A Motu Proprio from Pope Francis on the Celebration of the Latin Mass

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On Friday, July 16, Pope Francis issued a Motu Proprio, Traditionis Custodes, revising the rules by which the Roman Missal of 1962, promulgated by Pope St. John XXIII, and often called the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), could be celebrated.

Previously, under the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, priests were given the privilege of celebrating the TLM without having to receive permission from their bishops. Since then, the celebration of the TLM has exploded in the Church, at least in the United States. Many diocese, perhaps even most dioceses, have at least one regularly scheduled celebration of the TLM. In 2020, Pope Francis writes, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) carried out a consultation of the world’s bishops to ascertain the pros and cons of the TLM under the rules established by Benedict. Traditionis Custodes is Francis’ response to that consultation.

Francis first of all affirms that the liturgical books promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II “are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” So, he begins by affirming the status of the liturgical reforms and the Mass of Paul VI, what TLM Catholics call the “novus ordo,” as the ordinary way the Church prays.

He then affirms that it is the bishop of each diocese who regulates the celebration of the liturgy in his diocese. As such, the celebration of the TLM must be approved by the bishop, thus taking away the permission given to priests by Benedict to celebrate the TLM without obtaining the permission of the bishop.

Francis expects the diocesan bishop to:

  1. make sure those Catholics celebrating the TLM “do not deny the validity and the legitimacy of the liturgical reforms” of Vatican II. This was an expectation of Pope St. John Paul II when he initially opened the door to the celebration of the TLM. Francis, perhaps in consultation with the bishops, is concerned that those Catholics who prefer the TLM are hostile to the liturgical reforms of Vatican II and, perhaps, hostile toward their confreres who prefer the Mass of Paul VI.
  2. the bishop is to designate one or more locations for the celebration of the TLM. Interestingly, these are not to be “parochial churches,” or parish churches, which are by far the usual places for the celebration of the TLM in most dioceses. This is going to require some clarification. Why, after all, can’t the TLM be celebrated in a parish church? If not in a parish church, then where? It seems that Francis is willing to have the TLM celebrated in a diocese, but doesn’t want it associated with the regular ministerial work of a parish.
  3. the bishop is to designate when the TLM may be celebrated. Most parishes, I suspect, celebrate the TLM on Sundays, and it is the regular Sunday Mass for these Catholics. Will that change? Also, the readings are to be done in the vernacular and from translations approved for liturgical use by the Episcopal Conference of each country.
  4. the bishop is to appoint a priest to serve the spiritual needs of those Catholics who prefer the TLM and
  5. make sure that the communities established for these Catholics are effective in their spiritual growth and
  6. to not establish any new groups. This point will be a disappointment to those parishes that had hoped to establish the celebration of the TLM in the future. Apparently, Francis is willing to allow the continued celebration of the TLM, but he doesn’t want it done in parish churches and he doesn’t want any new locations established. This will limit the TLM considerably. It seems Francis wants the TLM phased out as a regular form of liturgical celebration, eventually to be entirely replaced by the Mass of Paul VI.

Priests who already celebrate the TLM must now request permission to continue doing so from their diocesan bishop, while those not yet ordained must submit an official request to their bishop for permission to celebrate the TLM after they are ordained, and the bishop must consult with Rome before extending such permission to them. So, it seems it is Francis’ hope that fewer priests will be available to celebrate the TLM in the future, again leading to that day when it will be phased out completely.

I have only been to a couple of Latin Masses in my life. I am sixty, and have no recollection of the Mass prior to the adoption of the liturgical reforms. By the time I was old enough to remember going to Mass, the priest had already turned around and everything was in English. My middle daughter and her now husband would go to the Noon Mass at Holy Ghost in Knoxville, which was always the TLM. It was their regular Sunday Mass. They now live in middle Tennessee, where there are fewer opportunities to worship under the TLM, but they do attend a parish where the priest celebrates “ad orientum,” that is, facing in the same direction as the congregation.

The TLM is not my preference. I wouldn’t attend regularly. At the same time, I don’t begrudge those Catholics who prefer it. I have had conversations with TLM Catholics, sometimes derisively called “Traddies,” who have expressed some hostility to the Mass of Paul VI and other liturgical reforms, such as Communion under both species. At the same time, there are many who are very devout and hold to the TLM because they feel that the reverence properly given to the Mass and toward the Blessed Sacrament and the priesthood itself is not what it should be. I can’t argue with that! In too many parishes, reverence is in short supply.

Francis issued his Motu Proprio in an effort, he says, to create less division and more unity in the Church. It seems that his strategy for doing to is to limit the celebration of the TLM to the point where it will eventually be phased out and the only celebration of the Mass available will be the Mass of Paul VI. That will take some time, if it ever actually happens. Also, the Church has tolerated and even encouraged the celebration of the Mass under various rites over her centuries. Even Pope Pius V, who established the liturgical reforms after the Council of Trent in an attempt to universalize the Church’s liturgy, allowed for exceptions for those Catholics in various areas who were especially attached to their ancient rites. These groups were small, though, and perhaps Francis is concerned that the popularity of the TLM among Catholics will continue to grow (it has been growing), and there will, in effect, be two substantial groups in the Church – one celebrating the TLM and one celebrating the Mass of Paul VI – that might eventually lead to a true and significant schism.

Practically, I don’t think Traditionis Custodes will have much impact in the immediate future, except in those dioceses where bishops are hostile to the TLM. They will likely tamp down on it, and quickly, using Francis’ Motu Proprio as authority to do so. Most bishops aren’t hostile to the TLM, though. I think the bishops will ask and receive clarification from Rome to allow the TLM to be celebrated in parish churches, at least in those parishes where it is currently being celebrated. The Motu Proprio says that these new rules are to be applied immediately, but my own bishop and others have not felt rushed to implement them, saying they need time to study the document and make decisions.

Only time will tell what impact it will have on the Church in the long run. Perhaps some Catholics who prefer the TLM will leave the Church for the Society of St. Pius X, which remains in an unusual relationship with Rome – not quite in union, though not quite in schism, their priests being allowed to administer some sacraments to Roman Catholics and their sacraments being judged valid. There is also the Fraternal Society of St. Peter, which celebrates only in the TLM and is in full union with Rome. What will become of them? Will they be allowed to continue as they do now?

Hopefully, Francis’ goal of greater unity will be realized, rather than the opposite. I’ve heard comments from some who are not very happy with the Motu Proprio, and even some bishops have been unusually vocal in their criticism of the document. Not feeling that I have much of a dog in this fight, I feel that all there is for me to do is pray and remain optimistic that right judgment and true faith will prevail over feelings of anger or disappointment, or a devotion to what is peripheral over what is central.

Lord, preserve your Church. You promised that you would be with us until the end of the age. I pray that that promise will be realized and that none will turn away or be lost because of this.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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