Between Fusty and Freaky: Can Francis find the Liturgical Balance? UPDATED

Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos

So, really, what is your feeling about lace peeking out from under the chausible? Are you in mid-meltdown because noble vestments meant to showcase the Kingship and glory of Christ may take a backseat in Pope Francis’ bus while the plainer stuff, equally valid for liturgy but emphasizing Christ’s humanity, gets used?

Scripture tells us “to everything there is a season”. In a very complicated age, when the church has an awful lot of housecleaning to do, perhaps it is a season of simple dress. One does not wear finery while scrubbing the floors and mucking out the stables.

There is nothing wrong with simplicity. My regard for His Holiness the Pope Emeritus cannot be doubted; he is forever my dear Papa, but I frankly won’t miss the fusty gear, which often seemed to bury him. I liked him best in his plain papal whites.

Father Dwight Longenecker, noting the unhappiness of the bling-and-Latin crowd analyzes it a bit:

In the developing world…[informal liturgical styles do not] necessarily carry all the baggage it does here. Just because a priest, bishop or pope is a bit more informal in his style of celebrating doesn’t mean he is a theological liberal or will compromise the faith. Indeed, everything about Pope Francis indicates that he is not only completely orthodox in theology and moral teaching, but that he has suffered for being so.

What strikes me about Pope Francis so far is that he celebrates Mass reverently and beautifully, but that his simplicity of life and his example of poverty means that he may not be as concerned about the “finer things” in Catholic worship. That doesn’t mean he’s going to ban everything that is beautiful, sacred and reverent. The give back with his informal style is that his preaching is heart felt and immediate.

But while there is nothing wrong with simplicity, elaboration is not something despicable, either. I like what Calah Alexander said tonight in a private chat:

We wouldn’t even know who Michelangelo was if it weren’t for the proud history of Catholics loving all kinds of bling. [Papal ornamentation] carries weight and meaning. But at this moment in history, when the first world is rolling in so much tasteless bling…I think we need a pope who’s willing to put away ornamentation and show the other side of Catholicism, the side [the bling-ed out world] would never take the time to search out, the plain pectoral cross, public transit, feet-washing side. It is kind of scary for Catholics, because we’re used to seeing that in Franciscans, but not in the pope. It really sort of turns everything upside down. [People are] not shallow for being unnerved by it.

Yesterday, I attended a Mass here in this Roman convent chapel, one in which about 100 young men and women participated. They were all nicely, if casually, dressed and their Novus Ordo worship was reverent and attentive. They sang a cappella, with neither organ nor guitar and sounded angelic in their harmonies. It was one of the most beautifully solemn and prayerful masses I’d ever attended, and it was as simple as it gets. No one attending it could have found it lacking in either instruction or transcendence. I thought to myself that if we ever reach a point where masses are once again covert celebrations, with priests traveling light, and instruments unavailable, we would still have a measure of beauty before us. And, more importantly, the Eucharist.

Because it is true that a mass can be both simple and tremendous, it’s easy to feel like the rad-trad hand-wringing over form and fabric is excessive, and to an extent I do feel that way. Making a sartorial martyr out of Monsignor Guido Marini, the Master of Papal Ceremonies — who has not been dismissed and will be in charge of 14 Franciscan Friars during the Papal Installation — strikes me as something Marini could not like, himself.

All that said, I do understand the fear that is driving some of this reaction, and it’s not really about the vestments; it is a fear that having, in their view, managed an escape from the land of clown-and-puppet liturgies thanks to Summorum Pontificum, this new era of simplicity might find that refuge taken from them.

Absurdists liturgies have more or less disappeared, but even so, I don’t think that will happen. I’ve written before that the win/win of Summorum Pontificum was that it would strengthen all of the liturgical forms:

It may restore some equilibrium to those self-indulgent liturgists who have come to believe that any old thing they can come up with must be a better option than what worked for 2,000 years. A return to seriousness and an appreciation of what came before could help strengthen liturgy that has been too long unsettled (and as the liturgy goes, so goes the worship).

