The Vatican’s new instruction on implementing Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 document liberalizing use of the traditional Latin Mass offers no surprises but does clarify lingering questions about a priest’s qualifications to celebrate the form and the size of the congregation requesting it. 

Issued this month by the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which oversees the implementation of Summorum Pontificum, the new instruction clarifies many of the questions raised in the 2007 document affirming the universal right of Catholic faithful to participate in the Mass according to the Rite of 1962, commonly known as the “Tridentine Mass” and now known as the extraordinary form of the Rite of the Roman Missal. 

The document reaffirms the three aims of Summorum Pontificum: 

  •  Offering the older form of the rite “as a precious treasure to be preserved.” 
  • “Guaranteeing and ensuring” its universal application. 
  •  Promoting reconciliation in the Church — especially between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). The Society was declared excommunicated after SSPX’s late founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained three bishops against Pope John Paul II’s orders in 1988. Since then, Pope Benedict has lifted the excommunication on the prelates and continues to work toward complete reconciliation. 

Firm reminder? 

Some within the Church see the document reasserting the need for pastoral care in implementing Summorum Pontificum. Others detect a firm reminder to those bishops who have not done so yet to adequately implement the 2007 document in their diocese. If nothing else, some claim, the diligent clarifications in Universae Ecclesiae show that the pope holds the extraordinary form of the Mass — the usus antiquior (“the older use”) — as an integral element in the present culture and future life of the Church. 

Father Richard Hilgartner, director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Divine Worship, noted that while the “document in and of itself is not a legislative text,” it “clarifies” and “answers particular questions” in the practice of the celebration.

Priestly competency 

Among the most important clarifications, Father Hilgartner said, is the question of a priest’s competency in celebrating the extraordinary form. 

“There had been some dioceses that developed some kind of demonstration of compe-tency before the bishop would permit his priests to celebrate it,” he said. “This document begins with the assumption that every priest is to be considered qualified, provided they are priests in good standing.” 

The only test of competency, he said, is inherent in the rite itself — that is, a priest is competent if he knows how to celebrate the rubrics and correctly understands and pronounces the Latin used in the form. 

In the document, too, Father Hilgartner said, the pope re-emphasizes the pastoral balance between the two “mutually enriching” forms of the Mass. 

“The document talks about the stable group, but always in light of the parish community as well,” he said. “You can’t suddenly say we have this small group of the faithful who want the extraordinary form so now we’re going to cancel the regular noon Mass on Sunday and displace this other group of people or force them into the extraordinary form because this small group wants that. So there’s always this balance.”

New traditionalism? 

According to Father Calvin Goodwin of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and Latin instructor at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Neb., Universae Ecclesiae offers valuable commentary on a significant movement in the modern Church. 

“The important point is that this instruction clarifies and amplifies what is the law of the Church,” he said. “That will last, and be very useful when the initial reactions fade, positive and negative. The Church moves generally more slowly when there are new movements in the Church. Ironically, the traditionalist movement in the Church is a new movement. No one expected this after the Second Vatican Council; everyone thought the new Mass would simply be universally received and enjoyed.” 

By communicating the pope’s enthusiasm for this movement, Father Goodwin said, the instruction also reasserted politely but firmly the pope’s desire for bishops around the world to offer the extraordinary form to the faithful. 

According to Father Goodwin, because of the less than enthusiastic response by certain bishops around the world, especially in Europe and Asia, Pope Benedict asked the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei to prepare Universae Ecclesiae. 

Among those who have no doubts regarding the proper response to the pope’s instructions, Father James Wehner embraces with enthusiasm both the original 2007 apostolic letter and the new instruction. As rector of the only U.S. pontifical seminary, Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, Father Wehner takes “very seriously our character of being pontifical.” 

“So when I see a document coming from Rome,” he said, “I want to take a generous interpretation of the document, not a minimalistic — that is, restrictive — interpretation.” 

Father Wehner sees the instruction as a way for Catholics — especially young Catholics studying for the priesthood — to better understand the extraordinary form of the Mass. 

While the extraordinary form is already celebrated weekly at the Josephinum, Father Wehner said, in light of Universae Ecclesiae, the seminary will further develop the optional training in the extraordinary form the seminary provides. 

“It’s not just the performance or functioning component of the form, but also the theological and spiritual dimension; the liturgical motivation for providing the people of God the opportunity to be exposed to this form of the Roman Missal,” he said. 

At the same time, noting the need for a pastoral balance, Father Wehner acknowledges that not all of the Josephinum seminarians, representing more than 30 dioceses, will require such training. 

“Some bishops, for example, might not see a pastoral need in their diocese, so their concern is that seminarians are not being forced into learning certain things before they’re ordained,” he said. “Rather, they see their spiritual training and theological training having a particular priority.” 

Among young Catholics in general, Father Wehner said, there’s a pervasive enthusiasm for the sense of mystery they discover in the extraordinary form, which the new instruction will help channel. 

“American Catholics, especially our younger people, live in a secular culture that tries to use reason and science alone to explain everything,” he said.  

“These young Catholics,” said Father Wehner, “are inspired today by a sense of mystery. That’s not to say the extraordinary form is offering something better than the other liturgical experiences, but it seems to touch younger Catholics in a way that their sense and pursuit of mystery, of awe, of sacredness, is somehow captured in the extraordinary form that is responding to their needs.” 

Joseph O’Brien writes from Wisconsin.

Unity (sidebar)

“Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. ... This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to enable for all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew.” 

­— Pope Benedict XVI, in a letter to the world’s bishops accompanying his 2007 motu proprio giving priests more freedom to celebrate Mass according to the 1962 missal