The wing-nuts are all aflutter over the “hammer and sickle crucifix” given Pope Francis by President of Boliva, Evo Morales. Morales, a member of the Democratic Socialist Party, is the first president of Bolivia to be of indigenous Bolivian blood, coming from an Aymara family of subsistence farmers in the altiplano. Nominally Catholic, he professes to be more interested in the welfare of poor (his country is one of the poorest in the Americas) than in religion. Overall he is somewhat irreligious and there is no doubt that the gift was meant to embarrass the Pope. Francis, however, seems to be beyond embarrassment which, while it drives the Krazies to even krazier distraction, is traditionally considered a virtue (Apatheia). In any event it is not the crucifix that I want to focus on, but the pastoral staff which was presented to Pope Francis for his use in Bolivia.
Popes traditionally have not carried crosiers—the “shepherd’s crook” staff used by bishops as a sign of their authority, although Leo XIII chose to use the crosier during his pontificate. When the Pope was performing a ritual for which other bishops required a crosier, he used a ferula—a staff surmounted by a plain cross. This was not for ordinary ceremonies—even ordinations or confirmations—but for events like the opening of the Holy Door or the consecration of a church in which ceremonies the Pope “knocked” on the door of the church by pounding the base of the staff on the door. In the consecration of a church, the bishop traces the Alpha and the Omega on the church floor with his staff—the pope uses the ferula for this ceremony. It was only Paul VI who began using the ferula for all the occasions that other bishops carry a crosier.
Much like the “hammer and sickle crucifix” Morales gave Pope Francis, Paul’s ferula attracted a lot of criticism for its departure from tradition. It was not a plain cross as previous popes had used but a crucifix—and a very modern one—in which the arms of the crucifix are bent downwards. Some people saw this as a “broken cross,” and even today the wing-nuts who suspect the Vatican II popes as being crypto-freemasons or Satanists or in league with President Obama to establish one-world government love to point to Pope Paul’s ferula as evidence of his betrayal of the church. I tell you, there just aren’t enough meds to go around to keep all the krazies in contact with reality.
Anyway, the staff presented to Pope Francis for his use in Bolivia was made by the Artisans of Don Bosco, men and women who, like President Morales, are indigenous Bolivian people. The staff is not a ferula but more in the style of a shepherd’s crook, though not a traditional crosier. It is surmounted by the image of Christ, the Good Shepherd, carrying the same staff as he leads his sheep. Below the Good Shepherd is Mary, the Untier of Knots—a particular devotion of Pope Francis. The Virgin is holding a knotted piece of cloth that winds around a staff to an indigenous Bolivian below, symbolizing Mary’s untying the knots that bind the people in poverty and suffering. The meaning of this staff is clear: it symbolizes Francis’ approach to the papacy: The Shepherd of all whose ministry is focused on untying the bonds of the poor and downtrodden.
There has been a lot of hoopla this week about the decision of the legislature of the State of South Carolina to remove the Confederate Battle Flag—the “Stars and Bars” from the State Capitol. The meaning of the flag is also clear: pride in the Old South and its heritage.
Now here is the problem with symbols. While the meaning is often clear on one level, on deeper levels there is often ambiguity as the meanings are manipulated for other agenda.
My family had nothing to do with the Civil War. My grandparents/great grandparents came to this country after all was settled and done between the Union and the Confederacy. I was raised a Yankee—in an urban, working-class family well north of the Mason-Dixon line. But I am a historian—not only by training but by instinct—and I have always loved the Stars and Bars precisely because it does symbolize the South and its heritage. For me that heritage is the vision of These United States rather than The United States. As a historian I have been drawn to the Jeffersonian vision for America and have always seen the original vision of our Founding Fathers to be a federation of sovereign states. For me—as a historian—the South’s cause was maintaining that union of sovereign states in the face of a strong centralized government that wanted to reduce the states to mere provinces of a federal government. Like many Southerners at the time of our Civil War, I don’t approve of secession from the Union, but I think the Union cause was wrong. The War settled the issue, however, and we all move on; but the Battle Flag is a reminder that people gave their lives for a vision of America in which they believed. But that is what the cause of the Old South and the flag that symbolizes it means to me. To others—and the events of recent weeks have shown, to most others—the cause of the Old South represents the cause of Slavery and a society of racial hierarchy and division. Moreover, while to me the symbol is primarily sentimental, for some others it is a highly effective symbol which keeps alive a conviction of the legitimacy of evil racial theories and fans the flames of hatred, violence, and oppression. As such the symbol, good as it is in itself, has been perverted for an evil end and it has to go.
