Pope Francis on Rigidity, the Eucharistic Fast, and Banana Peels

“Rigidity is a sign of a weak heart,” the headline at Vatican Radio reads.

He’s at it again. Pope Francis is going after the Pharisaical legalists in his daily Mass homily. Nothing new about that, except that maybe this round packs an even bigger punch than usual.

It will interest Pray Tell readers that the pope tied all this to the Eucharistic fast:

Pope Francis recalled how “Pius XII freed us from the very heavy cross that was the Eucharistic fast”:

But some of you might remember. You couldn’t even drink a drop of water. Not even that! And to brush your teeth, it had to be done in such a way that you didn’t swallow the water. But I myself as a young boy went to confession for having made the Communion, because I thought a drop of water had gone in. Is it true or no? It’s true. When Pius XII changed the discipline: ‘Ah, heresy! No! He touched the discipline of the Church.’ So many Pharisees were scandalized. So many. Because Pius XII had acted like Jesus: he saw the need of the people. ‘But the poor people, with such warmth.’ These priests who said three Masses, the last at one o’clock, after noon, fasting. The discipline of the Church. And these Pharisees [spoke about] ‘our discipline’ – rigid on the outside, but, as Jesus said of them, ‘rotting in the heart,’ weak, weak to the point of rottenness. Gloomy in the heart.”

Francis sure has a way with words and images. Here he is wishing that rigid Christians would slip on a banana peel:

And sometimes, I confess something to you, when I have seen a Christian, a Christian of that kind, with a weak heart, not firm, not fixed on the rock—Jesus – and with such rigidness on the outside, I ask the Lord: ‘But Lord, throw a banana peel in front of them, so that they will take a good fall, and feel shame that they are sinners, and so encounter you, [and realize] that you are the Savior. Many times a sin will make us feel shame, and make us encounter the Lord, who pardons us, as the sick who were there and went to the Lord for healing.”

I trust the pope means taking a spill in the spiritual and moral sense – not hoping that fellow Christians would actually take a tumble and hurt themselves physically.

In that sense, may all of us on all sides be given the banana peels we need to slip on.

awr

29 comments

  1. Can the Holy Father possibly mean that he wishes someone would FALL INTO SIN and then feel shame at being sinners? Why would anyone ever wish someone would fall into sin?

    1. @John Drake – comment #1:
      I had the exact same thought (during noon prayer, I confess). Great minds and all that…

      In my experience, the tumble is not that I sin. The tumble is that the awareness of it breaks through, I begin to see what I’ve really been doing, and I’m knocked over by that awareness. It’s like slipping on a banana peel.

      I’m virtually certain Pope Francis had something like this in mind.

      I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. One of my favorite prayers in our monastic liturgy goes, “O God, break down our strongholds…”

      awr

    2. @John Drake – comment #1:
      This is basic Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. All people sin and fall short of perfection. Coming to grips with the sins one commits–not the sins of others–is the key to a deeper spiritual life. The Exercises attempt to bring the believer into that deeper awareness.

    3. @John Drake – comment #1:
      John, my take – for what its worth – is not that he wishes anyone fall into sin. I believe he is wishing that those who feel they haven’t fallen into sin realize they have. I think he’s pointing out those who will intellectually say that they have sinned, but act as if the sins of others are so much worse and what we really must focus on.

  2. Wow….

    You know, I did a lot of research in graduate school about the fasting requirements of the Church and can talk at length about the decline in facting discipline over the last 400 years. However, never once in all the historical reading did I see anyone call the change in the Eucharistsic fast a “heresy”. Never once.

    In fact, it’s kind of interesting that the people most opposed to changing the fast at that time were many of the progressive liturgical renewal types. From 54-58, there was a significant ongoing debate in liturgical circles as to whether this was a good idea.

    The main people supporting the change were those who felt really bound to the fast and found it hard. A principal Cardinal who was strongly supportive of reducing it to 3 hours was H.E. Ottaviani, one who would assume would be considered the “ritualist” that Pope Francis was speaking about.

