There is an old joke that teases the Jesuits—that otherwise smart and nimble company—for their allegedly low standards when it comes to liturgy: “A good Jesuit liturgy is one in which nobody gets hurt.” The joke arises from the fact that traditional Jesuit training never placed great emphasis on liturgy in the way that, say, the Benedictines had. There were, to be sure, some hugely influential Jesuits active in liturgy at the time of the Council (e.g. Josef Jungmann and Joseph Gelineau) but they were the exceptions. Most Jesuits took a practical approach.
The liturgical renewal sparked by the Second Vatican Council raised the priority given to liturgy for everyone, Jesuits no less than others. They embraced the renewal. Today there are many renowned liturgists and liturgical scholars among the Jesuits, including North Americans such as Robert Taft, John Baldovin, Keith Pecklers, Bruce Morrill, and others. The contribution of Jesuits to liturgical education in the United States is significant: the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley participates in one of the largest graduate programs in liturgy in the country (at GTU). There is also a thriving international Jesuit organization of those with expertise in liturgy, The Jungmann Society, founded in 2003. More and more, the old joke about “a good Jesuit liturgy” grows whiskers and seems unfair.
Still, as we welcome a new pope who also happens to be a Jesuit, many are wondering what his approach to liturgy will be. Will it be practical or ideological? Will “creativity” be, as it was under Benedict, a negative word, or will it be a positive one? Pope Francis trained as a chemist. He spent most of his career in pastoral and administrative roles, engaging in worship not as a scholarly observer, a critic, or a theoretician, but rather as a pastor whose most passionate concern has been for the poor. What sort of liturgist will Pope Francis be?
As I’ve watched the details of Francis’s first week unfold, and read the reporting concerning his track record as the chief liturgist of the diocese of Buenos Aires, some clues have emerged. Admittedly, it’s early days, but I would say that Francis will stand in the tradition of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, more than he will resemble his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Paul VI promulgated Sacrosanctum Concilium and carried out the liturgical reforms of Vatican II with a generous pastoral vision. He seems to have attended to the details, yet fearlessly kept the big picture always before him: active participation, noble simplicity, the need for responsiveness to the local churches, as well as the legitimacy of adaptation and diversity. Paul VI refused to wear the papal tiara, that jewel-encrusted symbol of the temporal power of the papacy. He sold it and gave the money to the poor. This way of using symbol, not to lower the prestige of the papacy but to raise it by drilling down to the mission of the Church at its most fundamental level, is just the sort of thing Pope Francis seems keen to do. It’s a very “Vatican II” thing to do. Getting down to basics (ressourcement) was key to the Council.
It is also worth remembering that Argentina is one of the direct beneficiaries of the Vatican II vision of the importance of the local church and regional diversity. Argentina has its own liturgical translation; indeed the Spanish-speaking Conferences of Catholic Bishops have never bowed to the pressure to have a single Spanish translation, as the English-speaking ones have recently done. Although they were persuaded by Rome to adopt a single order of Mass in recent years, there are four different Spanish translations of the rest of the prayers: Spain, Mexico, Columbia, and Argentina.
Like Paul VI, Pope John Paul II also fully affirmed the liturgical reforms of the Council. Before he became pope, he had served on the Congregation for Divine Worship which approved those reforms. He remained supportive of them until his death. John Paul II took a lively interest in the indigenization of the liturgy, which he encountered in his travels and in the regional synods hosted in Rome. He reveled in the dancing of Africans and the music of Latin Americans and more.
Under his leadership, more centralized control of liturgical decision-making was indeed pursued, especially in the last two, very late instructions on the right implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium: on inculturation and on the translation of liturgical texts. Yet the overall liturgical thrust of John Paul II’s pontificate was toward implementation and realizing the implications of the liturgical reform rather than changing its direction. Toward the end of his life John Paul II grieved over “liturgical abuses,” yet the remedy he advocated was a deeper theological and biblical formation of the people of God. In other words, the problems as he saw them arose from human faults, not liturgical flaws.
As I’ve watched video clips of Cardinal Bergoglio washing the feet of women on Holy Thursday (a practice some US bishops have forbidden, out of a strict reading of the rubrics), presiding over a youth liturgy complete with puppets, a children’s mass with dance and clapping, a charismatic gathering at his cathedral, and so on, I am reminded of John Paul II. Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis appears to be concerned more about the human and faith dimensions of those celebrating than about critiquing forms or correcting the aesthetics of the liturgy.
Pope Benedict XVI came to the papacy already well known as a critic of the liturgical reforms coming from the Council. Whether one agreed with his criticisms or not, it was clear that he was a critic. In many ways, he did moderate his criticisms somewhat when he became pope. Nevertheless, his pontificate accelerated a dynamic of divisiveness around liturgical subjects. Whether referred to under the rubric of the “reform of the reform” or “liturgical restoration” or “revisionist history” with respect to the effects of Vatican II, Pope Benedict’s pontificate was known for his agenda of change in light of his critical appraisal of Vatican II. Perhaps his greatest change was the announcement, in his motu proprio, Summorum pontificum, that there are “two forms” of the Roman Rite, the ordinary and the extraordinary form—something never before heard of.
Liturgical forms mattered a great deal to Pope Benedict as material signs of continuity or discontinuity with the great tradition of the Catholic Church. I do not think it is an exaggeration to state that he held that the newer liturgical forms, at least in the way they have been implemented, are responsible for a spiritual weakening of the Church in our time. Quite understandably, he therefore sought to change them by act and example. Yet by so doing, he caused a great division between those who shared his view of what was wrong, and those who did not: raising great expectations in the former and great dismay in the latter.
I do not see Pope Francis continuing in the tradition of Pope Benedict with respect to this line of criticism. I anticipate, rather, a return to the human subject and the qualities of the ecclesial community (justice, charity) as the focus, with an acceptance of the Vatican II liturgical forms as a given, and as a gift, rather than as an arena of struggle.
Much has been made of the immediate contrast in apparel between Benedict and Francis. This is perhaps because the sartorial choices and fondness for antique vestments Pope Benedict evinced were widely hailed as indicative of a restorationist agenda. However, I would not put too much emphasis on clothing. Pope Francis could don antique vestments tomorrow, and if his relationship with the liturgy of Vatican II is not one of a critic, it will not make him another Benedict.
Pope Francis inherits a church deeply divided on matters of liturgy. Rather than bringing an end to “the liturgy wars,” the pontificate of Benedict XVI created new and painful divisions, disappointments and displacements for some, with expectations of a great revival among others. What will Pope Francis do in this context? A practical and pastoral approach along the lines of Paul VI and John Paul II seems the one most likely to succeed. Oddly enough, I find myself returning to that old adage about Jesuits with new fondness. Perhaps, if all goes well, no one will get hurt.