Ever since those words were spoken by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran on March 13th, the media has been abuzz with stories and prognostications about the new Holy Father, Pope Francis, and the possible shape and impact of his nascent pontificate.
Before offering my own contribution to the conversation, it may be helpful to establish the guiding principles that inform my approach to the topic:
1. Some Catholics are optimistic about the immediate future of the Church, while others see cause for concern. In charity, one would do well to assume goodwill on the part of all concerned (i.e., they love the Church, are praying for Pope Francis, are open to his teaching, etc.) until proven otherwise.
2. Those who are respectfully expressing their concern are not by that simple fact guilty of “pope bashing.” As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “There being an imminent danger for the Faith, prelates must be questioned, even publicly, by their subjects. Thus, St. Paul, who was a subject of St. Peter, questioned him publicly on account of an imminent danger of scandal in a matter of Faith” (ST, IIa-IIae, Q. 33, A. 4).
3. Those who fail to see “imminent danger” where others do, and vice versa, should not hesitate to make their case leaving straw man arguments and ad hominem attacks aside.
4. Being newly enthroned, it will take time for Pope Francis to establish and communicate his vision for his pontificate.
5. That said, the former Cardinal Bergoglio was consecrated a bishop more than two decades ago and has long since developed an episcopal identity that remains, in a certain sense, his own. As such, the suggestion that one must limit all observation of his papacy to the strictly positive for some undefined period of time (in the name of “giving him a chance”) is not entirely reasonable.
6. Our faith, hope and charity is ultimately founded in Jesus Christ, Redeemer and King. The papacy, the liturgy, our doctrine, our discipline and our venerable traditions are in the first place intended to give honor and glory to Him while also nurturing and developing the theological virtues in the faithful.
With this limited amount of perspective established, let me say first and foremost that I find Pope Francis’ affection for the flock moving, his spontaneous reflections compelling, and his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary encouraging.
Even so, I also count myself among those who are concerned about the direction in which the Barque of St. Peter may soon be steered on Pope Francis’ watch, in the first place, liturgically.
I would begin by reminding those who might argue that the most pressing needs in the Church lie elsewhere that the sacred liturgy is “the summit toward which all of the Church’s activity is directed; the font from which all of her power flows” (SC 10). Therefore, if the liturgical life of the Church is in some measure wanting, everything else – her outreach to the poor, her attempts to evangelize, her internal governance, all of it – will suffer deficiency as well.
As many others have observed, it already appears obvious that Pope Francis favors what one might call liturgical minimalism, and in this I cannot help but discern the seeds of a division recently well described by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf who said, “I am thinking about the growing juxtaposition in some conversations of simple liturgy versus lofty liturgy.”
Cardinal Roger Mahony is among those parties engaged in such conversations. In fact, he is being widely criticized for sending out the following Tweets over the last several days:
“SIMPLE is IN, extravagant is out!! Pope Francis is doing more for proclaiming Jesus Christ than thousands of ‘professionals’–praise God!”
“So long, Papal ermine and fancy lace! Welcome, simple cassock, and hopefully, ordinary black shoes! St. Francis must be overjoyed!!”
“Mass with Pope Francis: moving from HIGH Church to LOW and humble Church! What a blessing that we are encountering Jesus without trappings!”
While I concur with those who find his thinly veiled criticism of Pope Benedict reprehensible, relatively few commentators, it seems, are prepared to acknowledge that Cardinal Mahony’s observations are in some measure accurate:
Simple does appear to be supplanting what progressives consider “extravagant;” ermine trimmed mozzette and lace surplices do seem to have fallen out of favor (at least as of this writing), and there is ample evidence that the Papal Mass is deliberately being shifted from high to low.
This being the case, it’s not difficult to imagine why progressives may already be feeling justified in the opinion that the liturgical regalia of tradition is at best mere window dressing, or at worse, an obstacle to Divine union.
In truth, however, the liturgical treasure of the Church – the venerable ritual actions, the sacred music, the ornate vestments and the vast assortment of liturgical finery befitting the service of Christ the King – has never been the property of Benedict XVI or any other pope. This treasury properly belongs to the Bride of the Redeemer who makes use of them in order to honor and glorify her Spouse, and as such, it is the rightful inheritance and heritage of those who belong to Him.
These aforementioned sacred signs also serve to call out to those who as yet do not know the Sovereign Lord, compelling them to embrace His sweet and saving yoke and to join us in offering worship to the Divine Majesty through, with and in Him and His Holy Catholic Church. They are, in others words, among our most effective tools for the work of evangelization.
The same is true of the strictly papal regalia of tradition like the triregnum (triple tiara), the sedia gestatoria (portable throne upon which the popes have been carried) and the labella (the large ceremonial fans made of white ostrich-feathers), just to name a few.
