Last November, Pope Francis began a remarkable cycle of catechesis on the Mass. These reflections, which have gone largely unnoticed, are strikingly traditional, undercutting the media image of Francis as a doctrinal revolutionary. In his addresses he has highlighted three essential points.
1) The Value and Meaning of the Mass. In his opening remarks, the Pope explained how the Mass brings us to “the ‘heart’ of the Church” – the Holy Eucharist – allowing us “to live ever more fully our relationship with God.”
He recalled “the great number of Christians” who have died in defence of the Eucharist, commenting: “In the year 304, during the persecution of Diocletian, a group of Christians in North Africa were caught celebrating Mass in a house, and were arrested. The Roman proconsul, in his interrogation, asked them why they had done it, knowing that it was entirely forbidden. And they answered, ‘Without Sunday, we cannot live.’ ”
The early Christians understood that if we cannot celebrate the Eucharist, we cannot spend eternity with God, for as Christ taught, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” In contrast, He said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:53-54).
2) The Importance of Silence. In his catechesis on November 15, and again on January 10, Francis spoke about the importance of silence in the liturgy. “When we go to Mass,” he said in November, we often arrive a few minutes early, and “start to chitchat with those in front of us”. But preparing for Mass should not be wasted with idle chatter – rather, it should be elevated, with “a moment of silence,” a time for the heart to orient itself for “our encounter with Jesus”. In January, Francis highlighted the Collect, the point in the Mass where the priest invites his congregants to become aware of the presence of God, before saying “Let us pray,” allowing for their special intentions.
Francis said: “Perhaps we come from days of weariness, of joy, of pain, and we want to say to the Lord, to invoke his help, to ask him to be close to us; we have relatives or friends who are ill or are going through difficult times; we wish to entrust to God the fate of the Church and the world.”
This is why the priest’s exhortation to pray should be followed by an appropriate period of silence, to give Mass-goers an opportunity to connect with God, on a deeper, interior level. Francis urged priests to “observe this moment” patiently, for without it, “we risk neglecting the recollection of our soul.”
The Pope’s comments have drawn favourable comparisons with The Power of Silence, the acclaimed book by Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, and someone often depicted in tension with the Pontiff on liturgical matters. But on this issue, the two are so close in spirit that one wonders whether the Pontiff had a copy of the cardinal’s book before him while preparing his catechesis.
3) Worthy Reception of the Holy Eucharist. Most significant of all – if only because it was so unexpected – was Francis’s catechesis of March 14, devoted to the Our Father and proper disposition for receiving Communion.
He said: “In the Lord’s Prayer – the Our Father – we ask for daily bread … a special reference to the Eucharistic Bread, which we need to live as children of God. We also implore forgiveness for our trespasses, and to be worthy to receive forgiveness we commit ourselves to forgiving those who have offended us … Finally, we ask God again to ‘deliver us from evil’ that separates us from Him and divides us from our brothers. We understand that these are very suitable requests to prepare us for Holy Communion.”
Right after expressing these thoughts, Francis added: “According to the warning of St Paul, it is not possible to communicate in the one Bread that makes us one Body in Christ, without recognising oneself pacified by fraternal love (cf 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11: 29).”
The last scriptural passage cited by Francis is especially relevant, for it contains the famous admonition: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s Body.”
To drive St Paul’s point home, Francis emphasised: “We know that one who has committed a serious sin should not approach Holy Communion without having first obtained absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation.”
That he made this statement at the end of his catechesis, as part of his greetings to Polish pilgrims, does not detract from its power or universal significance. Francis was teaching – and without qualification – that only those who are in a state of grace should receive Communion. These are words that the faithful have been longing to hear, after the contentious debates following Amoris Laetitia, and now that they have received them, they should commend Francis, and spread his teaching far and wide.
William Doino Jr is a writer on religion, history and politics and a contributor to First Things and Inside the Vatican