How Important is the Pope’s Liturgical Example for the Rest of the Church?

Fr. Peter Stravinskas, editor and publisher at Newman House Press, writes in the preface to Liturgical Reflections of a Papal Master of Ceremonies that

from time immemorial, the way the Bishop of Rome has celebrated the Sacred Liturgy has been normative for the Roman Rite. Although the Pope can surely legislate on liturgical matters, he likewise serves as a liturgical “pace-setter,” offering a standard by which all can judge their own liturgies. What the Pope does in the sacred rites has taken on even greater importance in the present age of easy communication and travel, making papal ceremonies even more accessible and thus, potentially, even more exemplary.

Msgr. Guido Marini, appointed Master of Ceremonies in 2007, speaks in the same book of the “authoritative liturgical orientation” of the Pope and says that this

does not pertain to the realm of “personal taste,” … but rather to a true and proper Magisterium.

But more recently, Fr. Alcuin Reid OSB states:

 It can and needs to be said clearly that the liturgical style or preferences of a given pope are not law and that it is possible that a pope can make errors of judgment in this area, which errors, because of his position and the instantaneous dissemination of anything he does, can give confusing or even misleading  messages to the Church and the wider world.

And this:

Papal preference is not the arbiter of the Church’s liturgy: sound liturgical and theological principles are. The Bishop of Rome exercises his authority rightly when, in liturgical matters, he bases his judgments on these principles. If he ignores them in his judgments or personal practice he risks causing confusion, scandal and disunity.

Stravinskas and Marini wrote when Benedict XVI was pope. Reid writes as Francis is pope.

It appears that we have a new principle of liturgical renewal: our theology of the importance of the pope depends on whether or not we like the pope in office.


  1. Like the bishop of any diocese, the bishop of Rome is a teacher. He might not necessarily say, “As I have done, so you also must do”, but he is taken as an example– for supporters, an example to be followed; for critics, an example to be….er… criticized.
    In any event, it is not unreasonable to expect that the bishop of a diocese and the liturgies in his cathedral reflect the liturgical expectations of the church. Within those expectations –read, if you like, ‘rubrics’– there is alot of “in these or others words”, “the priest MAY….” [as opposed to must]… “..if appropriate…”. A bishop, like any priest, is free to make prudent use of these options. We may not agree or like the options he chooses, but it is his right to choose them. We may not like them, but he doesn’t get to choose who is in his congregation, either.

  2. 1. Catholicism expresses itself in many different Rites, and making the Pope’s personal liturgical witness an excessive importance gives the Roman Rite a position of practical superiority over the other Rites which is part of the Roman obstacle to reunion with the Orthodox.

    2. While patriarchal sees have had an important influence historically over their Rites, there have been other major influences, e.g. monastic and imperial.

    3. Even within Rome, there was liturgical diversity among the papal court, basilicas, cardinals, and parishes.

    So the always and everywhere thesis is really sometimes and in some places.

    No we have to interpret papal practice within its time and place.

  3. Part of the phenomenon is that the faithful baptized are participating in the behavior of the surrounding culture in treating the pope as a media celebrity figure – a phenomenon mostly created by J2P2 (and, I believe, a large reason B16 was ill-suited for the office).

    Last week I reminded people that in six months or a year or two years we could have Pope Benedict XVII or John Paul III . . . and who knows what that would be like? Would we have to go through another major mood swing if his persona were substantively different?

  4. Rorate Caeli, a Traditionalist blog, has pointed out the same hypocrisy:

    I quote:

    “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. Unfortunately, the restoration of the sacred liturgy can never be built on wishful thinking, or on denial, or on coming up with strange and improbable excuses (sometimes in the name of charity!) to explain away the obvious.”

  5. Alcuin Reed’s talk is very interesting since he attempts to articulate an “organic tradition of principles” as the context for judging the Popes performance:

    The Bishop of Rome exercises his authority rightly when, in liturgical matters, he bases his judgments on these principles.

    It could be seen as an attempt to articulate the “tradition” which some see as keeping the Eastern Rites as developing slowly and organically; however it does not take into account the role of liturgical leadership in the Eastern churches which often shapes a very long liturgy, e.g. Vespers, into a more pastoral service.

    A good illustration of the failure of Reed’s theory is his treatment of Francis reshaping the rubrics when he appeared on the balcony. Reed sees this as an example If he ignores them in his judgments or personal practice he risks causing confusion, scandal and disunity.

