Pope Francis and the Liturgy

Here are two short admonitions from a famous saint, in which he urges his audience to ensure that the Sacred Liturgy be administered with utmost solemnity, with care to use use precious vessels for the Eucharistic species, and with outward signs of reverence and humility.  Guess who it is!

Rogo vos plus quam de me ipso, quatenus, cum decet et videritis expedire, clericis humiliter supplicetis, quod sanctissimum corpus et sanguinem Domini nostri Jesu Christi et sancta nomina et verba eius scripta, quae sanctificant corpus, super omnia debeant venerari. Calices, corporalia, ornamenta altaris et omnia, quae pertinent ad sacrificium, pretiosa habere debeant. Et si in aliquo loco sanctissimum corpus Domini fuerit pauperrime collocatum, iuxta mandatum Ecclesiae in loco pretioso ab eis ponatur et consignetur et cum magna veneratione portetur et cum discretione aliis ministretur… Et, quando a sacerdote sacrificatur super altare et in aliqua parte portatur, omnes gentes flexis genibus reddant laudes, gloriam et honorem Domino Deo vivo et vero. (Epistola ad custodes)

I beg you more than if it were an issue concerning me, when appropriate and you deem it fitting, that you humbly beseech the clerics to venerate above all the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and His Holy Name, and his written words that sanctify the body. They should hold as precious the chalices, corporals, ornaments of the altar, and all that pertain to the Sacrifice. And if the most holy Body of the Lord is left very poorly in any place, let it be moved by the clerics 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… And whenever it is being sacrificed by the priest on the altar and is carried to any place, let all the people on bended knee give praise, honor, and glory to the Lord God Living and True. (Letter to sacristans)

And another:

Omnes autem illi qui ministrant tam sanctissima ministeria, considerent intra se, maxime his qui indiscrete ministrant, quam viles sint calices, corporalia et linteamina, ubi sacrificatur corpus et sanguis Domini nostri. Et a multis in locis vilibus relinquitur, miserabiliter portatur et indigne sumitur et indiscrete aliis ministratur… Non movemur de his omnibus pietate, cum ipse pius Dominus in manibus nostris se praebeat et eum tractemus et sumamus quotidie per os nostrum? An ignoramus, quia debemus venire in manus eius? Igitur de his omnibus et aliis cito et firmiter emendemus; et ubicumque fuerit sanctissimum Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi illicite collocatum et relictum, removeatur de loco illo et in loco pretioso ponatur et consignetur… Et scimus, quia haec omnia tenemur super omnia observare secundum praecepta Domimi et constitutiones sanctae matris Ecclesiae. Et qui hoc non fecerit, sciat, se coram Domino nostro Jesu Christo in die iudicii reddere rationem. (Epistola ad Clericos)

But let all those who administer such most holy mysteries, especially those who do so indifferently, consider among themselves how vile be the chalices, corporals, and linens where the Body and Blood of our Lord is sacrificed. And by many it is abandoned in vile places and miserably carried, consumed unworthily and administered to others indiscriminately… Shall we not by all these things be moved with all piety when the good Lord Himself places Himself in our hands and we handle Him and consume Him daily in our mouths? Are we unmindful that we must fall into His hands? Let us then at once and firmly correct these faults and others; and wherever the most holy Body of our Lord Jesus Christ may be improperly reserved and abandoned, let it be removed, placed and enclosed in a precious place… And we know that we are bound above all to observe all these things by the precepts of the Lord and the constitutions of holy Mother Church. And let him who does not do so know that he must render an account in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ on Judgment Day. (Letter to Clergy)

Who is so bold as to declare God’s judgment on those who fail to reverence the Eucharist through external signs and precious vessels?  Who can claim authority to write in such a commanding tone to clerics?  No, these are not the words of any popes named Pius, often vigorous custodians of the Roman Liturgy.  Neither do they belong to Alphosus Liguori nor to Charles Borromeo, the mighty bishops of the Counter-Reformation.  These are neither the orders of a bishop nor even the utterances of a priest, but of a mere deacon who considered himself unworthy to to offer the Sacrifice of Christ on the altar.

These are the words of none other than the Poverello, Francis of Assisi, namesake of my alma mater and of the Roman Pontiff now gloriously reigning.

