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Rita FerroneOctober 19, 2021
Altar server Bradley Morley leads the closing procession during a traditional Latin Mass July 1, 2021, at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Ever since Pope Francis issued his motu proprio, “Traditionis Custodes,” restricting the use of the liturgical rites that preceded the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, many in the church have struggled to understand the implications of his action. Why did the pope do this? What is the end game? How ought the church to respond?

In order to place Pope Francis’ decision in perspective, it is necessary to understand the immediate situation that gave rise to it. This story begins with another motu proprio, issued by Francis’ predecessor. Pope Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum” in 2007 in order to liberalize the use of the rites that predated the reforms of Vatican II. Prior to “Summorum Pontificum,” any priest who wanted to celebrate the older rites had to get permission from his bishop. Benedict removed the local bishop from the equation, giving direct permission to celebrate the older rites to any priest who wanted to. “Summorum Pontificum” also stated that whenever a stable community requested Mass in its previous form on a regular basis, “the parish priest should willingly accede to their requests to celebrate Holy Mass according to the rite of the 1962 Roman Missal.”

Pope Benedict essentially created a situation that had never existed before, in which two forms of the Roman Rite would be freely practiced at the same time throughout the church.

Pope Benedict essentially created a situation that had never existed before, in which two forms of the Roman Rite (one reformed, one not) would be freely practiced at the same time throughout the church. He predicted that these two ways of celebrating the liturgy would peacefully coexist and enrich one another. He coined the term “ordinary form” to describe the rite as reformed by the decrees of Vatican II, and he called the rite contained in the liturgical books published in 1962 the “extraordinary form.”

There are some hints that Benedict regarded this situation as transitional, a kind of experiment, to the benefit of all. It was first of all a means of reconciling traditionalists to papal authority and healing the schism brought about by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his followers (the Society of St. Pius X), who did not accept Vatican II. Second, it seemed that he wanted to see the greater availability of the older rite spark a “reform of the reform,” where the pre-Vatican II rite would influence the post-Vatican II rite both in theology and in practice. This is certainly how his initiative was interpreted on the ground. When Benedict spoke of the “mutual enrichment” between the two “forms” of the Roman Rite, those who cheered this development expected the “enrichment” to flow to the reformed rite, rather than from the reform.

In the end, the experiment failed. The Society of St Pius X was never willing to be reconciled, and the most avid exponents of the older rite who were in union with Rome continued to harshly criticize the reform, sowing doubts about its legitimacy. Those who were supposed to be reconciled did not become more supportive of Vatican II overall. Instead, they fortified their opposition, now from a base within the church, becoming more hardline and demanding.

Those who were supposed to be reconciled did not become more supportive of Vatican II overall. Instead, they fortified their opposition.

On the side of the mainstream, efforts to “reform the reform” were not welcomed either. Those who celebrated Mass according to the reforms of Vatican II resented being told that their piety was insufficient, that they should turn their altars around or stop receiving Communion in the hand, or that the liturgy would be more holy if women were excluded from the sanctuary. When Cardinal Robert Sarah, then prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, urged priests to turn the altars around and the faithful to receive Communion only on the tongue, it caused an uproar. Pope Francis had to rein him in, and asked Cardinal Sarah not to use the term “reform of the reform” going forward. Problems arose within several institutes of consecrated life dedicated to the older liturgy, too, resulting in the need for greater discipline. Some were even suppressed.

It is important to remember that Francis did not create these tensions; he inherited them. It is also necessary to understand that the situation set up by “Summorum Pontificum” was inherently unstable because Benedict’s experiment had no roots in church history, and was never fully integrated into the system by which the church as a whole is run. Pope Benedict hoped to protect the extraordinary form by establishing a niche for it and freeing it from interference from unsympathetic bishops. The consequence of this arrangement, however, was that the church as a whole never owned the project.

To be fair, it probably never could have owned it. There were too many disjunctions with Vatican II to make these rites truly “fit” into the normal workings of the post-conciliar church. Looking back, it is a marvel that anyone could expect this institutional arrangement to lead to a shared vision. The extraordinary form bypassed the local bishop, whose job is to be the chief liturgist of the diocese. It bypassed the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, whose job it is to oversee and assist the world church in its liturgical life. It bypassed the curial congregation concerned with religious life. The older rite answered to the Ecclesia Dei Commission, situated in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The C.D.F. does not have a liturgical competence, yet this dicastery was charged with making crucial decisions concerning prayers for the extraordinary form.

Those who celebrated Mass according to the reforms of Vatican II resented being told that their piety was insufficient.

The fathers of Vatican II may not have foreseen all the consequences of the liturgical reform they set in motion, but they also never envisioned having two sets of liturgical books, two catechisms or two distinct protocols for relating to the Curia, much less having individual clerics choose which rite to celebrate, independent of their bishops. Even Benedict’s prefect of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch, recognized that such a situation could not endure. He said in 2020, “In the long term...the co-existence of the two forms cannot remain.”

Sadly, the granting of immediate permission to priests to celebrate the older rites also empowered a certain type of cleric to consider himself superior and beyond the reach of discipline. This is not only the case in the online world, where traditionalist priests gather “followers” apart from any pastoral assignment. It can also wreak havoc directly in the parish. I think of the story of a small Catholic parish in England to which one such priest was assigned. He unilaterally decided to replace the principal parish liturgy in the ordinary form with the extraordinary form, and removed the freestanding altar from the church. When asked what the bishop might say in response to such aggressive maneuvers, he replied “The bishop needs me more than I need him.”

In 2020, Pope Francis had a survey sent out to the world’s bishops to evaluate the effects of “Summorum Pontificum.” It was in response to these evaluations that Francis made his decision to abrogate it. The results of the survey were not made public, but Francis explained in the letter that accompanied “Traditionis Custodes” that the results were deeply concerning. He felt he had to step in for the sake of the unity of the church.

