Here is the liturgy booklet for Pope Francis’ Mass this Sunday at St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the diocese of Rome, at which he will take possession of his chair (“cathedra,” from which we get “cathedral”) as bishop of the diocese.

This is significant: the liturgy is all in vernacular, except for the Gregorian Chant Latin Mass ordinary and propers, and all the vernacular is Italian. This isn’t an international event that calls for Spanish and English and Vietnamese and so forth, though people from all over will be there. This is a celebration of the diocese of Rome, and they speak Italian there.

To be sure, eight years ago when Benedict took possession of the cathedral, the liturgy didn’t look that much different from this. Benedict began his administration in continuity with what went before. But gradually over the course of Benedict’s eight-year papacy, at the behest of Benedict or his MC Guido Marini, papal liturgies increasingly shifted to Latin. Near the end, in Rome or elsewhere, Benedict was pretty much always doing the Eucharistic Prayer in Latin. But now with Pope Francis it’s in Italian.

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In his first year as pope, on December 22, 2005, Benedict gave a very famous speech to the Roman curia. He criticized ways of interpreting Vatican II which he called “hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture.” The problem here is that the church after Vatican II is treated as something entirely new, a complete break with the preconciliar church. In contrast to this, he proposed a “hermeneutic of reform” which emphasizes continuity between the church before and after the council. He has also called this way of interpretation a “hermeneutic of continuity,” and it is this phrase which became most identified with his viewpoint.

Benedict is certainly correct that the Catholic Church after Vatican II is the same church as the one before. We don’t create a new church. We respond to the promptings of the Spirit who ever renews and reforms – sometimes markedly – the one church of Christ. But Benedict also took a sour, pessimistic view of liturgical renewal since Vatican II, including a pretty sharp critique of the supposed invention of a new liturgy under Pope Paul VI. He couldn’t bring himself to accept the “new thing” (cf. Isaiah 43:19) the Spirit was doing.

Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” was never about continuity with the past fifty years of Catholic liturgical renewal. It wasn’t about the sensitivities of current-day worshipers or continuity with current liturgical practices. It was about establishing continuity with practices lost fifty years ago. It was about re-doing the liturgical reform as it supposedly should have been done. Ironically, Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” meant a rupture with present practices and became a pretext to introduce liturgical changes, sometimes great changes, of a traditional sort. (Think wall of candles between celebrant and congregation, or two forms of the Roman rite.)

It was always a rather small group which supported Pope Benedict’s liturgical thing, albeit a very vocal and enthusiastic group. Most of those by far in liturgical and musical ministry saw their life’s work being called into question by the new direction under Benedict, and they had reason to feel confused or worried or demoralized. (Think new English missal.)

Most of the Catholic church, most of the PIPs (“people in the pews”), wouldn’t have been tracking all this. They don’t read Pray Tell or Worship magazine. They go to Mass on Sunday and Father does it in their language, and they would wonder what all the fuss is about around here. They would have little reason to know that Pope Benedict had packed the Congregation for Divine Worship with advisors sympathetic to the 1962 missal, or that there was talk of re-writing all the introductions to the reformed liturgical rites. For these people, it is entirely unremarkable that Pope Francis celebrates Mass this Sunday in vernacular, facing the people, with simple but attractive vestments: he’s doing what most all the Catholic Church does.

But for those of us who track what’s going on behind the scenes and what it means for the future of Catholic liturgical renewal, Pope Francis’ Mass this Sunday at the Cathedral of John Lateran is one more indication of the direction of his papacy. It is part of Francis’ “hermeneutic of continuity” – with Vatican II, with Pope Paul’s reform of the rites, and with the rest of the Catholic Church.


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