Mass with Pope Francis in La Habana, Cuba

by Raúl Gómez Ruiz SDS

I just finished watching the Papal Mass transmitted by CTV from the Plaza de la Revolución in La Habana – the first of three Eucharistic celebrations at which Pope Francis will preside during his three days in Cuba. I specifically chose to watch on CTV since there would be no “play by play commentary” during the transmission. So on a very warm, sunny Sunday morning, in a plaza by no means overflowing but full nonetheless (perhaps 250,000 – 350,000 people), the Eucharist unfolded in a way that has come to be expected under Francis.

This means not much wandering from the rubrics and text, or from the gestures and postures as found in the current editions of the GIRM and Roman Missal. Nonetheless, as noted by Anthony Ruff’s recent post, the text of the Institution Narrative stood out in that it used the “vosotros” form of the verbs and prayed “for all” rather than “for many,” as was decreed by Benedict XVI. The vosotros form was also used in the second reading – presumably because of the lectionary translation approved by the Cuban bishops. This despite the fact that in Cuba this form is antiquated and not used in everyday speech.

Whereas Francis has come to be associated with going beyond the borders in terms of mission – that is going to the margins and peripheries even to the point of pushing the boundaries pastorally, his approach to liturgy gives very little evidence of this. Instead we see a very controlled, precise, and careful celebration. Certainly it is clearly the liturgy that has ensued from Vatican II but with the retention of accretions by Benedict that point to a more staid, methodical and ritualistic approach to liturgy. At least he’s moved the six candles to the side of the altar instead of blocking the view and the lacey, fancy European vestments have gone back into the closet.

The only place where there is a bit of pushing of boundaries is in Francis’ blending of popular piety and the liturgy. This was seen at the beginning and at the end of the Eucharistic celebration. The first example was the incensation of the image of Our Lady of El Cobre as part of the incensation of the altar at the start of the Eucharist. The second instance was prior to the final blessing and dismissal, when he led those present in the Angelus and Prayer for the dead.

The inculturation of the liturgy in the Cuban context as a result was quite limited. Even the music as performed tended to be very controlled and less exuberant than that found in many US Cuban parishes, and I suspect in Cuba itself. Perhaps it was the fact that most of the hymnody, though in Spanish and with Caribbean rhythms, was accompanied by an orchestra. Though well played by the orchestra and well sung by the two choirs, it generally lacked “spirit.” Only on occasion did the Cuban “body and soul” emerge as individuals in the choir began to move to some of the music. More Cuban spirit, spoken about by Francis in his remarks at the end of the celebration, was seen in the final of five communion hymns and in the postludes, especially the beautiful adaptation of the Salve Regina. This was sung after the Pope and clergy around the altar had left the area. Unfortunately, the second postlude with its joyful Cuban instruments, singing, and movement was cut off by CTV as it returned to its usual transmission of St. Peter’s Square.

Yet, it was significant that Francis preached from the ambo rather than from his chair as he usually does. From my perspective, this revealed an attempt to break out of the overly controlled liturgy in order to speak to people heart to heart. In his homily he used homey examples to illustrate the disciples’ desire to be first or the most important – like a child asking a parent which one is the favorite.

Living in Rome I have had the opportunity to participate as a concelebrating priest at various papal masses both inside St. Peter’s Basilica and in St. Peter’s Square during this pontificate. What I saw in the transmission today could have just as well taken place here in Rome except for the language and the rhythms. Perhaps the other liturgical celebrations during his time in Cuba may reveal otherwise. Clearly attention to liturgical development is not high on the agenda of this Pope but at least there has been no attempt to undo the principle reforms of the liturgy emanating from Vatican II.

Rev. Dr. Raúl Gómez Ruiz SDS is Vicar General and General Secretary in the Curia Generalizia of the Society of the Divine Savior (Salvatorians) in Rome, Italy.

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4 comments

  1. Well, at least when Francis pushes the boundaries he does so with sensitivity, pertinence, style and grace. Not to mention a healthy respect for rubrics that does not border on idolatry.

  2. I saw cardinal Bergolio celebrate Christmas midnight Mass in his cathedral about eleven years ago. Some things never seem to change. His unabashed embrace of the Vatican II liturgy was plainly evident. As with many Jesuits I’ve seen celebrate Mass there’s a no nonsense approach with a certain military precision employed in his ars celebrandi. Just point me to the red and I’ll say the black.

    The candle arrangement in Havana reminds me of the seven candles on the sculpted silver high altar in the Buenos Aires metropolitan cathedral. They too were bunched together on the mensa along with the altar crucifix. This was the only liturgical lighting, but the festivity of the season was marked by the use of a lot of flowers.

    The cardinal had his customary wooden lectern set up near the archepiscopal throne just as he prefers to do at his masses as pope. The music consisted of Spanish hymns and were quite lively, but nothing particularly memorable. I don’t remember there being much use of latin.

  3. We watched it on EWTN. I studied Spanish with Cuban teachers, so I was not surprised that I could understand the assisting concelebrant (to his right) better than I could understand Pope Francis. Which Canon did he use? Having knee problems, I was glad to see that his genuflection at the end of the Canon was in inches, not to the ground.

    Later in the day, we saw his sermon to youth in front of the Felix Verela Institute. The applause was tepid. The English translation seemed to give a cerebral sermon, a bit difficult to comprehend what he was getting at.

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