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Sunday, March 17, 2013

The continuity of authentic reform

This scribe remains somewhat shell-shocked over Wednesday's grand announcement.  Although the white smoke has cleared, clouds of questions remain.  What are we to make of our new Holy Father, Francis, and how are we to interpret his reasonings behind selecting this completely new name?

The first Pontiff to choose a new name in several hundred  years was Cardinal Albino Luciano when he was elected to the Chair of St. Peter back in 1978.  He chose the double name of John Paul (a surprising novelty) because he saw his mission as a continuation of what now-Blessed John XXIII and Pope Paul VI tried to do.  Unfortunately, some 33 days into his reign, Pope John Paul died.  The mantle then fell to a young and athletic Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyla, who, although not choosing a new name, decided that he would be called John Paul II to carry on the unfulfilled work of his predecessor.

But, what of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis?  Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, the Vatican spokesman, confirmed what many of us had speculated:  our new Holy Father chose to name himself after the beloved St. Francis of Assisi, the great reformer of the Middle Ages. 

Many of us know the famous vision that St. Francis had wherein Our Lord charged him to rebuild His Church.  The saintly deacon thought that Christ meant that he needed to rebuild the church in Assisi that had fallen into disrepair.  The Lord had a deeper meaning, as St. Francis would soon find out.

Now several centuries removed, Pope Francis believes that this is his calling.  However, while there are definitely problems with the way that the Curia has operated, this does not mean that the rest of the Church has fallen into despair and disrepair.  To make that accusation, as the secular media has done, is to ignore the nearly eight-year reign of His Holiness, Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus.

Benedict was not perfect; none of us is.  Benedict also inherited many problems left behind by Blessed Pope John Paul II, namely the way the Curia operates.  Benedict tried to make solid appointments:  Raymond Cardinal Burke to head the Apostolic Signatura; Antonio Cardinal Canizares Lloera to be in charge of the Congregation for Divine Worship; Marc Cardinal Ouellet, to preside over the Congregation for Bishops; and Archbishop Gerhard Mueller to lead Benedict's former post, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

But, it is in the area of the sacred liturgy where Benedict made, perhaps, his greatest mark.

With the assistance of the very learned, yet very humble, Msgr. Guido Marini, Benedict re-infused the sacred back into the liturgy, an element that had been missing for quite some time.  He ensured that the propers, the official texts of the Church, be chanted and that the Mass have its proper orientation.  He stressed that the focus during the Mass needs to be on Christ, hence the use of the Ad Orientem posture during the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

There has been a lot of opining on the internet, especially on Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere about the liturgical particularities of Benedict's successor.  The internet has certainly been fodder for pictures of Pope Francis washing a woman's feet during the Holy Thursday Mandatum and video footage of some of the Masses that he celebrated in Buenos Aires.  Not a few people, myself included, have expressed concerns.  Conversely, many other bloggers have sought to downplay these concerns.  One person in particular, Roger Cardinal Mahony, has been very spiteful in his commentary about Benedict's liturgical practices, almost as if to drive a wedge between the Pope Emeritus and the new Holy Father.

I accept Pope Francis because, as a practicing Catholic, I am bound to by obedience.  However, disagreeing with him on Ars Celebrandi is not the equivalent of disobedience.  The changes he has made are subtle departures from the Ars Celebrandi of his predecessor, including using the portable altar at the Sistine Chapel instead of the permanent one that is affixed to the wall and the lessening of the formality.  It is as though we are making a paradigm shift from the sublime beauty and dignity of Msgr. Guido Marini towards the informal watered down style of Archbishop Pietro Marini. Although I may not agree with Peter, I cannot separate myself from him.

That Pope Francis is personally humble and a gifted preacher is certainly wonderful and quite a positive  thing.  Humility is a gift to which all of us should aspire to attain.  However, it would be a total misreading of St. Francis' reform if we were to take humility to the extreme and strip the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass of its beauty, grandeur and sublime majesty.  The holy deacon once said that "Lady Poverty should never enter the sanctuary." St. Francis' words are not new.  If we were to read through the Old Testament, the Lord was very adamant about how the liturgical rites of Ancient Israel were to be conducted. Nothing but the finest materials, gold, silver, and cedar were to be employed for the service of the Lord.  The vestments of the priests of Ancient Israel were to be of the finest materials.

Benedict certainly understood that.  The vesture that he chose to use during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the copes for the solemn celebration of Vespers and the attire he wore for his Urbi et Orbi addresses were not about him; it was about the office of Vicar of Christ.  As someone on Twitter wrote, "Christ did not negate the gift of the precious oil from the woman who anointed his head and feet."  Furthermore, when Judas rebuked Jesus for allowing this waste when the money could have been used for the poor, Christ turned to him and said, "The poor you will always have with you; you will not always have me."

With regard to the poor, there are some dimensions of poverty that, perhaps, Pope Francis has not considered.  Much has been made about material poverty; however, a person can be poor on so many levels.  When one of the cardinals told the newly elected Holy Father not to forget the poor, it should not be automatically assumed that this refers to the materially poor.  A priest friend of mine reminded me that one can be spiritually poor,  morally poor, emotionally poor, physically (health) poor and psychologically poor.  Robbing the Church of her rich liturgical treasures in the name of poverty, in the name of solidarity with the poor, actually does more harm than good.  The rich treasures of the Church are employed not for material pomp, as Cardinal Mahony would have us believe; rather, these wonderful riches are employed for the divine worship of God.

My prayer is that Pope Francis will open himself to the wonderful example set forth by his much beloved predecessor, Benedict XVI.  I pray that his heart may be wonderfully pierced and wounded by the arrow of beauty and that he will allow himself to be guided by Christ so that he can feed and tend the sheep and lambs entrusted to him.

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