Pope Francis’ empty chair: what it means for the Year of Faith

Well, we all knew it would not be long until the next piece of papal perfervidness. It came with the pope’s no-show at a long-standing engagement in the papal diary inherited from Pope Benedict, a concert as part of the Year of Faith held at the Vatican under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. Playing was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. One does not need to be a culture vulture to recognize at least one movement of the symphony.

The pope, the guest of honour, did not turn up. His non-attendance was only announced on the night. The official line from Archbishop Fisichella was that Pope Francis had an “urgent task that cannot be put off but must be dealt with at the present moment”. This, of course, only raises more questions than it settles. Some are saying it reflects his priority on simplicity and solidarity with the poor (though why these pundits think the poor are against fine music is beyond me). Some have spread word that the pope told his officials that he is not “some Renaissance prince who would listen to music when there is work to be done” – a statement that conjures up images of Nero fiddling while Rome burned –  though why he would be working on Saturday night is not addressed. Fr Z wonders if the pope has taken the opportunity of having all the officials out of the house to get some off-the-record meetings in, though how this would not get back to his officials in good time is not addressed. Fr Ray Blake addresses such issues sanely.

Sandro Magister dodges the reasons, and sees an opportunity lost:

“I am not a Renaissance prince who listens to music instead of working”: this is the phrase that was put into his mouth by some of the “papists” of the curia, unaware that they were only doing him harm with this.

For Church historian Alberto Melloni, the gesture has the grandeur of “a solemn, severe peal” that confirms the innovative style of Francis.

But in reality, it has made the beginning of this pontificate even more indecipherable.

The evangelizing impulse of Pope Francis, his wanting to reach the “existential peripheries” of humanity, would in fact seem to have precisely in the language of great music a vehicle of extraordinary efficacy.

In Beethoven’s Ninth this language reaches sublime heights, makes itself comprehensible beyond all boundaries of faith, becomes a “Courtyard of the Gentiles” of incomparable evocativeness.

Benedict XVI followed his public attendance at each concert with reflections that touched the minds and hearts of those present. One year ago, after listening to none other than the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven at the theater of La Scala in Milan, pope Joseph Ratzinger concluded as follows:

“After this concert many will go to the Eucharistic Adoration, to the God who immersed himself in our suffering and continues to do so, to the God who suffers with us and for us and thus made men and women capable of sharing the suffering of the other and transforming it into love. It is precisely to this that we feel called by this concert.”

One thing I think is clear, whatever the real reason for the pope’s non attendance (and for now further speculation will prove fruitless). The Year of Faith is dead. The upcoming encyclical on Faith to be co-authored by Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict will be used by the former for other purposes: perhaps as part of a hermeneutic of continuity linking his papacy with Benedict’s; perhaps as a convenient way to get an early encyclical out and add some gravitas to a largely populist papacy.

However he has not pushed the Year of Faith at all. He honoured Benedict’s commitment as pope to lead the worldwide Eucharistic Adoration on 2 June, but only confirming it at relatively short notice (and so preventing my monastery from pursuing our original plans for a day of activities surrounding the Adoration). For some reason the Year of Faith has not featured in his papal rhetoric and agenda. It seems not to suit him or his priorities so he has been letting it die. And on Saturday night, he probably gave it the coup de grâce.

Perhaps even sadder is the fact that this concert was organised by the Council for the New Evangelization. It might not be dead, but it did suffer a humiliation: it has not enough clout to get the pope to attend one of its major events.

Pope Francis has different priorities. We had best get used to it. And pray for him.

The Empty Chair

(Photo: Reuters)

19 thoughts on “Pope Francis’ empty chair: what it means for the Year of Faith

  1. The Year of Faith? No, it has become the Year of Papa Bergoglio.

    Why should the Chatterbox Pope turn up to something were there were no adulatory crowds and he had to sit still and listen or simply pray?

    I was in Rome recently and the Wednesday audience which his predecessor had tried to focus on Jesus Christ was all about Papa Francisco. I find it deeply disturbing.


    1. Hello.

      Certainly the sudden retirement of Benedict and the accession of Francis to the petrine throne rather, and unintentionally, derailed the Y of F. I cannot say for certain how keen on the Y of F Bergoglio was in Buenos Aires but I have not yet read that he was greatly supportive of it.

      He has other priorities, and that of course is no great surprise. However you voice an opinion which I fear is going to become all too popular within the next 12 months or so, when the secular media lose interest and the number of Catholics who feel uneasy at his agenda grows ever larger.

