Digging into Pope Francis’ remarks about the “old Latin Mass”, “rigidity” and “insecurity”

Recent remarks by the Holy Father about young people and the Extraordinary Form sound more like the words of a psychologist than a pastor.

A November 10th article by CNS reporter Cindy Wooden about a new collection, in Italian, of homilies and speeches given by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been raising eyebrows. And even some ire. The problem, to be clear, isn’t in Wooden’s reporting, but in some excerpts from the book, specifically a new interview given by Pope Francis to his close confidant Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ, who is Editor-in-Chief of Civiltà Cattolica. The excerpt in question is at the very end of the article:

Listening to people’s stories, including in the confessional, is essential for preaching the Gospel, he said. “The further you are from the people and their problems, the further you hide behind a theology framed as ‘You must and you must not,’ which doesn’t communicate anything, which is empty, abstract, lost in nothingness.”

Asked about the liturgy, Pope Francis insisted the Mass reformed after the Second Vatican Council is here to stay and “to speak of a ‘reform of the reform’ is an error.

In authorizing regular use of the older Mass, now referred to as the “extraordinary form,” now-retired Pope Benedict XVI was “magnanimous” toward those attached to the old liturgy, he said. “But it is an exception.”

Pope Francis told Father Spadaro he wonders why some young people, who were not raised with the old Latin Mass, nevertheless prefer it.

“And I ask myself: Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.”

Those who follow Francis’ various addresses and interviews closely will recognize the usual rhetoric: the implication that theology (or doctrine) is somehow opposed to pastoral ministry, the psycho-analysis of those the Pope disagrees with, the pretense to contemplation without evidence of much insight, and the digs—in more than one sense, in this case—at supposed rigidity, insecurity, and defensiveness.

Much could be said about the the excerpt above, but I’ll first note, in fairness, that the full context of the remarks isn’t known and the remarks are apparently not official translations. That said, it’s hard to not be disappointed, or even troubled, by the Holy Father’s comments and approach. And there are a couple of deep ironies involved. One of them is that Francis insists strongly in the need to close to the people and their problems, but then, in remarking on why some young people (and plenty of older people as well) would be attracted to the “old Latin Mass”, gives every appearance of not having really been close to any of the young people in question. I don’t attend the Extraordinary Form (EF), but I know several people who do, including many younger folks, and I have talked to them at length about the EF and the Ordinary Form. To respond to these young people and their motives with shallow neo-Freudian dismissals comes off as both unfair and uncharitable.

A second irony is that this excerpt, as it stands, does not give the impression of a sensitive and caring pastor, but of an annoyed man who cannot fathom why people many decades younger than himself would think or act differently than he thinks they should.

Part of the problem, to return to a point stressed in detail in my October 2016 editorial, is that pitting theology and doctrine over and against pastoral ministry is going to create a number of problems and will lead, again and again, to a skewed reading of people and events. What we believe informs how we worship, and how we worship directly affects and informs what we believe—and how we live: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. When Francis says, “The further you are from the people and their problems, the further you hide behind a theology framed as ‘You must and you must not,’ which doesn’t communicate anything, which is empty, abstract, lost in nothingness”, he clearly has a “rigid” or “dogmatic” sort of theology in mind. But doesn’t it also cut the other way? When priests and bishops are far from the everyday lives of people, cannot they also turn to banal bromides, clichés, and vague slogans that not only fail to help but even make matters worse?

The best theological traditions of the Church are notable for understanding foundational truths, making careful distinctions, holding firm to objective teachings, recognizing and appreciating the subjective aspects of faith, and then honing in on the specific matter at hand, cutting to the core of what really is—and what should be. And the same can be applied to the liturgical traditions of the Church, both in the West and East. The Mass and the Divine Liturgy are first and foremost about the true and just worship of the Triune God and the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist, given to the Mystical Body by the Head, Jesus Christ, so that we can be further drawn into the saving, divine life of God. But—and this is not a news flash, sadly—the Ordinary Form is sometimes said and even “performed” in a way in which this objective truth is obscured so badly that people are confused or even oblivious to what is really happening. 

I won’t say much here about Francis’ statement that “to speak of a ‘reform of the reform’ is an error,” wanting to make a couple of points about this statement: “And I ask myself: Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.” What is not clear at all is why Francis thinks the “old Latin Mass” is either rigid or attracts people with flexibility-challenged views and attitudes. Is it something he simply assumes? And why the constant use of the term “rigid”? What, exactly, does it refer to here? Is it the rubrics of the EF? The prayers? The culture in parishes that celebrate it? The attitude of those who celebrate it?

Perhaps even more bothersome is the assumption (based on vague and unhelpful negative descriptive) that this “hides something”. Perhaps this is the voice of a pastor, but it certainly sounds more like the voice of a psychologist. And not a very good one at that. “Insecurity”? Well, could it be that using the term “rigid” to describe certain people is also a sign of “insecurity”? Or “something else”? Put another way, when someone constantly resorts of name calling and clichés to address “the other”, how seriously should we take their analysis? How objective and considered can it really be?

A lot of different people demonstrate defensive attitudes. St. Paul, in many places, was defensive–that is, he made a defense of himself, his apostolic status, and his teachings. Was he “defensive”? I am becoming convinced that if the Apostle Paul were living on earth today, he would not only be passed over for the College of Cardinals, he might be chastised for being pastorally insensitive, rigid, harsh, mean-spirited, judgmental, dogmatic, doctrinaire, and otherwise ill-suited to chat with parishioners, never mind establish churches throughout the known world. After all, he told the Christians in Thessalonika  to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15). 

In a recent comment on Facebook, Amy Welborn made a wonderful point about “rigidity” in regards to liturgy:

The “rigidity” of the form allows for variety in the experience. That is, if you are sad or happy or grieving or confused, you go to a liturgy in which the form is “rigid” and you have a great deal of inner freedom to meet God as you are. It is a form that trusts God to do his work in the soul. The experience of a “fluid” form is always – *always* determined by some people in charge. The priest and his priorities/desires/personality, the music ministry, the liturgy committee (if anyone still has those). The “fluid” form is about designing an experience that a few people in charge want others to have. “Fluid” liturgical forms are preferred by those who want to control others, impose their agendas, don’t trust other human beings in their experience, and don’t trust God to do his work in people’s souls without some manipulative action on their part.

This ties in well, I think, to my belief that this papacy is marked, in many key ways, by a soft sentimentality that views anything hard, firm, direct, clear, and objective as dubious, if not outright dangerous. Alas, that perception is only further reinforced by these newly reported remarks.

Finally, that some people think “the old Latin Mass” offers clarity, reverence, beauty, awe, splendor, and joy in ways not always evident in the OF seems to be missed by Pope Francis. That some people welcome the fact that the priest and people submit themselves in love to the liturgy—offering themselves as spiritual sacrifices—rather than try to turn Mass into a performance, or a personal soapbox, is apparently overlooked as well. That’s unfortunate. Or worse. 

About Carl E. Olson 1055 Articles

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to “Our Sunday Visitor” newspaper, “The Catholic Answer” magazine, “The Catholic Herald”, “National Catholic Register”, “Chronicles”, and other publications.

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