    I honestly think this is overkill by the Holy Father, and not really representative of the historical debate at the time.

    1. @Todd Orbitz – comment #2:

      However, never once in all the historical reading did I see anyone call the change in the Eucharistsic fast a “heresy”. Never once.

      There were certainly those who accused Pius XII of heresy, rather like the followers of Mgr Lefebvre who thought that changing the Order of Mass was heretical. That’s always the cry from those who can’t cope with change of any kind. I well remember some of the comments — you know, “The Church is going to hell in a handbasket”, and all that. The same thing happened at the changes in the Holy Week Rites around the same period. Fury in some quarters, gratitude in most others. Francis does well to remind us of the difference between discipline and doctrine.

      1. @Paul Inwood – comment #13:
        Paul:

        I am sincerely interested here in finding out where Pius XII was accused of heresy for changing the fast. I studied the fasting changes and the canonical implications of them during my time in Graduate school. I am fairly extensively read in this explicit issue.

        My contention still stands that I have never seen it called “heresy”. (Now, I am not saying some idiots didn’t call Pius XII a heretic — for any reason. — just that I have never seen him referred to as a heretic for the fasting changes.)

        My point being is that those MOST ATTACHED to a type of liturgical and canonical rigorism were thos MOST LIKELY to be SUPPORTIVE of the changes, like Cardinal Ottaviani. They were the ones who were consumed with following the rigorisms, not the regular Romani.

        So please, if you are going to make the contention that people called Pius XII a heretic for changing the fasting requirements, provide some proof. I don’t think you can.

        Furthermore, as an aid to any effort to actually provide the proof, I am happy to look up any unavailable canonical or theological journals at CUA’s liturgical library as I reside here in DC and am an alumnus.

      2. @Todd Orbitz – comment #17:

        So please, if you are going to make the contention that people called Pius XII a heretic for changing the fasting requirements, provide some proof. I don’t think you can.

        This sounds as if you are calling Francis a liar. Your call. He heard people saying “Heresy!”, just as I did.

        The problem with people who require documentary proof of everything is that they never allow for people who were actually around at the time and can testify to what happened.

      3. @Paul Inwood – comment #21:
        I am not calling Francis a liar. In fact I was very careful NOT to do that.

        I wrote, and I quote: “However, never once in all the historical reading did I see anyone call the change in the Eucharistsic fast a “heresy”. Never once.

        Additionally, I wrote: “I honestly think this is overkill by the Holy Father, and not really representative of the historical debate at the time.”

        I stand by what I wrote. I have never even seen such an intimation and I thought what the Holy Father said was overkill and NOT representative of the debate at the time.

        If people were saying such a thing, they were likely writing it too], whether it was still in latin or not. I cannot find it, and I have offered to do the research for you if you would like to point me in any particular direction.

        I have never demanded documentary proof for everything, but if one were to make such an assertion that seems radically OUT of STEP with what the “rigorists” were writing at the time, one would assume they might actually be able to point where heresy was intimated. (NOTE: In everything I read that was published at that time, the “rigorists” were largely PRAISING Pius, as they felt a great relief from the fasting obligation. And I read sources mostly either in the theological journals which were mostly in Latin, or some of the early French/German/English journals.)

        Again, I stand by my offer to find this if you can point me to it, if it can be found. In fact, I would like to go back and write an article on it thanking the Holy Father for drawing our attention to this, and I will offer it for publication here, The New Liturgical Movement, or Ephemerides Liturgicae. You name it, and I will be happy to allow you to put your name right next to mine. In fact, you can edit it.

      4. @Todd Orbitz – comment #22:

        Todd, you’re making a huge mountain out of a molehill. The fact is that at the time some people, in the exaggerated way that folk do when they don’t like change, exclaimed “Heresy!”, and “How dare he change this practice? Lack of respect for the Blessed Sacrament! It’s disgraceful!” as well as many other similar things. You can just hear them if you use your imagination.