      In fact there are parts of his agenda that are legitimate and positive: a Christian faith that is authentic in its daily practice; a reformed curia (though he has not yet done much in that regard); explicit recognition of the Devil as at work in the world. Yet he will suffer the disdain of those who criticized Bl John Paul II for giving the papacy too much profile and so enhancing papal power, to the detriment of bishops. But JP II was fighting some big battles: a Church spiraling into heresy among so many of its clergy and religious, and communism and its oppression of so many peoples. It was his resoluteness in the fight, and his evident charisma and personal holiness, that enhanced the papal office, and so allowed him to affect some serious change. Francis might want to look more closely at JP II’s example so that he might avoid much of the opprobrium that potentially awaits him.

      If the world hates him, good – he will probably be doing his job! If the Church grows too uneasy with him, then we have a real problem.



  2. Wouldn’t it be astounding if it turns out that the pope did this to illustrate the effects of gossip. Speculation would indeed cease should two questions be answered: What was this task? And why was it urgent? God bless!


    1. Hi.

      If the pope has done this to illustrate the effects of gossip, he is treading on very dangerous ground. It would be manipulativeness of a high order, and would scandalize more than it would impress. It would have caused too much ‘collateral damage’.

      No, he had his reasons, which are not yet ours to know. But it can be said now with reasonable assurance that the Year of Faith is not a priority of his. His actions and words speak clearly enough. It is not the end of the world, and condemnation of him for such a position is unwarranted. But it is a shame.



      1. I miss the openness of our beloved Pope Benedict Emeritus. I trusted him completely as he was always focused on Jesus. All I see now is our new pope, with all eyes and ears on him, not our Lord. It’s all about Pope Francis. From the first I’ve been reminded of Uriah Heep and his ‘umbleness.If everyone notices your humility, it’s no longer authentic humility but theater, playing to an audience. Thank you for your fairness in presenting various inexplicable actions of our new pope. Frankly, I think it was bad manners to simply not show up to an important concert, and like Heep, he was much too ‘umble to be so refined and sit on a ‘fancy chair’ and listen to ‘high-class’ music. I think of Elizabeth II’s father, King George VI and how he didn’t want to be king, but he struggled to overcome his fear and dislike in order to serve England and the people and did many things that he found objectionable because it was expected of him, and he was a truly humble man. Well, time alone shall tell as we see this pontificate play itself out.


      2. Hello and welcome!

        Like you, I miss Benedict. Honesty time: he was my sort of pope.

        Your reaction highlights the dangers in Pope Francis’ approach. He allows such a variety of interpretations, and never seems to clarify matters when really dangerous ones are operative. As I said in an earlier post, the hermeneutics of shock and of humility need to be abandoned when assessing Pope Francis’ actions, as they are proving totally inadequate and unhelpful.

        There is a rumour (!) that Pope Francis is about to put the broom through the curia, and that his absence on Saturday night was related to this momentous event. If so, it is a reasonable excuse. Still, might it not have been better for him or his aides to have given more warning, and so reduce the shock value, and the number of perplexing questions and doubts and interpretations? It was a bit of a PR disaster. So let’s keep faith that Pope Francis had seized a golden opportunity that had suddenly presented itself to advance his project of curial reform.

        King George VI was a fine man, and I am rather proud that it was an Australian who helped him overcome his speech impediment. We’re great guys, you know. 😉



  3. On the subject of the hour of worldwide adoration, I thought that was awesome, and I wish we could have that on a regular basis. That is the perfect use by the Church of the new, instantaneous communications media: to have the whole Church, all over the world, kneel before our Eucharistic Lord at the exact same time. How could that fail to have its effect? I think we should all write to the Pope and petition him for this, or try to get our bishops to do it. Certainly there is nothing stopping bishops calling a Holy Hour within their own dioceses.

    Too bad there wasn’t a bigger lead-up to it this time. It got so little advance publicity that I was surprised to find it going on at my parish. With a greater lead-up, parishes could have adjusted their Mass schedules accordingly.


    1. Like you, Anita, the worldwide synchronised Adoration struck me as a very positive experience, that of the whole Church united in worship of its Saviour. Naturally, we are always united insofar as we celebrate the liturgy of the Church as set down in its approved books (and to the degree we do our own thing, to that degree we act alone for we are not worshipping with the rest of the Church). But this hour of Adoration allowed an uninterrupted focus on Christ and a heightened awareness of the Church’s universality.

