Goffredo BOSELLI. The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy: School of Prayer, Source of Life. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014. pp. 235+xvi. $19.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-4906-0. Reviewed by Ryan MARR, Mercy College of Health Sciences, Des Moines, IA 50309.


Goffredo Boselli opens his work with a brief assessment of the state of contemporary liturgical experience. Boselli’s diagnosis is not positive, and, over the course of the introduction, he identifies two key areas with significant room for improvement. First, the faithful need to develop a better understanding of what they are celebrating in the liturgy. Quoting the well-known maxim of Saint Jerome—Ignoratio Scripturarum, ignoratio Christi est—Boselli observes that the same principle applies to the liturgy: “Ignorance of the meaning of the liturgy is ignorance of Christ” (p. 21). His book is, in part, an attempt to rectify this situation. Second, believers need to learn to live from the liturgy that they experience. The purpose of the liturgy, Boselli asserts, is the sanctification of the people of God. Catholic Christians falsify their liturgical expression when they treat it as formalistic ritual that has no bearing on how they handle their finances and relate to the poor. This two-pronged diagnosis in the introduction sets the stage for all that follows in the remainder of the book.

Boselli perceptively draws attention to the reality that catechesis on the liturgy has languished in the postconciliar era. While there has been “remarkable growth in awareness of the Bible by [Catholics], thanks in part to the rediscovery of lectio divina,” a similar renewal has not taken place in the faithful’s understanding of the liturgy (p. xiii). The preeminent method for alleviating ignorance about the liturgy is mystagogy—“oral or written explanation of the mystery that is hidden in the Scripture and celebrated in the liturgy” (p. 5, quoting René Bornert). Jesus Christ, Boselli writes, is “the mystagogue of God,” and we, as Christ’s disciples, are initiates into the mystery that he has revealed (pp. 8-9). This conviction clearly informs Boselli’s sense of his own scholarly vocation. The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy could adequately be described as an extended mystagogical reflection, and Boselli’s intention seems to be that priests and lay ministers will utilize his work as a catechetical tool at the parish level.

Catholics who are serious about deepening their faith will benefit immensely from reading Boselli’s book. The book is accessible enough to be used, say, in a parish study group, but also possesses sufficient depth to be of interest to trained liturgists and theologians. Boselli manifests a heartfelt passion for the Catholic liturgy, and his mystagogical reflection on the various elements of the church’s rites impressively blends erudite scholarship with personal piety. Boselli also transcends the traditionalist-progressive divide that sometimes characterizes liturgical scholarship. He openly praises “the fundamental successes of the great postconciliar liturgical reform,” yet at the same time copiously quotes from the writings of Benedict XVI—certainly no liturgical progressive—and, at one point, even laments the orientation in the current liturgy, with the presbyter continually facing the assembly, which in Boselli’s view “can threaten to obfuscate the theological truth” that the liturgy is first and foremost an action of God (p. 112). This theocentric vision of the liturgy permeates the book, and could serve as a helpful corrective to certain contemporary liturgical forms that are oriented primarily toward community-building and perhaps risk diminishing the transcendent dimension of Christian worship.  

Of course, the liturgy is never an end-in-itself in the sense that it cannot be divorced from the day-to-day lives of the church’s members. Boselli’s penultimate chapter (“Liturgy and Love for the Poor”) may be his most challenging, as he confronts his readers with “the relationship between liturgy and poverty” (pp. 183ff.). Here Boselli assumes the mantle of prophet, echoing the stirring denunciations of Isaiah in the Old Testament and Saint James in the New. “The gifts offered by the believers [at Mass],” Boselli writes, “are considered to be offered to the poor and to God; the two destinations from a single act of offering” (p. 193). Therefore, to receive the body and blood of Christ in holy communion while ignoring the plight of the poor is to eat and drink damnation on oneself. Catholics in the United States and Europe, he continues, must do some serious soul-searching in this regard: “Until the Christian communities of the Western world live their eucharistic liturgy as the presentation to God of the bread that is ‘fruit of the earth and work of human hands’ and share it in the presence of God with their brothers and sisters, they will always be in some way responsible for that social injustice that is at the origins of the economic crisis, because that which is not shared with others in communion is taken from others in injustice” (pp. 205-206). The prophetic conclusion to Boselli’s work is a timely word during the reign of a pope who has made concern for the poor one of the central themes of his pontificate. In this respect, The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy is no arid work of merely academic theology: graduate students studying liturgy could read it with great benefit, but it could just as easily serve as a devotional manual for any believer seeking to grow in her faith. No one is likely to walk away from the book feeling unchallenged.