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Why Episcopalians Should Read the Pope’s Latest Letter

By Sarah Puryear

This summer a Roman Catholic friend sent me a link to Pope Francis’s latest letter entitled Desiderio desideravi and asked me to read it. I must confess I am not in the habit of reading Pope Francis’ letters; while I have read some of his precedessors’ letters, such as John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint, this is the first of Francis’ writings that I have read. I did not expect to be completely arrested and stunned by the beauty of his reflections on the Eucharist. And yet that was its effect on me. I read the letter on my phone while sitting on a plane next to my two young kids with my husband sitting across the aisle out of earshot. I probably completely embarrassed myself by turning to look at my husband every few paragraphs with my jaw dropped, gesticulating wildly at my phone. Probably few people sitting around us would have guessed what I was reading that made such an impact.

 Desiderio desideravi is a modern-day example of the ancient form of theology called mystagogy, teaching that prepares Christians to enter into the mystery of the sacraments and there to encounter Christ. As Francis puts it, his intention in writing this letter is “to rekindle our wonder for the beauty of the truth of the Christian celebration” (no. 62). While he addresses the Catholic faithful in his letter, and his goals are not explicitly ecumenical, I found that his letter holds a number of insights that can speak powerfully to Anglicans as well. He reflects on the Eucharist without focusing on issues that have historically divided Protestants and Catholics, such as the question of whether Jesus is sacrificed on the altar in the Eucharist or the manner in which Jesus is present in the elements.

Rather, Pope Francis emphasizes the presence of the risen Christ in the sacraments and the invitation we receive to encounter him there, beliefs that most Anglicans hold as well. As a non-Roman Catholic, I have only limited awareness of the Roman Catholic debates and disagreements over liturgy that lie behind Pope Francis’ letter, so I won’t attempt to address those matters; nor will I be able to do justice to all sections of this rich and varied letter. I also understand that from a Roman Catholic perspective, Pope Francis’ reflections would apply only to a Latin Rite Catholic Mass and not to an Anglican celebration of the Eucharist. Despite those different perspectives, I hope to highlight some insights from Pope Francis that are equally relevant to those of us in the Anglican tradition.

First, Pope Francis reflects on Jesus’s desire for us that draws us to fellowship with him.

Pope Francis takes the Latin title of the letter, Desiderio desideravi, from Luke 22:15, where Jesus expresses how much he has longed to share the Passover with his disciples, saying literally, “with desire I have desired to share this Passover meal with you.” These words in Latin reflect exactly the Greek words that Luke uses: epithymia epethumesa. Many English translations mask the repetition of the word for “desire” by using adverbs like “eagerly or earnestly desired,” but the repetition of the verb and noun from the same root communicates the great intensity of Jesus’s feelings. The Greek verb epithymeo appears three other times in the Gospel of Luke, and two of the usages are describing physical hunger for food. The prodigal son “desires” to fill his stomach with the food the pigs are eating in Luke 15:16; and the destitute beggar Lazarus “desires” to eat the crumbs from the rich man’s table. So Jesus’s expression might be translated “I have hungered with hunger to eat this meal with you” — but of course his hunger is not physical but is spiritual.

We probably already have some sense of why the Last Supper was an important event Jesus would have eagerly anticipated: before going to his death, he will spend one last evening with his friends; he will institute the Eucharist; he will prepare his disciples for what will happen to him the following day. Pope Francis, however, explains the intensity of Jesus’s desires by describing God’s desire to share fellowship with us since the world began: “Peter and John were sent to make preparations to eat that Passover, but in actual fact, all of creation, all of history … was a huge preparation for that Supper” (no. 3).

Francis raises the stakes by hearkening back to the beginning of creation, where we first see God’s desire to share communion and fellowship with humankind. Jesus’s strong words about his desire to share supper with his disciples reflect his “infinite desire to re-establish that communion with us that was and remains his original design” (no. 4). In that upper room, God achieves the purpose that he has been working towards for millennia — to share communion and fellowship with humanity. And in that upper room, Jesus also establishes the means by which that communion and fellowship can go on through his institution of the Eucharist, making it possible for all people, not just this set of twelve, to come to him and share fellowship with him. Furthermore, this meal points forward to the “supper of the wedding of the lamb,” to which all people are invited (no. 5).

Francis observes that the disciples present in the upper room were not there only due to their own volition; in reality, each one “had been drawn there by the burning desire that Jesus had to eat that Passover with them” (no. 4). There is a parallel for us when we show up at worship today; whenever we come to church to receive the Eucharist, it is not merely our will and our actions that bring us there. Francis says, “Before our response to his invitation — well before! — there is his desire for us. We may not even be aware of it, but every time we go to Mass, the first reason is that we are drawn there by his desire for us” (no. 4). In my study of Ignatian spirituality, I have been surprised and encouraged by its emphasis on understanding and trusting in God’s love and desire for us, and I imagine Francis is drawing on his formation as a Jesuit when he emphasizes that we are drawn to worship through God’s desire to be with us.