Pope Francis means to be a reformer, but Benedict was, as well. Our popes are looking to strike balances in a world that is extremely disoriented and out-of-whack. By hewing diverse liturgical pathways, Benedict created a paradoxical means of Christian unity; all forms lead to Rome and to Heart of Christ. It’s too early to know yet, but I suspect Francis is going to use the message of mercy to help more people access those roads. If so, this the hermeneutic of continuity, more or less on steroids.

The most hopeful thing about Francis, to my way of thinking, is that he is not anyone’s man but Christ’s. He will continue to defy labeling (and cause suspicious thinkers to suspect him from both “left” and “right”) while preaching Christ Crucified and his mercy, as did his predecessors; not with the philosophical depth of John Paul II, nor with the theological nuance of Benedict but with the zeal and outreach of a troubadour and the defiance of an apostle.

Which means he will always be a burr in someone’s butt. Signs of contradiction usually are. Adjust.

ADDENDUM: Speaking of adjustments, as Lisa Graas points out, joy over Francis should not be regarded as an automatic critique of Benedict — they are wholly different men, differently called by the same Spirit — but some (like the increasingly spiteful-and-adolescent sounding Cardinal, who has some brass crowing about extravgance considering the money he spent building one of the ugliest cathedrals in Christendom) are inflicting real pain in some corners by hinting that this difference in style is Francis’ personal rebuke to and repudiation of Benedict’s papacy. They apparently do not realize that by projecting their bitter feelings on to Francis they draw an unhelpful and ungenerous portrait of our new pope, who doesn’t seem like he would be so unkind, or so subtle. They’re making a period of adjustment more difficult than it ever needs to be.

UPDATE: While this blogger and I are not on the same page, I think she makes a point worth noting:

That Pope Francis is personally humble and a gifted preacher is certainly wonderful and quite a positive  thing.  Humility is a gift to which all of us should aspire to attain.  However, it would be a total misreading of St. Francis’ reform if we were to take humility to the extreme and strip the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass of its beauty, grandeur and sublime majesty.  The holy deacon once said that “Lady Poverty should never enter the sanctuary.

Nor did Jesus refuse the expensive nard, either. Balance. We are seeking balance. The barque of Peter has been roiled for a solid decade. Balance will come, but the wheel is going to have to spin a bit for us to find it.

UPDATE: Here is the Libretto for tomorrow’s installation liturgy (mega-pdf)

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Pingback: Between Fusty and Freaky: Can Francis find the Liturgical Balance? - CATHOLIC FEAST - Sync your Soul

  • Leroy Huizenga (@LHuizenga)

    Simplicity would be singing the Mass propers and ordinary in Latin or English or both, using ad orientem, and keeping EMsHC to a necessary minimum. The Roman rite is a noble, simple rite, but we’ve turned that on its head in recent decades. Much of the pop-style stuff we sing is anything but simple, and the interpolations into the rite as it’s often celebrated can make it clunky and disjointed when it should flow like a tight drama. BTW, on St Francis and liturgical propriety:

  • Marie

    Thank you for the Addendum. I really was not fussed about what Pope Francis was doing, but it really got my hackles up when I felt like it was being manipulated by the Cardinal mentioned above. Not that I have a habit of caring about what he says… but it felt like being spat on.

  • Brian

    I pray that those tweets are not Cardinal Mahoney but some imposter. If they are truly from Cradinal Mahoney, he needs serious prayer.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    The problem is that usually, the nice china and the silver gets stuck away, and then so does the Corelle and even the paper plates, and we end up just eating off paper towels and drinking out of the milk carton. Which isn’t sanitary. and doesn’t show love or self-respect.

    Frankly, back in the day, most priests had a full set of vestments made by their mothers, sisters, and other relatives, with the help of whomever was needed to make sure they came out looking nice. Alternately, it was usually made by the ladies of the parish or the nuns or an actual vestment tailoring company, if the guy didn’t have family. Nobody’s mom would have slapped a polyester poncho on her boy. That’s not humble or simple; it’s just stupid.

    (And natural fabrics are not only Biblical, but also they breathe better and they don’t catch fire as easily, and if they do catch fire they don’t melt onto your skin like polyester. Ew. Yes, ironing’s a pain, but crispy priest is worse.)

    I don’t ask much. I’m totally okay with simplicity. But I would like to reach for fish and not get a snake, or at least reach for sugar and know I won’t get salt (or vice versa). So long as our pope says Mass like it’s Mass and doesn’t tolerate weird stuff, I’ll be okay with that.

