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Calendar Clues: Pope Francis and the Lex Orandi of Papal Maximalism

For all his interest in the liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI made not a single change to the Calendarium Romanum of the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. Even after declaring John of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen to be doctors of the Church, he did not inscribe their names in the calendar.

Pope Francis has been busier in the matter of calendrical additions. The two Benedict-era doctors have been added. So also Gregory of Narek, Francis’ own addition to the doctoral roster.

The 1969 Roman calendar anticipated that ecclesial doctors would all be included, at least as memorials ad libitum. Thus there is no particular surprise in Francis’ three new optional celebrations here.

More interesting, I would suggest, are the other calendar modifications since the start of the Francis papacy in 2013.

Two Marian feasts have been added: Mary under the title Mater Ecclesiae (obligatory), and Mary under the title of Loreto (optional). The former is an eminently Vatican II-era observance; the latter had been suppressed already in 1961, after the new Johannine Codex Rubricarum of 1960. Those interested in pre-1962 liturgical traditions should take note: Francis has elevated what had been a local feast (observed throughout Italy) pre-1961 to the honor of the general calendar. One cannot imagine the liturgical Hannibal of the 1970s finding a place for Loreto in his severely pruned Pauline calendar.

Faustina Kowalska has also been added as an option. As with the doctors Benedict had not included in the calendar, so here Francis has remedied what might have been considered a surprising omission under a predecessor. John Paul promoted the so-called Divine Mercy devotion even to the point of adding the title seu Divina Misericordia to the liturgy of Low Sunday. He canonized Faustina in the spring of 2000. But he did not inscribe her in the general calendar.

Six feasts, then: three doctors; two Marian; one of a sainted religious of great significance in the popular pieties of the last century.

It is, all things considered, a strikingly traditional calendrical supplement. I would say it is evidence of the pietistic side of Francis that is not always shared by some of his champions.

Next, a week in July. The alterations to the quasi-octave of 22 July-29 July are twofold: Magdalene is now a feast, and Martha’s day is now Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The latter change follows what had become the practice of the monastic rite. It makes an implicit declaration that Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are not the same woman; this had been asserted in the unofficial commentary that accompanied the 1969 calendar. The traditional liturgy for 22 July is a composite liturgy: there are allusions to Magdalene; to Mary of Bethany; and to the anonymous peccatrix of Luke’s gospel. No woman is omitted; no rigorous delineation of identities is imposed on the lex orandi. Lazarus had never been inscribed in the general calendar, though he was named in the oration for 22 July (fittingly, he was commemorated locally in the liturgy on 17 December, the first of the greater ferias of Advent).

The “Magdalene changes” underscore the omission of the peccatrix from the liturgy. It is a subtle and interesting deletion, almost as if for some the greatness of Magdalene cannot countenance the notion that she was a notable sinner before her conversion.

But I would like to focus on the third set of modifications to the calendar thus far under Francis: the addition of the optional memorials of the three conciliar popes John XXIII; Paul VI; and John Paul II.

Before the addition of Pius X to the calendar in 1954, there had been no sainted pope since Pius V. The seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries passed by without a papal canonization. Since Vatican II, every pope is a saint, save only the brevi-regnans John Paul I (and even he is at least Venerable). Francis canonized the trio of John; Paul; and John Paul; John had already been beatified in 2000. Significantly, Francis has added all three to the calendar.

There is a powerful if subtle message being sent here, one that I would suggest is indicative of an unhealthy tendency in the contemporary church, a tendency that is the fruit of a poor grasp of Catholic doctrine on the papacy.

The canonizations and immediate calendrical inscriptions of John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II equal nothing less than the implicit canonization of the Second Vatican Council. The message is clear: the popes of the Council are all saints, and the bar has been set high for Benedict and Francis, not to mention their successors. To be a conciliar or post-conciliar pope is to be on the fastest of tracks to the honors of the altar.

