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Blase J. CupichNovember 10, 2021
Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich leads a catechesis session for World Youth Day pilgrims at the Parish of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Panama City on Jan. 25, 2019. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth) 

On July 16, Pope Francis issued the motu proprio “Traditionis Custodes,” calling on all Roman Catholics to fully accept that the liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II are the unique expression of the lex orandi (the law of praying) of the Roman Rite.

Why did the Holy Father issue this document? And why now, 60 years after these books were published?

In the early 1970s, a movement led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre arose in Europe, rejecting the teaching and reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Archbishop Lefebvre was later excommunicated by Pope John Paul II. As a means of promoting unity and inviting those associated with this movement to return to the Catholic Church, John Paul II allowed bishops to provide the limited celebration of the Missal in use prior to Vatican II for those still attached to the earlier liturgy.

‘Traditionis Custodes’ is a reminder to bishops that, as successors of the apostles, they, with all the bishops in union with and under the pope, share responsibility for the whole church.

His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, expanded this concession in the motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum” so that any priest could use the earlier liturgical forms without the permission of his bishop. The motive of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as Pope Francis observes in “Traditionis Custodes,” was “to facilitate the ecclesial communion of those Catholics who feel attached to some earlier liturgical forms and not to others.”

Pope Benedict XVI indicated that, in time, it would be important to evaluate his decision by consulting with the bishops of the world. This was done by Pope Francis last year. The consultation revealed that instead of assisting those who remained attached to the earlier forms, the extraordinary concession was being used to promote the former liturgy as a parallel option in celebrating the Eucharist.

As Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, observed in a June 2021 interview, instead of achieving healing and unity as intended by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, “what we have got now is a movement within the church herself, seemingly endorsed by her leaders, that sows division by undermining the reforms of the Second Vatican Council through the rejection of the most important of them: the reform of the Roman Rite.”

Pope Francis, therefore, has issued new guidelines restoring to the diocesan bishop, as the moderator, promoter and guardian of all liturgical life in his diocese, the responsibility of regulating the extraordinary concession to celebrate the liturgy according to its use prior to the reforms of Vatican II. He is to do so in a manner that always testifies to the unity of the Roman Rite, reflected uniquely in the liturgical books promulgated by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II.

The bishop is to offer pastoral support to his people who have belonged to communities that have been utilizing the pre-conciliar liturgy, but he also must keep in mind his more fundamental responsibility as a guardian of tradition to re-establish a single and identical prayer that expresses the unity of the church in the Roman Rite reformed by the decrees of Vatican II. In the end, it is this more fundamental service of guardianship and unity that best serves the pastoral needs of the entire local church, and the universal church as well.

Pope Francis calls on all Catholics to recognize that Vatican II and its reforms are not only authentic actions of the Holy Spirit but also are in continuity with the tradition of the church.

The pope’s letter is a reminder to bishops that, as successors of the apostles, they, with all the bishops in union with and under the pope (cum Petro et sub Petro), share responsibility for the whole church. That reminder puts into perspective what is at stake and why bishops must take seriously the Holy Father’s letter, as it is an essential teaching document that needs to be fully embraced by all in the church.

Considerations for the church

First, given that the liturgical reform took place at the behest of the council fathers at Vatican II and in conformity with conciliar teachings, failing to promote a return to a unitary celebratory form in accord with the directives of “Traditionis Custodes” will further call into question the authority and value of the council as an integral part of Catholic tradition.

For this reason, Pope Francis calls on all Catholics to recognize that Vatican II and its reforms are not only authentic actions of the Holy Spirit but also are in continuity with the tradition of the church. Sadly, there is ample evidence that many of those rejecting the reformed liturgy in earlier and even later years also expressed opposition to the council and its teachings, including those on the nature of the church, the modern world, religious freedom, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; nor were these objections restricted to the ways those teachings were being interpreted.

We must be vigilant that the concession to use the former liturgy does not become a platform for this division to deepen. The specter and danger of a “parallel church” is a real one. For this reason, any permission to use the earlier liturgical forms ought to include regular catechesis on the teachings of Vatican II, ever keeping in mind that, as Pope Francis said in 2019, “the liturgy is life that forms, not an idea to be learned.”

Second, we should remember that the council fathers left it up to the pope to complete the reform of the liturgy, in recognition of the unique role of the successor of Peter. A description of his role is clearly expressed in number 882 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which quotes from the documents of Vatican II: “the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church.” Any failure to address resistance to the liturgical reform promulgated by Pope Paul VI, and later by Pope John Paul II, risks undermining church teaching about papal primacy and communion with the bishop of Rome.

The specter and danger of a “parallel church” is a real one.

