The Future of the Traditional Roman Rite Mass

Whit-Saturday, 29th May, 2021
Summorum Pontificum: A Looming War?

As I put these thoughts down on this last day of Paschaltide, my thoughts go back to another Whit Saturday: 13th June, 1992. On that day, His Lordship, George Pell (then Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne) celebrated Solemn Pontifical Mass in accordance with the traditional Roman Rite (1962 Missal) in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. It was the first such Mass at St Patrick’s for over 20 years, and Bishop Pell had graciously agreed to offer the Mass at the request of the Ecclesia Dei Society of Australia (of which I was the founding Chairman). About a thousand of the Faithful were in attendance on that cold but sunny Saturday morning. It was an unforgettable event, and an occasion of great grace. This was one of the many first fruits of the resurgence of the traditional Mass, which had been given great impetus by the 1988 Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei. Since 2011, we have been blessed to have a weekly Mass in the Extraordinary Form at the Cathedral each Wednesday at 5.30 pm.
I am also thinking about the feast we begin with First Vespers tonight: the Most Holy Trinity. The One True God has revealed Himself as a Trinity of Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And this Triune God must be worshipped “in spirit and in truth”. To Whom we give worship, and how, are of supreme importance. This is why the Mass matters – including its form!
In recent days there have been reports from various sources that Pope Francis is planning some sort of amendment to or curtailment of Pope Benedict’s 2007 decree, Summorum Pontificum. It seems clear enough that the Pope mentioned this to the Italian Bishops only a few days ago, stating that there had already been three drafts of a new document which is meant to limit the application of Summorum Pontificum, or even to supersede it.
None of this comes as any great surprise to me: the downgrading of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei to that of an office of the CDF, and the oddly scripted survey of Bishops by the CDF last year (at Pope Francis’ instruction) on the application of Summorum Pontificum, were indications that something was afoot. Then, in March 2021, private Masses were banned from the side altars of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and the traditional Mass was allowed to be celebrated by “authorized priests” only, at certain times of the day in the Clementine Chapel, in the crypt. Also of significance was an article by Archbishop Arthur Roche, then Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW), on the “Ecclesial necessity” of implementing the new Mass, at the same time denigrating the old Mass.
Cardinal Sarah had no sooner left his office as Prefect of the Congregation than Archbishop Roche sent a copy of his article to the bishops of the world. Just a few days ago, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Roche as the new Prefect of the CDW…. In fact, Archbishop Roche has a well-earned reputation as a tireless opponent of the traditional liturgy. Given all of this, I predict that in the coming months a document will be promulgated either directly by Pope Francis, or by the CDW (but approved in specific form by the pope), that purports to interpret or apply Summorum Pontificum
in current conditions, and in a “Synodal way” that responds to the alleged concerns of the world’s bishops, to which the Holy See had been alerted by last year’s survey responses (to be quoted selectively and self-servingly, of course). This document will likely constitute a significant attempt to roll back all the gains of the last 30 or more years, to return the traditional Mass and those who celebrate or attend it to the ghetto, and to prepare for the eventual suppression of the traditional Mass.
But in each of these ungodly aims, my dear people, it will fail – and fail utterly! Let us recall, first of all, the counsel of Gamaliel (Acts 5:38-39): if this work be of men, it will come to nought; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God. Catholics who are faithful to the traditional Mass do not wish to impose it upon anyone who does not want it. But neither will we be imposed upon.
We believe that the traditional form of Mass in its essential arrangements, organically developed over centuries under the gentle influence of the Holy Ghost, is truly and entirely “of God”. We will defend that Mass to our death, serenely confident that it cannot be destroyed. We will also insist on the freedom of priests and of the laity respectively to celebrate or assist at this Mass, without any undue interference or obstacle.
Let us be clear: this is 2021, not 1970. Generations of Catholics have seen a devastation unfold over these last 50 years. Although they revere the office and person of the Supreme Pontiff, and the authority of all the bishops as successors of the Apostles, younger Catholics especially are quite aware of the mess we are in due to failed policies and poor governance, which often seeks to avoid scrutiny, and is sometimes prepared to abuse authority, including through bullying.
Traditionally minded Catholics in 2021 will call this out for what it is, and won’t be intimidated by it. In order to prepare ourselves for what will likely come, let us first of all review briefly the legal status of the traditional Roman Missal (or “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman Rite, as Summorum Pontificum calls it). Just as in our own civil system of law, rights are recognized by custom (the “Common law”) and statute, so also in the Church. The first basis in Canon Law for the continued vigour of the traditional liturgy, and of our right to celebrate or assist at it, is “immemorial custom”. This is not difficult to establish, since the old liturgy is simply the historical liturgy of the Roman Rite.
