Pope Francis’s First Christmas

The German media take a lively interest in Pope Francis, and comparisons to his predecessor, their countryman Benedict, are inevitable. “Christmas under Pope Francis: More Humility, Less Bling,” Der Speigel writes. “The higher-ups are disempowered, the state apartments are empty, velvet and silk stay in the closet – Pope Francis celebrates simply. Many in the ecclesiastical state long for the good old days.” His spontaneity is feared at the papal court, and some wondered whether he would go after the Christmas Mass in the Night to give food to the poor at Sant’ Egidio. (He didn’t, as far as we know.)

Pope Francis gives his first Christmas “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and Word”) blessing.

Pageantry is out, Der Spiegel notes. Velvet and silk regalia has seen its day, and now bishops and cardinals opt for a modest look, just like Bergoglio. Gold crosses stay in the cabinet. Iron, or silver at the best, is the order of the day. Feet must get used to cheap black shoes. One wouldn’t want to fall into disgrace.

Pope Benedict giving the “Orbi et Orbi” blessing.

Clerical clothiers in Rome are in mourning. In Benedict’s day they had boom times –pompously big mitres were the thing, and they could well cost $8,000 (6,000 euros). One needed a few of them, appropriate to various occasions. Now cheap is called for. Back when cardinals imitated Benedict, they put out as much as $25,000 (18,000 euros) for cardinals’ get-up. Now, the tailors complain, clergymen limit themselves to $800 (600 euro) outfits. Pomposity is no longer in season. (Der Spiegel doesn’t say so, but it is worth recalling that whatever his liturgical and sartorial tastes, Benedict XVI lived quite modestly.)

A high-ranking prelate was caught waiting for his chauffeur, Der Spiegel claims, and Pope Francis scolded him, “Why don’t you go on foot?”

People in the Vatican speak of “papastroika,” a play on Gorbachov’s perestroika (“restructuring”) that turned the Soviet Union upside down. Nothing seems impossible, everything is called into question.

European ecclesiastics fear losing influence, according to Der Spiegel. For Francis has a global church in view. Only a fourth of all Catholics live in Europe. Cologne may still well be the richest diocese in the Catholic world – but the Catholic future lies elsewhere.

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Pope Francis’s approval ratings are sky high, CNN reports. A CNN/ORC poll just released found that 88% of American Catholics approve of Francis. And nearly three-fourths of Americans in general view him favorably.

More than 85% of American Catholics say Francis is neither too liberal nor too conservative, and 86% say he’s in touch with the modern world. By comparison, more than half of American Catholics said Pope John Paul II was out of step with the times in 2003, near the end of his 26-year-long papacy, according to CNN .


  1. “More than 85% of American Catholics say Francis is neither too liberal nor too conservative, and 86% say he’s in touch with the modern world.”

    Don’t the three bears come walking back into the Vatican at some point in this story?

    1. @Sean Keeler – comment #2:

      “Don’t the three bears come walking back into the Vatican at some point in this story?”

      LOL (but, I don’t think those bears ever left the Vatican.)

      Speaking of Pope Francis’s first Christmas, here are a few of my trivial observations on the papal mass: the ever-moving candles on the altar got moved to the side (again), and the deacons did not kneel when receiving communion from the Pope (the horror).

      Which means… probably nothing much, but it does make me rather curious: who makes those decisions? I wish someone would “interview” Msgr. Guido Marini, who, btw, seems to be getting along quite well with the (not so) new pope, to give some insight into such important matters as, say, who decides which stole the pope would wear for his first Christmas Urbi et Orbi. 😉

      All in all, I’m with Kelly Marie Santini (@ comment #1): “a Church that is beginning to live as it prays!!”

      What a welcome change indeed.

      1. @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #3:
        Speaking of the pope’s stole, I loved his choice of very plain Christmas red on a day when vestments of gold, silver, and white are normally worn.

        That other cardinals don’t imitate him is interesting. Are they simply tone deaf, or are they quietly rebelling? It could be they’ve already got the word and they should start preparing for the tin mines of Sardinia, the mission fields of Bangui , or slums of Camden NJ?

