walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: October 23, 2013
Catholic Curiosities


The Tablet is the British Catholic periodical that is very useful in keeping informed about developments in the Roman world. On October 5, 2013 [paywalled], it published three seemingly unrelated items which, at least in my mind, raised again the interesting question about what will happen next under the pontificate of Francis I.

In the years following the Second Vatican Council there was something of a revolution in clerical and monastic garb. It was in the most visible way an expression of aggiornamento—becoming up to date with the modern world. In many clerical milieus it became de rigueur for priests to discard clerical collars in favor of open shirts if not jeans and running shoes. Nuns threw away their habits and ventured out in outfits that closely resembled the uniforms worn by flight attendants. Not everyone followed this trend. Of course there always remained the rules for liturgical vestments to be worn by priests when celebrating Mass or administering the sacraments. However there were also those who continued to wear distinctive clothing on the street or in other activities of everyday life (sometimes by order of ecclesiastical superiors, sometimes by personal choice). A venerable establishment for serving these needs has been the tailor shop of Stefano Gramelli, located in Rome, which for decades has supplied popes, cardinals and bishops with cassocks, birettas and the like, all exhibiting the Italianate elegance associated with Rome (not least in the envious imagination of Protestants). It seems that Gramelli’s also has many Anglican customers (presumably from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, which has long sought to imitate the symbolism of Rome without accepting its claim of supremacy). Gramelli has recently been on a tour of England: “We understand it is complex and expensive for our clients to come to Rome and be measured for tailored clothing, so we thought we would come to Britain instead”. Some time ago Christopher Lowson, Anglican Bishop of Lincoln, did visit Gramelli’s and there bumped into Monsignor Mark Langham, of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Lowson praised this incident of what he called “sartorial ecumenism”. Presbyterians and Baptists are clearly out of luck.

But not to worry: Radical aggiornamento is by no means dead. For centuries the pilgrimage from southern France all through Spain to Santiago de Compostela has been a favorite expression of fervent Catholic piety. If performed on foot, the journey is arduous indeed, but the alleged spiritual benefits are reward enough for the aching feet and other physical consequences of extreme exertion. In addition the pious pilgrim obtains a generous indulgence to forestall worse suffering in the afterlife. The so-called Camino de Santiago goes back to the 9th century. A  legend recounts that this city in Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain, contains the miracle-prone remains of St. James the Greater, one of the Apostles, who was martyred in Jerusalem around A.D. 44, whose body was then mysteriously transported and interred in the city that now bears his name. A magnificent cathedral was built around the tomb. Over many years thousands of pilgrims have placed their hands on a statue of the saint at the entrance to the cathedral, so that a deep hole has been hollowed out on the statue. (I can testify to this. I have been  there. I did not place my hand on it. But then I also did not make the pilgrimage, having arrived by car from Madrid.) An official papal guide for pilgrims, the Codex Calixtinus, was issued in 1140; it is still useful in mapping the various routes. Since the Middle Ages a string of hospices, set up under royal protection, offered accommodations and also carried on a lucrative business selling souvenirs and pious objects. The most cherished souvenir could only be obtained at the destination, proof that one had really been there.

