Beauty and Tradition in the “Church of the Poor” | Abbot Nicholas Zachariadis and Benjamin Mann | CWR
It would be a mistake to identify Pope Francis with a stripped-down, secularized style of worship – and a still-greater mistake, to see Christian humility and liturgical beauty as opposites rather than harmonious counterparts.
“And whereas such is the nature of man, that, without external helps, he cannot easily be raised to the meditation of divine things; therefore has holy Mother Church … employed ceremonies, such as mystic benedictions, lights, incense, vestments, and many other things of this kind, derived from an apostolical discipline and tradition, whereby both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be recommended, and the minds of the faithful be excited, by those visible signs of religion and piety, to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice.” – Council of Trent, Session XXII
"[W]e must think of the wealth of the church as the wealth of the poor. The beauty of the cathedral is a beauty for the poor. The church's liturgy, her music and hymns, is a beauty of and for the poor. The literature of the church, her theology and philosophy, is distorted if it does not contribute to the common life determined by the worship of a savior who was poor. The church's wealth, Mary [of Bethany]'s precious ointment, can never be used up or wasted on the poor."– Stanley Hauerwas
Humility, Poverty, and the Temptation of “Liturgical Iconoclasm”
Since the election of Pope Francis, “humility” has become a watchword in the life of the Church. This seems, on balance, to be a good development: a reminder, for both the faithful and the public at large, of a virtue that has been described as the wellspring of all virtues. Humility is a quality notably lacking, too, in our uncivil and technologically-prideful age.
If Pope Francis can teach some measure of true humility to a polarized Church, and a dangerously embattled world, he will have accomplished a great thing. Granted, there is a danger of exaggerating the Pope’s actual virtues, and fostering a misguided cult-of-personality. Yet this is the risk one always takes when he allows the light of Christ within him to “shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
“Poverty,” too, is a watchword of the current pontificate. Shortly after his election, Francis spoke of his desire for “a Church that is poor and for the poor.” He has acted on this desire in several meetings with the marginalized, and actions on their behalf; and the same motive shows in his somewhat stripped-down lifestyle and appearance.
For many reasons, of course, it would be wrong to take Pope Francis’ words about a “poor Church” in a superficial and purely worldly sense, as though he were concerned only with material conditions rather than the salvation of souls (a tendency the Pope himself criticized in his inaugural homily). At the same time, those words cannot be spiritualized away: for even “poverty of spirit” (Matt. 5:3), to which Christ calls the whole Church, must bear fruit in tangible sacrifices and works of mercy. (It is worth recalling, in this connection, that St. John Paul II spoke of the “Church of the poor” in two of his 14 encyclicals.)
It is beyond reasonable doubt that Benedict XVI was – and is – a profoundly humble man, with a deep concern for the poor. Still, no two Bishops of Rome are quite alike; and it is clear that Pope Francis’ personality and pastoral style have allowed him to manifest these same qualities in ways his predecessor would not have attempted.
While acknowledging the differences, however, one must be careful not to overstate them.