The Pope’s Painful Liturgies
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As much as I enjoy talking him up, watching Pope Francis celebrate Mass is—at least for me—a painful experience.
From what I can tell, I’m not alone. There’s an almost unchecked suspicion that the Holy Father’s tendency toward simplicity will usher in the death of the Benedictine reforms. The real suffering servant, some claim, will not turn out to be the humble Bishop of Rome but rather Monsignor Guido Marini, his (at least for now) master of ceremonies. The pope’s radical austerity is a sticking point for many—and a profound one, at that.
None of this, though, is why I find the new pope’s liturgies to be painful. Having watched all of them to date on Radio Vaticana, there’s clearly a dimension of frugality at work in Francis’s approach to prayer. Of course, there’s his Jesuit background—enough said, for most. Add to that almost two decades of on-the-ground, no-frills, get-your-hands-dirty pastoral work and things click even more. His Franciscan moniker is icing on the (not too sweet and maybe just a little stale) cake. Yet the “good stuff” of Catholic liturgy hasn’t really lacked all that much.
The painfulness of the Holy Father’s liturgies, I think, arises not from the character or celebration of the Mass itself, but from the clear lack of affection that Pope Francis maintains for the finer points of liturgical precision and splendor. It goes without saying that each of the pope’s Masses has been valid, undeniably reverent, and probably more visibly beautiful than all but a handful of Masses throughout the world. There is noticeably absent, however, the positive liturgical zeal of Benedict—that which many already (wrongly) construe as a negative and destructive force in itself. Denying that Pope Francis is Pope Benedict is hardly a criticism against him; furthermore, suggesting that love for the liturgy consists uniquely in Benedict’s disposition toward it is short-sighted and thoroughly un-traditional.
But why does a lack of affection cause pain?
Without supposing to know the Holy Father’s heart, it seems clear that the celebrated liturgy, to him, is viewed as something incomplete in itself. That’s not to suggest, of course, that he considers it somehow deficient. Rather, in approaching the liturgy, Pope Francis seems always to have in mind its connection to real effects, both in the soul but also in the flesh.
We can talk all day about the theology of liturgy—which I’ve done many times—connecting its ordination to transcendence with the possibility for deeper prayer and more profound acts of charity in daily life. And it’s all true—and hopefully even productive of real wisdom. Yet isn’t there always something unnerving about leaving that reflection to pursue the inglorious work of serving others? No matter how much we know of the liturgy, its beauty and meaning, rarely does such awareness ever prepare us well to set it all aside and to take up the sullied practice of service.
If Benedict reclaimed the Spirit of the Liturgy, then perhaps next for the Church is to focus on its Flesh. I don’t suppose that Pope Francis will offer a comprehensive theology in this regard, or even that he should. Indeed, it appears he sees his apostolic vocation in a totally different light than as a theologian. Still, those of us who would continue along more academic lines might do some of that work for him.
On the other hand, there is the illuminating observation by Chesterton that what St. Benedict stored up, St. Francis saw as his mission to scatter about. The works of storing up and of sowing are very different ones. The first entails arduous, long labor: gathering a full crop into the barns for safe keeping is no light task. The second, scattering, is perhaps lighter work; though it requires significantly greater risk, since an entire season’s hopes are pinned on the irreversible distribution of a very limited and valuable supply of seeds.
The pain I experience with seeing the new pope’s liturgies is probably more the result of his intense joy at all other times. I sense acutely that my desire to serve is much thinner than my affection for a beautiful Mass. And I’m aware that the joy I know is possible through a sacramental encounter with the Lord is not often enough reflected in my life with family and with others.
The absolute wrong response, here, is to cast off the sacred liturgy as something overblown and impractical. However, fostering an affection for the liturgy in se is hardly enough, either. I don’t believe those are the only two options on the table; but determining what other concrete options do exist is not, perhaps, as easy as we’d like to think.
In the meantime, many of us will continue to suffer for a while, until we learn to love other people as much as our understanding about them. Enjoying the fruits of the harvest has the unfortunate effect of making one less eager to repeat the long, grueling process of cultivation from the beginning. At least for me, seeing someone who’s willing, above all, to begin the work of scattering afresh is an invaluable, if bittersweet reminder that much more heavenly nourishment still awaits, as long as we’re willing to labor.