Sunday, December 29, 2013

Reading Francis' Christmas Tea Leaves --Pretty Much Down the Middle

Pope Francis’ Christmas Mass gave some interesting insights as to the tone he is setting for the Church.  The first thing I noticed was how few cardinals and bishops were there in their “choir dress”—white rochet with scarlet or violet (depending on respective rank) cassock, mozetta, and biretta. Then I noticed the exceptionally large number of concelebrants and recognized a number of familiar faces—including Cardinal Burke—among them.  The prelates, for the greater part, concelebrated rather than sit in state as members of the capella papale.  Concelebrating more or less levels the playing field among the prelates as once you put them in their liturgical vestments the marks of their individual station disappear. It also eliminates the dramatic entrances with gentlemen ushers leading the prelates to their gilt chairs while Swiss Guards snap to salute and fawning clergy push to kiss rings and pay court.  But the number of concelebrants was much greater than the normal number of prelates attached to the papal household and I realized at communion time that the Holy Father had invited the priests who were there to administer Holy Communion to concelebrate as well.  Their vestments were simpler than those of the prelates but it was still a great honor for these priests to be more than just functionaries but to be invited to concelebrate with the Holy Father.  More to the point, however, is that it shows a distinct theology both of Church and of the Sacrament of Orders, a theology founded in the Conciliar documents but not previously put into practice.  There were no cardinals and archbishops and monsignors and “just plain priests.”  There were bishops and there were presbyters, each functioning according not to their position in the hierarchy but according to their sacramental Order.  The positions of honor were laid aside in favor of the Sacrament of Orders and this is a favorable step to simplifying the liturgy and moving away from the pomp that characterized the old rites.  I am not a big fan of clericalism—don’t get me wrong—but bishops are bishops and presbyters, presbyters, and deacons, deacons, and the faithful, the faithful, and catechumens, catechumens. Each “order” has its function and while no one should lord it over another—the orders don’t need to be seen as ranked—it is appropriate that each serve its proper role(s) in the liturgy.   Readers and cantors and acolytes are among the ministries drawn from the faithful. Deacons proclaim the Gospel and administer the Cup in Holy Communion.  Presbyters assist the bishop(s); in their absence they preside over the Liturgy.  Bishops preside over the liturgy.  Each in the ministry proper to his or her order, the Church sacramentally displays its nature as the Body of Christ with the complementariness and variety of members working in harmony and unity.  Francis’ Christmas liturgy modeled that admirably with lay readers and choristers and altar servers alongside deacons, presbyters, and bishops.  Personally I think it is far more noble than those “Pontifical” Masses I see on certain websites with all the fuss and bother and pomp that mimics a royal court rather than re-presents the unity and harmony of the Body of the One who came to serve and not to be served.  Francis, in his plain white vestments, at the center of Christmas Eve Mass was a simple reminder of the mission that belongs to each of us and to all of us—to be Christ the Servant to the World.  The genius of the classic Roman Rite in antiquity was its simplicity—in contrast to the Eastern and Gallican Rites—and I am happy to see Francis keep things simple.
The Holy Father, as is his custom, only distributed Holy Communion to the deacons assisting at the Mass.  He did not distribute it to the faithful.  This is disappointing but it is said that he refrains at public Masses in the Basilica from distributing Holy Communion so as not to get caught in the conflict between those who think he should follow the protocol of his predecessor, Pope Benedict, and insist that communicants kneel and receive on the tongue and those who follow the almost universal practice today of communion standing and giving the communicant the option of receiving in the hand or on the tongue.  Before his election as Pope, Francis had no issue with standing for Communion or placing the Blessed Sacrament in the hands of the recipient.   There is no discouraging of the faithful from receicing the Eucharist in their hands under Francis.  Those priests who were appointed to administer Holy Communion to the congregation, administered communion to the faithful standing and according to their choice of on the tongue or in the hand.  But I have to say—have often been at papal Masses both in the Basilica and in the Square—that no matter how they distribute the Eucharist it is nothing short of sacrilegious.  Probably the most important reform of the papal liturgy would be to find a respectful way to give communion to these huge crowds.      
The Holy Father does not sing the various parts of the Mass, but then the word is that he does not have the voice to sing them.  It is just as well then that he prays them.  It is also noteworthy that he carried the very modern ferula (pastoral staff) of Paul VI, not the more traditional one Benedict XVI designed and favored.  The Pope uses each staff in turn, but the choice of the simpler (and more modern one) for Christmas Mass is worth noting.    The Mass certainly was a move away from the more elaborate liturgical style of Pope Benedict XVI and a return to the more simple tastes of Paul VI. 
Overall, whether one’s taste runs to the traditional or the contemporary.  Francis is no liturgical fireball.  He is, after all, a Jesuit and Jesuits have not been known for good liturgy. I wish the papal liturgies were a bit more innovative, but my primary concern is not about the liturgy—it is about the Church’s Mission of announcing Good News to the Poor.  That Francis does well.  However, I do believe in the old axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi which reminds us that ultimately the Liturgy shapes not only what we believe but even how we live our faith.  I think that Pope Francis has a sufficiently prayerful approach to liturgy and that works for me. 

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