Pontifications,prognostications and provocations

On the brink of the Triduum, Pope Francis has barely had time to crease his papal whites. Yet he continues to startle, confound or inspire, depending on the day and from which angle you come. Some things he is yet to decide, not least his new,and eagerly awaited, major curial appointments. He has no need to rush these, and it would be a(nother!) surprise if he makes these appointments before Easter.

Maundy Thursday

There are some decisions he has made, and these are, perhaps in the Chinese sense, interesting. The first regards the Triduum. Pope Francis has decided to celebrate Maundy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper not at his cathedral, St John Lateran, but at Casa del Marmo Penitential Institute for Minors. What is of note is not that a Pope is celebrating Mass in a juvenile prison. In fact Benedict XVI said Mass in the same prison in Lent 2007, preaching on the prodigal son. What is a striking departure is that a pope will be celebrating one of the principal liturgies of the Triduum outside his principal basilicas, in this case his own cathedral.

His decision leaves me in two minds. On the one hand his gesture makes a statement about the value of those whom society (and Church?) so easily forgets, except perhaps to condemn them. By celebrating the Maundy Thursday evening Mass in the prison he gives it even greater prominence than a Lenten Mass like Benedict’s, and a powerful reminder of Christ’s seeking out the lost is put before Church and world. Amen to that!

On the other hand, as pope, Francis does not have a totally free hand. There are expectations of him deriving from the petrine office itself, and from his being Bishop of Rome. Bishops have cathedrals, the mother churches of their dioceses. Moreover, the Bishop of Rome’s cathedral is St John Lateran, which is considered the mother of all churches. In its cathedral a diocese rightfully expects to find a liturgy that is the worthiest in the diocese, an example to the rest of the diocese’s churches, and an encouragement to them. This year, Rome’s bishop will not be celebrating the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in his cathedral. In fact, he will not even be celebrating it in public. Pope Francis has decreed that this Mass will be “simple”, closed to the media, at least for live broadcasts, and, by the very nature of a prison, closed to the public as well.

It will be wonderful for the prisoners, but not so wonderful for the Church at large, nor his diocese in particular. One could argue that since Francis has not taken possession formally of his cathedral (and won’t until 7 April, Divine Mercy Sunday) it is appropriate for him to celebrate the sacred liturgies of this Holy Week outside it. However, it also sends an unintended message that some of the principal papal liturgies will be far more narrowly exclusive. They are usually to some degree exclusive in that normally a ticket is required to attend, but the tickets are at least open to application from all. I am not sure that papal liturgies celebrated for an exclusive circle of the poor or marginalised are much better, if at all, than liturgies for an exclusive circle of the rich. It could be seen to smack of that old chestnut of affirmative action, fighting discrimination with discrimination.

The bulletin also says that there will be 10 girls and 40 boys present, and that the pope “will wash the feet of 12 of them”. Given his liturgical tastes I am sure I am not the only one wondering if he is going to wash the feet of some of the girls. It has become de rigeur in some parts of the Catholic world to wash the feet of women as well as men during this optional part (called the Mandatum) of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It sounds lovely to do so: all so very inclusive and non-gender specific. And if the Mandatum was intended only to be a symbol of a general humble Christian service in the style of our Lord there could be no argument against it.

However, the Mandatum is intended quite specifically to recall Christ’s washing the feet of his apostles. The Maundy Thursday evening Mass recalls also that at the Last Supper Christ ordained the apostles as apostles. From them came, down to our day, the bishops, and from the bishops, priests. So, we do not commemorate only the institution of the Eucharist at this Mass, but also the institution of the ordained ministry. Christ, their Master, washes their feet to remind them that to lead is to serve (as Pope Francis has already reiterated, “authentic power is service”), and that their leadership must be models of his. Thus popes usually wash the feet of other clergy to remind not only himself but the clergy by what character their leadership must be marked. In fact one could argue that in cases where a bishop (or some other pontiff) does not wash the feet of other clerics, the option for the Mandatum should be omitted. By washing the feet of laymen at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, this intrinsic and crucial level of symbolism is lost and it can be seen more reasonably as (though I hate the word) “sexist”. In the context of this Mass, can 12 laymen symbolise the institution of the priestly ministry in the Church any better than 12 laywomen? It is a question that deserves an answer, provocative though it might seem.

However, if the pope were to decree that henceforth the Mandatum should no longer be seen as a symbolic re-enactment of Christ’s washing his apostles’ feet to remind his ministers how they are to lead, but instead is to be seen now as a symbol to all Christians about how to exercise any power that they might have in either the Church or the world, then washing anybody’s feet could become, quite feasibly, the norm. That would be a significant break with a tradition observed by both Catholics and Orthodox. It is not a dogma, and is changeable. However, just because something can be changed does not necessarily mean it should be changed.

The Orthodox

A truly exciting development right from the start of this papacy has been the continued willingness of the Orthodox to further ecumenical relations. Most likely for the first time ever a Patriarch of Constantinople has attended the inauguration of a pope. When Francis and Bartholomew exchanged gifts there was a wonderful exchange between them caught on camera. Francis apologised for the smallness of his gift of a pectoral cross compared to Batholomew’s gift of an imposing icon, to which Bartholomew replied, “It is beautiful because it is a cross and it is a gift from you“. Patriarch Bartholomew’s heart is in this venture. It comes after Pope Paul VI embraced Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964, after Bl John Paul II called for the Church to breathe with both its lungs, east and west, and after Benedict XVI’s profound theological dialogue with the Orthodox which so reassured them. Francis inherits a great “moment” in Church history.