        But I think you’re on a wild goose chase if you think you’ll find much if any documentary evidence of that. The internet and vitriolic blogs didn’t exist back then, editors of Catholic periodicals were careful about what they printed, and in the climate of those days I don’t think anyone would have bothered to write an article criticising the Pope. That sort of thing only started in the 60s.

        Nevertheless, I’ll have a look in my files and see if I can find any indicators and let you know.

      5. @Paul Inwood – comment #23:

        Not to speak for Todd, but I think he’s running into the same problem with you that many Americans have with Francis in general: our experiences of the (Catholic) world are RADICALLY different. When Francis told our pastors to stop obsessing about abortion, people in my neck of the woods scratched their heads, asking themselves where these exotic pastors were who even occasionally preached about abortion, let alone obsessed. When you say matter-of-factly that folks have a way of exclaiming “Heresy!” when they don’t like change, this tracks with my experience just as well as saying that people regularly have heads made of green cheese. People might harrumph “Sacrilege!”, “Scandal!”, or “Impiety!”, but the folks I know (including the old codgers) are just as likely to decry heresy in an alteration of the Communion fast as they are to shout “Heresy!” when they see a miniskirt at Mass – not at all, because they recognize that to be a category error.

        Whether or not a significant or even discernible number of Catholics might have considered extending Communion to those who have eaten in the last 3-12 hours to touch upon dogma has marked impact upon the force of Pope Francis’ current appeal to that change as precedent for extending Communion to those objectively in grave sin (they THOUGHT it was doctrinal, but it really wasn’t, just like what I’m promoting). Considering that the rhetorical implication of his words is that those who now oppose his desire for communing the divorced-and-remarried are “rotting in the heart,” one hopes he would only resort to such a denunciation with the strongest of reasons, reasons which seem wanting if they are nothing more than these in-my-experience-“mythical” heresy hunters.

      6. @Aaron Sanders – comment #25:

        When Francis told our pastors to stop obsessing about abortion, people in my neck of the woods scratched their heads, asking themselves where these exotic pastors were who even occasionally preached about abortion, let alone obsessed.

        Well, I visit a fair number of US parishes each year and have heard pastors ranting about abortion (and many other things too) in US parishes at least half a dozen times over the past five years. Over the past 40 years (the number of years I have done work all over the States, including living in S. Cal for several years) the number would be considerably more — certainly more than I have experienced in the UK.

        Perhaps your experience is more isolated than mine, but I would say that the Church in the US is far from radically different from the English Church. If you discount finance, which is very different, a lot of the other problems are very similar, and so are a lot of the solutions. And the types of priests one sees in the US match exactly the types one sees in the UK.

      7. @Paul Inwood – comment #27:

        Bracketing the question of whether an average of 1-2 sermons per year amounts to an obsession, I’m not trying to claim that my own experience is any more representative than yours or the pope’s. My point is simply that, in a global Church, we shouldn’t be surprised if arguments beginning “We have all experienced X” encounter incredulous responses in some (or even many) quarters. What was liturgically commonplace in the diocese of my youth is unheard of a few hundred miles away where I now reside; cut us some slack, then, if what you know from a half-century ago across the Pond seems a bit hard to believe.

      8. @Aaron Sanders – comment #28:
        Perhaps we should recognize that many of us tend to “overhear” even what we don’t want to hear. Subjective experience is just that.

        As for the abortion thing, my sense was that Pope Francis alluded to the message that is preached outside of Mass, as well as in it. Just yesterday, I fielded 2 requests from parishioners for Mass announcements: one for a March for Life in a nearby diocese–our state capital–and another to announce the results of a successful recent church sale that netted $3k for a charity fund. I turned down both.

