If faith, as the nuns said, was the substance of things hoped for, then lace was the outline—the suggestion—of things not seen.
—Iris Anthony, The Ruins of Lace (2012)
From time to time it seems as though Pope Francis can’t resist the urge to tell priests off in his speeches; he’s not afraid to employ mockery and sarcasm, either. That he has never been a simple parish priest frequently seems to come across in the content of his reproofs; so many of them tend to be anticlerical, as if this somehow profits the flock. It doesn’t necessarily make life easier for those of us at the coal face.
The Holy Father has commanded priests to “smell of the sheep,” as if the parish clergy of today are like the absentee-incumbents of centuries past who drew the revenues of parishes they never visited. He has also told us not to make the confessional, that source of healing grace, “a torture chamber”. Perhaps his experience in Argentina differed, but any torture on that front usually comes from the penitent’s own conscience.
The latest swipe was aimed at the clergy of Sicily, about whom he admits he knows little.
I don’t know, because I don’t go to Mass in Sicily and I don’t know how the Sicilian priests preach, whether they preach as was suggested in Evangelii gaudium or whether they preach in such a way that people go out for a cigarette and then come back.
Next came this pointed aside.
Yes, sometimes bringing some of grandma’s lace is appropriate, sometimes. It’s to pay homage to grandma, right? It’s good to honour grandma, but it’s better to celebrate the mother, Holy Mother Church, and how Mother Church wants to be celebrated. So that insularity does not prevent the true liturgical reform that the Council sent out.
So the pope does not like priests wearing cottas or albs ornamented with lace. Fine, but personal taste has never been within the remit of papal infallibility, nor even a lower level of the magisterium. With a captive audience of Sicilian bishops—not the priests themselves, but their superiors—the Holy Father seemed to want to bolster a type of episcopal camaraderie by having a dig at their clergy.
In any case, in Mediterranean countries and other hot climes the purpose of lace is not necessarily to advance decoration, but to reduce perspiration; it is practical, not ideological. Lace was a sensible development of the body-length alb in lands where hot days are the norm, at least in summer. Of course Sicilian priests wear lace, and of course many a pious Catholic lady—even a nonna or a mamma—delights in making such vestments in service of the Church she loves.
By caricaturing Sicilian priests as mummy’s boys Pope Francis risks alienating these ladies, the most loyal part of the flock, but maybe the Sicilian clergy were stand-ins for another target: the lace-wearing clergy of the North and the West. The issue of Lacegate is not the lace per se. The Holy Father himself points to the larger issue: the liturgical reforms that followed Vatican II, and in particular those who are regarded as out of step with it—the traditionally-minded clergy.
Providence may be at work in this, of course. The Petrine office was never more exalted than after Vatican I, which decreed the infallibility of the pope but was prevented from teaching more broadly on the roles of the episcopacy, clergy, and laity. Nevertheless, the arguable incompleteness of Vatican I allowed the Church a strong central voice and a united identity in the face of the turbulence of the last century, and not least the blight of communism.
Given Pope Francis’s failure to condemn unequivocally the naked aggression of President Putin, or to offer concrete succour to the people of Ukraine, then it may be time to revisit this approach. Many people, even his supporters, seem to think that the pope is now animated by an awareness that his time is running out. Simultaneously, the majority of young people who still persevere in the Church are voting with their feet and embracing more traditional liturgy in steadily increasing numbers. Time is on their side.
It is sad that the Holy Father so often seems to express a dislike of the ordinary clergy; he so rarely encourages us that sometimes it’s as though he thinks we are part of the problem, and not the solution. We’re not perfect, of course, but the deficiencies—real and imagined—of the modern presbyterate are not the cause of the Church’s woes. Rather, they are symptoms of a deeper malaise: a decades-long turn to the world, rather than to God, which has decimated the numbers of practising Catholics in the West.
The focus for any cure to this lies beyond both the parish clergy and liturgical tastes. Never mind lace; if we wish to heal the Church’s ailments then surely the first question needs to be this: “If the sheep have gone astray, then what have their shepherds been doing?”
Dom Hugh Somerville-Knapman is a monk of Douai Abbey, and parish priest of Scarisbrick in Lancashire
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