The Camino is still the most important Catholic pilgrimage within Europe (other than one going to Rome). However, what is interesting is that in recent years it has become popular among non-Catholics, especially (hardly surprising) among young people. There have been some studies of this phenomenon. The motives seem to be diverse—a general desire to have a “spiritual experience” (not one that Pope Calixtus would have approved of), a plain exercise of athletic prowess, and also tourism with an exotic flavor. The Tablet reports that a Dublin firm called “Follow the Camino” is now offering an aromatherapy kit for pilgrims to use by themselves, and also two sites on the last one-hundred kilometers before Santiago where experts in aromatherapy are available for (so to speak) sessions in the flesh. As far as I know, aromatherapy derives from so-called ayurvedic medicine, the ancient healing art of India. It has become popular in the wake of the counterculture, along with other techniques of “alternative medicine”. The Dublin company advertises its service as follows: “You will learn the benefits of aromatherapy to ease your camino but also to heal your mind in a very natural way”.  (No medieval miracles there!) A whole package of kit plus actual sessions is available under the name “Camino Zen Aromatic” (according to the Tablet story at a cost of 795 euros, which seems a bit steep). I would think that a further expansion of services will occur to some imaginative entrepreneurs, especially if they become aware of the increasingly diverse character of the pilgrims. There would appear to be opportunities for sites teaching Zen meditation (even without aromas), yoga and martial arts, or sites housing clinics for the practice of full-blown traditional Indian or Chinese medicine. Come to think of it, why not centers for Tantric sex therapy? The possibilities boggle the mind…

The third Tablet item that caught my attention concerns a group that represents a feisty resistance to aggiornamento. The traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter was founded in 1988 by a decree of Pope John Paul II. This was part of a tactic, which still continues, to lure back from schism the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who want to repeal practically every reform of the Second Vatican Council. The Fraternity was originally founded at the Abbey of Hauterive in Switzerland and now runs several training centers for aspiring priests, one for English-speakers at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska. Priests associated with the Fraternity are permitted to say Mass in the traditional Latin version. It appears that the Fraternity goes beyond this in its refusal to accommodate modern culture. A recent guide for applicants to the American center responds to the question “Can a seminarian be a vegetarian?”  The answer is no, at least while he is on the premises—the kitchen staff has to serve a lot of people and cannot meet special dietary requests, except where there is a medically diagnosed condition: “Therefore, we expect all seminarians to eat all the meals prepared for us, even those that should contain meat. This is one of the many rules seminarians need to abide by when living and studying here.” Seminarians are allowed to own cars and laptops, but may not grow beards or mustaches, or wear rings. The anti-vegetarian rule aroused the ire of Judy Gibbons, vice-chairman of Catholic Concern for Animals: “To say you’ve got to be a seminarian and a meat-eater is not acceptable. People should be given a choice.”

Which way will the Church go under Francis I?  Perhaps one may look for signs from the eight members appointed to the Council of Cardinals (C8) that is to advice the Pope. The same issue of The Tablet gives brief descriptions of each. The coordinator is Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, former Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. He appears to be mildly left-leaning politically. He has been involved in the campaign to give debt relief to developing countries and has called climate change a “faith issue”, also (like Francis) has criticized “neoliberal capitalism” for neglecting the poor. But he has also sharply criticized the authoritarian leftism of Hugo Chavez. When it comes to internal Church affairs, he is known for disliking clericalism. But there is no indication that he is either strongly conservative or strongly progressive. I have not researched this in any depth, but I get the same impression from the description of the other eight cardinals.  In this, of course, they resemble the profile of their boss. Unless more evidence surfaces, this supports a view I expressed in an earlier post on this blog: One should not expect the Francis pontificate to make the sort of radical changes that progressives hope for and conservatives fear. An effort to clean the Augean stables within the Curia may well occur. But what Francis has already achieved, basically by projecting his very appealing personality, is a change in tone. The media have been charmed, and have veered away from their absurd tendency of seeing the Catholic Church as a sinister synthesis of Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, and the Marquis de Sade. That in itself is no mean achievement. Is this change of tone likely to lead to significant structural changes? I think the question is still open. But one may recall the French saying, “c’est le ton qui fait la musique” – “it is the tone that makes the music”.

[Photo of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]

show comments
  • wigwag

    “The Camino is still the most important Catholic pilgrimage within Europe…However, what is interesting is that in recent years it has become popular among non-Catholics, especially (hardly surprising) among young people. There have been some studies of this phenomenon. The motives seem to be diverse—a general desire to have a “spiritual experience”… a plain exercise of athletic prowess, and also tourism with an exotic flavor.” (Peter Berger)

    The phenomenon of nonreligious people going on pilgrimages to satisfy vaguely spiritual urges seems to be increasing. A case in point is the number of Westerners making the pilgrimage to Mount Kailas, a sacred, snow-capped mountain of the Himalayas in a remote area of western Tibet.

