Prince of Peace Catholic Church
/* Style Definitions */
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
We are only a few days into the reign of Papa
Francesco, and already there are many people trying to scrutinize the tea leaves to
read into every word, action and gesture some interpretation of what the
Franciscan papacy will be like. The
blogosphere has already become a battlefield with people taking sides based on
their interpretation of what they have seen.
The basic narrative, however, seems to be this: there is a rupture
between Benedict and Francis. For some,
this is a source of joy, because they like the latter and did not like the
former. For others, it is a source of
great anxiety, and because of it, they are tempted to question the motives of
the new pope. Then there are many who
see all of this as just ridiculous and that the people who are freaking out on
either side need to “get a life” and do something more useful with their lives
I should like to offer an observation which
undergirds my contention of why all three reactions are misplaced: it shows what
is wrong with an essentially Ultramontanist view of the Roman primacy. It is no secret that, after the loss of the
Papal States and the accession of Blessed Pius IX to the Throne of Peter, the
influence of the papacy and Roman administration has become more prevalent in
the daily life of the Church. After the
proclamation of the doctrine of papal infallibility and the rise of modern mass
media, the influence of the papacy would be increasingly felt throughout the
world. Vatican II sought to do what was
supposed to have happened at Vatican I, but which was made impossible because
of the Franco-Prussian War: place papal infallibility in the context of the
ministry of all the bishops. At Vatican
II itself, there was quite a war between what we call papal maximalists in the
Ultramontane vein and papal minimalists in a basically Conciliarist vein.
Vatican II chose to see the relationship
between Pope and bishops in terms of collegiality, and the relationship between
Pope, bishops and People of God, less in terms of papal absolutism and more as
a communion. The reality, however, is
that how this theological vision is lived in the Church has also competed, to a
certain extent, with the brilliant personal charisma of many of the Popes of
the post-Vatican II period, particularly Blessed John Paul II. People now have certain expectations of how
the Pope should act because of the way in which Papa Wojtyla incarnated the
post-Vatican II papacy.
So when Josef Ratzinger became Pope, many
people were watching very closely to see how he “did” the papacy. In an age in which visual images and
soundbites are supremely important, everything he did was up for scrutiny. One of the principal themes of Pope
Benedict’s pontificate was the “hermeneutic of continuity.” His principal point was that the Church of
post-Vatican II is not radically altered or different than the Church of
pre-Vatican II, a corrective against the revolutionary rhetoric of both
progressive and sedevacantist alike. But
that vision was also seen in the gradual reintegration into papal vesture and
liturgical celebration of visible elements in continuity with the papacy before
and after Vatican II.
He was alternately celebrated and pilloried for
the ferula, for the fanon, for ad orientem worship, for chant and polyphony,
for lace and for fiddleback chasubles.
The prophets of rupture saw these things as a return to the pre-Vatican
II Church in all of her ecclesiology and liturgy. Those who interpreted these things in this
way celebrated or pilloried him as a result.
Yet, anyone who has read Ratzinger’s theology in depth also knows that
his theology of the Roman primacy is anything but a facile reappropriation of a
supposedly pre-Vatican II ecclesiology of papal monarchy. It is anything but Ultramontane and anything
but revolutionary at the same time, and is much more.
Yet, the post-Vatican II reincarnation of the
Ultramontane spirit welcomed the recovery of these signs and symbols as
beautiful and as highlighting the papacy.
Yet it was not that spirit which animated Benedict XVI to reintegrate
these things into the liturgy. It was
What do I mean?
The classical liturgical movement of the 20th century,
particularly as influenced by men such as Louis Bouyer, Pius Parsch and Josef Jungmann,
had a severe allergy against Tridentine Baroque liturgical form. They saw it as a decadent devolution from a truer
liturgical spirit which breathed only in antiquity and which needed to be
rediscovered and retranslated in modern idiom.
I think we cannot underestimate the power of this allergy against the
Tridentine Baroque in the thought of the liturgical reform. Because they saw the papal court with its
traditions and liturgy as fossilized into that form, they loudly called for its
rejection. The aesthetic crafted under
Paul VI and Virgilio Noe sought to bring about the de-Baroquicization of the
papal liturgy and the formation of a papal vision coherent with the pride and
prejudice of that classical liturgical movement.
That aesthetic was a powerful exercise in a
hermeneutic of rupture, even as it was intended to give visible form to the
ecclesiology of Vatican II, which in many ways was a continuation of the
theological development of papacy, hierarchy and ecclesiology of the
preconciliar period and Magisterium.
