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New Episcopal Comments Indicate Summorum Pontificum May Be Overturned

Today, new comments have emerged from three high prelates — including Archbishop Arthur Roche, the new prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship — have added fuel to the speculation that an unwanted change is coming for those Catholics who love the Traditional Latin Mass.

Rumors have been swirling for weeks that Pope Francis has plans to overturn or significantly alter  conditions relating to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio letter Summorum Pontificum, which revealed that the ancient Mass of the Roman Rite was “never abrogated,” and made it possible once again for priests to offer that liturgy without needless episcopal impediments.

Pope Francis Believed to be Preparing Restrictions for the Traditional Mass” reads the headline of a story dated June 4, 2021, at the National Catholic Register:

The Congregation for the Divine Worship might soon issue a document modifying some of the provisions of Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, a source within the congregation told CNA.

Rumors about possible restrictions imposed on Summorum Pontificum spread last week after the Pope had a closed-door Q&A with the members of the Italian bishops conference gathered in Rome for their annual plenary assembly.

Speaking with the bishops, the pope indeed hinted at new regulations about the celebrations of the Mass in the extraordinary form, although he did not get into details, two bishops attending the conference told CNA.

According to the sources, the pope did say that a third draft of the document is currently under study.

Also writing about the rumor in the first week of June, Phil Lawler said that “Disaster looms if Pope Francis restricts the traditional Mass“:

The rumors are true. My sources in Rome—too many and too reliable to be doubted—confirm that a document is circulating at the Vatican which, if given papal approval, would significantly restrict use the “extraordinary form” of the liturgy, the traditional Latin Mass (TLM).

This document is in draft form. It could be amended. It might never be released. But it would not even be under discussion without at least tacit approval (if not active support) from Pope Francis. And if it is released in anything like its current form, it would be a pastoral and doctrinal disaster. It would thwart a powerful movement for reform in the Church, and it would—paradoxically—undermine the Pope’s own authority.

Let me explain.

In Summorum Pontificum, his apostolic letter of 2007, Pope Benedict XVI gave the Catholic faithful much wider access to the TLM. With this new document, styled as an “instruction” for the “implementation” of Summorum Pontificum, Pope Francis would in effect repudiate the work of his predecessor, and at the same time cut off the blood supply to the fastest-growing part of the universal Church.

Pope Benedict wrote Summorum Pontificum because he recognized, in the growing demand for the traditional liturgy, an authentic movement of the Holy Spirit within the Church. The desire for the TLM is not prompted by nostalgia; the overwhelming majority of people in the pews are not old enough to remember the liturgy that was universal before Vatican II. At a time when the Catholics are leaving the Church by the thousands, and young people especially are deserting the faith, traditionalist parishes are seeing explosive growth, marked in particular by an influx of young families.

So why would any Catholic prelate, intent on evangelization, want to interfere with the growth of traditional Catholicism? Why mess with success? Could it be because the obvious pastoral health of the traditionalist communities makes for an unpleasant contrast with the failures of the rapidly shrinking parishes in the Catholic mainstream? As I observed just a few weeks ago, it is revealing “that the one liturgical option liberal Catholics cannot abide is the option for the ancient liturgy.”

Lawler explains that a key distinguishing feature of Summorum Pontificum is the freedom it offers to priests to celebrate the traditional liturgy without needing permission from their bishops. (Known as an “indult,” this permission was required before the publication of Summorum Pontificum, and many bishops abused their authority by denying any such permission.) But it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. Writes Lawler:

To be perfectly honest, in practice this change would not have too much impact on the availability of the TLM, because any prudent diocesan priest already knows that if he displeases the bishop by offering the TLM without his approval, he will likely suffer reprisals. In that way, contrary to the spirit of Summorum Pontificum, many bishops have continued to smother the demand for the traditional liturgy.

But Lawler notes that for Francis to contradict Benedict on this point would be to invite something of a war between the authority of successive pontiffs:

However, the requirement of episcopal approval (which is only one of several new restrictions being proposed) would have a very significant effect in another way. In Summorum Pontificum Pope Benedict also made it clear that—contrary to a widespread impression—the TLM had never been abrogated. “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” Pope Benedict explained.

Clearly, if Pope Francis now effectively forbids the celebration of the TLM, and/or says that the traditional liturgy is harmful—or gives diocesan bishops the power to do so—then he is directly contradicting his predecessor. And if Pope Francis can contradict the teaching of Pope Benedict, what is to prevent a future Pontiff from contradicting Pope Francis? Anyone who is genuinely interested in preserving papal authority (as opposed to gaining a temporary advantage in intramural debates) should recognize the mischief this draft document could cause.

In Lawler’s view, this makes such a change not just a problem for traditionally-minded Catholics, but for the Church herself.

In mid-June, Cardinal Joseph Zen, champion of Chinese religious freedom and bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, wrote of his own concerns on this matter:

I am not considered an extremist of this liturgical form and that I worked actively, as a priest and as a bishop, for the liturgical reform after Vatican II, also trying to curb the excesses and abuses.

But I cannot deny, in my experience of Hong Kong, the very good that came from the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum and from the celebration of the Tridentine Mass.

Zen admits that though he has been an advocate of liturgical reform, he “cannot forget the Mass of my childhood…”

“I felt such reverence, I was so fascinated (and still am!) by the beauty of Gregorian chant, that I think that experience has nourished my vocation to the priesthood, as for so many others,” he said.

He added that he remembers “the many Chinese faithful (and I don’t think everyone knew Latin …) participating with great enthusiasm in these liturgical ceremonies, just as I can now testify about the community that participates in the Tridentine Mass in Hong Kong.”

The cardinal said he thinks Mass in the extraordinary form “is not divisive, on the contrary it unites us to our brothers and sisters of all ages, to the saints and martyrs of all times, to those who have fought for their faith and who have found in it an inexhaustible spiritual nourishment.”

The comments revealed today only deepen the sense that some kind of change to the status quo of the past 14 years. One of the first indications of something amiss came when Abp. Minnerath, bishop of Dijon, France, announced that the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter’s apostolate offering the TLM in his diocese would be ending this summer after 23 years. According to Rorate Caeli’s translation of a piece in Paix Liturgique:

“You will have a new motu proprio in the upcoming days or weeks,” Abp. Minnerath, Archbishop of Dijon, told on June 26 to the faithful of the Traditional Mass who came to display their discontent before the archdiocesan building. [Rorate: this declaration is on video]

But even before the publication of this text, if it comes to be published, the testimonials on the intentions of the enemies of the previous motu proprio, that of Benedict XVI, grow:

– Cardinal Parolin, the Secretary of State, affirmed thus before a group of Cardinals: “We must put an end to this mass forever!”

– And Abp. Roche, new Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, explained, while laughing, to those responsible for [some] seminaries in Rome and members of the Curia, all English-speaking: “Summorum Pontificum is practically dead! We will give back to the bishops power on this matter, but particularly not to conservative bishops.”

It must be known additionally that Abp. Minnerath, who opened the hostilities against the traditional community of Dijon, is a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [Rorate: curently in charge of the application of Summorum] and due to this is present every month in Rome, surrounded by the Curial milieux that have prepared the offensive against Summorum Pontificum. [Source]

Although we’ve heard rumors along these lines for years, this has the feeling of something more substantive, with multiple prelates in a position to know — Roche and Minnerath being the most significant, due to their duties pertaining to liturgy in Rome — making bold public statements to this effect.

It remains to be seen what the changes will consist of and what effect they will have if they do indeed take the form of a new instruction.

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