Pope Francis - a reformer more after St Pius X or Paul VI?

A suffering pope, St Pius X: " 'Look how they have dressed me up', he exclaimed to an old friend, and burst into tears. And to another he said, 'It is indeed a penance to be forced to accept all these practices. They lead me about surrounded by soldiers like Jesus when he was seized in Gethsemane.'"

From Butler's Lives of the Saints:

"Pius X was ever actively concerned for the weak and oppressed. He strongly denounced the foul ill-treatment of the Indians on the rubber-plantations of Peru, and greatly encouraged the Indian missions in that country. He sent a commission of relief after the earthquake at Messina, and sheltered refugees at his own expense in the hospice of Santa Marta by St. Peter's, while his general charities, in Rome and throughout the world, were so great that people wondered where all the money came from. The quiet simplicity of his personal habits and the impressive holiness of his character were both exemplified in his custom of preaching publicly on the day's gospel in one of the Vatican courtyards every Sunday. Pius was embarrased - perhaps a little shocked - by the ceremoniousness and some of the observances of the papal court. At Venice he had refused to let anyone but his sisters cook for him, and now he declined to observe the custom of conferring titles of nobility on his relatives. 'The Lord has made them sisters of the pope', he said, 'that should suffice'. 'Look how they have dressed me up', he exclaimed to an old friend, and burst into tears. And to another he said, 'It is indeed a penance to be forced to accept all these practices. They lead me about surrounded by soldiers like Jesus when he was seized in Gethsemane.'

"These are not merely amusing anecdotes. They go right to the heart of Pius's single-minded goodness...."

The pectoral cross, the shoes, the informality, the personal rapour - all of these have emerged as hallmarks of the new pontiff and they have given out powerful signals which have been 'read' across the world, both within and without the Catholic world. Some have been alarmed by the pope's readiness to throw off the ceremonial bits and pieces, feeling a disrespect towards those who love tradition, and to tradition itself. Others have been quick to seize on these as signs of a more 'liberal' approach to the sense of hierarchy not just in the Vatican court but in the liturgy, a reversal of the reforms of Pope Benedict. I think this quotation about Pope Pius X, beloved or arch-conservatives and a canonised saint of the Catholic Church, should help put some context around these signs. Love of the poor and a simpler, more accessible style do not equate with liberalism, despite the tweets reportedly made by the discredited Cardinal Maloney.

As a liturgical artist, and an iconographer to boot, I have to confess a deep love of rich liturgy, especially of the Eastern Rites. They are a style of their own, deeply communal and masculine. Of course they can be done in a boring, repetitive, careless way but when they are done with full presence of mind and devotion then you simply wallow in them, like a hippopotamus in mud. Grace, the numinous, the Presence of God seeps into your pores, your mind, your soul whether you understand the words or not, and the gates of heaven swing open and reveal the glory of God. It is one way of doing liturgy, one which speaks to the eastern mindset. As a Muslim friend of mine from the Middle East told me, 'we feel more comfortable with Orthodox worship, its more our culture'.

Latin Rite Catholicism, be it the usus antiquior or the novus ordo in the vernacular, is very, very different and more culturally alien to the world which was once Byzantium, and then of the Ottoman's, a boisterous, imperial culture. Latin Christianity is more reserved, more devotional, more personal and feminine. Latin Christianity is about Stations of the Cross and personal Bible meditations, rosaries and times of silence. There is no silence in the Byzantine Liturgy, no place for the individual to kneel in private prayer and devotion. The nearest you get is the lighting of candles and the kissing of the icons. But these a brief moments in a wave of liturgical action that sweeps the individuals up into a momentous whole. Latin liturgy, in contrast, is full of kneeling, reflecting, silence, reverence, like a million tiny droplets of water splashing to the ground rather than a tumultuous wave. The old rite liturgy was almost a background event within which the individual said her rosary and her devotions, pausing when the bells rung to adore the Eucharistic Presence, and occasionally to make Communion. So, despite a passing similarity of a certain grandness, Latin and Greek Liturgies have always been very distinctive and culturally different.

