Pope Francis decided at the last minute not to attend a Beethoven concert last evening, Fox News and others reported. Fox News comments, “Unlike his predecessor Benedict, who was well-known as a music lover, Francis has shown scant interest in music, liturgical or otherwise.” The concert, an event long planned for the Year of Faith, included Beethoven’s 9th symphony with choir and orchestra.
Pope Francis supposedly said “I am not a Renaissance prince who listens to music instead of working,” Vatican Insider first reported, later softening its report to preserve the general sense without quoting the pope directly. It seems to be a pattern that Pope Francis is often reported to have said something surprising, then it is taken as a sort of confirmation when the Vatican does not deny the report.
Whatever the exact words of the Holy Father, he is clearly intent on distinguishing the church and its leadership from the trappings of secular monarchy of past ages. Speaking to nuncios and apostolic delegates recently, Pope Francis said that a good prospective bishop will “love interior poverty as freedom for the Lord” and he won’t have the “mindset of a prince.”
Some have seen continuity between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict, in that both want the Church to be less worldly and more spiritual. When Benedict was in his homeland of Germany he called for an “entweltlichung” of the Church – a wonderful German word meaning something like “de-world-ification.” Herder Verlag has a book by Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes and Manfred Lütz titled Benedikts Vermächtnis und Franziskus’Auftrag. Entweltlichung: Eine Streitschrift – “Benedict’s Inheritance and Francis’s Task. Desecularization: A Manifesto.”
There is a key difference between Benedict and Francis, however. For Benedict, the secular danger was located in the contemporary world with all its egalitarianism and informality and bad taste, and a large part of his response was to strengthen Catholicism by retrieving the beautiful, elegant trappings of yesterday’s European Catholicism.
The problem with this viewpoint is that it fails to see how much those trappings of traditional Catholicism are themselves a product of secularization, of the Church aping the power structures and court ceremonial of secular worldly powers. We generally call this “Christendom,” the culture that developed ever since Constantine, as the Church increasingly looked outside herself and her own traditions and Scriptures and toward secular models of leadership and authority.
Francis appears to be the most robustly post-monarchical or anti-monarchical figure to sit on the chair of Peter since the early Middle Ages. If there’s a contrast here, it’s not simply between him and his immediate predecessor Benedict, it’s between him and the whole string of popes before him, including the Piuses and all the rest, even John XXIII.
In naming the problem of monarchy, in decrying bishops acting like “princes,” Francis diagnoses “secularism” more radically than did Benedict. He goes to the heart of the issue, to problems endemic to the system which have long compromised the Church’s ability to witness to the Gospel. He doesn’t seem shy about throwing overboard anything which he thinks is an unhelpful distraction from the Church’s sacred mission.
For the record, I very much like Beethoven’s music, and I hope Pope Francis didn’t really make the flippant comment disparaging that and other things. But if he feels, in his heart of hearts, that much revulsion toward the trappings of monarchy, that makes me very happy.
Whether it leads to any real changes in governance remains to be seen. Time will tell. No predictions from me. Just hopes and prayers.