No one was quite sure what to expect from Pope Francis's inaugural Mass. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio had, to put it mildly, refrained from displays of pomp and circumstance in his liturgies, as in his personal life. The Vatican had already announced a number of changes from inaugural Masses of the past, the chief among them being that today's Mass would be that of the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, rather than a specific Mass for the Inauguration of a Roman Pontiff. And in his first few days as pope, Francis has shown a penchant for going off-text, which could have led to some interesting lines in his homily.
In the end, though, the inaugural Mass was exactly what we should have expected it to be: simple, dignified, and beautiful.
My wife and I tuned in at 3 A.M. CDT, just in time to see Pope Francis entering Saint Peter's Square, not in the Popemobile but standing up in the back of a Jeep. The crowd, estimated at over one million people, was enthusiastic, and I suddenly sensed what has been lost since the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981. The desire to keep the pope safe has led to Popemobiles with ever-thicker bulletproof glass, surrounded by Vatican security; to see Pope Francis standing entirely in the open, with minimal security around him, brought not only a sense of joy but of hope.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI, I am sure, were not afraid of martyrdom, but for whatever reason they had not resisted the perfectly understandable increase in security. Pope Francis, one might say, is willing to take his life into his own hands—or rather, to place his life in the hands of Christ and the saints, and perhaps especially in the hands of Saint Joseph, whose role as protector of the universal Church was the central theme of the Holy Father's homily.
In his homily, Pope Francis did not go off-text, and so it lacked, perhaps, a bit of the charm that we have come in less than a week to expect from this pope; yet it built not only on the readings for the Mass but on the themes of journeying, building, and professing that have come already to mark this pontificate. Joseph was a carpenter, a builder, and he built a life to protect Mary and Jesus; and he did so "Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand." Listening to that line near the beginning of the homily, and especially the last clause, I was struck by the sense that the Holy Father was applying it to himself: "even when he finds it hard to understand." Whatever gifts the Holy Spirit might bestow on the successor of Saint Peter clearly do not include omniscience; yet humility, discretion, silence, and faithfulness can make up for that lack. And those are virtues that we, too, can learn from Saint Joseph, as "In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ!"
And it was Christ Who shone forth in the inaugural Mass today. There were so many little touches—always simple, always dignified, always beautiful—that reminded those of us who were there in body or in spirit what this Mass really meant. And what this Mass really means: because the inaugural Mass held in Saint Peter's Square held in every Catholic church in the world today, and every day.
Elements of the ceremony that had caused confusion when they were announced became clear when they were practiced. The Gospel was chanted in Greek, "as," the Vatican declared yesterday, "at the highest solemnities, to show that the universal Church is made up of the great traditions of the East and the West." Yet it was more than that: The Greek Catholic deacon came to the Holy Father to receive his blessing before proclaiming the Gospel, as is the practice in the Roman rite, but then the Gospel was also introduced as it is in the Eastern Divine Liturgy, with a second blessing and the words "Wisdom! Let us be attentive!" As at the Sign of Peace, when the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I was brought to the altar so that Pope Francis could embrace him, this was a poignant sign of the underlying unity of the Church, East and West, and yet also of all that keeps the two lungs of the Church from full communion.
The gifts of bread and wine were not offered by laymen, as had been the custom under the previous two popes; rather, they were brought to the altar by the deacons, which had been the practice in the Roman rite from the beginning. Pope Francis, we had been told, would not distribute Communion, and yet he did. But he distributed Communion to the deacons, rather than to the lay faithful—a return, again, to a traditional practice that has fallen to the wayside. And he gave Communion through intinction, dipping the Host into the Precious Blood, which required those receiving Communion to do so on the tongue, while kneeling.
Meanwhile, 500 priests made their way through Saint Peter's Square to distribute Communion to the faithful, each priest under a white umbrella to protect the Eucharist and to signal its presence—another return to tradition that has been practiced infrequently, at best, in papal public Masses over the last 35 years. The music was solemn and dignified, a mixture of Gregorian chant and classical compositions befitting the occasion. The pallium Pope Francis received as a symbol of his authority as bishop of Rome was the one most recently used by Pope Benedict XVI, and the crozier was (I believe) once again that of Pope Pius IX, which the Holy Father had used at the Mass that closed the papal conclave last Thursday.
For those who remember the inaugural Masses of previous pontiffs, today's Mass certainly felt simpler—and yet it had the same dignity and beauty. And at its core was the Cross of Christ, in the center of the altar, and the Eucharist, consecrated on that altar. And both remind us of the point of the papacy, and the source of its power, as Pope Francis declared in his homily:
Today, together with the feast of Saint Joseph, we are celebrating the beginning of the ministry of the new Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, which also involves a certain power. Certainly, Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it? Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross. He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked Saint Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Only those who serve with love are able to protect!
May God bless Pope Francis, as he serves the People of God with love—and teaches us to do the same. And may God grant him many happy years, as he faithfully preaches the Word of His Truth!