  • Ellen

    As long as Pope Francis says the black and does the red and keeps liturgical dancers banished to the outer darkness, I am fine.

  • Bill

    Binding and loosening.

    I tend to think both the left and the right get all pissy when things don’t go their way (more typical apoplexy on the left about morality from Francis). Buckley famously said, Mater Si, Magistra No. All of it is, on both sides,a passive aggressive form of non serviam. I’m not advocating papalotry or ultramontanism here, but respectful obedience.

    [Yup -admin]

  • vox borealis

    Absurdists liturgies have more or less disappeared, but even so, I don’t think that will happen.

    I appreciate your expression of understanding and to a degree sympathy with more traddy oriented Catholics, rather than simply dismissing their (my) concerns. I do, however, think you are a tad optimistic. The iconoclasm of 50+ years was not likely to be turned back in just the short pontificate of Benedict XVI, and so I believe there is a legitimate concern that any lost momentum now will mean the complete undoing of the Benedictine approach to liturgical praxis. And on those lines:

    But at this moment in history, when the first world is rolling in so much tasteless bling…I think we need a pope who’s willing to put away ornamentation and show the other side of Catholicism…

    I can’t express how wrong I think think this sentiment is. Simply put, though, it posits a false contrast and therefore flawed solution. The response to “tasteless bling” in western world is NOT to put away papal ornamentation, but rather to roll out *tasteful* ornamentation proper to the context and setting. I mean, really, a rapper wears a bunch of gold chains (or whatever Calah Alexander had in mind), so the pope should put away a gold pectoral cross and wear a wooden one instead. Huh?

  • Fiestamom

    How I wish Cardinal Mahony had kept his tweets to himself. He gives himself plausible deniability, but mischief making is not a quality we need in a Cardinal.

  • Manny

    I tend to side with beauty over simplicity, and beauty does cost more. That’s not to say simplicity isn’t beautiful. It’s beautiful for a time but when everything is simple (just look at some of the protestant practices) and simplicity becomes drab. Hemingway’s prose can be beautiful in its simplicity but then after reading for a while you want to go beyond third grade sentences. The Renaissance is still the high water mark for beautifying God, and yes it didn’t project simplicity. However, given the constant criticism of the Church being overtly rich, perhaps the ornamentation can be toned down. But mind you, God deserves full beauty and ornamentation. That’s where I stand.

  • Adam

    I continue to look at the Jewish Babylonian exile as the model for simplicity. Prior to the exile, the prophets (Hosea is probably the best example) warned that God longed for the days of the Exdous in the desert, where it was just Him and his people. Babylon was necessary for the Jews, who’s become stepped in excess materialism and idolatry. God literally felt it necessary to strip them of their creature comforts and force them to reflect on their relationship.

    This is not to say that grandeur and material goods are evil–otherwise, God wouldn’t have wanted David and Solomon to build up a mighty kingdom and a massive temple. The risk is in materialism supplanting God himself. Fortunately, it seems that His Holiness wants to inspire a voluntary simplicity–a la Christ’s 40 days in the desert–rather than the involuntary simplicity of Babylon. How apt that we should encounter this new Pope in Lent, the Church’s own time of simplicity and renewal.

  • Karen LH

    What Ellen said: As long as he says the black and does the red, I don’t care if the Pope is high church or low church.

  • Sofia Guerra

    What “other side of Catholicism”? Obviously, Calah Alexander did not live through the nightmare of the late 70′;s, the 80′s and most of the 90′s at which I personal witnessed the so-called “BLING” of the Church at that time..Puppet heads, Rainbow stoles etc. I think its a good idea if you do a piece concerning the liturgy EF or OF it might be a good idea to do the research if you are young and have not yet acquired the wisdom that comes with age (paraphrasing Pope Francis earliest comments on aging….).
    Vox Borealis obviously has made a logical approach to this issue. I must say comparing vestiture to the slang secular term bling as such is hilarious. Mrs. Alexander’s approach is may be considered cute and hip but in no way based in any solid research on the matter…just her personal opinion. (Good idea though to back it up with research and facts before formulating an opinion…)

