A lot of fuss has been made these last few days over Pope Francis’ stark departure from some of the traditions we saw in the pontificate of Benedict XVI. The red shoes and the mozzetta have become symbols of this concern. As a rule of charity, we should always try to operate from assumptions that cast others in the best possible light, and so I’ve been attempting to keep my cool as I share in the concern of my fellow tradition-loving Catholics.
Fr. Z posted yesterday that the eschewing of these trappings, especially in the liturgy, is often motivated by a false humility (he did not, however, indicate that he thought Pope Francis had false humility). In some cases, it takes the form of a desire not to make oneself the center of attention at Mass, when in fact they draw attention not to the priest, but to God, who is worthy of having a well-adorned priest in His service and representing His Son. In other cases, it stems from a misguided desire not to scandalize the faithful by the wealth of the Church, when in fact the poor who would (one assumes) be most scandalized benefit most from being immersed in the common wealth and culture of the Church. (It is, in reality, often the wealthy who feel offended at such things on behalf of the poor; such was the case of the treacherous Apostle Judas, who was outwardly offended for the poor, but was inwardly selfish.) The priest who omits these trappings must recognize his role and purpose, the service of God, which is always worth the extra cost and devotion.
I suspect many priests follow this Judas-like line of reasoning precisely because they look at folks like St. Francis and see austerity, but don’t bother to observe how folks like Francis of Assisi (a deacon, but never a priest) took part in the liturgy. For a sampling, check out his own words:
Let the whole of mankind tremble, the whole world shake, and the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God, is on the altar in the hands of a priest. O admirable heights and sublime lowliness! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under the little form of bread! Look, brothers, at the humility of God and pour out your hearts before Him! Humble yourselves, as well, that you may be exalted by Him. Therefore, hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves so that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally.
Last night, I read on Creative Minority Report a piece of news borrowed from Vatican Insider, Andrea Tornielli, which claimed that a number of curial officials have stopped using the fleet of luxury sedans in the Vatican because they don’t want to appear more self-indulgent than Pope Francis.
The Pope may not wish to use the flagship vehicle of a fleet of luxury sedans but several of those who were accustomed to using them are beginning to wonder how they can continue to do so… People who are used to using the large official vehicles of the Vatican fleet to ferry them back and forth are beginning to think that it might be much better to take a taxi. Better not to risk it. The Pope, who is used to taking the minibus with his “Cardinal brethren”, standing in line for breakfast at the self-service restaurant in the Domus Sanctae Marthae and settling his hotel bill in person, could look out of the window and see that he is surrounded by people who are not getting the drift and not following suit.
I think we can all agree that to eschew the trappings of the office for the reasons I gave above would be a fundamental misunderstanding of their purpose. Suppose, however, that perhaps there is a method to this madness. Consider that maybe the pope, elected by all accounts to reform a curia corrupted with self-exaltation, is trying to make a point.
Dispensing with the trappings of the papacy out of a Judas-like hatred of opulence for God’s glory? Bad.
Dispensing with those same trappings to teach a lesson to those who think the trappings exist to glorify them? Good.
If that’s the case, then Francis isn’t really eschewing such things at all. Rather, he’s leaving them behind for a sort of spiritual sackcloth, so that when a return is made to the finery of the office, in his pontificate or the next, the intention behind them may be properly understood and imitated by the curia and all the Church.
What is that intention? Why, the Jesuit motto, of course: AMDG, “for the greater glory of God.”