the product of a committee that was a snapshot of a particular time and place—an invention.  And it is no irony, or perhaps irony to the nth power, that the outcome of that attempt to abolish the womb in favor of a committee bore fruit in the objective fact that 70% of Catholics today do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  This is the sort of thing that one cannot make up, and so the Pope uses irony in a novel way to explain the inexplainable, joining the great ironists of the Western world including Sophocles, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Jerry Seinfeld.

We thank Pope Francis for this brilliant use of irony to explain the patently inexplicable link between the reform of the Liturgy and the reform of the Church.  Now it is up to Pope Francis, the master of irony, to tell us quod nunc faciendum est, what must be done now for the true reform of the Church.

(Fr. Richard Cipolla)