    The recent posts by your young bloggers in particular are as hurtful as the other side. No one knows by vestments what a Pope is thinking or will do….Pope Francis when cardinal in Argentina made sure there was a Solemn High OF offered the in Cathedral in Buenos Aires in 48HOURS after Summorum Pontificum.The reason he did not offer the Mass himself, I am surmising, is that there probably not enough people or even priests familiar with the offering of a Pontifical Solemn High Mass and it’s rubrics.(which has been the case in 2007-09 since SP ) Now, if he is on the “Other side of Catholicism”(I mean what does that even mean??? ) why did he do it in 48 hrs? A little research here could have helped the young blogger.
    Elizabeth, if you are the Catholic editor at Patheos, please continue to make sure that those who offer their opinions are not made to look foolish in their lack of research or wisdom. I am sure that Caleh is a sincere person by her writings, she is just sincerely wrong on the facts.
    Ad Iesum per Mariam,

  • Sofia Guerra

    Correction to my comment, “Pope Francis when cardinal in Argentina made sure there was a Solemn High OF offered the in Cathedral in Buenos Aires in 48HOURS after Summorum Pontificum.” of course a typo..EF

  • Jay Anderson

    “Buckley famously said, Mater Si, Magistra No.”

    Yeah, just Charles E. Wilson famously said “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country”.

    In other words, no, he didn’t.

  • Jay Anderson

    “Buckley famously said, Mater Si, Magistra No.”

    Yeah, just like Charles E. Wilson famously said “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country”.

    In other words, no, he didn’t.

  • Veronica

    I can understand why people here in America is concerned about what type of liturgy that Pope Francis will do, specially after the history of outrageous liturgical abuses in America with ridiculous puppets, rainbow stoles, and “vestal virgins” dancing to Mother Earth (which reminds me something I saw on a liberal nuns order’s website in NY… but I digress).

    Will Pope Francis be more traditional or liberal? I think neither. Based solely on the mass he said at the Sistine Chapel and the one at St. Anne, I think he will celebrate mass in a more austere way, consistent with his poverty vow. Will he eliminate the most ornate vestments? I don’t think so either, but one thing is for sure: Pope Francis will say the black, and do the red.

    I have been following the news in Spanish, because there seems to be a cultural gap with the news reported by American reporters. It seems to me that Catholic news agencies in Spanish have a better understanding of Pope Francis, and they do not fear he will do a liturgy that will not honor God.

    Latinamerican culture is something you have to have experienced to fully understand. I like Fr. Longenecker’s comment on his blog when he points out that “informal liturgical styles” do not carry the same connotation in Latinamerica as here in America. However, I still think that his choice of the word “informal” is not accurate.

    I lived in Venezuela for 30 years before coming to America, and I never in all my years going to church did I see an “informal” liturgy. Probably the ornaments in some churches (like my own, coming from a poor neighboor in the West) were more humble, but it is understandable how a parish priest in the slums will prefer to use a $200 vestment than a $3000 one when he probably is trying to raise funds to help the boys and girls on the streets to get out of drugs, when he’s trying to find support for the soup kitchen that feeds many homeless people, or when he is trying to build a new and better tabernacle in his parish. Still, in my own experience, however humble the vestments, they were the best they could afford and in no way were the not proper. The most ornate liturgical celebrations, with beautiful, ornate vestments I saw were in a church administrated by the Opus Dei in an upscale neighborhood in the East of the city. I guess that they have more money for more ornate vestments than the priest from my parish.

    As far as liturgical abuses? The first time I saw liturgical abuses of the worst case was in here in America. Clown masses? People dancing on the main isle? Bringing Santa in the middle of the Christmas Mass (I saw this with my own eyes in one church in LA on Chirstmas day in 2011… figures…). This is something I never saw. But that’s just my experience. I know Pope Francis will never be able to please the tastes of both the right and the left. He will never be too traditionalist and he will never be too liberal. As you pointed out, Elizabeth: “He will continue to defy labeling (and cause suspicious thinkers to suspect him from both “left” and “right”) while preaching Christ Crucified and his mercy, as did his predecessors; not with the philosophical depth of John Paul II, nor with the theological nuance of Benedict but with the zeal and outreach of a troubadour and the defiance of an apostle.”

