When Pope Francis first began his pontificate, many people said he just didn’t care very much about liturgy, or that liturgy “isn’t his thing.” When he appointed Cardinal Robert Sarah – a man with no liturgy background, and leanings and tastes far different from the Pope himself – to head the Congregation for Divine Worship, that assumption was reinforced.
Over the past year, however, a series of events has challenged this assumption. First, Francis called Sarah on the carpet after the speech in London in which he urged priests to start celebrating Mass ad orientem. Second, he appointed a large group of new members to the Congregation for Divine Worship. These appear to be carefully chosen to work in sync with Francis’s leadership. Third, he has set up a commission to effectively repeal Liturgiam authenticam, the problematic Fifth Instruction on the Right Interpretation of Sacrosanctum Concilium which has guided liturgical translations – and caused no end of discord – over the past fifteen years.
I think this notion that “Pope Francis doesn’t care about liturgy” needs to be revised. He cares; he just has not acted in the way many people expect a person who “cares about liturgy” to act. What looked like neglect was (perhaps) instead the assumption that interference was not needed. He tried to be pastor to all. He did not stake out an ideological position on contentious liturgical issues.
For Francis, liturgy has been neither the focus of praise or blame in his analysis of what ails the Church today. The reforms of Vatican II have never been something he wanted to re-litigate. He takes them for granted as a healthy development. And just as a person in good health does not spend time going to doctors, so the liturgy has been “let run.” A lack of interference, however, should not be interpreted as a sign that someone doesn’t care.
What do we mean when we say someone does or doesn’t “care about liturgy”? Unfortunately, it seems to me that we too easily equate “caring about liturgy” with an ideological approach and a militant agenda. Caring about the liturgy translates into having grand plans, based on critical thinking.
Yet don’t many pastors “care about liturgy” in the same way that Francis does? They care about celebrating it prayerfully (as do their parishioners). They observe the rubrics with intelligent pastoral adaptations. They draw on the liturgy for their own spirituality and catechetics. When something threatens, they move in to remove the threat. But otherwise, they let it run. They trust it will do what it is intended to do. Sometimes the best way to care for the liturgy is just to get out of the way.
Over the past year, however, it seems to me that we have seen Pope Francis begin to act more assertively in the liturgical realm. It would be hard to interpret this in any other way than as a judgment call: the “reform of the reform” and its signature achievement, the instruction on translations, are not the way forward, and Francis has seen fit to step in and change direction.
So in addition to the laid-back approach from Francis, we may now be seeing more of the assertive approach. Francis’s new roster of members of the CDW is a very interesting and diverse group. I look forward to seeing what they will do, together with him. The bishops’ conferences also will probably have a bigger role in liturgical regulation under Francis, as Vatican II envisioned. This will be an interesting development to watch.