Themes of sacral monarchy and jubilee linger in the liturgical observances of the two weeks after Trinity Sunday, with their great feasts of the Body and Blood of Christ on the first Thursday and that of his Most Sacred Heart on the second Friday. Similar motifs have punctuated public life in the United Kingdom since the Platinum Jubilee weekend at the start of June, which came to be defined to a large extent by what was missing—an increasingly apophatic series of events that revolved around the notable absence of Her Majesty the Queen.
Now in her ninety-seventh year, it can hardly be a surprise that Elizabeth II’s health is beginning to fail, and it is difficult to begrudge her a rest. The show has gone on, even without its star attraction. All will be well, for the succession is secure; the most-photographed woman in the world understands that, in the end, her own personality counts for little. Even Royal Ascot went ahead without her, for the first time ever.
Delegation is regarded in many quarters as leadership’s finest art. Parliament has not been left unopened, and no colours have been left un-trooped. Had the ceremonies themselves been cancelled, then it might have been a different matter; people would have observed that there were plenty of other people who might have been called upon to lead them, and asked why they had not been drafted in.
Similar questions have attached themselves to Pope Francis’s decision to cancel the Vatican’s traditional Corpus Christi procession this year. It is an event of deep and numinous significance, as the Bishop of Rome celebrates mass in his cathedral of St John Lateran, before accompanying the Blessed Sacrament in a candlelit procession to St Mary Major. Traditionally the pope was carried (and later driven) along the route, kneeling before the monstrance containing the consecrated host. The present pontiff has tinkered with the format considerably.
In the first year of his pontificate Francis dispensed with the popemobile and followed the procession on foot; in 2014 he was driven ahead to St Mary Major to await its arrival. In 2017 he moved the observance from the Thursday—the actual feast—to the Sunday following, observing that it brought it into line with the liturgical arrangements of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, and that not keeping it on a weeknight would enable more working laypeople to attend. In 2018 and 2019 he chose to visit other churches in the diocese.
Then, suddenly, and after two years of coronavirus restrictions restricted the ceremonies to St Peter’s Basilica, the whole thing was cancelled entirely. Ostensibly, this was because of a problematic papal knee—which has confined Francis to a wheelchair in recent weeks while he has continued to carry out a busy round of engagements—and because of “the specific liturgical needs of the celebration”. That was a red herring, for John Paul II managed to preside from a popemobile as late as 2004—the last Corpus Christi before he died—seated, immobile, and totally overwhelmed by Parkinson’s disease.
At the same time, it’s not as though there haven’t been other occasions when Francis has been happy to allow one of the cardinals to celebrate mass in his presence; most recently this happened at Pentecost, while he sat in a chair in his cassock. Why didn’t Francis delegate the Corpus Christi mass and procession to his own Vicar-General, Cardinal De Donatis, or even to Archbishop Roche, the Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship, who is himself soon to be elevated to the sacred purple? It’s not as if the Curia is short of cardinals or titular archbishops without parish duties requiring their attendance elsewhere. Given that he is evidently not bedbound there was also nothing stopping Francis from driving to St Mary Major, as he has done before, and leading devotions there from a seated position.
For reasons best known to himself, Francis chose to take none of these options, and in the end Cardinal Gambetti—the Archpriest of St Peter’s Basilica—quietly celebrated the Corpus Christi liturgies at the Altar of the Chair inside St Peter’s on the feast itself. “Jesus takes us by the hand to accompany us,” he said in his homily, “allowing us to discover, to the very end, the way to eternal life and to help us be a part of it”.
When Francis stopped walking in the procession in 2014 Faro di Roma reported that it was because “the Pope wanted all the attention of the faithful to be on the Eucharist that was being carried in procession, and not on him.” That is what makes the cancellation all the more bizarre, for it now seems to have been superseded by a reversed intimation that at the Vatican Corpus Christi procession it is in fact the presence of the pope that matters, and without which it cannot take place.
That is a very strange message for the Bishop of Rome to send, wittingly or not, both to the people of his diocese and to his flock scattered throughout the world.
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