Question: Why do we call the pope “Holy Father” when in history many were not very holy at all? Also, I recently received Communion that was square-shaped. Are such hosts valid? Finally, why don’t parishes put up signs instructing people to dress properly for Mass? Many come dressed more for a picnic.
— Eleanor Flores, Boerne, Texas
Answer: Regarding the title “Holy Father,” and other such titles given the pope, the title is ascribed to the office more than to a description of the personal qualities of one who holds the office.
While we may wish that every pope in history lived an ostensibly holy life marked by deep spirituality, moral goodness and wise prudence, as you note, some of the popes were far from this ideal. Nevertheless, respect and reverence unto the holiness of the Petrine Office means the holder of that office goes by certain titles and should be honored by those titles even if he does not perfectly reflect what those titles uphold.
Recall too that the term “holy” most literally means “set apart” rather than sinless. Thus, what is holy is that which is set apart for some special and religious use.
In this sense of the word “holy,” the title “Holy Father” extends back to the High Priests of ancient Israel. Each of them, while in office, wore a turban or miter on which was fixed a gold plate bearing the inscription, “Holy to the Lord.” Among other things, this title indicated that the high priest was set apart from other men unto a special service of the Lord, and also to bear the holy sacrifices of the people unto God. As the High Priest had a unique role, set apart from others, he was called “Holy to the Lord.” So too the popes are set apart and said to be holy in this sense of the word. “Your Holiness” or “Holy Father” means, in this sense, “You who are set apart to represent both God and the People of God.”
Regarding your experience with holy Communion, be assured that the shape of the host does not matter. As long as the host is made only of wheat flour, it is valid matter for the Eucharist. Since you indicate it was “small squares,” I am going to presume you may have been in an Eastern Rite liturgy where Communion is often administered with a spoon and the hosts, dipped in the Precious Blood, are small squares or cubes.
Regarding your concern for clothing, many share it. The problem is cultural, and while signs and other reminders can help, there are many factors which make it unlikely that we will recover the norms observed before 1965. People seldom dress up for anything these days. Further, Sundays, once special and reserved for worship and family, have now become another hurried day where people are coming from and going to many events and places. This affects the way many dress for Mass. Gentle reminders may help the more extreme issues, but we are unlikely to see the formality we once knew, lamentable though that may seem to us who remember another time.
Question: If fulfilling the Five First Saturday devotion, can one go to a Saturday evening Mass that is really a Sunday Mass?
— Doris O’Hare, Alexandria, Virginia
Answer: Yes, this is possible. Though if one is also using that Mass to fulfill their Sunday obligation, this seems less advisable, since the “sacrificial” addition of a Mass is missing.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.