Of Papal Masses, Christian Persecution and Ukrainian Refugees

COMMENTARY: Christmas at the Vatican offers three topics not addressed that defined the year.

Pope Francis speaks during the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord.
Pope Francis speaks during the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. (photo: Daniel Ibanez / CNA/EWTN)

Customarily, the Holy Father’s Christmas speeches — the annual address to the Roman Curia, the Christmas Eve homily and the Christmas Urbi et Orbi blessing — serve as a review of the year coming to an end. As is preferred style, Pope Francis built the various addresses around three key words.

Given that understanding the pontificate of Pope Francis requires attention to what is not done and not said, Christmas at the Vatican also offered three topics not addressed that defined 2022.

Papal Mass No More

The papal Mass underwent a massive change in 2022. Pope Francis no longer celebrates Mass in public. Since 2020, his daily Mass at the Sancta Martha residence is no longer a public event and no details are given about where and when the Holy Father offers Mass. Sources in Sancta Martha confirm that Pope Francis no longer offers an early morning Mass in the main chapel. It is thought that he uses a smaller chapel upstairs near his room. The Holy See Press Office has not offered any explanation.

At St. Peter’s Basilica and on his travels, aside from Easter Sunday, for most of 2022 the Holy Father did not offer Mass. He would be present for Mass, “presiding” over the “Liturgy of the Word” near the altar, preaching, and giving the final blessing, while another bishop offers the “Liturgy of the Eucharist” at the altar — the offertory, the Eucharistic prayer and Holy Communion.

The change is evidently due to the Pope’s infirmity, but the Vatican has retained a curious silence on why Pope Francis has decided to give up offering Mass in public as universal pastor. St. John Paul II was far less mobile than Pope Francis is today and yet continued to offer Mass himself almost to the end. The Vatican had a special movable throne, really an elegant wheelchair — complete with elevation — that enabled John Paul to offer Mass at the papal altar in St. Peter’s while seated. Pope Francis frequently uses a wheelchair in public, but no reason has been given as to why he doesn’t use the adaptations made for John Paul.

There is no problem with the Pope being present for Mass but not being the celebrant himself. It was actually the norm before the Second Vatican Council. On great occasions the Pope would be present and seated at his throne, but would not offer the Mass himself. It was only under St. Paul VI and the liturgical reforms that the near-universal custom became the Holy Father offering Mass himself.

The older Tridentine Rite even had a particular form of Mass coram Episcopo — in the presence of the bishop, who was not the celebrant, but “presided” in some fashion. The 2022 style of papal celebration is a bit pre-Vatican II in that respect, and therefore a bit “backwardist” in liturgical style.

Persecutions Not Mentioned

A second curious silence in the year end reflections relates to the persecution of the Church, which became more pointed in 2022. In particular, Nicaragua’s Ortega regime expelled the apostolic nuncio, the personal representative of Pope Francis in Managua, and is currently holding Bishop Rolando José Álvarez and some his priests in jail without due process.

Papal silence about the suffering Church in China is now the norm, part of the price to be paid for the secret 2018 agreement with the Chinese Communist Party. Yet in Nicaragua there is no such agreement and the Catholic Church is not in danger of being eliminated by the regime. Indeed, the Catholic bishops of Nicaragua likely have a majority of Nicaraguans on their side, which is why the Ortega regime fears the criticism of Bishop Álvarez and others.

Nevertheless, the three year-end papal addresses included not even an implied word of support for the besieged Church in Nicaragua. That a Latin American pope would keep quiet on persecution in his own back yard makes the reticence all the more perplexing.

Silence on the Signature Issue

The signature issue of Pope Francis is refugees and migrants. The Pope who began his papal travels in Lampedusa has never tired of advocating for a hospitable welcome for refugees and immigrants.

If the biggest news of the year was the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, then the biggest flipside story was what didn’t happen in its aftermath. There was no refugee crisis, even as millions of Ukrainians fled west. There were no refugee camps. The refugees did not end up in shelters. They were taken into private homes, mostly in Poland, but also in neighboring countries. It was the most generous response to refugees in history, both in terms of scale and personal commitment.

One would have expected Pope Francis to trumpet the very response — led by Catholic Poland — which he had been calling for constantly. Yet that generosity was very much underplayed in Rome. Pope Francis spoke often about the concrete acts of solidarity done in his name by the cardinals he sent to Ukraine, but he said precious little about the millions of Catholics who made serious sacrifices to welcome refugees into their homes. It remains puzzling why Pope Francis would not want to highlight exactly the witness that he had been promoting with his various powerful symbolic acts.

In his Christmas homily, Pope Francis chose “concreteness” as one of this three words. There was nothing more concrete than the Polish welcome of Ukrainian refugees. Christmas would have been the perfect time to mention it.

Pope Francis (R) embraces new Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich after he appointed him during an Ordinary Public Consistory for the creation of new cardinals on October 5, 2019 at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

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