Introibo ad altare Dei ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam. “I will go up to the altar of God, to God who makes joyful my youth” – Psalm 43:4

There is a well-known story about Canute, King of England and much of Scandinavia in the 11th century, who wanted to illustrate insignificance of human authority:

When he was at the height of his ascendancy, [Canute] ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, “You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.” But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and the sea obey eternal laws.” (from Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum)

If only all princes were equally aware of the limits of their power.

You have probably already heard that the rumored blow against the Traditonal Latin Mass (TLM) has finally fallen in the form of Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. It is actually harsher than what the rumors anticipated.  The fear was that Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu propio Summorum Pontificum would be revoked, which would return the TLM to the somewhat more restricted status that existed under Pope St. John Paul II.  Traditionis Custodes goes much further, revoking every papal intervention favorable to the traditional Mass over the past half century.  As Francis explains in the letter that accompanies the document:

I take the firm decision to abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs that precede the present Motu proprio, and declare that the liturgical books promulgated by the saintly Pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul II [i.e., the post Vatican II Mass], in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, constitute the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.

The Pope also makes it clear that when he says the new Mass should “constitute the unique expression”, he means that the end result he envisions is that the TLM should eventually cease altogether (my bold):

St. Paul VI, recalling that the work of adaptation of the Roman Missal had already been initiated by Pius XII, declared that the revision of the Roman Missal, carried out in the light of ancient liturgical sources, had the goal of permitting the Church to raise up, in the variety of languages, “a single and identical prayer,” that expressed her unity. This unity I intend to re-establish throughout the Church of the Roman Rite.

     I’ll leave it to those more competent than myself to examine the document in detail (here are  a few I’ve seen so far:  a good explanation of its provisions here at Life Site News, another here at The Pillar, and an informative ongoing discussion on Fr. Z’s blog). It will be helpful, however, to look at a few of the main takeaways. Summorum Pontificum had allowed priests to offer the TLM without asking permission, and had encouraged local ordinaries to provide the Latin Mass to “stable” groups of the faithful who desired it.  The new promulgation requires priests to obtain permission from their bishop (and newly ordained priests to receive permission from the Vatican itself). Another new provision is that parish churches should no longer be used; bishops should establish “one or more locations” for the celebration of the TLM in their dioceses (numerous commentators have wondered where these locations will be if parish churches are off the table).  Traditionis Custodes does not provide any transitional period for implementing these and other changes, but stipulates that they come into force “immediately”, a provision  Fr. John Zuhlsdorf justly describes as “cruel”.

Cardinal Robert Sarah celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass (image from Gloria.tv)

     As sweeping as the changes in Traditionis Custodes seem to be, however, it is not at all clear how much impact the motu proprio will actually have.  The implementation is being left up to each bishop in his own diocese:

It is up to you to authorize in your Churches, as local Ordinaries, the use of the Missale Romanum of 1962, applying the norms of the present Motu proprio. It is up to you to proceed in such a way as to return to a unitary form of celebration, and to determine case by case the reality of the groups which celebrate with this Missale Romanum.

Pope Francis cited the results of a survey of bishops in his letter.  It’s unclear how many urged him to move against the TLM, but we know that some bishops are hostile (very often the same ones who resist confronting Catholics who publicly defy Church teaching: see here and here). At the same time, I find it very hard to believe that a majority of bishops favor this scheme. No doubt the hostile bishops will make the most of the new restrictions, but little will change for the present in many, maybe most, dioceses.  Fr. Z has already posted letters from several bishops to the effect that, for now, the TLM will continue as it has been.

     Of more immediate concern is the deleterious effect on the morale of the troops in the Church Militant.  When I first heard the news about Traditionis Custodes I immediately thought of Justice Byron White’s description of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which instantly wiped away all abortion laws in all 50 states.  White famously referred to the notorious ruling as “an exercise in raw judicial power.” Pope Francis’s motu proprio is no less an exercise in raw papal power, and, like Roe v. Wade, can’t help but deepen and inflame the divisions it purports to heal.  It’s likely that one immediate effect will be to drive more Catholics into the Society of St. Pius X which, although it has never been in actual schism, continues to enjoy an irregular relationship with the Universal Church.  That is hardly the way to bring about the “unity” the Pope claims to be aiming for.

     Despite that, I remain convinced that the long-term goal of shutting down the TLM completely is out of reach.  In fact, this move may have the opposite effect of making it even more attractive to the most committed Catholics. In a previous post (“Finding the Future in the Past: Why The Latin Mass is not Going Away”) I compared the then-rumored revocation of Summorum Pontificum to World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, a last-ditch effort by an already beaten power that could hope only to forestall inevitable defeat. The losing army in this case is the “Spirit” of Vatican II, whose advocates enjoy outsized influence in chanceries and in structures like the USCCB bureaucracy, but have much less (and dwindling) support among Catholics who are young or devout, and among the younger priests and bishops.  The most fervent and dynamic Catholics, lay and clerical, cannot be browbeaten into embracing  a vision of the Church as this-worldly social services agency or into loving a Eucharistic liturgy that is more evocative of a secular business meeting than of the choirs of heaven.

     Nonetheless, the beautiful traditional Mass may become less available for a time.  There is one thing, however, that Pope Francis says in his letter that we can use for the benefit both of those who want to attend the TLM but can’t, and those who simply attend the post Vatican II Mass:

At the same time, I am saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides. In common with Benedict XVI, I deplore the fact that “in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions”.

The opening of Vatican II, 1962

     There you have it: Pope Francis is on record that he doesn’t like abuses of the new Missal. I say we hold him to it. As it happens, it is possible to celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass according to the rubrics and have something that is much more like the TLM than what most Catholics see today, and is in fact much closer to the reformed liturgy envisioned in the documents of Vatican II (one of the Pope’s reasons for restricting the TLM was because he believes it encourages a rejection of  Vatican II). There is no stipulation in the rubrics, for instance, that the priest face the congregation, instead of facing the altar with the people. There is no reason why we can’t encourage Catholics to receive communion on the tongue (kneeling, while we’re at it), with an altar server holding a paten under the chin.  Latin is still the official language of the Mass, and a priest doesn’t need anybody’s permission to say even the post-Vatican II Mass in Latin (for any of you who don’t know Latin, by the way, it’s never too late to start learning).  There is a vast store of beautiful sacred music that can be restored to parish churches everywhere. None of these things are abuses or distortions, and all of them make a more reverent Mass, a Mass much closer to the TLM in appearance and in spirit.  

     Most of us, of course, aren’t priests or bishops, and it’s up to the clergy to offer up the Mass.  We are all capable of making our voices heard, however, respectfully and positively, but insistently:

Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.  Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?  (Matthew 7:7-10)

     We need to keep asking for bread and fish, directly and indirectly, individually and in groups.

     This is not to say, by the way, that I am advocating giving up on the TLM: far from it.  I am saying that now is the time for the vox populi to be heard: we need to make it clear that we need a holy, reverent, spiritually nourishing  divine liturgy that shows gives us a glimpse here on Earth of the liturgy that, God willing, awaits us in Heaven.  As I said above, the TLM isn’t going away, whatever the aging veterans of the Spirit of Vatican II may wish.  At the same time, it doesn’t require any interventions from Rome to offer Catholics attending what Benedict XVI referred to as the Ordinary Form of the Mass something much more beautiful and inspiring than what they’re getting now. I’ve seen it done at a couple of faithful Catholic Colleges, I’ve seen it done in a diocesan Cathedral.

     Understandably, many of us feel shocked and saddened, even betrayed, by the Pope’s intervention.  I’ll let the first Pope have the last word::

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

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