The Liturgical Direction of Pope Francis: A Diatribe Against the Diatribes
In my initial post on the election of Pope Francis, I concluded with a mild chastisement of those who have take on a spirit of uncharity with regards to the liturgical decisions of the new Holy Father. To be clear, I have never suggested that papal decisions are beyond criticism. Pope’s are not perfect in every matter. Some will have strengths in one area and weaknesses in others. Pope John Paul II was not a very strong liturgical pope, but he will inevitably be numbered among the Church’s “Great” Holy Fathers for more reasons than we can count. Pope Benedict was a masterful liturgist, but his management of those in the Secretary of State’s office left something to be desired. Even someone like Pope Paul VI, who was largely responsible for the tragic liturgical rupture of the last century, managed to produce Humanae Vitae, arguably one of the most important Catholic moral documents in recent memory. I am also not suggesting that we put on rose colored glasses and assume that Pope Francis will “come around” to the liturgical stylings of his predecessor. It is likely he will not. This pope seems to be entirely committed to simplicity in both his private and public actions. That being said, respectful conversation about liturgies, papal or otherwise, are not only appropriate, but also encouraged. Pope Benedict XVI believed firmly in a “bottom up” liturgical reform. The new liturgical movement will not be driven off course in the least by the actions of this or that pontiff. It will continue to bear fruit so long as it is done in charity and with a spirit of filial love for the Holy Father. This last point is essential. The liberal factions within the Church who have been calling for things such as women’s ordination will never be taken seriously, and not simply because they are asking for the reversal of infallible teachings, but also because their tactics are often tactless. While the new liturgical movement has on its side the history of the Church, the argument from beauty, and the backing of many within the magisterium, I can assure you that the day we abandon the virtues of charity and obedience is the day that we surrender our right to be taken seriously. It is also the day that, as individuals, we put up barriers to our personal sanctification. Without charity, there can be no holiness.
With that, there are a few points I wish to make as we go forward. First, Vatican Information Services reported on March 14, “The director of the Holy See Press Office commented on the Pope’s first public appearance yesterday evening, greeting the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square. He noted a few significant gestures that characterized the simplicity and serenity of that encounter, beginning with the Pope’s request that the faith pray for him and his choice of vestments” (emphasis added). The Holy Father has made deliberate decisions regarding his vestiture, but he has done so by asking for our prayers. Since when do we not take men at their word? There are those who have tried to cast Pope Francis’ humility as anything from “misplaced” to “disguised arrogance.” While we can agree or disagree on the choice of vestments itself, and while we can have respectful dialog about what “simplicity” means within the Roman Rite and papal liturgies, it is entirely inappropriate to judge what is in the pope’s heart. He has said that he wants to bring a spirit of humility and simplicity to the papacy and the wider Church, and we owe him the benefit of the doubt that this is his true intention. To assume arrogance and pride in another man’s hear, especially the pope’s, is not our place. He deserves to be taken at his word. He also deserves the prayers for which he has asked. We are Catholic, folks. We pray. We pray, and we abandon ourselves to the will of God. Rather than vitriol, we should exhibit virtue. Before we jump on a website to level our criticisms, perhaps we should take an hour to pray both for our own dispositions and for the Holy Father.
Second, there has always been a tug between the simple and the ornate within the Church. The Roman Rite itself has always been by its nature simple and less ornate than many of the eastern rites. Even within the Gospels we have Jesus presented as somehow both. We have the scene at Bethany where he allows the woman to pour the expensive oils on his feet despite the objections from Judas that the oil could be sold and the profits could be given to the poor. And yet we can’t ignore the fact that Jesus was a humble and relatively poor man who lived a life that was as simple as can be.
Look, those who have known me for years know full well what side of the liturgical coin I prefer. Like the oil at Bethany, I think that no expense is too much when it comes to the worship of the almighty God. I believe whole heartedly that the liturgy does not belong to anyone, including this or that pope. I believe that the most important thing for our time is to recover the essence of the sacred liturgy and to restore a spirit of continuity with our past. I know deep within me that the liturgy is the key to reviving Catholic identity, and identity is key to evangelization and the universal call to holiness. I rejoiced in the beauty of the Benedictine liturgies, from the vestments to the chant to the altar arrangements. I will miss them tremendously, for my heart tells me that they will very much not be present in the Franciscan liturgies to come. It is okay to say that I side with Benedict on this. It is even okay to say that new liturgical movement will push ahead despite the decisions of Pope Francis. But it is not okay to throw the baby out with the bath water, and it is certainly not okay to resort to childish tirades over a man we barely know.
In other words, if we can adopt the humility called for by our beloved Holy Father, we can and we will learn something from him. As I said from the beginning, every pope has his strengths and weaknesses. To ignore the former because we are preoccupied with the latter is a disservice to ourselves, to the pope, and to the Church. If we focus too much on the liturgical rupture of Paul VI, we will miss Humanae Vitae. If we zoom in on some of the misplaced ecumenism of John Paul II, we will fail to recognize the brilliance of his writings on faith, reason, and the nature of the human person, not to mention the part he played in bringing down communism. If, like the media, some see only the failed management of certain curial departments under Benedict XVI and are consequently blinded to the importance of his liturgical legacy, they are equally to blame. How is it that the fans of Benedict’s liturgies so readily understand this last example but fail to see the flip side of the coin in the previous two examples?
Pope Francis does have something to teach us, and I firmly believe it is a lesson that much needed in the world: a call to simplicity and personal poverty. I don’t mean here personal destitution, but rather that call to Gospel poverty clearly spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount. It strikes me when reading Luke’s account of this monumental sermon that the beati of the poor is the only one that bears a present promise. All the others guarantee some future reward (you shall be filled, you shall laugh, etc.). Yet when it comes to being poor, the promise reads, “Yours is the kingdom of God.” There is blessing in simplicity, yet the world in which we live is not at all conducive to this call. Despite this, it remains true that in this call to simplicity we will find God.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am very much of the camp that our worship of the almighty God in the Sacred Liturgy is something the deserves both great attention to detail and an aesthetic that conveys the reality of heaven-com-down-to-earth, or perhaps the other way around. Yet the beauty that we should portray in our liturgy should be in stark contrast to the simplicity found within our own lives. Before we decry the liturgical decisions of Pope Francis, we would do well to get our own houses in order. The possessions we have, the gourmet food we eat, the expensive clothes we buy, the cell phones we carry, and the very computers that we use to type out the anti-Francis diatribes … all of this bears asking, “Is it really necessary?” When it comes to the things of the world, there is nothing neutral. Every thing we own, every activity we do, every medium we consume … it either does or does not contribute to our own holiness. The lesson from the first days of the Franciscan pontificate is simple: we must take a spiritual inventory of our own lives, and we need to divest ourselves of those things that are not helping our sanctification.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. This pope has much to teach us, even if we disagree with him on things liturgical. Dialog. Discuss. But do so in a spirit of prayer and humility, and dare I say it, charitable obedience to our new pope. He deserves our love. He deserves our respect. He deserves our prayers. He deserves our filial devotion. And he does so because he is the Vicar of Christ on earth. He is our Holy Father.