IT IS A FEATURE of the current papacy, in stark contrast to the previous, that the incumbent likes to tell people off in his speeches. Mockery and sarcasm are his chief weapons. It’s all a little infra dig for a pope, and more suited to a rural parish priest of a century ago, chiding those in his flock of whose habits he disapproves. The irony is that Pope Francis has never been a simple parish priest. It shows.
That fact is most clearly obvious in the content of his reprovals, many of which tend to be anticlerical, all for the purported profit of the flock. He has commanded priests to “smell of the sheep,” as if the parish clergy of today are like 18th century Anglican clergymen holding benefices while absent and appointing underpaid curates in their stead while still drawing the revenue. Francis has exhorted the clergy to keep their sermons to ten minutes. The poor sheep cannot pay attention for longer, it seems. Well, certainly that would be the case if the sermons (or homilies, to use the modern term) are in fact tedious recapitulations of the readings themselves, or extended self-advertisements, or marked by a tone that is overwhelmingly negative. Of course, they would tax the holiest soul. But if a homily is delivered with conviction and skill, unlocking what is not obvious in the scriptures heard in order that their full impact might be felt and their full message heard, and making it clear that the scriptural message is as much for us today as for any other time; if the people hear something fresh and new, and that the preacher clearly believes, then they will probably not be bored, if they are people of faith. In other words, preaching well is not simple. And indeed, if in doubt, shorter is better.
I wonder, though, if he has ever chided lay readers at Mass for reading too quickly or inaudibly, without conveying the sense of the words, perhaps without even understanding their sense beyond the superficial. On such occasions the Liturgy of the Word can be more penitiential than most deficient homilies. Perhaps the argument in their support is that they have not had 7 years of seminary formation. True enough! That rather begs the question as to why we now allow pretty much anybody to read at Mass. How many places form their lectors, or even induct them? Anyway, I digress.
The latest Franciscan anticlerical swipe was delivered to the clergy of Sicily. One barbed observation seems particularly needless given the ignorance of his topic that he admits even as he delivers it:
“I don’t know, because I don’t go to Mass in Sicily and I don’t know how the Sicilian priests preach, whether they preach as was suggested in Evangelii gaudium or whether they preach in such a way that people go out for a cigarette and then come back,” the pope said.
He doesn’t know, but he will get the swipe in anyway. Then comes this markedly sarcastic remark:
“Where are we 60 years after the Council,” he said. “Some updating even in liturgical art, in liturgical ‘fashion.’
“Yes, sometimes bringing some of grandma’s lace is appropriate, sometimes. It’s to pay homage to grandma, right?” he continued. “It’s good to honor grandma, but it’s better to celebrate the mother, Holy Mother Church, and how Mother Church wants to be celebrated. So that insularity does not prevent the true liturgical reform that the Council sent out.”
So, unsurprisingly, the pope does not like priests wearing lace albs or cottas. Pope Francis has set himself up as the arbiter of liturgical taste on what would be a most banal level if it were not also so snide. I am not sure personal taste has ever been within the remit of papal infallibility, or even a lower level of the magisterium. With a captive audience of Sicilian bishops—not the priests themselves, but their superiors—the pope bolsters a type of episcopal camaraderie by denigrating their clergy. One shakes one’s head. Two observations come to mind: for Francis priests are not fellow workers but a lower caste—a case of us and them; and, in these remarks ideology trumps common sense.
Common sense? In the Mediterranean countries, and other hot climes, the use of lace centres not on decoration but perspiration. Lace was a practical development of the alb, which of course covers the whole body, in lands where hot days are the norm, at least in summer. Far more than an alb even of pure linen, a lace alb breathes, and so is much cooler to wear. Having offered Mass in hot climates without lace, I know how hot in can get when vested. The sight of this profusely perspiring priest must have been pitiable rather than edifying. Sicily is a hot place in summer. Of course the priests wear lace; and of course many a pious Catholic lady—a nonna or a mama even—delights in making such a vestment. How little Pope Francis seems to know about the clergy in Sicily.
