By Russell Shaw
Thirty-seven years after an earlier pope virtually banned the Mass in the form Western Catholics had known for four centuries, Pope Benedict XVI has restored it to something approaching parity with the form that replaced it.
Some Catholics will be pleased, others angry, most unmoved. While no great upsurge of Masses in the old form is likely immediately, there are good reasons for all three reactions.
Pope Benedict said he seeks "internal reconciliation" in the Church. That refers to traditionalists, including some 600,000 followers of the late breakaway Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, for whom having Mass in the old form is tremendously important.
A striking aspect of the pope's way of giving it to them is his approach to the bishops. Starting Sept. 14, their permission is no longer required for Mass in the old form. Pope Benedict provided for a three-year review to see how things are working out.
The papal decision, contained in a document called Summorum Pontificum ("The Supreme Pontiffs") and issued July 7 with a letter to bishops, followed long delays and an elaborate pre-release buildup.
While the form of the Mass introduced in 1970 remains the "ordinary" one, Pope Benedict said parish celebrations in the old form can be on Sundays as well as weekdays, though not more than one per Sunday per parish. They also are allowed on request on special occasions like weddings and funerals. Where pastors say no to the old form, bishops are "earnestly requested" to make it happen.
Pastors also can allow use of the old ritual in celebrating baptism, penance, matrimony and anointing of the sick. Diocesan bishops can use it in confirmation. Priests are permitted to use the old form of the breviary.
Traditionalists pleased by these steps see them as partially correcting an injustice inflicted on people like themselves in 1970 by Pope Paul VI's virtual suppression of the old form of Mass. But early, easy reunion with the schismatic Lefebvrist group called the Society of St. Pius X is not likely, since it objects to other changes associated with Second Vatican Council besides liturgical ones.
Three days after the documents were published, the Vatican released a statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that also can be seen as an olive branch to followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, who deplore views of the Church that they claim are implied by Catholic ecumenical efforts. The document affirms that although God can use other Christian churches as "instruments of salvation," only the Catholic Church possesses "all the elements instituted by Christ."
Those angered by the pope's decision will say making concessions to traditionalists sends the message that persistent agitating pays off. Included in that group are bishops, especially in Germany and France. In France, Lefebvrists are numerous relative to church-going Catholics.
Among American Catholics, most will be unmoved. Whatever their reservations about the liturgy since the ecumenical council of 1962-65, there's no evidence that more than a few want the old form of Mass. Authorized celebrations in Latin in either form -- old or new -- attract relatively small numbers now.
The old form, used in the Western Church from the 16th century until 1970, is often called the "Tridentine" Mass after the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Novus Ordo (New Order) Mass introduced by Paul VI is sometimes called the Mass of Vatican II. Pope Benedict stresses that these are not two separate rites but forms of the one, single Roman Rite.
In introducing the new form, Pope Paul allowed continued use of the old -- with special permission -- by elderly priests who had trouble adjusting. Pope John Paul II expanded the permission in 1984 and 1988 but still required the local bishop's authorization.
Latin can be used in both forms, but except for the homily and readings, the old form is in Latin, while the new form is usually all in English or another vernacular language. There are many differences in the readings and prayers. The priest faces the congregation in the new form and faces away in the old. Other post-Vatican II innovations include Communion under both species, readings and distribution of Communion by laypeople, new hymns and songs, and female altar servers.
A notable feature of the new papal documents is their use of the expression "the Roman Missal published by John XXIII in 1962" in speaking of the old form of Mass. This refers to the last revision of the old form, which appeared on the eve of Vatican II, by tacitly associating it with a pope who is an icon among liberals.
Underlining Vatican concern, about 15 bishops from around the world were summoned to Rome in late June for a prerelease briefing. Pope Benedict spent an hour with the group, which included Cardinal Sean O'Malley, O.F.M.Cap., of Boston and Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis. The officers of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the chairman of its liturgy committee were not present.
Pope Benedict obviously has no reason to hype the importance of his action. But the long delay -- the decision reportedly was imminent a year ago but was held up by internal controversies and consultation -- and the elaborate preparations for announcing it nevertheless produced that effect, as did the eagerness of a Vatican press corps apparently starved for news.
Most priests and laypeople nevertheless are expected to resist incitements to panic. In whatever approved form Mass is celebrated, they know, what matters is that it be done with reverence, dignity and good taste.
Papal writings on the rite
Pope Benedict XVI's thoughts on the Tridentine liturgy help provide background to his recent motu proprio relaxing the restrictions on the rite. The following quotes come from books he wrote as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
On the publication of the missal of Paul VI: "I welcomed the fact that now we had a binding liturgical text after a period of experimentation that only deformed the liturgy. But I was dismayed by the prohibition of the old missal, since nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy. The impression was even given that what was happening was quite normal. The previous missal had been created by Pius V in 1570 in connection with the Council of Trent; and so it was quite normal that, after 400 years and a new council, a new pope would present us with a new missal. But the historical truth of the matter is different. Pius V had simply ordered a re-working of the Missale Romanum then being used, which is the normal thing as history develops over the course of centuries. Many of his successors had likewise reworked this missal again, but without ever setting one missal against another. It was a continual process of growth and purification in which continuity was never destroyed." -- "Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977" (Pages 146-47)
A new liturgical movement: "A renewal of liturgical awareness, a liturgical reconciliation that again recognizes the unity of the history of the liturgy and that understands Vatican II, not as a breach, but as a stage of development: these things are urgently needed for the life of the Church. I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy... This is why we need a new liturgical movement, which will call to life the real heritage of the Second Vatican Council." "Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977" (Pages 148-49)
The pope and liturgical development: "After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in the liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. Eventually, the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West... Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity." "The Spirit of the Liturgy" (Pages 165-66)
Cultural heritage of the Latin Mass: "If even in the great liturgical celebrations in Rome, no one can sing the Kyrie or the Sanctus any more, no one knows what Gloria means, then a cultural loss has become a loss of what we share in common." "God and the World" (Page 418)
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.