Pope Francis’ Liturgical Revolution

Here’s my list of what Pope Francis has done with ceremonial and ritual. It’s been quite a ride since his election!

    *               *               *               *               *

Two days before the conclave, José Manuel Vidal asked whether Bergoglio could be the new Roncalli – Pope John XXIII, the old transitional pope elected in 1958 who convened the Second Vatican Council.

So far it doesn’t look like it: I don’t believe John XXIII changed this much in his first few days in office!?

As I said to the National Catholic Reporter, “Make no mistake about it — this is a liturgical revolution.”

*               *               *               *               *

On the morning of his first full day in office, Pope Francis made an unannounced visit to the Church of St. Mary Major to spend a half hour in prayer before the Blessed Virgin Mary. He also prayed at the tomb of Pope St. Pius V, the reformer pope who issued the so-called “Tridentine Missal” in 1570, which was mostly a codification of the late medieval Roman rite.

What thoughts do you suppose ran through Pope Francis’ mind as he prayed at the tomb of Pius V? Was he thinking about reform of the curia, or reform of the entire church? Was he thinking about liturgically renewal, about those attached to the “Tridentine Mass” who have difficulty accepting the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council? Was he thinking about reconciliation and overcoming liturgy divisions?

We’ll probably never know. It’s hard to tell how much Francis really thinks about liturgy. This 2012 video from Argentina shows him wearing the pallium over his cope, which I guess is a no-no. And this video shows him preaching and presiding at a diocesan youth Mass, complete with puppets during the homily – but bishops get roped into all kinds of events and aren’t responsible for all the planning.

When the list of sudden liturgical changes at the beginning of a pontificate is this long, though, it seems as if Pope Francis has thought much about the liturgy, knows exactly how he wants it done, and is not shy about making it happen. He’s certainly doing more to change the liturgy than Pope Benedict ever did in such a short time.

I’d like to think that Pope Francis was praying at the tomb of Pius V for liturgical unity. It’s what I’m praying for. Liturgy has been too divisive in the Catholic Church for way too long. Official policies (think new English Missal, for example) have been demoralizing for way too many people.

 *               *               *               *               *

His choice of name, “Francis,” is brilliant. To take “Paul VII” or “John XXIV” (some of us wished for that, I admit), would have been too partisan. It would have been to take sides in postconciliar battles about the meaning of Vatican II, about whether the liturgical reforms under Paul VI were too much of a rupture. By going back to the simple, holy man of the 12th and 13th century, he is placing his radical reforms deep within Catholic tradition. Already some conservative blog sides are noting this, and finding their way toward supporting their new pope despite their misgivings.

*               *               *               *               *

Will Pope Francis’ humble and self-effacing style translates into a humbler curia that listens to others and cooperates with the world’s bishop, or even into a humbler magisterium that enters into dialogue with theologians? Will there be real structural reforms, with transparency, accountability, checks and balances? As hopeful as I am by the pope’s new style and his take-charge attitude, I’m not presuming anything. It all remains to be seen.

*               *               *               *               *

But it’s great fun to dream. Maybe a decree Auctoritatis ecclesiasticae territorialis (cf. article 36 of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum conilium) could give to bishops’ conferences final approval of liturgical translations, with the role of the Holy See being merely to certify these decisions, as Vatican II stated? Advisory bodies to the Holy See such as Vox clara would be dissolved with immediate effectiveness. Auctoritatis could state that all translation work is suspended for three years (unless if conferences decide otherwise) for a time of review, evaluation, and renewed cooperation between bishops, clergy, liturgists, and translation experts. The wise counsel of Liturgiam authenticam, building as it does upon Comme le prévoit, would be commended to translators, especially the direction at no. 25 that translations be “easily understandable.” The legal provisions for the approval process in Liturgiam would be withdrawn, and conferences would be free to elaborate their own procedures.

Probably not, eh?

*               *               *               *               *

Another dream: a decree Nobili simplicitate (cf. Sacrosanctum conilium 34) would return to diocesan bishops the authority to regulate celebration of the liturgy according to the 1962 (pre-Vatican II) liturgical books. Bishops would be advised to show generous solicitude to those who do not yet accept the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, even as they strive to lead all their people to greater understanding of the reason behind the council’s liturgical reforms. Bishops would be advised to witness to exemplary celebration of the reformed liturgy, refraining from celebrating themselves the preconciliar form of liturgy, lest confusion be sown and a sort of “parallel church” arise.

Probably not, eh?

*               *               *               *               *

Some of us are (to use necessary but sometime unhelpful labels) rather “traditional” when it comes to liturgy. I always follow the book when I celebrate, including all the genuflections. I’ve increased considerably the amount of Latin chant at St. John’s Abbey, eg. including four Latin Mass ordinaries (where there had been one) in our choir stall binders in conjunction with implementation of the new English Missal. I pushed for (and got) incense at Mass every Sunday when the new Missal came. I was about to push for a dress code for readers and other liturgical ministers (no jeans, etc.) in our School of Theology•Seminary, until this new pope came along and my case got weakened.

As much as I appreciate the pope’s simpler style and his throwing overboard all these archaic and irrelevant signs of monarchical and aristocratic power, I admit to mixed feelings about it all. Simplicity is good, but tackiness isn’t. Will that be the unfortunate consequence of his liturgical revolution? Will there be an aesthetic price?

Pope Benedict put before us the importance of beauty in the church’s life. Alas, his style of celebrating the liturgy, as beautiful as it was, had a rather narrow notion of beauty. It was too Eurocentric, too archaic, too fussy and precious, too aristocratic, too clericalist. I fear that not much of his vision will last. And that’s a shame. In my ideal world, we would draw on Pope Benedict’s inspiration as we find new ways to integrate the artistic riches of our heritage into the very changed conditions of the world we live in.

I also wonder whether Pope Francis isn’t doing too much all at once. Is this hurting some people’s feelings? (Yes, judging from the blogosphere.) Is it confusing some people? (Yes, judging from my conversation with theology students, including some I wouldn’t call “conservative.”) I hope Pope Francis proves to be a uniter and not a divider.

That’s my prayer. Pope St. Pius V, pray for us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *