Today marks the one-year anniversary since the abdication of the Chair of St. Peter by Pope Benedict XVI. This event came as a shock, especially to those of us who had been working so hard in the liturgical apostolate during the past pontificate, and who excitedly followed the Holy Father’s lead and example daily.
When the Pope announced that he would be stepping down, and we soon realized that there would be a conclave within a matter of weeks, a certain anxiety began to set in.
Would his successor carry on according to the same mind? Some optimists thought that the resignation effectively doubled the life of Benedict’s papacy.
Would his successor somehow reverse the legitimate progress made by Benedict XVI? This latter concern, it must be admitted, struck many of us between the eyes when we saw Papa Bergolio step out on the balcony for the first time. Something didn’t seem to be quite right. Signs were indicating that significant changes could be looming.
And changes definitely have come.
Pope Francis has been a worldwide sensation, and he clearly is setting an example for the Church on what it means to roll up your sleeves and be the New Evangelization.
But is Pope Francis’ style and approach to the papacy a rejection of Pope Benedict’s focus on the dignity and sacredness of the liturgy?
After being with Francis for nearly a year now, and in light of his recent encyclical and daily reflections, we can most certainly say that it is not.
This can be seen most clearly in Pope Francis’ papal liturgies. Sure, there are things that strike us as odd after seeing the grand ceremonial and ars celebrandi of Pope Benedict XVI, such as the plain vestments, black shoes, lack singing from the priest celebrant, among other curiosities.
But there is something that we haven’t seen in Francis’ celebration of the Mass that some might have expected.
Where is Francis’ palpable joy? Where is his glowing smile? Where is the Pope Francis that we all know and love, jumping out of his Ford Focus to kiss babies and to greet the poor?
Where is the Pope Francis who once said in a daily homily that “Often Christians behave as if they were going to a funeral procession rather than to praise God”. Or, similarly, that “We aren’t used to thinking about Jesus smiling, joyful. Jesus was full of joy, full of joy… Joy is true peace: not a static peace, quiet, tranquil. Christian peace is a joyful peace, because our Lord is joyful.”
Shouldn’t we be seeing the bubbly Pope Francis during his celebration of the liturgy that we see in the news and all over the web?
Perhaps some think that we should. But we don’t.
Watch any papal liturgy to see the stark contrast to this image. You will find a man with a stone cold face, breathing heavily, almost panting and appearing in discomfort, speaking the prayers of the Mass softly and without much definition, gazing almost aimlessly upward and and then with eyes closed in contemplative prayer. You will also hear sacred music that is more solemn and beautiful than we ever heard it under Pope Benedict.
Why do we not see this Pope Francis when he celebrates the Mass?
“We would do well today to ask the Lord to give to each of us [a] ‘sense of the sacred,’ this sense that makes us understand that it is one thing to pray at home, to pray in Church, to pray the Rosary, to pray so many beautiful prayers, to make the Way of the Cross, so many beautiful things, to read the Bible… The Eucharistic celebration is something else. In the celebration we enter into the mystery of God, into that street that we cannot control: only He is the unique One, the glory, the power… He is everything. Let us ask for this grace: that the Lord would teach us to enter into the mystery of God.”
This echos the statement of the Pope in his recent enyclical, Evangelii Gaudium:
“Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving.”
The effect evangelization has on the liturgy is different from the role of evangelization on the street corner. The joy of the Gospel, as it is spread in the happenings of daily life, becomes something entirely different when it enters the liturgical sphere for Pope Francis. It is not chaos, it is not feverish elation, it is not unbridled energy and glowing smiles of happiness.
In the Eucharistic liturgy, according to Francis, we enter a different realm: A realm where evangelization with joy becomes beauty, where a life of private devotion leads into a participation in the “theophany”, where we “really enter into the mystery of God” and “allow ourselves to be brought to the mystery and to be in the mystery”.
This dichotomy is clear in the life of Pope Francis. He clearly is in the world, but is not of the world.
In the liturgy, the Church steps out of the realm of the world, and steps into the realm of the sacred, where there is true, substantial, and transcendent contact with the divine. This is as true for Pope Francis as it was to Pope Benedict, and remains equally true for the entire Church – as it always has been and as it always will be.
The gaze on the face of those who fully and actively participate in the sacred mysteries of the liturgy is one of contemplation. It is the face as it is portrayed in an icon, not on the cover of Time Magazine. It is the face that encounters the real, substantial and beautiful presence of Christ. It is not a face of gloom or misery; it is not the face of a Christian lacking joy. It is the face of a Christian who’s joy is complete.
The continued work of bringing a sense of the sacred into our parishes and dioceses is not over, one year following the abdication of Pope Benedict. In many ways it is only beginning.
Pope Francis is showing us that beauty in the liturgy is central to, though distinct from, the task of evangelization. As the source and summit of the life of the Church, without the liturgy the Church would have no source for its missionary zeal. The world is hungry for Christ, and it is hungry for beauty – The world is hungry for the liturgy, beautifully celebrated.
This is why we must continue our diligent work in the liturgical apostolate. The success of the New Evangelization depends upon it.
This is why efforts for the renewal of sacred music have continued, and are gaining momentum. It is what is driving efforts like the Lumen Christi Series, which will is about to see the addition of the Lumen Christi Simple Gradual, the natural successor and fulfillment of Simple English Propers. These efforts must continue, and the work on the ground in parish life must continue, and they are continuing. Signs of this are all around us.
As today we remember the legacy of the great liturgical pope, let’s be reinvigorated by its mission. Pope Francis is depending on Pope Benedict’s achievements in liturgical renewal – this could not be more clear.
As Benedict once said, and surely would Francis agree: “Concern for the the proper form of worship…is not peripheral but central to our concern for man himself” (Feast of Faith, p. 7). If evangelization with joy is to be successful, we must worship God well, we must allow beauty in the liturgy to transform, and we must draw our missionary zeal from its true source. Let’s not let the work of liturgical renewal slip away – let’s carry forward the work that Pope Benedict has begun, and that Pope Francis is relying upon.