Of Different Papal Signs and Symbols...

The main criticisms I have heard aimed at Pope Francis seem largely motivated by a love and concern for the liturgical reform instigated by Pope Benedict. I cannot help but wonder whether this constitutes a somewhat insular concern in that, 1. I think it is very early to be making any judgements and 2. although many of us loved what we saw Pope Benedict trying to gently do, most people didn't even notice, or understand.

We can learn much about Pope Benedict's papacy by reflecting on this I think and I have to wonder who was actually switched on to what he was doing liturgically and theologically. I know I have enjoyed discussing and teasing out lots of the little signs and symbols he has given us over the course of his papacy, and I have been deeply enriched as a result. But I have engaged in a lot of defence and a lot of explanation as well.

I want to continue a discussion began here because I don't want anyone to mistake my points therein as criticisms or even disregard for the liturgical signs and symbols given to us by Pope Benedict. His liturgical choices, especially perhaps in terms of details of dress, were never simply personal preferences, but rather polyvalent signs that always communicated a deeper subtext and meaning. Some examples that are being discussed at the moment include the red papal slippers, a symbol of martyrdom, not opulence, and one born by every pope since AD 313. Yet despite this somehow Pope Benedict is being held up for criticism because Pope Francis has chosen to lay them aside (for the time being at least). Clearly the new Pope has cast aside these symbols of opulence! 

On the 21st October 2012 Pope Benedict wore the Papal Fanon which ignited great discussion, as Mgr. Marini explained "the vestments used ... aim to underline the continuity of today's liturgical celebration with that which characterized the life of the church in the past...". 

Perhaps most pedagogically rich of all the signs which spring easily to my mind, is the wearing of a stole of Leo XIII when he visited Westminster Abbey. Many people noted (including Fr. Z who I link to there) that Pope Leo XIII was the pope who promulgated the bull Apostolicae curae which confirmed the nullity of Anglican orders. However, Pope Leo, known for his intellectualism and his authoritative social teaching in Rerum novarum (teaching which is just now being discovered and valued by secular society), was the first of the 'modern' popes to concern himself with Christian unity. He also raised Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman to the dignity of Cardinal and in 1894, issued Praeclara Gratulationis Publicæ on the reunion of Christendom. Pope Leo showed his special love and concern for the people of England and of Scotland in Amantissima Voluntatis (to the English People - 1895) and Caritatis Studium (to the Scottish bishops - 1898). In both of these he refers for the first time to "separated brethren". In the first he gave us the famous prayer for the reunion of England: 
Prayer for England.
O Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our most gentle Queen and Mother, look down in mercy upon England thy "Dowry" and upon us all who greatly hope and trust in thee. By thee it was that Jesus our Saviour and our hope was given unto the world ; and He has given thee to us that we might hope still more. Plead for us thy children, whom thou didst receive and accept at the foot of the cross. O sorrowful Mother! intercede for our separated brethren, that with us in the one true fold they may be united to the supreme Shepherd, the Vicar of thy Son. Pray for us all, dear Mother, that by faith fruitful in good works we may all deserve to see and praise God, together with thee, in our heavenly home. Amen

I think this demonstrates that if we bore the inclination to carefully consider the actions of Pope Benedict, we could learn so very much about the rich history of our Church. As a professor from Germany, who cut his teeth on the intellectual mêlée between atheism and theism, Ratzinger could draw on a vast wealth of knowledge and understanding in order, never to dictate, but always to lead by example, to try to enrich our own understanding...if we were paying attention.

In my own parish, we already enjoy excellent liturgy. The lessons taught by Pope Benedict were deeply valued by my Parish Priest, who has studied and understood them, and tried to pass them on with great love to his flock. I think he would agree that there has been a slight yet discernible  increase in the reverence shown at Mass. More people genuflect and receive on the tongue for example. But did Benedict's teaching appeal to anyone who wasn't already concerned and involved with their faith? Is liturgy still being done badly? Indubitably.

Please don't get me wrong, this is in no way a criticism of Pope Benedict, who I love dearly and whose contribution has been deeply formative and indeed invaluable in my own life. I just want to draw attention to what could be seen as an interesting reflection on the teleology of leadership we are now experiencing first hand. Pope Benedict's leadership was, for me, a very gentle thing. It demonstrated his deep association and intellectual integration with the full panoply of the faith in all its sociology, anthropological and historical nuance. I learnt a great deal from this and found each of the little symbols he used to teach us greatly enriching. 

I recognise from the start that Pope Francis is not Pope Benedict, nor could he be. His background is very different and his life experiences have no doubt tempered his essential understanding of the efficacious nature of a life lived in relationship with Jesus Christ. The spiritual backdrop of South America is fascinating, and something I know precious little about (although I am reading about it now). Certainly the faith is vibrant and lived out with real integrity, although it perhaps could be said that it faces different challenges. In Europe and the West, we might consider apathy and atheism the great challenge of our time, whereas in South America, there is an undeniable social dimension, along with the challenge wrought by a vibrant and growing evangelical movement. Argentinian Evangelical leaders agree that Bergoglio's relationships in Argentina with the Evangelical Protestant community make him situated to better understand Protestantism in general. There the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism is often a reality among members of the same families and is therefore an extremely important human issue. Many consider that Francis could set the tone for more compassionate conversations among families about the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. 

I really think his understanding and commitment to interfaith dialogue could be one of a number of powerful elements to his teaching. Already his actions show the depth to which he has internalised the principles of the Gospel and in living out those principles, he could quickly seduce much of secular society and communicate the teaching of Christ in a new and radical way. His ability to continue to give witness to the Gospel, even in politically difficult situations (like inter-faith dialogue) is humbling, and, I think, shows that he puts Christ at the forefront of everything he does.

