Mixed messages from the Pope
On Good Friday, I watched part of the service at St Peter’s in the Vatican on EWTN. Presiding, of course, was Pope Benedict XVI.
I confess to being conflicted about the Holy Father. I have no doubt of his personal sanctity; and he is a brilliant man, perhaps the best educated pope in the last half millennium or more.
On the other hand, he stepped into the Fisherman’s shoes with very little pastoral experience, having spent most of his ecclesiastical career as either a professor or a high level papal bureaucrat.
Although he has made the transition from administrator to pastor better than I initially feared, and although I do not envy anyone succeeding the charismatic John Paul II, Benedict still appears uncomfortable and even somewhat forced in shepherding his flock.
As I watched the service at St Peter’s, I found myself nodding and mumbling something like, “Something is wrong here.” Of course, the setting itself is a monument of Catholic triumphalism, built during the time of the Protestant Reformation. Thus, it is not the ideal place to try to experience Christ’s horrific death in Jerusalem. Of course, we can hardly criticize the pope for the location.
However, three things struck me as ‘wrong’ as I watched. First, the service was in Latin. I know that Latin has been the principal language of Catholicism for centuries; and I love to sing Latin hymns, as I had done the night before at St Patrick’s in Mount Morris. Yet, this television feed went throughout the world, made clear by the changing languages at the bottom of the screen.
On the one hand, Latin is the traditional language of the Church; however, no one grows up today speaking Latin; it is no one’s native tongue. Perhaps the unintended message that some took away from watching this is that the Church is ‘out of it’ and living in the past, that it is some sort of survival from a past era, however benign it might be.
The second element that bothered me is that everyone on the television screen was male.
There was a lay audience that an English-speaking narrator described, but we saw only the Pope and his altar boys (men, actually), members of the College of Cardinals, and an all male choir.
Of course, one expects to see men since the priesthood is limited to males. However, there were no altar girls, although we have them at St Mary’s. I have sung in two all-male choirs in my life, and I still remember listening joyfully to all-male choirs when I was in Oxford for a year. Although none of these groups offends me — clergy, altar boys, choir members — altogether viewers can easily imagine that they are watching a men’s club, and I might add a rather old, white, men’s club. I didn’t even see a nun anywhere!
The television coverage of the Master’s, the golf tournament at Augusta National, which was being played while the pope led the service on Friday, showed more women, although there are no female members of the host club.
There is no mass on Good Friday, but Catholics throughout the world receive hosts consecrated the day before. At the service in Rome, the pope descended from the altar to give communion to the faithful. However, he only gave communion to members of the College of Cardinals.
Shouldn’t the pope have distributed the Body of Christ to laypeople, men and women, adults and children? He went from the altar to the cardinals to his throne. To say the least, this was a missed opportunity. After all, the Church is all the faithful, not just the guys in robes and capes trimmed with lace!
Although this would not be obvious to casual viewers, the cardinals in Rome on Good Friday are overwhelmingly papal bureaucrats. They direct the various office and bureaus of the Church and of its little nation, Vatican City. Cardinals who are pastors are, I hope, with their flocks in Chicago and Lima and Jakarta and Dublin and everywhere in between.
Benedict XVI for many years was one of those bureaucrats. As a group, they are much more European (and American) than the cardinals generally, and they are disproportionally Italian.
They do not look much like the Church generally since more than half the world’s Catholics today live in Latin America and Africa. The two nations with the most Catholics are Brasil and Mexico, after all. In the last consistory, Benedict elevated 22 men to the rank of cardinal, and half of them are resident bureaucrats in Rome. I do not think we need more of them, and I especially want cardinals with flocks to select Benedict’s successor.
Ultimately, there was nothing ‘wrong’ with the service or its presentation on television. It was in many ways a beautiful service on a particularly holy day. The music was glorious, and the setting magnificent. It was, rather, a missed opportunity. It celebrated the past; I do not mean the Crucifixion, but rather the traditional clerical-centered and Euro-centered Church.
Our Church should be leading for the future, and by example. The Church is not all about men, its message is spread in Arabic and Spanish and English and Vietnamese much more than in Latin. It is inclusive and has none of the trappings of a club or a privileged class.
I wonder if any comments like mine could ever penetrate all of those papal bureaucrats and actually be read by our shepherd and leader, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI? I doubt it, and that is a big part of the problem.