Francis, Vicar of Christ? Sì, ma non troppo

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano

When the Pontifical yearbook 2020 was published, the interest was not only in the statistics regarding the number of baptized, the number of priests, religious, etc. The content of the page regarding the pope caught the attention and stirred up emotions, to the point the Press room of the Vatican, by way of an article from the daily Avvenire of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, gave an authentic interpretation of the new page layout.

“Historic title”, a “historic” title indeed

Actually, to understand well, one must go back up in time. Up to the directory of 2012, included, the presentation of the pope took a page and was written in this way: Benedict XVI / Bishop of Rome / Vicar of Christ (in a bold font), followed by the list of other titles and, finally, a short biography of Joseph Ratzinger. Since his election, Francis requested a presentation on two pages: first a white page with only a mention on two lines saying: “Francis / Bishop of Rome”; then, on the next page the other titles and the short biography. “A manner in which to underline graphically the particular importance he gives to the title of “Bishop of Rome”, in relation to the other titles associated to the figure of universal shepherd of the Church.” (Gianni Cardinale, “Papa Francesco, vescovo di Roma ma non solo”, Avvenire, 2 April 2020).

In this year’s edition, it is on the second page that a graphic modification was made. Not only the two blocs (titles, short biography) are reversed, the name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio being placed ahead, when at the bottom of the page figure the titles; but – and this is what made people wonder and excited the critics, Cardinal Muller included – the titles are preceded of the mention “historic titles”, the first title (Vicar of Christ) now presented in a typography identical to the others.

No one doubts that this modification, like the first one, was made with at least Francis’ approval. The humility of the pope “notably allergic to honorific titles” is placed forward (Il Messagero, 3 April 2020). In a more substantial way, the article of the Avvenire tells us that the director of the Vatican Press Office explained that the expression “historic titles” gives account of the historic tie that the said titles maintain with the title of Bishop of Rome: “The one who is designated by the conclave to be the head of the Church of Rome receives the titles associated to this election”. Subsequently, continues the article, “the titles traditionally attributed to the Pope are not thus “historicized”, but keep their pertinence intact. Otherwise, they would have been abolished”. As it was, indeed, the case for the title of “Patriarch of the West” relinquished by Benedict XVI in 2006: Not only this title had been rather “unclear since its beginning”, it had become “obsolete”, according to the note from the Council for Promoting Christian Unity published to give account of the suppression of the title… in the Pontifical yearbook of that particular year.

This double modification leads us to three sets, at least, of considerations: in regards to the personalization and even the subjectivisation of the ecclesiastic functions, in regards to the Ecclesiology, and in regards to the disappearance of the marks of the sovereignty of the Church.

The personalization of the ecclesiastic functions

The fact that there is in the manner the pope wishes to be considered a personal dimension, this is undeniable. As soon as the start of the present pontificate, there was a staged presentation of the new pope’s humility – this does not exclude sincerity of which we wouldn’t be able to judge –, going through notably a rupture with ancient ways of doing things. A “poor Church for the poor”, said Francis to the cardinals, the day after his election.

But, in acting like this, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, if he was breaking with certain practices and was making enthusiast a great number, inscribed himself in fact in a personalization of the sovereign pontificate which preceded him. Since John Paul II, the image of the pope showing personal traits has taken an unprecedented importance by the diffusion and amplification given by the media: he was, in his first years, the vigorous athlete traveling the world and inviting to not be afraid; he became the old man, a moving figure, in his sickness and his perseverance. The World Youth Day, but not only that (take the last pilgrimage to Lourdes), were grand and assumed occasions to diffuse these images. The contrast was striking when Joseph Ratzinger succeeded him: an other image, one of an intellectual putting on clothing forgotten except by historians, meek, reserved, but firm. From the dress to the talks, from the travel to the liturgies, one could distinguish the two. What is now being done with Francis vis a vis his predecessors.

This growing position given to individual subjectivities in the government and in the pastoral – excluding the media coverage reserved to some – is a quite spread reality in the Church, sometimes a source of tensions and difficulties. Why is a parish priest, for example, asked to abstain from certain ways of doing things which are deemed too particular? This is because he will have a successor eventually who will act differently: using informal ways to address its collaborators, being called by our first names, accepting religious celebrations for second civil marriages, celebrating mass during the week in a presbytery room without a chasuble, inviting a protestant minister to preach on a Sunday, etc. When the successor arrives and holds more reserved ways, as guided by objective disciplinary or liturgical norms, etc., the accusation of clericalism or rigidity falls: maybe rightly in parts… but also because the predecessor has put a subjective print on the place. The fact the personality of a priest may give a bit of color so to speak, this is inevitable and rather a good thing; but it is rather to be feared today that the objective norms, those of the Roman missal, those of the Code of Canon law, and even those of the Catechism of the Catholic Church are not always being given the place it should have.

