Should We Be Concerned About Pope Francis's Inaugural Mass?

Should we be concerned about some of the aspects of Pope Francis's inaugural Mass?
Should we be concerned about some of the aspects of Pope Francis's inaugural Mass? (photo: Register Files)

Pope Francis's inaugural Mass is unique in several respects.

That's raised a lot of questions: Only some cardinals doing the act of obedience? Different Mass readings? The Gospel reading in Greek? No offertory procession? No Communion distributed by the pope?

What does all this mean about the pope and where he stands on liturgy?

Is he striking out on a radical new course?

Let's take a deep breath . . . and a closer look at these differences.


1) Only Some Cardinals Doing the Act of Obedience?

This change is not as strange as you might think.

The last time a pope had this kind of Mass (when Pope Benedict had his in 2005) they didn't have all the cardinals present make the sign of obedience, only some of them (together with some non-cardinals).

Each of the cardinals has, already and individually, signified his obedience to Pope Francis. This happened back during the conclave, before his election was announced.

It has been customary to have the cardinals do the same thing publicly at the inauguration Mass (at least all of the cardinals there), but there is precedent for omitting this (and with Pope Benedict, who has a strong respect for liturgical precedent).

I was surprised that this got changed at the last minute, since it overturns a decision Pope Benedict had made just last month, but that's Pope Francis's call.

So now they're going to have just six cardinals (two cardinal bishops, two cardinal priests, and two cardinal deacons) do the homage.

I also don't know that we need to see it as much of an indication of where he stands on liturgy, for this reason: We already know (see below) that they're trying to keep this Mass from running too long. It's already expected to run over two hours.

Having over a hundred cardinals come up and do the act of homage would really lengthen it.

Since the new pope is seventy-six and cameras will be trained on him every minute of the Mass, with at least some reporters eager to spin an "Is the new pope too old to do his job?" narrative, I think it's understandable that they would want not to lengthen the Mass lest his strength flag publicly during the service.

(And it's not like he can grab a quick cup of maté during the service if he needs some caffeine.)

So they're defaulting back to the kind of precedent set by Pope Benedict's inaugural Mass.


2) Different Mass readings?

The Holy See has announced:

The Mass will be that of the Solemnity of St. Joseph, which has its own readings (therefore they are not directly related to the rite of the Inauguration of the Pontificate).

At first it seems odd that they would use the ordinary readings of the day (for the Solemnity of St. Joseph) rather than the readings specifically for the inauguration Mass.

Here is something that may be going on: Pope Francis has a special devotion to St. Joseph, who was represented on his coat of arms before and is now represented on his papal coat of arms. He may view the timing of his inauguration on St. Joseph's day as providential, and he wants to honor St. Joseph.


3) The Gospel Reading in Greek?

One should not view this as the pope dissing Latin. They're going to be using lots of Latin in this Mass.

As papal spokesman Fr. Lombardi noted:

“Latin,” Fr. Lombardi said, “is already abundantly present in the other prayers and Mass parts.”

Furthermore, they announced:

The Gospel will be proclaimed in Greek, as at the highest solemnities, to show that the universal Church is made up of the great traditions of the East and the West.

Proclaiming the Gospel in Greek is not an innovation here. It's something they already do on special occasions to show the Church's universality.

So it's in accord with precedent.

It's also not surprising that they would exercise this option here since this is already a Solemnity (St. Joseph's day), since it's a very solemn Mass (a papal inauguration), since Pope Francis has for years been an ordinary for Eastern Catholics in Argentina (Greek being a primary liturgical language in the East), and--in an extraordinary ecumenical gesture that hasn't happened in almost 1,000 years--the Patriarch of Constantinople (Bartholomew I) is going to be attending.

Given that conjunction of facts, I'd say exercising the existing precedent of doing the Gospel in Greek is reasonable.

Also, one can be enthusiastic about Latin without being unenthusiastic about Greek. It is, after all, the language in which we have the New Testament.


4) No Offertory Procession?

Here they were clear about the reason:

Fr. Lombardi said that the Master of Celebrations [Msgr. Guido Marini] expects that the ceremony will not last much more than two hours and, always with the intention of simplification and not making the rite overly long, there will not be an Offertory procession. The Eucharistic gifts will be brought to the altar by the ministers who prepare the altar.

