What Is He Wearing for Christmas Mass?

It has been almost thirty years since I dropped what used to be a closing ritual for my Christmas Eve observances: watching the Papal Mass from St. Peter’s. I loved the glitter, I loved the image of a world gathered in one location. It’s glittery. My ears danced with the variety of languages and accents.

And then came the revelations of hierarchical cover-up, even reassignments, of priests who traumatized children and families who trusted them. John Paul II talked and smiled and sang like some strange amalgam of troubadour, rock star, and cantor, but the substance of his papacy solidified theological and cultural discriminations which did not have roots in the Bible as I understand it.

And so, for decades, Christmas Eve midnight faded in brilliance. It fit with the changes in my family, which eased the way the shadow fell.

But now comes Francis I. He is terrifying the global vulture class because, as Rabbi Edwin Friedman pointed out, in Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, the only one who can change is a dysfunctional group of people is a healthy person in that system. All change comes from within.

It kinda makes sense that the Catholic Church should be the self-nominated healer: it has, after all, been the legal entity in this country calling most stridently for its right, as a corporation, to assert its conscience over its employees. Unlike Walmart and Exxon, the Catholic Church considers itself accountable to a document which says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

For the past thirty years, the Church in this country has taken that second sentence — “Against such things there is no law” — and ridden it hard against many options for family formation. Later eras — if there are later eras for this civilization — will rank this with the persecutions of Galileo and other scientists who proved that the Earth revolves around the Sun. As this misguided campaign eroded the Church’s public stature, the hierarchy increased its reliance on pomp, glamor, and the pastoral liturgies it does so well. So Pope Francis’s removal of this approach to ecclesiastical stature, the whole world holds its breath. Hope stalks most of the planet: what tools for validation will he use instead?

John Paul II used style — the velvet glove over the iron fist of Cardinal Ratzinger. If Francis follows this superficial path, hope will quickly fade.

There are many who hope that Francis’s passionate pastoral lifestyle — connection with real people — will lead to reforms on issues regarding women’s rights, birth control, even gay rights. How could he not have seen the agony resulting from these positions? Yet for those who hope — at this moment — that Francis will The removal of Cardinal Timothy Burke from the Council for Bishops, in favor of a more moderate bishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl suggests that once again, we can anticipate the path of style disguising substance. Cardinal Burke urges the Church to deny communion to Catholics whose personal decisions reject Church teachings on women’s and family rights. The Pope, and Cardinal Wuerl, teach that communion is an offering from God for healing sinners, and not to be denied because sinners have sinned. But does that change the definition of sin? On the contrary, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, Cardinal Wuerl published a guest editorial in The Washington Post insisting that men and women are uniquely different from each other, with equal dignity through different forms. This means, to Cardinal Wuerl, that the institution of marriage (which has been a sacrament only since the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215) is natural, ancient, sacred, and cannot be changed. Civil marriage can do what it wants: the Church has made its decision.

It’s worth quoting the words of this cardinal, because he has just been made the chief officer for selecting bishops all over the world. 

“Marriage goes to the nature of the human person. Even if individual men and women are unable to have children for some reason, still it is the nature of man and woman to complement each other in such a way that is fruitful and capable of children. Two persons of the same sex, on the other hand, can never have children by the very nature of such a union.

“No matter what a court, legislator, president or voter may claim to the contrary, the essence of marriage cannot be redefined. Its meaning is intrinsic, grounded in human nature and discoverable by human reason with or without the aid of faith.

“A culture based on the truth of marriage affirms that men and women are equally important, that they have equal dignity but are not the same. The recognition of the difference between a man and a woman is neither discrimination nor bigotry. It is a statement of reality, of fact.

“What the court has determined demonstrates the limits of civil legislation. We all recognize that the word “marriage” is being used in many different ways. All that civil government can do is address the legal consequences of any specific union it has chosen to call marriage. While there are many other words to describe other human unions, “marriage,” in its intrinsic meaning and basic integrity, will continue to be understood by most people as the coming together of a man and woman committed to live together with the possibility to generate and raise children.”

But if Francis is pulling back on this topic, early signs suggest he is keeping his powder dry in order to inveigh more effectively against economic greed and injustice. This would have value for most of us, and for it, I would give thanks. What he wears for the Midnight Mass at Christmas will signal the ferocity of his intention in this regard.

But there is a third category of authority, the place where greed and family models come together. This article, from Washington state, clearly lays out the way Roman Catholic hospitals are buying out smaller secular providers and imposing their rules on women’s reproductive choices. 

So this is my litmus test. If the Church continues to pay for its era of abuse by depriving women of our health care options, it will only have substituted one group of victims for another.

On second thought, maybe it doesn’t matter what he wears on Christmas Eve.

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