      2. @Brian Palmer – comment #28:
        Don’t read too much into the color choice by other concelebrants. Because white and gold can be worn on most liturgical occasions, unlike other vestment colors, they would tend to be the vestment colors most available for massive concelebrations.

        Also, the color of the stole for the imparting of the Urbi et Orbi blessing is different from the color of stole and chasubles for the celebration of Mass. The blessing is a sacramental, not a liturgical event, and IIRC red is the traditional Apostolic color for the stole when it is administered because it involves a special Apostolic invocation and blessing.

  2. I think the Vatican wasn’t spending much because of Pope Benedict’s liturgical / papal vestments (when he was still our pope). He used vestments that were previously worn by former popes as you can see (the coat of arms for example of a former pope is visible). So, it’s more economical than getting something new that seems simpler.

  3. The apparel of both does seem to convey their own sense of personal taste and/or personality but also a different theology of the papacy or differing aspects that could find parallels in the differences in high and low Christology (and perhaps an either/or approach rather than a both/and). Also Benedict’s tastes certainly are reminiscent of the more regal and monarchical metaphors pointing to the Kingdom of heaven and Francis’ blah or drab tastes more in keeping with the metaphor of Kingdom of heaven found in a manger. Another way of describing this would be the dichotomy between low church/high church Anglicanism for better or worse. Certainly from the populist perspective Francis’ more down to earth style, tastes and lifestyle speaks to our casual popular culture.

    1. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #5:

      Poor Allan McDOnald, just like Fr Z and the rest of the prophets of doom and naysayers, still caught between “reading Francis through Benedict” and “move along folks, nothing to see here” – abject denial of the facts, even when photographic proof is provided, as above.

    2. @Bill deHaas – comment #13:
      I’m impressed that Bill as a layperson, has a more profound grasp of what’s going on in the Liturgy preferred by Pope Francis, as compared to a clergy (Fr. Allan MacDonald) who refuses to appreciate the simple and humble style of Pope Francis as being in more consonance with that of Jesus.

      It seems, the traddies are caught up in their very narrow-minded view of what it is to be a Catholic. Pope Francis is more pro-life than any of the die-hard conservatives because Pope Francis’ value of life is not limited to the unborn, but includes all those millions who are already born and living – but soon are dying because of poverty, war, hunger, diseases, etc. caused by violence and injustice in the world. If the trads truly value human life as they claim they do, they should be on the side of a Pope Francis, and not against him. Yes, liturgical pomps are mere accidental in the true worship of God, because many poor churches can only manage with the simplest altars and vestments because they are too poor to afford more than the bare minimum of what is required to celebrate a Holy Mass. The trads should, at least, not focus on what makes them feel good only about what should be a pious celebration of the Mass just because they’re materially rich.

      1. @Felice Calderon – comment #19:
        Are traditionalists typically richer than other Catholics? In my neck of the woods it seems most traditionalists represent a cross section of local Catholics – rich, poor, and in between. The last place you will find a traditional Mass is an affluent suburban parish. I doubt a single one would put down beautiful liturgy celebrated by the poor even if they couldn’t afford everything needed – in fact they would probably donate the things missing.

        I love liturgical finery, but take offence at the idea that enjoying such things mean I look down on and ignore those with less.

  4. Pope as teacher… In our area newspaper today, a local columnist has a spread across the top of the local page, about the recent death of a homeless woman. The woman froze to death in our very upscale Saratoga Springs community. The journalist begins his first sentence with a mention of Pope Francis.

    I have no idea if the author is Catholic or not; my guess would be not. However, that the article is anchored with the words of Pope Francis speaks volumes to me.

    Pope Francis’ consistent messages about caring for the other, about opening doors, about a simple life, are not (to borrow from Fr. McDonald above) “blah or drab” but a call to attention – and action.

    The pope calls us all to attention. While it is easy to make this call into political fodder, if everyone does not end up feeling a bit uncomfortable, then we might want to look again.

    Christ as born so that we all might change, be transformed. And who was more unpredictable than Jesus? I think that the change of style, not possible of course, without Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI paving of the way, is good for all of us.

