The Problem of the Palace and the Stable

Catholics with taste for finer things have questioned the use of wild tie-dye looking vestments at Pope Francis’ Mass at Lampedusa. They also don’t like the corny boat-altar. It left me cringing too, but I guess we have to put up with this sort of thing and remember the context and who, what, where and when. The Pope went to minister to the poor who had risked their lives in small boats to migrate to Europe. He’s the successor of the fisherman Peter. He is at the helm of the barque of Peter. There is lots of gospel symbolism there, and if tasteful Catholics think the symbolism is a bit “inyerface” for their liking, they can always become Episcopalians.

I’m joking. OK. Don’t get all upset at me if you were all upset at the purple vestments and tacky altar and I’m not getting myself all worked up either. I’m going to let Mantilla the Hon make some comments about it shortly.

In the meantime, what interests me more is the seeming clash between the style of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. In case you forgot, here is Benedict:

It brings to mind the constant clash between the palace and the stable. What clash? Simply this: Jesus Christ the Son of God came into the world as the seeming son of a simple working class family. He was born in a stable. From the beginning he was an itinerant…a migrant. He was poor and lowly and had no place to rest his head. It would seem to be a no brainer therefore that his followers should be similarly simple and poor. This is the life adopted by the first Christians, then by the first monks, then by the friars of the different orders. It is a worthy and noble tradition. It is the tradition of the stable. It is this Jesus:

However, Jesus Christ was not only a humble carpenter and a poor itinerant preacher. He is now risen, ascended and glorified. He has taken his place at the right hand of the Father. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Before him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. He is the Lord of Glory. To worship King Christ is to enter into his courts with praise. To worship King Christ is to bow before the Lord of Heaven and Earth. It is this Jesus:

This is why Catholic churches and cathedrals were grand and beautiful. They were not magnificent for man, but for the God-Man Jesus Christ. This is why Catholic priests wear fine vestments and use gold and silver vessels on the altar. This is why we spend time and money to worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness. It is not to magnify a man, but to magnify the Lord, and if we forget this, then we are forgetting not only a valuable part of our Catholic tradition, but a valuable part of the gospel itself.’

On the other hand, if too much time, money and attention is spent on the fine vestments, grand architecture and sumptuous music and art, then we are in danger of forgetting the other side of the coin: Jesus the Man of Nazareth. It is necessary to remember the poor, and Pope Francis’ emphasis is a vital part of the proclamation of the gospel.

However, in my opinion, the Catholic Church is not really in danger of forgetting the poor or in danger of neglecting Jesus the poor man of Nazareth. In our age, the Catholic Church is in danger of neglecting King Christ–the Lord of Glory. We’ve got plenty of peace and justice Catholics reminding us of our responsibility to the poor, and that’s a good thing. We’ve also got plenty of liberal theologians who would like to make Jesus into no more than an attractive wandering preacher with an agenda–a kind of proto-Gandhi.

The world needs an authentic witness through an emphasis on the poor and needy, but it also needs to be reminded of Christ the King of Glory. That’s why I like Pope Francis’ emphasis on simplicity, but in that rightful emphasis I don’t want to forget the power and glory of Christ the King and the splendid worship we offer him.

Critics of the finery, the Baroque, the splendor and the glory will argue that it gives the wrong witness. Nonsense. We must take time to explain the reason for the witness and we must also make sure (as Pope Benedict did and John Paul did before him) that the Pope is always concerned with the poor and leads the church in her ministry to the poor. As the vicar of Christ therefore, the Pope must attempt to solve the problem of the palace and the stable. He must, in his own ministry, show the humility and poverty of Jesus of Nazareth, while also showing forth the power and the glory of Christ the King of Glory.