    For those unfamiliar with it, Mount Kailas is sacred to about 20 percent of the people on the planet; the Mountain and the incredibly arduous trip to it is especially meaningful to Buddhists, Hindus and and Jains. While few non-Muslim young people would consider joining the Haj, large numbers of secular young people just can’t seem to resist the pilgrimage to Kailas.

    One person who made that pilgrimage was the extraordinary British travel writer Colin Thurbron (Thubron is not young; he was born in 1939). He was brought up in the Anglican Church but I have no idea how devout Thubron continues to be. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of his mother’s death, Thubron felt drawn to make this pilgrimage.

    His reminiscences of his pilgrimage to Mount Kailas are beautifully recounted in Thubron’s 2012 book, “To a Mountain in Tibet.” I highly recommend it to Professor Berger and his readers.

    More information can be found here,

    As for Professor Berger’s comments about clerical garb, it seems to me that abandoning traditional vestments is likely to sound the death knell for denominations lax about enforcing the dress code. What makes a team, after all? It seems to be that there are two ingredients; a common purpose and a uniform.
    Eliminate the uniform and you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. For religion, that aint good news.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    And then there is Marianne Williamson, a self-styled spiritualist who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives as an independent against Democrat Henry Waxman in the 33rd Congressional District serving Beverly Hills. Williamson runs the nonprofit Project Angel Food that delivers meals to those with HIV/AIDS (presumably from a government grant). Williamson is running on a “spiritualist” political platform. She is author of a purported best selling book “A Return to Love” and offers a “Course in Miracles.” Her platform calls for women’s empowerment, peace, nuclear disarmament, and environmentalism.

    One can only guess that she also believes in the separation of church and state. Because she belongs to no church but of her own devising one can surmise there is no church to separate from government. Next thing she might be offering a pilgrimage of some sort through the Hollywood Hills or maybe the Hollywood Wax(man) Museum. If I were Pope Francis I would consider her a candidate for conversion but only after she made the Camino pilgrimage. Williamson does not need to wear a religious frock in her brand of New Age religion. Instead she just has to have movie star looks and live in West Hollywood. After all it is the tone of love, peace and forgiveness that makes such people. The soberness, discipline, and asceticism of the Puritans who were the forerunners of Max Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” has been replaced with the “New Age Welfare Ethic and the Spiritual Tone of Post Modernism.”

    If there is a religious continuum with love at one end and standards at the other, Williamson is at the far end of the love pole. Like Pope Francis it is easier to set a tone of love than a cacophony of standards. I agree with Prof. Berger that Pope Francis’ social reference group of fellow cardinals indicates he is unlikely to embrace aggiornamento any time soon. But also for other other reasons exemplified by Williamson, Pope Francis is not anytime soon likely to embrace Liberation Theology and its revolutionary means.

    Asceticism has been embraced by such diverse leaders as Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Ghandi, and Caesar Chavez. At least Pope Francis has suspended the German Bishop of Bling for his ostentatiousness. Those who live in their socially constructed religious worlds such as Williamson don’t have to worry about having a standard of poverty enforced upon them. Catholic Bishops do.

  • Anthony

    “One should not expect the Francis pontificate to make the sort of radical change that progressives hope for and conservatives fear.” Which brings to mind “tone” and its efficacy. When a person becomes the head of an extensive organization (Pope Francis/Catholic Church) he can no longer be self-limiting in choice of means or ends. That is, the organization/institution requires a certain mode of behavior which may preclude radical adjustment beyond “tone”. “c’est le ton qui fait la musique” may apply to musical lyrics but to Vatican…. Power begins with a specification of purpose and resources to be used interlace means and ends: structural changes going forward???

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