Reading tea leaves

A recent comment from Pope Francis, at an Italian ad limina visit, has been taken to mean that he will not touch the “traditional Mass” or change the status quo ushered in by Summorum Pontificum. The comment was reported on by the journalist Sandro Magister on his blog at l’Espresso, under the category “rumors.” It comes from the bishop of Conversano-Monopoli, Domenico Padovano.  In response to those bishops of Apulia who complained to the Pope about the divisiveness of Summorum Pontificum, the Pope reportedly “urged them to be vigilant over extremism of some traditionalist groups, but also to build on the tradition and make it live in the Church with innovation.” As an example of this the Pope cited his own decision to keep Fr. Guido Marini as his master of ceremonies, drawing on his traditional sensibilities even as Fr. Marini learns from the Pope’s own more “emancipated” training.

TradiNews greeted this report with jubilation, saying in bold face type: “Do not touch the traditional Mass! Pope Francis surprises everyone.” “The message is clear,” the report exults, “thank you, most Holy Father!” The Hermeneutic of Continuity blogspot has also jumped on the bandwagon, announcing that “Pope Francis rejects attack on the old rite and says he ‘treasure tradition.'”

Meanwhile, at the blog Rorate Coeli (as Fritz Bauerschmidt pointed out on Pray Tell in an earlier post) concern was raised about some details of the parish liturgy at which the Pope presided on Trinity Sunday, including the Pope’s decision to give communion to those standing, and other matters. They justified reporting on such details in this way:

When Pope Benedict XVI reigned, every little “restoration” of traditional elements to the papal liturgy was often trumpeted as yet another momentous step in the restoration of the liturgy for the whole Church. It strikes us as absurd and inconsistent that now that another Pope reigns, “papal example” in the liturgy is suddenly treated in some “conservative” quarters as “irrelevant” and as being of little or no concern, something best ignored and needing no comment.

This post was tagged (among other things) as “the end of the reform of the reform.”

Rorate Coeli also is not buying the notion that Pope Francis has voiced a personal commitment to preserve Summorum Pontificum.

So which is it? Has Pope Francis proved himself a stalwart friend of Summorum Pontificum or are we seeing “the end of the reform of the reform”?

Potentially, of course, both could be true. He could be determined to protect the older rite, while having no great interest in changing the newer rite, which is the focus of reform of the reform.

However, it seems to me that the few words we have from the Pope on this subject (at second or third hand) are at best inconclusive. In this respect, I’m with Rorate Coeli.


  1. This pope is an enigma. I don’t think he will encourage or discourage SP, but I would hope he would be a friend of those who request it according the this document. His style at Mass is more austere, he gives Holy Communion by way of intinction to kneeling deacons and he could easily have changed this by now and hasn’t. He gave Holy Communion to the Neophytes at his Easter Vigil by way of intinction as they came to him at the papal altar and stood to receive. The odd thing about the First Holy Communion was that the children received by way of intinction except the Holy Father reversed who held what. The deacon held the ciborium with the Sacred Hosts and the Holy Father held the chalice with the Precious Blood and a purificator next to it. He distributed standing behind the altar in a relatively narrow space and I suspect it was difficult for parents and family to see the children making their First Holy Communion standing let alone kneeling.
    I’m glad he’s keeping Msgr. Guido Marini and I’ve seen genuine affection between the two on more than one occasion. His organizational skills for all these Masses is phenomenal. I would think the Holy Father would appreciate what he does in this regard and relatively unobtrusively.

  2. Francis has a deep history of personal involvement with Eastern Rite Churches, and their piety. I think that traditional Latin Catholics who like chant, incense, Marian piety whether of the EF or OF variety are going to find support in this Pope for THEIR piety and lifestyles, and even support for their attempts to attract inactive and uncommitted Christians to their piety.

    HOWEVER, I think that reform of the reform people who criticize the OF and forms of popular OF piety, e.g. guitar masses, etc. will have little support from this Pope and may indeed find themselves in hot water for putting down the piety of others (as well may OF people who put down EF piety).

    Francis was attracted to a form of liberation theology that emphasizes the important contributions of native peoples, and a piety springing from those roots. This is not simply an intellectual position. This is not those that might argue that African-American music is genuine folk music to be used in the liturgy but sixties folk is not. I think Francis would see much of sixties music in the USA as grassroots music related to the civil rights and anti-war movements, both of which had religious motivations. Reform of the reform people who criticize those phenomena would likely strike sour notes in light of Francis particular brand of liberation theology.

    I expect Francis will support a wide variety of music and liturgical expressions around the world that appear to have any hope of encouraging the faith. Probably the fact that he can’t sing will help in this eclecticism.