To be honest, the sharp change in liturgical style from Benedict XVI to Francis shocked me as it did many people who rejoiced in the Ratzingerian recovery of sacrality in the liturgy.  The loss of the mozzetta at his first “buona sera” to Rome and to the world seemed a ominous clue as to the program of this pontificate.  For others, among them a certain red-hatted American, this shift elicited classless comments on social media, exulting in an apparent triumph of the “low Church” over the “high Church”, not-so-subtly throwing jabs at the infirm man who, while on the Chair of Peter, revitalized the true liturgical vision of the Second Vatican Council, and who in his humility took the historic step of relinquishing the Petrine office when his strength faded.  But this present Pope, like the Church of all ages, continues to surprise, avoiding being pigeonholed into this camp or that party.  And as the initial excitement incited by the election of a pope dalla fine del mondo wears away, we might find that the aforementioned American cardinal and his ilk may have more to lament than to cheer.

Such is the case in Francis’ liturgical style.  Yes, he repudiates the mozzetta and the fanon and the Baroque vestments that characterized the last years of Benedict’s pontificate.  But the liturgical vestments he wears resemble nothing of the cheap, plain, incoherently-patterned vestments influenced by the work of Matisse’s last years, which gained so much traction in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s.  No, he wears not the florid intricacies of the Counter-Reformation period, but neither can one deny the artistry and solemnity made manifest in his vestments.  Without fail, whether celebrating the Novus Ordo equivalent of “low Mass” in Santa Marta or a solemn pontifical Mass in San Pietro, he always wears the unique, larger papal pallium introduced by Benedict XVI, its six blood-red crosses adorning the man who is First among the bishops of the world.  He often uses the resplendent gold crozier of Benedict XVI (alternating with the simpler crozier of John Paul II).  His mitres and chasubles are of worthy, sturdy material, while its straight, solid ornamentations remind one more of the Romanesque style and its affinity with the Greek iconic tradition.  Fulgent nobili simplicitate, as Vatican II demands (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 34).

In his first Chrism Mass, Pope Francis admonished the priests of Rome words which have now become emblematic of his pontificate: andate nelle periferie… siate pastori con l’odore del pecore.  But these iconic words may have overshadowed the first part of the homily, a beautiful exegesis on the vestments of the Jewish High Priest and the splendor of liturgy.

…la bellezza di quanto è liturgico… non è semplice ornamento e gusto per i drappi, bensì presenza della gloria del nostro Dio che risplende nel suo popolo vivo e confortato…

the beauty of liturgical matters… is not so much about trappings and fine fabrics than about the presence of the glory of our God resplendent in his people, comforted and alive…

He echoes the sentiments of true lovers of sacred liturgy: they do not admire beautiful baroque vestments in themselves, but in their elevated use as physical, artistic expressions of God’s beauty which is made present in a special way through the liturgy.  Of course, there are Ratzingerian resonances.  In a previous Chrism Mass (2007), Papa Ratzinger, recalling St. Paul, concretizes the connection between sacred vestments and Christ, our High Priest.

…nel momento dell’Ordinazione sacerdotale, la Chiesa ci ha reso visibile ed afferrabile questa realtà dei “vestiti nuovi” anche esternamente mediante l’essere stati rivestiti con i paramenti liturgici. In questo gesto esterno essa vuole renderci evidente l’evento interiore e il compito che da esso ci viene: rivestire Cristo; donarsi a Lui come Egli si è donato a noi. 

…in the moment of priestly ordination, the Church has rendered visible and tangible this reality of “new clothing” externally through the putting on of liturgical vestments.  In this external gesture, the Church wishes to make evident the interior event and the duty which derives from it: to put on Christ; to give oneself to Him as he gave Himself to us.

To put on Christ is to enter into a mystery greater than oneself.  It signifies the diminishment of egotistical desires and a greater conformity to the will of God.  In the liturgy, this is externally manifested in the wearing of priestly vestments.  No longer does the priest live on his own, but Christ lives in and through him.  It is a symbol of the surrender of the priest, who by his life and his actions must continually say, “not my will, but Yours be done”. 