  5. Hospital visit shows for Francis, ‘It’s the attitudes, stupid!’


    Back in September, Francis laid out a vision of reform in his celebrated interview with Jesuit publications.

    “Structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward,” the pope said.

    “The first reform must be the attitude. Ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.”

    Saturday drove home how much he meant what he said about focusing on attitudes first.

    Given that a clean-up operation in the Roman Curia was a large part of the mandate Francis received from the cardinals who elected him, and given today’s fevered speculation in Rome about what further changes might be coming, many observers were anxious to see if Francis would drop some hints in his speech Saturday morning – which departments might be on the chopping block, for instance, or whose jobs might be at risk.

    In the end, there was nothing like that.

    To be sure, the speech produced a few vintage Francis sound-bites, such as his warning that the Vatican must not be a “ponderous bureaucratic customs house,” bent on constantly “inspecting and questioning,” as well as his plea to Vatican personnel to become “conscientious objectors” to a culture of gossip.

    Bottom line: Anyone following the pope yesterday couldn’t help but draw the conclusion that the hospital visit (on Saturday afternoon) was more important to him than the speech (to the Curia on Saturday morning).

    Francis offered only one paragraph of formal remarks Saturday afternoon.

    That paragraph, however, delivered to children suffering from tumors and their parents, produced the day’s headline: “Jesus is always close to you,” the pope said, a phrase subsequently splashed across papers and websites.

    It is not about bling! or even style! or the quartermasters of the Curia! or the previous Pope!

    Of course the image of “walking in the darkness” both personally and as a people emerged again in the simplicity of the Christmas homily.

  6. About the whole style-versus-substance “debate,” I think Fr. Spadaro said it best (in the New Yorker article):

    “Style is not just the cover of the book… It’s the book itself! Style is the message. The substance is the Gospel. This [Francis’s style] is what the Gospel looks like.”

  7. “parallels in the differences in high and low Christology (and perhaps an either/or approach rather than a both/and). …the dichotomy between low church/high church Anglicanism for better or worse.”

    I would add another lens for evaluating the dichotomy of either/or and the possible dualism of both/and. The often invoked “Human Sciences” for theological / liturgical investigation seem to be rarely given an opportunity to speak, and remain at best a footnote.

    Anthropologist Ronald Grimes proposes that the embodiment of ritual authority is best considered as two postures which correspond to two attitudes; Liturgical Erectitude and Liturgical Supinity.

    He acknowledges that by using these terms he is being playful, but at the same time polemical. Liturgical Erectitude “is a style typified by poise and verticality. When we embody it, we stand up straight; we process with a noble simplicity. We rise above our surroundings with a quiet and confident dignity – the fruit of age, tradition, and reflection. Liturgical Supinity, on the other hand, is characterized by its flexibility and its closeness to the ground. Supine, the spine hugs the earth. Supine, we are integrated with our surroundings. We are attuned to them, but our openness leaves us in danger of violation.”

    The question therefore of religious ritual authority needs be examined with both of these corporeal perspectives in mind, for the authority of ritual (should we really even need to use the term) is dependant on those who participate in it. Grimes says it well: “Though it may hope to claim anthropological support, a liturgical theology which holds that a rite’s authority transcends its ambient culture and the social relationships on which it is based, is not likely to receive much support from anthropologists themselves.”

    Ronald Grimes, Liturgical supinity, liturgical erectitude, 148-149; 154 in Foundations in Ritual Studies: A Reader for students of Christian Worship, Edited by Paul Bradshaw and John Melloh, Baker Publishing…

  8. #9 Kelly Marie Santini

    If by revolution one means “Structural and organizational reforms” Francis has said that we are going to have that, and in the Council of Cardinals, changing the members of the Curia congregations, and the Synod of Bishop format we can see that slowly but deliberately taking shape.

    But the revolution is fundamentally a conservative revolution as Mark Silk delights in making clear to conservatives:

    Francis Derangement Syndrome


    by tracing its lineage from Matthew through the Little Flowers of Saint Francis to Rerum Novarum to Gaudium et Spes!

