Homo symbolicus

Another Facebook discussion I took part in concerned papal vestments and symbolism. Traditionally, the same arguments appeared, and the accusation of Phariseeism as well. One could say that nihil novi sub sole – You can read about it all in the previous articles. Even the people participating in the discussion are equally aware, or maybe unaware, of the faith, e.g. setting the Holy Scriptures above the Tradition because the first is the part of the Revelation and the latter is only a human creation. Once again I am under the sad impression that I converse with representatives of the group which, within few decades, when the crisis will have been hopefully overthrown, will be presented in a Catholic encyclopaedia more or less like that:

post-conciliarists: the representatives of, so called, “Post-conciliar Church”, which denomination they themselves coined. The sect developed in the beginning of the sixties in burst of erroneous interpretation of the Second Vatican Council and it gained huge popularity; the range of its devastating influence may be compared only to Arian heresy. Its representatives were characterised by the conviction that, apart from the times of the Apostles, it was just since Vatican II when the Church really started being the Church of Christ. Typical of them was the affection for oddly perceived simplicity (or rather banality) and aesthetics (commonplace, trash). Their religious awareness was close to none, as well as their knowledge of the Church, which allowed them to accept destructive tendencies of this current uncritically. Emotional, childish religiosity is the hallmark of their group. The sect is said to be extinct today.

It is not the subject I wanted to raise, though; I intended to look from a different point of view on the issue of symbolism and the beauty of the sign connected to it. Is it really the case that the Church rightly moved ahead, trying to catch up with the fleeing world, and got rid of the burden of unnecessary gestures and their meanings? Is the symbolism for a human something alien and redundant in the modern times?

This is what claim many supporters of the Francis’ rejection of lace and mozzettas, as obsolete and incomprehensible elements. In this case, however, the papal garments even take on a double meaning: the first one is the symbolism of the very things, their colour and form; the second one is the issue of their usage. The process of abolishing particular elements throughout the last few decades is a relevant feature of post-conciliar times, although, one should notice that the papal choir dress has been rejected completely just by Francis – John Paul II at the end of his pontificate still used to wear a red mozzetta. The return of certain traditional aspects of papal ceremonial during the pontificate of Benedict XVI was utterly symbolical, although conducted in silence, but it is the current Pope who created, overtly and in the limelight, a new symbolism – the symbolism of absolute rapture. Having abandoned something in such a way, volens nolens he gave it even more importance.

We cannot refrain from symbolism because it is an innate trait of the Church and the papal service. Many things the pope does is interpreted according to this key. It suffices to read reports on Francis’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land to prove it. Why is it so? Because each of us is homo symbolicus and it is ingrained in our nature; therefore the question is not whether we need symbolism, but what kind of symbolism we need. And here we reach another aspect of robes and ceremonies which is closely related to the title of this website.

Many interlocutors who defend the lack of pompons in ecclesiastical life claim that they do not feel void of any kind because of it, that they do not need them in spiritual sphere. Maybe it really is the case, maybe they are people of strong faith, or maybe they say it today and after some time they will simply abandon the Church and live somewhere on Her borders, or maybe completely outside of Her, just as a part of my acquaintances does. It is a highly egoistic approach, though, because there are people, like me, who need pompons because their faith is stimulated by external signs; people who, because of their weakness, search for higher things in their earthly reflections; people for whom a priest must look like a priest, a bishop like a bishop and the pope like the pope; people for whom the Mass must abound in signs and beauty so that they could feel that they participate in an event which is the foretaste of Heavenly liturgy; people for whom an elderly round-bellied man must be dressed like the successor of the Apostles, so that the faithful could more easily feel that he is their successor in the straight line, through the gesture of laying on of hands.

Therefore the language of gestures and symbols is not a language of weirdoes but of the ordinary faithful, full of, so common, human weakness. This probably was the reason for so many people to leave the Church, especially in Europe, where this symbolism had been created and filled the mind of every Catholic. Paul VI, stripping the Church off the pompons, proved not only his absolute ignorance of the human and his essence but also some tragic idealism, according to which the faith would last in nations constantly, even when it would not be fuelled with the spirit of symbolism and beauty. In this moment it is worth recalling numerous memories of many Catholics, especially converts, whose conversion took place in the glorious epoch of the Church, which John XXIII talked about, and whose faith was shaken during the pontificate of Sad Paul. It is worthwhile to read the memoirs of people in a quandary who have been deprived of what allured them to the Church and who, as they themselves say, keep their faith on their last legs only because they had discovered before that this is the true and the only Church. Looking on the consequences of pope Montini’s decisions one can see that his heart lacked above all comprehension of the weak, who, similarly to St. Thomas, want to see and touch in order to say “My Lord and my God”.

The most depressing of all is that pope Francis is characterised precisely by the very same lack of understanding. It is even more painful because he was an eyewitness of the pontificate of the man who again showed the world what value can have forgotten or relinquished signs; the man who perceived them as the source of strength and trust for many; the man who used them to highlight that the Church encompasses not only the last fifty years but two thousand and that the pope in red shoes, rochet with lace, silken mozzetta and richly decorated stole can be as human, simple and humble man, as well as without these accessories. He understood that a part of Catholics needs them. He was the pope who finally paid attention to the conservative wing of the Church and its needs. Today we feel desolated, pushed to the margins of the Church again. Today, one can freely, referring to the Pope’s teachings, label us as Pharisees, vestmental dogmatists and bizarre sentimentalists. Is it possible, however, that a decorative chasuble and the fanon on the Pope’s shoulders would make Francis unable to preach God’s mercy? Would a golden cross on the neck and a mozzetta trimmed with ermine render it impossible to draw attention to injustice towards those in need? Would the red shoes take over the legs of the Holy Father and would drive him away from people?

Francis lost a great chance for the Church: by continuing the work of Benedict he could give it additional, personal aspect. He could simply do what many popes did in the past: convey the same faith in the same attire, adding the element of his own personality: not to expose it, but somehow to cover it with these robes so that he could highlight the fact that he is the Successor of Christ on Earth, not Francis. The problem is that maybe this is what cardinal Bergoglio did not want: he might have overslept or consciously ignored the pontificate of his predecessor, from the very beginning having the desire to destroy what Benedict had been constructing consequently for years. I’d like to believe that he has good will, but it is really difficult when confronted with the facts. And what can be the result, apart from the current turmoil in the Church? When a conservative successor is chosen, he will be able to restore everything what he wants, with the same speed and tenacity, and no one will be able to tell anything against him – he will take example from beloved Francis. But it is obvious that then the world will look differently on it. Which will be very good, for I fear any pope whom the world admires.

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