        The Mass, especially the homily, is an easy place to drop advertising, but my sense is that the vast majority of parishioners tune out. Maybe 3% are waiting to hear what they want to hear or don’t want to hear. The 3% hits our radar. The rest just want excellent, brief preaching, period.

  3. Exccellent reflection. No need to “fall into sin” – I’m already there! I need those banana peels . . . Robert Ruedisueli

  4. As someone who has had severe injuries falling and now dreads falling, I would suggest the thing about a fall is that there is no mistaking or rationalizing what it is. A “good” fall is one that leaves no permanent injury, and from which one can be extricated simply.

    For example, in 2012, I remember falling on ice in a church parking lot (my Native American name is Falls on Ice). where it looked like snow. I was a few cars away from mine. I had to ask someone to drive up and open their car window so I could use my upper body strength to get off the ground. And proceed, soaked in melted ice, to church…

    That was a good fall. Had it not been for my Chester Wallace tote bag that swiveled behind my head as I fell backwards, I would have smashed my head against the ice, and it would not have been a good fall….

  5. Gosh all that parsing about banana peels. In prep school we had an American history teacher who was a master of prat falls. He went up on stage to introduce and welcome his college men’s choir and did a splendid trip in front of them. They were shocked but we were all in on the joke and loved it.

    As for the fast before Holy Communion, I was new in the church on my way to an evening Mass and I grabbed HALF a peanut in a bowl before going out the door. Then I wondered if I should receive Communion. I decided to be safe and did not go. I later asked my very good pastor if I made the right decision and to my surprise he said yes.Sips of water, half peanuts.Those were the days.

  6. Halbert Weidner :Sips of water, half peanuts.Those were the days.

    “He who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and he who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.”
    —Jesus, quoted in Lk 16:10

  7. Yes, total fast from midnight was the old practice. I recall a friend refraining from Holy Communion because she had bitten a bit of loose skin by her fingernail and so ” broken the fast.”

    Frank Sheed told the story of a West Indian lad who ate a banana before Communion. When reproved he explained he thought it more reverent for the Lord to sit on the banana than for the banana to sit on the Lotd!

  8. Paul InwoodThere were certainly those who accused Pius XII of heresy, rather like the followers of Mgr Lefebvre who thought that changing the Order of Mass was heretical.

    It seems to me that, if these supposed accusers were rather like the most radical wing of the Lefebvrian party, they would have left a stamp upon the history of the subject, both as prolific publishers of their criticisms as well as the recipients of numerous responses within the intra-Catholic controversial literature of the day. I’m far more inclined to believe Todd’s experience that, even if such folks existed, they were not significant enough to receive any mention in the historical record.

    I am surprised, though, that no one has yet questioned Pope Francis’ equivocation of the “unworthiness” to receive Communion occasioned by the failure to observe the fast, on the one hand, and mortal sin on the other. We know that the length and specifics of the communion fast (ritual worthiness) are arbitrary, i.e., decided by our arbitrium, whereas or policy on moral worthiness to receive is based upon revealed, dogmatic data.

    This is a bit like saying, “We reasonable people can all agree that it is sufficiently safe to ride a motorcycle at low speeds on a dry, abandoned straightaway while wearing protective gear, so only a depraved, self-absorbed moral idiot would suggest we have a law against riding that same motorcycle helmetless at 200mph through crowded S-turns in the rain.”

    If we are not touching doctrine we must admit that for someone living in objective mortal sin to receive the Eucharist is objectively harmful to that person – he eats and drinks judgment upon himself and it would not be outside the realm of scriptural expectation for him to experience deleterious physical effects. One might still decide to allow it (like a motorcycle race!), but is forbidding it really so “legalist”?

    1. @Aaron Sanders – comment #14:
      Pope Francis is wise enough to realize that human beings do not render judgment on someone else’s supposed mortal sin. Christ gives judgment.

      The Holy Father has offered numerous paths out of mortal sin on any number of topics, including the matter of logs, specks, and eyes.

