Kevin Irwin’s Pope Francis and the Liturgy

April 20, 2020

Patrick Riley, our Emmanuel book review editor, gave me two books to read and review this Lent, both highlighting the importance Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’. I am still working my way through Full of Your Glory: Liturgy, Cosmos, Creation edited by Teresa Berger with papers from the 5th Yale ISM Liturgy Conference of 2018. It’s a very academic book and comes from publishing arm and department of Liturgical Press.

The other book Pat gave me is a very quick, but incredibly well-written book. I read it enthusiastically over two days because there was so much to study, remember, learn and highlight, especially with the rich history and researched endnotes. This book is Pope Francis and the Liturgy: The Call to Holiness & Mission, by Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin. He masterfully gives his usual well-written exposé on a topic and demonstrates the importance of its liturgical history, theology, and pastoral practice. There will be a short review of this book in Emmanuel’s regular Book Review section. But because of the importance of this book, in the middle of Pope Francis’ pontificate, I feel it is important to give a more extensive “book report,” inviting more readers to purchase and delve into the importance of this work for themselves.

While Pope Francis has done very little to change liturgical rubrics, his pastoral letters continuously highlight the need for holiness and mission. Irwin reminds us that Pope Francis remains within the continuity that flows from Pope Pius XII, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, whereby Pope Francis

understands the liturgy both in relation to the initiatives and teachings of his predecessor and through his specific contributions, both in word and in deed about the liturgy and about the mission dimension of living what we celebrate. … [Pope Francis] draws out the inherent theological and spiritual meanings of the reformed liturgy … and makes the meaning of the phrase the life of the liturgy [page xi, emphasis in the text].

Irwin repeatedly shows in each of Francis’ important documents, his regular daily homilies, and his papal audiences Francis’ Jesuit style of discernment, prayer, and belief leading to mission. So much so that Irwin develops, what he believes is Francis’ eighth sacrament: creation.

Irwin had the chance to interview one of the great theological giants, Dominican Father Edward Schillebeeckx while engaged in research in Rome. He asked Schillebeeckx some important questions about his books, particularly, would he write them in the same way now as he did back then. Schillebeeckx had an interesting reflection upon this, Irwin relates Schillebeeckx’ response, “If I were to write a book on sacraments today, I would begin not with Saint Thomas or the Bible, but with creation (page 103).”

Francis speaks about how liturgy and the sacraments raise up and revere fellow creatures in creation as we humans worship God. Creation, in a sense, is imagined as our eighth sacrament. Francis heightens a moment of Pope John Paul II’s papacy when he elevated Saint Francis of Assisi as the patron of ecology. Jorge Bergoglio relished the name of Francis by taking it not only as his papal name but as a model for his papal mission. St Francis has also inspired Pope Francis’ writing (see page 103).

After a wonderful introduction for the book and liturgical history of the last 50 years, Irwin’s book chapters proceed thus:

  1. A Papal Triptych: This stresses the continuity of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis in their writings and focus on the Eucharist which leads us to mission in service of the Gospel.
  2. Pope Francis’s Liturgical Initiatives: Here he mentions brief moments and one moto proprio with regard to foot washing and liturgical translations with bishops’ conference and corresponding change in Canon Law.
  3. Inculturation, Participation and the Vernacular: The Church has always been missionary (page 35) and how to we bring the Gospel and liturgy into that culture by sharing it with those who have never experienced it. That was the importance of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the first document of the Second Vatican Council when we were called to increase the vigor of Christian life.
  4. Continuity and Development: Here Irwin reviews key documents, talks, and homilies from 2007 to Gaudete et Exsultate in 2018, relating Francis’ theology, discernment, initiatives and teachings, all to further the cause of mission and care of our world.
  5. Sacramental Theology after Laudato si’: A full report highlighting the key paragraphs of the document and its impact for worship and mission.
  6. Conclusion: States what we see Pope Francis live and do, his witness to the Church and world. Irwin emphasizes Pope Francis’ attentiveness to the poor, his work for unity and peace, and his message that God is always calling us to holiness and mission.
  7. The notes are outstanding and a there is very comprehensive bibliography (which is a hallmark of Msgr. Irwin’s style of research and writings).

From international meeting statements, such as the sacred music conference, or his regular daily homilies, Irwin compiles a list of statements and thoughts that remind us how Pope Francis sees our mission from the liturgy. Francis does not dissuade piety and liturgy, for they should live in harmony (page 99). Rather more importantly, he encourages us to celebrate Eucharist, live it in the world, and do the mission work of the Church, truly allowing the liturgy to flow into the world (page 101). The Eucharist is “medicine for the weak” (page 32) and Pope Francis regularly wants us to share in Holy Communion and see how we can give this gift of nourishment that God freely gives us, to share this treasure, this gift of creation.

Irwin reminds us that Pope Francis’ style is not to act as the liturgical police. Rather, to focus on three important points of sacramental theology: 1) the things of this earth used in liturgy are from God’s goodness (a prism to see what is biblical and paschal); 2) prevents us from being pessimistic about the world and world events; 3) articulates our belief that we worship God by raising up this good earth, fellow creatures on it, and the “work of human hands (see pages 123 – 124).

As we begin a new Easter season in the midst of a pandemic, Pope Francis and Irwin’s book remind us of the fragile condition of all creation, including humanity. We remember the new creation and new dawn that came from that garden near Calvary. Resurrected life broke forth from a tomb, breaking the barriers of this world, and inviting us to go forth with new life and mission.

Perhaps as Pope Francis continues to invite us to see our Easter mission, we too, like those early disciples, who walked to Emmaus, may see that Christ walks with us too when the world around us seems so gloomy. May we never lose hope that we will arise and grow through our own holiness to share our gifts and talents with a world that needs us. Christ walks with us still as we travel anew, to heal the broken hearted and proclaim the good news of salvation. Sin and death never win with our God! May we remember, especially through the invitation of this book that:

we have a major lesson we can learn from the Francis effect on the liturgy [that] is one of the purposes of celebrating the liturgy is not to get the rite right but to get life right, or at least to get life less wrong (page 131 with my emphasis).

We are called not to be afraid and go (words echoed by Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis from the Easter Gospel)! May we see we have nothing to fear, and not look for Christ among the dead, but among the living, as we “go forth to love and serve the LORD” in one another and in all the world.

Happy Easter! Happy missioning!


About John Thomas Lane, SSS

Blessed Sacrament Father Lane is pastor of his home parish, Saint Paschal Baylon, Highland Heights, Ohio. He writes and speaks regular on liturgy, has written two books for LTP, a four time member on the team of authors for Sourcebook, worked in a diocesan worship office and is an associate member of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC). He has degrees in education, music, theology and liturgy and also served his religious order as vocation minister. Contact him at jtlanesss@gmail.com or (440) 442-3410 extension 111.