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Both Benedict and Francis are holy men – but with naturally different personal styles

It does not rock the barque of Peter to put aside minor traditions

By on Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Pope Francis (second left) as a young man with his family (CNS)

Pope Francis (second left) as a young man with his family (CNS)

In response to my last blog about the style the Holy Father brings to his office – a style that seems to suggest a new, Franciscan simplicity in contrast to former papal ceremonial – Peccator has written a thoughtful post raising several issues. I take them seriously and this is my response: Peccator’s argument is that Pope Francis should not jettison past practice because “the symbols, traditions and ceremonial of the papacy belong to the office, not the personality.” He further thinks this new style “comes off as a repudiation of past popes” and that Pope Francis, though a “good man” is “not a good representation of the continuity of the centuries… which is precisely what Peter must do: preserve the Faith that has been handed down to us.” He adds, “We are in desperate need of signs that point to God’s glory” and that “man needs splendour.”

I think we have to distinguish here between what is essential to the tradition and what is inessential. There is no indication that Pope Francis will depart in any way from preserving the deposit of Faith entrusted to him. Transmitting the magisterial teachings of the Church to the present generation will be his primary task, and from reading some of his past homilies as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, his orthodoxy is clear. (If there had been any doubt on this score, the Holy Spirit would hardly have inspired his fellow cardinals to elect him.)

But there are also minor and inessential traditions which have accumulated over the years and attached themselves to the papacy – and it does not rock the barque of Peter if they are put aside. I grew up when Pope Pius XII was carried through the crowds in a kind of elevated sedan chair, the sedia gestatoria, wearing the papal triple crown and flanked by ushers waving ostrich feathers. Well, despite these being seen at the time as traditional elements of the papal office, they have all vanished. The pope now travels about in a “Popemobile” and he no longer has a coronation, only an inauguration (I’m not quite sure what happened to the ostrich feathers.)

There was an era when Catholic triumphalism flourished and Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman could write the hymn “Full in the panting heart of Rome” and refer to “The golden roof, the marble walls, the Vatican’s majestic halls…” This way of viewing the mother church now sounds quaint and slightly queasy; it no longer seems appropriate for these changed times except in certain ultramontane circles. To some extent the Church must be sensitive to the age it inhabits, never surrendering to the spirit of the age, but adapting its apostolate to address a changed world; the (untraditional) papal twitter account is one example of this.

Further, without wanting to draw attention to his own person, each pope brings his individual “stamp”, his character and his charism to the office. Sean Fitzpatrick writes in Crisis magazine that “The last papacy dedicated to St Benedict preserved the culture of faith like St Benedict did, from deep within the fortress of sacred, solemn tradition. Now may the papacy dedicated to St Francis propagate the faith like St Francis did, in the wide landscape of joyful, jubilant creation. As Benedict XVI was precise, so now may Francis be passionate.” That is one way to make the distinction between these two very different men. It is not a choice between Benedict or Francis, or a choice between Cephas or Paul; both popes are holy, Christ-centred men – but with naturally different personal styles in embodying their office.

Pope Francis broke with tradition again yesterday: he stood to receive the cardinals during his inaugural Mass when it has been customary to sit down. Does this matter? He also chose to wear a Fisherman’s Ring made of gold-plated silver, rather than the solid gold ring of his predecessor. What is wrong with that? Perhaps wearing black shoes rather than red could come to symbolise sinful humanity in need of redemption? It is early days – but in all that pertains to sacred tradition and to the worship of God I am sure Francis will have the same desire for reverence, beauty and solemnity as Benedict, and which Peccator rightly recognises as part of man’s hunger for the transcendent. And in all that pertains to Jorge Mario Bergoglio – the Argentinian who first discovered his vocation when he went to Confession, aged 17, in 1953, and who has adopted Francis of Assisi as his papal patron – he will be his own man.