Second, Francis reflects on the presence of Jesus which we encounter in the Eucharist.

Rather than delineating the means by which Jesus is present, a topic that has historically caused division between Protestants and Catholics, Francis emphasizes simply that Jesus is present. In doing so, Francis is not undermining the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, but rather focusing his attention on the impact that Christ’s presence has upon those who receive. Francis defines Christian faith not as an idea or a series of thoughts or a reliance on other people’s memories about Jesus: “Christian faith is either an encounter with Him alive, or it does not exist” (no. 10). That encounter with the risen Christ is facilitated today primarily through the liturgy and the sacraments: “the celebration became the privileged place — though not the only one — of an encounter with Him” (no. 33). When we encounter Christ there, we do so just as directly and personally as those who met Jesus during his life on earth: in communion we become “Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well … the paralytic in the house of Peter, the sinful woman pardoned … the daughter of Jairus, the blind man of Jericho, Zacchaeus, Lazarus, the thief and Peter both pardoned” (no. 11). And through this encounter, the risen Jesus “continues to pardon us, to heal us, to save us with the power of the sacraments” (no. 11). In his presence in the Eucharist, he comes to us as the risen Lord, whose inexhaustible power and love seeks to forgive, heal, and save us. This leads in the worshipper to a sense of amazement and wonder at the mystery of the sacraments, that God would deign to meet us there with the fullness of his power and love.

Francis is careful to add that the sense of wonder the liturgy inculcates in us should flow, not from the style in which the liturgy is conducted, but from the “fact that the salvific plan of God has been revealed in the paschal deed of Jesus (cf. Eph 1:3-14), and the power of this paschal deed continues to reach us in the celebration of the ‘mysteries,’ of the sacraments” (no. 25). I imagine this is a controversial statement in Francis’ context, given the current “worship wars” over traditional forms of worship in the Catholic Church.

Later in the letter Francis pays careful attention to how the priest’s method of presiding can assist or detract from this sense of wonder, so he is not indifferent to that dimension of worship. However, he makes an important point that Anglicans need to hear as well, given our lack of immunity to worship wars within our own context. We must be careful that our sense of wonder in worship stems not merely from the power of visual and sensory symbols such as incense or garments; our amazement should not depend upon the style of the service being to our liking or to hearing the type of music that we prefer. In an era when our choice of a parish often boils down to liking the music or the sermon or the style of the service, it is critical for us to remember that the power of the Eucharist lies beyond the style of the way it is celebrated. Its power lies in the power of the gospel — the good news of what God has done for us, to which the right response is thanks and praise. If Donatism has been rightly ruled a heresy — if the validity of the Eucharist is not dependent upon the correct beliefs of the priest — then neither is the validity of a Eucharist dependent upon the style in which it is conducted.

Francis reminds priests that as they preside at the Eucharist, they too are encountering the risen Lord.

Over the course of the letter, Francis moves from the theological significance of the Last Supper to more practical directives for the celebration of the Eucharist and the formation of the priest celebrating it. Papal letters are not known for their humor, but I couldn’t help but laugh when Francis listed the variety of ways the Eucharist can be led badly: “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” (no. 54). Rather than arguing for a particular method, Francis points beyond these pitfalls to the spiritual awareness a priest should have when presiding: “It is of fundamental importance that the priest have a keen awareness of being, through God’s mercy, a particular presence of the risen Lord” (no. 57). Again, since Donatism is a heresy, Francis isn’t saying that Christ’s power is limited by the priest’s level of awareness. Rather, priests are invited to remember that they too are encountering the risen Christ at the altar; that they are being formed spiritually by carrying out their role in the Eucharist, and that they are called to share in Christ’s deep desire for his people: “The priest himself should be overpowered by this desire for communion that the Lord has toward each person” (no. 57).

Francis’ call for priests to approach worship with a prayerful attitude, mindful of the reality we enter in worship, is just as applicable to Episcopal priests and the services that we conduct. Over the past 20 years, I’ve been in many eucharistic services, too many to count; but I can recall the services in which the priest’s awareness of the Lord’s presence came through to me, but not in a showy way that fell into one of the many potential pitfalls that Francis names. Our hope and prayer as ministers of the gospel is that our role in worship will point others to God and reveal the reality of what we are doing when we gather for worship.

Drawing upon Pope Francis’ insights into the liturgy, may God renew in us a wonder at what he has done for us in Christ; and may he give us the grace to encounter him anew in the sacraments. To borrow from Pope Francis’ closing words in his letter, let us continue to be astonished at the beauty of the liturgy, and let us allow ourselves to be embraced by the desire that the Lord continues to have to eat his Passover with us (no. 65).


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