Were there saintly pontiffs between Pius V and Pius X? Were, say, Benedict XV and Pius XI saints? Did the Roman church begin to enjoy a series of uninterrupted sainted pontificates only with the advent of Vatican II and the resultant new springtime it is said to have birthed? Certainly the current Roman Calendar gives the impression that something noteworthy occurred commencing with the papal election of 1958.

We live today in an age of what some critics have justly called hyper-papal maximalism (I suspect this is part of the reason why Pio Nono was at least beatified as part of the rush to canonize the conciliar popes). In part as the result of contemporary advances in communication, we know everything the pope says, and we know it instantly. For some, the current pontiff in particular is treated as he if were an oracular force, the very voice of the Holy Spirit in daily press conference. Catholic theology is reduced to the simplest of paradigms: whatever the current pope says is, in the final analysis, all that matters. Questions are dismissed as bad faith attempts to impugn the orthodoxy of the Holy Father. The Holy Spirit chose him; the Holy Spirit speaks through him whether on plane pressers or in Santa Marta homilies; the Holy Spirit is disobeyed or thwarted whenever someone questions what Francis or his authorized interpreters proclaim.

Further, the current pope is presented by some of his most vocal apologists as the model of pastoral excellence, sometimes with thinly veiled, implicit critique of his two predecessors. Put another way, the message being conveyed is that true papal greatness commenced with John XXIII (at least from Pacem in terris, which garners rather more contemporary praise than Veterum sapientia), and has reached its zenith under Francis. According to this theory of papal trajectory, there were bumps on the post-conciliar road under John Paul II and especially Benedict, but John Paul benefited from his immense personal charisma and his status as a Pole who had lived much of his life under totalitarian regimes. And, after all, we can make someone a saint and then systematically unravel their legacy and diminish the import of their teachings.

Francis has resumed full force the program and vision of Paul VI. His Polish predecessor may have been an extraordinary figure for whom sainthood could not be denied in a system where John XXIII and Paul VI were marked for the honor, but it is telling that he has not been made a doctor of the Church. I suspect that naming John Paul a doctor would make it just a bit more awkward to promote certain contemporary trends in Catholic thought, even for people whose stock in trade is sophistry and an extraordinary ability to make one think that unicorns just might exist.

Lex orandi, lex credendi. The current Roman Calendar as expanded by Francis sends a clear message: we are living in an era of papal maximalism. Liturgy matters, and this is something that Catholics of both conservative and liberal credentials understand. It is why for some on the left, the only legitimate intolerance is for those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition. When Benedict XVI released Summorum Pontificum, it could be trashed freely without accusations of “disobedience” to the current pontiff. Benedict, after all, never enjoyed the sycophantic press that has surrounded his successor. Today, the drumbeats grow louder from Francis’ most ardent acolytes to have Summorum revoked. Were Francis to listen to this chorus, any words of protest would be silenced with an appeal to authority: Papa dixit. The inconsistent never granted to the German the privilege of the same authoritarian dismissiveness they have accorded the Argentine. The consistent fall into the problem of asserting that 2+2 = 4 or 5 depending on what today’s Bollettino declares. Truth is immutable for neither group; Pilate’s question continues to haunt.

We can learn much from the liturgy. John Paul II added mostly martyrs to the calendar, from antiquity to the twentieth century: Father Kolbe; Sister Teresa Benedicta; Adalbert; Catherine of Alexandria; Apollinaris of Ravenna; the martyrs of China; of Mexico; of Korea; of the Philippines; of Vietnam. He elevated the martyr Stanislaus. Benedict, as we have noted, added no one to the calendar. Thus far under Francis there have been nine new feasts, none of them in honor of martyrs and a third of them in honor of recent popes.

No martyrs; several popes. Dare one think that in an age where truth is eminently mutable, it is rather awkward to honor those who shed their blood for a belief that might, after all, change tomorrow at a papal press conference.

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