This was confirmed for me when today on reading that Patriarch Bartholomew has told the press that he foresees “there is a possibility for the next generations to see the churches of the East and West reunited”. That an Orthodox patriarch can talk of reunion in such clear and positive terms is remarkable. Bartholomew also revealed that he was surprised to be invited to dinner with Pope Francis and the cardinals, at which he blessed the meal. Sharing from one table is wonderful preparation for sharing from one altar. And it keeps on coming: Bartholomew has invited Francis to his patriarchate; and the successors of St Peter and St Andrew, as brothers, will make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

So while there is much to expect with excitement on the ecumenical front, there is room for some trepidation on the liturgical front. So we watch and pray.

Franciscan Simplicity

Pope Francis’ explicit commitment to Franciscan poverty and simplicity is gaining the secular media’s attention as much that of the Catholic media. It comes as a timely reminder to a world, and Church often too caught up in the world, that some things are essential in Christianity, and some things merely desirable or optional. A concern for the poor is central to the preaching Christ and the apostles. The unity of Christ’s Church is likewise not an option, though it was likely at least for a while given Christ’s need to pray “that they might all be one” (John 17:21). However it is wound in Christ’s Body that hampers its preaching of the gospel. Pope Francis seems very much committed to these essentials. However, worship is just as much an essential of Christianity. Indeed one cannot be Christian without worshipping God both individually and communally.

The highest form of worship is the Mass, the source and summit, as the Council tells us, of the Christian life. The Eucharistic Body of Christ builds and enlivens his ecclesial Body. No Eucharist, no Church. It is through the Mass that we are enabled to share continually in the saving grace of the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The Mass builds each Christian into the ecclesial Body of Christ through the Eucharistic Body of Christ, and enlivens us with the same grace that enlivens all the Church.

The pope models himself after St Francis of Assisi, a most un-Jesuit thing to do! But lest we lose our perspective and get carried away in a great rush of puritanical Franciscan zeal for poverty, let us remember what the great said himself of the liturgy. St Francis admonished clerics to

hold the chalices, corporals, ornaments of the altar, and all that pertain to the Sacrifice as precious. And if the most holy Body of the Lord is left very poorly in any place, let It be moved by them to a precious place, according to the command of the Church and let It be carried with great veneration and administered to others with discretion.

Poverty is not penury, and personal poverty does not preclude a worthy and beautiful liturgy in places of beauty, using things both precious and beautiful. This too is Franciscan. So we can hope that Pope Francis will look in the Vatican cupboards, so rich with provisions for worship, and use what he finds there. He need commission nothing new, need spend no more money. It is poverty also to use what one already has, what one has been give, to worship Christ and his Body. Not for St Francis to be Judas who begrudged the Magdalen the costly ointment with which she anointed Jesus’ feet. Judas’ professed concern that the money could have been better spent on the poor did not sway Jesus one bit. Judas was not concerned for the poor, and those who most decry the use of precious things in the liturgy as a disregarding of the poor usually live lives the poor would envy. The money spent on worship does not impoverish the poor; it is near universal human greed that impoverishes them. Rather than denude our liturgy let us denude ourselves first.

Pope Francis is no fool. We can be sure he knows this. So we need not be too concerned that his decision not to move into the papal apartments but to stay in the Domus Sancta Martha, the cardinals’ residence for the conclave, might be at first sight a showy piece of humility. The Domus is not a hovel. Popes living in the papal apartments is a tradition not much more than a century old. He will use the reception rooms of the apartments for business and receiving guests and dignitaries. He is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If this were something new in the life of our new pope perhaps we might have cause to fear all this humility is a bit of a show for the cameras. However, as we know all too well now, this style of living marked the pope’s time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he lived in a small apartment, cooked for himself and took public transport to work. His lifestyle choice is not reproach to his predecessors but fidelity to his own previous practice of evangelical poverty. Papacy, he seems to believe, is no excuse for giving that up.

Still, he does rather leave himself open to the attentions of the humorists. Eye of the Tiber has a gentle dig at him. And Eccles and Bosco take a more oblique approach, lampooning the reactions to Pope Francis rather than the pope himself. If you could do with a quick giggle, go and read those pages.

So much more to say, but already this is way too long. Better to stop now. Are you still awake?


6 thoughts on “Pontifications,prognostications and provocations

    1. It wouldn’t be so bad if he changed the law first, rather than breaking it. He can change it, it is changeable even though the tradition behind it is ancient and clearly biblical. But he is a Jesuit….


  1. Salve Pater,

    Goodness, what a lot to comment on ! Father has been busy in my absence.

    I have only one thought, really. The move to heal the schism between Rome and Constantinople seems inexorable, albeit a slow process.

    Pope Benedict’s initiatives to restore tradition to the Roman liturgy, including his apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, has been warmly welcomed by the Orthodox. The warmth is understandable. The Divine Liturgy is deeply traditional.

    Hopefully, a fresh outbreak of liturgical innovation in Rome will not undo Benedict’s legacy.

    Oh dear. What a pessimistic comment, but I have to agree with Mary’s comment about the new Pope washing ladies’ feet. Definitely not a good idea !

    Pax et bonum



    1. Salve Petre.

      If Pope Francis can do a little more in the way of obeying the liturgical law of his Church, then all bodes well for increased and speedier progress towards reunion with the great churches of the East. But we should remember that Francis is reaping what Benedict, and his immediate predecessors, have sown. It is a delicate crop to harvest, and if the East detects in our new pope’s actions something of the pride that they felt they saw in the grander papal claims of the past they will shy away yet again. Too much “humility” can be patronising.

      We live in interesting times, though they shall not last long perhaps, of the Korean peninsula explodes.



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