  • calahalexander

    Jeez. Listen, I said that in a private chat, not a blog post, so I’m not sure that I needed to research what I was saying before saying it. As for “the other side of Catholicism”, I wasn’t talking about the masses of the 70′s at all. The dichotomy I was setting up was not between high and low church, but between the papal ornamentation the world sees and the simplicity of the Franciscans, Cistercians, and cloistered nuns, that side of Catholicism that the world doesn’t generally see as the face of Catholicism. As far as I know, those orders aren’t big into liturgical dancing. Ms. Guerra, I have no idea what post of mine you have in mind that was hurtful. I never wrote a post about the EF, just a post about how we should stop attacking one another. The only posts I have written about Pope Francis have been extremely positive. Once again, let me clarify that the dichotomy I was setting up in the private conversation was between the “papal bling” and the humble, beautiful simplicity of the Franciscans. It had NOTHING whatsoever to do with the EF or the NO. Maybe you should make sure you understand what’s being said before you accuse people of being foolish.

  • deiseach

    As long as the Mass remains reverent (no giant puppets, no liturgical dancers, no threw-off-the-habit nuns ‘preaching’ from the ambo), I’m happy.

    My ire is reserved for the snarky types who sneer that Benedict was a “clotheshorse” and that’s why he wore the elaborate vestments. I’m pretty sure the same ones who are making those kinds of remarks are up-to-date with the latest Apple product, are not wearing shoes purchased in Walmart (if I am identifying American chain-store clothing correctly?) and spend more money living ‘simply’ (e.g. everything they eat is free-range organic hand-picked by Himalayan maidens and sprinkled with fresh dew from the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro) than Papa Benedict ever spent on vestments.

    Which is better: leave them to moulder in museums or take them out and use them for the purposes they were intended?

    No criticism of Pope Francis either; let him be Franciscan as Benedict was Benedictine! But simplicity need not mean ugliness (look at Cistercian architecture for an example) and throwing out the altar rails and statues for ugly Brutalist-architecture constructions is not the solution to feeding the hunger for beauty.

    As Pope Francis said in his address to the media:

    “This is something which we have in common, since the Church exists to communicate precisely this: Truth, Goodness and Beauty “in person”. It should be apparent that all of us are called not to communicate ourselves, but this existential triad made up of truth, beauty and goodness.”

    Beauty is not the enemy of sanctity!

  • calahalexander

    deiseach, I couldn’t agree more. A world that is rolling in tasteless bling will not be likely to recognize tasteful bling as true beauty, because they don’t understand what beauty is. I was suggesting that it would be good for Pope Francis to show them a different kind of beauty, the kind the world isn’t used to. A quiet, reverent Mass with incense, Gregorian chant, stone walls and stained glass are pretty high on my list of things that I understand to be “simple beauty.” So is taking public transit (but maybe not too often, since it’s definitely dangerous), kissing the feet of new mothers and AIDS victims, and instilling the EF within 48 hours of Summmorum Pontificum. That last one was a beautiful act of obedience to and solidarity with Pope Benedict.

  • Dr R.W. Dyson

    The essence of the problem that Benedict XVI faced – and that all of us who seem now to be called “traddies” face – is that the Church is stuck with the cultural disaster of Vatican II and can’t admit that it was a cultural disaster. I would be happy only if the Tridentine rite were restored to normative status with all the trimmings, because I honestly believe that the Novus Ordo Mass is a betrayal of the Catholic faith (“ex quo nobis fiet panis vitae”). It isn’t a matter of simplicity or complexity, Latin or a vernacular. It’s a simple matter of doctrinal orthodoxy. The creeping protestantisation of the Church that happened under Paul VI led the Church into error, and those errors need to be corrected. I can’t in my heart believe that Francis or anyone else will now do this. I pray that I’m wrong, as I have for more than forty years.

  • Elissa

    Pitting Francis versus Benedict is reminiscent of the unfortunate experience of a child who is forced to “choose sides” between parents. Thanks to you and the other Patheos writers for pointing out that to everything there is a season.

  • Meli

    I’m so surprised at all of this worry. It seems to me that Benedict XVI really was inspired to leave at this time. And, the evidence is Pope Francis. Each Pope has his own mission for the time in which he is called.

