Liturgy and Ceremony for Pope Francis

Ceremony and Liturgy

Editor’s note: Sorry for all these things German lately, but that’s where several interesting items have appeared. This piece is by Fr. Bernd Hagenkord SJ, director of Vatican Radio’s German Program. I don’t expect it will appear in the English section of Vatican radio. Fr. Hagenkord’s remarks on liturgy, ceremony, and church office will be of interest to Pray Tell readers. – awr

Here is a thought from a lecture and discussion yesterday here in Rome, and it summarizes quite well something that has been running through my head for some time: theologically, the manner with which this pope gives form to and carries out his pontificate has consequences. It’s not simply “his manner” and “somehow Argentinian”; it can and must push our thinking forward.

The pope is not removed from the lived reality of today. This pope breaks down distance wherever he can: the auto, the hugging, the language, it’s all not the court and not the language of the Vatican that has become established in 150 years. One must carefully observe: he is not the priest who throws a stole over his sweater, as was the bad habit in my youth. He knows precisely what is owed to God and what to people. But as pope he doesn’t live in another world. The consequence: priests and bishops, just as much as the pope, are not set apart.

Well, one doesn’t need to say this to most priests. On the contrary, they would flip me the bird if I appealed to them from Rome to be out more among their people. And rightly so. But there is still a foundational understanding of the priest as somehow other. To say nothing of bishops. And this is called into question by the pope.

Theologically, this has consequences for our fundamental understanding: What is a good bishop? What is a good priest? What is a good pope? This is not defined by standards and assimilation to holy exemplars, by rather by the people whom one serves. Not by their prejudices, and sometimes one must contradict prophetically, but the rule can withstand even that. What is decisive it not an ideal, but the “people” [Volk], a somewhat difficult concept in German. In the words of the pope of Evangelii Gaudium: reality is more important than ideas.

Allow me to build upon this last though a bit more: Every day in his homilies the pope speaks a language that is very understandable. Sometimes the images are foreign to us, but there is something in there that speaks to us. The same was true for Pope Benedict, as readers familiar with this blog will recall: Pope Benedict also spoke at his catechetical sessions such that not only the theologians understood what it was about.

But with Pope Francis this is ratcheted up a level, for his manner of acting comes with an impact in which one welcomes being challenged.

Francis’ understandability is measured by the understanding of the people. He hardly quotes church fathers, church laws, or papal documents of the past. This curial style is very foreign to him.

Theologically, this has a barb similar to what I’ve already mentioned: office in the church is handed down, but is to be understood with respect to people and their understanding, not an ideal.

His long section in Evangelii Gaudium on the homily and its preparation is a clear signal in this direction; but this is not only practical and interesting, it also has implications for our understanding of church office and how it is exercised.

At the present time we have theological problems speaking responsibly and credibly about office in the church. Some speak of lifting celibacy, without first asking seriously what office actually is. It is surely not a practical and pragmatic institution, but something more. It goes back to the authority which was given to the community of believers through Jesus himself. The pope shows us how he lives this today, and it becomes clearer and clearer in his homilies that this also holds true for priests.

This becomes very clear in the distinction between liturgy and ceremony which the pope exemplifies with breathtaking clarity: When he celebrates Mass, there is no “buona sera,” no hugging, no such gestures, nothing of what makes him so authentic. For at Mass it’s not about him, it’s about the Mass. But it is otherwise at ceremonies, which are by nature made for the person, or better yet, for the office. Here he does what he can to go around them, so that they do not appear as if they were liturgies. He breaks down the distance.

This is a matter of the theology of office. There is certainly more about this to reflect on in the future, but it seems to me important to have made a beginning.

One comment

  1. I would like to add this comment about the pope and his liturgies. The author says about Papa Francesco’s Mass that there is ” no hugging, no such gestures, nothing of what makes him so authentic. For at Mass it’s not about him, it’s about the Mass.” There is another reason for this which I have read in the PF’s own words. I wish I could find them to quote them exactly. He says he does not engage in activities like these, especially during the pontifical Masses in St Peter’s Basilica because of the presence of many dignitaries, politicians, government officials from many countries who would use the opportunity of doing something like receiving communion from him as a political grandstanding. He does not like to be used in this manner. That is one reason he only gives communion to the deacons at his Masses. If you have watched him say Mass in one of the Roman parishes in the outskirts, he is a bit more relaxed but still only gives communion to the deacons. The only exception I have seen to this was when there was a group of kids making their First Communion or with a group of Catechumens at the Easter Vigil. He will give these folks communion.

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