So what was Pope Francis up to on Holy Thursday?

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So, this pope vs. pope theme has been building, in mainstream coverage, during the amazing early days of Pope Francis. Have you noticed? One of the world’s top reporters on all things Catholic has noticed, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Here’s a classic example of the genre, drawn from a Reuters report:

Since his election on March 13, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina has broken with the more esoteric and, some would say, ostentatious style of his predecessor Benedict, saying he wants to move the Church closer to the poor and suffering.

The key word, of course, is “ostentatious,” as in:

ostentatious … adj

characterized by pretentious, showy, or vulgar display

Combine that with the dreaded phrase “some would say” and you have journalistic quicksand. Who are these alleged voices of authority caught up in that word “some”? As a regular GetReligion reader noted in a private email:

You don’t see this kind of thing on Catholic news sites — Benedict might have been more traditional but so was JPII and certainly the beloved John XXIII who still was carried around on a chair and had flabella waived at him to keep flies away. It was Benedict who got rid of the crown on the coat of arms, after all. Why no disparaging comments about the exotic outfits of the folks from the East at the Installation Mass?

This Francis vs. Benedict theme has become so popular in the news over the past few weeks that it is almost normative.

Now, the more important conflict in recent days concerned the Holy Thursday rite in which the pope washed the feet of two women, along with 10 other inmates, in a juvenile detention center. The Associated Press noted that this has driven “traditionalists” — who loved the liturgical and personal style of Pope Benedict XVI — absolutely bonkers, or words to that effect.

It is clear that some conservatives are watching these events with interest, as opposed to fear. The AP story did include this commentary from an important conservative, as opposed to “traditionalist.”

The church’s liturgical law holds that only men can participate in the rite, given that Jesus’ apostles were all male. Priests and bishops have routinely petitioned for exemptions to include women, but the law is clear.

Might I add, at this point, that it would have been good to quote the actual “law,” which I would assume is actually a liturgical rubric linked to church tradition. This actually interests me because I have never been in a Holy Thursday rite in Eastern Orthodoxy in which the clergy did not wash the feet of a wide variety of worshipers, male and female.

Back to the AP story:

Francis, however, is the church’s chief lawmaker, so in theory he can do whatever he wants.

Popes simply make or decree laws? That’s a new one for me, as well. Reading on:

“The pope does not need anybody’s permission to make exceptions to how ecclesiastical law relates to him,” noted conservative columnist Jimmy Akin in the National Catholic Register. But Akin echoed concerns raised by canon lawyer Edward Peters, an adviser to the Vatican’s high court, that Francis was setting a “questionable example” by simply ignoring the church’s own rules.

“People naturally imitate their leader. That’s the whole point behind Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. He was explicitly and intentionally setting an example for them,” he said. “Pope Francis knows that he is setting an example.”

The inclusion of women in the rite is problematic for some because it could be seen as an opening of sorts to women’s ordination. The Catholic Church restricts the priesthood to men, arguing that Jesus and his 12 apostles were male.

Francis is clearly opposed to women’s ordination. But by washing the feet of women, he jolted traditionalists who for years have been unbending in insisting that the ritual is for men only and proudly holding up as evidence documentation from the Vatican’s liturgy office saying so.

The AP article also notes an interesting online commentary by Father John Zuhlsdorf, a major online hero of the liturgical Catholic right.

The quotes chosen were interesting, but I think miss Father Z’s main point — which is that Pope Francis is simply more interested in evangelism and apologetics than he is in liturgical minutiae. Here is a cut from that post at “What Does the Prayer Really Say?”

Before liberals and traditionalists both have a spittle-flecked nutty, each for their own reasons, try to figure out what he is trying to do. … I’ll wager that, as a Jesuit, Francis doesn’t care about liturgy very much. He is just not into — one whit — either what traditional liturgy types or what liturgical liberals want.

Some liberals live and breathe liberal liturgy. On the other end of the spectrum … traditional Catholics think that liturgy is critical but for different reasons (“Save The Liturgy, Save The World”, comes to mind). Francis isn’t invested in either of these camps.

For Francis, I think, it is more a matter of “a pox on both your houses”. Putting it in a vague way, Francis wants people to leave Mass feeling “joy”, or something having to do with the “kingdom”, etc. As he said at the Chrism Mass he wants people leaving Mass “as if they have heard the good news”. …

Francis wants priests to talk to people and find out what they need and get involved in their daily struggles. Liturgy, for Francis, seems to be involved precisely in that. Do I think Francis may be missing huge points in this approach? Sure, right now I do. But I am leaving the jury out.

My main point here, which is captured to a degree in this AP piece, is that journalists need to be patient right now in covering this new pope and listen to a wide range of voices on both sides. And most of all, journalists need to stop trying to tattoo labels on his forehead. It would be good for journalists to actually pay attention to doctrine, in the next year or so, as opposed to getting so fixated on the supposedly anti-traditional nature of this pope’s approach to piety.