    Personally, I see the Holy Father’s example of humility, warmth, and poverty as a direct challenge to those of us who live surrounded by a consumerist mentality. When he speaks of (or, rather quotes St. Francis) about a “poor Church”, I think he is referring to the need for every single Christian to learn detachment.

    Also, having lived in Buenos Aires in the not-too-distant-past, I can assure everyone that there are very beautiful Churches there. The Cathedral where Cardinal Bergoglio said Mass, is itself quite beautiful – he stripped nothing from it in his many years as Archbishop.

    Lastly, it has helped me to think of Benedict as a Grandfather now. I can embrace them both in their separate roles without a conflict of heart. Let’s love them both! Let’s trust them both.

  • Music Snob, I guess

    Mr. Huizenga said “… Much of the pop-style stuff we sing is anything but simple …”

    This is my main point of deranged dissatisfaction with the nobly-intentioned all-volunteer music ministry at every parish I have belonged to … the music chosen is NOT composed nor arranged for congregational singing; it is pop-solo music that is meant to be listened to while one fairly talented singer sings it. Ordinary folk with music training limited to middle school choir simply cannot handle the range and register of these pieces. I have musical training and a decent natural voice and I can’t handle most of them. It removes all the joy of doing the singing and it removes all and I do mean all the joy of listening. It is to the point that I dread attending Mass on Sundays or school Mass week days because the music makes me feel assaulted somehow. It’s that bad. Clanging cymbals and all that. (I don’t mean literally) And if one has the temerity to bring this up with the pastor, no matter how timorously, one is categorized. You know what I mean. I used to belong to a school-less parish that had music-free daily Masses …. bliss!

  • Ciara

    I’ve been reading a lot of this type of argument on the Catholic blogosphere in the days since our new Pope’s election, and I have to say I’m astonished. I’m Irish, and have attended Mass both in the UK and continental Europe, and I can assure you that I’ve never witnessed anything like the worrying I’m seeing here. Indeed it seems to be a North American thing, as far as I can tell, although perhaps I’m wrong. I think this might be because most Irish people don’t attend any type of Sunday Mass regularly, never mind caring enough to choose between EF and NO forms (if that is the right way to say it)
    Look, here’s the thing. Pope Francis is, as been mentioned, coming from a part of the world where the Church is less materially rich, and he’s well known for not being enamoured with the way they do things at the Vatican. Of course he wants to tone it down a bit.
    We need to remember that he is now the leader of all the world’s Catholics, and is expected to fix the Roman Curia, heal the Churches’ centuries old disputes between Protestantism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam, stop Catholics being killed for their faith, re-evangelise an increasingly secularised Europe, jet regularly around the world, spread the faith into Asia, and be universally loved by all. In his first hundred days. I mean, come on, people!
    I don’t mean to suggest that there are bigger problems here than the liturgy. I’m saying that it is one of many equally important issues facing this poor man who only wants, like a good shepherd, to point to the Cross and say “Look, He died for your sins and is risen from the dead. He is Jesus, follow Him.” And that is what we are also called to say to the world.

  • midwestlady

    Elizabeth, you said, “The most hopeful thing about Francis, to my way of thinking, is that he is not anyone’s man but Christ’s.”

    This is exactly right. I see pictures of him lumbering across the marble floors in his black shoes and he has a determined, if kind and fatherly, look on his face. He’s not going to fool around. He is a sign of contradiction to everyone, and that’s a good thing right now. All the quarters of the Church need a wake up call, not just this one or that one. It’s a good thing.

    [to be fair, Benedict didn't "fool around" either. He gave us a huge example of humility and trust by understanding that the world had stopped paying attention; what he did put all eyes back on the church -- now, evangelization can happen. As for me -- I do miss the red shoes, which were symbolic of the church's historical martyrdom...walking through (and called to, if necessary) adding to, the blood of our martyrs for Christ -admin]

  • midwestlady

    Whether he sings Gregorian chant or sings “Jesus loves me,” he’s going to really preach the Gospel as it is. He’s already doing it and talking about the devil, to boot. That’s different.

    [Seriously? You don't think Benedict preached the Gospel "as it is"? Seriously? -admin]