The best intentions of those recent popes who have presumed to dispose of these precious gifts do nothing to mitigate the nature of their offense. While one may wish to see a Church that is arguably more accessible to the common man, no one, not even a pope, has the right to render the Church impoverished.
As Fr. Z wrote of Pope Benedict’s attempts to correct past injustices of this kind, even the smallest of things matter a great deal.
“The use of the fanon is, itself, a small gesture. The return to use of the ferula was a small gesture. The use of older forms of vestments was a small gesture. The white mozzetta during Easter season, a small gesture. Small gestures matter. They pave the way for larger gestures,” he said.
I believe that the same principal applies today; i.e., the relatively small gestures that we’ve seen from Pope Francis thus far will inevitably invite larger ones in a similar vein.
Cardinal Mahony apparently believes this as well, and he is overjoyed at the prospect.
So too is Rev. Mr. Eric Stoltz, the openly gay deacon he ordained back in 2004, the very same year that the now disgraced Archbishop Emeritus of Los Angeles released the infamous “Report to the People of God” in which he attempted to explain away his failure to protect the flock from clerical homosexual predators.
Writing on his FaceBook page on March 17th, Deacon Stoltz opined:
Folks, something is happening. When I said this line in my homily tonight:
“Before he stepped out on the balcony, Francis was offered the red ermine cape and refused to wear it.’No thank you, monsignor,’ he said. ‘Carnival time is over.'”
The assembly broke into loud, spontaneous applause … The longing for throwing off the archaic pretensions of the papacy and the longing for simplicity by Peter’s successor is strong, and people are letting it all come out now and let themselves hope. It’s amazing to witness.
I would bet dollars to donuts that this “carnival time” quote is entirely bogus, but the sentiments expressed in this post are real nonetheless, as are those clapping liturgical lunatics who despise tradition and can barely contain themselves in giddy anticipation of what this papacy might hold for the future of their cause.
Is their excitement justified? Only time will tell, but one thing is all but certain; every indication that this Holy Father has a distaste for the majestic outward signs of liturgical and papal tradition will be interpreted by many, not only as a repudiation of Pope Benedict’s restoration, but as justification for God only knows what they may have in mind going forward.
The realization that it is far easier to destroy than to build only serves to underscore the gravity of the situation. Case in point, the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, who in the course of just a few short years, presided over the unprecedented destruction of many centuries of venerable tradition, ushering in a period of liturgical devastation for which every generation ever since continues to pay dearly.
The lesson is clear: it may take but comparatively very little in the way of encouragement from Rome, intentional or otherwise, to set in motion a speedy unraveling of at least some of the hard earned gains realized over the last seven years.
As if all of this were not foreboding enough, that which took place during the Holy Father’s gathering with journalists in Paul VI Hall on March 16th can hardly be considered anything other than a harbinger of darkness. The relevant details were described by Dr. Robert Moynihan as follows:
The moment had come for him to impart to all of us his Apostolic Blessing, but he did not do this in the usual way.
In fact, he made no exterior gesture at all. He did not lift his hand, he did not move it in the form of a blessing, and he did not speak “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” out loud.
He said, in Italian: “I cordially impart to all of you my blessing. Thank you.” And then, in Spanish, he explained as follows: “I told you I was cordially imparting my blessing. Since many of you are not members of the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I cordially give this blessing silently, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each, but in the knowledge that each of you is a child of God. May God bless you!”
And with that, he turned and left.
The anguish that this breathtaking episode engenders in the faithful Catholic defies description, and yet, I have discovered that many among us have grown so numb to such unthinkable acts of disregard for Our Blessed Lord that the mere retelling of this event is often treated as little more than an invitation to shoot the messenger.
For those unaware of just how much is at stake in the words and gestures in question, I would simply point to the Angelus address of September 11, 2005, wherein Pope Benedict XVI said:
The sign of the Cross is the fundamental act of our prayer, of Christian prayer.
Making the sign of the Cross – as we will do during the Blessing – means saying a visible and public “yes” to the One who died and rose for us, to God who in the humility and weakness of his love is the Almighty, stronger than all the power and intelligence of the world.
No one knows with precision what the immediate future holds for the Church under this fledgling pontificate, but a faithful Catholic can scarcely deny that when the Vicar of Christ is reluctant to make the Sign of the Cross and to invoke the Blessed Trinity in an act of public blessing, there is no motive lofty enough to render it anything other than what it is; “an imminent danger for the Faith” that demands repudiation in defense of “the One who died and rose for us.”
If nothing else, perhaps the optimistic, the concerned, and the content to “wait and see” can agree on at least this much:
All of us must fast and pray on the Holy Father’s behalf, just as he requested on the day he was elected, “that the Lord bless him and Our Lady protect him.”