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?


AWESOME ecumenical news

If you read here regularly (and my thanks to both of you!) you might remember that I spent a little time looking at the ecumenical reactions to Benedict XVI’s abdication. First I combined the reactions of a Lutheran, Russian and Greek Orthodox prelates and the leader of the Bruderhof (in the anabaptist tradition), and noted how remarkably positive they were, especially when compared to the venom dripping from some Catholic fangs. Then we looked at the official statement from Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (the Orthodox ‘pope’ to put it very crudely and loosely) who wrote in unprecedented warm terms about Benedict, including this wonderful jewel:

We Orthodox will always honor him as a friend of our Church and a faithful servant of the sacred proposition for the union of all.

It seemed to signal that Benedict had furthered ecumenism much more than he was credited with by most commentators, and I hoped aloud that his successor could continue to build on this authentic and strong ecumenical foundation. Then Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, even more remarkably given the Russian Orthodox mistrust of the Roman Church, wrote in terms barely less fulsome, and he ventured to declare a hope:

I sincerely hope what developed during your active participation, a good trusting relationship between the Orthodox and the Catholics, will continue to grow with your successor.

BenedictBartholomewSo, imagine my stunned gaping when I saw a comment from the Restless Pilgrim alerting me to the fact that it has been announced that Patriarch Bartholomew will attend Pope Francis’ Mass of inauguration on Tuesday. This is BIG news. For the first time since the Great Schism began in 1054 the Patriarch of Constantinople, the acknowledged leading prelate among the Orthodox, will attend the enthronement of a pope. This is so immensely important I am speechless.

As discussed in an earlier post, the major obstacles to reunion between the Orthodox and Catholic communions of Churches are not essentially theological, though they certainly exist, but ecclesiological: the role of papal primacy in practice (for the Orthodox accept the principle already). While a brother priest among the Orthodox is not quite so upbeat about the theological differences, he highlights as the primary issue for now the need for mutual forgiveness between the two Churches before any theological reconciliation can be effected. Common worship is the sublimest forum for reconciliation and after almost 1000 years it seems to be upon us.

Benedict XVI has sown ecumenical seed of great richness; the opportunity now arises for Pope Francis to reap the harvest. Only God can give the growth of course, so let us pray for this encounter in worship on Tuesday. As the world grows ever more hostile to Christianity, the ancient churches should rightly seek to reconcile and confirm each other in Christian faith.

And if Patriarch Kirill will find it in his heart to come also next Tuesday, then I will renounce coffee till I die. This is so important that it is worthy of sacrifices that hurt. But for now, I will take what I can get. And Patriarch Bartholomew’s announcement is great gain indeed for us all. For now, I think I need a sherry…

Patriarch Bartholomew on Pope Benedict XVI

The Patriarch of Constantinople’s official communiqué on the abdication of Pope Benedict is now available in full. It is a warm and glowing tribute to his fellow worker in the vineyard, and testimony to the great leap forward in relations with the Orthodox churches. It is reproduced in full below:

It is with regret that we have learned of the decision by His Holiness Pope Benedict to retire from his Throne, because with his wisdom and experience he could have provided much more to the Church and the world.

Pope Benedict leaves an indelible mark on the life and history of the Roman Catholic Church, sealed not only by his brief papacy, but also by his broad and longstanding contribution as a theologian and hierarch of his Church, as well as his universally acknowledged prestige.

His writings will long speak of his deep theological understanding, through his knowledge of the Fathers of the undivided Church, his familiarity with contemporary reality, and his keen interest in the problems of humankind.

We Orthodox will always honor him as a friend of our Church and a faithful servant of the sacred proposition for the union of all. Moreover, we shall rejoice upon learning of his sound health and the productivity of his theological work.

Personally, we remember with emotion his visit to the See of the Ecumenical Patriarchate over six years ago, together with the numerous encounters and excellent cooperation, which we enjoyed throughout the duration of his primatial ministry.

From the Phanar, we pray that the Lord will manifest his worthy successor as the head of the sister Church of Rome, and that we may also continue with this successor on our common journey toward the unity of all unto the glory of God.

The wording of this statement seems very significant, for its naunces are very positive indeed.  There is the clear appreciation of Benedict personally: his “wisdom”, his “theological understanding”, “friend of our Church”, etc. But there is also some subtle acknowledgment of a renewed understanding of the papacy for the Orthodox. His mention of Benedict’s “primatial ministry” could of course be construed as referring merely to him as primate of the western, or Roman, Church, and those Churches in communion with it. But that is not a wholly satisfying explanation; in this context there is no real need to mention it. So it could, perhaps, signal a willingness of the Orthodox to renew its understanding of the primatial role of the papacy, which the Orthodox accept already, though in a more restricted sense. On paper, the Orthodox would accept the Pope, all things being equal, as first among equals, and probably as a court of final appeal in matters doctrinal and (maybe) even jurisdictional. In light of the concluding paragraph, one could justifiably conclude that Patriarch Bartholomew is signalling that they wish to continue the progress towards the restoration of communion that has prospered under Pope Benedict.

