So what was Pope Francis up to on Holy Thursday?

So, this pope vs. pope theme has been building, in mainstream coverage, during the amazing early days of Pope Francis. Have you noticed? One of the world's top reporters on all things Catholic has noticed, but we'll get to that in a minute.

Here's a classic example of the genre, drawn from a Reuters report:

Since his election on March 13, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina has broken with the more esoteric and, some would say, ostentatious style of his predecessor Benedict, saying he wants to move the Church closer to the poor and suffering.

The key word, of course, is "ostentatious," as in:

ostentatious ... adj

characterized by pretentious, showy, or vulgar display

Combine that with the dreaded phrase "some would say" and you have journalistic quicksand. Who are these alleged voices of authority caught up in that word "some"? As a regular GetReligion reader noted in a private email:

You don't see this kind of thing on Catholic news sites -- Benedict might have been more traditional but so was JPII and certainly the beloved John XXIII who still was carried around on a chair and had flabella waived at him to keep flies away. It was Benedict who got rid of the crown on the coat of arms, after all. Why no disparaging comments about the exotic outfits of the folks from the East at the Installation Mass?

This Francis vs. Benedict theme has become so popular in the news over the past few weeks that it is almost normative.

Now, the more important conflict in recent days concerned the Holy Thursday rite in which the pope washed the feet of two women, along with 10 other inmates, in a juvenile detention center. The Associated Press noted that this has driven "traditionalists" -- who loved the liturgical and personal style of Pope Benedict XVI -- absolutely bonkers, or words to that effect.

It is clear that some conservatives are watching these events with interest, as opposed to fear. The AP story did include this commentary from an important conservative, as opposed to "traditionalist."

The church's liturgical law holds that only men can participate in the rite, given that Jesus' apostles were all male. Priests and bishops have routinely petitioned for exemptions to include women, but the law is clear.

Might I add, at this point, that it would have been good to quote the actual "law," which I would assume is actually a liturgical rubric linked to church tradition. This actually interests me because I have never been in a Holy Thursday rite in Eastern Orthodoxy in which the clergy did not wash the feet of a wide variety of worshipers, male and female.

Back to the AP story:

Francis, however, is the church's chief lawmaker, so in theory he can do whatever he wants.

Popes simply make or decree laws? That's a new one for me, as well. Reading on:

"The pope does not need anybody's permission to make exceptions to how ecclesiastical law relates to him," noted conservative columnist Jimmy Akin in the National Catholic Register. But Akin echoed concerns raised by canon lawyer Edward Peters, an adviser to the Vatican's high court, that Francis was setting a "questionable example" by simply ignoring the church's own rules.

"People naturally imitate their leader. That's the whole point behind Jesus washing the disciples' feet. He was explicitly and intentionally setting an example for them," he said. "Pope Francis knows that he is setting an example."

The inclusion of women in the rite is problematic for some because it could be seen as an opening of sorts to women's ordination. The Catholic Church restricts the priesthood to men, arguing that Jesus and his 12 apostles were male.

Francis is clearly opposed to women's ordination. But by washing the feet of women, he jolted traditionalists who for years have been unbending in insisting that the ritual is for men only and proudly holding up as evidence documentation from the Vatican's liturgy office saying so.

The AP article also notes an interesting online commentary by Father John Zuhlsdorf, a major online hero of the liturgical Catholic right.

The quotes chosen were interesting, but I think miss Father Z's main point -- which is that Pope Francis is simply more interested in evangelism and apologetics than he is in liturgical minutiae. Here is a cut from that post at "What Does the Prayer Really Say?"

Before liberals and traditionalists both have a spittle-flecked nutty, each for their own reasons, try to figure out what he is trying to do. ... I’ll wager that, as a Jesuit, Francis doesn’t care about liturgy very much. He is just not into -- one whit -- either what traditional liturgy types or what liturgical liberals want.

Some liberals live and breathe liberal liturgy. On the other end of the spectrum ... traditional Catholics think that liturgy is critical but for different reasons (“Save The Liturgy, Save The World”, comes to mind). Francis isn’t invested in either of these camps.

For Francis, I think, it is more a matter of “a pox on both your houses”. Putting it in a vague way, Francis wants people to leave Mass feeling “joy”, or something having to do with the “kingdom”, etc. As he said at the Chrism Mass he wants people leaving Mass “as if they have heard the good news”. ...

Francis wants priests to talk to people and find out what they need and get involved in their daily struggles. Liturgy, for Francis, seems to be involved precisely in that. Do I think Francis may be missing huge points in this approach? Sure, right now I do. But I am leaving the jury out.

My main point here, which is captured to a degree in this AP piece, is that journalists need to be patient right now in covering this new pope and listen to a wide range of voices on both sides. And most of all, journalists need to stop trying to tattoo labels on his forehead. It would be good for journalists to actually pay attention to doctrine, in the next year or so, as opposed to getting so fixated on the supposedly anti-traditional nature of this pope's approach to piety.

I am not alone in thinking this.

Over at the liberal National Catholic Reporter, the omnipresent and irreplaceable John L. Allen Jr. wrote a piece the other day that is must reading for everyone who is either producing news or merely consuming news about Vatican affairs. The headline: "Debunking three 'urban legends' about Pope Francis."

He could have added that these urban legends are also about Pope Benedict XVI. Here is a sample, but readers will need to dig into all of this piece:

During his first ten days in office, the “Francis phenomenon” has given rise to at least three such urban legends worth debunking here, lest they take on a life of their own.

Italian Vatican writer Andrea Tornielli has been the first to use the phrase “urban legend” to describe one report that made the rounds immediately after the new pope’s debut on March 13. The story goes that when the papal Master of Ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, started to place the mozzetta on Francis, he responded: “You put it on! The carnival is over.”

The mozzetta is a shoulder-length cape of red velvet trimmed with white fur. Francis’ unwillingness to put it on, combined with the alleged brush-off of Marini, was seized upon as a sign not only of a simpler personal style, but a rejection of the liturgical neo-traditionalism some associate with the papacy of Benedict XVI.

In light of the alleged quip, many have been predicting that Marini may be sent packing quickly back to his hometown of Genoa, in favor of a master of ceremonies less enamored of “smells and bells.”

The only problem, Tornielli reports, is that Francis never said any such thing.

“Francis simply said to Marini as he was putting the mozzetta on, ‘I prefer not to,’” Tornielli writes. “There was no joke about the carnival, and no humiliation for the obedient master of ceremonies.”

The word "carnival," of course, would have been a slap at the liturgical style of Benedict and numerous earlier popes.

Please read it all. God is in the details and, well, so is the devil.

Be careful out there, scribes and editors.

Please respect our Commenting Policy