Lessons in liturgy from The Two Popes

The two popes, in the flesh: Francis (left), known for modernizing many elements of the papacy, and the more traditional Benedict XVI (right). Composite photo: Philip Chidell/Shutterstock
Published April 13, 2020

There was no way that I was going to miss The Two Popes, the 2019 biographical drama film about Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, because I am a sucker for all things papal.

At the same time, I was also more than a little apprehensive to see the film, because I feared that its message would be, essentially, “Benedict = bad and Francis = good.”

Don’t get me wrong. There is no question that Pope Francis has forged a fresh and deeply appealing approach to his papacy. He has declined to live in the luxurious papal apartments, eschewed fancy vestments and motorcades, and demonstrated by word and action a preferential option for the poor and marginalized. By choosing a papal name never used before, Francis signalled his style would be different, and he has been good to his word.

As a result, there has been, in many circles, a strong reaction against his predecessor, Benedict. Known for his theological acumen and conservative disposition, Benedict was also notorious for his taste for red papal shoes, lace albs and damask silk vestments. He even restored the use of papal vestments that had fallen into disuse. (This includes his rather unfortunate experiment reviving the papal camauro. Google “Pope Benedict Santa hat” and you’ll see what I mean!)

Again, don’t get me wrong. Although I recognize Benedict’s theological prowess, I land on a different side of many theological and social issues. Still, there was something about Benedict’s papacy and, in particular, his liturgical style, that I did appreciate, and which I suspect might signal something important in the evolution of the liturgy of the church in the West.

Holy Week is the summit of the church’s liturgical year, inviting us to walk with Jesus “from the glory of the palms to the glory of the resurrection by way of the dark road of suffering and death,” as the Book of Alternative Services (BAS) puts it. In many Anglican parishes the shape of that week has been profoundly influenced by the BAS; until its advent only a few Anglo-Catholic parishes would have observed the particular rites and ceremonies for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter.

The BAS was a result of the Liturgical Movement, which reached its zenith in the mid-1960s with the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church. Almost overnight, Vatican II upended almost everything about Roman Catholic liturgy. Latin gave way to vernacular English. Baroque-style vestments were discarded.

Anglican worship was similarly reformed. “Prayer Book English” was, in many places, sidelined in favour of a modern idiom. Altars were pulled away from the wall, or new “nave altars” created. Suffice it to say that liturgy in most Anglican parishes today bears little resemblance to what happened 60 years ago.

Once in a while in my parish, we celebrate according to what we call the “Old Western Rite.” This is, essentially, the way the Eucharist was celebrated before Vatican II, but in Prayer Book English and with bits and pieces of the Book of Common Prayer pasted in. I enjoy the process of rehearsing and celebrating in this manner, but it also always leaves me aware of the need for liturgical reform pre-1960s. I am grateful for the Liturgical Movement: for its focus on the community gathered to celebrate the Eucharist, its inclusion of different liturgical ministers and the connections that are made between what and how we pray and how we are called to live our lives.

But I have also increasingly become aware of what might have been lost in the grand sweep of the Liturgical Movement. I wonder if we have lost some sense of the mysterious, the numinous, the transcendent, in our effort to make the liturgy approachable and comprehensible? Is there any merit in a liturgical language which is “other than,” and not what we use in day-to-day life? Can language with a different cadence and tone draw us to a different space, where we step outside chronos (ordinary time) and into kairos (sacred time)? Have we put too much store in saying the “right words,” and not enough in the non-verbal aspects of ritual—things which appeal to the senses of smell, taste, touch and sight?

During his eight-year pontificate, Benedict XVI made several moves to rein in some of what he seemed to see as the liturgical excesses and errors in the implementation of Vatican II. He did this by making celebrations using the pre-Vatican II rite more normative than they had been, and through his own celebrations and style. This included, on occasion, returning to the pre-Vatican II orientation for liturgy, with the priest standing and facing the altar in the same direction as the congregation.

For most of my 20 years of ordained ministry, I have celebrated the Eucharist, at least some of the time, with (as it is said) “my back to the people.” In my last parish this was a necessity, as we worshipped in a small country church building with no room to move the altar away from the wall. In my current parish, which has a celebration of the Eucharist every day, most of the weekday celebrations are in a side chapel where the altar is against the wall. While I have absolutely no objection to celebrating “facing the people,” as I do now every Sunday, I do think that something was lost in the wholesale movement toward free-standing altars.

Most of us have witnessed, I suspect, a priest who seems to think that standing behind the altar is an invitation to put on a one-person show, where personality prevails over prayer. But even without this particular problem, is there not something theologically rich about all of the people of God facing in the same direction to pray and to worship? Is there not something appropriate about doing this facing east, the liturgical direction for prayer, toward the rising Son? I’ve heard the arguments: “I don’t want to turn my back on my people,” or “It’s too impersonal.” One teacher of mine even said it felt to her as if she were “driving a bus.” I wonder, though, whether these sentiments, albeit pastorally informed and motivated, actually put too much emphasis on the person of the priest separate from the gathered community. There is, in so-called eastward facing celebrations, a kind of anonymity which obviates the risk of a priest-centred, personality-driven liturgy.

I was glad—and relieved—after watching The Two Popes, because it didn’t fall into the current zeitgeist of celebrating Francis while dissing Benedict. In fact, the movie presents a nuanced and sensitive rendering of each man, showing both of their strengths and gifts, and also their vulnerabilities.

It is too soon to say whether Benedict’s brief papacy will have a lasting effect on the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church and, potentially, the church more generally. Historians will have a better perspective on this in a few decades’ time. In the meantime, I prefer to see the gifts both popes bring to the church. Together, they give us a glimpse of the glory of God, both by eschewing worldly luxuries and by worshipping God in the beauty of holiness. As we walk the Way of the Cross this month, may we catch a glimpse of the ineffable reality of death and resurrection—wherever, and however, we gather.

The Rev. Canon David Harrison is rector of Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.


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