Saturday, March 16, 2013

True Franciscan Poverty (Or, Why We Don't Have to Melt Down Our Tabernacles)

Like much (if not most) of the Church right now, I am stunned at Pope Francis' humility.  Such a self-effacing man is a Godly wonder to behold, especially in such a prominent role in the Church.  His camaraderie with all, his conversational sermons and speeches, and his life of humble poverty are a beautiful example for all.  He truly reflects his papal namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, the Poverello.

The only main complaints I have heard about our Holy Father are from some people who are called "traditionalist" Catholics, meaning they have a great love and devotion for the traditions and practice of the Roman Church as lived prior to the Second Vatican Council, and their love is concentrated in an even greater way on the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and also the prime music of the Roman Rite, Gregorian chant.  Their fire for the Sacred Liturgy is a wonderful thing, and their desire to protect the Liturgy and keep it reverent and holy is a blessing for the Church, even if some take the devotion to the point of excessive criticism of those who gain more spiritual growth from the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  Some Catholics of this mindset are concerned that Pope Francis will denigrate and degrade the holiness and reverence of the Sacred Liturgy and especially in the Extraordinary Form.  In addition, some of them are concerned that Pope Francis, in his humble poverty, will strip the Church of her beauty, particularly her liturgical beauty.

I must admit that I have some slight concerns in this area, though I am not strictly speaking a "traditionalist" (instead, I am a Byzantine Catholic in utero who is supportive of the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite while not denigrating the Ordinary Form as celebrated reverently).  The initial days of Pope Francis' pontificate have reminded me startlingly of the 1968 film The Shoes of the Fishermen starring Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier, based on the 1963 novel of the same name by Morris West.  In the film, a Ukrainian (I think, though possibly Russian) cardinal is elected pope and proceeds to have a papacy based in humility that involves sneaking out to walk the streets of Rome alone.  At the end of the film, after having renounced the use of the papal tiara, the Pope decides to give away most of the Church's riches in order to aid the world in avoiding nuclear war.

This film has already seemed to be somewhat prophetic, as I have heard it mentioned as foreseeing Ven. Pope Paul VI's laying aside of the papal tiara and the election of Pope Bl. John Paul II, a Pope from the Soviet bloc.  It seems that Pope Francis is living out the humility of the fictional Pope Kiril's papacy, and, especially as the Holy Father has spoken of the need for a "poor Church," it seems that there is a disconcerting possibility that he could give away much of the Church's beauty, especially liturgical beauty, in order to be a poor Church.

I understand the concern of some that this is loss of beauty is a possibility, and I must say that it concerns me somewhat as well (though, I think, it's the only concern I have so far about Pope Francis, since he seems to be a remarkable strong administrator in terms of implementing canon 915, and he also seems very promising for ecumenism, especially in healing the schism with the Orthodox, as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I's actions show).  What gives me hope, though, is our Holy Father's model, St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis was, of course, a fervent devotee of Lady Poverty, as she is called in Franciscan tradition.  Indeed, his early Rule states what seems to be one of Pope Francis' views well: "[The friars] should avoid expensive clothes in this world in order that they may have something to wear in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 22:11)" (Rule of 1221, Ch. 2).  St. Francis lived humble poverty in his clothing, in actions, in his food, and in all of his life.  Yet there is one area where St. Francis did not advocate an extreme poverty: the Sacred Liturgy.

"Above everything else, I want this most holy Sacrament to be honoured and venerated and reserved in places which are richly ornamented" (The Testament of St. Francis).  

"With everything I am capable of and more, I beg you to ask the clergy with all humility, when it is called for and you think it is a good idea, to have the greatest possible reverence for the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, together with his holy name and the writings which contain his words, those words which consecrate his body.  They should set the greatest value, too, on chalices, corporals, and all the ornaments of the altar that are related to the holy Sacrifice.  If the Body of our Lord has been left in a poverty-stricken place, they should put It somewhere that is properly prepared for It, according to Church law, so that It will be kept safe" (Letter to All Superiors of the Friars Minor).

St. Francis loved the Eucharist and all that was connected with it, all those "ornaments of the altar," with a love that is indescribable.  If Pope Francis really has the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi deep in his heart, as I think he does, then his humble poverty will not mean the deprivation of the Sacred Liturgy of beauty but instead the increase of its beauty.  True Franciscan poverty involves devotion to the Sacred Liturgy, to its care, protection, and beauty, and to the rich ornamentation of all the "ornaments of the altar."  If Pope Francis has this true Franciscan spirit, then we can expect to see, not a stripped Liturgy with its beauty pawned away, but a richly ornamented Liturgy reflecting the grandeur of God and His heavenly Kingdom.  Thus I hope, with good reason, to see in Pope Francis a zeal for the Lord's House and a zeal for His Temple, and thus not a reduction in the Liturgy's beautification but an even greater increase in it. 

San Francesco d'Assisi, prega per noi!
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!

Nota Bene: The translation of St. Francis' works used in this post come from the Omnibus of Sources (technically titled, St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies), Volume I, translated by Raphael Brown, Benen Fahy, Placid Hermann, Paul Oligny, Nesta de Robeck, and Leo Sherley-Price, edited by Marion A. Habig, and published by Franciscan Press.

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