Vatican urges welcome, with a warning, for traditionalists

People kneel as they receive Communion during a Tridentine-rite Mass celebrated at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 15. It was the first time in several decades that the rite was celebrated at the altar. (CNS/Paul Haring)

In a new instruction, the Vatican has urged bishops to show “generous welcome” to traditionalists wanting to celebrate the old Latin Mass under the terms of a 2007 ruling from Pope Benedict XVI, which established the old Mass as an “extraordinary form” of the Latin rite.

The instruction, titled Universae Ecclesiae, was released May 13.

Benedict’s 2007 ruling came in a motu proprio, meaning a document under the pope’s personal authority, titled Summorum Pontificum. Before it appeared, priests who wanted to celebrate the older Mass required special permission from their bishop, called an “indult.” The thrust of Summorum Pontificum was to liberalize permission, establishing the older Mass as a parallel form alongside the normal liturgy in the vernacular languages.

Ever since that 2007 decision, however, complaints have circulated in traditionalist circles that some bishops have been slow to implement it. Last December, Italian Msgr. Guido Pozzo, secretary of the Vatican’s “Ecclesia Dei” commission overseeing relations with traditionalists, charged that there’s a “widespread prejudice” against the old Mass.

The new Vatican instruction addresses those concerns, stipulating that:

  • The local bishop is required to make liturgical decisions in accord with “the mind of the Roman pontiff,” which the instruction says was “clearly expressed” in Summorum Pontificum.

  • Priests, whether diocesan or religious, do not need anyone’s permission to celebrate the old Mass privately.

  • The Ecclesia Dei commission has authority to judge disputes over the old Mass in the name of the pope.

  • The old Mass must be provided whenever a “stable group” of faithful request it, even if those faithful come from different parishes or even different dioceses, with no minimum number of faithful specified.

  • Seminaries should train future priests in the celebration of the older Mass.

In another key concession, the instruction states that liturgical rules issued since 1962 do not apply to the older Mass and other rites in use before that time. At face value, that would seem to suggest that post-1962 developments, such as Communion in the hand, lay ministers of the Eucharist, and altar girls, do not apply to the older Mass.

In addition to those gestures of sympathy and support, however, there’s also a clear warning to traditionalists. The instruction tells them to steer clear of breakaway groups that challenge either the validity of the “new Mass” after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) or the authority of the pope.

Without mentioning it by name, that language would appear to be directed at the Society of St. Pius X, launched by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The Vatican declared the group schismatic after Lefebvre ordained bishops in 1988 in defiance of Rome. Benedict attempted to end that breach in 2009 by lifting the excommunications of those bishops, a step that stirred global controversy when it emerged that one of them, Richard Williamson, has expressed doubt about the reality of the Holocaust.

Despite Benedict’s olive branch to the Lefebvrites, a recent round of talks between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X drew to a close without apparent resolution of the underlying doctrinal disputes. The language in the new instruction would also appear to suggest that the Vatican does not anticipate swift reconciliation with the society.

In the four years since Summorum Pontificum, most experts say that demand for the older Mass in most parts of the world has not shot up dramatically.

Fr. Richard Hilgartner, executive director of the Secretariat for Divine Worship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told NCR that the conference doesn’t keep statistics on how many Catholics are attending the older Mass. Anecdotally, he said, after an “initial bump” driven by curiosity when Summorum Pontificum first appeared, there’s been no significant movement away from the post-Vatican II Mass in the vernacular languages.

“The motu proprio is serving a niche, a need felt by a small number of the faithful,” Hilgartner said.

“It’s not had a detrimental effect in terms of fracturing the unity of the church, so a lot of the hype has calmed down,” Hilgartner said. “Experience has proven that it’s not caused upheaval, and in most places it’s business as usual.”

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here