I am reminded of the mighty St. Augustine of Hippo, who after a long life of sin and wandering, passing from paganism to Manichaeism to Arianism, finally found the Lord and his Holy Catholic Church.  After repudiating his former ways, his eloquence, intelligence, and fama sanctitatis were so evident to all that when bishop Valerius grew increasingly infirm, the people of Hippo Regius forcibly dragged Augustine to the bishop that he might receive episcopal consecration and succeed upon Valerius’ death.  Frightened by the weight of the apostolic office and knowing himself a sinner, he was ordained a bishop as tears of bitter reluctance ran down his face.  Yet once the deed was done, he accepted the mantle placed on his shoulders, resolutely guiding the Church at Hippo and conserving the faith against the Arian heresy.  Augustine put on the full priesthood of Christ for the good of his people.

I am reminded of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who three times asked John Paul II to let him retire in a life of prayerful solitude and study, and three times Papa Wojtyla said no.  Later, as the principal concelebrating cardinal at the Missa pro Defuncto Romano Pontifice, he heard the passage from the Gospel of John in which Christ admonishes Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?  Then feed my sheep”.  The eminent cardinals, like the people of Hippo Regius, then thrust upon him the heaviest mantle in the Church.  He too entered a ministry he did not seek, but remained faithful to the office, and in this same faith, later renounced the papacy ad utilitatem Ecclesiae Dei Sanctae

I am reminded of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, behind whom the opponents of Ratzinger rallied in 2005, who, during the fourth ballot, heartfully and tearfully begged his electors not to oppose the Bavarian’s election.  Eight years later, the Petrine mantle is now thrust upon his shoulders.  And while his personal style continues to stun and surprise, he too remains faithful to the essentials of the apostolic office, even in matters of liturgy. 

Unlike Ratzinger and Wojtyla (and Luciani and Montini and Roncalli and Pacelli and Ratti and Della Chiesa and Sarto and Pecci and Mastai-Feretti and Capellari and Castiglioni… and so on), Bergoglio is neither a polyglot nor a man educated in the Classics; he holds no doctorate in theology or canon law.  His personal religiosity is the simple type of le periferie and of las villas favelas which he visited so often as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  We can readily find photos and footage of these “popular” Masses, in which we see the future pope wearing his vestments incorrectly: only the stole with no chasuble, or with his Roman collar exposed because he did not wear an amice, or the stole on top of the chasuble, or vestments with non-liturgical colors, etc. 

But now that he is Pope, these idiosyncratic tendencies are gone.  He properly wears his vestments: the from the amice, alb, cincture, stole, tunicle, dalmatic, chasuble, zucchetto, and mitre, each is worn in the right order, each expressing with great symbolism that he is truly the High Priest of the Church Visible.  On the great feasts, he prays the magnificent Latin orations of the Church and likewise imparts the blessings Urbi et Orbi in Latin.  At the end of Mass he can be seen singing the traditional Marian antiphon of the season (again, in Latin).  When, at the altar, Francis says una cum me indigno famulo tuo, quem Ecclesiae tuae praeesse voluisti, we know he has truly become one in heart, mind, and spirit with his predecessors on the Chair of Peter; indeed, he has put on the mantle of Peter and entered wholesale into the Office itself. 

Thus we who loved what Benedict did for the sacred liturgy secundum suam essentiam spiritualem should not let our hearts be troubled.  The shelving of the mozzetta and fanon [a temporary change, I hope] does not alter the sense of awe, majesty, and reverence which we see in Papa Bergoglio’s eyes as he elevates the Body and Blood of Christ–still in golden, precious chalices and ciboria–for the people’s adoration.  We can be sure that in the realm of the sacred liturgy, the admonition of St. Francis of Assisi to safeguard the external and interior beauty, sacrality, and splendor of the liturgy will never go unheeded by Francis.

(But to hope that one day this Pope might offer the Traditional Latin Mass– well, that is a completely different matter.)

1 Comment on Pope Francis and the Liturgy

  1. Thanks for this excellent essay. St. Francis is one of my favorites – so glad to hear that Pope Francis is taking not only his name but his solemnity as well. I used the quote with the Confirmation class last Sunday – our topic just happened to be on the Liturgy. Great timing.

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