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e true originality of Francis

As Pope Francis reaches the two-year point of his pontificate, journalists are hastily preparing their report cards. Is his papacy a success or a failure? Is he a liberal or a conservative, a moderate reformer or an all-out revolutionary?

In truth, the two-year mark is an arbitrary and probably misleading place from which to judge a pontificate. Imagine if we had tried to sum up St John Paul II’s papacy in 1980, before he had survived an assassin’s bullet, inspired the Solidarity movement or led the Church into the new millennium. Or suppose we had tried to offer a definitive judgment about Benedict XVI in 2007, before he had issued Summorum Pontificum, given his magisterial address in Westminster Hall or created the ordinariate.

The two-year summaries are being written with a special urgency in Francis’s case because he will turn 80 next year and has suggested he might have “a short time, two or three years” before going “to the house of the Father”.

But it’s not easy to sort out what is genuinely new about Pope Francis from what is only superficially novel. Most commentators agree that Francis was elected with a clear mandate to reform the Vatican’s finances and streamline the Roman Curia. He has made laudable progress on economic reform, but is essentially completing a project launched by Benedict XVI. Nor is he the first pope to attempt sweeping curial reform. Like St John Paul II before him, he is finding it much more problematic than it first seemed and he, too, may have to settle for modest tweaking.

Could the novelty be that Francis enjoys more geopolitical influence than any pope in recent history? A few months ago he helped to secure a breakthrough in US-Cuban relations, ending one of the great modern diplomatic impasses.

He has created an intimate bond with Catholics from Washington to Wellington

Before that he had presided over a worldwide prayer vigil that seemed to avert an all-out Western offensive in Syria. Yet John Paul II possessed the same sure geopolitical touch throughout his 26year papacy.

Others suggest that Francis’s real originality lies in his push for effective synodal government. Last year’s synod saw unprecedentedly free discussion, but true synodal governance currently remains more of an aspiration than a reality.

So what is actually new about Francis? Two things that may at first seem banal, but are in fact profoundly reshaping the papacy.

The first is that he lives in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, rather than the Apostolic Palace. Francis made it clear that this decision was not driven by austerity (the guest house is arguably more opulent), but by a desire not to be cut off from others. If he had lived in the Apostolic Palace courtiers might have controlled who did – and did not – have access to him. He might have heard only what his assistants wanted him to hear.

The second novelty is that Francis is the first pope to communicate on a neardaily basis with millions of the faithful about the joys and struggles of Catholic life. Through his daily homilies, he nourishes our desire for holiness, admonishes us for our hypocrisy and offers us spiritual direction. He has created an intimate bond with Catholics all the way from Washington to Wellington.

These innovations may seem modest compared with some of the grander claims about Francis’s pontificate, but it would be foolish to underestimate their power.

ere are no winners in the liturg y wars

Pope Francis this week celebrated Mass in Ognissanti, the church in Rome where 50 years ago Blessed Paul VI celebrated the first papal Eucharist in Italian. Paul VI described it as “a great event, one that will be remembered as a new commitment in the great dialogue between God and man”.

A few years later, Paul might have spoken less enthusiastically: an era of uncontrolled liturgical experimentation was beginning, something that would have been impossible in the Tridentine era. But the crisis eventually passed. Lapsed Catholics returning to the Church today after a gap of many years are struck by the greater solemnity of the vernacular liturgy, which in the English-speaking world is enhanced by a richer and more faithful translation of the Latin. This is partly the achievement of our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, who also took the brave step of removing restrictions on the older form of the Roman Rite.

In short, the “liturgy wars” have burned themselves out, not before time, and it is good to note that neither side has “won”. Those Catholics who imagine a widespread return to Latin are deceiving themselves: the vernacular is here to stay,

along with the refreshment of dialogue to which Pope Paul referred. Meanwhile, the transcendent beauty of the Missal of St John XXIII is once again accessible, with the full support of Pope Francis (even if it is not personally to his taste). Perhaps, in the fullness of time, there will be further convergence: the glorious and underrated ordinariate usage of the Roman Rite reminds us that traditional rubrics are compatible with the vernacular. The liturgy will continue to evolve; but for the moment it is no longer a battleground, and for that we thank God – in English.


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