By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
While the contents of what Pope Benedict XVI may eventually say about the pre-Vatican II “Latin Mass” remain a tightly guarded mystery, that vacuum hasn’t stopped Vatican officials, bishops and liturgists from pondering the possible fallout – from the political to the eminently practical.
In the Vatican, one concern is that such a move would be seen as an ideological statement about the general direction of the church, and especially its commitment to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). They insist that Benedict XVI’s motives are actually pastoral rather than ideological.
Some bishops, meanwhile, hope that if a ruling does come, it will still allow them discretion to regulate use of the old Mass, making judgments about whether it might put unacceptable strains on priests and parishes in given locations.
“The bishop has to be able to make decisions about the liturgical life of his diocese,” Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an Oct. 18 interview.
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Finally, liturgists find themselves pondering the practical dimensions of a potential Vatican ruling, meaning its possible implications for seminary training, church architecture, even something as banal as Mass schedules.
All of this suggests that the question of whether there will be a papal document may, in the end, prove less puzzling than what to do with it if it ever arrives.
Speaking on background because no public decision has yet been taken, Vatican officials insist that while Pope Benedict XVI has a personal preference for more traditional forms of liturgical expression, he has also made it clear he does not want new liturgical upheaval. Hence, they insist, his motives for contemplating a more liberal stance on celebration of the old Mass are actually pastoral, not political.
They lay out the argument as follows: First, the pre-Vatican Mass was celebrated by the church for five centuries, so there’s no question of it being “abolished”; second, if a small group of faithful are attached to it, and if wider access might bring some of them back into communion with the church, why not?
The reference is to the followers of the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who broke with Rome in 1988 in part over the question of the older Mass. Members of his Society of St. Pius X are conventionally numbered at perhaps one and a half million worldwide.
Most Vatican officials argue that the number of Catholics likely to seek out the old Mass is relatively small, less than one percent of the total Catholic population, and hence that the impact of broader permission would be limited.
Moreover, officials argue, even within Latin Christianity there is a history of diversity in liturgical rites. In earlier centuries of church history, different geographic areas celebrated the Eucharistic according to their own customs, and some of these rites survived until quite recently: the Celtic, North African, and Gallican rites are all well-attested. Others are still in use today, such as the Mozarabic rite in Spain and the Ambrosian rite in Milan.
(This is a precedent many liturgists would contest, on the grounds that these are rites circumscribed by a particular culture and region, while the pre-Vatican II Mass is not.)
While all of that may be grist for the mill for historical and theological debate, liturgists also have to contemplate the practical dimensions of the question. What would it mean to restore in a more systematic way a rite that has not been widely celebrated for almost 50 years?
tViatorian Fr. Mark Francis, superior general of the Clerics of St. Viator and a distinguished American liturgical writer, spelled out at least seven questions that occur to him in an Oct. 17 interview with NCR:
•tAside from the Mass itself, will priests also be expected to offer other sacraments according to the pre-Vatican II rites, such as funerals, weddings, and baptisms? If many priests lack familiarity with the older Mass, even fewer would feel at ease with more “occasional” sacraments;
•tWill liturgical preparation in seminaries need to be revised? “If there is going to be a universal indult, then seminaries would feel honor-bound to offer courses to prepare priests to celebrate both rites,” Francis said.
•tWhat about church architecture? “It’s difficult to celebrate the Tridentine rite in a Vatican II space,” Francis said. “Will we have to move the altars back and forth? Will we have to install altar rails?”
•tAssuming the liberalization applies to the 1962 version of the Roman Missal, the last before Vatican II, where will people find it? It would have to be reprinted and distributed quickly, Francis said – joking that in the end, the 1962 Missal might make the rounds more quickly than the new English translation of the post-Vatican II Mass, a project that has been in the works for the better part of a decade.
•tWill the normal expectation be for celebration of the “low Mass” according to the older rite, or the far more complex “high Mass?” If the latter, then various other ministers and a choir conversant in older musical scores, at a minimum, would be required, and that could be problematic in many places.
•tWill some of the older disciplines that surrounded the pre-Vatican II rite be restored, such as Benediction after Mass, which is actually forbidden under current liturgical law? In some cases, the older Mass was celebrated in the presence of the exposed sacrament, also currently prohibited. How will such canonical conflicts be sorted out?
•tFinally, if the church allows traditionalists attached to the old Mass to hold onto their customs despite official changes in policy, what would prevent more liberal Catholics, for example, who oppose the new, more “Roman” English translation of the post-Vatican II Mass from requesting permission to use the previous English version? “Are we creating a procedural monster?” Francis asks.
“It seems to me there’s a pretty vast set of implications here that have not yet been adequately thought out,” Francis said.
For his part, Francis is not enthusiastic about the prospect of a return to wider use of the pre-Vatican II rite.
“The way you celebrate the liturgy is a theological act,” he said. “It enacts the relationship the church believes it has between itself and God. In the Tridentine rite, we’re saying that the priest is the principal mediator, and the baptized don’t have much of a role. That doesn’t reflect anymore who we are as church, which is the reason the liturgy was reformed in the first place.”
Critics, on the other hand, sometimes argue that it was precisely the excesses of post-conciliar liturgical reform that have created an appetite to return to the pre-Vatican II rite.
“People are tired of not knowing what they’re going to find” when they go to Mass, said Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, editor of Ignatius Press, which has reissued a number of liturgical classics over the years. “Benedict is saying, ‘The people have a right to the immemorial spiritual customs of the church.’”
Skylstad said he hopes that whatever comes down the line will not dislodge the post-Vatican II Mass as the normal way of celebrating.
“We’re a church of unity and of common worship,” Skylstad said. “The thrust of Vatican II calls for more active participation on the part of the faithful in the liturgy itself, and from my standpoint trying to move further in that direction would be most helpful.”
“On the other hand, the Holy Father is trying to reconcile with the Lefebvrite group, whose members have an attachment to the older Mass,” Skylstad said. “To date, those efforts have not been successful, but we are always in the business of reconciling, healing and unifying. Perhaps some further accommodation can be found.”