Pope Francis touches a rosary during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Nov. 30, 2016 (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Some self-declared Catholic traditionalists have been complaining bitterly that there is much confusion and division within the Catholic Church.

They blame it all on Pope Francis and especially on the challenging program he has launched for ecclesial renewal and reform. In doing so, they are de facto opposing the pope—especially his more merciful and pastoral application of the gospel and church teaching.

“There has never been such open opposition to a pope as there has been to Bergoglio,” says Andrea Riccardi, the Italian historian who founded the Sant’Egidio Community shortly after the Second Vatican Council.

Professor Riccardi recently noted that this opposition exists at “various levels of the hierarchy, amongst the laity and on blogs.”

He says it is rooted in a net refusal of the pope’s message.

“I think of a certain type of traditionalism and I ask myself: how can it be such by rebuffing the pope?” says Riccardi.


Traditionalists are generally defined by their unflinching loyalty to the Roman Pontiff. But when the one seated on the Chair of Peter is not to their liking, these papists in the extreme find themselves in deep conflict.

However, they are right about one thing: there is a lot of confusion and division in the church. It’s just that it’s not the fault of Pope Francis.

For example, there is nothing more confusing—for English-speaking Catholics, at least—than the awkward prayers used each day at Mass. This is not Francis’s doing. It’s the responsibility of his two most recent predecessors. They were the ones who ordered the transliteration of the Latin texts found in the Roman Missal and then promulgated a version of that missal (more properly called the Sacramentary) that, in so many respects, is not even proper English at all.

But the source of the confusion and division in the church goes much deeper than disputes over how prayers have been translated. A great part of it is actually found in the stubborn resistance to the liturgical reforms that came in the wake of Vatican II and, even more seriously, the refusal to fully accept the teaching and thrust of the Council, especially its ecclesiology (that is, what we believe about the very nature of the church).

If there is confusion today in the church, it exists to a great extent because of traditionalists who demanded—and, unfortunately, were granted—the right to continue celebrating the Tridentine Mass despite its post-conciliar reform.

This older form of the liturgy is not primarily about the use of Latin at Mass. Rather, it is the expression of a strictly hierarchical, exclusively top-down and clericalist church frozen in time. It is not, as its misinformed enthusiasts claim, the ancient Mass or the Mass of the Ages.

It was created in 1570, seven years after the Council of Trent. Scholars have shown that is a hybrid of various and (some) over-stylized liturgical books from different times and regions, often with additions and embellishments not found in the earliest Roman liturgy.

This old liturgy had to be reformed to more adequately reflect the ecclesiology that had developed since Trent and was articulated at Vatican Council II.  

If we truly believe the maxim lex orandi lex credendi (loosely translated: our worship expresses what we actually believe), then the parallel existence and legitimacy of the non-reformed and the reformed liturgies has caused and perpetuated confusion and division in the church.

How did this happen?

Pope Paul VI had only grudgingly allowed for the so-called Old Mass’s limited and continued use. It was specifically out of pastoral charity for those elderly people who struggled with the reform. But the late pope feared then, and has long since been proven correct, that refusal to fully accept the reformed liturgy would be just the beginning of calling into question many other aspects of Vatican II, even the entire Council.

Pope Paul’s original indult to allow for use of the Tridentine Rite was at first carefully contained, even by John Paul II. But a tiny number of traditionalist cardinals and some bishops successfully lobbied him to further expand the provision. Furthermore, they actively encouraged and supported the establishment of obscure religious orders whose specific mission is to preserve the pre-Vatican II rituals (and mindset).

This prevented a small wound in the heart of the Catholic community from completely healing.

And then one of those cardinals became pope and in 2007 he issued a “motu proprio” authorizing the near-unfettered use of the Tridentine Rite, which ripped the wound wide open. He claimed he was actually trying to facilitate an “interior reconciliation in the heart of the church.” And with linguistic dexterity he invented the fiction that the pre-Vatican II Mass was actually just the “extraordinary form” of the one Roman Rite, the reformed liturgy being its “ordinary form”.  

Those odd Tridentine communities that this former pope helped spawn quickly seized upon this liturgical free-for-all and began actively promoting a greater diffusion of the Old Mass. Their cardinal-protector, now in papal white, did nothing to restrain them or correct the devious turns they took under cover of the new dispensation.  

