ROME — A second Catholic cardinal has questioned the legitimacy of a recent decree by the Vatican to restrict the celebration of the old Latin Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and forbid private Masses in its side chapels.
The March 12 circular was written on the letterhead of the Vatican Secretariat of State and carried the initials of its No. 2, Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra.
It immediately raised questions, given the implication that it was an effort to limit the celebration of the Latin Mass favored by traditionalist Catholics who have expressed hostility to Pope Francis.
Francis, for his part, has spoken disparagingly of these “restorationist” Catholics and made clear he prefers the modern liturgy celebrated in the vernacular and with priests facing the congregation.
The decree restricts the celebration of the Latin Mass to a chapel in the grottoes underneath the basilica, between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. daily.
It also “suppresses” private Masses in the basilica. It had been common for individual priests to celebrate Mass with just a handful of faithful present in any of the many altars and side chapels of the basilica. The decree says these Masses must now be celebrated jointly at specific times.
The circular gives no rationale for the decisions, which take effect Monday, other than to say that they will ensure that the services “take place in an atmosphere of recollection and liturgical decorum.”
The Vatican press office hasn’t responded to questions about the decree or the motivations behind it.
Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the retired Holy See doctrine chief, said the Secretariat of State had neither the legal nor the theological right to decide such liturgical matters in St. Peter’s. He called the decree “very strange” and said “nobody is obliged to obey it.”
Mueller, a conservative German theologian, expressed incredulity at both the logic and terminology used and said both were intellectually lacking.
“Holy Masses are suppressed? Doesn’t sound very Catholic,” he told the U.S. Catholic broadcaster EWTN on Thursday.
He noted that the availability of side altars has always been useful to Rome-based priests who must celebrate Mass every day, and to visiting priests and faithful who might find it difficult to otherwise find a Mass in their native tongue.
His criticism came after Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former Vatican high court justice and another conservative, also questioned the legitimacy of the decree and called for it to be rescinded.
“Rightly, one asks by what authority has the Secretariat of State issued directives which are contrary to the discipline of the universal Church,” Burke said in a March 13 blog post.
Francis fired Mueller and Burke early on in his papacy, and both hold liturgical and ideological positions that are different from his.
The decree came during a moment of limbo for St. Peter’s and liturgical matters at the Vatican.
Francis recently named a new archpriest for the basilica after the retirement of Cardinal Angelo Comastri. The decree was issued between the handover.
In addition, Francis also recently accepted the resignation of the Vatican’s liturgy chief, Cardinal Robert Sarah, another conservative prelate who had clashed with Francis. Francis recently ordered an inquiry into Sarah’s office before naming his successor.