In addition to this, Pope St Pius V gave a powerful legislative basis for the old rite in Quo Primum (1570). This Apostolic Constitution guarantees a perpetual right to use the traditional Missal: “in virtue of Our Apostolic authority, We grant and concede in perpetuity that, for the chanting or reading of the Mass in any church whatsoever, this Missal is hereafter to be followed absolutely, without any scruple of conscience or fear of incurring any penalty, judgment, or censure, and may freely and lawfully be used. Nor are superiors, administrators, canons, chaplains, and other secular priests, or religious, of whatever title designated, obliged to celebrate the Mass otherwise than as enjoined by Us. We likewise declare and ordain that no one whosoever is forced or coerced to alter this Missal, and that this present document cannot be revoked or modified, but remain always valid and retain its full force.”
When the Novus Ordo Missae was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969, neither Quo Primum nor immemorial custom was abrogated. However, by various shady manoeuvres, an impression was given that the old Mass had been abolished or “banned”. This had no basis in the law, as a Commission of Cardinals convened in the 1980s by Pope John Paul II to study the matter, concluded. Due to political pressure, however, the Pope did not publish these findings. Instead, in his 1988 letter Ecclesia Dei, the Pope simply affirmed the “rightful
including the possibility of recognizing or erecting clerical and religious institutes dedicated to the traditional liturgy. Notwithstanding continued difficulties in certain areas (eg opposition from some bishops), 1988 marked the beginning of an important phase of understanding between the Holy See and Catholics attached to the traditional liturgy. This was to be further strengthened under Pope Benedict XVI.
In 2007, two years into his pontificate, Benedict XVI promulgated Summorum Pontificum. The great significance of this document is not in its legislative force – the old liturgy does not take its legitimacy from it – but rather, in what I would call its declaratory value: finally, there is a recognition (in accordance with the Commission of Cardinals’ finding in the 1980s) that the old missal was “never abrogated” (Article 1). The other practical provisions (being regulations meant to guarantee effective access to the old liturgy) derive their force from that simple recognition. That recognition cannot be undone. So, even if Summorum Pontificum had never existed, or were abrogated, this would not change the legal reality that the former Missal was never abolished.
Pope Benedict underlined this point in his letter to bishops which accompanied Summorum Pontificum: “I would like to draw attention to the fact that this Missal was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted”. Theoretically, could a Pope abolish or abrogate the traditional Mass, for instance by abrogating both immemorial custom and Quo Primum? The Pope’s power is supreme on earth, but supreme does not mean absolute and unfettered. Even God cannot act except in accordance with His nature.
How could a Pope possibly legislate validly in a way that would be so clearly contrary to the good of souls and the unity of the Church? In the same letter to which I just referred, Pope Benedict strongly implies that such an attempt would carry no legal or moral force: “In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. 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. It behoves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place”.
Whatever comes, I am confident that we will not be unduly affected in Melbourne: in this Archdiocese, the traditional Mass has been offered every Sunday since 1970 with the approval of the Archbishop of the time. Since the year 2000, there has been a full-time chaplaincy dedicated to the pastoral care of Catholics attached to the traditional forms. Since 2014, we have enjoyed the recognition of a full personal (non-territorial) parish – the Parish of St John Henry Newman. Today, Archbishop Comensoli continues the benevolent and supportive disposition of his predecessors, (then) Archbishop Pell and Archbishop Hart. But I am very concerned about what may unfold in many other parts of the Church.
It is claimed by some that traditional Catholics are on a trajectory to schism. Nothing could be further from the truth. No traditional Catholic will allow his distress or disgust with the actions of members of the hierarchy, to justify his leaving the Church. He will redouble his prayers, especially for his persecutors, knowing that he is fighting a battle against “powers and principalities”, and not just flesh and blood. All true Catholics will remain as firmly attached to the Church and to the office of the Papacy, as they do to the traditional Mass itself.
There is indeed a danger of schism: but that is that the opponents of the traditional Mass - who often are also men of uncertain faith and morals – may find themselves in schism before they realize it! Let anyone who would dare to oppose the ancient form of Mass heed the warning of St Pius V, that he would by such an act most certainly incur the wrath of Almighty God, and of the Holy Apostles, Sts Peter and Paul.
In a separate note, I will invite you to pray a Novena to the Sacred Heart beginning Wednesday 2nd June, for the protection of the traditional Mass and those attached to it. It is also important that we have recourse to the Blessed Virgin, St Joseph and St Michael in these times. In the meantime, and as we approach the great feast of Corpus Christi, let us deepen our love for the Mass; and let us pray for the Pope and the Church.
In Domino et Domina,
Fr Glen Tattersall, Parish Priest,
St John Henry Newman Parish.