Francis the liturgist

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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Francis came to the United States not only as a prophet to challenge us on public policy issues, he also came as a pastor to break bread in the Eucharist with the Catholic community.

The papal liturgies were meticulously planned and executed, according to American liturgists who watched the ceremonies. “Overall I found the masses well done, given the extraordinary character they had and the mobs of people present,” said one.

In fact, they were so professionally done, a professor of liturgy lamented, “The scale of these liturgies, watched by so many people on TV, is not always helpful to the idea of liturgy as a recurrent Sunday event at which none of those resources are present.”

Pity the poor pastor who has to celebrate for his people after they have seen a papal liturgy. “These events are as much grand opera as they are liturgies,” added the professor.

It did not go unnoticed that the papal altars were overflowing with men with only a couple of women readers and cantors. “I was disappointed with the lack of presence of women either as readers or altar servers in the liturgies,” said a woman liturgist. “The marginalization of women in the Church was obvious.” The servers were seminarians.

There were other complaints from the experts. “I wish that they would get rid of the extra cross on the altar, which seems to be a hangover from Benedict,” said one.

Others frowned on the concelebrants receiving Communion by intinction (dipping the host in the chalice before receiving). “Jesus said, ‘take and eat/drink’ not ‘Take and dip,’” complained a liturgist. Communion by intinction is common at papal masses because of the large number of concelebrants.

He also complained that the bread consecrated on the papal altar went to the clergy, while the Communion received by the faithful was consecrated earlier. “The priests’ Jesus comes from the papal mass. Laity get leftovers.”

On the other hand, as Deacon Fritz Bauerschmidt noted at the Pray Tell blog, consecrating the hosts early “makes the logistics easier, since that many hosts would require an altar of gargantuan proportions and it would take a long time for those giving communion to get from the altar to their communion stations.” He noted that the deacons and priests began moving to their Communion stations during the Lord's Prayer. 

Logistics trumped liturgical symbolism.

Finally, the liturgists found it strange that the pope did not give Communion to any of the people, only to the deacons. He could be giving a bad example to other celebrants. “Imagine if every cardinal followed suit, then archbishops, then bishops. …,” said a liturgist.

As archbishop in Buenos Aires, Bergoglio stopped giving Communion at big public masses because he did not want his picture taken giving Communion to politicians, which would then be used in political campaigns. But at papal masses under John Paul and Benedict, a select group, often children, would receive from the pope.

Francis does not even give Communion at his daily mass at Casa Santa Marta in Rome.

“Too many people have taken advantage of the Communion photos and used them for the wrong reasons,” explained Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, in response to a question from NCR

“He decided at the beginning that he would not do this. Also, there is the question of age and his standing for a long time when he has some difficulty with his hip.” The pope suffers from sciatica. “But the most significant answer is the photos,” said Rosica.

Also noted was that there was no explicit instructions in the papal missalettes about who could and could not go to Communion.

Rather the notation simply said, "We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us. We pray that these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ’s prayer for us ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21)."

After seeing this text, a liturgist recalled, “Ratzinger gave Communion to Brother Roger of Taize at Wojtyla's funeral.”

Liturgists did complain about the steady stream of commentary during the masses on some networks. “I watched the live stream from the USCCB and they are to be commended for providing coverage free of spoken commentary,” wrote Michael Silhavey on the Pray Tell Blog.

The Philadelphia liturgy “somehow managed to be both modest and festive,” Silhavey concluded. “There was a formality to the liturgy, but never a fussiness.” He thought the “Standard musical repertoire was presented in a most festive way. We may not have the Philadelphia Orchestra and a choir of hundreds in our music areas, but we all have those songs in our hymnals.”

Also at Pray Tell, Ronald Krisman described the liturgy at Madison Square Gardens as “reverent and prayerful.” The liturgical music “was well planned and executed” and the “assembly sang with gusto.”

The liturgy in Washington “was solemn in the best sense of the word,” according to Bauerschmidt. And despite the people on the peripheries of the canonization mass in Washington who were “talking during hymns and prayers” and “eating potato chips during the Eucharistic prayer,” he found that “those around me sought to participate as much as possible.”

“The Pope’s style of presiding is very restrained,” notes the deacon, “which to me conveys the sense that he trusts the power of the liturgy itself to communicate its meaning, and the role of the celebrant is to get out of the way.”

“In some ways, I have been far more moved and edified by ordinary Sunday liturgies in my own parish,” concludes Bauerschmidt. “But it doesn’t really make sense to compare it to a parish Mass, where a part of the whole experience is the familiar rhythm of a particular worshipping community. A Papal Mass of canonization is as much an ‘event’ as it is a ‘liturgy’ and I would have to say that this event was well organized and, most importantly, even managed to include real moments of liturgical prayer.”

Despite finding things to criticize, most liturgists praised the Eucharists celebrated by the pope for being so well planned and executed. The thousands of people present were certainly moved by the experience.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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