Yet, of course, the real issue of Lacegate is not the lace per se. The pope himself obliquely refers to a larger issue, the liturgical reform following Vatican II, and in particular those who are not in step with it—those who in the colder climes might also tend to wear lace. For one who restricted the old Mass last year because it is apparently so divisive, Francis seems intent on continuing, even escalating, the liturgy wars. Yet, I would argue, the liturgy is not the fundamental issue at stake here, though it is the more obvious one.
The pre-conciliar liturgy is, for some, irredeemably clerical, whereas the new liturgy is avowedly congregational in the weight and balance of its rubrics and ritual construction. The hardcore “trad” priest looks to the old liturgical model Pope Francis wishes to overthrow. The abuse-ridden modern priest, even as he rides roughshod over the new liturgy’s own rubrics, will always be tolerable, even preferable, because at least he errs on the side of the people, taken in the narrowest sense. He may be crass, tasteless and tacky, and hopelessly narcissistic, but if he serves the exaltation of the “people” then almost anything can be forgiven.
It seems to me that there are two parallel but complementary contraflows at play in the body ecclesiastic at present: a strengthening apotheosis of the “people,” and a degradation of the clergy. Why would the current Roman establishment be so obsessed with constricting the old rite, whose adherents obey its rules religiously, while overlooking the myriad of grotesque abuses that too often attend, and have attended for the last 50 years, the celebration of the new Mass? Why is he triggered so at the sight of a priest wearing lace or maniple, yet not also triggered by the sight of a dancing priest, perhaps also wearing a clown’s mask or squirting holy water from an oversized water pistol?
It seems to me that a traditional approach to liturgy, even in the new Mass, works against the fundamental reorientation of the relationship between Church and world. The Church is no longer to convert the world (nb “proselytising” is now as good as forbidden), nor even to accommodate the world, but to serve it. The world’s agenda is essentially materialist and secular; that is, it is anchored in the material world of here and now. It is political and economic, ideological and totalitarian, and frighteningly nihilistic. Synodality is the thinnest veneer for this new reality. The current Roman establishment is best viewed through this prism, I would suggest.
Maybe Francis’ acerbity and renewed intensity of activity is due to his health. Maybe he senses his time is running out. Others, including his supporters, seems to think so. But with the youth voting with their feet and abandoning the mainstream modern liturgy and (ie those who persevere at least) embracing more traditional liturgy (and Catholic life generally) in steadily increasing numbers, he is fighting a hopeless rearguard action. The young will outlive him and his new cardinals, and the majority of the clergy (in the West at least). Time is on their side.
The status quo is not without a possible providential aspect. We may be seeing a correction to the excessive emphasis on the papacy following Vatican I, which was able to decree the infallibility of the papacy but prevented from further decrees on the episcopacy, clergy or perhaps even laity. It may be that the incompleteness of this hastily-concluded council is itself providential. It allowed the Church a strong central voice and united identity in the face of world wars and the blight of communism. But if now the pope will not clearly condemn, not even vaguely, the naked aggression of Putin in Ukraine, nor even offer the slightest concrete succour to the people of Ukraine, then the time limit must have been reached for this imbalanced view of the papacy, by this measure alone.
Permit me a radical, and rather spontaneous, suggestion! Given the ease with which the college of cardinals can be manipulated and constrained, not least by the papacy itself, why not re-envision the cardinalate, maintaining it as an electoral body for the papacy, but populating it with cardinals elected by local churches (national, regional, by episcopal conference?). That way Mongolia’s 1,300 Catholics could still have a voice in conclave, yet so too could Australia’s 5.3 million Catholics (who now have no voting cardinal at all).
Anyway, it seems clear enough that Francis does not like priests as a body within the Church. His words and actions declare that priests are part of the problem in his eyes, which is why he rarely (perhaps never) has an encouraging word for us. Yet the deficiencies of the modern presbyterate are not the cause of our woes, but symptoms of a deeper malaise, the more disturbing evidence of which is found in the dwindling numbers of practising Catholics. Its real cause is to be found much higher up the ladder than the presbyterate, and much deeper in the Church than its liturgy.
PS For The Douai Magazine I wrote a piece on the largely forgotten doctrine on Antichrist. This doctrine offers another, complementary, prism through which to view the modern malaise.