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Gerard O’ConnellJuly 16, 2021
Shown is a detail of text in Latin from a page of the 1962 Roman Missal. This 1996 reproduction of the missal is by Roman Catholic Books. (CNS file photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Pope Francis has revoked the faculty given by his predecessors that allowed any Catholic priest of the Latin Rite to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, greatly restricting its use.

The pope’s decree, in the form of a motu proprio, is of utmost importance to the bishops of the Catholic Church and was issued “for the unity of the Body of Christ.” It revokes the faculty given by John Paul II and “with even greater magnanimity” by Benedict XVI that allowed priests to celebrate Mass in Latin using the Roman Missal of St. Pius V, revised by St. John XXIII in 1962, without needing the permission of their bishop.

“I take the firm decision to abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs that precede the present motu proprio, and declare that the liturgical books promulgated by the saintly Pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, constitute the unique expression of the lex orandi (rule of prayer) of the Roman Rite,” Francis stated in his letter accompanying the motu proprio.

In the motu proprio, Francis reaffirmed the Vatican II teaching that “it belongs to the diocesan bishop…to regulate the liturgical celebrations of his diocese.

Two days after returning to the Vatican from the hospital, Pope Francis issued the motu proprio, dated July 16, that bears the Latin title “Traditionis Custodes” (“Guardians of the tradition”), and comes into force “immediately.”

In the motu proprio, Francis reaffirmed the Vatican II teaching that “it belongs to the diocesan bishop…to regulate the liturgical celebrations of his diocese” and said that “it is his exclusive competence to authorize the use of the 1962 Roman Missal in his diocese, according to the guidelines of the Apostolic See.”

Francis provided clear guidelines in this regard. He said, “The bishop of the diocese in which until now there exist one or more groups that celebrate according to the Missal antecedent to the reform of 1970” has “to determine that these groups do not deny the validity and the legitimacy of the liturgical reform, dictated by Vatican Council II and the Magisterium of the Supreme Pontiffs.”

He said the bishop has “to designate one or more locations,” excluding the parochial churches and without erecting new personal parishes, where the faithful adherents of these groups may gather for Mass. The bishop must also establish “the days on which eucharistic celebrations are permitted using the Roman Missal promulgated by Saint John XXIII in 1962,” and ensure the readings are in the vernacular. Furthermore, he must appoint a suitably trained priest, as his delegate, for these celebrations.

He said the bishop must “verify that the parishes canonically erected for the benefit of these faithful are effective for their spiritual growth, and to determine whether or not to retain them,” and he must not “authorize the establishment of new groups.”

Francis’ decision as pope to overturn in this way the decisions of his two predecessors is extraordinary.

Most significantly, Francis addressed the situation of priests who wish to celebrate the Eucharist using the Roman Missal of 1962. He decreed that those priests ordained after the publication of the motu proprio who wish to do so “should submit a formal request to the diocesan bishop who shall consult the Apostolic See before granting this authorization,” while priests who already celebrate using the Roman Missal of 1962 “should request from the diocesan Bishop the authorization to continue to enjoy this faculty.”

Francis’ decision as pope to overturn in this way the decisions of his two predecessors is extraordinary. One would have to go back to the Second Vatican Council to find such a precedent in the modern history of the church. It required courage to roll back their decisions on such a sensitive and highly charged subject as the pre-Vatican II liturgy and the Latin Mass of the Roman Missal of Pius V, edited by John XXIII in 1962, knowing that it would provoke a mighty strong reaction from the traditionalists in the church, especially in the United States, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

[Related: Explainer: What is the history of the Latin Mass?]

He did so nevertheless because, as he explains in the letter, the faculty was given by his predecessors to promote unity in the church and it has not done that. On the contrary, it is creating more division. His decision, in response to bishops’ requests, aims to stop it from developing as a movement against the council.

Francis explains the rationale for his decision

Just as Benedict had done in 2007, so too Francis today accompanied his motu proprio with a letter to the bishops providing the rationale for his far-reaching decision. He recalled in the letter that he had instructed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2020 to send a questionnaire to the bishops regarding the implementation of the motu proprio “Summorum Pontificium."