This is, again, an option provided for in the liturgy. There is no requirement that the faithful (rather than the altar ministers) be the ones to bring up the gifts.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:

73. At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist the gifts which will become Christ’s Body and Blood are brought to the altar. . . .

The offerings are then brought forward. It is a praiseworthy practice for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful.

And the rubrics for Mass state

22. It is desirable that the faithful express their participation by making an offering, bringing forward bread and wine for the celebration of the Eucharist and perhaps other gifts to relieve the needs of the Church and of the poor.

So it's praiseworthy and desirable for the faithful to do this, but not mandatory, and in view of the length of the Mass, the pope has chosen not to exercise this option this time.


5) No Communion Distributed by the Pope?

Now for the big one:

Also, the Pope will not distribute Communion, which will be done by the deacons on the “Sagrato” and, in the various areas of the piazza, by priests.

Of all the modifications to Pope Francis's inaugural Mass, this one is likely to cause the most concern.

Some may think of the passage in Redemptionis Sacramentum that says:

[157.] If there is usually present a sufficient number of sacred ministers for the distribution of Holy Communion, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may not be appointed. Indeed, in such circumstances, those who may have already been appointed to this ministry should not exercise it. The practice of those Priests is reprobated who, even though present at the celebration, abstain from distributing Communion and hand this function over to laypersons.

But that's not what Pope Francis is doing. He's not handing over the function to lay persons. Priests and deacons are ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, not extraordinary ones.

Further, when there is a good reason, a celebrant can have extraordinary ministers distribute Communion in his stead. The next thing the document says is:

[158.] Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged.

This text envisions the possibility of the celebrant not distributing Communion because he "is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason."

Is there such a reason here?

Given Pope Francis's age, he might not want to be forced to stand for the amount of time it would take him to distribute Communion to the enormous number of people who would want to receive from him.

I mean, if I were in Rome for a pope's inaugural Mass and he were distributing Holy Communion, I know which Communion line I would get in!

There can be other reasons, too.

For example, lots of important government officials, including heads of state, are going to be there, and many of them are not where they need to be on issues like abortion, homosexual "marriage," and a host of other issues.

These individuals have not been invited to the Mass. They're coming on their own:

To date, delegations of various sizes and levels from 132 countries have confirmed their attendance.

“The delegations,” Fr. Lombardi emphasized, “are coming to Rome following information of the event made public by the Secretary of State. There were no 'invitations' sent out. All who wish to come are warmly welcomed. It must be made clear that no one has privileged status or will be refused [to attend]. The order will depend on protocol and the level of the delegation.”

The Holy See has thus adopted a policy of not inviting but not refusing political leaders from this Mass.

But that policy could be playing a role in the pope's decision not to distribute Communion here.

Does he really want photos of him being published giving Communion to a pro-abort or pro-homosexual "marriage" politician to the folks in that politician's country?

In particular, does he want a photo of him giving Communion to the pro-homosexual "marriage" president of Argentina--Cristina Fernández de Kirchner--with whom he has had a publicly confrontational relationship?

It might be, in view of this, that he judged it better not to distribute Communion rather than be confronted with the options of giving them Communion or publicly refusing them Communion at his inauguration Mass.

Pope Francis may, indeed, deal with such politicians in the future. We may get a clarification of Canon 915 during the reign of Pope Francis. But he may have decided that his inaugural Mass is not the place to do that.

And so he may have made a decision similar to the one that Jesus made in allowing Judas to come to the Last Supper, where the betrayer was not kicked out and would ultimately bear responsibilities for his actions before God.



In conclusion, it doesn't seem that we have special reason to be concerned about these aspects of Pope Francis's inaugural Mass.

None of them indicate that he's a liturgical radical.

If you or I were pope (God forbid), we might make different choices, but it is easy to point to precedent and options in the law that support them.

As we're learning about Pope Francis, I'm reading tea leaves as much as anybody in looking at his early actions in office, but these particular choices do not seem to signal a dramatic departure from the course that recent popes have charted on liturgy.


What Now?

If you like the information I've presented here, you should join my Secret Information Club.

If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.

I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

In fact, the very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is information about what Pope Benedict said about the book of Revelation.

He has a lot of interesting things to say!

If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at or use this handy sign-up form:

Just email me at [email protected] if you have any difficulty.

In the meantime, what do you think?