      Your idea that this could become regular is a good one. Once a year would be practical and wonderful. Something to pray for?



  4. Dear Father Hugh,

    I’m afraid that Pope Francis’ idea of “the Church of/for the poor” is going to make the Church Impoverished – liturgy-wise, arts and music as of no consequence either.
    The idea of Beauty leading people to God and Faith seems foreign to him.
    Am I being irreverent by saying those things?
    I’m more worried that the Holy Father is being irreverent by ignoring those things (the cultural heritage of Christianity, etc.). What a loss.


    1. Hi Agnieszka,

      No you are not being irreverent. She stated your concern calmly and politely and made no attack on the pope per se. We are allowed to have our own opinions, and to express them when they are fully in accord with Catholic teaching and Tradition. As to those who accuse of divisiveness those people who dare to critique the non-infallible actions of a pope, stating the truth in love is never divisive, though it might force us to make decisions and to change our opinions. But the Church can cope with honest and respectful free speech. Let’s face it, it has weathered far worse, both from without and within.

      A blogger called Mundabor is far more strident than I am, or could be, or would want to be, but he makes a point that made me stop in my reading: Pope Francis, he says, does not see beauty, only luxury and pomp. If true, that would be very sad indeed.

      The “beauty of holiness” has two necessary concrete expressions, in the beauty of arts and crafts and in the beauty of human charity and fidelity. Both build up the Church because, whatever else they are, both are evangelical because they arrest the world’s attention and remind it of God. That is why the Church has never ceased to foster both. Both give God due glory.

      So let’s pray for the Holy Father and the Church, that they might continue to prosper in all its fullness, the beauty of holiness.



  5. I suggest glancing over Thomas Merton’s, ‘No Man is an Island’, Chapter 8; Vocation, specifically Section 16.
    Oh, and Eyebright drops can be very beneficial in hay fever and allergy treatment, in fact they’re great for all manner of over-sensitivities.
    God bless.


  6. Let’s just take Pope Francis at his word. A work situation came up that needed to be attended. He was likely meeting with the nuncios. The whole thing strikes me as less to do with any message or willfulness on the Pope’s part and more to do with a major fail on the part of the Vatican bureaucracy. For instance, why were the nuncios scheduled in Rome on such a busy weekend? Surely, a new pope with no Curial experience would prioritize meetings with his ambassadors. Also, why is the Vatican still so surprised by the Pope’s actions? Has no one thought to call Buenos Aires and get some insight from Francis’ former aides?


    1. Your sentiment does you credit. But actually we have had no word from the pope about it other than what Archbishop Fisichella announced at the start of the concert. The concert has been in the diary for the best part of a year, and if had thought he would not want to attend he could have had that quietly arranged some time ago and ruffled no one’s feathers. It can have been so discreetly and tastefully dealt with. For a crisis to have come up so grave that he would have changed his plans in a matter of less than a few hours is surprising, especially as there seems to be no whisper at all of one, and whispers usually get out fairly quickly. He had already met with his nuncios and most if not all of them were probably at the concert!

      I am not so sure this is the curia’s fault, at least not as some might portray it. I am sure they have consulted about his preferences and style. But part of Pope Francis’ style is that he is spontaneous, making snap decisions to change texts or discard them, and it is hard for officials to predict what he might do let alone keep up with it.

      And to be honest, many have thought that the pope might adapt himself to his new office and its legitimate demands. He is man of bold gestures and words, and that can be a very good thing indeed. But so can sensitivity to others.

      Maybe he does not yet know the stirs he has been causing. Maybe he does know, but thinks it a medicine we need to take. And he might be right. Time will tell.

      For now, we pray for him as we should.



  7. Dear Fr Hugh

    Have hope! We must trust in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. There is a reason why Pope Francis, is well, Pope.

    With regards to Pope Francis rhetoric of “the poor”, I think we must take into consideration where he comes from – South America.

    The poor in the UK are generally housed in council homes and obtain benefits, they’re not visible (OK, there are some notorious housing estates). I realise there are Romanians and others sleeping rough in Hyde Park for instance, but this is nothing on the scale of the shanty towns that go on for miles adjacent to major citiies. The poverty and vice there being appalling and perhaps something that those of us in good ol’ Blighty can never fathom. This is something that happens throughout the whole of the continent of South America and the Church there I suspect tries to cope with this poverty as best as it can. These masses of poor shanty dwellers seem to be ignored by their politicians quite openly. Essentially Pope Francis has all the eys of the South American “poor” watching him – it must be quite daunting. I could be wrong, but were there demonstrations by the poor in Brasil regarding the money being spent on building projects for the upcoming Olympics around the time of this concert? It must be very hard for Pope Francis.