      I confess I have yet to see a priest decline to take Communion at Mass. Sure: I know the rubrics require it. But does a priest who has committed a mortal sin bring judgment on himself? How often is this principle illustrated in real life?

      Fr Hesko’s point is well-taken. A bit of creativity is needed to revitalize this. What about abstaining from computer time, alcohol, coffee, tea, tobacco, or sweets from midnight on? What about ceding a place in line at checkout, or taking the worst available space in a parking lot rather than the closest? A fast from unnecessary talking. Or yelling. Or making a food donation each time Communion is received.

      There are countless ways to conduct a fast. The most difficult aspect is doing it without being told.

  9. We must also remember the former fasting discipline came from an age when one went to church every Sunday, but only received Holy Communion a few times a year, or monthly at best. With that practice the old discipline worked well as it was a special event marked with extraordinary preparation. St. Pius X lowered the age of reception to encourage more frequent reception. In the new practice where people receive weekly or daily, the old fasting regime would be impossible to keep. We do need to return to a more serious preparation before holy communion, other than a quick prayer before Mass begins.

  10. Todd Flowerday : @Aaron Sanders – comment #14: Pope Francis is wise enough to realize that human beings do not render judgment on someone else’s supposed mortal sin. Christ gives judgment. The Holy Father has offered numerous paths out of mortal sin on any number of topics, including the matter of logs, specks, and eyes. I confess I have yet to see a priest decline to take Communion at Mass. Sure: I know the rubrics require it. But does a priest who has committed a mortal sin bring judgment on himself?

    One of Pope Francis’ strong suits has been his emphasis on Confession, so he has indeed offered a way out of mortal sin through his promotion of that sacrament. But are we really to believe that he is the first hierarch in history to discover that we don’t “render judgment” on another’s supposed sin? Last I checked, our system of ecclesiastical discipline over the last several centuries (or all of them?) has gone to pains to distinguish between objective fault and subjective culpability precisely to avoid judging the state of souls. But let’s leave aside the question of whether the pope’s position on our discipline is “wise,” my main question is whether comparing the Communion fast to adultery is by any stretch of the imagination an apples to apples comparison.

    For my own part I see some critical differences:
    1) one is primarily based in positive law, the other primarily in immutable doctrines
    2) one has been adjusted regularly throughout history, the other has been left continuously intact by the wisdom of the centuries (although here I am open to correction if we are aware of a time when manifest, obstinate adulterers were welcomed to the Table)
    3) most importantly, one standard is premised upon bodily preparedness, the other upon spiritual

    1. @Aaron Sanders – comment #18:
      I doubt he’s the first hierarch. But there have been a lot of Catholics running around, even in recent history, taking upon themselves the task to define doctrines and condemn heretics. Even in the Inquisition Age, we had kangaroo courts to maintain a fakery of justice.

      Taken out of context, comparing a Communion fast to adultery is imbalanced. But I think the same for remarried Catholics and actual adulterers.

      If the aim is to deepen the experience of Communion, my suggestion is to shoulder the discipline of self-awareness, self-denial, and not wait to be told what to do. The only time I want to notice adultery is when, God forbid, I commit it myself. I think the principle of custody of the eyes is in play in a larger sense that we don’t go looking for other people’s sins in the Communion line.

  11. Many Orthodox continue the tradition of the midnight fast before communion. I know from experience that often mostly infants or children receive the eucharist at a Divine Liturgy. Why has this discipline remained normative for many Orthodox? Are there Orthodox who practice a less rigid fast? Perhaps the regulations for eucharistic fast are determined by each synod and patriarchate separately.

  12. In his homily Pope Francis denounces those careful “observers of the law” as hypocrites “rotting in the heart”. Yet they did not make these rules: they followed the advice of the leaders of the Church. This loyalty and dedication seems worthy of commendation not condemnation. Presumably Pope Francis hopes that we will be careful to listen to his own advice.

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