This raises the question upstream of the formation of priests: the relatively free form of life in the seminaries, the rarefaction of priests leading to a solitary and very active life right away (one is no longer in the company… and under the watchful eye of a parish priest for several years) does not help the edification of priestly personalities. We are not talking about a dehumanizing and falsely spiritual uniformity but of an impregnation of ways to be in front of God and in front of men, of common and inherited ways. To do so, it would require finding again or winning back the truth contained in the expression “the priest, separated man” and which manifests itself through a certain civility, a certain ceremonial, a priest spirituality, an ecclesiastic dress.

But, let’s get back to the pope and to his way of being pope, but maybe not of “acting pope” to take on the Italian expression. One could consider caricatural and superficial the list of the “seven sins of Pope Francis” published in an article of a French daily newspaper (Le Parisien, 22 March 2020) like a sour anniversary gift for his seventh year of pontificate: uncontrollable, authoritarian, out of reach, too ambitious, radical, choleric, proud… Without pushing further the inquiry in regards to these traits of character, there are actions from the pope which deserves attention in regards to an excessive personalization of the function for they have reached the heart of the function itself: in the function of teaching, when taking pleasure in regularly sharing with journalist his considerations (most notably, Scalfari of the daily La Reppublica), without any control afterwards over the words expressed in the interview. To this we can add the interviews given while traveling on a plane, which were not as fortuitous interviews as they appeared to be. It is also in the papal function of government which the bergoglian practice has changed relatively when he authorized and even encouraged the discussion over topics considered assuredly already decided, furthermore giving these discussions a seal of authenticity declaring they were taking place sub Petro et cum Petro. In a certain way, the work method of the Synod on the Family is more troubling than the results which are only the consequence of it.

Vicar of Christ, the title signifying best Roman Primacy

The modification to the Pontifical Yearbook also raises objections of a theological and ecclesiological order. The Vatican Press Office, as mentioned earlier, justified the modification by a theologico-historic argument: it was about re-organizing the pontifical titles, pope Francis placing up-front, under his name, the original title of Bishop of Rome and putting to the back, first, to the next page later (there might be a good reason why it is not on the facing page but truly at the back of the page), and today under the mention of “historic titles”. Not to abrogate them, so they say, not even to historicize them. We can only, but, be in disagreement on that argument: for we say there is clearly an historicization. One, only needs to measure its impact. The method is not new, and at first glance, it appears to be of simple common sense: it is necessary to put back realities and concepts in their historical context. But, decades of exegesis and theology show that the contextualization often turns to relativization, putting to the side in order to profit other realities and other concepts. Certain work on the Bible, in this way, has led to the affirmation, now common, of the non-historic character of many stories, starting with those of the Pentateuch, but also, furthermore, of many miracles of Jesus and all the way to his Resurrection. To give an other example, Paul VI, in his time, had to remind that transubstantiation was not for the eucharist an obsolete concept of Scholastic or Tridentine times, that could and should be replaced by others (transfinalisation, transsignification). This is what historicization has done.

On the basis of this quick excursus, a first observation is necessary: Is it legitimate to arrange, on two pages, what concerns him, as Francis did, with for justification that the titles of the second page derive from the first? We shall only remind the reader a few excerpts from the constitution Pastor æternus of Vatican I Council which gave the dogmatic formulation of the Roman primacy. The election to the Roman See is certainly fundamental: “Whoever succeeds Peter in this chair obtains, by the institution of Christ himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole Church.” But, this is only the modality of the transmission of the primacy not the primacy itself, which is as this: “We teach we declare that the Roman Church by the providence of God holds the primacy of ordinary power over all others and that this is the power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly Episcopal and immediate.” This power not only is received from Christ who constituted it, it is also the power of Christ himself transmitted to Peter and his successors). Thus, when the conciliar constitution gives the Roman pontiff his titles: « Successor of blessed Peter, the chief of the Apostles, and the true Vicar of Christ, the head of the entire Church, the father and the teacher of all Christians”, truly the title central to all is the one of “Vicar of Christ” because it is the one that gathers in the best way the meaning of the Roman primacy. The editorial choice of the Pontifical Yearbook does not appear to be theologically funded, to the contrary: it puts forward a priority in time and, in this way, hides the essential (what primacy is) and knocks down dependance (it’s to be Vicar of Christ – which is the end willed by Christ – that a man is elected as Bishop of Rome). The old layout clearly manifested the primacy by using a larger font to write “Vicar of Christ”, as well as the modality of this transmission by preceding this title by the title of Bishop of Rome. This grave theological defect is worsened by an ecclesiological issue which definitely appears when we place this distortion within the more general frame of Francis’ words: mistrust and acerb critics towards the Curia, will to give the episcopal conferences a doctrinal competence, return to a de-centralization in liturgical matter (acknowledgment of the liturgical translation) conceded by Paul VI, but restrained by John Pau II.