I am not alone in thinking this.

Over at the liberal National Catholic Reporter, the omnipresent and irreplaceable John L. Allen Jr. wrote a piece the other day that is must reading for everyone who is either producing news or merely consuming news about Vatican affairs. The headline: “Debunking three ‘urban legends’ about Pope Francis.”

He could have added that these urban legends are also about Pope Benedict XVI. Here is a sample, but readers will need to dig into all of this piece:

During his first ten days in office, the “Francis phenomenon” has given rise to at least three such urban legends worth debunking here, lest they take on a life of their own.

Italian Vatican writer Andrea Tornielli has been the first to use the phrase “urban legend” to describe one report that made the rounds immediately after the new pope’s debut on March 13. The story goes that when the papal Master of Ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, started to place the mozzetta on Francis, he responded: “You put it on! The carnival is over.”

The mozzetta is a shoulder-length cape of red velvet trimmed with white fur. Francis’ unwillingness to put it on, combined with the alleged brush-off of Marini, was seized upon as a sign not only of a simpler personal style, but a rejection of the liturgical neo-traditionalism some associate with the papacy of Benedict XVI.

In light of the alleged quip, many have been predicting that Marini may be sent packing quickly back to his hometown of Genoa, in favor of a master of ceremonies less enamored of “smells and bells.”

The only problem, Tornielli reports, is that Francis never said any such thing.

“Francis simply said to Marini as he was putting the mozzetta on, ‘I prefer not to,’” Tornielli writes. “There was no joke about the carnival, and no humiliation for the obedient master of ceremonies.”

The word “carnival,” of course, would have been a slap at the liturgical style of Benedict and numerous earlier popes.

Please read it all. God is in the details and, well, so is the devil.

Be careful out there, scribes and editors.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    As you know from the multiple stories I suggested on the new pope, I’ve been fascinated by him and his reception. The media has been as well. Of course we see the expected but still sad bad reporting. But there are a few gems as you pointed out when highlighting Father John Zuhlsdorf”s observations.

    I think the main problem is that the media is trying to tie specific doctrines to the new pope’s emotional impact. One story with a bad headline ended with After two weeks of rain and gray skies, the weather Sunday is forecast to be bright and sunny. http://www.freep.com/article/20130330/NEWS07/130330010/Pope-s-foot-wash-a-final-straw-for-traditionalists That illustrates the impact Pope Francis is having. There is a hunger for the scandals of the Catholic church to be put into the past and a sense that the new pope is the one to do it.

    For those that are aware of the story of St. Francis, there’s a natural link to the dream Pope Innocent III had of St. Francis holding up the church that has echos in the present state of the Catholic Church. I believe a news story made that comparison as well but one did not immediately pop up on a search. But http://augustineinstitute.org/index.php/pope-francis is saying just that very thing.

    Finally, your comment about patience resonates with me. The current honeymoon will end and then we’ll see what happens.

  • FW Ken

    It’s fair to expect journalists to be hyped over this pope, because a lot of Catholics (and others) are hyped. It’s nice to have someone like John Allen to sort out the various stories going around.

    But what I’m not finding, in the obsession over female feet, is Muslim reaction to his washing Muslim feet. To me, that’s a magnificent witness to the love of God for all people. But I’m a Christian; how do Muslims perceive the act? And yes, tmatt, I am thinking about your dictum that not all Muslims are alike. I can imagine a variety of reactions; it would be nice if someone reported on them.

  • Julia

    There’s a former Muslim who is furious with Francis. He was batpized Catholic by Pope Benedict, but he has now very publicly renounced Catholicism. I used Google on Chrome to translate it.

    “My conversion to Catholicism consider it closed.” This was declared by Magdi Cristiano Allam from the pages of the newspaper , explaining that it is “a choice made ??even before the reality of two Popes,” but that “more than any other factor drove me away from the Church-explains-is the legitimation of ‘Islam as the true religion of Allah as the one true God, Muhammad as a true prophet, the Koran as the sacred text of mosques as a place of worship. ”

    “I am convinced however adds, that Islam is inherently violent ideology as it has been historically conflictual inside and warlike outside. Even more I’m convinced that Europe will eventually be submitted to Islam, as well as has already happened from the Seventh Century “,” if you do not have the vision and the courage to denounce the incompatibility of Islam with our civilization and the fundamental rights of the person, if it will ban the Koran for apology of hatred ” .

    http://www.huffingtonpost.it/2013/03/25/magdi-allam–la-mia-conversione-cattolicesimo-conclusa_n_2947196.html?view=print
    Unfortunately it doesn’t identify the newspaper. I first saw it in La Stampa, but I can’t find it there now.

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    There are several huge holes in this story. Let me elucidate a little on one one or two.