Now, to return to the papal staff given to Pope Francis in Bolivia: it symbolizes a papacy of service and liberation to which Francis is remodeling his Petrine ministry. I like that. It strikes me as an effective model for the 21st century. It fits in with the changing perceptions of power and authority in our world. It puts the papacy—and by extension, the Church—at the service of the world and especially of those who are held captive by the current political and economic systems of our world. But for others, that is a betrayal of our heritage. Much like those who want to hold on to the confederate flag because it reinforces their right to espouse evil racial theories, there are those who want to hold on to the symbols of a Church that commands the power over people to make them conform rather than to embrace the models of service that might win them to convert. There are those who believe that our Christian beliefs and standards should be written into Law so that all, regardless of their beliefs and values, will live according to our standards. They want a Church that holds the trappings of power—not a wooden staff, but a golden one, a pope who lives in a palace and wears a crown, prelates who dress in princely robes and take their place among the greats of this world. They want a Church that can dictate social norms and civil laws. Basically they want a Christ whose kingdom is of this world as well as of the next.
We have here a conflict in the nature of the Church. Long used to a Church of power, a mutual interdependence of “throne and altar,” it is frightening for many to envision a Church of the Poor and the Powerless. As I have often pointed out in the blog before, we are at the change of paradigms, the shifting of history’s tectonic plates, where we move from Avery Dulles’ model of a papacy and Church of power to a papacy and Church of service. Of course the problem is bigger than the Church—it betrays the shifting sands of power in our world as the prosperous and powerful of the developed world see the threat to our position in the numerous peoples of the so-called “third world.” That shepherd’s staff with Our Lady untying the knots that bind the native Bolivian is, in fact, a far more dangerous symbol than Christ nailed to a hammer and sickle. The struggle of Marxism and Christianity is all but over, and President Morales might as well be handing the pope an antique sex-toy for his embarrassment as much as a Christ crucified on the hammer and sickle.
But let’s take this one step further and bring this conflict of symbols closer to home than Bolivian shepherd’s staffs and politicized crucifixes. What is the symbolism of the Traditional Latin Mass and what is it being manipulated to mean?
There is no doubt that the use of the Traditional Latin Mass symbolizes a continuity with the Church’s past—not its antiquity as some claim, but the Church of the last half-millennium. But what does that connection of the past actually mean to people? It can mean something good. When Paul VI granted indults for its use—something he rarely did—he did so because people who appreciated the historical continuity it symbolizes appealed for it. (Of course the fact that one needed a papal indult to celebrate the “Tridentine Mass” and that Pope Paul gave very few of these indults, gives lie to the claim that the Tridentine Mass had never been suppressed, but that is material for another posting.)
But much like those for whom the meaning of the Stars and Bars has come to justify theories of white supremacy, the use of the Tridentine Mass has become something quite evil for most of its adherents. Even since the Lefebvre Schism the usus antiquior, as it is sometimes known, has been manipulated to symbolize a Catholicism that rejects the Second Vatican Council and its teaching. Not only the Lefebvrites, but the vast majority of those who attend the Traditional Latin Mass, even those authorized by the local bishops, practice a Catholicism that is unaffected by the Council. Sermons at Traditional Latin Masses usually either avoid Conciliar teaching or openly criticize it. Most Traditional Latin Mass groups use the Baltimore Catechism with its pre-conciliar teachings on Protestants, Jews, and other religions to catechize their children. The Baltimore Catechism also does not present current Church teaching on the Sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, and Anointing of the Sick as developed at the Council. As a consequence—or perhaps an underlying cause for the survival of TLM communities—Anti-Semitism runs high among many who participate in the Tridentine Mass. The teachings of Dignitatis Humanae are often contradicted both in pulpit and religious education. The Social Teachings of the Church since Mater et Magistra are never mentioned and certainly not accepted. Many (I insist on many, but granted, not all) of those who faithfully attend the TLM espouse a political agenda at odds with the magisterium regarding the Death Penalty, distributive justice, access to firearms, human rights and other current issues. Pope Francis is not popular among many advocates of the TLM and in fact is often spoken of very contemptuously, in great part because of his shift from monarchial model (which is the underlying political theory of the Tridentine Liturgy) to the servant model. While from an aesthetic point of view, the pre-conciliar liturgy is a legitimate option for worship on the principle of de gustibus non est disputandum (for advocates of the Novus Ordo who have forgotten their Latin: “matters of tastes are not to be argued”), the Church, for its own good, needs to make sure that the difference of ritual does not signify a difference of belief. Like the Confederate Battle Flag, the TLM is a powerful symbol that shapes ideologies, and ideologies that often differ from our Catholic faith.