    The confusion, scandal and disunity is mainly caused by the failure of people like Reed to accept Francis reshaping of that liturgy to clearly express the role of the bishop of Rome in this own Church, and of the Church of Rome in the world, and of the relationship of the bishop(s) to the people.

    As we have seen in subsequent months, none of the balcony scene was accidental or personal preference but in fact Francis articulation of the deeper meaning of that liturgical event.

    As we have seen, Francis “meditations” at morning Mass have become his principle way of communicating with the Curia, bishops visiting him from around the world and the people around the world (without much media filtering). In these he is teaching everyone through scripture in the context of the liturgy; this is a deeply liturgical Pope but the liturgy is that of Vatican II. Of course, Reed uses his “principles” to judge Vatican II as well as Popes.

    The problem with the principles approach is there is no room for the Holy Spirit. The balcony scene had a profound effect upon people, including those who do not want to accept it.

  6. Are we putting the manner of Francis’ appearance on the balcony on the same level as his celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy? I find his presentation on the balcony “liturgical” only in the loosest possible sense. For all that really matters, if he were a Franciscan and appeared only in his brown habit, so what?? Not everything is on the same level and of equal importance. Let’s not go straining out gnats but swallowing camels.

  7. If we’re talking about conscious efforts by Romans to impose the conventions accepted in Rome upon all of its jurisdiction, then amend “From time immemorial” to “From the mid-eleventh century onwards.” The earlier efforts of Charlemagne are still not “from time immemorial.” One major purpose of SC was to separate what is essential to our divine worship from historical conventions and accretions.

    In that respect, I would say that Pope Francis has shown his respect for and support of liturgical principles by his appointments of Sant’Anselmo faculty to important roles in CDW. Let us hope that that step, along with the more informal celebrations, take us from scrupulosity over clergy externals to a fuller participation of the entire assembly.

  8. I think that a big problem is that it’s not always clear what the pope intends to say with a specific liturgical practice. For example, it still hasn’t been explained why Pope Francis refuses to distribute holy communion to anyone other than the deacons. This is a break from what the 4 previous popes have done and is a rather odd practice. Should bishops adopt this practice in their cathedrals, or priests in their parishes?

    1. I wonder if Msgr. Guido Marini’s views have changed.

      @stanislaus kosala – comment #10:

      From the book On Heaven and Earth, Pope Francis (then-Cardinal Bergoglio) said: “…among the faithful there are those… people who pretend to be Catholics, but they have the indecent attitudes of those who never repent… That is why, in certain situations, I do not give communion myself; I stay back and I let the ministers give it because I do not want those people to come to me for the photo op.”

      There have been a few instances where the pope did distribute communion himself. For example, (a) at the juvenile detention facility of Casal del Marmo on Holy Thursday, to the young detainees who approached to receive it, (b) to children (and one adult, if I recall) receiving their first communion during his visit to the Church of Sts. Elizabeth and Zechariah, and (c) to members of the Vatican Gendarmerie during a special Mass with them.

      So, the pope does give communion, just not always, and I think his reasons are, well, reasonable, especially now that he’s the pope.

      1. @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #11:

        I’ve heard that explanation before and if that’s the case then it makes the issue more baffling. Can you imagine Jesus saying that he won’t be seen eating with someone because of what others may think? It’s also very easy for the pope to control who he does and does not distribute holy communion to. How would you feel if your parish priest said that “there are people here whom I don’t want to be seen giving communion to, so I’m just not going to do it, I’ll just sit down while others take care of it”?

      2. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #18:

        “Can you imagine Jesus saying that he won’t be seen eating with someone because of what others may think?”

        Because of what others may think? No, but for other reasons? Yes, I can imagine Jesus refusing to do certain things in certain circumstances to certain people, which I believe he has done, btw.

        “It’s also very easy for the pope to control who he does and does not distribute holy communion to.”

        I’m not as sure as you are that it’s very easy to do that, but yes, as I said previously, the pope does distribute communion and has done so if and when he sees fit to do so.

        “How would you feel if your parish priest said that…”

        I would shrug and say, meh, and then happily receive communion from whoever is administering it to me.

        Which is to say: I don’t find the issue baffling [shrug]. Nor do I think it “risks causing confusion, scandal and disunity.”

  9. It certainly isn’t a new liturgical principle to follow the Pope’s example only when you like it – it was the order of the day under Pope Benedict.