I also wonder at the voices of criticism levelled at Pope Francis, if they are not, to some extent, missing the point? I remember being struck on my first visit to the tiny Mediterranean island of Gozo (our favourite holiday spot) by the huge dome of St. John the Baptist church in Xewkija.  This tiny community of farmers and fishermen sacrificed an inordinate amount in order to raise a quite incredible monument to the glory of God. The huge dome of their parish church is visible all across the island and I think I am right in saying it is the third largest in Europe!

Their efforts speak to me of just what Sacred liturgy is about. Like a child picking flowers for a parent. The parent doesn't need the flowers (God doesn't need our artistic gestures, our architectural endeavours or our best liturgical vestments) but gratefully accepts them none-the-less, because they are indicative of the effort, the love, they represent. Worshipping God is about doing the very best we can with our words, our heart, our mind and our body and beautiful surroundings, special clothes, magnificent buildings, inspiring decoration, all speak an unspoken prayer to God--one which is beyond words and which can only be spoken by our liturgical efforts. Like the Widows Mite, what we offer in terms of our efforts, speak double if they are beyond our means. 

St. John the Baptist, Xewkija, Gozo.
And yet we can lose ourselves in gesture, and become convinced that our actions make up, in some way, for truth. Take for example this picture of an Anglican service:

I have heard that some 'high-Anglicans' are vociferous critics of the new pope. He has, for them, justified their resistance to Anglicanorum coetibus, they have seen the future apparently, and know Pope Francis is adverse to liturgy. These people seem to consider that lace, candles, etc, trump all other concerns. I find this very difficult to reconcile theologically. In the Old Testament, we learn how it is important that we make an effort liturgically, that we reserve the best for God, yet the essential dynamic of the Old Testament brought to a new realism in Christ consists of a vocal criticism of lip-service. Jesus Himself warns about clerics concerned only with the breadth of their phylacteries. Yes, lex orandi, lex credandi, yes, the beauty of the liturgy essentially leads us to a better understanding of the centrality of the Eucharist, but there is a point where you've gone too far and missed the essential point (see picture above). First things have to come first, and if your orders are invalid, if your ecclesial body is fractured, if you have stepped out of the boat of Peter, it doesn't matter how pretty your surplice is. When we read Scripture, we can see that there is clearly an element of danger in sacrifice; a danger that in the giving of material gifts to God, man can become confused, thinking he can some how manipulate God through his offering. This manipulation was the subject of intense prophetic criticism in the Old Testament. It is clear then from Scripture that there is an essential internal component, matching the external rite of the act of cult, which must be present in sacrificial rites in order for them to be acceptable to God.

Meanwhile, even a brief look at the character of the man foretells that Pope Francis will soon fall out of favour with his more liberal adulators. He clearly bears an inner steel which is not hard to see. He is unequivocally orthodox and his pedigree is of outspoken criticism of ideologies which attack the Church he serves. Jesuit intelligence sources in the U.S. tell me that Pope Francis distanced himself from the Society long ago, as a result of its liberal agenda. It is significant that he stayed in the Casa because there are free rooms at the Jesuit Generalate (nearer the Vatican) for Jesuit bishops.

At recreation in the Boston Jesuit house last Friday one hyper-trendy Jesuit warned his brethren not to be taken in by the Pope's love of the poor as his theological views are 'every bit as retrograde as those of his predecessor.' As regards his relations with the Argentinian Junta, Bergoglio warned the two priests that they were to be arrested and they disobeyed his orders as Provincial to flee the country; he therefore left them to their fate. The evidence is clearly that he ruled his Jesuit Province with a "rod of iron".

Pope Benedict's great gift was an unparalleled exposition of the person of Jesus Christ. He took us back to the source of our faith and asked us to look again on the face of the Christ on which our faith is founded. However punditry surrounding his papacy lacks reference to this essential dimension, distracted, instead, by the fragile human conflicts, mistakes and failings which they want to manipulate in order to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. This does affect those with a weak faith, no doubt, but we recall how among the Apostles themselves, there was bickering about who was the greatest, confusion about the validity of violence in the promulgation of the faith, betrayal from one of those closest to Jesus Himself. Yet Jesus chose Peter to lead us, Peter who's faith always brought him back to the stark reality of who and what Jesus was and is. Peter who began to sink, but who had the courage at least to set foot on the waves. Peter who denied, but recognising his failure wept bitterly, and became the symbol of metanoia we all look to at this time of the Christian calender.

Pope Francis seems determined to be a figure of Christ for us, Father Ray suggests that his mission might well be to teach us how to be good. He states:
The dichotomy between the goodness of the Gospel and the sometimes wickedness of Christians is shameful. The secular media are right to pillory us for hypocrisy. The Gospel cannot be an abstract concept, Jesus cannot be vague ideas, the Gospel has to be about the Word being made flesh, Jesus has to be seen in his Church, and made visible in the darkness of the world.
I think this is an excellent point, and I look forward to watching this papacy develop, and the rich teaching we will all, no doubt gain from our first South American pope. Benedict's subtle pedagogy and leading by example has given way to a pope who may well take Pope Benedict's elegant lessons out of the classroom and show their practical application. No doubt he is passionate about humanity and I conclude, equally capable of leading us to Christ, albeit the signs and symbols he uses are slightly different.

In manus tuas Domine.

Popular posts from this blog

Far from gossip, The Dictator Pope is "absolutely reliable"

Are the Vatican Rats Turning on Each Other?

The Price of Appeasement