ROME – As rumors continue to foment that Pope Francis could further restrict access to the extraordinary form, better known as the Traditional Latin Mass, one liturgical expert has said that regardless of what happens, one’s relationship with God shouldn’t suffer as a result.

The focus for pastors, and faithful, ought to be making the liturgy an active tool for the enhancement of their personal spiritual life and that of their congregations, rather than getting caught up in the latest debates in the Catholic blogosphere, Monsignor James Moroney said.

Former executive director of the USCCB Secretariat for the Liturgy (1996-2007), Moroney was appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as a consultor to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Speaking to Crux, Moroney said that in his experience, most rank-and-file Catholics “want nothing more than a holy priest who is willing to preach the truth and celebrate the sacraments with reasonable fidelity to what the Church asks of them.”

“The somewhat hysterical disputes fought out in the blogosphere have little impact on the folks in the pews, who only want the Church to draw them closer to Jesus,” he said, recalling how “a wise man” once told him that “the biggest fights in the Church about the liturgy have little to do with the liturgy.”

“Often the loudest voices are moved more by power politics than religion,” Moroney said, adding, “the striking alignment of strident political and religious causes lead to the conclusion that the most vociferous proponents for one extreme or another are more concerned with power than service of the gospel.”

While dispute over the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the transition from the Latin Mass to the vernacular is nothing new in Catholicism, debate over the issue swirled up again last week when rumors came out alleging that Pope Francis is expected to tighten the rules allowing the Latin Mass to be celebrated.

The pope’s remarks supposedly came during an off-the-record conversation with the Italian bishops, who opened their first plenary assembly in two years May 24, with Pope Francis inaugurating the discussion.

During the closed-door conversation, Pope Francis reportedly told the bishops that he has a draft of a text which contains provisions restricting the celebration by Catholic priests of Mass in the extraordinary form.

Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 published a motu propio, meaning an addition to Church law issued on the pope’s own authority, called Summorum Pontificum, which established that the post-Vatican II Roman missal, issued by Pope Paul VI, is the ordinary form of the Roman rite, and the prior version – last issued by St. John XXIII in 1962 – is the Roman rite’s extraordinary form.

In Summorum Pontificum, Benedict XVI also broadened access to the Latin Mass, allowing priests and faithful who wish to celebrate the extraordinary form to do so, and encouraging parish priests to offer a Latin Mass if a group of parishioners request it.

He also said faithful could go to their bishop or even the Vatican if their requests for celebration of the extraordinary form were not satisfied.

Prior to Summorum Pontificum, priests and faithful who wished to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass had to request explicit permission from their bishop. It could only be offered to those who requested it; it was not allowed to be on the normal Mass schedule for parish churches; and the bishop could set specific days and conditions for its celebration.

In Summorum Pontificum, Benedict XVI insisted that the two forms of Mass “will in no way lead to a division” in the Church’s belief, “for they are two usages of the one Roman rite.”

However, despite Benedict’s attempt to quell division, there has been an increased divide among Catholics over the two forms in recent years. This division has become especially acute during the time of Pope Francis, who is known to have a more progressive approach to the liturgy and its enculturation into local communities.

Most recently, he came under fire from more conservative Church camps for banning the practice of celebrating individual Masses inside St. Peter’s Basilica, placing a stronger emphasis on concelebrated liturgies, and enforcing strict limits on the use of the extraordinary form.

That decision, which became public in March, outraged traditionalist Catholic communities who argued that suppressing individual Masses, which has long been a unique practice in St. Peter’s, especially for visitors, was “forcing uniformity.”

More progressive Church camps interpreted the move as a long-overdue reform prioritizing the communal nature of the liturgy.

According to Italian journalist Marco Tosatti, Pope Francis allegedly told the Italian bishops that the primary reason for Summorum Pontificum was to help the Catholic Church smooth over tensions with the Society of St. Pius X, a schismatic community which broke away from the Catholic Church over several Second Vatican Council reforms, including that of the liturgy.

Should Francis further restrict the celebration of the Latin Mass by either walking back some of Benedict’s relaxations or abrogating Summorum Pontificum altogether, he could face even more backlash from Catholics who remain within the Church’s fold, but who are attached to the extraordinary form.

However, according to Moroney, for most priests in the United States, where a large portion of the backlash is expected to come from, most just want to get people back in the pews, regardless of what language or form the liturgy is celebrated in.

Speaking of Summorum Pontificum’s impact on church life at the local level, Moroney said he believes the increased access to the Latin Mass has been a big spiritual help “In those places where an individual priest or group of the faithful found the extraordinary form to be easier to pray.”

“Less helpful have been those places where an embrace of the extraordinary form has led to something less than that full and conscious participation in the liturgy so desired by the Council fathers,” he said.

The least helpful aspect of Summorum Pontificum, in Moroney’s view, “has been the sad sharpening of the divisions between those who take their Catholic identity not from a joining of their lives to the sacrifice of the cross, but from a belief that the Church made a mistake fifty years ago.”

In terms of what place an abrogation of Summorum Pontificum holds in the context of post-conciliar reform, Moroney insisted that “the role played by rites which existed before the liturgical renewal will always be with us.”

“Some people believe the Council Fathers were wrong when they called for a restoration of the liturgy. Others believe Pope Saint Paul VI and his successors were wrong in the way they carried out that reform.”

Yet people who hold these views, he said, “fail to recognize that it is the Church alone which is charged with regulating the sacred liturgy, and that such important decisions are not reached by popular consensus of internet debates.”

In terms of potential fallout should the pope further restrict the Latin Mass, Moroney voiced hope that regardless of what happens, priests, “whose primary concern is the salvation of souls, will generally accept whatever course the Holy Father judges best and get on with encouraging people to return to Church as the pandemic winds down.”

“It is never our brilliant insights which save souls, but our obedient acceptance of whatever the Church asks us to do,” he said.

Moroney noted that the season for priestly ordinations is quickly approaching, during which candidates will be asked outright whether they will commit to celebrating the liturgy “faithfully and reverently,” and whether they will promise “obedience and respect” to their bishop and his successors,

“Whatever the Holy Father may decide in the coming days or weeks, those charged with the celebration of the sacred liturgy will have a choice whether to keep these promises, or not,” regardless of what form they are celebrating, he said.

As a pastor, Moroney stressed the importance of keeping faithful unified as Catholics regardless of their liturgical preferences, saying the question of how this unity can be accomplished is “critical.”

“The unity of Church is essential to the salvation of souls. Pastors must work assiduously to refocus on confirming their hearts to the cross and not obsessing about the latest ecclesiastical controversy,” Moroney said, noting that by now, four popes have embraced not only the Second Vatican Council’s call liturgical reform, but “the concrete expression of that reform on the post-conciliar missal.”

“Rather than reopening fifty-year-old controversies, we should focus on celebrating the source and summit of our lives with our whole heart and soul,” he said, saying this can be accomplished by teaching about the “essential intersection” between the liturgy and one’s spiritual life.

Even more importantly, he said, “pastors can model an approach to the liturgy which the Church has given them with humility and a hunger to be a servant, not a master of what they have unworthily received.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen