Pope Francis Will Enliven the Benedict Legacy

Being quoted by the press often leads to an out-of-body experience. This happened to me this weekend when an article posted by the Religion News Service was sent out through the wire and landed at the Washington Post, Huffington Post, National Catholic Reporter, and many other outlets. Every time I would read a new posting of this piece, I would think: who is this guy they are quoting?

The hook for the article was the now-familiar media template on Pope Francis. The line was that he is overturning all previous ways of doing things. He is embracing progress over tradition, loves the poor and not the rich, favors people over ritual, and is willing to rethink fundamental teachings and reopen the debate over moral issues.

What’s true and what’s not in this line of thinking? Very little of it is true at all. This Pope has a special style, just as every Pope before him. The press needs a story and so it chooses a template. And that template sticks. One reporter summoned me to play my appointed role as a grumpy traditionalist who sits around grousing about Pope Francis’s popularity.

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I was quoted as follows: “I’ve personally found many aspects of this papacy to be annoying, and struggled against that feeling from the beginning. I’m hardly alone in this… Every day and in every way we are being told how glorious it is that the bad old days are gone and the new good days are here.”

Wow, what a crabby guy, don’t you think? Here I am putting down this popular Pope and lamenting that things are getting better! How perverse. Except for one point, namely the whole context of the piece from which these comments were drawn. What I was lamenting was not the Pope but the media narrative and its implicit anti-Benedict bias. Fully two-thirds of my original article was devoted to explain precisely why we should not believe this narrative.

Meanwhile, the sudden wave of press attention to the supposed disgruntlement of “traditionalists” with Pope Francis—and how the press would love to drive a wedge between the issues that concern us and the seeming universal love being shown to the new Pope!—has set off an interesting round of commentary on the election itself.

What was it that drove the Cardinal electors to choose Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Pope? Speculation will continue for years. If you listen to the press, you might think that one purpose was to get away from his predecessor’s attachment to the old form of the Roman ritual and replace that with a hipper and looser style of the sort we saw on display in Brazil.

More likely, the liturgical agenda was not it. For those of us who are rather focused on liturgical problems, this realization can be a bit humbling since it is our nature to think that the Catholic liturgy itself should be an unrelenting and huge concern. But actually, you can look back at the sweep of history and observe that liturgical and musical matters have only been at the forefront sporadically in the history of the Church.

I think back to the first Vatican Council, for example, and its main concerns. It was all about the loss of the Papal States and the rise of democracy in Europe. How would the Church be able to protect and extend its influence in an age where there was universal consensus for religious liberty? The management habits of 1,000 years of Roman rule were in serious upheaval.

The status of the liturgy much less the music were not even on the radar—even though the liturgical books were already in serious need of restoration and the liturgical movement was rising all over Europe and even in the U.S. somewhat. That agenda that had then consumed many liturgically minded intellectuals and musicians had to wait to be realized many decades later.

Or think back further to the Council of Trent. Liturgical reform played a part but it was one issue in an overall plan of counterreformation strategy. The question of liturgical music was an afterthought, and seriously botched after the Council’s close.

And this is again true even if you look at the Second Vatican Council, which pushed liturgy up to the front of issues to be addressed alongside issues of religious freedom, cultural upheaval, technology, war and peace, and much else. When the Council did speak on liturgical matters, there were missteps in presentation and a lack of clarity on crucial issues, due mainly to a lack of planning, focus, and consensus. Permission for the introduction of the vernacular was stated but in a way that bordered on the irresponsible; there were no plans in place for how this would be handled—and this was arguably a catastrophic oversight.

As soon as the Council closed, the problems became obvious and many years and decades of confusion over liturgy ensued, with grave consequences. Here we are fifty years later and only now gaining some clarity on this subject.

So, let us put ourselves in the position of the Cardinal electors in 2013. What was the larger context? In my lifetime, there had never been a greater public-relations problem for the Church. For the previous ten years, the world press had free reign to trash, slander, detract, and calumny the Catholic Church and therefore the faith and there was no end in sight.

In the United States, as a result of court orders and legislation, parish life has been transformed. We’ve become bureaucratized to the point that even volunteers need background checks and must take tests on diocesan websites. Priests themselves have developed the habit of standing two feet away from everyone for fear of finding themselves embroiled in accusations of abuse.

