If you are an Anglophone and you follow the affairs of the Catholic Church, you likely heard something about Pope Francis’ remarks to a society of liturgical experts on Thursday. A good deal of hay has been made with the Pope’s words already, and much ink spilt in the effort to understand what it could possibly mean to say that “the liturgical reform is irreversible,” and more to understand what it could mean to say it, “with magisterial authority.”
The really interesting thing about the Holy Father’s speech, though, is the light it sheds on the way he intends to use the powers of his office.
One of the complaints we heard early and often about Pope Francis is that he had no real understanding of what Papal power really is, let alone how to use it.
Anyone persisting in that opinion will need to account for the Pope’s actual use of that power, which has been – almost from day one – more frank and confident than such an opinion would appear to allow.
After all, this is a Pope who has been perfectly happy to canonize his favorite confrère as a birthday present to himself: who is content to govern outside the constitutional structure provided him; who appears perfectly willing to let the men supposed to be his closest advisors say what they will about his leadership, while keeping his own counsel when it comes to decision-making; and who understands, without either a shadow of doubt or a smither of ambiguity, that he is in charge.
In a word: Pope Francis is the decider.
In any case, and in despite of the breathless claims that Pope Francis did, indeed, assert with magisterial authority the irreversibility of the liturgical reform, the plain fact of the matter is that an assertion of just such a thing is precisely what Pope Francis did not make. Rather, the Pope said that he can make such an assertion: that is a very different thing from actually asserting it.
Make no mistake: the Pope’s precise formulation does tell us that he believes the reform to be in some sense irreversible, and that he is willing in principle to make that assertion with magisterial authority.
Therefore, Francis’ assertion of magisterial authority to say that the post-Conciliar liturgical reform is irreversible – which actually calls attention to his not saying it – tells us more about his estimation of the scope of his powers as Pope and about the manner in which he intends to use the powers he does not doubt he has, than it does about his personal opinion regarding the state and direction of the Church’s liturgical life.
At bottom, the Church’s “journey” of reform in the post-Conciliar era is a fact of history. History happens, and once it does happen, it cannot be undone. In this sense, the reform that has gone before us is irreversible. Nevertheless, we are still very much in the process – Francis often prefers to say that we are on the journey – of reform: a process “that requires time, faithful reception, practical obedience, wise implementation…” This reform, moreover, begins with the books, but ultimately must speak to “the mentality of the people” which “must be reformed as well.”
Francis, in short, understands that he presides with direct, immediate, and supreme authority over the whole Church and all the faithful – in other words, that he is the Roman Pontiff – and that the purpose he has set for himself in the exercise of the powers that inhere in the office he holds is the precise direction of the process of reform.
This is work – the work of reform, hence the work of directing it – the Holy Father believes far from finished.
“There is still work to do in this direction,” Pope Francis said in his remarks on Thursday, “in particular,” the work of, “rediscovering the reasons for the decisions made with the liturgical reform, overcoming unfounded and superficial readings, partial receptions, and practices that disfigure it.”
With the announcement of the common task of the Church – the hierarchical leadership and the faithful together – as one of seeking anew the reasons in view of which specific reforms have been undertaken, Pope Francis is focusing his (and our) attention on the rational substance of the reform process.
The specific choices made along the way remain in place – including, presumably, the significant contributions of Benedict XVI, especially though by no means exclusively Benedict’s choice in Summorum Pontificum to liberalize the use of the 1962 liturgical books. Those choices, however, are to be understood in light of a common understanding of the animating principles of the Church’s whole liturgical life, which – again, presumably – are those so ably and eloquently outlined and detailed in Sacrosanctum Concilium.
Here, it is worth our while to pause for a moment to reflect on the polyvalence of the word, “partial” which the Holy Father deployed to modify “receptions” in the remark quoted above.
Even in English, but more so in Italian, “partial” can indicate something less than complete or perfect, and a commitment to or preference for one side of thing – say, an argument. If one is offered five propositions, and assents to three, one’s acceptance of the propositions may be said to be partial. Given a pair of options, one might say, “I am partial to the former,” or the latter.
Pope Francis’ insistence on both the irreversibility of the reform, and the need for rediscovery of the reasons of the reform, itself, strongly suggest that he believes we must reject receptions that are partial in both senses: we cannot take the reform of the liturgy in a piecemeal fashion; nor can we use the process as an opportunity to hijack the institutional power of the Church at any level to impose our own liturgical preferences on those who do not share them.
The Pope is willing to use his power to steer the course of the process, while leaving the question of substance open to free discussion and debate among all the faithful – and this is a potentially fruitful tack to take, albeit a risky one.
The risk in such an approach is that an attempt to implement it might give new impetus to the so-called “liturgy wars” that ravaged the ecclesiastical landscape in the decades that immediately followed the close of the II Vatican Council, and that have given way for the moment to an often hard and bitter peace.
Whatever his motivations, that is a risk Pope Francis appears willing to take: si pacem vis, paras bellum.
Whether or not the Pope’s bid to establish a firm foundation for the peace of the Church does result in a renewal of hostilities will depend in large part on the generous and charitable response of all the faithful in every state of life.