(Yes, I know, really bad pun. But this is an emergency, as you’ll soon see).
I am now officially fed up with criticism of the new Pope by some of the more tradition-minded. I’m tired of the sheer horror expressed by some over his failure to wear the traditional red cape or mozzetta on the balcony for his first appearance or for not wearing the red papal shoes. I’m tired of hearing “but it’s much more humble to follow the tradition.” I’m tired of hearing, “the Pope has no love for anything that counts in Catholicism! It’s over now for any beauty in the liturgy!”
Those who have been trumpeting the “humble to follow the tradition” meme make two very broad and questionable assumptions. They are: 1) that Francis chose not to wear the mozzetta in order to be “humble,” and 2) that all tradition should be followed unquestionably even when it has become a burden and a stumbling block.
I think Pope Francis has presented himself in this simple simple way not out of “humility,” but out of these very practical and astute consideration that millions of modern people, if they had seen him dressed in red velvet and ermine like royalty at his first being presented to the world, would simply have dismissed him and everything he stood for out of hand, because they would not have been able to associate him at all with the simple rugged life of Jesus and his first followers. All the mockery about the Pope’s “rich clothes” and “trappings of power” come from actual people, ignorant people, but still, people with souls to be saved.
The other day I read on a YouTube video of The Shoes of the Fisherman, a comment by someone saying of the ending, “if a real Pope would really do that” — that is, give up the trappings of wealth and live like a poor man — “then I would seek to have my Baptism redone.” Here is someone who hated the Church enough that he had asked to be “unbaptized,” yet who was moved by the thought of papal simplicity and poverty. Shouldn’t this be a consideration when discussing the matter? Unfortunately, the Catholics who talk this way are apparently in a weird little bubble of their own, wanting to hang on to their beloved objects of nostaglia, without any consideration with what’s going on in the outside world. Some are still insistent on the Pope putting on the tiara again, for heavens’ sake!
By choosing simpler dress — that is still instantly recognizable as papal dress — Francis could be making a very smart move toward winning a hearing for himself.
It’s worth noting that the last few previous popes — Benedict, John Paul II and John Paul I — all worn a simple mozzetta that was probably made of silk, or perhaps linen, on the balcony; but the garment laid out for Francis as shown in photos was definitely the red velvet and ermine one. I think perhaps Benedict and the others would have thought this excessive as well — especially during Lent, when the altars themselves are soon to be stripped bare for Holy Week.
It is, by the way, in very bad taste to use the new Pope’s actions to bash Pope Benedict for not being “humble” because he had a great attention to and love for the traditional garments, as the media has relentlessly been doing the past few days. Nor is it correct to praise him for a devotion to tradition the new Pope lacks. The new Pope evidently thinks so too, for he was quick the day after his election, in his praise for Benedict’s “humility and meekness.”
How many people remember now that when Benedict made his own first balcony appearance, he was wearing all the traditional gear – but at the same time he had an old black sweater on under his mozzetta and rochet, the sleeves of which were very clearly visible when he waved to the crowd? (Evidently it was cold on the balcony). What an embarrassment to the purists! There was also the time when he wore the camauro or ermine-trimmed hat during the traditional visit to the Spanish square on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Many traditionalists practically swooned with joy at his determination to revive this forgotten item of dress. Benedict, somewhat amused at the fuss, told Peter Seewald, “I saw that lying there and thought it would keep my head warm” (Light of the World). Which goes to show that while Benedict loved these traditions, in no way did he give them more importance than they deserved — not so much a sign of his humility or lack of it as it is a sign of his well-balanced mind.
Cries of “it’s over for beauty in the liturgy” are simply bosh. Francis’ choice of shoulder wear or footwear during his ordinary public appearances has nothing to do with the liturgy as such. So far, his dress during his first couple of Masses has been entirely correct. The first time he celebrates Mass in jeans and a sweatshirt, then we can talk. Of course, at this point he has less knowledge than papal master of ceremonies Msgr. Guido Marini, of the proper papal etiquette for which alb, or amice or chasuble goes with what, but then, that’s what he has Msgr. Marini for. (I don’t see any reason, as some people have, to hold pity parties for this poor liturgist, as if his life is going to be purgatory from now on).
Personally, I was deeply moved when during his first Mass with the cardinals (which by the way, he celebrated in Latin), Pope Francis stood for a long moment after the bells rang at the elevation, in the most devout and reverent adoration of the Body of our Lord.
If anyone knows anything more in Catholic tradition or liturgy more important or more beautiful than this, I’m all ears.