Austin Lipari watched clips of Pope Francis’s inaugural Mass on Tuesday like a detective spotting clues.
The music? Classic, but not ornate — the type that could be sung by a regular parish choir. Pope Francis’s clothing? A bit simpler than what Pope Benedict wore.
To traditional Catholics like Lipari, who saw Benedict’s revival of ancient and grand worship styles as key to preserving Catholicism, a new, unknown pope is a bit nerve-racking. Particularly one known for a simple, modern approach.
“We’re still figuring this guy out,” said the 26-year-old Catholic University law school student. “There’s a feeling that the progress we made [under Benedict] was hard-won, and people don’t want to lose the gains they’ve made. A pope is a tone-setter.”
Although discussions about precisely how much Latin was used Tuesday and what was engraved on the ring Francis received might seem deep in the weeds, they are at the heart of today’s deep Catholic divides. Debates about symbolism reflect debates Catholics have been having for a half-century, since the Second Vatican Council, about what in their faith can change and what can’t.
The council saw the language of the Mass — Catholicism’s central ritual — change from Latin to local languages. Then came guitars and informal clothing and less-ornate art in parishes. In 2013, there is now the image of a pope retiring, worrying some who think that could demystify and almost CEO-ize the papacy. What’s next?
Driving home the different views Catholics have about the church’s future, a Pew Research Center poll out Tuesday showed that a majority of U.S. Catholics believe that by 2050, the church will permit birth control, a practice totally forbidden by church teaching.
About a third predicted something else verboten: that married men and women will be allowed to be priests.
The worry seems confined to a minority of more traditional Catholics. The Pew poll, like others, showed that nearly three-quarters of U.S. Catholics are happy with the choice of the Argentine Jesuit, with one-third saying they are very happy.
But the concerns of traditional Catholics are important because they tend to be the most faithful, experts say. So it matters for Pope Francis to pay attention to the people who noted the low-key clothing he wore Tuesday and who hoped he’d address their worries about retiring popes (he hasn’t, thus far).
Kurt Martens, who teaches canon law at Catholic University, said even small changes to the visible, symbolic parts of Catholic worship are noticeable to traditional Catholics, who treasure them.
“This is the group that is the most faithful,” said Martens, who was among hundreds at a ritual-filled Mass honoring the pope Tuesday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington.
Since Pope Francis’s selection, blogs that celebrate the grand, ancient Catholic music and prayers have been busy with hand-wringing that he is a closet liberal.
“I know that I sound like a broken record, but Bergoglio is about the worst choice for pope we traditionalists could have got,” one commentator wrote on rorate -caeli.blogspot.com, a thought echoed by dozens of others this week.
“Why Pope Francis May Be a Catholic Nightmare” was the title on a Slate piece last week by Michael Brendan Dougherty, who said he is concerned that the pope had not widely promoted Benedict’s encouragement of ancient Latin Masses in Buenos Aires.
But some traditional Catholics said they were trying to go with the flow and trust the Holy Spirit that they believe guided the cardinals’ selection of the new pope.
Julieanne Dolan, 30, who read many of Benedict’s writings and felt strongly about his revival of liturgy, said worry is unwarranted.
“There’s a certain amount of mystery about where the Church should go next. I’m willing to deal with my own limitations, what I am able to see,” she said Tuesday.
Rebecca Deucher was among about 50 students who at 4:30 a.m. gathered in the gym at Christendom College, a small conservative Catholic school in Front Royal, Va., to watch Pope Francis’s Mass live. Students, she said, were trusting that Pope Francis would hold up traditional teachings but in a more “practical” style.
“History shows different personalties and different types of leaders. I feel like the Holy Spirit is able to respond to the different needs,” said the junior from North Carolina.
“So don’t be scared just because he’s a different kind.”