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When a Bishop Outlaws Private Traditional Masses

In a three-page letter dated August 20, 2021, and addressed to “Dear Brothers in Christ,” Most Reverend David A. Zubik, Bishop of Pittsburgh, apparently in an effort to show that he is more Bergoglian than Bergoglio, takes a hearty step beyond what is demanded by a strict interpretation of Pope Francis’s motu proprio Traditionis Custodes [TC]. In spite of the fact that Pittsburgh is one of the United States’ most depressed and collapsing dioceses—as can be seen from relentless parish closures that have left the city pockmarked with churches converted into restaurants, bars, penthouses, and other secular venues—the infusion of spiritual energy from the wellsprings of tradition is evidently too risky to allow. Better a dead church than a traditional one.

The bishop’s letter is a disturbing sign of how bishops who lack understanding of or sympathy with Catholic tradition and who fail to grasp the pastoral advisability of invoking Canon 87 might end up “applying” TC within their dioceses. Zubik declares that there will be only one “full-service” TLM parish in the entire city, namely, The Most Precious Blood of Jesus, run by the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. At two other named parishes, Masses will be allowed occasionally, but not on Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The other sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, Marriage, Extreme Unction) are permitted only for registered parishioners of the Institute’s apostolate; any other use is forbidden.

Worst of all, diocesan priests are forbidden to offer private Masses in the traditional Roman Rite. The bishop writes:

With the promulgation of Traditionis Custodes on July 16, priests no longer have general permission or faculties to celebrate the Eucharist or the other sacraments according to the Roman Missal of 1962, not even in private. Instead, they must be expressly given the faculty to do so by their local diocesan bishop (or his delegate). Furthermore, the Holy Father has made it clear that permission for the celebration of the Eucharist according to the Roman Missal of 1962 is not meant to be for the personal devotion of any particular priest; rather, it is only to be given for the benefit of groups of the faithful…. Once again, this faculty will not be granted to priests who request permission to celebrate privately according to the Roman Missal of 1962.

Let us think for a moment about the implications of this step.

The Mass of the Roman Rite that has never ceased to be offered, at whatever stage of its development, from the 4th century until today (there was not a total break even after 1969)—this is now to be deemed so harmful to Church unity, so dangerous to souls, that even a priest who, on a given day, has no other pastoral responsibility is to be forbidden its use?

Even the priest who finds great spiritual nourishment in the rich lex orandi of the traditional Mass, who knows from experience that it unites him in a special way to the Holy Sacrifice of the Cross and helps him to pray fervently for the intention of the Mass—he must be deprived of this food, this more profound union, this more intense grace of devotion, which (as we know from St. Thomas Aquinas) harvests greater fruits from the Mass?

Over the years, I’ve heard from many priests whose discovery of the Latin Mass has transformed their priesthood and their entire spiritual life, renewing their youth like the eagle’s. Typically, they start by saying the usus antiquior once in a while; then it moves up to once a week on their day off, an oasis in the midst of the heat; then they find a way to get it into the parish schedule, even adding a Sunday Mass.[1] In his book Cor Iesu Sacratissimum, Roger Buck quotes from a letter sent to him by just such a priest, who readily celebrates the reformed Mass but especially values his contact with the old rite:

These [traditional] Masses are special to me, and so great a privilege to be united with Christ as His Priest, and offer with Him the sacrifice of Calvary, for the living and the dead. It is through using the Tridentine form that I have come to appreciate something of the great significance of what I am doing each morning. Can there be anything more important that this?

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò movingly testifies:

Many priests discover the treasures of the venerable Tridentine liturgy only when they celebrate it and allow themselves to be permeated by it, and it is not uncommon for an initial curiosity towards the “extraordinary form”—certainly fascinating due to the solemnity of the rite—to change quickly into the awareness of the depth of the words, the clarity of the doctrine, the incomparable spirituality that it gives birth to and nourishes in our souls.

There is a perfect harmony that words cannot express, and that the faithful can understand only in part, but which touches the heart of the Priesthood as only God can. This can be confirmed by my confreres who have approached the usus antiquior after decades of obedient celebration of the Novus Ordo: a world opens up, a cosmos that includes the prayer of the Breviary with the lessons of Matins and the commentaries of the Fathers, the cross-references to the texts of the Mass, the Martyrology in the Hour of Prime…

They are sacred words—not because they are expressed in Latin, but rather they are expressed in Latin because the vulgar language would demean them, would profane them, as Dom Guéranger wisely observed. These are the words of the Bride to the divine Bridegroom, words of the soul that lives in intimate union with God, of the soul that lets itself be inhabited by the Most Holy Trinity. Essentially priestly words, in the deepest sense of the term, which implies in the Priesthood not only the power to offer sacrifice, but to unite in self-offering to the pure, holy, and immaculate Victim.

The abolition of the private traditional Mass is something so evil one can hardly fathom it. That’s what an enemy of Christ and His Church would do. No one but an enemy would seek to outlaw this consolidator of priestly identity, this font of fervent prayer, this haven of spiritual refreshment and copious graces.

Priests would be entirely within their rights before God and Holy Mother Church to refuse to comply with such restrictions or prohibitions (as previous disobedience to unjust liturgical commands has been twice exonerated by the Holy See itself).[2] Priests in the diocese of Pittsburgh or any other diocese that implements a similarly cruel and anticlerical policy should continue to celebrate the Latin Mass and to utilize the other traditional sacramental rites whenever it is possible to do so, e.g., if they go somewhere on retreat, or are visiting trustworthy family and friends.