Ceremonial in Eastern Liturgy, splendid as it is, reflects much of the courtly ritual of late Antiquity and the Byzantine era. Western Liturgy is much more varied in its origins, with a plethora of liturgies compiled into the unified Roman Rite of the XVIth century Pauline reforms. Reading Eamon Duffy's books (Srtipping the Altars and The Voices of Morebath)about late medieval English parish life reveals just how 'populist' and devotional much of it was, with its rich variety of devotional ceremonial especially surrounding the cult of the saints and of the great feasts such as Holy Week. Almost all of this was suppressed and a more austere, controlled and courtly ceremonial liturgy took its place. Splendid as this was, and is, nevertheless it speaks to a world of emperors and lords, of people knowing their place not just between heaven and earth, but by implication on earth as well.

Let me explain what I mean. Ceremonial is vitally important to enable communities to bind together, to forge a common identity and to know where and to whom they belong. We see this in the UK with the monarch, and the wonderful ceremonial that accompanies that. Most of it, however, has been invented during the late Victorian era and especially during the reign of George VI. The vitality of ceremonial is its ability to be 'populist' to draw everyone in and make it resonate in a way that enables people to transcend their individuality and find themselves in some way 'greater' than when alone.

However, it also serves to put people 'in their place', with the most powerful at the apex. This is particularly true of secular power structures and its ceremonial. Ceremonial isn't restricted to monarchies -  presidents like the red carpet treatment, the honour guard, the banquet procession, the black tie and the chance to display costly jewels and dresses. They are, literally, the trappings of power and in a president power is focused on him as a individual who has won the mandate of 'the people'. Monarchical ceremonial is a little more about the monarch embodying in a sacred way the nation, which is more than the people of the time, but the sense of history that has formed the present. Because here the focus is on the enduring sense of the nation, the ceremonial is more inclusive, with symbolic roles of service. People swear oaths to the queen and her successors, as the successor of a lineage; they kneel and do homage not to the individual who has achieved personal glory, but as the bearer of an institution much greater than him or herself. However, the point is still there, that people have their place, earned or not, and the ceremonial lets everyone know where they are in the structure. The rich symbols with long histories make powerful statements about who is who. That is why so much care is taken over seating arrangements from a school concert to the opening of Parliament. Who sits where is making statements of power, literally who is above someone else in the pecking order.

This then raises the question about ceremonial in the liturgy, but more particularly about ceremonial in the Vatican. As the Pope is a spiritual office holder, this can become confusing, blurred and and at times manipulated to bolster either his spiritual power or his temporal power. Is it a 'court'? As the Supreme Pontiff is a head of state, is it as a crowned monarch? We no longer have the Papal Tiara, and the state of which he is head is more a nominal reality than an effective state as such. He lost the Papal States, the so called Donation of Constantine, 150yrs ago. He was a monarch then, in an age of monarchs, it was how the world governed itself. Now monarchies are almost all gone, and democracy or dictatorships are the norm. How is the Pope to understand himself as a political reality and hence the ceremonial that proclaims that and enable the Catholic faithful to relate to him as their spiritual head? Is it as a monarchical novelty, a sort of Ruritanian curiosity? Or if not, maybe as a CEO of the largest corporation on earth? Or as a president of the faithful? None of these models, to my mind, seems fitting or appropriate. That leaves us still with an unanswered question, what is his temporal position? The most obvious answer is he is Bishop of Rome, Primate of the Universal Church, first among bishops but the ceremonial context of his office is still deeply rooted in the monarchical system which St Pius X was already rejecting and casting aside. But we are still left without a clear model of what exactly is replacing that monarchical model. And this is why I think those of us with a sense of the tradition of things feel uneasy, even disturbed by the casting aside of the old model's symbols, even if its time is long past, because there is no clear model being articulated to be put in its place.

Yet, at the same time, those with a sense of the absurd and who value the spiritual treasury of the Church sense that the anachronistic ceremonial of a royal court that is not only irrelevant in the current situation, but as something which gives out all the wrong signals - that we are just playing, and enjoy dressing up for all the wrong reasons, and that in doing so we are perpetuating a model of discrimination and worldly elevation of some above others, and ceremonial as a way of controlling others and promoting ourselves. It is this in particular that I think Pope Francis identifies as 'wordliness' and a dangerous cancer in the spiritual life of the curia.

