Pope Francis’s inaugural Mass is unique in several respects.
That’s raised a lot of questions: Only some cardinals doing the act of obedience? Different Mass readings? The Gospel reading in Greek? No offertory procession? No Communion distributed by the pope?
What does all this mean about the pope and where he stands on liturgy?
Is he striking out on a radical new course?
Let’s take a deep breath . . . and a closer look at these differences.
1) Only Some Cardinals Doing the Act of Obedience?
This change is not as strange as you might think.
The last time a pope had this kind of Mass (when Pope Benedict had his in 2005) they didn’t have all the cardinals present make the sign of obedience, only some of them (together with some non-cardinals).
Each of the cardinals has, already and individually, signified his obedience to Pope Francis. This happened back during the conclave, before his election was announced.
It has been customary to have the cardinals do the same thing publicly at the inauguration Mass (at least all of the cardinals there), but there is precedent for omitting this (and with Pope Benedict, who has a strong respect for liturgical precedent).
I was surprised that this got changed at the last minute, since it overturns a decision Pope Benedict had made just last month, but that’s Pope Francis’s call.
So now they’re going to have just six cardinals (two cardinal bishops, two cardinal priests, and two cardinal deacons) do the homage.
I also don’t know that we need to see it as much of an indication of where he stands on liturgy, for this reason: We already know (see below) that they’re trying to keep this Mass from running too long. It’s already expected to run over two hours.
Having over a hundred cardinals come up and do the act of homage would really lengthen it.
Since the new pope is seventy-six and cameras will be trained on him every minute of the Mass, with at least some reporters eager to spin an “Is the new pope too old to do his job?” narrative, I think it’s understandable that they would want not to lengthen the Mass lest his strength flag publicly during the service.
(And it’s not like he can grab a quick cup of maté during the service if he needs some caffeine.)
So they’re defaulting back to the kind of precedent set by Pope Benedict’s inaugural Mass.
2) Different Mass readings?
The Holy See has announced:
The Mass will be that of the Solemnity of St. Joseph, which has its own readings (therefore they are not directly related to the rite of the Inauguration of the Pontificate).
At first it seems odd that they would use the ordinary readings of the day (for the Solemnity of St. Joseph) rather than the readings specifically for the inauguration Mass.
Here is something that may be going on: Pope Francis has a special devotion to St. Joseph, who was represented on his coat of arms before and is now represented on his papal coat of arms. He may view the timing of his inauguration on St. Joseph’s day as providential, and he wants to honor St. Joseph.