Previously, there was a powerful idea that the
Pope bore the weight of the tradition, not just in sense of what Congar would
see as Tradition versus les traditions,“ but in all of its particularities of
vesture, behavior and the papal rites.
It is probably apocryphal, but Blessed Pius IX’s “Io sono la Tradizione”
incarnates that idea. In some ways, it
is analogous to Louis XIV’s, “L’etat, c’est moi.” For an American, unused to the highly
stratified and specific culture of court etiquette, it seems all a bit effete,
overwrought, and hardly in symphony with evangelical simplicity.
Yet, monarchy perpetuates itself, not like an
inspirational idea like the American Dream, but as a complex language of rites,
customs and symbols into which monarch and ruled live and dwell and use. The papacy has always had that kind of weight
of tradition assigned to it. That is why
every single visible change to the way things are done around the Pope has
weight. For many people, the visceral
reactions to Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis, prove this principle, but
others do not grasp their importance: they see it as all adventures in missing
the point. They do not understand the
weight of the ceremonial life in which the Roman Pontiff goes about being Peter.
With Pope Benedict, we had a rich theological
treasure and Magisterium which helped us to understand why he insisted on
recovering aspects of the papal liturgy and ceremonial as an exercise in the
hermeneutic of continuity. He was
profoundly influenced by the classical liturgical movement, but also clearly
saw its tendency towards rationalism and puritanism. His cultural idiom was forged by the Bavarian
and Italian Baroque, and he was able to see these elements of continuity for
their own beauty and shorn of any sinister ideological interpretation.
Pope Francis, however, is an entirely new
player on the papal stage. He is a
Jesuit, first of all, and we all know the conventional wisdom about Jesuits and
liturgy as being like oil and water. And
he also comes from Latin America, a continent which I would offer is the land
that the liturgical movement, both classical and new, forgot. It is important not to jump to conclusions
about why the first steps of his papacy seem to be so radically a rupture with
the last steps of his predecessor. But,
at the same time, the weight of tradition, volens nolens, upon the Roman
Pontiff is so serious that he cannot for long continue to “do his own thing”
without it being interpreted in various ways not according to his intention. Perhaps that is why the Popes for so long
were content with being their own men, but conforming to the expectations of
the ceremonial life of the Pope of Rome.
Such conformity may (and arguably should) be personally uncomfortable, agonizing
and even annoying. It is also a reminder
of Our Lord’s words to Peter in John 21.18, Truly,
truly I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where
you would: but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another
will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go. Papal conformity in this way avoids individual holders of the office arbitrarily and eccentrically undertaking words, gestures and rites which may be interpreted in a way far from their actual intention. Far from glorifying the papal office overmuch, it actually conforms the man to the office and holds him accountable to it and not his own preferences. It causes him to disappear behind the office and become Peter and less himself.
It is also important to note that in the
Church’s life, there has always been a tension between visible exuberance and
simple austerity. In the Middle Ages,
Bernard of Clairvaux with his Spartan Cistercian simplicity arrested Europe
just as much as Abbot Suger with his soaring riots of color and glass and precious
materiel. Yet Bernard and Suger belonged
to the same Church. The same Church
produced the rococo churches of Austria and the mud huts of the
Tamanrasset. The tension between the two
must not be capitalized upon by ideologues who see only one or the other as the true
Gospel: they must live in communion with each other.
Three people in the Church’s tradition saw this
very well. The great Jesuit Robert
Bellarmine lived in a time in which the Church desperately needed great
reform. His personal life was one of
unmitigated austerity. The people knew
that underneath the pomp and circumstance of the office to which he was called,
his was a life of penance and interior and exterior mortification. Humility for him was not casting aside the
weight of his office, with all of its expectations, but an interior virtue of
obedience to it all. And it was that,
combined with a life of piety and zeal, which made him into the great
reformer. Blessed John XXIII was
concerned to made the Gospel accessible to modern people, but he loved the
ceremonial and liturgical splendor of the Church. He embraced it and reveled in it, but his
human warmth and virtue made all of it seem, not alien and weird, but even more
The deacon Francis was a servant of the Church
because he was a servant of God. His
love of poverty and simplicity did not cause him to go off on revolutionary
crusades against the Church’s rich liturgical and artistic patrimony. He instead infused all of that patrimony with
the presence of Christ. Now the Pope who
has taken his name, and seeks to rebuild the Church which has fallen into
ruins, has the chance to live the virtue of humility and obedience by taking up
the weight of the papal tradition in a hermeneutic of continuity. If he infuses that tradition with his own
personal love for the poor and the marginalized, his own personal simplicity
and desire to not be on the world stage, he just might be the most incredible
witness for Christ and His Church we have seen in a long time.