Unlike Benedict, Pope Francis faces congregation at Mass

VATICAN CITY—In his first Mass as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis showed a striking liturgical difference with his predecessor by facing the people, not turning his back, as the now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI did in his controversial attempt to fully restore the Latin Mass banished by the Second Vatican Council.

In his Mass with the 114 cardinals who elected him in a papal conclave on March 14, the new pope, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, also used a small crucifix, unlike the practice of the former pope who used huge baroque crucifixes.

Although hardly noticed by those who witnessed the Mass, the differences were striking and dramatic for those in the know.

Benedict, even when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the doctrinal watchdog of Pope John Paul II, had opposed the popular liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, calling them excessive and a misreading of the Sacroscanctum Concilium, the first document to come out of the council in 1963, which is more known by its descriptive title, Constitution on Liturgy.

In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis celebrates his inaugural Mass with cardinals, inside the Sistine Chapel, at the Vatican, Thursday, March 14, 2013. AP

The liturgical charter called for people’s active participation in the Mass as well as the translation of the Roman rite into the vernacular. Pope Paul VI, who implemented the council’s reforms, later banned the so-called Tridentine or Latin Mass, the Mass that was approved by the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the council that reformed the Church in the face of the Protestant threat.

As a result of the Vatican II reforms and in order to better popularize the Mass, the priest was made to face the people, not the altar as had been practiced for hundreds of years. The reforms also led to cultural adaptation of the Mass, including the incorporation of pop and rock songs in some local liturgies.

But Ratzinger said the innovations were a misreading of the Constitution on Liturgy. He said that the priest in the old Latin rite was facing the altar because as priest, he was leading, with the people, the memorial to Jesus Christ’s last supper.  He added that for the priest to face the people would be tantamount to making the Mass a congregation or worse, a concert, which missed the “Eucharistic import” of the liturgy.

In theological language, Pope Benedict in all of his Sistine Chapel Masses, amid the dramatic frescoes of Michelangelo depicting the history of salvation, had faced the altar ad orientam or “toward the East,” to denote the sacrifice of the Mass and the promise of resurrection, hence the east where the sun rises every morning.

For the priest to do the Mass ad populum, or “toward the people,” would be to lessen the import of the Mass as the sacrifice of Christ, said Benedict.

Benedict also used huge crucifixes in his Mass to emphasize the “Christological dimension” of the Mass as the sacrifice of God the Son to redeem mankind from sin.

Benedict had also opposed the cultural adaptation of the Latin rite and the banishment of the Latin Mass. He called some culturally adapted liturgies, such as the incorporation of popular songs in the Mass, as “a form of apostasy.”

He said that vernacular translations of the Mass should hew as closely as possible to the Latin original. As a result, Benedict ordered the English translation changed.

“Et cum spiritu tuo,” the Latin response to the greeting of the priest, “Dominus vobiscum” (The Lord be with you), that had been translated in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II as “And also with you,” has been transliterated now to “And with your spirit.”

The use of the vernacular and the adaptation of popular cultural forms in the Mass has been criticized by so-called traditionalists, who complain that they cannot recognize anymore the old beauty of the Latin Mass from its hybrid, innovated forms.

But respecting his predecessors while sticking to his guns regarding the “organic development” of the liturgy, Pope Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum (SP) in 2007, upholding the Roman Missal as vernacularized in various forms and promulgated by Paul VI, as the “ordinary expression” of the law of prayer of the Church.

But the same decree also ruled that the Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V after the Council of Trent and reissued by Blessed John XXIII in the 1960s is the “extraordinary expression” of the same law of prayer and should be given the proper honor.

In plain language, while popes since Paul VI banished the Latin Mass and only allowed its celebration with clearance from the local bishop, Benedict resurrected the Latin Mass and allowed its celebration even without permission from the bishops.

Despite the striking difference in the Sistine Mass of the new pope from the ones celebrated by his predecessor, in the same venue, the March 15 Mass still reserved kneelers in the altar, indicating that Pope Francis may yet follow the example of Benedict in offering the Mass ad orientam.

In addition, Francis echoed Benedict’s frequent call for the Church to go back to its roots.

Francis urged the cardinals to resist modern temptations and stick to the basics of the faith.

Like Benedict, Francis said the Church should witness to Christ despite the challenges and the criticisms leveled against it by the modern world.

“If we do not confess to Christ what would we be?” Francis said. “We would end up a pitiful NGO. What would happen would be like when children make sand castles and then it all falls down.”

The new pope said that the faithful must walk the way of the cross.

“We can walk all we want, we can build many things, but if we do not proclaim Jesus Christ, the thing is not going to work,” Pope Francis said.

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