Some of my priest friends who took great pride in their vocation quietly stopped wearing clerics when shopping at the store or going on trips. Many young people just stopped attending Mass; they were just too embarrassed over the bad press. Many Catholics just felt a profound sense of demoralization, and it only became worse with every revelation, every court decision, every defrocking, arrest, disclosure. And it never seemed to stop, year after year.

I can recall these days well. It was very painful for all us, so much so that Catholics would tend just to avert our eyes. Our non-believing and Protestant friends would confront us and ask what we think about the sexual scandals, and we were often alarmed to discover that they were much more informed on the details. They were watching the news, even as Catholics tended to turn the channel.

I was thrilled at what was taking place liturgically under Benedict XVI. At the same time, for those of us who have this concern at the top of our minds, we tended to overlook larger problems, or just pretend that they weren’t happening.

The painful nature of these times had nothing to do with liturgy. The pain resulted from decades of poor management, the continuing fallout from the years of confusion, a press corps that smelled blood in the water, and juries and governments that couldn’t pass up the chance to loot and smear the Catholic Church.

How much did this weigh on the Cardinal electors as they considered the papal election? It must have been gigantically important in their minds.

Fr. Ruff at PrayTell makes the compelling point:

Then as now, liturgy was probably not the main question on the minds of the cardinal electors. It’s probably hard for Pray Tell readers to fathom, but some cardinals no doubt find the Vatican Bank scandal and Vatileaks to be more pressing questions than what style of chausible and crosier the celebrant uses and whether it’s EP1 in Latin or EP2 in vernacular. The cardinals didn’t vote out Benedict’s liturgical views and vote in simplicity (and tackiness) —at least not directly…. The cardinals had to sense, as we all did, that the Catholic Church had a massive worldwide PR problem, that the Roman curia was the laughingstock of the world and the butt of late-night comedians’ jokes. The Vatican seemed pathetically unable to respond to scandals, to speak to the modern world with credibility.

Fr. Ruff goes too far in some ways, but it remains true that the electors saw a desperate need for a new form of evangelization for the faith, someone who would shake things up and present an appealing friendliness the whole of the world, someone who could well manage the serious and desperate need for the Church to have a new image in the world—an image of openness and change.

In other words, the election had nothing at all to do with liturgy and everything to do with reversing the meltdown caused by other factors that had nothing to do with Benedict’s papacy at all.

And it is absolutely true—even if some of us who are somewhat less than exuberant about the liturgical style of Pope Francis—that this papacy has truly done wonders for the image of Catholics around the world. I have friends who know absolutely nothing about the faith and Catholicism generally who just think this new Pope is fantastic. They were happy in the week following his election and remain so today.

It is just undeniable that this makes me happy in some ways. I sometimes want to correct them and say: “actually, his predecessor was a great Pope,” but I also know full well that the people who are praising Pope Francis intend no commentary on his predecessor. They only intend to express their glee at the present, and, truly, that is a wonderful thing.

The press’s love affair with Pope Francis might be driven by all the wrong considerations and fueled by ridiculous hopes, but, even given that, it simply cannot be a bad thing that the Pope is so widely beloved. We needed this. Maybe the problems of the last ten years (and I’m the first to admit that I’ve been in a kind of state of denial about how serious the problems have been and what a toll they have taken) are starting to go away. Maybe this evangelization is starting to take effect.

Where does this leave those of us who are so interested in and intense about liturgical matters? It means that we have greater responsibilities than ever. There is no chasm separating the liturgy and evangelization. In many ways, they can be and truly are the same cause.

My mind often drifts back to the age of St. Pius X, and his mighty efforts to reform the liturgy. His efforts were 50 years in arriving, and then soon after, the world broke out into ghastly war. The liturgical movement to which his papacy gave life persisted and thrived and worked hard to realize the dream. That is what we are called to do.

What might seem to others to be a maniacal obsession and ridiculously geeky concern (liturgy) is actually very important for the life of the Church. Those of us who have been granted or consciously adopted this special concern also have an obligation to carry through—not with a need for unrelenting pats on the back from the Vatican as if we are dependent and insecure children but rather with a determination and confidence that sustains itself based on the value of truth and beauty.

And these efforts need to continue, even if the press (as it inevitably will) continues to paint us as reactionary ogres living for the day when the age of Benedict XVI will return. The truth is that this age is not over and will not be for many papacies in the years ahead. Thanks to Francis, the legacy of Benedict has more life and energy than ever before.


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