    A commenter on another blog did make a comment that the music scheduled for the “Year of Faith” concert was, well hardly, religious…?!

    And we now have the gay boy prostitution ring scandal in the Vatican – perhaps this is why the Pope didn’t go to the Concert?

    Is it good to dissect every action of the Pope? Are we turning Pope Francis into a media sensation ourselves?

    I do get concerned about the ambiguities and inappropriateness of Pope Francis, but what does one do? Pray?

    Either way, with Pope Francis mentioning the “gay lobby” and setting up a commission to look into the Vatican Bank, perhaps we should all pray for him, so he doesn’t get… murdered. The gay lobby surely is a vicious animal.


    1. Welcome Damask Rose, and thanks for your comment.

      As you may have noticed, I am not dissecting Pope Francis’ every action and word. In fact early on in his reign I mentioned some good ones, and recently mentioned some that came hard on a series of words and actions that were liable to unhelpful interpretation.

      As it turns out the empty chair is proving to be significant, despite the range of meanings given to that significance. On Fr Blake’s blog which linked to a video by Michael Voris breaking the news of the police investigation into the alleged vice ring among members of the curia, I noted that this might be the catalyst, or casus belli, that the Pope needs to put his broom through the curia now, and in one fell swoop, or sweep to keep the metaphor. So it may be that the Saturday night no-show may have involved advance notice having been given to the Pope, who then called together some vital people to decide on a course of action in the short term. The fact that the music was not overtly religious (but hardly irreligious!) is not relevant at all..

      Yes, there are far too many poor, hidden here, obvious elsewhere. But this is nothing new, and indeed it is better than in decades past on the whole, not worse. I see no reason now why it should become THE burning issue. If the Pope is as focused on it as reporting would suggest, then it may reflect his Jesuit heritage more than anything else.

      I have always advocated praying for the Pope, as I hope you might have noticed. It is a fundamental act of submission to our Pastor. After his first week or so in office I had wondered aloud if he might not end up assassinated, given his propensity to forego security. That is still a concern for me, not lessened by the latest potential scandal. If there is a rotten segment in the Vatican, and this Pope can amputate it, then that alone may be the reason for his pontificate, and a good one.

      So let’s keep praying for him.



      1. Dear Fr Hugh

        Believe me, I do hear what you have been saying in your thread here and replies to commenters.

        After Pope Francis election and having read about his time as Cardinal in Buenos Aires I was unable to sleep for days and cried for a whole week.

        I too find Pope Francis’s ambiguities and unpredictability disconcerting, but there has been good amongst his words and actions too.

        But what am I supposed to do? I like to reflect upon how hard the change to the New Mass must have been for Abp Fulton Sheen. Maybe Abp Sheen and Pope Pius XII will be canonised soon. Saints for our time.

        Sometimes it feels like we are experiencing a Dark Night. Like the time when Jesus hung on the cross and cried out “Father, why have you forsaken me?” At the moment I feel like I am picking up the crumbs the Blessed Trinity is throwing down from their heavenly table. Heaven seems to be displeased at the moment. Perhaps too many priests with mill-stones round their necks? (Garabandal and Our Lady of Good Success in Quito springs to mind.)

        I guess this is where the devotion to the Divine Mercy comes in: Jesus, I trust in you.

        Father, you said:

        “As it turns out the empty chair is proving to be significant, despite the range of meanings given to that significance.”

        This is a very heavy-weight comment, and I agree. But what can I do, but side with Peter.

        When I said my Rosary, I offered up the three Hail Marys, you know for the Pope, for Benedict and would ask that he could achieve everything he wanted to do… And what happened, he abdicated! I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought “what have I done?” My only consolation is the comforting thought that he cannot be manipulated or the “wrong” things signed in his name in his old age. (Perhaps this was Pope Benedict’s aim? Perhaps my Rosary prayers weren’t in vain somehow after all?)

        I hope that Papa Benedict will live long enough to see Pope Francis consecrate Russia to Our Lady of Fatima. And Papa Benedict, whom I miss, is praying for Pope Francis.

        I am distressed, but what can I do? I can only be obedient and pass on the old faith my mother taught me to my child.

        Jesus, Mary and Joseph, look after you, Father.


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