Pope Benedict is ecumenical in the best and truest sense of the word. May God allow us to build further on these newly-strengthened foundations.

Some ecumenical reactions to Pope Benedict’s abdication

This morning I made the mistake of reading the latest issue of The Tablet at breakfast. It has given me indigestion. The antagonistic attitude it promotes to all things papal is disgraceful. It is all the more disgraceful when contrasted with its fawning tone towards the Anglican communion; indeed, the overriding impression is of insecure Catholics, of a sort, ingratiating themselves with the (dying) establishment. The journal should be outed for what it is: an Anglican journal.

Anyway to restore peace of mind and digestive harmony I made a quick Google search and with no effort found some far more balanced and positive reactions from non-Catholic Christians.

The Lutheran pastor in Rome was able to say that,

I wish to recall three actions by Pope Benedict XVI because, as a Lutheran pastor in Rome I perceive and consider these gestures to have a lasting ecumenical importance, capable of showing the way.

Pope+Visits+Evangelic+Lutheran+Church+Rome+uvmKNqZH0Z_lHe lists three ecumenical encounters with the Pope in which he sees the Pope’s “closeness and communion” with Lutherans, and the expression of an “ecumenical bond”. To be sure, Pastor Kruse’s statement comes across as a tad self-serving for the Lutheran cause, but it reveals the Lutherans’ perception of the openness of Pope Benedict to healing the breaches of the Reformation.



Vatican Pope ConcertMetropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church, traditionally one of the eastern churches more hostile to Rome, spoke of his discussion with the newly-appointed Russian ambassador to the Vatican:

“I talked about Pope Ratzinger just a few days ago during a meeting with the new Russian ambassador to the Vatican, Aleksandr Avdeyev,” said Hilarion. “He emphasized the positive direction that the relationship between the Russian Church and the Vatican has taken since the arrival of Benedict XVI. He is a highly respected theologian, an expert on orthodox traditions. I was struck by his calm and his meditated answers, as well as his acumen in trying to solve problems.”

Hilarion moves on from an analysis of ecumenical relations to an appreciation of Pope Benedict himself, and it is a strikingly generous one for the Russian Orthodox.

BenedictBartholomewThe Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the primus inter  pares (“first among equals”) of the Orthodox churches, likewise spoke highly of Pope Benedict’s ecumenical endeavours. Moreover, he too was able to speak warm personal praise for Pope Benedict in another sign of the ecumenical thaw under this pope:

Bartholomew praised Benedict, describing him as “a highly influential figure in the Church, not only as a Pope but also as a theologian.”

“He was a person who could solve problems not only in religion, but also in the problems that we are facing today,” Bartholomew said, adding that he believed the pontiff would continue to be a prominent figure even after stepping down as pope. “He was an important reference to everyone. Thus, I believe he will continue to add value to the world with his research and articles,” he said.

Bartholomew confirms the impression that has long since emerged that Pope Benedict was someone the Orthodox felt they could deal with constructively, fruitfully and positively.

jcaratzLastly, there was a statement from the leading pastor of the Bruderhof, a type of modern anabaptist Christian community noted for its commitment to peace and simplicity, founded in the wake of World War I in Germany and persecuted by the Nazis, and now found throughout the world. Pastor Johann Arnold expressed exactly the sort of sentiments one would have hoped from The Tablet, and not expected so readily from one in the anabaptist tradition:

…we ought to praise God for the eight years that Pope Benedict has been able to serve and lead the Catholic Church.

Still, even though I am not Catholic, I was saddened to read today of his resignation. I have known this humble man personally for the last 18 years, and through personal encounters and correspondence, I have developed a deep respect for him. Already as a cardinal, and then as pope, he has been a tireless advocate for the true values of Christianity—values which are sadly being lost, and attacked, all over the world.

Pope Benedict is one of the few voices that have had the courage to speak out for true Christ-like discipleship and for traditional family values. With his resignation, we are losing a voice of conscience that we can ill afford to lose, even as it has been rejected and criticized.

I am going to miss Brother Benedict very much and will have him on my prayers.

As Fr Z would say, Pope Benedict XVI is the pope of Christian unity. Peace upon him.