  3. Jack’s view strikes me as likely.

    One primary Ignatian principle is to find God in all things. If music with popular roots is effective in spreading the Gospel, all the better.

  4. Like Rita said, all second and third hand rumors.
    I don’t trust anything some of these sites say.
    They had been reporting for years rumors of imminent changes to the OF by the Rotr group, even by Guido himself. All rumors and nothing happened.
    So I’ll wait until Francis himself speaks on the issue.
    However, I think most are right, no RotR changes to the OF, it’s dead on arrival. I sleep much better now…

  5. I’m not sure that Pope Francis is the one to make judgements about musical quality since he’s tone deaf. Hopefully he will let others more qualified do so. I could have the worse kind of liturgical music in my parish, with vapid words and questionable theology or no theology at all, but if there is a strong beat, emotional tunes and a Broadway or rock concert effect, I suspect that Mass would be packed each Sunday with congregants experiencing their musical fix similar to what they would experience at a rock concert or whatever young people call these experiences now. Heck, Joel Osteen packs them into his mega Church for the vapid feel good power of positive thinking religion that he sells them and very effectively. But it is all plastic religion, Christ without the Cross and often our liturgical ditties are music without Catholic spirituality or tradition. A church that is full because of the style of post modern so-called liturgical music that is used isn’t necessarily a faithful Church or even Catholic for that matter.

    1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #5:
      This is a side issue, but we don’t know that Pope Francis is “tone deaf.” We know that he does not sing easily. This could have many causes, but it doesn’t mean he can’t hear music properly or that he has bad taste in music or doesn’t discern difference in tones.

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #6:
        This is a side issue, but we don’t know that Pope Francis is “tone deaf.”

        The pope described himself as tone deaf in a 2010 book as quoted in this CNS article:

        “The one language that always caused me big problems was English,” he said, especially its pronunciation, “because I am very tone-deaf.”

      2. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #10:
        Not so fast, Allan!

        He is talking about speech intonation, the context was not music. I can see why you jumped to this conclusion about music, but we’ve also heard about the pope’s favorite Argentinian composer and whatnot. He definitely hears music and has opinions about it.

    2. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #5:
      I don’t think it matters whether he is tone deaf or not. More and more, I get the impression that Pope Francis is mostly interested in results. If it draws people to worship and is not heretical, I think he is fine with it. Personally, I like the idea. We are one Body in Christ but we are also many parts, and I think to some degree that is going to apply to liturgy as well. After all, we are catholic in the sense that we are universal, and global, and some variation (again, not heresy) is to be expected and is good. Time will tell.

      On the other hand, I do agree that too much of our music is not Catholic. I hate the Life Teen Mass at my church because the music is so generic it could be sung anywhere and not mean anything in particular. Hymns to me are not just opportunities to have the congregation participate, but also opportunities to teach the faith. One of the things I like about some modern music (SLJ, Foley, Joncas, Haas, etc.) is that the lyrics can be pretty specific about articles of faith. It might sound like rock music to you, but the lyrics tend to be spot on.

      1. @Charles Day – comment #13:
        Thanks, Charles – if anyone is *tone deaf*; it is Allan and his blog. Also, Francis had a couple of nodes removed from his one lung at the age of 21. The repetition of second and third hand ruminations is fascinating but feels like a *parlor game*.

        Always amazed at the cult of the papacy and this weird attraction to every little thing he may or may not do, say, think, pronounce, etc.

        Three interesting facts:
        – it wasn’t until 1897 that the papacy finally and legally declared that only the pope chooses bishops (still some exceptions to this)
        – papal encyclicals didn’t really exist prior to 1800
        – Vatican II reformed our understanding of papal primacy and the episcopal office…….unfortunately, successive popes and the public continue to ignore VII and dwell upon the *cult of the papacy*. As Fr. Komonchak often says – the church is not the pope; the pope is not the church.

      2. @Bill deHaas – comment #16:
        I’ve seen a date of 1740 for the first papal encyclical, i.e. when Prospero Lambertini became bishop of Rome.

      3. @Gerard Flynn – comment #25:
        Agreed – there were a few prior to 1800 but now it has become a constant refrain when, in reality, it has only been around for a two centuries.