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  • Concerns

    Please stop already with the boat as an altar. What Pope Francis did is re open the door (which was just about ready to be locked and sealed,) to those who are ready willing and able to bring back innovation and improvisation. He by this very action has now given unspoken permission to all those who think worshipping God is about entertainment rather then the worship of the one true triune God. He has now said to these people find a theme and do what it is you like. We can always find some sort of reason to use symbolism. Please prey tell if someone is ministering to prisoners should we utilize a prison door for an altar? I agree Fr. Dwight , first Jesus is the King of Kings and the line that need to be struck is when the best of everything cannot be utilized for the King then it is right and appropriate to utilize what it is we can offer to him. He will understand , he is merciful. But to think we need to continually down play his majesty is inappropriate and dangerous in the time we are living in the Church . And those vestments???? What can and does one say? I am not afraid to admit that while I admire Pope Francis and love his simplicity in what he says and the way he says it. I also have a deep concerns. Pray for our Church, our Pope and for our Bishops and Priests! The Lord doesn’t need to be brought down to our level . He accomplished this when he became incarnate , suffered and died. We need to be brought up to his level, where we recognize his omnipotent and his majesty.

  • Joseph L. Grabowski

    With respect to the altar, my understanding is that it is a shipwreck or the remnants of one of the ramshackle boats used by refugees coming to the island. (The colors appear to represent the flags of the originary country/countries in Africa). Matters of taste notwithstanding, and while I agree wholly about the propriety of using fine arts and crafts for the liturgy, I think the word “tacky” to describe the altar somewhat the improper term. Remember, too, that many of these escaping refugees who attended the Mass are coming from predominately Muslim countries that are still Christian mission territories, and that “high culture” in Africa is not as it is in Western Europe or in Asia. The appointments of the sanctuary, considered in that light, might be paying homage to what a culture regards as its cultural milestones and its own fine arts, in a developing part of the world with very different aesthetic philosophies than we’ve cultivated. Perhaps even the same can be said of the (admittedly) ugly vestments. And finally, I’d offer that perhaps the clash in tastes is not as clear cut or definitive as it seems. The picture you show is, indeed, Benedict. But this is Benedict too:

  • vox borealis

    Is it wrong that I’m feeling there is just a little too much Pope Francis? I mean, daily homilies and endless anecdotes about riding buses or whatever. I have to be honest, I’ve started simply to tune him out. I’m not sure I should feel this way about the pope.

  • Illinidiva

    Yes… Some of the vestments and the altar were slightly overdone and did distract from the message. Some others like the chalice were nice. However, I’m confused as to why people think that Francis is conducting bongo playing hippie Masses in St Peter’s. Everything that I’ve seen is quite dignified and simple. Marini II and Francis ironically seem to work well together. Francis is strong-willed enough to block Marini II’s more ridiculous impulses.

    Moreover, over the top baroque can be just as distracting as boat altars. Benedict’s bling really did distract from his message. It is hard to speak of poverty and suffering in intricate brocade vestments without being seen as a hypocrite.

  • Jim

    Honestly. when I first looked at the photo my immediate thought was this:

    Oh lookie an Espiscopalian gay wedding thing going on.

  • tj.nelson

    Corny, tacky boat altar? Maybe he should had Mass on a comfortable cruise ship instead?

  • Christian LeBlanc

    Let Francis be Francis.

  • Mrs. B.

    There’s a cultural thing going here: our beloved Popes, in a Church that is truly universal, are having to deal with liturgical situations that are really different depending where you are in the world. In some parts of the world, especially in Europe, there is this constant danger for the Church to be kind of like the Episcopalians in the U.S., the Church of Good Taste, close only to the good people, the powerful people, the beautiful people … the bourgeoisie and (what’s left of the) aristocrats, who now make up the large part of practicing Catholics in places like France. The great thing here is that in Paris, for instance, this part of the Catholic faithful is now worshipping with first-generation immigrants, the homeless, the unemployed, converts from Islam … in a more often than not beautiful way, liturgically. The Mass at Lampedusa brought the presence of Christ the King to the darkest place in Europe. And you couldn’t get any closer to it than in a shipwrecked boat. We Europeans really felt the grace of what Jesus did there, through our Holy Father! And we thought it was beautiful.

    In the U.S., on the one hand, the Catholic Church is constantly having to grapple with the “society of entertainment”–church-shopping consumerism–and the temptation to bring the liturgy down to the lowest common (pop music and bright colors) denominator. And on the other hand, the amazing diversity of the country means that people can celebrate the Old Rite and the New, in Latin or English or Spanish or Vietnamese or Polish, with a world-class Gregorian schola or with mariachis … Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!