    The background: The foot-washing ritual, once common, but largely fallen out of use, was re-introduced into the Roman Missal by Pope Pius XII in 1955, thus immediately pre-Vatican II. The rubrics do state that viri (males) are the ones whose feet are being washed, though this is referred to almost casually and in passing, as the rubric describes them proceeding to the place where the washing is done. Neither the rubrics nor the 1988 instructions from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship mention any specific number of recipients (i.e. 12 for the twelve apostles) or make any mention of the significance of the rite for the priesthood. Instead, the CDW stressed that the rite “represents the service and charity of Christ, who came ‘not to be served, but to serve’ (Matt XX: 28).”

    So the way the rite is represented by the rubrics and by the Vatican is somewhat ambiguous if you are looking for emphasis on the priesthood. Nevertheless, it has been customary to have the feet of priests and deacons washed, and Benedict seems to have restricted his footwashing to his priests, at least in the last years of his pontificate – there is a real symbolism of Pope = Christ and priests = apostles, and it’s certainly valid.

    This 2006 article by renowned canonist Ed Peters clarifies a great many things.

    http://www.canonlaw.info/a_footfight.htm

    Now the AP story makes it sound as if all the petitions to relax the rite have been in vain. Far from it. In the same 2006 article that the author cites as showing that the rule is ironclad, Dr. Peters actually explains a number of bishops have received an exemption from it. It”s well known that Cardinal O’Malley of Boston actually made public the fact that he had received a go-ahead from Rome to wash women’s feet if it was suitable pastorally. The USCCB issued a statement suggesting a wider application of the rite in the same sense. Then there is the fact that Cardinal Bergoglio has been performing the rite for both sexes in prisons, hospitals, etc., for years in his see of Buenos Aires. It’s likely he too had an exemption in the same way. Not to mention the fact that priests in many U.S. parishes do this even if they don’t have an exemption and have been doing to for years. Pope Francis isn’t really doing anything that shocking; he has granted himself an exemption that bishops routinely receive.

    I’ve spent a bit of time (much more than I should) in the comboxes these past few days, at Fr. Z’s site and elsewhere, and I came away with the impression that the real rage among traditionalists — though they themselves may not always realize it — is not directed against the Pope but against “Fr. Wreckovator” (their pet name for “spirit of Vatican II” pastors) in their parish who permits this innovation of washing women’s feet, and whom they have fought against for years. It is commonly known as the “annual Holy Thursday foot fight.” Now the Pope is doing it too, and in doing so has wrecked any card they might have had to play about washing women’s feet not being in the rubrics. So they have turned exactly the same invective on the Pope they use on their priests. If people on the left think Benedict was proud or self-serving in following the ermine tradition, the traditionalists have replied in kind: Pope Francis is “making it all about him,” he’s “showboating,” his humility is “false humility.”

    I am one of the new Pope’s biggest fans, and I would defy anyone to watch that beautiful little video and say anything but that this is one holy, loving and humble man. The ones who say this, though, seem not to be able to help it. They are still seeing “Fr. Wreckovator” before their eyes, and they have always had him pegged as “making it all about him” when he introduces some wild innovation in their suburban parish. And in many cases they may be right. Pope Francis is an entirely different sort though. I have few expectations that many of the suburban pastors will be heading to a prison or homeless shelter for this ritual any time soon. If only they would!

    Nothing of this dynamic appears in the AP story.

    Another amusing sidelight on the claim by some on the left that this will lead to the approval of women’s ordination. Actually, the ones who advocate female and general parishioner footwashing always justify it on the grounds that what Jesus was doing here was not so much about the priesthood as abut service. Now in order to try and squeeze in women’s ordination, they have to flip themselves around and say “no, it’s really all about the priesthood!” You could get whiplash from this stuff.

    I have a rather more personal take here: http://subcreators.com/blog/2013/03/28/christs-caress-the-popes-holy-thursday-prison-mass/

  • Julia

    Lori: our local parish pastor did the washing of feet on thursday and some were women. And he isn’t “Fr Wreckovator” at all. It’s rather common to do that around here. Thanks for gathering this info – friends and family have been sending me this AP story with lots of questions. In particular, what was reported didn’t sound like Ed Peters. And there is a huge difference between canon laws and rubrics.

    On the Muslim issue – John Allen has an entire post about the Muslim convert who has quit the Catholic Church because of what he perceives as laxness about Islam.

    http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/there-little-magdi-allam-all-us

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    Julia: I was just using the term that the trads do, and seeing things from their point of view. I didn’t mean to suggests that I myself think priests who wash women’s feet aren’t good priests, just the opposite, given my admiration for Francis. Of course, there are some priests for whom it is “all about them,” but honestly I’ve not met more than 1 or 2 in my life.

  • Julia

    I didn’t mean to contradict you; I was trying to offer an example of what you were talking about.
    Sorry I wasn’t clear.


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