  6. It seems to me that the Church should be big enough for those who draw spiritual comfort from what we call now the EF because a ‘big tent’ is comfortably within the spirit and letter of the Council. So I tend to regard the question of Francis’s attitude toward the EF as a distraction–so long as, indeed, he is on guard against extremism. What always bothers me is the too-often-sounded insistence among those who prefer the EF that it is better, the true liturgy. (I’ll add that while the EF leaves me utterly cold, I would equally prefer to guard against the extremism that says we never should have the EF.) Let there be unity across differences rather than a false unanimity: this so far is a major theme of this papacy. The greater issue, and the inspiration behind this whole blog community, remains the Ordinary Form and how it has become alienating to many of us who have long drawn spiritual comfort from it. I would much prefer to know not how Francis will restore the 1998 translation–which seems totally improbable–but, rather, how he will keep something like the imposition of this Missal from ever happening again. Our eye, thus, belongs on curial and governance issues. The rest is yesterday’s argument, I think.

  7. A reply to Todd Flowerday (No. 3).

    A reply to Rita Ferrone (No. 6).
    Pope Francis has one lung, the result of surgery when he was a teenager, as was broadly reported shortly after his election. Seems prudent to me that he would be careful about singing, but this says nothing at all about whether he is “tone deaf”.

  8. A number of accounts of Pope Francis’s interests have mentioned listening to classical music.

  9. “Tone deaf”, if I am not mistaken, is the inability to get music out correctly not the inability to appreciate music.

  10. I just don’t think there’s much (or any) evidence that the pope is a liturgy geek. My reading of the tea leaves in this case would roughly translate to, “Liturgy is pretty far from the center of focus in my pontificate. I don’t want liturgy wars to distract from what we need to work on. Unless traditionalists are causing real trouble in your diocese, placate them to the extent that is feasible, so we can work on my priorities. If you can’t make liturgical bickering go away, keep it on as low a simmer as you possibly can.”

    Poking amid the soggy dregs a bit more: the word I’d choose to describe his reaction to his predecessor’s liturgical modeling is neither “pro” nor “con”, but “impervious”. To be really blunt, he may not care that deeply about liturgy – it may be that the details bore him.

    My sense so far is that his areas of passion run along pastoral and evangelizing axes. He may be comfortable with a wide range of liturgical expressions and details – his liturgical philosophy may turn out to be, “Whatever works (to further our pastoral and evangelizing mission).”

    The EF / OF template of conflict may not fit very well in a pontifical framework of pastoral ministry and evangelization.

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #17:

      Yes, I suspect the Pope would have little time for PrayTell, WDTPRS, NLM or Rorate Coeli. He might think we all should have better things to do.

  11. Agree with Jim Pauwels.

    I think Francis is a pretty low-key celebrant. He puts his head in the book, and tends to speak very softly in Latin or Italian. Maybe he’s more alive as a celebrant in his native language, but I tend to doubt it. This is not to say that he isn’t reverent and devout, but there is a great change when he begins to preach.

  12. Fr. Allan (and whomever would agree with him on this point) – to use the term “tone deaf” is really not being very careful. Even if the pope himself refers to himself as “tone deaf,” the term is really problematic, and causes all kinds of misunderstandings regarding musical abilities, or the ability to match pitch, etc. We should not throw words like this around… and regardless of Pope Francis’ being a singer or not – does not mean that he cannot have a critical ear for music, and the dynamics that it serves as a vehicle for praying the liturgy.

    In terms of his liturgical “style” or preferences, I agree with Rita, that this is a difficult thing to define with assuredness at this point. It DOES seem obvious, that he does not have much patience for nonsense.. and these “liturgy wars” in terms of what is more “worthy” of the liturgy – does contain a lot of nonsense.

    Finally – his love for listening to classical music does not in any way implicate a preference or philosophy as to what kind of music is appropriate for the liturgy. I too, for one, love listening to classical music. I LOVE the Bach B Minor Mass, and Braham’s Requiem – they make me weep. This does not mean, however, that they are suitable for a liturgy that at its center piece, values “full, active and conscious” participation.

    It is obvious from some of his recent statements, that the Pope senses that there are folks who want to imprison the Spirit, to stifle creativity and innovation. If not “throwing open the doors” like John XXIII, it does seem evident that he wants to allow a breeze to come in, and freshen things up a bit.

  13. I’m sure that “impervious” is a perfectly fine word, and that it best describes what you are trying to say, but it really shouldn’t be used, because it’s not in common parlance and people don’t really understand it. 😉

  14. @ #22, David Haas, Why would those works be inappropriate? Can’t you fully participate by listening and praying? And couldn’t you sing at other moments of the mass, even if a choir was singing the Sanctus and Agnus Dei from one of those works at a particular mass?

  15. It would be interesting to know what Pope Francis meant by “tone deaf” vis-a-vis English since, strictly speaking, it is not an intoned language. Could it be that the “intonation” or pronunciation of vowel sounds is different than in the Romance languages, and that he struggles to “hear” and articulate them? It seems clear that in the oft-quoted quote about “tone deafness” he wasn’t talking about music.

