Our friends over at Rorate Cæli are mildly exercised over the Mass Pope Francis celebrated last week at a Roman Parish. The particular object of their concern is that those receiving communion from him (in this case, the parish’s first communicants) stood to receive communion, rather than kneeling, which had become the norm under Pope Benedict.
I am not myself very exercised over this, either positively or negatively. But it did prompt the thought that, after the initial whiplash effect of the change in liturgical style from Benedict to Francis, what is interesting about Francis’s liturgical choices is how thoroughly uninteresting they are. If you look at the video of his Trinity Sunday Mass it is, well, about as dull as my parish’s Trinity Sunday Mass. With Benedict, one always had that frisson of anticipation, wondering what bit of past Papal finery might make an appearance: will it be the fanon this time? a sky-high miter? the pontifical dalmatic? or maybe some bit of ceremonial that had fallen into disuse? It almost became a distinctive feature of papal liturgy per se; it’s what made them different from what we do in our parishes. But Francis’s liturgies are pretty much like what most of us have done over the past 40 years or so. One sign of the change: the NLM used to cover just about every one of Benedict’s liturgies with a lavish photo display; they pretty much ignore Francis. With Francis, liturgy is not particularly exciting, but I’m not sure that is a bad thing.
People across the ideological spectrum have wondered why Benedict would sometimes use bits from the past, like the fanon, and sometimes not. They also wondered why some past customs, such as kneeling for communion, were reserved for the Pope and not universally imposed. I take it that Benedict’s point was to show that such things could still be used or done, but didn’t have to be used or done. Which is a fair enough point, but one that I think got somewhat lost in the anticipation of what the Pope would wear this time. I found myself thinking, “Just wear the dang fanon all the time and get on with it!” Frankly, while entertaining, the constant shifting of papal vesture and ceremonial was a bit of a distraction from what the liturgy is really about: the sanctification of God’s people through Word and Sacrament. Which is not always — indeed, not often — exciting. Or, no more exciting than water slowly dripping on a rock, shaping it minute-by-minute over the course of years.
I know from his liturgical writings that Benedict understood the point of the liturgy. But it now seems to me that much of his liturgical practice worked against the liturgy by making it exotic. With Francis, you get the same old boring mitre (or one that looks almost exactly like it) all the time. A papal Mass, for good or for ill, looks pretty much like Mass in a typical parish (adjusting for scale, of course). And that, at least for the moment, strikes me as a good thing.