ROME—Proving once again that he can double as the world’s parish priest and the successor of Peter, Pope Francis has given a wide-ranging interview where he acknowledges he has a soft spot for old ladies while rejecting the conservative theological idea of a liturgical “reform of the reform.”
Referring to what’s known as the “extraordinary form” for celebrating the Mass — in which priest and congregation face the tabernacle, as they did before the Second Vatican Council, Francis said his predecessor Benedict XVI was “magnanimous” in making the “fair gesture” of bringing it back.
That decision, the pope said, was an attempt to address “a certain mentality of some groups and people who had nostalgia and were walking away.” Yet, he insisted, celebrating the Mass this way is an exception, “it is for this reason that we speak of the ‘extraordinary’ form.”
“We have to meet with magnanimity those who are tied to a certain way of prayer,” Francis said. “But the Second Vatican Council and Sacrosantum Concilium should carry on as they are. To talk about a ‘reform of the reform’ is a mistake.”
Sacrosantum Concilium, or the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, was the first document of the Second Vatican Council. It allowed for Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular language, and introduced a series of changes to allow for a greater participation of the congregation in the celebration of the Eucharist.
The “reform of the reform” refers to the attempt in some conservative quarters to abolish many of the liturgical changes implemented after the Council, claiming they were wrong or have been misinterpreted and taken too far.
The Argentine pope was talking to his Jesuit friend Father Antonio Spadaro at the opening of a book collecting more than 200 homilies and addresses by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, between 1999 and 2013. In Your Eyes is my Word is currently only available in Italian.
Spadaro had asked the pope to write an introduction, but said Francis preferred to have a conversation instead. As a result, the first fifteen pages of the book, which is over 1,000 pages long, are taken up with their exchange on July 9.
The priest, who is director of the semi-official Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, asked the pope if he saw dangers in some of those calling for a “reform of the reform.”
Francis answers: “I ask myself about this. For example, I always try to understand what’s behind the people who are too young to have lived the pre-conciliar liturgy but who want it. Sometimes I’ve found myself in front of people who are too strict, who have a rigid attitude. And I wonder: How come such a rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something: insecurity, sometimes even more … Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.”
Francis also talks to Spadaro about experiences he has had in the confessional and in meeting people. The closer a priest is to the people, he says, the better preacher he becomes, because he is able to relate the Gospel directly to the problems in people’s lives.
“The farther away you are from the people and people’s problems, the more you take refuge in a theology framed by ‘should and shouldn’t,’ that doesn’t communicate anything, is empty, abstract, lost in nothingness.”
“Sometimes, we answer with our own words questions no one is asking,” he warns.
The pope also talks about ecumenism, underlying the importance of the dialogue with Pentecostals, noting he had a very close relationship with several leaders of that movement in Buenos Aires. He also warns, however, of the risk of falling in with a “theology of prosperity.”
Talking specifically about his home country Argentina, Francis acknowledges that late President Néstor Kirchner “really couldn’t stand me. The exchanges were very tense.”
The animosity the president felt towards the leader of the Argentine Church has been well documented, with Kirchner once referring to the cardinal as the “spiritual leader of the opposition.”
Francis also notes that, although it should never be partisan, a homily is always “political” because it’s delivered amidst the people. “Everything we do has a political dimension and concerns the construction of civilization.”
One can’t say, he continues, that Christians are a-political because as citizens they’re called to work together towards the common good.
“We must find new forms of dialogue and cohabitation in our pluralistic societies,” he says. “We need new ties, a new conscience of solidarity that goes beyond any religious, ideological or political frontier.”
In a more anecdotal tone, Francis says that when writing a homily, a priest must be creative, otherwise, he’s “sterile.” Reading books that go beyond theology, for instance can be of great help. The pope in particular notes how he has been inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov.
He also talks about his need to connect with people, about missing the freedom he used to have to improvise his homilies, and acknowledges having once used fireworks in a liturgy to talk to children about the devil and about the popemobile rides.
“Sometimes I feel the desire to get off the popemobile. Often it happens in front of the old ladies. I have a weakness for old ladies … especially those who are funny,” Francis said.