  16. ME –
    ‘English is not an intoned language’!? That would be news to Anglicans. It would also be news to centuries of English church music composers and Anglican choirs. It would also be news to me. This totally false opinion which you have expressed, and which seems to be shared by many, goes a long way to explaining why we have such difficulties in getting the mass in this country to be sung in English. English is an incredibly musical language, intoned or otherwise. True, it doesn’t have the particular vowel categories that the romance languages do. It has different vowels, which are quite as capable as any other language of vocal loveliness and subtlety.

    As for tone deafness: musicians generally regard this as the inability precisely to distinguish pitches and to match pitches in singing. So, except for Francis’ own assessment of himself in this regard, we have no evidence that he is or isn’t. His favourite music has been said to be certain classical symphonies. This would seem to imply that he has a relatively sophisticated apprehension of music and is probably not, then, totally tone deaf.

    1. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #29:
      I will leave Mark Emery to reply for himself, but when I read “strictly speaking” the contrast I immediately thought he was making is with Chinese, in which the tone scheme is part of the meaning, and the same syllable uttered in a different tone has a distinct meaning. English of course is not like that.

      (I’ve just looked it up: There are 4 tones in Mandarin along with a “toneless tone”:

      In short, M. Jackson, I wouldn’t take umbrage at this. I don’t think this is a matter of opinion about the musicality of the English language. To say English is musical is very different from saying it “has tones” – “strictly speaking.”

      There is also such a thing as inflection, which can alter the meaning in English, but inflection is not the same as “tones”, again “strictly speaking.” I’ve wondered if what Pope Francis actually meant was inflection — that he found English inflection difficult to master.

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #30:
        Many thanks, Rita and ME for the clarification. I had taken this remark to mean that English was incapable of the sort of ‘intoning’ of liturgical and ritual texts that Latin and its more closely related offspring are. So far as i know, none of our western languages are intoned in the sense employed.

        Though its not the same as having two intonations of the same sound being totally different words, there is some similarity (if I’m not grasping a straws) in the difference of intent or shade of meaning by how western words are ‘intoned’. This, of course is not intonation in the Chinese sense. I suppose that ‘inflection’ is, indeed, the correct term. Thank you both for setting me straight.

  17. Thank you, Ms Ferrone. I did have Chinese in mind. “Intonation” in the sense that vowel tone carries meaning in language; not in the sense of the inherent musicality of languages. Scholars have theorized that some Indo-European languages (such as Homeric Greek) were also intoned. Don’t know how much weight these theories still carry. With apologies to Mr. Osborn for my failure to clearly define what I was talking about.

  18. I’m not a linguist, but it seems to me that English does make at least a minimal use of tones in employing a rising tone to signal a question.

    On tone deafness, it seems to me that the inability to distinguish pitches and the inability to vocally match a pitch are two different things. My high school age son struggles a bit in vocally matching pitches but can easily tune tympani to a given pitch. Maybe at his age his manual dexterity is outstripping his vocal dexterity.

    In any case, with regard to the Pope, I suspect that he’s like many priests I’ve met who are simply convinced that they can’t sing, whether it is true or not. Before the liturgical reforms, were there priests who only celebrated Low Masses?

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #33:
      In my parish, the pastor and his senior assistant (we had four priests total) celebrated nearly all of the high Masses — they all were funerals or memorial Masses, as we did not have a regular high Mass on Sunday — probably because those Masses had stipends attached.

    2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #33:
      I think that you are probably right about the difference between distinguishing and matching pitches. There are many (and I have worked with some) whose inability to match pitches arises from not really knowing how to handle their voices, or to coordinate the voice to what is heard. Also, improper breathing and breath support (which is critical!) may be a factor. If your son can tune tympani he isn’t tone deaf… and, with some expert coaching he could very likely sing. Too (unfortunately) many people simply experience singing as an embarassing activity; and the mental fear that accompanies embarassment is a certain inhibitor of the creative use of the vocal apparatus that produces music.

      1. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #37:
        I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s unfortunate (and David Haas also pointed this out) that people sometimes are early led into inhibitions about singing, when they are quite capable of it.

  19. I find it interesting how my most innocent remark on the Holy Father’s self-proclaimed tone deafness has morphed into an interesting discussion on the various layers of what this might be. I used it because the Holy Father doesn’t chant anything, nothing, nada. He has a concelebrant chant the Per Ipsum. Pope Benedict as he aged didn’t have the best chanting voice, but always did chant what was meant to be chanted and effectively I thought. But my point is that tone deafness in whatever degree or for whatever part of his life while a disorder isn’t immoral, his fault or something that should marginalize the Holy Father. It’s just a result of Original Sin and the world’s brokenness. 🙂

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