Yet this watershed might also be a priest’s moment of realization. Could this be a call from the Lord to continue calmly doing what he was doing before, in defiance of a manifestly unjust prohibition? Such a course of action is almost certain to result in his being sacrificed (“cancelled”) like a lamb led to the slaughter. The priest will likely be called on the carpet, stripped of faculties, hung out to dry—because, don’t you know, we have so many extra clergy that we can just afford to retire them early if they don’t fit the mold!

Perhaps it is time for many priestly grains of wheat to fall into the ground and die, so that they may bear a greater fruit of holiness than collaboration with corrupt chanceries would allow. They will quickly find laity who will support them in their needs. More home chapels than ever are being built; the lay faithful are busy preparing for this next phase of resistance to wayward pastors’ attacks on the Church’s common good.

Let us recall that traditional Catholic worship and the way of life it sustains was saved in the late sixties and seventies by priests and laity willing to do exactly this, and nothing less, to remain true to what they knew to be true. It was initially a tiny minority who kept the flame burning and who spread it, one person at a time, across the world. Very often they had to do so outside of the official structures of the Church, or rather, outside of the self-endorsing legal fictions of churchmen and their self-destructive “renewal.” They were, for a time, “pastors out in the cold,” but they would never exchange their clean conscience, Catholic integrity, pastoral fruitfulness, and spiritual consolation for any emoluments from a corrupt and corrosive system.

Stuart Chessman of the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny analyzed the transition from cold war to hot war:

Everywhere there’s a sense that a boundary has been crossed, that the Church has moved into new and uncharted waters. War does have the advantage of clarifying issues and power relationships, of advancing from mystification to reality.

However, the “fortunes of war” are inherently unpredictable. A nation, like France in 1870, may enter into war, as its prime minister at that time, Émile Ollivier, said, “with a light heart.” So did all Europe in 1914, Germany in Russia in 1941, Japan at Pearl Harbor later that same year, and the United States subsequently in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In all these cases, the confrontation that emerged was unimaginably different from the assumptions governing at the beginning. The Roman Catholic Church will shortly be experiencing the same.

Moreover, Pope Francis has declared his intent to conduct that most difficult of martial undertakings, an aggressive war of annihilation. As Martin van Creveld points out, such a war, by leaving the enemy only two outcomes: victory or extinction, dramatically solidifies the enemy’s will to resist regardless of what his previous political or military weakness may have been. In this respect, TC is the “Operation Barbarossa” of the Church.

“Operation Barbarossa” was the code name for Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941. It commenced with the German Reich at a high tide of power and confidence, with wave after wave of soldiers and fearsome military equipment. Surely this campaign could not fail. But fail it did, and rapidly. The fortunes of war turned against the Reich’s hunger for hegemony.

For its part, Traditionis Custodes marks a similar attempt on the part of the progressive faction that holds most of the Church’s offices. They have gambled everything on a final assault against the last outposts withstanding their wintry “new Pentecost.” Those who comply with unjust decrees will place themselves by that very fact on the side of the would-be extinguishers of Catholic tradition. Those who find ways to resist, be it secretly or openly, will have the merit and glory of fighting for the faith of our fathers, which, so far from being our possession to treat as if it were raw material for exploitation, is to be gratefully received as a fully-formed gift, which we humbly benefit from, and faithfully hand on.

This is the true Spirit of Pentecost, which those who have been touched by the Pentecost Octave (abolished in the Novus Ordo), who have savored each day the honeysweet words of the Veni, Sancte Spiritus, have come to know as their source of unconquerable fortitude in the midst of a conflict for which all human forces are inadequate.

To quote once more Archbishop Viganò:

How many of you priests—and certainly also many lay people—in reciting the wonderful verses of the Pentecost Sequence were moved to tears, understanding that your initial predilection for the traditional liturgy had nothing to do with a sterile aesthetic satisfaction, but had evolved into a real spiritual necessity, as indispensable as breathing? How can you and how can we explain to those who today would like to deprive you of this priceless good, that that blessed rite has made you discover the true nature of your priesthood, and that from it and only from it are you able to draw strength and nourishment to face the commitments of your ministry? How can you make it clear that the obligatory return to [exclusively] the Montinian rite represents an impossible sacrifice for you, because in the daily battle against the world, the flesh and the devil it leaves you disarmed, prostrate and without strength?… It is not a question of nostalgia, of a cult of the past: here we are speaking of the life of the soul, its spiritual growth, ascesis and mysticism. Concepts that those who see their priesthood as a profession cannot even understand…

[1] Do we ever hear about a priest starting with the traditional Latin Mass and then “discovering” the greatness of the Novus Ordo and moving over more and more to it, until he offers it exclusively? Until he has a longing in his heart and his hands to offer just the Novus Ordo, even to the point of suffering for it, and possibly losing everything? No, we do not. Once in a blue moon we hear of a traditional priest who goes diocesan and alternates between the two rites for pastoral reasons—but the spiritually transformative experience that I described is a grace that flows from the springs of tradition. To me, this says more about the realities we are dealing with than a thousand documents from the Vatican, or from diocesan chanceries, could ever tell us.

[2] It is crucial to understand that, in the Catholic tradition, obedience has precise requirements and limits. For more on this point, see here, here, and here. As St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, an unjust law does not have the rationale of law and therefore should not be followed. In this case, the one who does not follow it is not guilty of the sin of disobedience but rather is to be praised for obedience to a higher law. On the question of whether TC possesses the wherewithal to be legitimate, see my article “Given Its Foundational Falsehoods, Does Traditionis Custodes Lack Juridical Standing?

Photo Credit: Pope Francis celebrating a private Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception at the altar of St. Ignatius of Loyola inside the Basilica of St. Mary Major, December 8, 2020 via Vatican Media/CNA.

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