  9. Michael Sean Winters does a good job at emphasizing the continuity of social doctrine of Francis with JP2 and Benedict (although their words were largely ignored).

    Year End Review: The Church


    What MSW says is largely different about Francis is his ability to communicate in a pastorally effective way.

    AS I see it JP2 was too much the politician; that worked well for him in the beginning until the Soviet Union dissolved. And Benedict was too much the bureaucrat, both the academic bureaucrat (modern academia derives from Germany bureaucracy) and the curial bureaucrat. Francis clearly understands the world needs pastors rather than politicians or bureaucrats.

    MSW also describes how the slow revolution of Francis is begining to effect the American bishops. While not discounting his points, I am a little less optimistic about the USA bishops. I continue to pray for “new” bishops!

  10. I don’t feel a need to pick sides. I think I can enjoy Pope Francis and his refreshing tone as well as be thankful for the liturgical windows Pope Benedict opened and the fresh air that poured in.

    If Francis is starting a revolution, then hopefully it will be a meaningful one that creates real, positive change in the Church and addresses real problems instead of the make believe ones.

    1. @Jack Wayne – comment #18:
      Jack, well said. What I am saying, which the more negative and tendentious here are missing, is that it isn’t either/or but both/and. One can love both of the recent popes and see in them the plan of God for the Church in the overall sweep of salvation history. Call me a papist. I don’t mind!


    But a very convenient papist!

    Just look at (and learn from) the many recent comments in various posts from people who are not among “the more negative and tendentious.”

    Perhaps drinking deeply of Francis joy, love and mercy might help you avoid being a negative and tendentious papist who brings out the negative and tendentious in others.

    The Fox News “fair and balanced” claim is not very credible.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #20:
      Thanks Jack, especially for the headline. But if you look at the overall sweep of things here singling me out as the one bringing the worse out of others is like the pot calling the kettle black. There’s plenty of tendentiousness here all along the history of this blog.

      1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #22:

        The headline is modeled on Jerome’s dream THOU ART A CICERONIAN!

        Seriously, I am challenging you to adhere to your claim to be a papist and model the joy, love and mercy of Francis and become a model of a positive blogger. This blog and others certainly need that.

        You are the one who claimed to be a papist, and claimed to see the value of Francis as well as other popes. So you are not being unfairly singled out, except by yourself.

  12. Roman parishioners to attend Pope’s daily Mass


    Vatican Radio) It has been confirmed by the Director of the Holy See
    Press Office that parishioners of Roman parishes will soon be attending Mass with Pope Francis in the Casa Santa Marta. Responding to Italian press reports over Christmas, Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, said beginning in January the Cardinal Vicar of Rome will be informing pastors how to apply to attend the Pope’s daily Mass with a group from their parish – probably about 25 people. In 2013, groups of Vatican employees usually attended the Papal Mass. Father Lombardi said the initiative will allow the people of Rome to interact with their bishop, since the Pope is not able to visit every parish in the diocese

    This Pope is setting a very high bar for pastors and bishops.

    Can you imagine any new pastor taking the time to use his daily Masses to meet first all the people involved in ministry in the parish? then in subsequent years all the families of the parish?

    Or imagine any new bishop taking the time to use his daily Masses to meet first all the employees of his diocese, and then in following years people from all the parishes of his diocese.

    These things would be a revolution: pastors and bishops as servants of the servants of God.

    This is taking the notion of the bishop’s Mass as a liturgical ideal to an entirely new more practical and pastoral level. I have long been uncomfortable with those bishop’s Masses that are far too much like court ceremonial, like mini-Papal Masses with the bishop isolated from his people.

    H/T Rocco

  13. Mother Kate, an Anglican sister, in her memoirs, depicts a poignant scene set in Ireland of a Catholic bishop performing confirmations in the midst of his barefooted and raggedly congregation. I vaguely recall her saying that such a scene was more evocative of the primitive church than anything she could have imagined.

    I don’t think the rite used matters much, but the spirit thereof. Remember that Benedict used only the so-called ordinary rite!

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