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The Romans and their Bishop, the Pope

I want to share a little about the uniqueness of Romans who attend the Traditional Latin Mass. To be Italian is great. To be Roman is great. To love the Latin Mass is great. But to be all these things is quite the sight to behold. I think they will be the leaven in the dough in this city. They might be God’s ‘words in a whisper’ in a time of whirlwinds, earthquakes, and fire.

In the face of current confusion regarding the papacy – in every which way – it is particularly useful to be Roman. Among Romans is a long standing, perhaps ancient, disposition of criticism when it comes to the things the Holy Father says and does. Perhaps there were times in Roman Catholic history where this disposition made things difficult for the Church. But at this point in time I would offer that it preserves good Roman Roman Catholics from what is in other places a festering bitterness among Catholics, among those who have their disagreements with the supreme pontiff.

Some Catholics are used to deeply admiring the Pope. But for Romans on the other hand, it could perhaps be said that familiarity of the chair of Peter breeds contempt of it. If ever the subject of the pope or the papacy comes up among Romans, a non-Roman might observe what appears to be a great disrespect for the Vicar of Christ. But to a Roman it isn’t any more disrespectful than lambasting a local politician at the dinner table.

The connection between Romans and the papacy is familial. Romans are upset with the pope for the same perennial platitudes that come from any local politician.

“The Pope talks too much, and does nothing.”

“He tells us to go out and evangelize the world, but his speech caused traffic and I could barely make it out of my house!”

“He tells us not to ‘build walls’ and then retires to his apartment within the Vatican fortress!”

“He wants us to receive migrants? Why doesn’t he house them in his palace!”

These are the things Romans utter about the Pope, and I am witness to this. Mind you, while these are things Romans say about this Pope, I want to point out how Romans find ways to make similar comical/critical remarks about any Pope. Especially if the Pope disturbs traffic. Romans have always scapegoated the pope for problems in the city and the Church. I am not saying this is ideal, but a statement of fact. So, when this pope writes a motu proprio suppressing the ancient Roman rite of the Mass, some Catholics justifiably throw a fit, lament, or complain. But the Romans who love this mass flick their fingers from under their chin.

They really don’t seem to care.

It’s not that these Romans don’t love the Pope. Loving the papacy is as Roman as loving the view of Cupolone at sunset (pictured above). But while both the dome of St. Peter’s and the Pope are symbols of Christ our head, the Pope is only the vicar of Christ. And in the same way no fool could mistake the Cupolone for Christ’s literal head, even in all its majesty, so too is it easy for Romans to see that the Pope is a vicar, and not Christ Himself. This emphasis on the pope’s humanity permitted Romans to joke about John Paul II when he went skiing during his papacy, something to them was very un-popelike. Or the countless German jokes Romans offered at Pope Benedict’s expense, the “rottweiler of God” they called him.

Of course, the whole world is okay with maybe not taking a pope too seriously when they are doing their job well. But no pope can perfectly please the Romans, and this is a good thing when the pope kind of stinks at his job. No doubt, Roman Roman Catholics always choose to love the pope, to pray for the pope, even when he acts more like a politician pushing an agenda than as a Holy Father. And Romans feel a kind of family-type authority to know the difference.

Sort of like how you know when your father is fathering you, and when he is failing to father you.

And in that way, Roman Latin Mass goers see the motu proprio as a lame political move, obviously pushing an agenda, and a failure on behalf of their Holy Father. It is merely another hypocritical platitude from a high ranking politician.

Traditionis Custodes means about as much to Latin Mass-going Romans as the “wear your mask between bites” tweet from the governor of California meant to Californians. Romans will continue to attend their beloved liturgy. Romans who attend the Latin Mass are simply happy to have what was unavailable to them for so long, and they exhibit hope for its future in the Eternal City in spite of their Bishop.

How then will Romans respond when the authorities come knocking at the door? The attitude of the Romans toward the Holy Father is related to how Italians deal with rules they don’t like from authority in general. Take all the COVID mandates in Italy, for example. I finally asked the barista where I get my morning cafe the question that had been bothering me for months. Sipping my cappuccino, I noted sternly, but with a smile: “Mario, you have a big sign outside requiring your customers to wear a mask, and not only did I walk in here with mine around my chin, but YOU never wear one. Explain yourself!”

Nota bene his answer: the first part was brief silence. Mario dutifully washed some espresso cups as if to say, “this dummy clearly isn’t in on our silent rules of engagement.” Then Mario stopped, and with a smug nod and italianate hand gesture he quipped “Vincenzo, come on! the mandate – E cosa buona e giusta.”

It is right and just.

And that was it. End of conversation. With charm, and a smile, he quickly followed up by asking about my work, effectively changing the subject. Since then I graduated from mask-around-chin to mask-hangs-from-one-ear, and Mario still doesn’t wear one at all. But if you ask Mario about the countless sacrificial offerings and kabuki dances which Italians are mandated to perform in front of the COVID altar, Mario – and countless others like him – will say it is all right and just.

Perhaps they’ll wink as well, after that they will promptly change the conversation and actually do whatever they want. This same principle is observed in that famous story of Athanasius who, when questioned by his violent persecutors who did not recognize him, “where is Athanasius?” He said “he is not far,” he then bypassed them entirely, going about his heresy-smashing business. The romanitas of Athanasius we must appreciate is this: a kind of feigning appreciation of their authority while actually being faithful to a higher authority. In Athanasius’ case: Christ. To be this way, is to be Catholic. Bearing in mind, however, there is a breaking point where one is martyred. Think of Thomas More whose last words were “I die the king’s loyal servant, but God’s first.”

I cannot say that the Latin Mass goers in Rome (who are few and far between and attending the handful of city parishes which offer the traditional Latin mass) will post the mandates of Traditionis Custodes on the outside the parish door while effectively disobeying it on the inside. The suppression of the confirmation and ordination liturgies, among other ‘mandates,’ are sad and difficult realities. But I will say this: the Romans who love the Old Mass are not going to give up because of what their bishop says. The Church in her leadership may be lacking some common sense, but in Rome she does not lack her sensus fidelium.


Image by Josef Schiller from Pixabay

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