Pope Paul VI alluded to the connection between accepting the liturgical reform and papal authority when he noted the following at a general audience at the Vatican in 1965, four years before promulgating the Roman Missal renewed by Vatican II:

It is good that it be perceived as the very authority of the Church to wish, to promote, to ignite this new manner of prayer, thus greatly increasing her spiritual mission [...]; and we must not hesitate to first become disciples then supporters of the school of prayer, which is about to begin.

It is worth noting that Pope Paul VI called on a large international group of bishops, known as the Consilium, to assist him, so as to ensure episcopal oversight of the reform process “with and under the Pope,” thus ensuring that the directives of the council were carried forward. This was very much in contrast with the Missal of St. Pius V, who gave the work to one cardinal.

Third, the very nature of the church and her mission is at stake. The council fathers described the church as a “pilgrim people,” a term rooted in Scripture, to develop the image of the church previously understood as a perfect society and a world power to be contended with. As a “pilgrim people,” the church is semper reformanda, always open to reform and conversion, which is necessary for her to carry out her mission by reading the signs of the times, as Pope John XXIII urged.

Sixty years ago on this coming Christmas, that saintly pope convoked Vatican II with his apostolic constitution “Humanae Salutis.” Pope John XXIII noted that reading the signs of the times is particularly important, for “immensely serious and broad tasks await the Church.” Chief among them is “bringing the modern world into contact with the life-giving and perennial energies of the Gospel.” That one phrase captures the goal of Vatican II and the reason for its reforms.

We should not be afraid of reform, for it is a core value of the church and central to her nature. Reform is an expression of fidelity.

Thus, we should not be afraid of reform, for it is a core value of the church and central to her nature. Reform is an expression of fidelity. Reform, properly understood, means embracing a new form while keeping what is immutable in the earlier form and in continuity with the tradition.

Of course, there have been other post-conciliar reforms that were not liturgical, such as the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. In such reforms, the church kept what was essential and left behind what was not. In both cases, reform meant something, adopting a new form and putting aside the earlier one, and so it must be with regard to liturgical reform.

Pope Francis echoed the aspirations of Pope John XXIII in speaking about the meaning of the council’s reforms in an address to participants in the “68th National Liturgical Week” in Italy in August 2017:

The Second Vatican Council then brought to fruition, as the good fruit from the tree of the Church, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), ensuring that its lines of general reform responded to real needs and to the concrete hope of renewal: It desired a vital liturgy for a Church wholly enlivened by the mysteries celebrated. It was a matter of expressing in a renewed way the perennial vitality of the Church in prayer, taking care ‘that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators. On the contrary, understanding it [i.e., the mystery] well through rites and prayers, they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with full devotion and full collaboration’ (SC, 48).

The Holy Father went on to note that it is important not to get sidetracked with attempts to rethink the reform or by promoting the so-called reform of the reform. Rather, we must deepen our understanding of the criteria underlying the liturgical reform:

...by rediscovering the reasons for the decisions taken with regard to the liturgical reform, by overcoming unfounded and superficial readings, a partial reception, and practices that disfigure it. It is not a matter of rethinking the reform by reviewing the choices in its regard, but of knowing better the underlying reasons, through historical documentation, as well as of internalizing its inspirational principles and of observing the discipline that governs it.... The direction traced by the Council was in line with the principle of respect for healthy tradition and legitimate progress (cf. SC, 23), in the liturgical books promulgated by Blessed Paul VI, well received by the very Bishops who were present at the Council, and now in universal use for almost 50 years in the Roman Rite.

A call to full reform

Pope Francis issued “Traditionis Custodes”because he knew what was at stake: the acceptance of Vatican II as an authentic action of the Holy Spirit in conformity with the tradition of the church, the defense of papal authority, the nature of the church and the meaning of reform. Yet, in addition to appreciating this moment as a reminder to preserve core values of church life, we should also use this opportunity to unite our efforts to bring about the full reform called for by the council.

Indeed, “Traditionis Custodes”is a call to all Catholics, and we bishops who serve them, to take seriously our responsibility for implementing the reforms authentically in order to assist the church in her mission “to bring the modern world into contact with the life-giving and perennial energies of the Gospel.

In his 2020 address marking the 50th anniversary of the Roman Missal, which assisted me as I prepared this article, Archbishop Arthur Roche, now prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, observed:

Fifty years is not a long time in the history of the Church. The reform has happened; it still remains our ecclesial duty to implement that reform with great care and deep respect. The 50th anniversary is a time to renew that ecclesial commission at every level in the church.

He then closed with the wise counsel of Pope Benedict XVI in his letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the publication of “Summorum Pontificum,” and so do I:

The surest guarantee that the Missal of Paul VI can unite parish communities and be loved by them consists in its being celebrated with great reverence in harmony with the liturgical directives. This will bring out the spiritual richness and the theological depth of this Missal.

“Traditionis Custodes” now adds to that guarantee.

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