Some share this interpretation, such as for example the journalist Luigi Accattoli, whose article (“Vescovo di Roma, vicario du Cristo”) was relayed on the blog of the review Il Regno, funded by the Dehonian Fathers. Accattoli notes that Francis’ decision are in harmony with the wishes of the International Theological Commission in 1970, used by Congar in an article of Concilium, in 1975: to avoid the title which could be misunderstood such as Head of the Church, Successor of Peter, Supreme Pastor of the Church. When one knows the major influence of Fr. Congar in the Bergoglian thinking, the comparison is opportune. Luigi Accatoli continues affirming that the reason for the rejection of the title of “Vicar of Christ” is because, in regards to history, the name is appropriate and proper for any bishop. He concludes: “In the use for the pope of the title of “Vicar of Christ”, we must take into account that originally it applied to the Bishop of Rome as long as it was attributed to all bishops: it is the way we ought to understand it also today, otherwise it says more than it should. And this is why Francis put it among “historic titles”.”

From Paul VI to Francis, a continuous stripping of the exterior signs of the papacy

A third set of considerations can be taken from a recent episode. And, again, pope Francis appears as the continuator of an older process, when actually a rather recent one. During his first appearance, the evening of his election, Jorge Mario Bergoglio attributed to himself only the title of Bishop of Rome. At the same time, he put on, beside the cassock, none of the vestments and decorations we expected: not the red mozzetta, not the pastoral stole (he only took it for the benediction), keeping the episcopal pectoral cross and simple black shoes…

From Paul VI to Francis, Benedict XVI is the only one who slowed down the stripping of the exterior signs of the papacy: Paul VI abandoned the Tiara, John Paul I abandoned the coronation ceremony, John Paul II abandoned the seda gestatoria, Paul VI also remodeled the office of chamberlains into Gentleman of his Holiness and since May 2013 their recruiting has been interrupted. If Benedict XVI brought back certain traditional forms, he is the one, though, who took the tiara off the pontifical coat of arms, even if it discreetly reappeared partially in 2010, being alternatively used along with the miter with three horizontal stripes, which seems to be in the end Francis’ definitive choice.

To these exterior signs, which could be considered obsolete, but we ought to point out that there was a logic of systematic and progressive disappearance of these signs – only the white cassock escaped this program –, we should add the more fundamental liturgical changes. The liturgy definitely considered the pope differently than other priest or bishop. More than certain particularities and complications, there was in the papal mass the manifestation of the constitution and hierarchy of the Church, proclamation of a specific ordo, a norm which irrigated all the liturgy of the Church: the pontifical mass of the bishop in his cathedral (derived from the papal mass) was the reference, and the solemn masses, sung and low were progressive reductions. The new ordo missæ, promulgated by Paul VI, still pretends to manifest the ecclesiological reality, though noticeably different: the parochial mass is today the normative form, the one of the bishop or the pope are only a moderated amplification and no longer have a signification or proper symbolism. Or rather, if: the mass of a bishop will be episcopal all the more that the number of concelebrants of the presbyterium will be important and that the faithful will participate in an active way with readings, processions, hymns, etc.

From 1987 to 2007, Mgr Piero Marini was the Master of ceremonies of the pope. At the end of his years of service, in a conference, he shared his reflections on – it is the title of the document – “the adaptation of the papal liturgy to the liturgical reform of the Vatican II Council.” Very informative. Regarding John Paul II, we will only quote this particular appreciation Marini had: “the active participation, in itself, requires the adaptation to the local culture. Consequently, this participation became, in Rome, in Europe, and most of all in the different communities the Pope visited, in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, an adaptation to the different cultures.” The liturgical universality of the Church, manifested in and by the papal liturgies, sees its movement reversed: before, from the center to the whole of Catholicity, today, from the peripheries towards the center, with eventually the moral connotations associated with these two terms, positives for the former, negatives for the latter.

Father Jean-Marie Perrot