  • Sarah

    “However, in my opinion, the Catholic Church is not really in danger of forgetting the poor or in danger of neglecting Jesus the poor man of Nazareth. In our age, the Catholic Church is in danger of neglecting King Christ–the Lord of Glory. We’ve got plenty of peace and justice Catholics reminding us of our responsibility to the poor, and that’s a good thing.”

    I disagree that we are not really in danger of neglecting the poor. I think the religious and clergy do a good job, but the laity does not. Most of my Catholic friends toe the line with the republican view of poverty and economics (not a problem in itself, I’m not a liberal), and as a result have very derogatory opinions about the poor in this country. I’ve worked with inner-city poor and mostly what I get from other Catholics is semi-negative or an attitude that working with those populations is a waste of time and not a ‘real’ job. We seriously do a bad job when it comes to reaching out to other races and demographics. I live near Detroit and most Catholics don’t think twice about any sort of responsibility to their neighbors in the city. I don’t get this from Priests or religious, but from lay Catholics. They also are preoccupied with status, safety, and name dropping. They fill up conferences and lecture series, but when it comes down to actually doing the work those things are preparing them for, they aren’t interested. I think that the Catholic laity (the catechized laity) in the US are in danger of losing the culture battle because they do not give an authentic witness of the faith. If the pope challenges us to do this, then why are we whining about it?

  • Katrina Fernandez


  • A. Crawford

    That is really offensive–to refer to gorgeous vestments and other accoutrements as “bling” and especially in the same breath as Benedict. Every single one of those sacred garments or vessels or whatever has a purpose and a symbolism–and beauty is very, very important. We would die if we saw God in His beauty; Purgatory (or a great deal of penance or a martyr’s death) has to prepare us for the beauty of His perfection. The beauty of a properly appointed and celebrated Mass can thus help to prepare us for death, and it is a great solace to the soul in an ugly world.

  • Jim

    Incidently, I just came across this in a lecture. Thus sayeth Dr. Kreeft,

    “The very fact that the word pompous is now used only in a
    bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of
    ‘solemnity’. In an age in which everyone puts on his oldest clothes to
    be happy in, you must reawaken the simpler state of mind in which
    people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be
    rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that
    pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connection with vanity or
    self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a
    king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a
    major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast – all these
    wear unusual clothes, and move with calculated dignity. This does not
    mean they are vain; it means they are obedient. The modern habit of
    doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility;
    instead, it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the
    rite. We moderns may like dances that are hardly distinguishable from
    walking, and poetry which sounds as if it might be uttered ex tempore.
    Our ancestors did not. They liked a dance which was a dance, and fine
    clothes which no one could mistake for working clothes, and feasts that
    no one could mistake for ordinary dinners, and poetry that unblushingly
    proclaimed itself to be poetry. What is the point in having a poet
    inspired by the muse, if he tells the stories just as you or I would
    have told them?I wonder what Lewis would have said if he had become a Roman Catholic and had lived long enough to witness our liturgical holocaust.”

    A most dangerous thing it is to think in these last days when we are not allowed to have thoughts.

  • rodlarocque1931

    You are exactly right Father, the crisis in the Church today is really a denial of the doctrine of the social reign of Christ the King.

    This is the essential issue of contention between the modern and the traditional wings of the Church.

    When I read Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quas Primas (1925), I was amazed at how the modern Catholics have abandoned the very meaning of “thy Kingdom come” in Our Lord’s Prayer.

    “It would be a grave error, on the other hand, to say that
    Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the
    absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things
    are in his power…”

    The Church in our times need to see Our Lord as powerful and they need to let Him reign.

    “If the kingdom of Christ, then, receives, as it should, all nations under its
    way, there seems no reason why we should despair of seeing that peace which the King of Peace came to bring on earth … ‘Oh, what happiness would be Ours if all men, individuals, families, and nations, would but let themselves be governed by Christ! ‘… to use the words addressed by our predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, …., ‘then at length will many evils be cured; then will the law regain its former authority; peace with all its blessings be restored. Men will sheathe their swords and lay down their arms when all freely acknowledge and obey the authority of Christ, and every tongue confesses that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.’ “