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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 21, 2023
Father Stephen Saffron, parish administrator, elevates the Eucharist during a traditional Latin Mass July 18, 2021, at St. Josaphat Church in the Queens borough of New York City. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Pope Francis has unequivocally confirmed that bishops must obtain authorization from the Holy See before granting permission to celebrate the pre-Vatican II Mass in parish churches and before allowing priests ordained after July 16, 2021, to use the 1962 Roman Missal. The latest instruction also makes clear that bishops cannot take the law into their own hands and interpret in a different way the restrictions on the Latin Mass issued by the pope in 2021.

The rescript was published today, Feb. 21, following an audience that Pope Francis granted on Feb. 20 to Cardinal Arthur Roche, the prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who signed the rescript.

In July 2021, Pope Francis promulgated his apostolic letter “Traditionis Custodes” (“Guardians of the Tradition”), declaring only the liturgical books promulgated after the Second Vatican Council to be “the unique expression of the ‘lex orandi’ (law of worship) of the Roman Rite,” restoring the obligation of priests to have their bishops’ permission to celebrate according to the “extraordinary” or pre-Vatican II Mass and ordering bishops not to establish any new groups or parishes in their dioceses devoted to the former liturgy.

Pope Francis has unequivocally confirmed that bishops must obtain authorization from the Holy See before granting permission to celebrate the pre-Vatican II Mass in parish churches.

Pope Francis said, then, that his decision was meant “to promote the concord and unity of the church.”

Many bishops granted temporary permission in the summer of 2021 for the liturgies to continue while they studied the papal document and consulted their priests and faithful.

Some bishops then granted individual dispensations from the rules, citing a paragraph of “Traditionis Custodes” that affirmed “it belongs to the diocesan bishop, as moderator, promoter and guardian of the whole liturgical life of the particular church entrusted to him, to regulate the liturgical celebrations of his diocese.”

With the rescript, Pope Francis confirms that dispensations from “Traditionis Custodes” are “reserved in a special way to the Apostolic See.”

The rescript identifies the following reserved dispensations:

  • “The use of the parish church, or the use of parish churches and or the erection of a personal parish for the Eucharistic celebration using the Roman Missal of 1962 (c.f.Traditionis custodes, Art. 3, par. 2)”;
  • “The concession of permission to priests ordained after the publication of the Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes to celebrate with the Roman Missal of 1962 (c.f. Traditionis custodes, Art. 4).”

The pope again confirmed what he had already established with Art. 7 of “Traditionis Custodes,” namely that “the dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments exercises the authority of the Holy See in the above-mentioned cases, watching over the observance of what has been laid down.”

Today’s rescript explicitly references Canon 87, par. 1 of the code of Canon Law. A minority of bishops, mainly in the United States, and some canon lawyers, have cited that canon to interpret the dispensations in a different way to what Francis intended.

The rescript makes clear that “[s]hould a diocesan bishop have granted dispensations in the two cases mentioned above, he is obliged to inform the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which will evaluate the individual cases.”

With the rescript, Pope Francis confirms that dispensations from “Traditionis Custodes” are “reserved in a special way to the Apostolic See.”

Vatican Media said this means “every Bishop who has conceded the use of parish churches, established personal parishes, or given the nihil obstat for the use of the 1962 Missal to priests ordained after 16 July 2021 without the assent of the Apostolic See will be required to submit a request to the Dicastery and await its response.”

Furthermore, the rescript “confirms, what [the pope] had already expressed in his assent in the audience of November 18, 2021, in responses to the dubia [questions] that had emerged after the publication of Traditionis custodes.” Those responses were published along with explanatory notes on Dec. 4, 2021.

The rescript concluded by ordering that the rescript “be published in L’Osservatore Romano,” the Vatican’s daily newspaper, “and in the official commentary of the Acts of the Apostolic See.”

This last instruction seeks both to remove any further doubt among bishops or canon lawyers regarding the correct interpretation of “Traditionis Custodes” and to affirm yet again that the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has final authority over dispensations.

The document also removes the confusion raised by a minority of bishops, some canon lawyers and others who disagree with the restrictions issued by Pope Francis. It also seeks to rebut charges from various quarters of the church against Cardinal Arthur Roche, whom they have accused of exceeding his authority in this matter, when, as the rescript makes clear, he was only faithfully carrying out papal directives.

Material from Catholic News Service was used in this report.

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