Interview by Christoph Schmidt for the KNA (“Catholic News Agency”).
The author Martin Mosebach is one of the best-known conservative Catholic intellectuals in the German-speaking world. He emphatically greeted the restoration in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI of the old rite of the mass. The author, who currently is living in Rome under a grant, reveals in an interview with the Catholic News Agency (“KNA”) what he thinks about the new style of Pope Francis.
KNA: Mr. Mosebach, Pope Francis appears to be striving for changes in the structure and in the pastoral practice of the Church. What does a conservative Catholic think in the midst of so much euphoric rhetoric?
Mosebach: Up till now no one can say what Francis really wants precisely. Public opinion tries to insinuate that he has intentions that fit in with the spirit of our age. It is possible that he wants to accomplish great reforms. It is also possible that he is being misjudged, and that he not so very interested in change. The people cheer him, but I do not know if they know whom they are exactly cheering. As approachable and warm as Francis appears he is also just as reserved. He doesn’t give anyone a peek into his hand of cards.
KNA: Francis himself has stoked these expectations.
Mosebach: …and that even among people who have nothing to do with the Catholic Church. They assess him as a new president who is proposing a new legislative package. Traditionally a pope does not act in this way. His office consists in continuity not in change. He does not have the mission to reinvent the church. From the very first second, however, Francis has chosen a symbolic language that serves the media public and is supposed to convey this: I will do everything differently. That was not very loyal towards his predecessor. From his “buona sera” instead of the priestly greeting “Praised be Jesus Christ,” to his rejection of papal garments to his move into the Vatican guesthouse. My feeling is that these externals have acquired an inappropriate importance.
KNA: You lack sympathy for the papal humility?
Mosebach: Ultimately that to me is not humility but a dimming down to a style of life coinciding with today’s secular power. Today billionaires wear T-shirts and sit in comfortable sofas instead of on hard Baroque furniture. Heavy brocaded vestments that represent the glory of the Christ who is to come again are very uncomfortable. The Bergoglio style should not be confused with asceticism. And even if Francis were an ascetic, I would not like at all to hear about it from the mass media. Asceticism has value above all when it is hidden.
KNA: Many conservative Catholics fear an attack on the doctrines of the church under Francis. The initiatives of the synod on the family in October for a new method of dealing with remarried divorced people and homosexuals were after all far reaching.
Mosebach: If the intense management of the synod originated with Francis, he at least received pushback. The interim report could not be successfully pushed through. The tempo disturbed me in all this. The church was always slow but that was good. Endless discussions reflected the spiritual development until at some point the papal decision was taken. In the end always that which had been proven was successful. That is the meaning of the image of the pilgrim Church throughout history. This path should be, as much as possible, without losses in substance. But as I have said, up to now it is totally unclear what Francis really thinks. We only know that he places great value on a merciful Church that stands on the side of the poor – which from the very beginning has been always natural for the Church.
KNA: Do you hope for anything then from Francis?
Mosebach: I hope from every pope that he strengthens Catholics in their faith and that, through him, the Church gains spiritual force so that she can maintain her faith against the spirit of the times. But this takes time. Scenes of cheering around the popemobile are not a standard for that. Only in a couple of years will one be able to see if the seminaries and the religious orders once again have more candidates and conversions increase; if there is therefore anything to Francis beyond that he’s nice and is able to communicate with the masses.
KNA: At the end of November, for example, the pope appealed before the EU Parliament in Strasbourg to Europe’s Christian identity. Did that impress you?
Mosebach: On the one hand it was good to remind secular politicians of that which they absolutely do not want to hear. Namely that everything which calls itself European is attributable to Christianity. Even the anti-Christian tendencies since the Enlightenment could never sever themselves from the debate with religion.
KNA: But on the other hand?
Mosebach: Such appearances are for me in the end just pious utterances, which go in one ear of the politicians and out the other. Really, these papal appeals don’t interest me at all. I would rather have a pope who never gives any speeches. I would like a pope who imposes his hands on the people, who blesses them, who absolves them from their sins and says the mass for them. A priest-pope, not a politician-pope.
KNA: That sounds to be sure a little unworldly and would deprive the Catholic Church of much of her effectiveness. What do you have against charismatic leaders on the papal throne?
Mosebach: I have nothing against charisma in the Church – quite the opposite. But from the beginning, the Church separated institution and charisma. It wasn’t Paul the charismatic theologian who became the first pope but Peter the fisherman, a priestly, blessing figure. St. Francis also did not become pope even though he filled the people of his time with the greatest enthusiasm. He didn’t even want to be a priest. The Church breathes with two lungs – with the institutional offices culminating in the papacy and with the enthusiasm for the faith of her charismatic individuals. Both should be kept separated. I consider it to be an error to canonize popes. They should be above all the guardians of continuity and of the sacraments.
KNA: Which, since the new regulation of Benedict XVIs can be celebrated once more according to the old missal. At that time you were among its greatest supporters. Pope Francis appears to have less interest in this.
Mosebach: I think that he probably has no great interest either in the old or in the new rite – or in liturgy at all – which I myself take to be the heart of the Church. In this he is completely a Jesuit. In 2007, however, as the first archbishop of the world, he put a church at the service of the celebration of the old rite of mass in Buenos Aires. Obviously he has nothing against it. The celebration of the old rite had expanded worldwide under Benedict. In almost every larger German city you can celebrate it. Its presence is even stronger in France and strongest of all in the USA. With this action Benedict XVI reacted to a widespread need. For me that was his greatest achievement as pope.
KNA: But the discussions with the FSSPX are still stalled. How do you judge the prospects for an agreement between the Church and the traditionalists?
Mosebach: I have no prognosis in this regard but such an agreement would be very desirable. After all, the crucial thing is that the discussions continue at all – and that is happening. After Benedict’s resignation many said that the door has been finally slammed shut for the fraternity of Pius X. But Francis has had basically even fewer problems with them than had his predecessor because he is interested far less for detailed questions of theology.
KNA: Do you miss Benedict XVI?
Mosebach: I regretted his resignation very much. He felt that he could no longer physically meet the demands of the office and felt that his remaining time in office was too short to allow it to be followed by a long phase of agony like that of John Paul II. One has to accept that. The shape of the new institution of the “pope emeritus” is for me still insufficiently clear. I hope that a new age of popes that have resigned does not lie before us. In any case Benedict XVI was a great pope but no ruler. In contrast Francis is a ruler and an autocrat. Whether he is also a great pope still has to be seen.
(By kind permission of Martin Mosebach. Translator: Stuart Chessman)