Recently my attention has been turned to some of the negative press Pope Francis has been receiving from people who, one would think, should know better. The criticisms of our new Holy Father center, primarily, around liturgy. Now, I've never been one to make a fuss over liturgy. It is not a science, so I try not to argue with those who treat it as such. Personally, I like a simple and unpretentious Mass. I don't like when the Mass is turned into "The Huntley and Brinkley show", with bantering, jokes, and preaching so light it would make a mafia thug feel right at home, but neither can I tolerate a highly "traditional" liturgy that stinks of pretension (not to suggest that all traditional liturgy is pretentious). For most of my life I was a layman, and I do recall that what I desired above all when attending Mass was to be lifted up into a larger mystery, so as to lose myself and have my attention focused entirely on the Person of Christ. Very often, however, my attention was drawn from Christ and turned to the liturgical novelties of a progressive ideologue who thinks liturgy is about him, or towards the pretentions of the "traditionalist" drama queens who genuflect so perfectly one can't help but notice - and attempt, out of curiosity, to emulate it at home.
What I've seen since my ordination to the deaconate has only convinced me that Pope Francis is just what the Church needs at this time, which is why our Cardinals gave us this Pope, and why the Holy Spirit inspired them to do so. There is a new clericalism creeping into the Church, and the seminaries have to be on the lookout for this. The devil is all too clever; he is an angel of the Cherubim rank, and they are the most intelligent of God's creatures, and if the Devil cannot pull these young men - who know nothing of the clericalism of a previous era - to the left, he will simply lure them to the far right, so carefully, subtly and effectively in fact that all they will want to do is close themselves up in their little worlds, stay within their small circle of right wing bloggers and discuss the Latin Mass, and fabricate a theology of music falsely attributed to Benedict XVI (i.e., the New Liturgical Movement), deliberately creating a distance between themselves and the laity (who seem to be regarded as a necessary evil). I have seen this first hand, and members of my family have had their lives turned upside down as a result of this, and there is no doubt Pope Francis is very familiar with this illness.
In his notes jotted down in preparation for his address to the Cardinals before his election to office, we read: "The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries not only in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, of doing without religion, of thought and of all misery. When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referent and then she gets sick. The evils that over the course of time happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in a self-reference and a sort of theological narcissism. …The self-referent Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him come out. When the Church is self-referent without realizing it, she believes she has her own light. She ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives way to that very great evil which is spiritual worldliness. The self-referent Church lives to give glory only to one another. In simple terms, there are two images of the Church: the evangelizing Church that comes out of herself; …and the worldly Church that lives within herself, of herself, for herself."
The liturgy is the celebration of Christ's death and resurrection, which is why it is such an irony when we have not appropriated Christ in his suffering love, but nonetheless have "good" and "reverent" liturgy. What is the point of good liturgy if we don't live and love the cross? What is the point of theology if it does not serve mercy? We have to be in touch with human suffering, and we have to bring the good news of the risen Christ, who is in the depths of that suffering, to those who suffer.
For many devout people in the Church, including clergy, being a Catholic is about having the "right answers", that is, having "correct theology" and a flawless performance of "sound liturgy"; yet when it comes to personal contact with the world, not a few of these are socially and emotionally delayed: egotistical, controlling, neurotic, demanding, ungrateful, and ironically enough, irreverent - towards ordinary human persons. We should be reverent in the liturgy only because we should be reverent to the Person of Christ, who is on the altar, but he is on the altar for a purpose, namely, to enter into them who are out there. We should be reverent to ordinary human beings who know nothing about anything ecclesiastical, because he lives in them, and the Sacrifice of the Mass only occurs because it has as its end the continuation of that indwelling; for he wants to enter into them. That's the end, the final cause of the liturgy. But for some, the liturgy exists for its own sake, like theatre. It has become narcissistic fuel for many on the left, as well as those on the extreme right.
It is not surprising that Hans Kung and other dissenters have expressed delight with the election of Pope Francis. Everyone seems to be claiming this pope as "their own". Recently I sent an article out to friends entitled "The Dorothy Day Few of Us Know". The author writes: "She lamented the encroachment of the state and the perils of the welfare system. She once compared abortion to genocide and the U.S. government to Nazi Germany. She cheered on income tax resisters, dismissed the benefits of the minimum wage, and worried about the decline of freedom in an increasingly bureaucratic society." Who would have known, except those who actually take the time to read her writings? Opposed to political and economic measures that are so dear to the left, yet the left have claimed her as their patron saint. Years ago I discovered the same thing with regard to Archbishop Romero, caricatured by the left as a "social justice activist"; but he was a man of the Church with the heart of Christ who loved the poor, because he found Christ dwelling within their very interior. Romero has the heart of a shepherd, and so too does Pope Francis, and there is nothing in his writings to suggest that he is "soft on morality".
This life is all about Christ, and for Pope Francis, his papacy is all about Christ. But that means so many things to so many different people. For him, however, it means it's all about Christ who lives in those who suffer, and it's about going out to them, outward, with the heart of a missionary, like the heart of a St. Patrick. His papacy does not cancel the papacy of Benedict XVI or John Paul II; it is a profound misconception to interpret his gestures as a taking the Church back to a time just prior to Benedict's reforms. These very people who will find in him an excuse to return to the 70s will do just what they have always accused conservatives of doing, namely, using a pope to take liturgy back to another era (i.e., the Pre-Vatican era). As Thomas Sowell says in the context of economics, "there are no solutions, only trade-offs". Liberal priests did their own thing despite Pope Benedict, and they'll continue to do their own thing regardless of who occupies the chair of Peter. But the media are in a dilemma with our new Holy Father, and that's a good dilemma to be in.