    1. @Jack Wayne – comment #12:
      You’re right; however, Pope Benedict XVI, or his spokesmen, specifically said that he sought to lead by example, to propose not to command. Pope Francis, on the other hand, has made no such statement that I’m aware of.

      That being said, Fr. Anthony’s final observation is correct. For a lot of people, it depends upon which Pope one agrees with. During Pope BXVI’s reign I might have been guilty of the same. (Humble Pie isn’t much fun.)

  10. (with sarcasm) Yes, because everything must be one or the other. If one is right, the other must be wrong.

    Sure, we all have preferences, some of which may even be well-reasoned, but why must everybody in liturgy (or politics, or any heated topic) always play this game of either-or. Reason (and pray) your way to your viewpoint, and learn from the other. (I believe Pope Francis said something to that effect of learning from the other viewpoint regarding his keeping Msgr. Marini around.)

    So I fear this will be an unpopular comment – or at least a boring one. I’m sorry I couldn’t fan any flames on either side more.

  11. This question raises the issue of unity vs. uniformity. So, the Pope apparently doesn’t reverence the Blessed Sacrament through the customary genuflection after each consecration, but rather reverences the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar following the consecration of both the bread and wine. The individual genuflections reinforce the notion that the Real Presence is effected by the Words of Institution. But so does the reverential bow following the consecration of both species. Only rubricists–relatively few in number–are paying attention to such matters. I would argue that the faithful are not in any way disserved by either practice. Neither practice undermines the faith of those who believe that Jesus Christ becomes present “body & blood, soul & divinity” during the Eucharistic prayer. How would I know that? I’ve employed both practices over the span of many years, and it is clear that the same profoundly reverential disposition of the people during the Eucharistic prayer prevails.
    There are still people who seem to believe that the strict observance of rubrics goes hand in hand with saying all and only the “right” words so that the Mass will be both valid and licit. That mindset led to the form of the Mass in which the priest was perceived to be offering it for the people whose job it was to just be in attendance.
    Speaking of imitating the example of the Pope, what about that of the bishop of the diocese. Many of them are still attached to that little personal sized host that cannot be broken into pieces that can be shared with at least some of the people. In that instance, I follow the direction of the GIRM rather than imitate the practice of the bishop.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #15:
      Fr. Jack,

      The pope has problems with his back and his knees, that’s the more likely explanation for why he doesn’t genuflect.
      I wouldn’t treat it any differently than John Paul II sitting at the altar for the eucharistic prayer in the last 2 years of his life.
      I think that this is the serious problem with taking papal liturgy as a model, it’s not always clear whether the pope intends some sort of deeper message with a given act or deviation from the rubrics, or whether there is some sort of banal explanation.

  12. Fr. Anthony, who exactly has introduced a “new theology on the importance of the Pope”?

    Fr. Stravinkas and Alcuin Reid are two different people. Reid’s position is not new; it is perfectly consistent with and characteristic of the sort of position he has argued before, during and after the Benedict XVI papacy, as anyone familiar with his writings will recognize.

    Reid wrote in 2005 that “as a principle of liturgical reform, ultramontanism is foreign to liturgical Tradition . . . we need look no farther than the errors of popes made in this regard . . . for pertinent examples” (The Organic Development of the Liturgy, p. 73).

    Incidentally, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in the preface to the same book that in regards to liturgical renewal “The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law . . .” (p. 10)

    It would be unfair to assume that Stravinskas and Marini have changed their positions in the absence of statements to the contrary. So, again, who has changed their mind about the importance of the Pope?

    1. @Robert Bruce – comment #16:
      Bruce, you make a very good point, and I was imprecise. Reid has not changed his position. The most I would want to claim is that the general mood in “Reform of Reform” circles was to warm up to Stravinskas’ maximalist position under Benedict, but to Reid’s more nuanced (and consistent, as you rightly say) position now.

  13. It’s actually quite simple: Stravinskas is flat-out wrong. It’s not historically supportable. Not only has the rest of the Roman rite not always followed the pope’s example—for much of the Roman rite’s history, the pope hasn’t shown much concern that they do. Claims about history “since time immemorial” are almost always inaccurate like that.

    And I say this even though I very much like the current pope. I’m pleased to escape Adam’s astute observation of ultramontanism. 🙂

  14. Thank you for the gracious response Father. Your statement about the “general mood” sounds about right. I would add that we are seeing this same kind of shift, but in reverse, in circles with opposite sensibilities.

Leave a Reply

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