When it comes to those he disagrees with, Pope Francis’s approach is to avoid direct confrontation, preferring instead to ignore them and get on with his job. But in the case of Cardinal Robert Sarah he has made an exception.
Last week the 71-year-old Guinean prelate unilaterally announced that priests should start to turn their backs on the congregation and face east to say Mass - something which liturgical traditionalists often call for as it is how the priest celebrates the Old Rite Latin liturgy.
This is all part of an agenda described as a “reform of the reform” which would make the Mass ordinary Catholics attend on Sunday more like the one celebrated before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. It means more latin, more chant and less participation from the congregation.
Soon after the cardinal made his remarks, however, the Vatican released a statement saying there will be no changes to this part of the liturgy and, crucially, that this had been “expressly agreed” during a recent audience between the cardinal and the Pope. It added that the phrase “reform of the reform” should be avoided.
It is highly unusual for the Vatican to publicly slap down a Prince of the Church, yet not entirely surprising given how Cardinal Sarah has operated since his appointment to lead the Holy See’s liturgy department.
There have been a series of incidents that reveal the cardinal is part of a faction making life difficult for this Pope: take, for example, the fact it took Cardinal Sarah’s department more than a year to implement Francis’ simple request that women should be included in the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual.
Among Rome’s conservative circles Sarah is often put forward as a future Pope, with Benedict XVI devotee, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, comparing the cardinal to the 5th century North African Pope Galasius (he made this comparison on the eve of Francis’ visit to Africa).
Away from the liturgy, Sarah has written books opposing any change to Church teaching on communion for the divorced and remarried while during the synod on the family last October compared “western homosexual and abortion ideologies” to Nazism and Islamic terrorism. It is hardly the language of the Pope and his desire for a more merciful and compassionate Church.
All this has left people wondering why Francis appointed the cardinal to his current role. At one level appointing a conservative has neutralised the liturgy wars, whereas putting a more liturgically progressive figure into the job during a radical papacy could have made divisions worse.
For his part, Francis is not someone who obsesses about the liturgy: he celebrates his morning Masses facing the people in a simple, modern chapel in the Casa Santa Marta, while is happy with the use of Latin for big papal celebrations.
And given all that is on his plate, the last thing he needs now is a fight over the liturgy. So despite his aversion to taking people on face-to-face, his handling of the Cardinal Sarah matter shows this Pope will use his authority if necessary.