Is Pope Francis a Liturgical Liberal?

Is Pope Francis a Liturgical Liberal? March 17, 2013

There have been some rumblings amongst traditionalist Catholics that Pope Francis is going to turn out to be a liturgical liberal. Apparently a few extremists are worried that Pope Benedict’s encouragement of the Latin Mass and his bringing back some of the older styles of clerical dress and papal customs are going to be thrown out in favor of happy clappy masses, clowns, balloons and big puppets.

Everyone should stop and take a deep breath and get a sense of priorities. I am myself, on the more traditionalist side of the liturgy wars. I dislike anodyne, sentimental church music, a game show host style of priestly celebration, tacky day-glo vestments and the whole modernist dumbed down liturgical style. I’m all for the Spirit of the Liturgy and reverence and beauty in the liturgy. I’m down on big round churches, sloppy servers and feel good homilies in the style of a Hallmark card.

However, there are permissible variations in the way Mass is celebrated. Pope Francis may well turn out to be more “low church” and folksy in his style. That doesn’t mean he is going to ban the Latin Mass. He may be more informal and personable in his celebration of Mass. That doesn’t mean he’s going to send his liturgical police to confiscate all the lacy cottas and birettas in the world. Just because he wears a chasuble with grapes and wheat on it doesn’t mean he’s going to make everybody sing Eagle’s Wings every Sunday.

There are a couple of things to remember here. First of all, in the United States the liturgy wars are part of a bigger cultural divide within the American Catholic church. Liberal liturgy very often also means liberal theology. Often the big box Catholic Churches with their praise bands and “gather them in” style are also full of cafeteria Catholics and left wing Obama-voting ideologues, while the traddy congregations are full of right wing members of the John Birch society with “You’ll get my gun when you pry my cold dead fingers from around it” bumper stickers on their cars. (I’m exaggerating to make a point). Naturally, therefore, the liturgy starts being about much more than the liturgy…

In the developing world however, the more informal modes of worship are much more of a general cultural phenomenon. An informal style there doesn’t 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.

So he’s not Pope Benedict. That’s okay. We can be confident that the same Holy Spirit who led the Cardinals to elect Joseph Ratzinger eight years ago also led the Cardinals to elect Jorge Bergoglio.

We need to remember that progress in the church is like sailing. When sailing you don’t always have the wind at your back for clear straight sailing.  When you are sailing against the wind you have to beat the wind. You said with the wind coming at an angle and go in a direction other than directly where you want to go. Then you swing around and sail in the opposite direction at a slight angle, then swing about again and repeat the process. You never seem to be going in a straight line where you want to go, but you get there in the end through this zig zag process–tacking back and forth sort of progress.

So it often is in the spiritual life and in the life of the church. Here we benefit from the charism and gifts of one pope. We learn from him and appreciate his emphasis. There we benefit from the different charism and gifts of another pope. We learn from him and appreciate his emphasis. So the fullness of the Catholic Church is experienced and the wideness and breadth of the work of grace can be seen.

I’m excited by our new holy father, and if everything he does isn’t exactly to my taste, well so what? I want to learn from him, learn how to be a better Catholic and learn how to be a better priest. Most of all, I hope he shows us the pressing needs of the world, and how much we need to proclaim the gospel with our words and our works.

The bottom line is this: it should not be a question of either good liturgy or faithful proclamation of the gospel. Indeed fine liturgy is an important part of proclaiming the gospel.

However, if I had to choose between a happy clappy pope who was a vital and dynamic witness to the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith, and a liturgically “proper” pope who was a sour, self righteous hypocrite, I’d take the happy clappy pope every time.

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