Was this step really needed? One cannot ignore the literature emanating from traditionalist blogs, websites and other publishing venues that has sought to undermine the reformed liturgy and recycles falsehoods about how the reform took shape.

The granting of immediate permission to priests to celebrate the older rites also empowered a certain type of cleric to consider himself superior and beyond the reach of discipline.

Yet I imagine that the bishops of the world may have had more mundane matters on their minds. A recent experience in Dijon, France, provides an example. The bishop of Dijon had two priests celebrating the extraordinary form at his cathedral, and he asked them to concelebrate the Chrism Mass with him. They refused. Why? Because the extraordinary form does not allow concelebration! The Chrism Mass is a sign of the unity of the priesthood, but they did not care; they would only celebrate according to the older rite. The bishop closed the ministry of the priests in the diocese, and I think he was justified. But it didn’t end there. A huge outcry from the traditionalist community followed, and it became an international incident.

I recall another anecdote from the American Midwest. A bishop had invited some priests from one of the traditionalist orders into his diocese, thinking they could use the help because of the priest shortage. But when they arrived, these priests would not say Mass in the ordinary form. Very few people wanted the older rite, so they had little to do, but they sat around rather than helping out.

What are we protecting here? Who is being served? It is not enough to evaluate “Traditionis Custodes” through the narrow lens of how it affects the small number of people who currently celebrate according to the older rite, although the impact of Francis’ decision on them will certainly be significant. Rather, it is essential to step back and see the larger picture. What Francis has done is not something that affects only those who use the rites antecedent to the Council. He has taken a strategic step that will affect the entire church.

What Francis has done is to reestablish the priority of Vatican II in our liturgical life. He is saying, essentially, that no one can take an end run around it. His motu proprio aims to secure a common future in which our liturgy will be built on one, coherent foundation. It is a move in favor of what he called a “unitary expression of the Roman Rite” firmly anchored in the reforms of Vatican II. Every Catholic ought to care about this.

What Francis has done is to reestablish the priority of Vatican II in our liturgical life. He is saying, essentially, that no one can take an end run around it.

Pope Francis has said elsewhere that the reform of the liturgy is irrevocable. He has also said, to young people who are critical of the reform, that it is important to understand the reformed liturgy from within and develop an understanding of its inner dynamics and the precise ways that it embodies our age-old faith. In other words, the best approach to liturgy is not to stand outside of it as a critic but to stand within it as a faithful people, allowing it to shape us into one body of Christ. It is a process.

In order to start that process, the church had to establish some basic principles, as Francis has now done. In the letter accompanying “Traditionis Custodes” he described the reformed rites as the unique expression of the “lex orandi” (the law of prayer). The reformed rites hold the standard, and they set the standard for our time. This has to be clear.

The church can uphold a standard yet allow for exceptions—to give people time, to keep them in the boat, to accompany them. But the goal is that everybody should eventually come to the point where they can give heartfelt assent to the reformed rite “from within.” It would be grievously abnormal to foster a situation such as the one that Michael Brendan Doherty described in his recent opinion essay in The New York Times when he avowed: “My children cannot return to [the new Mass]; it is not their religious formation. Frankly, the new Mass is not their religion.”

Does Francis intend to phase out the older rites entirely? He has not said that he would do this, and he has always been quite tolerant of a limited use of the older rites in the past. If he discovered that phasing them out was necessary as a means to the end of preserving the unity of the church, however, I believe he would not hesitate to do so. I think that Francis has a pastoral direction in mind. His letter accompanying the motu proprio invites the bishops of the world to join him in responsible oversight of the liturgy, using the principles he has articulated. I believe he wants the bishops to help their people sincerely engage and re-engage with the reformed liturgy together as one people—something he strives to do in his own ministry.

Do yourself the favor of taking Pope Francis’ advice seriously and spend time exploring the reformed liturgy “from the inside.”

Pope Francis knows quite well that modern life churns with temptations to restlessness. Some will always be tempted to seek a chapel apart because they feel “There’s a magic I’m missing. There’s a mystery I’m lacking.” What I hear him saying is that the mystery is here. Seeking, we find it. We will discover it in humble things if we approach the Lord with a humble heart and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Clearly, there is a mixed pastoral situation on the ground. Although some are taken in by arguments in opposition to Vatican II, there are others who prefer the older rites simply for aesthetic and personal reasons, not because they reject the Council or regard the reformed liturgy as unorthodox. Perhaps they were drawn to the older rites because of their emphasis on ceremony and reverence, silence and adoration. Or they may have been turned off by folksy-casual celebrants or happy-clappy liturgies at their home parish.

The good news is that there is a path forward for such Catholics without recourse to the 1962 liturgical books. If Latin and Gregorian chant are what is required to satisfy the desire for a more reverent atmosphere at Mass or a sense of the “otherness” of God, it is easy to imagine how this could be accomplished. Those places that currently host the extraordinary form could become centers where the reformed liturgy is celebrated in Latin, with Gregorian chant. We have plenty of experience hosting a diversity of styles in parish liturgy; this does not have to involve a bifurcation of the Roman Rite or two distinct sets of liturgical norms.

The key to progress may be as simple as this: Talk to your priests. Seek out more solemn celebrations of the reformed rite. Do yourself the favor of taking Pope Francis’ advice seriously and spend time exploring the reformed liturgy “from the inside,” learning to better appreciate its inner dynamics and outward forms. Study the Mass. Pray the Mass. Find your place in the stream of tradition that still lives in the reformed liturgy and in fact lives abundantly if we seek it.

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