ROME – In what will inevitably be seen in some quarters as a rollback of the legacy of his predecessor Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, whatever his actual intentions, Pope Francis on Friday tightened permission for celebration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, the use of which had been liberalized under Benedict.
The changes were made in a new motu propio, meaning an addition to Church law issued on the pope’s own authority, titled, Traditionis Custodes, meaning “Guardians of Tradition,” on the use of the Roman Liturgy prior to the Second Vatican Council reforms.
In a accompanying letter to the bishops of the world, Francis said that in the thirteen years since Benedict expanded permission for use of the older Mass, a gesture intended to promote unity instead has been “exploited” to foster divisions.
“An opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division,” Francis wrote.
Under the terms of Francis’s ruling, priests already celebrating the Latin Mass must now get permission from their bishop to continue doing so. Any priest ordained after the issuance of Francis’s new norms who wishes to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass must submit a formal request to their bishop, and the bishop in turn will consult with the Vatican before granting permission.
Francis also charged bishops with determining specific times and locations where the Latin Mass can be celebrated.
The move comes less than two months after Pope Francis reportedly announced his intention to tighten the rules allowing the Latin Mass to be celebrated during a closed-door meeting with the Italian bishops in May.
During that private conversation, Francis reportedly told the bishops that the draft of a text restricting the celebration by Catholic priests of Mass in the extraordinary form was sitting on his desk. It appears that text has now been published.
In 2007, Benedict XVI issued a new law widening access to the Latin Mass called Summorum Pontificum, which established that the post-Vatican II Roman missal, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1970, 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 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 denied.
Prior to that law, 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.
Pope Francis’s new law essentially walks several of those changes back.
At the beginning of his motu proprio, Francis noted that after issuing Summorum Pontificum in 2007, Benedict XVI had invited bishops to evaluate its application.
In compliance with this request, Francis said he asked the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to conduct “a detailed consultation of the bishops,” which took place in 2020.
The results of that consultation “have been carefully considered in the light of experience that has matured during these years,” he said, insisting that he made his decision “having considered the wishes expressed by the episcopate and having heard the opinion of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”
In Traditionis Custodes, Francis established that the post-Vatican II liturgy, often referred to as the novus ordo, is “the unique expression of the lex orandi (law of prayer) of the Roman Rite.”
“It belongs to the diocesan bishop, as moderator, promoter, and guardian of the whole liturgical life of the particular Church entrusted to him, to regulate the liturgical celebrations of his diocese,” the pope said, insisting that is the “exclusive competence” of the bishop to authorize the use of the 1962 Latin Mass in his diocese, “according to the guidelines of the Apostolic See.”
For bishops in dioceses where one or more groups currently celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, bishops, he said, must ensure that these groups “do not deny the validity and the legitimacy” of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms.
They must also designate specific locations where the Latin Mass can be celebrated, but “not however in the parochial churches and without the erection of new personal parishes.”
When the Latin Mass is celebrated, the readings must be done “in the vernacular language,” rather than Latin, and “using translations of the Sacred Scripture approved for liturgical use by the respective Episcopal Conferences.”
Bishops must also appoint a priest who will be tasked with the pastoral care of groups adhered to the Latin Mass.
This priest, the pope said, must be “suited for this responsibility,” meaning he must be familiar with the Traditional Latin Mass and have a sufficient enough background in Latin “for a thorough comprehension of the rubrics and liturgical texts.”
Priests in this role must also be “animated by a lively pastoral charity and by a sense of ecclesial communion,” he said, adding, “This priest should have at heart not only the correct celebration of the liturgy, but also the pastoral and spiritual care of the faithful.”
Bishops overseeing dioceses where groups are celebrating the Latin Mass must also verify whether the parishes established for these celebrations are leading to spiritual growth, and based on that evaluation, determine “whether or not to retain them.”
Pope Francis also required bishops “to take care not to authorize the establishment of new groups,” as requests come in.
Priests ordained after the publication of Friday’s motu proprio who wish to celebrate the Traditional Rite must submit a formal request to their diocesan bishop, “who shall consult the Apostolic See before granting this authorization.”
For priests already celebrating the old rite, they must “request from the diocesan Bishop the authorization to continue to enjoy this faculty.”
Religious communities who wish to celebrate the Latin Mass must acquire permission from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, commonly known as the “Congregation for Religious.”
Both the congregation for Religions and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments “exercise the authority of the Holy See with respect to the observance of these provisions,” the pope said, meaning requests are to be sent to these two departments.
Any previous norm, instruction, permission, or custom which does not comply with the new norms in Traditionis Custodes, which is effective immediately, have been abrogated.
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