Benedict XVI had promulgated Summorum Pontificium on July 7, 2007, and decreed that while the Roman Missal promulgated by Paul VI is “the ordinary expression of the lex orandi (rule of prayer) of the Catholic Church of the Latin Rite,” the Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V and revised by John XXIII is nonetheless to be considered “an extraordinary expression” of the same lex orandi of the church. Benedict decreed that “any Catholic priest of the Latin rite” may use either form and “needs no permission” from his bishop or from Rome to do so. He concluded then that “these two expressions of the church’s lex orandi will in no way lead to a division in the church’s lex credenda (rule of faith), for they are two usages of the one Roman rite.”

Francis reached a very different conclusion when he analyzed the responses to the C.D.F. questionnaire. He told the bishops their responses “reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me.” He explained that “an opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.”

“In defense of the unity of the Body of Christ, I am constrained to revoke the faculty granted by my Predecessors.”

He said he was also “saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides” and, with Benedict XVI, he deplored that “in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions.”

At the same time, Francis said, “I am nonetheless saddened that the instrumental use of the Roman Missal of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’”

Rejecting that claim, he drew on the teaching of Vatican II to explain that “the path of the Church must be seen within the dynamic of Tradition ‘which originates from the Apostles and progresses in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit’ (Dei Verbum, 8).” He recalled that “a recent stage of this dynamic was constituted by Vatican Council II where the Catholic episcopate came together to listen and to discern the path for the Church indicated by the Holy Spirit.”

Pope Francis declared, “To doubt the Council is to doubt the intentions of those very Fathers who exercised their collegial power in a solemn manner cum Petro et sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter) in an ecumenical council, and, in the final analysis, to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.”

He told the bishops that the “final reason” for his decision is that “ever more plain in the words and attitudes of many is the close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the ‘true Church.’”

Francis declared, “One is dealing here with comportment that contradicts communion and nurtures the divisive tendency—‘I belong to Paul; I belong instead to Apollo; I belong to Cephas; I belong to Christ’—against which the Apostle Paul so vigorously reacted.” For this reason, he said, “In defense of the unity of the Body of Christ, I am constrained to revoke the faculty granted by my Predecessors.”

He said he took his decision also because “the distorted use that has been made of this faculty is contrary to the intentions that led to granting the freedom to celebrate the Mass with the Roman Missal of 1962.”

Francis makes clear in his letter that things did not develop as his predecessors had envisaged, there was now a real danger to the unity of the church, and he had to intervene.

He goes into considerable detail in the letter to explain that both John Paul II in 1988 and Benedict XVI in 2007 were motivated to allow “the use of the Roman Missal of 1962” for the celebration of Mass, “to promote the concord and unity of the church” and “to facilitate the ecclesial communion of those Catholics who feel attached to some earlier liturgical forms.” He said his predecessors “were confident that such a provision would not place in doubt one of the key measures of Vatican Council II, or minimize in this way its authority.”

Francis makes clear in his letter that things did not develop as his predecessors had envisaged, there was now a real danger to the unity of the church, and he had to intervene.

Again, quoting Vatican II’s constitution on the liturgy, he declared that “because liturgical celebrations are not private actions, but celebrations of the Church, which is the sacrament of unity, they must be carried out in communion with the Church.”

He told the bishops, “I take comfort in this decision from the fact that, after the Council of Trent, St. Pius V also abrogated all the rites that could not claim a proven antiquity, establishing for the whole Latin Church a single Roman Missal.”

For four centuries, he said, this Roman Missal was “the principal expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite, and functioned to maintain the unity of the Church” until, “without denying the dignity and grandeur of this Rite,” the bishops “gathered in ecumenical council asked that it be reformed”; their intention was that “the faithful would not assist as strangers and silent spectators in the mystery of faith, but, with a full understanding of the rites and prayers, would participate in the sacred action consciously, piously, and actively.”

He said this reform was carried out “based on the principles” given by the council and reached “its highest expression in the Roman Missal,” published by St. Paul VI and revised by St. John Paul II.

He declared, “Whoever wishes to celebrate with devotion according to earlier forms of the liturgy can find in the reformed Roman Missal according to Vatican Council II all the elements of the Roman Rite, in particular the Roman Canon which constitutes one of its more distinctive elements.”

Pope Francis concluded his letter by appealing to the bishops, saying, “While in the exercise of my ministry in the service of unity, I take the decision to suspend the faculty granted by my predecessors, I ask you to share with me this burden as a form of participation in the solicitude for the whole Church proper to the bishops.”

[Read this next: I once fell in love with the Latin Mass—which is why I understand why Pope Francis restricted it.]

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