NEW YORK — Pope Francis isn’t typically thought about as someone who has prioritized liturgical reforms during his papacy, yet for Monsignor Kevin Irwin, the pope believes that liturgy is a means to extend his message of mercy on a local level.

In his new book, Pope Francis and the Liturgy: The Call to Holiness and Mission, Irwin — the longtime chairman of liturgical studies at the Catholic University of America — explores how Francis understands the liturgy in relationship to his two recent predecessors and how he’s using it in his own way to help people “hear the voice of the Lord and feel welcomed.”

Irwin spoke with Crux about how he believes liturgy can aid priests in having the “smell of the sheep” and why Francis is intent on giving greater control to local episcopal conferences. He also offers a few predictions for the future.

Crux: In what way has Francis left his mark on the liturgical life of the universal Church? 

Irwin: I believe the major mark that Francis will leave us is making us aware of the mission, daily life dimension of the liturgy. The pioneers of the liturgical reform in Europe and the USA always linked the celebration of the liturgy with what implications the liturgy has for daily life, such as just wages for workers and integration of races.

When the liturgy is looked upon only as a series of ceremonies that we perform in church then that life dimension can be lost. Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI trying to work toward an appropriate vernacular liturgy took much energy and hard work. Francis now builds on this, presumes this, and then keeps asking the question (in effect) “what impact does this celebration have for the way we look at life, accept the stranger, share all of the earth’s goods with each other and serve the poor?”

Pope Francis talks a lot about priests who have the smell of the sheep. How can that be translated into the liturgy? 

Liturgy always occurs on the local level whether that is a parish, school, monastery, hospital, prison, etc. The manner and bearing of the priest matters a great deal as he seeks to invite, engage and pray with the community. He also has a precious opportunity (and bears a unique burden) when it comes to preaching.

Pope Francis has a lot to say about preaching, especially about preaching that is invitational, encouraging, reconciling and yes, challenging, so that the two-edged sword of the scriptures needs to cut away at sin, division, selfishness, prejudices. But the words used should always be “we,” “our” and “us” and not “you” especially if that means direct confrontation or telling people how bad they are. This is a pontificate of mercy above all. The liturgy should always be a place where the flock hears the voice of the Lord and feels welcomed, not judged and invited to deeper conversion.

In 2017, Francis issued a motu proprio, Magnum Principium, which effectively allows for local episcopal conferences to approve translations of liturgical texts rather than relying on the Vatican to approve it. Why did this cause such controversy in certain circles — and why does it all matter?

The “back story” here concerns the efforts by many people over many years to establish an adequate English translation of the Mass. Efforts by the International Commission of English speaking bishops led to a common set of texts which those bishops’ conferences sent to Rome for approval. In the early to mid 1970s such approvals were almost pro forma. But beginning in the 1990s there was a concern to make sure that what the prayers said reflected as accurately as possible what the Latin says. Why? Because an important adage is Lex orandi, lex credendi (what we pray is what we believe).

The present Missal is a product of enormous effort in the English-speaking countries and in Rome. In effect Magnum Principium restores the approval of liturgical texts to the local bishops’ conferences with final approval coming from Rome. In effect those bishops’ conferences, which have submitted liturgical texts to Rome since the publication of Magnum Principium have been returned to the bishops in record time with only a few comments.

This reflects Pope Francis’s emphasis on and deep respect for local bishops’ conferences and the issue of synodality.

How, in your view, have certain liturgical preferences been used as a proxy war for some of the broader reforms of the Francis papacy? 

Unfortunately the liturgy can become a lightning rod for a number of other issues in terms of church teaching and church practice. If there ever was a time when debates about the liturgy almost became wars concerned the adequate translation of the Roman Missal. Among the pros and cons of the present Missal is how literal should it be? Is the present translation one that can be easily understood when proclaimed?

In 2007 Pope Benedict issued a document that carefully delimits when and where priests can celebrate the Mass according to the pre Vatican II Mass in Latin. One personal anecdote: I was in residence for a time in a downtown Washington church where the Tridentine Mass was celebrated every Sunday at nine o’clock followed by a catechetic program for the children. One day one of the people responsible for organizing the Mass asked me “when will you celebrate our Mass Father?” I replied that I would likely not because there were priests on staff who could do that better than I. Then he asked whether I would come for the catechesis. I asked what book were they using. He replied “The Baltimore Catechism.” I then realized that those children would not learn about the Church’s social justice teaching (from Leo XIII on) or the teachings of Vatican II. I declined.

Now let me distinguish two things — a Mass in Latin celebrated according to the Roman Missal published after Vatican II and a Mass in Latin celebrated according to the Mass approved after Trent. A Latin Mass in Latin is not the issue. The issue is whether it is the reformed Mass after Vatican II with the emphasis on participation, and the exercise of a variety of ministries in the liturgy. This is always preferred and Benedict XVI has called this “the ordinary form.” He calls the older version “the extraordinary form.” Some prefer the extraordinary form for a variety of reasons. But it needs to be said that the extraordinary form does not contain many of the theological advances approved and taught at Vatican II. Again, what we pray is what we believe. If some prefer the extraordinary rite, to what extent does that affect their understanding of church teaching and acceptance of the teachings of Vatican II?

Any predictions on any future liturgical reforms or surprises we can expect from Francis?

I confess to being a better historian than a fortuneteller! But I do know that about a year ago the international leadership of the Congregation for Divine Worship (not just those in that office in the Vatican) met in Rome to discuss liturgical formation. This is to say their meeting did not deal with this text or that, about a style of music or a rubric for the liturgy. Liturgical formation concerns appreciating what is occurring in and through the liturgy. Some examples are:

— The importance of the proclamation of the Word of God and preaching at the liturgy. (This is evidenced by Pope Francis calling for the third Sunday in Ordinary Time to be an annual Sunday to emphasize the Word of God. I judge this is one way to highlight what is always in the liturgy. The proclamation of saving events and deeds and that their proclamation implies that these deeds are happening still in the act of the liturgy.

— The importance of active participation of all in the gathered liturgical assembly who by our baptism into the Church as a royal, baptismal priesthood become partakers together in these sacred mysteries.

— The importance of appreciating the celebration of the liturgy as our continual experience of the paschal dying and rising of Christ and our dying and rising through, with and in him. I often say that one of the purposes of the liturgy is to invite us to put on a pair of glasses that are the paschal mystery so that we view nothing less than life through that prism. A prism where suffering leads to glory, humiliation leads to triumph, suffering and death lead to eternal life.

— The importance of experiencing the liturgy through our bodies as well as through our minds and hearts.  This means that the act of gathering together reflects that we are “one body, one spirit in Christ” and that in the liturgy we stand, sit and process (at the presentation of the gifts and at communion) to signify that we are a pilgrim people, on the way through this life to life eternal.  We bow, we genuflect, we kneel as external bodily expressions of who we are as the people of God worshiping the Triune God in and through the liturgy. We raise our voices in song, spoken responses and prayers to give voice to what we believe in communion with each other.

— The importance of “trusting the liturgy” to be and say what it is and proclaims as opposed to adding, deleting or making comments throughout the liturgy. As a ritual the liturgy is to be trusted and observed. The act of liturgy is like putting your hand into a glove. It is familiar, we know what it is. Our human effort makes it come to life. Liturgy is not reinventing the wheel. It is what it is.

So in the end I see no ritual surprises coming from Pope Francis. I see a pope whose concern is to grow in holiness and mission for and according to the liturgy we celebrate.

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212 

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