For myself, I want and need a rich, beautiful ceremonial, but one that, like the ceremonial of the British monarchy, is populist, that does the job properly in our current situation. We need to be bound up together, to be caught up beyond ourselves with a Catholic Christian identity, that unites us and celebrates all that makes us who we are. This might be fish on Fridays, or the symbolic ritual that surrounds the pope as our chief shepherd.It might be many things. But it needs to work, and not to consign us in the popular mind to a world long gone, and heaven forbid to a model of power which is about worldliness and showing off who has the most money (ermine, gold, silk, gems etc. all COST lots of money, that's why kings and celebrities like to wear them - it shows they have cash, and lots of it, and money means power). We do need a beautiful ceremonial, because beauty lifts the soul and is a reflection of God, but that has to be beautiful in all ways and that includes expressing the essential Christian virtues of humility, compassion, generosity etc. We need a ceremonial which puts us in our right place in relationship to each other in Jesus Christ, one which recognises hierarchy as service, and not some lording it over others, as Jesus Christ Himself put it.

Eastern Christianity has been forced to evolve itself through humiliation. It hasn't been a court Church in the Middle East and Turkey for 500yrs, and it has become populist in the sense that a spiritual hermeneutic has taken over, stressing the person of Jesus, the Theotokos, the saints etc and the relationship between them and the Church here and now. The time has come for the Western Church to go through a similar 'purgation'.

Pope Francis, in casting aside some of the trappings of worldly power is making a strong statement about the enduring nature of the papal office. By cutting it off from a particular cultural setting whose relevance and symbolic potencies have long passed, he is giving the chance for the deeper nature of the Petrine office to re-assert itself in the contemporary world. When this was tried under Paul VI it was a disaster, mainly because it focused not on the Papal Court, but on the Liturgy, with deep cultural and spiritual harm being done as (what were essentially self-appointed) Philisitines were let loose on the liturgy. It would have been better if they had been let loose on the Vatican court first, as a way of experimentation, rather than on the sacred Liturgy, but that is now history and things have moved on with Pope Benedict's reform of the reform.

My hope is that after the necessary reforms of Pope Benedict, where the boundaries were clearly re-drawn, the process of cultural regeneration can continue in a much more satisfactory way. Pope Francis' 'style' is a more relaxed, intimate, fatherly manner and in what seems at first glance a reversal to a liturgy more in keeping with that of the Blessed John Paul II, he has chosen one which more suits that of a gentle pastor who needs to speak to his flock, encourage them and to re-assure them after what has been, by any standards, a dreadful decade of scandal and persecution of the ordinary faithful. It is a style of that devotional, prayerful silence rather than that of grand transcendence because, I guess, that is what he sees the flock entrusted to him needs at this moment. They need to sense God is with them, intimately, domestically, rather than looming over them in glory. They need to sense that the Lord suffers with them, walks with them, and shares their burdens because He invites them to share His Cross.

In this we have a very Franciscan reform, the same shift that Saint Francis initiated in the Middle Ages with the Christmas Crib - presenting Jesus as a poor, very human, little Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, in a humble stable, rather than the Lord, as Divine Wisdom, as He is traditionally depicted in early Christian iconography up until that time. This devotionalism came to dominate the Church's prayer life in the West, with such things as the Stations of the Cross which focused strongly on the humanity of Christ and His closeness to us.

However, Pope Francis has not made any dramatic symbolic changes in the liturgy, but  rather focused his symbolic actions on the trappings of the Papal Court and this makes him, I think, more of a reformer after the heart of St Pius X than Paul VI. He isn't a liturgical reformer as such, he is a reformer of the whole spirit in which the Christian faithful seek to live and that, of necessity, is both formed by and shapes the Liturgy just as it has always done. Thus comments by Cardinal Hummes that Pope Francis would want to reform the way in which the Liturgy is celebrated are in this wider contect:

"...Is reform necessary?
Not only the Curia but there are many other things: the way we do Mass, to evangelize, the new evangelization needs new methods. The pope spoke at the meeting with the Cardinals on new methods, we need to find new methods. But they spoke mostly of the Roman Curia, which needs to be reformed structurally. It's too big, but all this need a study, we do not have many coordinates." (Google translation of an article here). 


Popular Posts