Clerical groups and their clericalist lay supporters, once on the fringe of mainstream Catholicism, were now given a prominence and influence disproportionate to their tiny numbers. And men sympathetic to their liturgical proclivities and neo-Tridentinist view of the church were promoted bishops. Some were even made cardinals.

In effect, they became the tail wagging the dog.

No one should be surprised that the heart of opposition to Pope Francis is found among their enthusiasts.

Meanwhile, the Jesuit pope has exercised great restraint and tolerance. But he has refused to indulge them. And because of this they are mighty angry.
There is confusion and division in the church all right, and the man at the Vatican who wears the white dress bears much of the responsibility. But, let’s be clear, it’s not the one who lives at the Santa Marta Residence.

The parallel legitimacy of the non-reformed and reformed liturgies has caused and perpetuated confusion and division in the church


Almost every time Pope Francis addresses a crowd or meets with people he ends the encounter with a simple request: “Don’t forget to pray for me.”

Sometimes, when he’s conversing with folks that are not Catholics or who do not belong to any religion at all, he’ll add, “If you don’t pray, at least send me good vibes.”

And it seems many people are doing just that. “I have never prayed so much for a pope,” is something one often hears whenever the conversation is about Francis.  

But as Catholics how should we honor the pope’s request?

We know that he, like so many of his predecessors, has an unshakeable trust in the Blessed Virgin Mary. He constantly flees to her protection, implores her help and seeks her intercession.

For example, each time he is about to embark on a journey abroad (and again after he returns) Francis makes a short pilgrimage to the Basilica of St. Mary Major on the other side of Rome where he prays before an ancient Byzantine icon of Our Lady, known as the Salus Populi Romani (Protectoress of the Health of the Roman People).

Legend says Pope Saint Gregory the Great carried the sacred image through the streets of Rome in 593 to bring an end to the Black Plague, and subsequent popes have made recourse to the beloved icon at other critical moments in history.

So in light of Francis’s deep devotion to the Blessed Mother, a friend suggested that one of the most appropriate ways of carrying out his request for prayers could be by offering five decades of the rosary each day for him and his intentions.

You can do this in the traditional manner by praying the five joyful mysteries on Mondays and Thursdays, the sorrowful mysteries on Tuesdays and Fridays and the glorious mysteries on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Or if you are a “modernist,” on Thursdays you can instead pray the new-fangled luminous mysteries, which St. John Paul II officially added to the rosary in 2002.

But all this might be a bit of a challenge for some post-Vatican II Catholics who may have deduced that “fingering the beads” and repeating the Hail Mary over and over is akin to “babbling like pagans”, those who—as Jesus says—“think they will be heard because of their many words” (cf. Matthew 6:7).

There’s certainly this danger if all we do is rattle on mindlessly. But this can easily be avoided if we prayerfully meditate, not just on the individual mysteries, but also on the fruits of those mysteries.

For example, the first joyful mystery is the Annunciation and its fruit is “humility.” One could pray that Pope Francis is given the grace to remain humble in his vocation to serve. Or take the third sorrowful mystery, the Crowning with Thorns. Its fruit is “courage.” And that is something we should all wish for the pope.

“Hope” is the fruit of the second glorious mystery, the Ascension. And if you are praying the rosary for Francis, you can ask the Holy Spirit to continue to gift him with this theological virtue so that the pope can more authentically inspire all of us to be more hope-filled people.

There are all sorts of opportunities throughout the day to calmly pray five decades of the rosary, which will probably take up less than fifteen minutes of your time. For instance, you can do this while driving or taking the bus/train to work, while having your daily walk or jog, while sitting in your doctor’s waiting room, or even after you tuck yourself into bed for the night.

And you don’t have to worry about drawing attention to yourself with dangling rosary beads. A finger rosary or even your ten fingers work just as well! In fact, when Paul VI was a young university chaplain he often told students not to parade their beads in public, but to keep them in their pocket when they pray.

If you have not prayed the rosary in a very long time, or never at all; or if you think that doing so is a devotional practice for simpletons or, worse, that it’s just the sheer multiplication of words, give it another try.  

You may discover that it makes your commute to work less stressful. And you’ll be doing great favor for Pope Francis as he tries to renew the church and bring God’s mercy, peace, and reconciliation to our world. Even—perhaps, especially—if you find him a divisive and confusing pope.

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.