By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
I am not a fan of grand papal ceremonies. As theatre, they are marvellous and can give the British a run for their pound, but the spiritual capital seems to me minimal. I have been to many of them over the years—beatifications and canonizations, synod openings and closings, papal audiences epic or intimate, special concerts in honour of the reigning pope—and they have some appeal, but their staying power continues to diminish, for me that is.
All the more wonderful—a surprising grace in fact—that when I turned on the television to watch Christmas Mass beamed direct from Vatican City I was treated to something very much other than what I had expected. I accessed this live-streamed Mass reluctantly—it was not wise to join the Jesuit community at Loyola House in Guelph due to Ontario’s stringent COVID protocol sanctions—but was quickly struck by how wrong I was.
Pope Francis presided with dignity but not with the stately elegance of his immediate predecessor whose masterfully choreographed movements and predilection for arcane liturgical vestments were of a style more august than humble.
Although Francis’s severe countenance suggested that this high, solemn undertaking would not be his preferred choosing, it went with being Peter. The celebration, predictably and unalterably, was an all male casting extravaganza, with some concessions to the other half of the human race peppered throughout. No surprise here nor with the customary English language commentary which you can be assured is pious and soporific.
But the homily was a masterpiece, a subtle rebuke of the might and majesty of the surroundings. Francis spoke of the “littleness” of Bethlehem, the “littleness” of Jesus, the “littleness” of God’s reign in sharp contrast to the magnitude of the world’s powerful, the shapers and brokers who are the makers of that other kingdom. What struck me as especially meaningful—a jolting symbolic moment—was the continuity of Francis’s theme of humility in light of his earlier, and now annual, berating of his cabinet.
It has been, with rare exceptions, a time of spiritual reckoning for the curial cardinals when in his yearly Christmas address to them Francis uses the time to largely castigate his senior personnel for their failures. He doesn’t exempt himself, in fact he reminds all who will listen that his principal identity is as a sinner. Still, one has to admit that his approach would not appeal to Human Resources consultants and could be a primary source of deteriorating staff morale and acidic bickering. Francis knows this but persists regardless. All those who serve must be humbled. And it is on the peripheries, the margins of society, and indeed of the planet, where one finds Christ—the little one—not in the cavernous beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica with its orchestrated ministers of the altar.