Pope Francis’ daily reformation of the Church, The Anchor, May 10, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
May 10, 2013

During my years at the helm of The Anchor, I always had the half-mischievous, half-evangelical desire to put on the front page above the fold a headline with the biggest font in The Anchor’s history, declaring, “Jesus Christ coming to our diocese!”

I knew that if we had an edition announcing, “Pope coming to our diocese!,” people would be passionately interested in the details of how they would be able to be in the pope’s presence and see, hear, touch and meet him.

I was interested to know whether the headline about Jesus’ coming to the diocese, which obviously would catch readers’ attention, would keep their attention once we described where Jesus would be appearing in the Flesh (and Blood, Soul and Divinity): namely, their own home parish, where they would have the chance to see, hear, touch and meet the eternal Son of God.

The truth is that the most important thing that happens in our diocese on a daily and weekly basis is what Jesus Himself does: teaching us through His word, feeding us with Himself, making us members of His Body, absolving our sins, joining men and women in one flesh, helping us to sanctify our work, moving us to love others as He has loved us, and bringing us into the communion He shares with His Father and the Holy Spirit.

We don’t treat this as “news,” because Jesus’ doing these things has been a constant in these parts for more than a century. But at the same time, we ought to ensure we don’t take Jesus’ activities for granted or them in favor of what’s novel and passing.

The most important news for Catholics to know is the greatest news of all, that the One Whose presence the angels heralded to shepherds is still present, now in even humbler appearances.

This is one of the reasons why I am so happy that, as part of his reform of the Church, Pope Francis is focusing the attention of Catholics throughout the world on the most important event he has on his daily papal calendar: Mass.

In the past, “big” papal Masses would always draw press attention, when the pope would celebrate Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, canonizations, ordinations, World Youth Days or other significant occasions in Rome or elsewhere.

But the daily Mass and even most Sunday Masses of the Holy Father would draw little attention at all.

During the papacy of John Paul II, the morning Masses were celebrated with a group of special visitors who had written for the privilege of attending, but there would be no homily, no press coverage, no news.

During Pope Benedict’s time, he normally celebrated private Masses with just his priest secretaries and the four consecrated women who took care of his apartment.

Pope Francis has taken to celebrating a semi-public daily Mass each morning in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where he has taken up residence. He has been inviting different groups of Vatican employees or other groups each day to join him for Mass and he prayerfully prepares a homily for them that he preaches a braccio, or “off the cuff.”

These daily Masses, and daily homilies based normally on the readings of the day, are a revolution. They have made many of those who work around the pope — who have the job of worrying, and do it well! — quite nervous because no one knows in advance what the Holy Father will say or how it will come out.

A former professor of mine is now the papal theologian, the one whose task is normally to read in advance all of the pope’s homilies, speeches, talks to ensure that they’re in line with the Catholic faith. Once I had invited him to come have dinner with a group of pilgrims I had brought to Rome and one of them asked him what the papal theologian’s job description was. “My job is to keep the pope infallible!,” he joked in response.

During the Middle Ages, when those elected pope didn’t have anywhere near the formidable theological education of recent successors of St. Peter, making sure the pope didn’t say anything that confused the faith and the faithful was a serious concern.

Even today, however, when there’s not much unease about a brilliant pope’s saying anything contrary to the faith, there’s still a concern that, if the pope says something no one else has reviewed, what comes out might become an unnecessary distraction from the overall message.

That’s what happened to Pope Benedict in Regensburg when his citation of a 13th-century opinion about Muhammad and violence in the midst of a brilliant talk on faith and reason became the sole story. Benedict had been working on the talk the night before it was to be given and no one else had a chance to review it. If someone had, he likely would have suggested editing the remark that some outside of the academic setting interpreted as incendiary.

But there are also concerns about the form that papal teaching takes. Normally popes teach in formal and official ways, through written homilies, allocutions, addresses, messages, encyclicals, exhortations and the like.

When John Paul II did the book length interview “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” in 1994, many theologians didn’t know how to classify it. Were John Paul’s responses to be considered official papal teaching or personal opinion?

When Pope Benedict XVI authored three different volumes of the “Jesus of Nazareth” series, he said in the introduction that he was explicitly writing in a personal capacity and invited scholars and others to disagree with him. But the basically unprecedented distinction between the pope’s “magisterial” thoughts on Jesus from his “personal” thoughts on Jesus continues to give many Vatican officials and Catholic theologians ulcers.

But with both of these innovations, there was at least an opportunity for revisions and editing.

Preaching off the cuff publicly at daily Mass is, in my opinion, a much greater adjustment in the way the pope exercises his teaching office.

At first, the official organs of Vatican News didn’t know what to do with this innovation. They weren’t covering the Masses at all, except for a brief notice of which group of Vatican employees had been invited.

But as Pope Francis has continued to preach each day, the press is now showing up and at least is printing summaries of what he said on Vatican Radio, the L’Osservatore Romano, and in various daily Catholic news services.

There are no uploaded audio or video versions of his homilies or full transcriptions yet — a sign, I think, that those who are more cautious in the Vatican still want a chance to revise or edit something that didn’t come out the right way — but I’m personally hoping that Pope Francis will encourage them to do so.

The main point, however, is that what the pope preaches each morning is now what leads the normal news coverage of the Vatican. And that, I’m convinced, is exactly what our new Holy Father wants.

What the pope’s been doing has changed my habits. Each morning, as I’m in the chapel praying before Mass, I now visit the Vatican Radio website, read the summary of what Pope Francis preached a few hours before, and often incorporate what he said into my own daily Mass homily.

I hope that this reform in the papal ministry will likewise influence your daily habits.

I’d encourage you, first, to visit Vatican radio each day (http://en.radiovaticana.va/index.asp) to see what the pope preached and take it to your prayer. But I’d urge you even more to ponder his sense of priorities and the place of daily Mass in your life.

Pope Francis is intentionally showing all Catholics how important daily Mass is in the life of the Church.

As part of his reform of the Church, he’s trying to bring the whole Church with him each day to Christ in the Mass. That’s where Jesus, through His words and Sacramentally-enfleshed word, will help to bring each of us and the whole Church He founded back into shape.

It’s a set of priorities for reform worthy of a big headline.